In “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), Helene Cixous, a French feminist and writer, rallies women to do the one thing that will liberate their voices, their bodies, and their sexuality:
Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies…Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. (347)
In her famous essay, Helene Cixous posits that women have been forced away from writing in the same way and by the same persons who have forced them away from their own bodies and sexual desires. The culprits are men. Men have written history and commanded the laws of God, medicine, science, and writing/publishing and have used these public venues to define women as substandard and Other. As a woman who writes, she prevails upon women to do the same, letting nothing and no one stop them or hold them back from writing their stories and their lives.
Interestingly, she brings up the issue that many women-writers today face when dealing with gaining publication. They are dominated by men and male writers who continue to control women’s narratives. In her essay she refers to this world of writing as industry as a phallocentric entity, an “imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are crafty, obsequious relayers of the imperatives handed down by an economy that works against [women];…Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women—female-sexed texts. That kind scares them” (348).
Economically, men have had the power. They have controlled all public institutions that related to women, what their capacities involved and how much they could achieve. In art and literature even, men have shaped the identities of women to such an extent that women have come to believe themselves as they have been defined by men. “The history of writing,” Cixous points out, “is confounded with the history of reason…It has been one with the phallocentric tradition” (350). The voices have been masculine, the stories masculine, and the ideas centered on masculine perceptions and perspectives. Women’s voices and perspectives have been muted-out, silenced.
In terms of the medical industry, psychiatrists the likes of Sigmund Freud have examined our minds and bodies and have categorized us as neurotic, hysterical, fragile, and lacking. And that which we lack—the almighty penis—has placed us in a devalued state, not only as women in the public spaces of power and agency, but also in the private spheres that have been told belonged solely to us as women. Consistent to their findings, even our children abandon us for the father with the penis, the power, when they realize our lack of the phallus—our power. Women are cast out of love, confined to giving without gaining, sacrificing for those who will use us up and abandon us, and silencing our voices, our yearnings, and even our sexuality, since this same phallocentric regime has limited our sexual roles to either the cast-out whore or the domesticated mother. For always we have been silenced. But Helene Cixous writes for us, rages for us, calls to us to write ourselves, for ourselves as much for one another.
The act of writing for women and by women is an imperative because “there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity” (349). When women write, Cixous argues, they will not only stir trouble, forcing men to rethink their position on women, but they will also place women into power. According to Cixous, “Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible,” and if women put it out, they would destroy their social and political oppression, which has confined them for centuries (347). Only by writing their stories will women assert themselves, liberate themselves, “break out of the snare of silence” and gain “access to her native strength” (351). History—man-made history, man-inscribed history—has functioned to suppress the voices of women, since women were deemed soft and compliant and existing solely for the needs of men and children. The only way, according to Cixous, that women can change or rewrite this androcentric history is to write themselves into it.
In her words, “Write your self. Your body must be heard” (350).
What do you write about? How do you make your body heard?