By Lauren Ferguson
This fall, I’ve had the pleasure of enrolling in Dr. Carol MacKay’s “Women’s Autobiographical Writing” course at the University of Texas at Austin. This class is unique from other literature courses at the university in that it actively focuses on the works of women. Other classes, such as the British, American, or World Literature courses required by all students, often contain no female writers. In fact, before my enrollment in the course, I can count the number of female writers I’ve been required to read during my career as an English Major on two hands out of the dozens of novels, short stories, and poems. Of course, historically women haven’t been given the same writing opportunities as men, but that doesn’t mean that women writers don’t exist. For example, Sappho was renowned for her poetry in the 600 and 500’s BC, Margery Kempe was writing in 1501, the Bronte Sisters in the 19th century, and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was published in 1929. Each one of these women present excellent and scholarly literature, and are also subjects of study in Dr. MacKay’s classroom.
any opportunity I have to work with young women, as freshman, upper division, or graduate students, where I can help them to see and say their own story through what they read and write, I take.
Dr. MacKay devised the class herself after exploring the life of Anne Thackeray, daughter of writer William Makepeace Thackeray and author or biographical introductions to his work. However, Anne Thackeray included information about her own life within her writings on her father, and Dr. MacKay cited her as unique in that she “wove into the accounts her relationship with her father, her observations about writing, and intimate encounters of her life,” giving her a place to write autobiographically in a unique way. From then, the concept evolved into a class taught at different levels with different texts, depending on the age of the students. For the Plan II freshman signature course, the class is mainly discussing and critiquing anthologies, for upper division students the class consists of primary and historical readings, and the graduate course focuses on 19th century British and American texts. The course is catered to what different students need at different times in their academic careers to properly flourish. Dr. MacKay claimed that “any opportunity I have to work with young women, as freshman, upper division, or graduate students, where I can help them to see and say their own story through what they read and write, I take.” Dr. MacKay called the time of academia critical as women begin to make their own decisions, and it’s something that she believes is important that she assists in. “If I can get students to read works by other women, and perhaps doing some of their own writing themselves…they will lead much more fulfilling lives. They will bring much more life to whatever relationships they are in.”
Women are often token in classes. But the authors are there, and it’s important for the female population of the university to know that those works existence. Finding out about their existence is important.
As for herself, MacKay has been teaching at the university since 1979, where she was one of six women in her department of about 70. “That was pretty good odds in comparison with some of the other departments,” she noted. “The university and the department have changed considerably, just offering a course of only women authors was not easy at first.” Despite these struggles, the course is much needed. In survey courses, and upper-division courses alike, women authors seem to be a rarity, but Dr. MacKay is working to change that through her female-centric courses. “Women are often token in classes. But the authors are there, and it’s important for the female population of the university to know that those works existence. Finding out about their existence is important.”
If I can get students to read works by other women, and perhaps doing some of their own writing themselves…they will lead much more fulfilling lives. They will bring much more life to whatever relationships they are in.
As for the idea of feminism as a whole, Dr. MacKay cites herself as a feminist. “It seems to me that I’ve always been a feminist,” she noted, but she believes that women still have a way to go. “It amazes me that we’ve lost the rights for birth control in the state and nation, it still surprises me about abusive marriages, and I am disturbed when I see people looking the other way in professional sports by ignoring what the players have been doing in their private lives.” Texas, including Austin, is not always a safe place to be a woman, but Dr. MacKay sees feminists, male and female included, as a possible solution to that problem. “Feminists are the ones who can be vigilant,” she notes. Ultimately, Dr. MacKay sees the feminist movement as beneficial to all. “If women can begin to have equal rights, that’s only going to be good for the men!” she said. “With feminism, men are going to have better relationships with women.” The University of Texas may still need some work with the inclusion of female authors. Fortunately, we have women like Dr. MacKay paving the way for the women of the university to find their own voice through female authors.