Nicole Krauss on the struggle for authority for women

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


Born into a liberal family, in a relatively liberal country, and having received an excellent education, there was still never a time as a young woman that I wrote a page (let alone spilled out 500) without the understanding that it better scale some invisible mark, proving the worth and seriousness of the mind it came from, if it was ever going to deserve to be the work of an author, with the right to increase, originate, invent or cause something before an audience.

I knew, also, that asserting that right was only the first step: What followed would be the effort of then freeing oneself from a sticky lexicon of adjectives that go on entrapping women who command authority. Recently we’ve heard much about the price Hillary Clinton paid for being labeled cold, ambitious and unlikable, and the criticisms leveled at powerful women that can become fatal to their careers.

But I have not often heard a discussion about equivalent problems with the sort of praise that successful women tend to receive, which can be equally confining — about the frustrations of female artists, for example, whose work is most consistently referred to as “lovely,” as if its beauty were its most worthy attribute, leaving its potentially more threatening aspects — its originality or strength — unrecognized or ignored. Something lovely is most often without independent power, not able to fend for itself, but rather existing under the protection of that which finds it lovely.

Young men purchase authority on credit for which they are preapproved. But if you are a young woman, even now, no one and nothing will guarantee you. Is it any wonder, then, that if you wish to be in possession of authority, you seek to borrow before you expect to own?

But from where can you borrow, and what? As a young writer in 2001 or even 2004 or ’05, it was less obvious to me to borrow the undertones of resistance I found in Virginia Woolf, say, or Marilynne Robinson, than it was to simply borrow a man’s voice. To speak as a man on the page, in his third or, even better, his intimate first person, was to have quicker access to the sort of authority that allows one to be assertive, brazen, even difficult, without losing the possibility of empathy, which might lead to the slamming shut of the book.

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