Murasaki Shikibu, by Kano Takanobu (Late 16th century). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Feminist Frequency team, best known for Tropes vs. Women, have recently started a crowdfunding campaign for a new series, Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History. Each episode of Ordinary Women will examine the lives and achievements of a historically notable woman: the Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, the anarchist Emma Goldman, the pirate Ching Shih, the computer programmer Ada Lovelace, and civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells. As the crowdfunding page puts it:

Rather than heroes, leaders and innovators, women are often depicted and treated as secondary characters in history, objects of affections, damsels to be rescued, or merely the wives, mothers and assistants to the men who achieved important things. Instead, we’re taking a look back at the amazing women throughout history who defied gender stereotypes and changed the world, to remind us that the stories we tell about women—in TV shows, comic books, video games and in real life—often reflect the limitations placed on them, rather than the world-changing feats they’ve already achieved.

In an interview with Elle, creator Anita Sarkeesian says that the series “spotlights women from history who defied the expectations of their times and did incredible things.”

The 10th-century Japanese novelist Murasaki Shikibu, for example, pushed back against the limitations on women in her time through her literary genius, while the early 19th-century pirate captain Ching Shih did it by leading naval battles. Although their approaches were different, both of them found a way to make more space for themselves in their world. Whether they were writing books or leading naval battles, they refused to accept the limits of what society said that women could do. That’s one thing that all of the women in this series have in common: they were defiant.

I’m in favor of any web series about historical badasses, and this series is a great idea. However, I have take issue with the way Murasaki Shikibu is being portrayed.

(Note: My criticism only extends to what I have seen in the promotional materials. I look forward to seeing the final series.)

A Room of One’s Own

Before we continue, let’s take a moment to consider Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In this famous essay, Woolf sets forth her theory as to why there are so few female authors. She observes that there are some basic prerequisites for writing. First, the author must be literate, so that she can write, and so she can be inspired by other works of literature. She has to have have time to compose her work. And finally, she needs the titular “room of her own,” a quiet space to work in. An illiterate woman with no time away from children or household duties and no personal space will be unable to create a work of art, even if that woman is a natural literary genius.

Murasaki Shikibu


Scroll from The Tale of Genji (12th century). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now let’s talk about Lady Murasaki. For those of you not in the know, Murasaki Shikibu is the author of The Tale of Genji, an 11th century romantic epic about a fictional prince and his many lovers. It’s a massive work, with around 400 different characters, and about 800 poems.

Murasaki Shikibu’s era, the Heian period (794-1185), was known as the golden age of Japanese literature. Both men and women of the upper classes held poetry in such high regard that successful love affairs often depended on the production of an emotionally moving love poem. Heian court women also had a remarkable amount of social freedom. They could own property, take lovers, and they were well educated in the poetic classics, as well as fine arts like incense making, dyeing, music and calligraphy. (Lovers were often judged on their handwriting, something I suspect would doom most of us to a life of celibacy.) Since husbands usually lived separately and only visited their wives at night, Heian women had plenty of free time to refine their arts while they waited.

Because men wrote mostly in Chinese (much like European men wrote in Latin), it fell to women to create the earliest Japanese language literature. These women produced a body of work which formed the very foundation of Japanese art. Some notable Heian authors include Sei Shonagon, who wrote a hilarious book of collected miscellany, and the woman known as Mother of Michitsuna, who wrote a diary about her tempestuous relationship with the regent Kaneie.

(Women were generally referred to by a nickname, often the government position of a male relative. Therefore Sei Shonagon is so called because a male relative was a shonagon, a lesser councilor of state. Likewise, Lady Nijo lived on Second Avenue, or Nijo, while Murasaki Shikibu is named after the main character in her novel, who is herself named for a plant called murasaki, a kind of gromwell.)

Of course, it wasn’t all wine and roses. Marriages were polygamous, and could be dissolved by the husband anytime he wanted by just cutting off his visits. Marriage could be extremely stressful for women, as Mother of Michitsuna’s diary shows. Women often lived secluded lives, cut off from the social life of the court by personal circumstances, or living in isolation in the provinces. Women did not hold government positions, and might have no say in who they married. However, each woman experienced her life differently. For every Mother of Michitsuna, living alone and waiting in vain for her husband, there was a Lady Nijo, a court beauty who deftly juggled several simultaneous affairs. For every Nijo there was a Lady Sarashina, who hated court life and only wanted to stay at home, reading tales (including The Tale of Genji). I should also mention the importance of money: all the women discussed here were from the wealthy classes. Women from poor or agricultural communities would have experienced life very differently. As historians, it’s important for us to avoid overgeneralizing.

Was Murasaki “Defiant”?

In her interview with Elle, Anita Sarkeesian says that Murasaki “refused to accept the limits of what society said that women could do,” and “pushed back against the limitations on women in her time through her literary genius.” In many ways this is untrue. For the upper class women of Murasaki’s time, creating literature was more the norm than the exception. (It’s worth noting that Murasaki may not have written the entire tale – there may have been one or more anonymous authors for the final chapters, which supports the argument that Murasaki’s talent was not an isolated case.)

Heian court women had everything Virginia Woolf deems critical for literary success: they had the time, money and the education to create some of the world’s finest literature. That’s not to deny that The Tale of Genji is a work of genius – it is. However, Murasaki would not have been able to grow the seed of her genius if the society around her had been less fertile. All of us, men and women, live within a social structure which will either help or hinder our goals. The ‘defiance’ narrative puts the burden of change on women, and ignores greater social forces at work in our lives. If defiance is all that we need to break out of the patriarchal trap, where are the diaries of Heian farm women?

It’s also tempting to see Murasaki Shikibu as a feminist writer. Her novel certainly examines some of the emotional damage polygamous marriage could cause. However, we need to be careful about applying our own values to historic works. Some scholars suggest that the tale deconstructs, or at least reproaches, the patriarchal system. I don’t have space to respond to this approach in depth here, but I will say that I find it unlikely. Murasaki’s female characters do suffer, however, they are understood and evaluated within the novel entirely according to contemporary feminine ideals. The main character, said to be a paragon of feminine accomplishment, is praised for controlling her jealousy. Women who fall short of the ideal (like the beak-nosed and poetically inept Suetsumuhana) are ridiculed. The marriage system itself is never challenged, but men who perform their social duties improperly and without sensitivity are chastised. The novel never imagines a world outside the social status quo.

Anita Sarkeesian says in the crowdfunding video, “Murasaki Shikibu lived at a time when women’s names were rarely even written down, but it didn’t stop her from writing the first modern novel.” For us, it’s shameful that these women were only known by aliases. But would Heian women want to be known by their name? Or would she find you unspeakably rude? It’s worth noting that the men in Murasaki’s novel are also referred to by their titles alone, or even by vague phrases like “that person.” (Directness was not valued by the Heian literati.)

The Ordinary Women page says that the series will “remind us that the stories we tell about women… often reflect the limitations placed on them, rather than the world-changing feats they’ve already achieved.” Likewise, we need to be careful not to make assumptions about women’s lives. The vast scope of history encompasses many times and places, and the women of those eras each had their own ideas about who they were, what they wanted, and why.

Murasaki Remembered

I applaud Feminist Frequency’s efforts to popularize the names of these fascinating women. However, Murasaki is by no means forgotten in Japan. The Tale of Genji is as well know there as Romeo and Juliet is here. Kids slog through it in school. There have been countless adaptations, like the 1980 manga, and an opera. There’s a Murasaki sweet potato, and Murasaki even has her own crater on Mercury. Murasaki could be better known to Western audiences, but we shouldn’t assume that because she’s unknown here she’s forgotten everywhere.

In summation, I urge the creators of Ordinary Women to avoid falling into the same trap they are fighting – the negation of the historical female experience.  We are lucky that so many women wrote diaries in the Heian period, which allow us to understand their personal beliefs and experiences firsthand. As Feminist Frequency puts it, “what we can do—what all of us can do—is to promote the treatment and portrayal of women as complete human beings, and to be critical of when we see women treated or portrayed as anything less.”


Recommended Reading

The Confessions of Lady Nijo (Brazell, Karen, trans. 1976). The love life of the Kamakura-era beauty Lady Nijo should make juicy reading for anyone who finds all the poetry in Genji a bit dry. Her lovers included a courtier, the emperor, and a Buddhist priest.

World of the Shining Prince (Ivan Morris, trans. 1964). Although slightly out dated, Ivan Morris’ book is an excellent general introduction to the culture of the Heian court.I suggest pairing this very readable introduction with one of the primary sources I list here.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Ivan Morris, trans. 1967). This book of lists, anecdotes, short essays and poems may be my favorite of the Heian diaries. Shonagon’s sharp wit and opinionated personality leaps from the pages.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (Ivan Morris, trans. 1971). Lady Sarashina shares her experiences as a shy bookworm in this charming diary. Fangirls of all ages will find themselves identifying with Sarashina’s quest for the next chapter of her favorite series.

The Gossamer Years (Edward Seidensticker, trans. 1964). This diary by The Mother of Michitsuna chronicles an unhappy marriage between the author and the regent Kaneie. This diary is a particularly good example of the use of poetry for communication between lovers, and is a masterful examination of jealousy within a polygamous marriage.

The Tale of Genji (Royall Tyler, trans. 2001). There have been many translations of The Tale of Genji, but Royall Tyler’s version is extremely faithful to the original text (unlike some earlier translations, which have been ‘edited’ for English audiences). If you’re intimidated by the sheer length (and who wouldn’t be), there is an edited version. Whichever version you chose, I think you’ll be moved by this touching, poetic, sad and funny masterpiece.