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Ursula K. Le Guin on writing and the women's movement

The writer Ursula K. Le Guin in 2012.
Photo © 2012 Laura Anglin
The writer Ursula K. Le Guin in 2012.

“If you have a person who is both male and female, what’s the pronoun you use?”

Ursula K. Le Guin posed that question in 1988 when she came in to the KUOW studios for an interview with Ross Reynolds.

Le Guin had written "The Left Hand of Darkness" in 1967, which won top science fiction awards. The book focused on an androgynous society where men and women could switch genders during intensely sexual periods once a month.

It’s a question people struggle to answer today, and yet, Le Guin felt her book was quickly outdated.

“At that time the accepted wisdom was that the pronoun ‘he’ is generic, that it doesn't mean ‘man,’” she said. “I accepted that, and I was still accepting that in 1975 or '76, although feminists had been trying to get it into my head that that is really not true, and that ‘he’ does mean ‘he,’ and it does not include women.”

She had written the book in 1967 – before the rise of the women’s movement.

“People were just beginning to question, ‘What is gender? What is sexuality? How much is it culturally gendered? How much is it physiologically gendered?’

"The pressure in our society is obviously that we are a male dominant society, and also we're very youth dominant," she said. “To be a woman in the first place is to be a bit secondary.”

‘Odd Little Virgin’

“I don’t know whether there are more women writing,” Le Guin told Reynolds. “For the last 250 years or so, 30 to 50 percent of our writers have been women, depending on where and what kind of writing we’re talking about.”

Le Guin said the struggle has been to reform the male-dominated canon of English literature.

“We may get more women genuinely included in it, not as a kind of second class or, ‘Let's let in Emily Dickinson because she was such an odd little virgin,’" she said. “What's really happened is that women are freeing themselves up to write as women, not as imitation men.”

And yet, she called the woman writer a “kind of a disappeared person.”

“The received wisdom has been that women can either have babies or books,” she said. “If you can't have babies, then you can have books. Or turn that on its head, and if you have books then of course you don't need babies.

“It is as if the two things were equivalent somehow,” she continued. “The silly thing about this is it's never applied to men. Men who are fathers – fatherhood does not seem to disqualify them as novelists, nor does writing books seem to disqualify them as fathers. But women are supposed to do one or the other.”

Le Guin had three children. She called herself lucky.

“I had a partner, a husband in this case, who was really totally supportive,” she said. “It's not just the money that counts – he had a job, I had a job, and we had three kids. So we sort of had three full-time occupations, but together we could do three jobs. What is pretty nearly impossible is for one person to do two full-time jobs. When your kids are little, it's a full time job unless you have competent efficient real child care to solve it.”