19 May 2016
Is feminism dead in the UK? This month’s Something Rhymed Literary Salon series re-opens a much-needed debate about women’s visibility in the literary scene.
Not long after I moved to London, in the summer of 2003, my friend D’arcy and I were sitting in a park, watching some cute guys playing football. A cluster of young women watched them from the sidelines, giggling nervously behind their hands, and shifting their weight from one leg to the other so their kitten heels wouldn’t get stuck in the damp grass.
“There’s something wrong with this picture,” D’arcy said. “If this was New Zealand, the girls would be in there playing too.”
Her point was proved just a few minutes later, when their football rolled in our direction. One of the boys jogged towards us to retrieve it. He was about 18 or 19, lean and sexy, with a shaved head and grey trackie bottoms. As he came closer, D’arcy grabbed the ball and stood up to face him.
“Give it back!” he said. D’arcy said nothing but smiled at him, taunting him with the ball.
The boy flew into a rage – furrowed brow, red cheeks, skinny arms gesticulating. “It’s not for you!” he bellowed, grabbing the ball out of her hands. “You’re a girl!”
Though I didn’t know it then, there in a nutshell was my experience of gender relations in the UK. Action and adventure is for men; women are there to watch men, and empty the slop bucket when it starts to smell.
In the years that followed, I puzzled at the meek acceptance of women’s subordinate status in the culture, and tried to identify the conditions that made it possible. Part of it was the everyday tragicomedy that constitutes being English. Politeness and deference are celebrated as virtues, meaning in language is buried under layers of irony and passive-aggression, and there’s a national addiction to the word “sorry”. It’s amusing, in a Dadaist, masochistic kind of way, but hardly conducive to having a serious dialogue about inequality.
But there was something else at play, I sensed, that felt painfully specific to women. Feminism was a dirty word. Over the years, I lost count of the number of times I read or saw or heard a woman begin a feminist critique with “I’m not a feminist but….”. And it was truly, madly, deeply uncool for women to get angry, especially if it involved contradicting a man.
Where were the strong, stroppy feminists of my home country? The Kate Sheppards who got the vote in 1893 without having to resort to hunger strikes, the Jean Battens who flew solo around the world, the Katherine Mansfields who moved to London and made Virginia Woolf jealous, the Jocelyn Harrises who taught me at university, the Helen Clarks who became Prime Ministers? In Ye Oldie England, the only murmurings of feminist discontent came from nice white middle-class radio presenters with cut-glass accents, or columnists in the left-wing newspapers. Everything was so quiet and measured, carefully calibrated so as not to give offence.
As I learned, feminism – or any other social cause in the UK – would always play second fiddle to the monolith of class. How can class be avoided, in a society where the head of state is an unelected monarch (though admittedly a woman), where the ruling classes are overwhelmingly drawn from a handful of private boys’ schools, and where the rest of the population gets classified by their accent or what school they went to? George Bernard Shaw was onto something in Pygmalion: the way an Englishwoman talks can be literally the difference between her being a duchess or a flower seller.
It was then that I realised how shocking and revolutionary Germaine Greer must’ve been when she took on the UK in the 1970s. She was the antithesis of a “nice girl”: searingly intelligent, classically educated, articulate, funny, and most importantly, fearless in her opinions and unconcerned with being “difficult” or giving offence.
Towards the end of the 2000s, with the Conservatives back in power, the UK seemed in dire need of a re-inoculation of Germaine’s brand of feminism: articulate, angry and persuasive. Greer still popped up occasionally in the Guardian, but she seemed strangely irrelevant and lost in her own nostalgia – twittering about new translations of Proust or criticising transsexuals with a venom that was out of sorts with contemporary sexual politics. There were a few others of her generation about: Helena Kennedy was still going strong, though since ascending to the House of Lords, she’d shifted her focus from women’s justice to the wider sphere of human rights abuses.
So who was England’s modern-day feminist voice? In 2011, Times columnist Caitlin Moran had a huge bestseller with her book How To Be A Woman. Moran’s greatest achievement, I think, has been to rescue the word “feminist” from the trash heap, and repackage it for a post-Internet/lads’ mag generation. She’s a bright and entertaining writer, but to me, she’s more stand-up comic than feminist commentator – always working too hard to get the laugh, and desperate to prove that she’s as hard-drinking and rock ‘n roll as one of the lads. Her autobiographical writing is extraordinary – How To Be A Woman has a fearless and unapologetic account of her getting an abortion – but even this seems to work against her. By continually referencing her life, Moran reminds us how exceptional she is. Like Julie Burchill before her, she was a working class girl from up North with no university qualifications, who somehow became a broadsheet journalist and author. Moran is a depressingly rare success story; she’s an outlier, rather than the Everywoman she seems to want to be.
In the last few years, something has been shifting in feminist discourse, much of it centred around social media. Websites like The Everyday Sexism Project encouraged women to take note of and record daily reminders of their secondary status. The vicious trolling of academic and TV presenter Mary Beard was met with a sustained critique about misogyny in Twitter. And research sites Vida and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media published hard evidence of women’s under-representation in literature and film. Finally, women were getting angry again – and even talking about how their right to get angry was being slapped down by men smirking “Calm down, dear”. There was still little hope in hell of Britain getting a feminist Prime Minister – I’m with Russell Brand’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher breaking the glass ceiling for other women “[o]nly in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards” – but it was a start.
A new voice in the current wave of English feminism is Something Rhymed, a website set up by writers Emma-Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa to research and celebrate famous female literary friendships. Their efforts are soon to be turned into a book, published in 2017. This month, Sweeney and Midorikawa curated a three-part series of panel discussions on women’s under-representation in the UK literary scene, and what can be done about it.
I’ve been to a fair few literary salons in my time, and walked away from most of them feeling entertained but not that challenged, forgetting most of what I’d heard by the next day. The Something Rhymed salons were a weightier, more satisfying experience – like the glorious meal Virginia Woolf describes at the start of A Room of One’s Own, before she returns to the women’s college for prunes and custard.
The first salon (which I confess to not attending) concentrated on the shameful under-reporting and publishing of women’s voices in literature and journalism. Bolstered by statistics from Vida, the London Review of Books was singled out for a particular kicking: despite having a female editor, its record of reviewing books by women and female contributors is appallingly low. (Just a few weeks later, Jenny Diski, one of the LRB’s few regular female contributors, died, leaving the magazine looking even more terminally male and white.)
In the second salon, a new panel – writers Michèle Roberts and Karen Maitland, editor Sarah LeFanu and journalist Arifa Akbar – took on the vexed subject of “women’s writing”. Akbar kicked off by noting that many of her female interview subjects described “women’s writing” as a trap, a niche category into which female writers can be dropped into and ignored. Quoting Woolf, who said famously that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”, Akbar also noted that gender categories tend to be imposed from outside than from within. Women writers are called “domestic” when they write about family, she said, whereas male writers writing in the same territory (Roth, Franzen, Knausgård) are categorised as “state of the nation” writers.
This bias was something reported on by all the panelists. Maitland added that there was still widespread kowtowing to the perceived authority of men, and an assumption that women’s literary territory was “domestic” and therefore narrower in scope. Akbar agreed, arguing that many male readers (including her builder) were reluctant to read fiction written by women – even Girl On A Train, this year’s femme-penned commercial blockbuster.
LeFanu gave a fascinating account of her work at the Women’s Press, which was set up expressly to further the cause of the women’s movement, and to create a platform in which “revolutionary women” could get published. The Women’s Press was instrumental in publishing science fiction written by women – until that point considered largely a male domain. LeFanu commented ruefully on the poor showing by women in Penguin’s recent two-volume anthology of British short stories, edited by Philip Hensher, and called on women in the literary world to renew their political credentials.
Roberts, one of the Women’s Press’ most celebrated authors, couched women’s inequality in a wider historical and political context. Since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, women have been associated with the body and child-bearing, rather than intellect or public speaking. In our modern capitalist era, huge profits are made from dividing and categorising the sexes for marketing purposes. Akbar agreed, and discussed the sexual commodification of female writers, especially those from “exotic” BME backgrounds. She described a hair-raising moment from her days at the Independent, where a Ghanean author was selected for a profile solely on the strength of her youthful good looks.
Maitland discussed the problems of literature being separated along gender lines, and the reluctance of the industry to move beyond binary categories. She related visited a bookstore in the North of England, in which the male store owner had organised all the books into male vs female sections. The owner told Maitland proudly that he’d even researched authors with gender-free names, to ensure that sneaks like Pat Barker and J K Rowling didn’t end up in the “wrong” section, thus avoiding the horror of one of his male customers accidentally buying a book written by a woman.
When asked what strategies should be put in place to combat gender stereotyping, Akbar encouraged female authors to stop anonymising themselves or trying to “trick” readers with gender-neutral names. Roberts spoke encouragingly of the power of community, and praised Something Rhymed as a good example of modern-day consciousness-raising. LeFanu argued that more attention needed to be paid to female success stories, and to continue the fight for pay equity among the sexes. And Maitland encouraged everyone to read and write widely, and to focus on removing gender barriers for the next generation of readers.
It was a fascinating panel, as much for the generation differences in the panellists’ approach to feminism as for their individual strategies. As LeFanu and Roberts spoke, I felt my shoulders drop and I exhaled with satisfaction. Here, at last, was the confidence and the unapologetic politicising that I’d been missing in over a decade. It sat in such marked contrast to the tentative, atomised discourse of whichever wave of feminism we’re in now. Maybe I am just a 70s feminist at heart; I’m certainly from the generation who benefited from their efforts. And yet Akbar seemed closer to my generation’s voice: cautious, questioning, alert to inconsistencies, and keen to avoid orthodoxies. It’s a less inspiring approach than the boldness of 1970s feminism, but both voices seem necessary to inform a well-rounded debate.
In the third salon, Sweeney continued the discussion about strategies to improve gender equality in the literary world. The panel comprising novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams were asked to discuss how we can encourage more reading by and of female writers.
Doughty spoke of the power of literary prizes, both to transform a writer’s career, and to bring women’s writing to wider public attention. She discussed the controversial history of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), in which the original sponsors Mitsubishi withdrew their support after protests that the competition was biased against men. Doughty noted that the prize is now one of the world’s top literary prizes, a status that was unimaginable when it was first launched.
Varaidzo spoke about the absence of writing featuring female and non-white protagonists, particularly in children’s and young adult fiction, and pointed to the opportunities offered by self-publishing as a means of short-circuiting the publishing world. Crowdsourcing provided an accessible way to finance literary projects, she said, and has the added commercial benefit of identifying demand for a writer’s work in advance. She gave a hilarious account of attending a workshop at Penguin-Random House, in which well-meaning editors admitted they had no idea how to access younger and BME audiences. While the will was there to connect, bridges needed to be built between publishers and writers from under-represented groups.
Dawson agreed with Varaiso’s assessment of the major publishers, and cited the excellent work done by the Women’s Press and smaller independent presses to fill in the gaps in the marketplace and promote women’s work. Dawson noted similar problems for working class writers trying to find a market, arguing that the publishing industry was still dominated by white middle-class Oxbridge graduates, usually called Lucy. She noted that many publishers and agents still followed a highbrow academic culture, favouring reviews published in the LRB or the Times Literary Supplement rather than on Goodreads. Doughty added that while publishing was now a heavily female industry, the big decisions about sales and marketing still tend to be made by (male) financiers, with an eye on corporate profit, resulting in conservative decision-making.
Abrahams, the creative director of Renaissance One, described her organisation’s work as literary ecology: identifying needs and potential markets, and offering support and mentoring to writers and literary organisations. She encouraged a scientific approach to combating gender inequality, identifying “points of infiltration” and shifts in power structures in the literary world, and “looking with joy” at the cosmopolitan landscape.
Dawson agreed with this approach, saying that the struggle for gender equality often felt like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a mountain. Rather than a single monumental struggle, many smaller rocks can be set into motion, she said, running together to effect change across a number of sectors.
Doughty praised the efforts of Birmingham writer Kit de Waal, who invested part of the royalties from her book deal into a scholarship for a student from a disadvantaged or minority background to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College (where I’m currently studying). Doughty described the huge enthusiasm that the scholarship has generated from other writers, who have donated time, money and mentoring services for the scholarship winner and finalists. All it takes is one person with a great idea, she said, around whom others will gather.
The salon looked to end on a low point, as the panelists lamented, once again, the strict gender divisions between boys’ and girls’ books. Dawson spoke of the reluctance of school teachers to teach books with female protagonists for fear of alienating male students. Varaidzo pointed out that recent changes in the secondary school English syllabus has resulted in an absence of black British female authors, and that teachers needed encouragement to teach female and non-white authors.
Doughty ended with slightly cheerier news – a book group of City bankers and lawyers, who realised that they were only reading books by men, and eventually put their suited hands up and asked her to recommend a female author. Doughty and Dawson argued that men needed to be encouraged to read more women’s writing, and that fears about boys’ poor academic progress shouldn’t result in only male-themed books being read in schools.
Sweeney concluded by saying that men needed to be included in the discussion on gender equality, and thanked the men present at the salon for coming along. For some reason, this moment stuck in my side like a thistle, nagging at me. Part of me senses that discussions about equality are best had by women talking on their own, at least to begin with, raising their own consciousness without the need to reassure or defer to men.
That said, Sweeney is right that discussions on gender equality can’t exist forever in a female-only sphere. Sooner or later, allies need to be found within the patriarchy. As Roberts and Dawson pointed out in their respective salons, little boys can be as constrained by gender norms as little girls, albeit with radically different outcomes in terms of their access to power. Feminism belongs to everyone – though it wouldn’t hurt men (me included) to shut up occasionally and listen, rather than being the first to offer their solutions on how best to change the world.
I’d like to offer a Great White Male Bravo! to Emma and Emily for organising a fantastic series of discussions. The energy generated in each of the sessions I attended was palpable – connections were made, business cards and email addresses enthusiastically swapped, and consciousness was raised. Perhaps timid kitten-heeled England isn’t as doomed as I thought it was.