On 14-15th of March, Bristol hosted its second edition of a Women’s Literature Festival, founded by Sian Norris, with the noble ambition of bringing women back to the cultural scene and a personal/collective fight against cultural femicide. The festival offers two days of debate, film screenings, readings, lectures, and panel discussions, with a varied and appealing agenda – a taste of feminist culture.
Women, Feminism and Journalism
‘Feminism – the most self-critical and self-conscious political/social movement’
On Saturday afternoon, Helen Lewis, Beatrix Campbell, and Finn Mackay, all feminist activists in their own right and published authors, discussed the challenges and triumphs of the feminist movement. It was interesting to hear their views, which even though radically opposite to each other at times, they were ultimately proclaiming a similar message – that the feminist movement is as much needed now, as it was a century ago, and that the ‘war’ hasn’t really been won, as many are led to believe.
In this context, Finn Mackay, inspirationally eloquent, talked about the recent age of ‘choice feminism’ in our era of neo-liberalism, and that we need more action to preserve, rejuvenate, and further develop the feminism of today. It was touchingly brave to hear her open call to action encouraging the attendees that consciousness-raising groups are essential in every community as required steps in the feminist awakening process. She discussed her recent work, ‘Radical Feminism’, in which she shares her findings after interviewing more than a hundred feminist activists from the 70s onwards, and critically cross-references and compares the results before finally penetrating the reasons as to why women are still oppressed nowadays.
As part of the argument, Beatrix Campbell also presented her latest work, ‘End of Equality’, where she explores the journey of gender equality and asserts the need for a new revolution. Both Mackay’s and Campbell’s works can be said to serve as political manifestos that give out the cry for new articulations of male domination in the patriarchal/neo-patriarchal world of today, notwithstanding current upheavals of retro sexism.
Established journalist Helen Lewis talked about the ‘female role and/or journey’ in journalism and facing sexism in the journalistic workplace, the gained victories of the past, as well as the remaining challenges to be tackled.
A lot was said about feminist writing as a ‘drama of self-discovery’, and feminism tending to be inward looking, closed upon itself in an identity stage, rather than plunging into activity.
All in all, it was invigorating to hear both sides of the coin of feminism, and one left with a feeling of inspiration and questions to consider further.
The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History
‘Before talking about vaginas, let’s at least agree on a name for it’
Sunday started with Emma Rees’s introduction to her new book and the journey from coming up with the idea to actually writing it. Even though originally intended to bear the title ‘cunt’ or even ‘vulva’, which is far more representative of the full female body parts, rather than ‘vagina’, Rees told of her US publisher’s choice to stay with what’s familiar and close to people’s tongues.
Rees embarked upon the voyage of cultural vagina by presenting the lineage of misogyny from linguistics and literature – diving into etymologies and puns – to 1940-50s adverts on feminine hygiene, next to contemporary cases of vaginal sexism in visual art, advertising, and such. She balanced the academic approach by listing theory and eruditeness, mixing it with humour and mundane case studies, thus appealing to the understanding of a much wider audience.
Not offering a comprehensive study of all instances of vaginal misrepresentation, Rees’s book serves as a reminder of the long initiated stereotyping and fear and loathing towards the female body.
She concluded that the female body has always been radically polarised by being either pathologised and/or eroticised, and that perhaps it should be accepted as what it is, and a first step towards achieving this would be at least agreeing on a name for it.
Women Writing in Shakespeare’s Time
‘We think back to our mothers if we are women’ – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Professor Helen Hackett gave a wonderful talk on the women writers of the Renaissance, and told the audience her long way from the time as a PhD candidate when no woman writer in Shakespeare’s time was known, to amassing a considerable canon of these writers who are now being thoroughly studied and researched.
Hackett told about her youthful wonderings as to the impossibility of not having a single woman writer before the age of enlightenment, and the contentedness of contemporary findings that gained speed from mid 1980s onwards. Also, she pointed out the fortunate mistaken belief of Virginia Woolf as to this issue, who was searching for literary companions in history to no avail.
The presentation was then centred on a few selected women writers, Hackett’s favourites. She made the distinction between privileged and unprivileged women writers, making a parallel between distinguished figures, such as Elizabeth I and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke – who were both freer and less freer to write having the responsibility and all the eyes turned on them – and the non-elite, where she gave a particular focus to Isabella Whitney, who’s now believed to be the first published female writer (1560s).
It was mind-lifting to find out about less known female literature, especially one long-considered non-existent, and Hackett weaved the story passionately, interweaving it with wonderful lines of poetry, passing on this lively energy onto the audience.
Women Writing Today
‘A man who reads books about women is a hero’
The finishing touch to the festival was the gathering of women writers of toda,y covering a healthy mix of genres: novelist and short story writer Michele Roberts, playwright and memoirist Samantha Ellis, distinguished poet Helen Mort, and novelist and performer Amy Mason.
Sarah Lefanu was hosting the discussion and started by asking them if they like being characterised as ‘women writers’. The responses were diverse: Michele Roberts prefers being considered as a writer, just like Samantha Ellis, Helen Mort profusely disagreed with the labels ‘young’ and ‘woman’, whereas Amy Mason strongly identified herself as a woman writer, an identity to which she clings willingly. They all agreed, however, on the human imagination being androgynous and multi-gendered, value-free.
The lack of 1920-30s spinster fiction was established, pointing out the age of the Bridget Jones archetype.
Samantha Ellis briefly talked about her memoir book, ‘How To Be A Heroine’, her analysis of growing up reading a little too much, the heroines she identified with and what she learned from them.
Amy Mason discussed her novel, ‘The Other Ida’, based on a strong mother-daughter-sister relationship, and the burdensome task of writing a novel, whereas Michele Roberts, with her baggage of 14 novels, told of her interest in storytelling and how people tell stories, which compelled her to write about different times and places.
Helen Mort, five times winner of the Foyles Young Poet award, discussed her previous poetry collection, which she told the audience happens to be characterised as ‘masculine’ and ‘northern’, and her fascination with a sense of place. To this allure she uses pubs as a commonplace, seeing them as a ‘theatre of a connection to a place’. Apart from reading a poem and telling the audience of not quite differentiating the page-stage distinction, thus writing the poems with the intention of them being read in public, she also talked about her work in progress – a poetry collection on women climbers.
The lively discussion was wrapped up with the issue of needing a community to serve as a ‘muse’, that is, support and inspiration to one’s work.