International Women’s Day: Why We’re Still Talking About It

4th Mar 2013

I Heart Feminism
So the argument goes something like this: there is no need for International Women's Day, because women are now definitely as powerful as men.

We get to ear-bash them plenty in tutting commercials for cleaning sprays and supermarkets; we don’t need an entire day dedicated to celebrating our equality.

Worldwide, most women have had the vote since 2002 and we’ll all have it by 2015 anyway (a big hand to Oman and Saudi Arabia there, for taking the time to really think about it), so what more do we want? And the reply, of course, is that this is bollocks; spewed mostly only by those who have a pair.

You only have to be a functioning member of society to see that  women are a long way from complete liberation.

At least, that’s true when it comes to the boardroom, pay and working conditions, and how often we’re victims of crime. But when it comes to literature, perhaps we should shut up and listen to the trolls.

Look at the bestseller lists of 2012 and you notice a few names dominating: JK Rowling, EL James, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins.

A respectable 40 titles in the top 100 were penned by us ladies, with romance the best-selling genre by a mile. If you want to be all high-brow and literary about it, Hilary Mantel has done a double Booker on us with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and we have not one, but three women as national poets in the UK – Duffy, Lochead and Clarke.

Looking at where the money is alone, you’d be perfectly within your rights to say that, in literature, women really have made it.

But scratch the surface of these figures and a different, all-too familiar, picture emerges. For the past two years,VIDA has carried out wide ranging surveys on coverage of women’s literature in mainstream press: how much fiction was reviewed, how much poetry; how many interviews were done, with who; how many articles were written, on who, and who by.

Their figures lead to a stark conclusion: male writers are being granted three times as much coverage as their female counterparts.

The 2012 count has not yet been announced, but a cursory glance at this week’s Guardian books site reveals only 8 pieces by or about women, while only about a third of the pieces in their Poem of the Week  series so far have been by female writers.

The London Review of Books fares no better: it seems to have only managed 7 reviews of women poets during the entirety of 2012, and scatters only a handful of female bylines on the home page.

The culture section of this week’s Telegraph, is, at first glance, chock full of pieces about women: most of them are royalist hysterics about Hilary Mantel’s much misrepresented comments about Princess Katherine.

Commentators have suggested that the imbalance is down to that well-rolled out reason of female modesty: women writers aren’t getting out there on the press circuit and pushing their work. Others suggest that various publishing houses are the problem: they’re not sending female authors’ books out for review.

Well, if it’s just a few rotten apples –  a few publishing houses, a few modest authors –  then they’re spoiling the whole bunch pretty virulently. Imbalance this widespread means that something is systematic, and it’s fairly obvious what that is: sexism.

It’s easy to forget that during the last century, men went out of their way to push us back into the kitchen, and that some of them are still only vaguely bothered about helping us out of it.

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, echoed in 2011 the reason many gave for the VIDA figures, remarking that the reason his magazine didn’t review many women was because ‘women aren’t readers of the sort of literature we review’.

He went on to describe aims for equal coverage as a ‘fetish’. Tosser. Again and again, if we scratch the surface, we find this sort of misogyny thickly (in both respects) suffocating any efforts we make to be considered equal.

If you’re not cynical enough to imagine that such well-educated men as our important, canon-weighted critics could be knowingly sexist, then consider this: if it’s not just deliberate, conservative sexism that’s the problem, then the liberal, broadsheet sensibility we often hug close must be doing us damage too.

Female authors may now be able, as Woolf suggested, to write without their gender in mind, but the critics are way behind in this respect. Write something with themes which can’t be easily taken and  turned into an essay about female oppression, and they’re not quite sure how to react.

The 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice is a case in point:  most critics seemed to bafflingly skirt the domestic themes of the novel, perhaps perturbed by a book about marriage being considered so important for that reason, and most articles – especially in the Guardian –  were desperate pleas to stuff Austen’s books into a tiny box of proto-feminism.

The same treatment is prescriptively wheeled out for modern works: reviews of We Need to Talk About Kevin rarely give as much weight to America’s gun problem or male role models (both of which are clear themes of the novel), as they do to it’s ‘bleak and depressing’ depiction of motherhood.

Other novels, which have even less of an overtly political angle, are simply ignored, dismissed as frivolous rubbish for not fully engaging with the “F-word”, slapped with the moniker of chick-lit and deemed not worth reviewing. You can rest assured that if a woman had written The Slap, there’d be some fairly pithy comments about domestic frivolity in the reviews column, and not much else.

It’s not to be suggested for a moment that authors should shy away from being branded as feminists, or stay out of writing about female oppression – but this isn’t all they should write about.

Imagine how limiting it would be if men’s work was only judged, for example, against socialist quality. We’d have a pretty bleak landscape: bye-bye Will Shakespeare, ta-rah Keats, sayonara Bob Dylan. But that’s exactly what, in another form, is being foisted upon women by well-meaning idiots.

So when you’re asked why women’s literature still needs banging on about, why you’re still hollering its virtues from the rooftops, the answer is this: because no-one else is.

Because despite the majority of fiction works being written and bought by women, the press has us barely able to scratch a few pages about our own oppression.

Because unthinking misogyny is stopping our books getting sent for review, or being reviewed in the first place. Because a patronising, establishment view of what we should be writing about is colouring the vast majority of the reception we are given. Because until our art is valued by society, then we never really be.

And until we’re valued, equality is a pipe dream. How can we be equal when we’re being ignored?

Do you think women have gained equality in terms of literature? Why do you think this sexism still exists within literary circles?

Rebecca Winson

(Image by Jay Morrison)


  • sianushka says:

    This is one of the reasons I’m putting on the Women’s Literature Fest. Thank you for writing this! http://womensliteraturefestival.wordpress.com/

  • Kathryn says:

    Great review of the situation. I have to agree about sexism both within literary circles and out in the wider world: it’s not a conspiracy of a few hard-liners, but an underlying attitude in society.

    Recently, I was looking at the Bauhaus school, in which the party line was that women artists were treated equally. In fact, the men managing the school felt that too many women would brand their movement as an amateur endeavour. So women were shunted over to the Weaving Workshop, a traditionally feminine craft.

    In a way, I’m wondering if that’s the attitude that prevails in the literary press. Reviewers want to be taken seriously, so they neatly box up the female authors they cover into feminist, chick-lit or domestic categories, ignoring all the other aspects that can be layered within one piece of work. Obviously, there are a fair number of exceptions to this and some reviewers are doing astute, fair coverage of a range of authors, but the narrow view is all too common.