Women Take Back the Write

New Zealand-born writer, John Forde, was inspired to pen his first blog post in nine months after attending two of the Something Rhymed salons. Here are his reflections on the state of gender relations in the UK’s literary world, and whether men have a role in this conversation.

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 “only 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 female literary friendships. Their efforts are soon to be turned into a book, A Secret Sisterhood, published in 2017. This month, Emma and Emily 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.

This image is in the public domain.

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”. Arifa 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”, Arifa 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 (Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgård) are categorised as “state of the nation” writers.

This bias was something reported on by all the panelists. Karen 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. Arifa agreed, arguing that many male readers (including her builder) were reluctant to read fiction written by women – even The Girl on the Train, the recent femme-penned commercial blockbuster.

Sarah 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. Sarah 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.

Michèle, one of the Women’s Press’s 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. Arifa 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.

Karen discussed the problems of literature being separated along gender lines, and the reluctance of the industry to move beyond binary categories. She related visiting a bookstore, in which the male store owner had organised all the books into male vs female sections. The owner told Karen 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, Arifa encouraged female authors to stop anonymising themselves or trying to “trick” readers with gender-neutral names. Michèle spoke encouragingly of the power of community, and praised Something Rhymed as a good example of modern-day consciousness-raising. Sarah argued that more attention needed to be paid to female success stories, and to continue the fight for pay equity among the sexes. And Karen 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 Sarah and Michèle 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 Arifa seemed closer to my generation’s voice: cautious, questioning, alert to inconsistencies, and keen to avoid orthodoxies. Both voices seem necessary to inform a well-rounded debate.

In the third salon, Emma 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.

Louise 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. Jill 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 a major publishing house, in which well-meaning editors admitted they had no idea how to access younger and BAME audiences. While the will was there to connect, bridges needed to be built between publishers and writers from under-represented groups.

Jill agreed with Varaidzo’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. She 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.

Melanie, 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.

Jill 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.

Louise 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. Jill 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.

Louise 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. Jill and Louise 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.

Emma 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.

Image by Ashley Hall.

That said, Emma 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 Jill and Louise 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.


Sarah LeFanu to Speak at Second Something Rhymed Salon

We are delighted that Sarah LeFanu has agreed to share her wealth of experience with us at the Arts Council sponsored Something Rhymed salon on May 4th. It will be a particular delight to meet Sarah since we were so captivated by the thoughts on female literary friendship that she explored in her guest post last year.

Sarah LeFanu
Sarah LeFanu

Sarah LeFanu was an editor at The Women’s Press for ten years, and was responsible for their ground-breaking feminist science fiction list. She has edited seven anthologies of original stories (including three all-women anthologies), and her books include Rose Macaulay: A Biography and its companion volume, Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal. For six years (2003 – 2009) she was Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival, where she consistently promoted women writers.

If you would like to join Sarah LeFanu, Karen Maitland, Arifa Akbar and Michele Roberts to discuss the problem of gender inequality in the literary world, do email us at SomethingRhgymed@gmail.com.

  • Salon Two: So-called Women’s Issues 
  • Wednesday May 4th, 6.30pm-9.00pm 
  • New York University in London, 6 Bedford Square (Gower/Bloomsbury Street side), WC1B 3RA
  • Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road. Holborn, Russell Square, Goodge Street and Warren Street are also close by.
  • Disabled access and facilities. Please do let us know if you have any access needs.

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Our friends at Naked Wines have kindly provided the wines for our salon series, and they are even offering a discount especially for our readers.


Till Death Us Do Part: Sarah LeFanu and Michèle Roberts

The bond between this month’s profiled writers was forged when Mary Russell Mitford took the younger Elizabeth Barrett Browning under her wing. It’s a great privilege therefore to feature a guest post with the novelist Michèle Roberts, who has been a mentor to both of us. Here she talks with fellow author Sarah LeFanu about their longstanding friendship.


Sarah: I met Michèle in London in the summer of 1972. I saw her as a warm-hearted woman warrior, a bold feminist, a dragon-slayer. I was a student, with a holiday job as a waitress at a rather dodgy restaurant called Borscht’n’Tears. Michèle, two or three years older than me, had a proper grown-up job at the British Library. Whereas I had timidly attended a couple of student meetings about women’s liberation, held safely inside college doors, Michèle belonged to a group of women who braved ridicule and abuse to perform feminist street theatre.

Michèle: I remember arriving home late one night to find Sarah returned from work, sitting outside on the little balcony eating sausages and drinking cider. She seemed dashing, merry, insouciant, completely able to enjoy herself in the present moment. Very pretty, too, with her delicate face and curly auburn hair.

Sarah: We were thrown together by the spectacular disintegration of the relationship between a couple who lived in the flat that we were both staying in; to get away from the rows and recriminations we would creep out onto the balcony above the front door of the terraced house, and in the warm summer evenings we would sit and talk: about women’s liberation, socialism, books, boyfriends and all points in between. What began as an escape from what was going on behind us, soon acquired its own life.

Michèle: I remember watching Sarah pack her bag for her summer holiday. She wanted to travel light, but on the other hand she wanted to take plenty of books. I was impressed that she threw out clothes to make room for books. As I got to know her better, my sense was confirmed that she really enjoyed a good time: physical and intellectual pleasures both. For example, we would don our 1950s frocks then bicycle back and forth across London, going to parties and dancing most of the night. At the same time we took part in a Marxist study group with other friends, and we founded our own group of two to read Freud.

Sarah: We carried on these discussions by correspondence when I went off to work in Mozambique for two years. We shared a desire to understand the world and, of course, to change it.

In the early 80s, while Michèle was making a name for herself as a novelist and poet, I was working in publishing, at The Women’s Press. We published her first two novels, A Piece of the Night and The Visitation. In the 90s we began teaching together for Ty Newydd and Arvon. And for nearly fifteen years now we’ve worked together in a writers’ group, along with novelist Jenny Newman (we call ourselves the Group of Three).

All of which is to say that our friendship is centrally concerned with work and writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say the work of writing and reading.

Or perhaps I should say: the pleasure of it. Right from the early days we’ve done the reading and talking and writing alongside eating, drinking and partying.

Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.
Michèle Roberts (left) and Sarah LeFanu (right) at Sissinghurst in 1981.

Michèle: Sarah and I grew up in an era still overshadowed by Victorian notions of the respectable: teenage girls could go out and have fun but adult women, even if they had jobs, were supposed to make staying at home serving husbands and children their priority. It was radical in those days to assert openly that you were linked to other women, across the bonds of families and marriages, and that when you wanted or needed to you put women first.

Men had higher status. They valued each other highly and us far less. They did not believe we could be true friends with each other, if they even bothered to think about it, as they thought all women competed for male sexual favours.

Men dominated the literary scene, edited the journals, wrote memoirs about each other, created the literary canon, went out to meet each other at night in clubs and pubs, wanted ‘their’ women safely at home giving the children their tea.

Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele's sketches 'of women having a nice time' are pinned up in Sarah's study. They enrich her life 'during good times, bad times and challenging times'.
Sketch by Michele Roberts. Many of Michele’s sketches ‘of women having a nice time’ are pinned up in Sarah’s study. They enrich her life ‘during good times, bad times and challenging times’.

Sarah: While I was struggling to write my first book, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Michèle gave me a whole afternoon a week of childcare – a blessed stretch of time – and later, on occasions when I was overwhelmed by domestic drudgery, she would think up ways and means of providing me with periods of release.

Michèle: I remember when Sarah got married vowing to myself that I would do my best not to be jealous or possessive, which would have been easy for me to do given how much I loved her. I got to know her husband and got to be fond of him. I was her witness at her wedding (as she was at mine) and she invited me to be godmother to her children. I love and feel close to them. So she helped me go on feeling close to her, feeling I still had a place with her, even though her life had changed so much, having three children and caring for them. She invited me to become involved.

Sarah: Male literary friendships have always been more visible. Men have always felt more entitled to inhabit public spaces – from the 18th century coffee shop to the Soho bars of the 1950s. The romantic idea of a literary friendship is that of two lonely (male) geniuses recognising each other as geniuses and then performing their friendship in front of a star-struck public. But male domination of public space has been, and is being challenged (by feminists then and now), so things are changing.

Michèle: The women’s movement helped to change that. Nowadays the male writers I know and am fond of acknowledge the power of women’s friendships. We know more than we used to about women’s friendships because for the last thirty or so years women have been writing about them, asserting their value and importance and exploring their meaning.

Those books got published because feminist women were working as editors and publishers, commissioning books, championing women writers. So my friendship with Sarah is connected to that history, those politics.

Feminists thought of each other as sisters, we valued each other, tried to listen to each other, tried hard not to obey the patriarchal rule which said that men always had to come first, we lived a public life of going out with each other, not confined to the home.

Sarah: At the same time, I’m going to make a claim for privacy, and the intimacy it allows. It’s more than forty years since Michèle and I met and talked on a balcony in Pimlico, when we cast ourselves off from the noisy goings-on behind us and floated high above the dusty summer streets of London. The intimacy of sailing with Michèle in that stone boat has remained for me an important and nurturing aspect of our long friendship.

Michèle: The Italian expression is: ti voglio bene. I feel Sarah and I wish each other well, at a profound level. Till death us do part.

Sarah LeFanu’s latest books are: Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, published by SilverWood and S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, published by Hurst & Co.

Michèle Robert’s latest novel, Ignorance, was published by Bloomsbury. You can read more about her friendships and her feminism in her memoir, Paper Houses, published by Virago.