Where are the women? Founding Bristol Women’s Literature Festival

Words by Sian Norris,

Regular Blogger for Bristol Woman



Four years ago, in 2011, the Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett Society collaborated on an event that demanded ‘Where are the Women’. The event was the culmination of research undertaken throughout the previous five years on the representation of women in the media. http://www.rowitm.org/findings.html

Our research had revealed that women’s representation fell into two camps. Either we were highly sexualised, young and smiling with red lips, white teeth and big hair on the covers of magazines, celebrated for our ability to conform to a male-defined idea of beauty. Or we were…not there.

This invisibility of women was noticeable across the media, and backed up by 2010 research conducted by UK Feminista. Music festival line-ups, male dominated. Film directors and writers – male dominated. Plays in theatres written by men, art exhibitions celebrating men, cultural events dominated by men, news pages dominated by men with the exception of a topless woman smiling on page 3. And, of course, literature festival line-ups, literature review magazines and literary prizes – all dominated by men. Women were rarely to be seen. When we did appear, it would be on a panel about women or feminism. Panels with grand titles such as ‘The future of the world’ were a strictly women-free zone.

We invited writer, journalist and broadcaster Bidisha to join our Where are the Women event. Along with myself and Dr Sue Tate, she discussed the phenomena of ‘cultural femicide’ – the idea that women’s stories and lives are simply silenced by a popular culture that prioritises men’s narratives. We talked about the impact cultural femicide has on the lives of all women and what it means for the world when the stories and lives of half the population aren’t deemed as valuable as the other half. We discussed how this silencing of women’s voices in popular culture creates a ripple effect that sends a message that women’s lives aren’t as worthwhile as the lives of men. Male stories are the default. Women’s stories are the other.

The event was a sellout success. The discussion of Where are the Women had clearly hit a nerve. And that was when I decided that instead of talking about the absence of women, I was going to do something to reverse it.

I have always believed that if I have the energy and resources to tackle an issue I care about, then I should do something about it. I recognise that this is a privilege – to have time, and the emotional and practical means to take on a new project. As a writer, a reader and a feminist, I am passionate about women’s representation on the literary scene. So when I looked around and felt despondent about how poorly women were represented on that scene, I decided it was time to create my own festival and carve out a space where women’s voices, women’s stories and women’s lives could be celebrated.

The first festival in 2013 was a huge success. In fact, as tickets raced out the door, we were forced to move the Saturday events to a larger room to accommodate an eager and enthusiastic audience. Crowds flocked to hear women talk about their own work and the work of our literary foremothers.

To me, the festival has two distinct themes. The first is to hear from women writing today. This is a real and unique opportunity to discover new and established writers who are working across literary forms – novelists and playwrights, poets and filmmakers, academics and journalists. This part of the festival is a true celebration of the innovation and daring of our contemporary writers. In 2015, these women include Michele Roberts, Xiaolu Guo, Amy Mason, Samantha Ellis, Helen Mort, Emma Rees, Helen Lewis, Beatrix Campbell, Nimko Ali, Annemarie Jacir and Selma Dabbagh.

The second theme of the festival is focused on re-discovering the forgotten women writers of the past. In doing this, we are continuing the second wave feminist project of bringing ignored and sidelined women artists and writers of years gone by back into the ‘literary canon’ where they belong.

As with so much of our history, the history of literature has been written by men, and for written for a ‘default male’. As a result, the canon can feel like a long list of great, white, male writers. The women working alongside them were pushed aside and or dismissed as ‘feminine’ and ‘women-y’.

It’s for this reason that during my English Literature undergraduate degree, we would have lectures on named male writers, and then a lecture on ‘women in literary period’. There were a few exceptions – Woolf and George Eliot. But really. Can you imagine sitting in a lecture called ‘Men and Modernism’? It is unthinkable.

During the second wave, feminist academics and publishers decided to challenge the great white male version of history. They took on the task of re-discovering forgotten women and forcing the ivory towers of academia to take notice of them. One such writer was Christina Rossetti. Before the 1970s, trying to find a volume of Christina Rossetti’s poetry was incredibly difficult. But thanks to the women who campaigned to celebrate her work, Rossetti is now an icon of Victorian poetry.

The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival aims to continue this great feminist tradition of raising the profile of women writers from history. That’s why in 2015, you’ll get to hear from Professor Helen Hackett as she introduces the women writers of the Renaissance. These often forgotten and ignored contemporaries of Shakespeare demand our attention and deserve to be recognised as part of our literary heritage – just as Bill’s male contemporaries are. You’ll also have the chance to watch the film Paris was a Woman, directed by Greta Schiller, and meet the women who were writing, painting and publishing in 1920s Paris.

There years ago I set out to organise a festival that would give women writers a voice and wake us up to the fantastic women writers of history. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of emotional labour. But as the second Bristol Women’s Literature Festival gets ready to kick off on 14th March, I hope you will agree we have achieved our aim of bringing women’s work and women’s stories to the forefront, and challenging the cultural femicide that has kept us silenced and sidelined for too long.

The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival takes place at Watershed on 14th and 15th March. Tickets are available from Watershed box office and website. The festival is supported by Watershed, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Foyles and Bristol Palestinian Film Festival. For more information, visit www.womensliteraturefestival.wordpress.com

Follow Sian on Twitter @sianushka

Image courtesy of Bristol Women’s Literature Festival

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