The #ReadWomen challenge surfaces yearly, encouraging others to pick up a book written by a marginalised female author. This year, with the centenary of women first receiving the right to vote in the UK, the movement has attracted increased attention.
All over the country, we have seen people engage with the Twitter hashtag and share their love of women writers. Booksellers, agents, publishers and writers are, on the whole, doing more to vocalise the talent of female voices.
So is it really necessary, in 2018, to highlight something that we should all understand and respect now — that women can be great writers too?
In short, yes — it seems we do. Alongside the support, there has also been a critique of the way society currently treats its female writing talent.
Whilst women are dominating the bestseller lists, they are still not receiving the same amount of award nominations or prizes as men. Granted this has shifted in recent years, but it is nowhere near equal, especially when we take a look at the lack of female authors gaining recognition in the literary (widely known as serious, more legitimate) fiction field.
Women do still find it more difficult to get their book published and they are still underrepresented in genres like fantasy, crime and historical fiction. They populate the romance sector, sure. But why is it when a man writes about family, marriage or relationships, for example, it is received as ‘social commentary’ and therefore seen as more worthy (in the judges’ eyes) of a prestigious award?
The elite has always controlled the exposure of women in the literary world. We all know about how women struggled to get published in the past and how some even resorted to writing under a male pseudonym to achieve recognition. We also know how the voices of working-class women writers have been lost, unable to truly shine, an ongoing battle.
The lack of historical recognition for women is still having an effect on the way we read now. At school, we are taught of the literary greats and the books that shaped nations. In the great literary periods in history, women are silent figures; the roaring 1920s and the American emigration to places like Paris, gave us the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Gertrude Stein, with her masculine qualities and distinctive manner, was a rare female icon amongst the midst of men.
Fast-forward to the 1950s — Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg were part of the Beat Generation famed for experimental, boundary-pushing prose. Yet where are the women? At university, I enrolled in a module dedicated to Beat literature. Yet we allocated just half a week to the female writers — mostly, they were the partners of their more famous male counterparts and mainly wrote poetry that still largely remains hidden.
It’s a cruel cycle – women writers were not in the limelight back then, so how can university professors and school teachers discuss something which quite simply does not have enough information about it? Because these women continue to go undiscovered, we still see a literature history comprised of mostly men. This gives little hope to the budding female writers of the future as all they are learning is that men are the ones who succeed.
This attitude doesn’t seem to have changed much. Men are winning the prizes and gaining the publishers. As recently as 2015, Catherine Nichols, a female writer who was frustrated she could not publish her book, decided to submit it under a male name instead. She gained a much more positive response for the same work.
It is disheartening that gender disparities such as this still exist in today’s society. Yet, as we have seen in the recent exposés regarding equal pay and workplace sexual harassment, it’s hardly surprising. The articles and the social media movements are a start, but we must do more to keep the momentum going.
In my city of Norwich, to celebrate the women’s vote centenary, Waterstone’s announced it will only be featuring female authors on the staff recommendation shelves. It is a simple, yet effective and bold statement for a major bookshop to make.
However, it has been met with backlash online:
‘Why don’t we celebrate both men AND women writers’.
‘This is sexist towards men’.
‘Do we really need a whole year of this’.
These were just a few of the responses. In fact, some of those comments came from women themselves.
I wonder if the bookshop had decided to feature only the Beat writers, or books about WWI, or novels which have won recent literary awards, if there would be the same backlash; or if the above people would even notice that the writers would be mostly, unequally, male?
Thankfully more research is being done on the lost female writers, and the gender disparity in popular awards is something that many are refusing to tolerate. But this discontent needs to be addressed at the most primary level: in schools.
It is not fair that we only discover many amazing women writers when we decide to go looking for them, tucked away among the shelves of dusty university libraries — again, a place only a few people reach. The school curriculum is vital in altering our view, increasing our acceptance and expanding our understanding of what it really means to be a female author.