Women’s History Month 2022 seems extra poignant this year. Perhaps being aware of the turmoil people are enduring elsewhere in Europe makes it more important than ever to remember people who have made a positive mark on our world. There are many reasons to regard the female experience as one of strife and survival, as we are so often the victims of war and crime, or inequality at work, in healthcare, and often, sadly, at home. All the more reason then, I think, to reflect on what women have achieved, despite it all!
The International Women’s Day website calls on us to “Celebrate women’s achievement” and #BreakTheBias. I think one of the easiest and most interesting ways to celebrate Women’s History Month 2022 is to read the experiences women have set down in their writing. It hasn’t been easy to choose from such overwhelming choice, but I have selected six influential women writers from six literary genres.
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 1: literature – Jane Austen
“Jane Austen is a great ironist and a great satirist. And because she’s drawn all of these characters from her life, they seem so real.” Emma Thompson
You won’t see a list of the best novels of all time that doesn’t contain Jane Austen’s name. A beloved staple of the school exam curriculum and fodder for countless films and period dramas, this 18th century English author has enduring appeal. Like many a schoolgirl before me, I was slightly bored at the prospect of reading Emma for my English A-level. I hadn’t even heard of it and was even slightly cross that we weren’t at least going to study her ‘famous’ book, Pride and Prejudice. Well, I displayed plenty of prejudice myself then, didn’t I?
I expected the petticoats, fans and swooning, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the irony. Yes, Jane Austen – the personification of middle England in the late 1700s – was properly sarcastic! And, what’s more, it was all ‘read between the lines’ stuff. If I’m not mistaken, reading Emma was my first introduction to the term ‘subtext’.
Needless to say, I went on to read all Austen’s novels at various times, and I love all the heroines, but Emma remains a favourite. She is loveable and funny, but she is also a meddler. I think her imperfections make her all the easier to love.
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 2: poetry – Elizabeth Smart
“the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write By Grand Central Station…” Angela Carter
The title of this poem has stuck in my mind since I first came across it over thirty years ago. Such a statement of heartbreak outside a famous location no doubt fused itself into my synapses forever. The poem is written in a prose style and is semi-autobiographical – it was inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s love affair with the English poet George Barker.
Published in 1945 and now regarded as a cult classic, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was not well received at the time. From their home in Canada, Smart’s affluent family had the book banned from sale there. At our safe, modern distance, we might well ask what Smart had written that was so shocking? Well, her unconventional real life was possibly the bigger factor – her adulterous affair with Barker lasted 18 years. Having borne him four children, Smart was a single mother long before that was an acceptable status for a woman.
This poem seems to stir up mixed feelings in readers. While it is hard not to empathise with the pain Smart pours into her words, there is also some revulsion at how much she succumbs to her plight. As an English graduate, I have long been aware of how the high drama of literature affects us while we study. It’s as if we become so immersed in the fictional lives of our characters we are slightly detached from the real world. Elizabeth Smart seems to have experienced that vulnerability – so affected was she by George Barker’s poetry that she felt herself in love with him before they had even met!
Smart’s lived, and literacy experiences certainly captivate the duality of being female. On the one hand, she was an accomplished poet, on the other, a woman who had fallen from grace. Today though, we can at least appreciate her as an independent mother who showed her womanly strength by exposing her vulnerability. Oh, and she was apparently the highest-paid copywriter in England in her day.
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 3: autobiography – Anne Frank
“It is a warm and stirring confession, to be read over and over for insight and enjoyment.” Meyer Levin
What can I possibly write about Anne Frank that hasn’t been said a million times already? Probably nothing. But, shockingly, her insights of innocent suffering at the hands of deranged aggressors resonates with us now in a way that we never felt it would again.
“What’s the point of the war? Why, oh why can’t people live together peacefully? Why all this destruction?” If read out of context, this short extract from The Diary could easily be something we read in the press today rather than the words of Anne Frank nearly 80 years ago. Still, the joy of reading The Diary of a Young Girl is to appreciate her faultless courage in the face of such adversity.
If you first read Anne’s diary when you are in your early teens, as she was at the time of writing, you will no doubt note how similar your feelings are to hers, while at the same time being starkly aware that your circumstances couldn’t be more different.
Anne Frank is the forever young reminder of the Holocaust, and everyone who reads the diary mourns her budding femininity that never flourishes. That’s why it was so refreshing – and modern! – to read the fairly recent article in The Guardian that revealed a mischievous side to Frank that she had deliberately hidden. Yes, even the much-revered Jewish schoolgirl was not averse to writing about sex and men in her diary and then hiding it from prying eyes with brown paper.
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 4: self-help – Susan Jeffers
“Reading the book was a revelation.”Julie Walters
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway could well be the first self-help book I ever heard of. I certainly remember the title becoming a well-known phrase after it was published in 1987, although it would not be until 2019 that I read the book, having asked for it as a Christmas present. I read it out of curiosity rather than trying to overcome any particular fear. I recall wondering whether it would have been unusual in the 1980s to be told to stick affirmations on pieces of paper around the house and the other tasks Susan Jeffers encourages readers to undertake.
Since then, there has been a deluge of self-help books, but Jeffers’ techniques have lasted the test of time and earned her the ‘queen of self-help’ crown. To give Jeffers her due, she had the credentials when she wrote the landmark book, gaining her doctorate in psychology many years earlier. But, what is it that makes Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway so enduringly popular?
I flicked through some reviews to try and shed light on this. The author herself found it hard to quantify her book’s success. Writing in The Guardian in 2003, Polly Vernon quoted Jeffers as saying: “I don’t know. But something in it is touching people.” The Daily Mail commemorated the book’s 25th anniversary in 2012 with a review by Marianne Power: “There was something about its American ‘can-do’ attitude that really appealed to me.” Perhaps most revealingly, one therapist has written on her blog: “My clients experience positive change even when they merely accept the title’s powerful message.”
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 5: cookery – Isabella Beeton
“Her works speak for themselves.” Samuel Beeton
The first thing that struck me when reading about Isabella Beeton for this blog was that she was a nineteenth-century journalist and not a chef. Like other Victorian publications that subsequently became popular books (Charles Dickens, for example), Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published in instalments. Although there are sections on how to run a home, the work is ostensibly a cookbook with over 2000 recipes.
It’s hard to imagine that a book with such a prim sounding title could have provoked a scandal, but how can I put it kindly? Mrs Beeton was something of a magpie (plagiarist). People undoubtedly sent her their recipes to include, but she copied many others and seemed to have admitted as much!
While Isabelle does seem to have been the culprit behind the British tradition of boiling vegetables until they are obliterated, she was, nonetheless, an impressive woman of her time. Regarded by many as the forerunner to the modern ‘domestic goddesses’, her work has never been out of print. Not a bad legacy for a young Victorian wife who died aged 28.
Women’s History Month 2022 choice 6: history – Angela Yvonne Davis
“The power of her historical insights and the sweetness of her dream cannot be denied.” The New York Times
My last choice finally cuts to the chase. Women, along with people of colour and the poor, are exploited. Angela Y Davis’ book is not an easy read. In 13 essays, she covers a timeline of suffering from slavery to abortion. Since its first publication in 1981, Women, Race and Class has been acclaimed as a well-documented historical account. Perhaps more importantly, many credit Davis as among the first to explore the linkages between gender, race and class.
Davis’ own life has, in some ways, reflected the points she raises in her work. She attended a segregated school in Birmingham, Alabama, lived in an area targeted by bombings to drive black people out and was jailed following a conviction in 1970 but acquitted a year later. However, her academic life flourished, studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, Goethe University Frankfurt, and at the University of California as a post-graduate.
Of the six remarkable women I have remembered here, Professor Davis is the only one still living at the time of writing. It’s impossible to do justice to the number of ways she affected change in the world, from women’s and gay rights to prison reform and social justice. An ardent communist, not everyone will align themselves with Davis politically, but she is truly remarkable as a woman.
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