Myself, Dr Sue Tate, and journalist, writer and broadcaster Bidisha had come together to talk about the absence of women on our cultural landscape. We discussed how few films were directed by women, how few plays were written and directed by women, how music festival line-ups were dominated by men and how newspapers told men’s stories, whilst topless women provided default male readers with something to look at.
And, of course, that last point is the flip side of women’s invisibility in popular culture. When women are present, we are 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. Women are given a space to be the object of the male gaze. But women as subjects are much harder to find.
“It’s cultural femicide,” Bidisha explained.
So what is cultural femicide? It’s the idea that women’s stories and lives are simply silenced by a popular culture that prioritises men’s narratives. And it’s an idea that has a real impact on women’s lives. After all, what does it mean for the world hen the stories and lives of half the population aren’t deemed as valuable as the other half? 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.
Being given a name that explained the unease I had long felt about the strange absence of women on our cultural landscape had a galvanising affect on me. I decided that it was time for me to stop talking about the absence of women. I was ready 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.
To me, the Bristol Women’s Literature 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 side-lined 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 and tackle this historical act of cultural femicide. 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 ig-nored 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.
Four years ago I was given the words to describe the impact women’s cultural absence has on all women – cultural femicide. Three years ago I set out to kick back at violent suppression of women’s stories by organising a festival that would give women writers a voice and wake us up to the fantas-tic 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 chal-lenging this cultural femicide that has kept us silenced and sidelined for too long.
The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival takes place at Watershed on March 14 and 15. For more information, visit www.womensliteraturefestival.wordpress.com