Women in print under the spotlight
With the recent success of The Long Gaze Back (2015) and The Glass Shore (2016), anthologies edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, women’s writing has been making headlines of late for all the right reasons.
The anthologies have reopened discussion about the challenges women writers face in getting their work read and remembered, a topic that took centre stage at the recent launch event of The Female Line. First published in 1985, The Female Line has now been revived as an ebook by Herself Press. Back in the eighties, it was the first-ever anthology of work from women writers in Northern Ireland, and the relaunch event, hosted by Of Mouth, the Linen Hall Library's regular literary reading series, drew quite a crowd to the library on Friday 18th November 2016.
To mark the occasion, a panel comprising Anne Tannahill, Anne Devlin, Alan Hayes, Leontia Flynn, Alex Pryce and Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado discussed the challenges faced by women writers – both thirty years ago and today. Chairing the event was Ruth Carr (formerly Hooley), editor of The Female Line, who recalled how the ink was still wet on the pages as they prepared for publication day back in 1985. Within a month, however, the anthology – published then by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement – had sold out.
‘Our efforts culminated in an anthology which brought the voices of women into the public main arena – and the public wanted to read it,’ she said. ’Few of us had ever been published before.’
The book had been published in the midst of the Troubles and was used as an opportunity to ‘raise the profile of women writers in all genres in the north.’
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The evening began with readings from acclaimed Belfast poet, Medbh McGuckian, whom Carr described as being ‘a beacon of light’ back in the eighties. McGuckian subsequently read ‘The Old Excuse’ and ‘Babushka’ by Bernadette Ross, along with ‘Sunday Visit’ by Mary Twomey, followed by her own poems, ‘The Moon Mother’ and ‘A Month’s Mind’. All appeared in The Female Line.
Next up was poet Maura Johnston, who read ‘An Irish Fairy Tale’ by the late Frances Molloy – ‘a really gifted writer with an individual voice’ – along with her own poems, ‘All I Ask’ and ‘Just Suppose’. She said being published in The Female Line had been a defining moment in her writing life and a ‘great great thing for us writers.’
‘I had published two poems at the time – in The Belfast Review and the Tatler,’ she said. ‘To meet other writers (at the launch) was great, and to actually be published in the same book as Medbh McGuckian and all sorts of established writers was such a confidence boost too. After that, I had the courage to send poems out.’
Opening discussion on the subject of women’s writing – both then and now – was former managing director of Blackstaff Press, Anne Tannahill. She said she welcomed the relaunch of The Female Line, adding that her story in the book, ‘The Chain’, was inspired by a real-life childhood experience. Reflecting on the fact that Blackstaff Press published very few women writers thirty years ago, she said this had been less about prejudice and more about circumstance.
‘During my time at Blackstaff Press, we published over 600 titles on a wide range of subjects,’ she added. ‘Probably twenty per cent or less of those writers were women. I can say hand on heart that it wasn’t because of a culture of bias on our part. I was a feminist and was very, very keen to get more female writers on our list … That twenty per cent reflected the ratio of what was being submitted.’
Next to speak was short story writer, playwright and screenwriter, Anne Devlin, whose story, ‘Five Notes After a Visit’, appeared in The Female Line. She recently participated in the #WakingTheFeminists movement (November 2015–2016), which called for equality for women working within Irish theatre. Statistics, she said, showed that the top three theatres – The Abbey, The Gate and The Druid – were severely under-represented when it came to women employees.
‘Recent research shows that right now, more women enter the theatre with plays, while more men arrive at the end of the process with a production,’ she added. ‘This means it is a process from which only the men’s plays emerge. So we need to put new structures in place to find a way to work in development which favours women.’
As a keen supporter – and publisher – of women’s writing, Alan Hayes of Arlen House (Galway and Dublin), also shared his thoughts. He treated the audience to a whistle-stop tour of feminist publishing from the 1970s to the present day, beginning with The Female Experience (1975), the first feminist book in Ireland, ‘an incredibly radical book.’ The Wall Reader and Other Stories from 1979, meanwhile, was Ireland’s first anthology of women’s short stories; it received over 1,000 submissions from women writers.
‘There was a massive backlash from the male media about this anthology,’ he said. ‘It’s so important for feminists to document the work they’re doing now and to do research on the women before them.’
He also referred to Sisters (1980) from Blackstaff Press, and a reprint of Janet McNeill’s The Maiden Dinosaur, published jointly by Blackstaff and Arlen House in 1984. McNeill was one of the most prominent writers of pre-Troubles Northern Ireland, yet her writing was largely forgotten after her death. Sheila McWade, in the audience at the event, has just completed her PhD on McNeill at Queen’s University Belfast and has established an archive of manuscript sources there.
‘These books and presses had a massive impact, but have been forgotten about now,’ said Hayes. ‘It’s very easy to put women’s writing out of print …’
Arlen House is launching its 200th book in December in honour of the female activist and pioneering poet Eavan Boland.
Multi-award-winning Belfast poet Leontia Flynn said she had always felt inspired to seek out women’s writing, even at school. Indeed, she went on to do an MA in feminist theory and later found herself compelled to study McGuckian’s work for her PhD, which she described as being ‘fantastic and authoritative.’
‘The problem I saw from Medbh’s work was always reception,’ she said. ‘I think that’s just because people are … very stupid about women … It seems to me that we’re having this conversation all over again now.’
Meanwhile, poet, academic and reviewer, Alex Pryce, said the poets she’d been exposed to as a teenager had mostly been men and that she’d found it hard to engage with their work. That all changed, however, when she discovered the likes of Leontia Flynn and found female voices within the genre. ‘I felt like it (women’s poetry) was kind of hidden,’ she said. ‘I was quite shocked.’
Pryce also spoke of the almost ‘unconscious bias’ of reviewers today, using words like ‘elegant’ and ‘graceful’ when describing women’s poetry; ‘raw’ and ‘exciting’ are words more usually reserved for the men. She added, however, that there were definitely more publishing opportunities now for women and that overall, the balance was ‘quite fair.’
Last to speak on the night was lecturer Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado. She said the new ebook would hopefully be used in scholarly research, adding that there was certainly renewed interest in women writers from Northern Ireland. Indeed, publishers north and south of the border were more actively supporting women’s writing, with groups like Women Aloud NI also championing the female voice.
‘But there’s still much more work to be done,’ she said. ‘Recent cuts to Arts Council NI funding have created new challenges for women writers in Northern Ireland.’
She noted that ‘relatively few’ Northern women writers found their way onto the curriculum – a fact as true today as it was thirty years ago. Northern women's voices are still ‘drastically under-represented’, which had spurred her on to launch a new anthology of women’s writing. Co-edited with Northern Irish writer and academic Dr Linda Anderson, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland takes up the baton from The Female Line and will be published by New Island in autumn 2017.
Describing the book as a ‘transgenerational and trans-genre anthology,’ Dr Sherratt-Bado said it would reflect how much has changed or stayed the same for women writers in the north. The book will also explore what it means for women to write in a time of 'post-conflict' and document what effect – if any – this has had on their writing.
Her final words? ‘Watch this space …’
More information about the ebook edition of The Female Line can be found here.
Of Mouth is a regular literary reading series at the Linen Hall Library, and acknowledges the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
This post was written by Claire Savage, a professional copywriter, journalist and creative writer who lives near the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.