Gender Politics


Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.

http://pinterandmartin.com/epages/eshop274295.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/eshop274295/Products/978-1-905177-16-5

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Auden: the most accessible of voices, the most forbidding of minds. Even when he dodges and evades, his voice hits from far, like love. Aloof, he touches, even, especially with his plainest phrases. Want a love poet? He’s your man. But don’t expect to love in the same way after you read him. Want a compass? He directs, but only into solitude. Gentle, inconsolable, terrifying, his words have such reach that he can change you without you realising that he’s at work. Look on this place you’re living in and you will not know it. Look on yourself and the mirror will not say your name.

Or so I realise, now I see how he’s been at work in me all these years, ever since that time in my adolescence when I didn’t know poetry even mattered. Perhaps he was the one who started to make poetry matter to me. Let me tell you how.

1987, and I bought an LP by The Communards. Buying it was rebellious, listening to it and loving it even more so. Those were the days leading up to the introduction of Clause 28. Busy with grief, the gay community fought two enemies: the Thatcher government’s increasingly homophobic stance and the terror of HIV. In the midst of this, Jimmi Sommerville and Richard Coles released Red, The Communards’ second album. Part of the ‘Red Wedge’ movement that drew together artists such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, The Communards seemed to my fourteen-year-old mind even more radical. Anger, sadness and sexual freedom characterised their music, and they promised a liberated sexual identity that, as a straight, straight-laced private school teenage girl, I could never have imagined without their help. But when I bought their record that year, I hardly knew that this precious sexual liberty that they had written about owed so much to the man who wrote the lyrics to the standout track on the album, a man who had a beautiful name, beautiful even in the small print of the liner notes: W.H. Auden.

The song in question was a setting of Auden’s villanelle ‘If I Could Tell You.’ Long after I had ceased to think of the other songs on Red, the words to this song continued to blossom in my mind. ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ How much dumb pain lies here in this simplicity? ‘There must be reasons why the leaves decay.’ A wall you didn’t see coming lies in that word ‘must.’ No answer, no answer. ‘The vision seriously intends to stay.’ No one wants an ending to that sweetness; not even the glory of it wants to go. ‘Because I love you more than I can say.’ How often has that sentence been on our lips, and when has it ever meant more than here, when Auden says it for us? And again the villanelle turns round: ‘If I could tell you I would let you know.’ Every time it returns, we are in a little deeper.  Every time the words face us, we yearn to see our own face.

See? This is Auden, doing what he does best, going on ahead. On Red, Auden’s words lead the way. They lead Somerville and Coles into courageous truth-telling about what was then happening to their ‘lovers and friends.’ And I wish sometimes that I could take Auden by the hand and tell him how those words led me into thinking and feeling. Not immediately, I hasten to add: it is not easy to hear Auden. It is harder still to follow on behind. But once heard, the words themselves lead, and Auden does nothing.  No-one else I know has quite this ability to stand up for language and to stand so cleanly outside it. But in doing so, he gives us the best of ideals: to love words so that we leave ourselves behind.

This great, flawed novel that I have loved since I was ten years old– weird and warped, sad, penitent and impenitent, northern, aloof, and, above all, fierce– is choked with loneliness and all kinds of passion. It has no characters; not even Jane is a personality. The product of a bursting, terrified, shy mind, Jane Eyre does not know how to talk, and yet it speaks; does not know what to want, and yet it hungers. Rochester, Helen Burns, Mrs Reed, St John Rivers and the rest are not bodies but desires, and the desires are all, ultimately, Jane’s. 

At times it seems as though Bronte’s protagonist wants to be ‘plain and quakerish;’ at times it appears that she gorges on beauty. It’s a pattern of advance and retreat, a spring tide. She fixates on Blanche Ingram’s perfections as much as she does on the blasted beauty of Rochester’s face: she sketches them both, and–she unnerves herself in doing so.  When Rochester desires Jane and wants to prettify her with ‘satin and lace, and roses in her hair,’ she fights back, stubbornly withdrawing into plainness.

Plainness becomes talismanic. She speaks with quakerish fervour and she speaks with obsessive austerity, her words as plain as the ‘grey silk’ dress she insists on wearing. She is right to favour this austerity: the ornate wedding veil (Rochester’s gift) is the one Bertha Mason tears to shreds. Plainness shields her like an instinct. Beauty only combusts.

What is Jane apart from air, air chasing a high and lonely place?  She loses herself on the moor before she finds her family and safety. But in reality, she spends the entire novel out in a kind of storm. Her desires and her intelligence fit nowhere. Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, Ferndean: she leaves them all, ever the fugitive. Only when Rochester is blinded can he see as she sees, which tells us how much her vision habitually turns in and in on itself. She is inaccessible, destructive, conflicted, witty and punctured. She says: ‘It is one of my faults, that though my tongue is sometimes prompt enough at answer, there are times it sadly fails me in framing an excuse; and always the lapse occurs at some crisis.’ ‘It is one of my faults’; ‘anybody can blame me who likes.’ No desire of Jane’s is ever spent; none diminishes because desire is always accusing desire. It rebounds, echoes and increases. It is Jane’s desire that warps Jane Eyre out of a natural frame, so much so that she even seems to hear Rochester’s blind cries from a hundred miles away. There are no walls in this peculiar novel, even between minds.

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.

Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’  I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.

Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.

A link to Buckley’s version is included below.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ

Tim Lott is an unhappy man. According to a recent Telegraph article, he feels that the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction is ‘sexist and should be scrapped.’ The Telegraph goes on to detail the reasons for his ire at the ‘discriminatory, sexist and perverse’ award.

His main claim is that women are no longer a ‘mistreated minority’ in the literary world. On the contrary, he argues, women dominate the literary industry as writers, publishers, agents and readers. In fact, he goes on to argue, it is men who are now discriminated against. But it is not merely the case that women oppress men in the literary marketplace: according to Lott, ‘Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.'(1)

What Lott appears to be suggesting is that there is some kind of female conspiracy going on, a conspiracy against male writers. It begins, he seems to suggest, with those seditious individuals, female English teachers (of which I am one) who foist–shock horror–books by women on poor downtrodden boys, thus alienating them from the pleasures of reading, and by extension, discouraging them from becoming authors. Then an army of female writers, publishers and readers finish the job, stifling male creativity, drowning out male voices.

Hang on a minute.  Lott’s myopic, poisonous outburst deserves a little more scrutiny. Let’s deal with those seditious teachers first. It is true that the majority of English teachers are women (this is certainly the case in my department). It is also true that the majority of graduates studying English are women. There is evidence, too, that boys’ literacy lags behind that of girls. English teachers up and down the land can hardly fail to be aware of this: OFSTED inspect the way schools try to raise literacy levels in boys; in interviews, headteachers ask prospective English teachers how they intend to address the issue in the classroom; and any English department worth its salt plans into its lessons ways to raise boys’ levels of achievement in reading and writing.

In fact, what this often means in practice is that we English teachers habitually teach topics that are designed to appeal to boys and read stories/plays/poems that are predominantly about boys and are written by men. Take Tulip Touch as an example. Here’s a novel for teenagers that is by a women (Anne Fine) and has female protagonists. Our department bought a class set of this novel, but had to abandon teaching it in year 8 in favour of Holes, which is by a man (Louis Sachar) and is predominantly about a bunch of criminal, alienated boys. Tulip Touch was deadly in the classroom. Not because there is anything wrong with the book, but because boys often switch off or feel insulted if they have to sit through anything that is about or seen through the eyes of women. Girls, however, do not revolt or cause riots if they have to read about the lives of men or look at the world from their perspective. They accept all this submissively, without a murmur. They are still trained to do this sort of thing– even now, even in 2008.

Other authors I teach to years 7-11 are David Almond, William Nicholson, William Shakespeare, Willy Russell, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Tatumkhulu Afrika, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Grace Nichols, Nissim Ezekiel, Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Ben Jonson, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway. I may have left out 2 0r 3, but the ones I have omitted are men. Men outnumber women on this list by quite a long way. And this is not my choice of authors, by and large: many on this list are in the prescribed AQA A GCSE syllabus anthology. For the most part, I teach what I am told. I try to teach equality, non-sexism, those sorts of things. I would be ashamed of myself if I did not. But I do not predominantly teach female authors and I spend my working life trying to help the young men I teach gain a good education despite the sense of alienation many of them feel. But more than that, I try to treat them as human beings who matter to me. I am by no means the only female English teacher in the UK who takes this attitude to the teenage boys she teaches.

If Lott’s rather sloppy spenetic assertions about the teaching of English are without foundation, his other arguments about the power of women in the literary marketplace appear to stand up to a little more scrutiny.  It is true that many writers are women, but, interestingly, Lott doesn’t cite any statistics on the incomes of female versus male writers, so it isn’t clear whether male writers are paid more than female writers or vice versa. But let’s assume that women writers are the dominant force in writing and publishing. Let’s assume too that women writers are even, on occasion, given generous advances, receive (mixed gender) prizes, command the bestseller lists. If all this is genuinely the case, there is still no reason to ditch the women-only Orange Prize.

Why? You only need to take a look at the soon-to-be launched ‘Sexism in the City’ report, compiled by the Fawcett Society for some overwhelming reasons. Despite forty years of equal pay legislation, women are still chronically underpaid, discriminated against and harrassed in most spheres of work, whether they work as cleaners, call-centre workers or city brokers (I urge everyone to follow my link to the Fawcett Society’s report to assess the details). So if women are fairly represented in the literary industry, this fairness is an anomaly–an extremely important one.

Writing allows women a voice, an identity. It’s a tool that makes the invisible visible, the silent vocal. And this is why the Prize should remain. It should remain as a symbol that celebrates women’s identities and talents.  But the Prize should also act as a thorny reminder that women’s ‘lott’ is often, at best, to be ghettoized, patronised, and controlled and at worst to be impoverished, beaten, even raped and murdered.  It’s important, too, that the Prize should be something that women writers sometimes spurn, because when women novelists refuse to have their work considered for The Orange they remind us that to win it is to be branded a woman writer (always a perjorative label). A.S. Byatt doesn’t want her books to be considered for the award because she doesn’t want to be considered A Woman Writer. That fact in itself bespeaks an injustice, one that we should all be angry about: woman is still subsidiary, expendable, secondary. To be a woman is still felt by many women to be a handicap, a limitation. ‘Civil Orange’ or ‘Rotten Orange’? The jury’s split, for good reason.

1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/18/norange118.xml

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/55063-more-criticism-of-orange-prize-.html

2) The Fawcett Society sets out its case at: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/Make%20Some%20Noise%20-%20short.pdf

However, here are a couple of ‘bites’ from the report:

  • Only 11% of FTSE 100 company directors are women
  • 30,000 women lose their jobs every year in the UK simply for being pregnant
  • Two thirds of low paid workers are women
  • Women working full-time are paid on average 17% less than men
  • 18% of sex discrimination compensation awards are for sexual harassment

(the above statistics are from: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=621)