Women’s Rights and Women’s Writing in a Digital Age
This is the text of a speech given for the Naomi Mitchison lecture for Scottish PEN Women Writer’s Committee on Saturday 30th Jan 2021.
Thank you very much for asking me to give a talk tonight about women’s rights and women’s writing. In addition to talking about the importance of feminist writing in my own life and work, I’ve broadly chosen to focus on two of the greatest barriers to – particularly young – women’s writing in this digital age: fear and censure. Where the former can be overcome the latter often takes hold. It can take extreme and blatant forms, as we know. But it can also be indirect, cultural, and can often come from ourselves.
I know that as I have gotten older, many of the fears I had as a twenty-year old performance poet have largely vanished. I no longer worry so much about being thought likeable (thankfully…) or pretty. Luckily, the idea that young women may fail to have the skills and confidence to pursue a career in performance poetry, which was an actual trope when I was starting out, have fizzled away. This was not without a fight, I must add….
The art-form that I work in has changed beyond my imagining, and a great deal of good has happened in it over the last twenty years. However, one thing has remained steadfast for me as a struggle since the very start. My desired reception for my own work is – and always has been – fair judgement on its own terms, not by the double-standards and sexism I faced as a young, female performer. Nor by the double-standards or purity tests of ideological groups to which I may or may not belong and whose purpose and aims are not creative. While political in theme, my work is rooted in literary and performance craft, not propaganda, nor manifesto. When I was a programmer, this stance allowed me to book a plurality of political writers whose views I did not necessarily share, but whose explorations of those topics in craft, in performance, in lyrical delight, were a common bond between us that I could share in the joys of platforming to a diverse audience.
Therefore, while I am undoubtedly a feminist and a feminist writer, I write my creative work not to be agreed with on any feminist terms, but to explore complex ideas using verse, character, performance and, as with my most recent work, This Script, memoir: drawing on my own life experiences to say something far bigger than myself. Women being judged by other criteria from men has been a common issue I have had to power through since the start, and it is something that, as I push forty, I feel increasingly alert – and allergic – to whenever I see it. And see it, I do. Everywhere. Having something of an unstoppable gob, I often write about this, with I would hope humour and wit but also a sense of urgency and gravity.
I feel lucky every day to live in a country that is a democracy, where I can exert freedom of speech about issues that affect me as a woman without fear of imprisonment or the punishment of the state. With that privilege comes the responsibility to ensure I do not directly or indirectly silence myself or others. With that freedom, too, comes another responsibility: to be vigilant to where views or opinions that are perfectly within the acceptable realms of democratic discourse on extremely important concerns for women are allowed to be expressed. This is no mere matter of agreement or disagreement on any particular issue, it is about a fundamental right that constantly has to be fought for. That is the test for all of us who support freedom of thought and freedom of expression. It is precisely why organisations like Scottish PEN were set up. It is in the lifeblood of political writers to explore complex and sometimes unsettling matters – and as women writers, our lives can be complex, unsettling, our bodies themselves contested, our liberation thus a contested path, and our lives and beings seemingly constantly under discussion too. I know that writing for me, of all kinds, is my way of trying to understand my place in this strange world, and how this strange world works too.
It would be anachronistic and false to say that women writers in Scotland and the UK face anything like the types of legal, political and cultural censure that women of the past here faced when they wrote about the vivid realities of women’s lives. It would be both false and ungrateful not to recognise the freedoms we as women writers enjoy compared to women in many other countries. And for that, we are, indeed, lucky. Because this freedom is hardly the norm and had to be fought hard for, legally and culturally. Throughout history and across epochs and cultures the role of women has been reduced, often, to patriarchal norms, gendered stereotypes, women consistently seen as other to the default. Routinely, this has taken the form of reduction to roles related to our sexual functions – virgin, mother, whore – and once sexual function is deemed beyond us, our entire utility as human beings is reduced to - barren, witch, spinster, irrelevant crone. Young women can thus feel very separate from their older sisters. A fear and sometimes denial is inculcated whereby we convince ourselves we will never be them and they were never us. We are familiar with, or should be familiar with, what the root of these tropes are and how that can manifest in different ways.
As has been mentioned frequently this evening, menstruation being deemed something that requires ‘luxury’ products, for many women, is their first real taste of just how different our bodies and their functions are viewed when set against the default. The journeys that our bodies go through, no matter the choices we are permitted to make about them, are still the source of much shame and secrecy. And alongside that shame and secrecy, new forms of assault on our bodily autonomy abound. One of these, I would argue, is the normalisation of violent pornography, which has infiltrated popular culture in a way I admit I would never have foreseen.
When I was growing up in the 1990s it was recognised that, what would now be viewed as fairly tame glossy magazines and sexualised imagery in adverts, were having a damaging impact on a rise in body hatred and eating disorders in young females. This had come to be recognised as something to be rectified and talked about, these images of perfection challenged through encouraging us to see through them. I felt that the dangers of this visual assault, daily, upon young women’s eyes and the levels of body perfection, but also the hyper-feminisation they encouraged, had largely been agreed to be something to strive against. And yet, we are having to fight that battle again on a new front: online. Similarly, while the No More Page 3 campaign of the ‘90s and early noughties had a huge success, (while predictably irking and riling many), Teen Vogue and similar outlets, while seeming to embrace ‘body positivity’ and ‘feminism’, now also contain articles that normalise not only pornography, but the very worst of it. A recent article in Teen Vogue states: “Porn that portrays non-consensual sex isn’t necessarily misogynist… the next time you come across seemingly racist or sexist porn, give some thought as to whether the porn you’re watching is self-aware and feminist.”
“Non-consensual sex” has a meaning that Teen Vogue appear to have forgotten. That depictions of rape in pornography are considered normal things that a teenage girl might just ‘come across’, is, to me, something not to make normal but to challenge, and not by encouraging a young woman to question whether she might just be being a bit of a reactionary for thinking it is brutalising and viscerally wrong to be witnessing it, and so easily, perhaps before she has even gotten to know her own body and its sexual pleasures itself.
Countless women writers have gifted us their knowledge and stories about women’s sexual pleasure, but I share a concern with many fellow women that these stories of liberation are no longer being either heard or taught. Those of us lucky enough to know our bodies well, encouraged to know them through the writings of the past, know that true sexual liberation comes from truly autonomous engagement in joyful practices. I fear at times that, much like other aspects of women’s lives, that our sexual liberation has, like our social and cultural liberation, been co-opted and repackaged and sold back to us as faux-autonomy by those for whom our bodies, our pleasure, our sex, is a mere marketable asset. I cannot help but notice that the response to those women writers, academics and journalists who do challenge this happy-go-lucky embrace of ‘non-consensual’ porn are called the prudes and ‘anti-sex’ caricatures of the past. Noticing the re-emergence of these sexist and misogynistic caricatures of women, particularly the frequently disgraceful dismissal of older women and feminist writers, and these slurs coming to dominate online culture, was a big impetus for writing my most recent work, This Script.
All women writers are now expected to be – and definitely assumed to be – feminists, and not just feminists, a strange new invention: perfect ones. Perfectly kind and nice ones, which is difficult, because feminism is dreadfully difficult. Being nice about misrepresentation, sexism and misogyny is not, to me, a very kind nor reasonable request. Perfectionism is another barrier to women’s lives and women’s writing – a fear of failure by our own and others’ standards. Feminism is a movement with no leaders and few orthodoxies, which simultaneously tries to imagine a world we have never lived in and has to keep fighting the same fights on different terrain as soon as one battle seems won. Feminism is, excuse me, fucking exhausting. Feminist writing has, however, saved many of us, something I can certainly say is true of myself. Feminist writing encouraged me to take to a stage and to do so with fewer, and then with zero apologies.
It is for that reason that my creative response to the #MeToo campaign was to use it as a jumping off point to tell the story of my fraught journey with feminism from about the age of 14 onwards. Navigating the private, the personal and the universal, the central theme of the work is both the importance of speaking the truth of our lives, but also being liberated from the joylessness, the restrictions, the restrictive scripts, and the pain of living with that which we cannot escape too. Because it is wonderful to be a woman, and it is wonderful to feel liberated to speak, and it is truly joyful to be a women writer who takes to a stage and shares work with the demand to be heard and, as my final line of the show states: for people to judge me, and judge this, as you would the craft of a man.
I wouldn’t wish to get bogged down in my own experiences, and I have written an extensive account about my last couple of years in the Scottish literary world elsewhere. But permit me to, as I always strive, to place my own experiences of some recent judgements in a wider context. There are some common forms of indirect censuring, or pressurising at least, which women often experience when writing political or feminist work. These not only do not afford women the leeway nor judging standards afforded other groups but attempt to reduce a woman to something very small and as dismissed as a hair-clip. Historically, feminist writers were smeared and their writing dismissed as simply ‘man-hating’, their motivations questioned by those who simply could not and would not accept that in fact, the aim of writing or speaking out about their lives was not about anything other than the stated aim: liberation and sharing their stories.
You don’t want to talk about sexual violence, you want to demonise men!
You don’t want to talk about porn, you want to ban sex, you frigid crone!
You aren’t telling your story, you are weaponising it for other reasons!
You are not saying what you are saying, we know that really you are saying this, you awful woman!
…and so on and so on and on.
I ask such critics, brandishing such ‘critiques’ – what else is this but refusing to take a woman at her word?
While this is neither direct censorship nor silencing (though the latter can occasionally happen to more fearful women watching such attacks), these reductive swipes at many women who write politically abound these days. They are having a profound impact on many of us. I frequently receive messages from young female poets and writers who are terrified about being taken the wrong way. Look: none of this is new. This is merely a shift of battleground. Women writers of all stripes have faced this before. As I also explore in This Script, I am nevertheless eternally grateful to have come up in a scene in Scotland before the advent of the hyper-visible, heavily policed world of social media. The online world is not a democracy, and it has been possibly naive of me, and all of us, to expect that this strange new mode of communication would necessarily abide by pre-digital standards of discourse. So, while you may find yourself applauded and experience joyous camaraderie in a small theatre with 60 people, online you may find your work reported out of context, and those words thrown out to a hostile, baying, crowd. I know which medium I prefer, and I know which one is the truly liberated place, where political ideas can flourish.
And so I write. And so I get on stages. And so too I on occasion put my creative work online, overcoming my fears of doing so by remembering that, regardless of consequence, we have a right to write. And the right to speak. We will not speak for everyone, for that is an impossible burden. It is a burden, I must add, that is frequently put on women both by themselves and by other women, particularly ones who do not like them very much. But we will speak for ourselves and enjoy the camaraderie that might spring up. It is worthwhile remembering that this brilliant solidarity is one of the reasons we must protect freedom of expression at all costs. Solidarity with others is a glorious consequence of using your voice.
We all know that freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. If we appear to have forgotten this there is an army of folks who disagree with us, or who merely dislike us, who will remind us. And they are quite correct. What such critics forget, routinely, is that those consequences, in a democratic society, are supposed to be proportionate, and not the digital equivalent of a bar-room brawl. Fair consequences include disagreement, strong rebuttal, engagement with a writer’s actual words and ideas. Perhaps, occasionally, a perfectly reasonable consequence for a mid-career performance poet may also include a very snidey review from a hungover critic or audience member on Twitter who has nevertheless actually seen or read the work. Proportionate consequences are never, attempts to stop one from speaking in the first place or harassing those who wish them to. Never to attack someone’s character or use personal animosities to smear their entire work – and livelihood. Never to inculcate or give fuel to conditions within the culture that intentionally or not encourage many to remain silent. We should avoid the reduction of a writer’s entire work to a throwaway acronym, slur or insult, particularly if we have not even bothered to engage with it. As Naomi Mitchison’s life story itself shows – we are complex, difficult beings, every single one of us. If we are writers, we must foremost be readers too, able to parse what truths we can from all that is around us. And as writers, by God, we can be unlikeable, solitary, curmudgeonly characters – and to paraphrase Margaret Atwood if we aim for perfection we will never write another word. Judge me, yes, but for the work, as you would the craft of a man. For views that are perfectly compatible with the values of a democratic society, on issues that are far from settled and which we all have the right to explore the complexities of, these are the standards we must strive for.
We face a huge challenge navigating this strange new world. It behoves all individual writers – and all freedom of expression and literary institutions – to show leadership and to take a strong stance for women writers across the world, including right here in Scotland. Being a woman writing, or on a stage, has enough barriers already, and the newness of the digital world is bringing us ever more. Many thanks for the invitation to hopefully contribute some thoughts on ways to challenge that, with this talk.
Image credit: National Collective