In honour of International Women’s Day 2018, here is a piece by Elizabeth Reeder, the chair of Scottish PEN’s Women Writers Committee about the need for a shared resistance against inequality, misogyny and violence.March 8, 2018
In honour of International Women’s Day 2018, here is a piece by Elizabeth Reeder, the chair of Scottish PEN’s Women Writers Committee
International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate women and it is a reminder to pay attention to gender (identities, constructs, strengths) and to the beauty of women from around the world and from all communities, races, cultures and classes, and in all our differences and diversity, inclusive of “Trans and Intersex women, as well as non-binary and gender fluid people who identify in a significant way as woman or female”*. It’s a reminder to assess where we are and what we need to campaign for, resist and define going forward. 1909 is credited as being the year IWD originated when women working in the garment industry in New York protested working conditions. This outrage and need to take action was familiar and women from around the world connected and used this annual day to make some shared noise. There’s something powerful about the day being linked to how we clothe, protect and often define ourselves (via what we wear), and about the often invisible labour behind the drive to bring down cost, often at the expense of safety, representation and the realization of basic rights. Back in 1909 this gender and labour resistance took hold and has grown and changed each year since.
This year PEN International developed a new Women’s Manifesto that was approved by all PEN Centres present at the PEN International Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, including Scottish PEN. It is a clear and direct document, rooted always in the knowledge that writers have the power to change the world but by flexing our writing muscles many may be put at risk.
In this manifesto, PEN endorses the principles of:
For me, it’s clear that these principles are powerful and necessary. That non-violence – so clearly defined as domestic and public, physical, sexual, verbal and digital – creates the space for the rest of the list is essential. Importantly, here in 21st century Britain, with so many friends and students and colleagues questioning gender and sex boundaries, constructs, assumptions and stereotypes, it’s equally clear that we can do better. We need to find a way to discuss gender more fully to be inclusive of gender-fluid, trans and non-binary individuals. When I think about this manifesto, I include us all, in the understanding that gender stereotypes and constructs restrict us all and place us all at risk, especially when we challenge them and especially when we fail to fulfil the expectations of patriarchy.
It is a shared fight.
International Women’s Day is a day my dad marked one year by giving me a brooch of a prison gate. I hugged him and said a quiet, doubt-filled, ‘Thanks, Dad? What is this?’ Thinking it was strange to give me a reminder of my own limitations or boundaries. He said, ‘It’s the gate of the prison where some of the suffragettes were held’. Some were beaten and some were force-fed. He gave it to me to remind me that others have fought for the rights I now have, and that I should fight too, for others, now and in the future. It’s inspired by a brooch designed by Sylvia Pankhurst that displayed a portcullis, the symbol of the House of Commons with a superimposed arrow in purple, white and green enamel. On 29th April 1909, it was presented to former suffragette prisoners at a mass demonstration at the Albert Hall.
Daisy LaFarge has a brilliant essay, ‘A Grey Stone Wall Damming my Stream’, in this month’s MAP Magazine where she writes about experiences of incarcerated individuals, who, even as they take part in hunger strikes and protest for the fair treatment of asylum seekers, they demonstrate, how ‘…in terms of family, history, the state: we are not all born into structures that sustain us; we are not all equally equipped with means of resistance or defence.’
So again, many years later, we return to this call to think, research, confront and resist on behalf of ourselves and with and on the behalf of others, so we can all be equipped with the means of resistance, defiance and defence. This is at the heart of PEN’s work, helping to fight for the voices of writers, in particular those who are silenced, threatened, exiled or imprisoned. I have a strong, lived belief that family is not born but made, and is something we choose, build and fight for (sometimes daily). We must believe the same is true of rights – civil, political, personal and cultural – they can be fought for, attained and defended. From this belief we have a starting point, from which resistance and protest can spread, resonating with and empowering others, however imperfect this could be.
For me, International Women’s Day is about challenge and generosity paired together. I’m a feminist because I believe in the power, knowledge and beauty of a wide range of diverse and different women. I’m aware that this idea, of beauty and love and generosity can be seen as mild, weaker, sentimental. However, for me, for some of us, it’s the main driver for why and how we are in the world. And perhaps, this is why I dedicate time and energy to Scottish PEN’s Women’s Writer Committee yearly IWD symposium, which is held in conjunction with the Institutte for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH – home of the Dangerous Women Project). The symposium opens the floor to writers and speakers who give us their take on a subject. This year’s subject is RESISTANCE. The audience and the speakers make the day together and there’s something powerful about the generosity of the space, being encouraged to listen and be present as six different speakers talk on the same subject. It’s not always an easy day, because these are complicated issues and we don’t all agree on what we should focus on or what words we should use or create; we can also, at different times, feel excluded or othered by part of a conversation, despite all our best efforts. But our aim is for the day to hold and celebrate diversity and complexity to help make differences specific and compelling, and for links to be made, between individuals and ideas. It’s idealistic, of course it is. Each year it is an attempt (with coffee, cake and a hearty lunch) to grapple with and pick apart the complexity that lies at the heart of our society and it is one of my personal favourite occasions because it is something actively pursuing something better, in a small way, however flawed, and is also, a place of shared celebration and resistance.
*This excellent wording comes from the brilliant Glasgow Women’s library who are always vanguard in considerations of equality and linguistic prowess on how to navigate complexities in how they run their organization and how they communicate their ethos.
On the 9th of March, Scottish PEN will hold the annual IWD Symposium with IASH on the theme Resistance. To sign up to tickets click here