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Women on the Edge – Article

by Jenni Calder Scottish PEN’s annual International Women’s Day event, organised jointly with the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities, is always stimulating and enjoyable. This year’s, which took place on 6 March, was a feast of the unexpected, the challenging and the entertaining. Our six writers lead us into […]

March 12, 2015

by Jenni Calder

Scottish PEN’s annual International Women’s Day event, organised jointly with the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities, is always stimulating and enjoyable. This year’s, which took place on 6 March, was a feast of the unexpected, the challenging and the entertaining. Our six writers lead us into the theme ‘Women on the Edge’ by diverse routes, often exploring unanticipated territory. With Sara Maitland we entered a mysterious forest and had some unexpected encounters, and with Linda Cracknell we were on Britain’s northern edge and then in Kenya with Philo Okonya, a courageous woman journalist who defied the government. Denise Mina had us sitting by a Swiss lake overshadowed by a self-important male writer but side by side with the intrepid Martha Gellhorn – not Hemingway’s third wife, as Denise so emphatically insisted, but an independent and extraordinary journalist. And then Cynthia Rogerson had us thinking and laughing with her take on Hemingway, and her story of a mother from the north of Scotland and her son’s ashes. Jenni Fagan stepped aside from her remarkable first novel The Panopticon, soon to be made into a film, to read poems which reflected her background in care and her road to a life of creativity. Elizabeth Reeder presented new work, a collection of lyric essays arising from the death of her parents that was visually as well as emotionally and intellectually edgy, and had us thinking about challenging conventional boundaries.

From these geographically, psychologically and emotionally contrasting sources several insistent themes emerged. It is still hard for women to make their voices heard, and much harder for women than for men to ‘inhabit the role of writer’, in Denise’s words. We talked about the difference between voluntary and enforced exile, and the relationship between physical and psychological remoteness. Being on the margins can be positive – it can make us more aware, more sensitive, more questioning, more creative. But it can also be limiting and debilitating. One person’s precipice can be another’s solid ground; one person’s creative challenge can be another’s chains. You can get a flavour of the day by listening to the voices of our participants being interviewed on the day by Christina Neuwirth  here. The interviews are fascinating.

There was vigorous discussion and much laughter. But we kept returning to the fact that there remains a long way to go before women are written into history. There is still a need for International Women’s Day, and we are already beginning to think about a theme for next year. Faith Pullin and I, who chaired the day’s sessions, asked for ideas from the audience and are still open to suggestions. You can contact us at jenni.calder@gmail.com and faith.pullin@ed.ac.uk.