‘A tipping point’: women writers pledge to boycott gender biased books after...

‘A tipping point’: women writers pledge to boycott gender biased books after very male anthology

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Irish women poets are rising up en masse against their repeated exclusion from literary history, signing a pledge of refusal to participate in anthologies, conferences and festivals in which the gender balance is skewed.

The pledge was conceived after the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets in 2017. Covering Irish poetry from the 17th century to the present, it features essays on four women poets and 26 men, with just four female contributors. According to the 250 poets, academics and writers who have now signed the pledge, the book “repeats the minimisation or obliteration of women’s poetry by previous anthologies and surveys” and “leads to a distorted impression of our national literature and to a simplification of women’s roles within it”.

The Cambridge guide is by no means the first time women writers have been left out. Research from Irish publisher Lagan found in December that women are underrepresented in a host of Irish anthologies: last year’s A Treasury of Irish Literature featured only five female authors in a total of 32; An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry featured 10 women out of 53 poets; and Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology contained 22 female poets among 177.

“The Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical textbooks,” says the preamble to the pledge, going on to name a panoply of Irish women writers who could have been included in the Cambridge anthology: 19th-century poet Emily Lawless, 18th-century poet Laetitia Pilkington, 20th-century author Katharine Tynan and modernists Freda Laughton and Maighread Medbh, among others.

Poets including Christine Murray, Ailbhe D’Arcy and Mary O’Donnell worked together to come up with the pledge, which they have dubbed Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon. “Our pledge is short and simple. It commits us to asking questions about gender representation early on in collaborative projects such as edited collections, conferences and festivals. It commits us to withdrawing our participation when, in our opinion, insufficient effort is made to render representation fair,” they write. “In many cases implicit bias will have been involved in women being less famous, so editors and organisers should make an effort to include some slightly less famous female names.”

Poet Mary O’Donnell



Poet Mary O’Donnell. Photograph: PR

The issue is not confined to Ireland, or to poetry: the first volume of the Penguin Book of the British Short Story is 75% male, while the second is 64% male; and in both the Oxford Book of American Poetry and in A Glimpse of Truth, the 100 Finest Short Stories, more than two thirds of the writers selected are men.

O’Donnell, a novelist and poet, said: “I really hope it can make a difference. The Cambridge anthology has, once and for all, brought about a convergence of women, responding after decades of exclusion … This isn’t personal against the editor of the anthology – the anthology is a tipping point. We have had a whole history of exclusion.”

O’Donnell called for high-profile writers to come on board and support the pledge – both men and women. “As long as ‘good men’ aren’t getting political about this, nothing will change,” she said. “The literary patriarchal door keeps slamming in our faces.”

Booker prize-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright is one of the biggest names to sign up. The author, who has previously called out sexism in the literary scene in the London Review of Books, spoke of a festival she was invited to attend two years ago in order to redress the gender balance of a male-heavy line-up – and to speak about gender imbalances. “I had a book which was No 1 on the bestseller list, and longlisted for the Booker, and I still hadn’t been invited to talk about it. I was invited to restore the gender balance. There are multiple double-binds in that exclusion – even when you’re included, you’re excluded. It is maddening in the extreme,” said Enright.

In 1991, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing famously drew heavy criticism for its male-heavy focus. “It comes in cycles – every generation does it again. It’s like they really can’t receive the memo. There’s an absolute aversion to having the conversation on the Irish scene. It’s unbelievable – here we go again,” said Enright.

Enright, comparing the situation to the #MeToo movement, said that no one was willing to stand up and be counted over gender bias. “Prejudice against women is a universal crime with zero perpetrators. Irish men are lovely, Irish poets are especially lovely – what on earth could be the problem? There is an amazing series of defences between men and this conversation,” she said. “With the #MeToo movement, the fact there are misdemeanours and crimes involved, and sexual activity, means everyone can point fingers and individuals can be identified, and they can stand in for a whole culture of harassment. When there is no physical content, when it’s about aversion, when it’s about exclusion, it is extremely hard to identify and call out.”

The pledge points to studies that “have suggested that both men and women tend to evaluate women more negatively than men in professional contexts”, so “women may need to do a lot more to be considered successful than men do”.

Academics also feature on the list of signatories to the pledge. “To be clear, I studied zero female poets in college. I envy US students who have Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Susan Howe, et al. We literally have huge gaps there and the narrative states that women poets emerged in the 1970s. Nope! They were ignored until the 1970s,” said Murray.

Responding to the controversy, Cambridge University Press said in a statement that it was “committed to publishing fairly and without bias. The Press publishes many significant works about Irish literature and history. The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets is one part of this ongoing and ambitious programme, which in 2018 will include titles such as A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature, A History of Irish Women’s Poetry and A History of Working-Class Literature.”



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