Today is International Women’s Day. In between paragraphs, I’ve added quotes from inspirational women, both past and present, but let’s start with this one.
“Extremists have shown what frightens them most. A girl with a book.”Malala Yousafzai
Last week, wearing my professional hat, I attended an event about the representation of women in the workplace at senior management and board level. As someone who served on a board of directors for sixteen years, this was a discussion I felt qualified to contribute to. In the nineties, our firm was seen as progressive. Our board was made up of six men and two women. It was unusual (in my industry, at least) to find any women at board level. Women fill so many prominent positions in public life, and I am proud to work for a company with two fabulous women in the positions of managing director and deputy managing director. I hoped to discover that this change was reflected elsewhere. I’m sad to say that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The following day I read that a survey commissioned by End Sexism in Schools (ESIS) had found that fewer than 2% of the UK’s GCSE students had studied a book written by a woman. The percentage has deteriorated since 2021, when research commissioned by Penguin found that 7% of GCSE students had studied a book written by a woman, while fewer than 1% had studied a book written by a writer of colour. (In the UK, 34.4% of school age children identify as Black, Asian and minority ethic.) The headline finding of both studies was the same: the UK’s students are reading books written by, and mainly about, white men.
Are the two things connected? It is impossible to rule it out. And how, when we seem to have come so far, can we be heading backwards?
Sadly but crucially, part of the conversation concerns the murders of law graduate Zara Allena, Sarah Everard, whose killer was a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, London teacher Sabina Nessa, and Epsom head teacher Emma Pattison and her daughter Lettie, and the many other women who we remember of International Women’s Day who have lost their lives at the hands of men. More needs to be done to stop the spread of misogynistic content, especially via social media channels, where a single post can reach so many young people – Andrew Tate’s videos have been watched a staggering 11.6 billion times – but in this post, I’m going to limit myself to discussion about books.
ESIS have urged examination boards (there are four) to diversify the lists of English Literature set texts, and while I don’t disagree, it’s very easy to park all of the blame at the doors of the examination boards.
“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”Joyce Carol Oates
Let’s look at the English Literature exam. It is made up of modules: Shakespeare’s plays, the 19th-century novel, modern texts and poetry. For each module, the exam boards nominate lists of texts. The study refers to them as ‘set texts’, but this suggests that schools have no say in which book will be taught in their classrooms. Let’s be clear: whether decisions are taken by governing bodies, heads of department or at teacher level, the ultimate selections are the choices of one or more people at individual schools.
Shakespeare plays – Students study one play from a list of six nominated by the exam board, and this list doesn’t tend to vary.
The 19th-century novel – Students study one novel from a list of seven nominated by the exam board. For the most popular exam board, three of the seven novels are written by women. (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.) In the nineteenth century, novel-writing wasn’t seen as a respectable occupation for women. As a reflection of novels published at that time, three out of seven can perhaps be forgiven.
Modern texts (post-1914 prose fiction and drama) – Students study one option from a list of eight plays and seven novels nominated by the exam board. This is the section where we would expect to see a far greater proportion of texts by women writers. In 2022, when looking at the options offered by the most popular exam board:
- the only choice of play by a woman was Shelagh Delaney’s, A Taste of Honey. In 2023, there are two additions: Chinonyerem Odimba, Princess & The Hustler and Winsome Pinnock’s, Leave Taking.
- the only choice of novel by a woman was Meera Syal’s Anita and Me. In 2023, Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon has been added.
Poetry – The examination board offers three themed collections, each containing 15 poems. The study didn’t dive into the collections because they weren’t available.
As a result of their findings, ESIS’s is urging exam boards to diversify their offerings, however, it admitted that even where exam boards offer an equal split of texts written by men and women authors, teachers overwhelmingly choose texts by male authors. Where does this bias come from? Incidentally, ESIS hasn’t published data on the percentage of male/female teachers, but all of us have biases that are so much a part of us, we may be completely unaware of them. Until 2014, when I learned about the #ReadWomen campaign, and began to scrutinise my reading habits, I too read a disproportionate number of books written by men, mainly because I relied on book recommendations in the press, and the press predominantly reviewed books by male authors.
“We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
The survey found:
- Teachers consistently chose texts they were familiar with. Last year, 80% of students were taught An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley, while 72% were taught A Christmas Carol (a text so familiar there is no need to name its author). To counter this, ESIS have called on exam boards to remove ‘old favourites’ from lists.
- Teachers consistently chose shorter texts over longer texts. The texts written by women were all longer than the texts written by men, meaning that they were less likely to be chosen. To counter this, ESIS suggest that the texts written by men and women authors must be ‘equally challenging’.
- Where texts on the lists were written by women authors, 71% of the main characters were male. (The protagonist in Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon is a young boy.) Therefore, even if a teacher were to choose a book by a woman author, students wouldn’t necessarily learn about women’s experiences, certainly not the strong and empowering representations of women that ESIS want to see. (Note to self: focus on women’s stories.)
- Where exam boards have introduced changes for 2023, they have replaced books by white male authors with books by women of colour. As a result there are too few texts by male authors of colour and too few texts by white female authors.
The study concluded that: “not only do boys never learn to empathise with and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of women, but they also receive the clear message that women’s voices and perspectives are less important and less valid”. Whilst there is significant evidence that reading helps us to develop empathy, this suggestion totally disregards the influence of grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters, historical figures, women artists, musicians, scientists and politicians and everything that is happening in the world. That said, I’m glad that reading is recognised as such a vital part of the jigsaw, and it is an area in which I can perhaps play my part, by continuing to write about strong women, their hopes, aspirations and dreams, their rich inner lives and all of their wonderful, messy complexities.
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”Nora Ephron, writer
“You’re going to walk into many rooms where you may be the only one who looks like you or who has had the experiences you’ve had. So you use that voice and be strong.”Kamala Harris, vice president
Did you know that just 17 out of 119 Nobel Prize winners have been women?
Thankfully the current generation have the examples of Greta Thunberg (nominated three times for a Nobel Prize), Malala Yousafzai (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), the poet Amanda Gorman, the England Women’s Football team… the list of role models goes on and on. Thinking about my own influences, I was born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and lived through the years of Thatcher. (She didn’t represent me, but love her or hate her, there was never any doubt that she was in charge.) I went to a convent high school where the teachers were mainly nuns (and, quite frankly, terrifying). My role models were Kate Bush, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux, but perhaps my greatest influences were two of my classmates, both of them incredibly smart, questioning every lesson and unnecessary rule and defiant in the face of authority. I am sure that without their examples, I would never have set foot inside a boardroom or found my voice as a writer.
Time for a little light relief
I find it impossible to type ‘English Literature’ without thinking of Joyce Grenfell’s wonderful sketch and so I offer “Eng Lit” .
A special offer
We should never forget that for women living a century ago, novel-reading was considered to be a radical act, associated with arousing otherwise dormant sexual passions, liberal ideas, and attempts to overturn the status quo. If you’re looking for a book about a strong woman who refused to sit by without protest, you might like to try My Counterfeit Self. To celebrate International Women’s Day, I have created a voucher so that you can enjoy a 75% off the normal price. Just head over to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/660225 and enter the code FW79Z at the till.
An A – Z of women writers
Here is an A – Z of women authors whose work I have enjoyed. I have ordered it by first names, because these are the names women are known by throughout their lives.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Daphne du Maurier
Elizabeth Jane Howard
Emily St. Mandel
Jane Dixon Smith
Joyce Carol Oates
Julian of Norwich
Karen Joy Fowler
L. M. Montgomery
Louisa May Alcott
Mary, Lady Chudleigh
Octavia E. Butler
Simone de Beauvoir
Sue Monk Kidd
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Ursula Le Guin
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