Marina Warner: My six nominations for ‘100 influential women of the last 100 years’

Professor Marina Warner from the School of Arts explains how she decided on her list of influential women writers for BBC Radio 4 Today programme, ahead of the upcoming celebrations of the centenary of the women’s vote.

A text message arrived recently from the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, saying they were celebrating the 100 years since the vote was given women in 2018 and they wanted 100 names of influential women; would I come on and nominate writers?

Later, in a phone call, the brief was clarified: would I pick six British women writers, and plump for one favourite?

I struggled, I struggled, I made lists, long lists. Literature is such a vast field and women have excelled in it. Professions which require official qualifications often excluded women, but writing takes place in private. Indeed, the step into publication led the Brontes and George Eliot and Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (‘Michael Field’), to adopt male pseudonyms, while today, the use of initials still works to neutralise female names: P.D James, A.S Byatt, J.K Rowling.

For the rest of the week, the categories featured in the programme were the arts and architecture, politics, science, sport, and engineering. For historical reasons, the possibilities in those spheres of activity are far smaller than in literature and lots of living heroines were chosen, some very moot in my view.

Samira Shackle, who is the deputy editor of the New Humanist, was on the programme with me to choose journalists and the centenary also led me to think of women whose writing engaged with the world, who campaigned and argued and spoke out, often risking unpopularity and even obloquy.

I tossed and turn the night before I was due to go live on the programme, desperately trying to arrive at a shortlist. I came up with seven names – the bold names in this list are ones I mentioned in the programme, and the italics are the ones I would have liked to include.

In the end, I placed Virginia Woolf (pictured, left) first – it felt impossible not to. She combines both activism and lyricism; her forthright attacks on inequality and on militarism made her the obvious first choice. But I tied Woolf (against the rules) with Angela Carter, because Angela Carter wove her social dreaming and ferocious critique into her fiction; she was also the most acute, acerbic observer and polemicist in her many essays. You may not agree with her about the Marquis de Sade but she makes you think, and nearly 40 years later, her arguments grapple with the issues so very alive now – desire, collusion, subjugation.

Samira and I didn’t get time to go through our full lists (before our slot, John Humphrys was interviewing Nigel Farage and ate into our time, as Mishal Hussein, our interviewer, noticed with growing anxiety).

Samira nominated Clare Hollingworth, the war correspondent as her number one, and Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and of the first black British newspaper as one of her six.

I brought in Rebecca West, who took her nom de plume – her nom de guerre – from an Ibsen heroine who defies all social expectations, wrote uncompromising, diamond-sharp accounts of the Nuremberg trials and other criminal cases and was always outspoken and combative – incurring a lot of hostility at every stage of her long life.

Sarah Kane seemed to me a crucial figure in the history of women writers who are now writing so powerfully for the theatre, while Sylvia Plath spoke to my generation (Ariel came out when I was a student) in fiery tongues. Plath was, of course, American by birth and her case raised an issue we had no time to address: she lived and wrote in England, she profoundly shaped the voice of poetry in this country (possibly more than in her own).

Likewise, I wanted to include Elizabeth Bowen (Anglo-Irish). Then there are the writers who were born in the time of the British empire – is Jean Rhys Dominican, or can she be included in British writers? She is certainly a key figure in English Literature. What about Doris Lessing? Katherine Mansfield? Even Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) seems to be another key figure in English Literature; though she was Danish by birth and lived in Kenya, she wrote her greatest stories in English.

We had no time to attack this deeply difficult question. Literature has no borders and the peculiar status of English makes writing in English a wide horizon, leaping over the walls and fences of national Britishness.

The rest of my six are Muriel Spark, whose centenary it is this year: her imagination is streaked with off-kilter fantasy and weirdness, and I wanted very much to pay tribute to this magnificent tradition in our literature, to writers who dream up alternative worlds, working in genres that fall under Fantasy, Children’s Literature and Science Fiction.

I couldn’t bring in Ursula Le Guin as she is definitely American. Diana Wynne-Jones was on my early lists, but I decided to pay tribute to Lynne Reid-Banks, who is still alive, aged 88, because she combines both social realism and utopianism. The L-Shaped Room (1960) is a pioneering novel about a young, single woman thrown out by her family because she is having a baby. Restrained in tone, it is nevertheless a devastating picture of the conventions, prejudice, squalor, and callousness that pervaded this country not that long ago (and gives a clear warning); but Lynne Reid-Banks also wrote the series of fables, beginning with The Indian in the Cupboard.

Criticised by some for their depiction of Native Americans, the stories are terrific utopian adventures, exploring the power of imagination to nurture humanity and courage and they belong in the stream of lively inventive writing to which J.K Rowling and Philip Pullman belong.

There were so many colossuses I wanted to mention – Iris Murdoch, Stevie Smith. Not to speak of the living – who, out of a kind of tact, I did not want to introduce.

But there was one other genre I would have liked to recognise: graphic novels. In this area, Posy Simmonds reigns supreme: innovatory, trenchant, a brilliant storyteller and observer of the human comedy, gifted with an unrivaled ear for contemporary speech. She would make a splendid nominee, but I’ve run way over the limit of six.

On Tuesday 6 February in Westminster Hall in London, the nominations will be debated in front of a live audience and the overall winner chosen.

Please keep an eye on the website and see if you can take part –  and support artists and writers as the key figures in women’s lives and opportunities over the last 100 years.

Let’s hear you!

You can listen to Professor Marina Warner feature on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (from 2:20:40 onwards).

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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