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8th March 2012 - Emily Best

 

With the publication of the Orange Prize longlist today, on International Women's Day, Emily Best explores the state of gender equality in the literary world and society at large.

 

International Women's DayIf there's anyone left that doesn't know, today is International Women's Day. To coincide with this, the Orange Prize, which exclusively recognises women, have released their longlist.


This prize has been in contention since its conception in 1996; it was, for example, famously criticised by AS Byatt a couple of years ago. She argued that the prize makes assumptions that women write a certain way, which they don't. Besides which, is it not retrogressive to ghettoise women's writing in the same way, some would argue, militant feminism is counterproductive in a modern, egalitarian society? This is pretty much the argument I was having with my flatmates a couple of nights ago (wine may have been involved). For me, the Orange Prize and the recognition of women as having a unique voice is just as important as an international day celebrating half the species.


Many friends of mine, men and women, are wary of the term 'feminist'. They see it as a movement that happened, a couple of times, over the past century, but it's done now. We have achieved equality and if we expect it to be maintained women have to stop fighting. Are we really there, though? Possibly, in some ways. In the West. And even if we are there, how long have we been there? Just as with the civil rights movement, the time of peace compared with the time of gross inequalities is minimal, and maybe to maintain that balance things need to oscillate the other way a little.


To see how relevant the Orange Prize is to this debate, we needn't look back too far: the vast majority of shortlists throughout the history of the Man Booker Prize have been dominated by men. But I suggest going back to some of the roots of the movement, in the late nineteenth century. Things were happening - women had a little more freedom to express themselves but were met with opposition on several sides, particularly from the Aesthetic movement - equally progressive, and supposedly equally liberal. There was a great deal of support if you look at the contemporary prominent figures, but of course, most of them are men.


Punch cartoon, spoofing John Stuart MillGeorge Gissing is a great example of this (particularly in his novels New Grub Street and The Odd Women) - following from the great intentions of John Stuart Mill some forty years earlier (The Subjection of Women) he wanted to give women the freedom to express themselves in a manner of their own choosing. But where Mill wanted to give them the means to do it themselves, Gissing seemed to be doing it for them. The great irony of the era is that women were paralysed by the well-meaning men narrating their emancipation.


So, for a brilliant antidote to this, I recommend Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-siècle, edited by prominent feminist intellectual Elaine Showalter. Aside from the sheer enjoyment that many of these wonderfully witty women offer, many are written under male pseudonyms and, interestingly, contain male protagonists. What these women did was prove that, if men like Gissing could write women, women could write men. Any enforced gender-identification in writing was at once eroded and fought. So today, where women (writers or otherwise) are at once celebrated and threatened, treated as both equal and different, read these tales and fight another day.



Click here to read The Perennial Orange Prize debate, our blog documenting the reason why the Orange Prize is still necessary, published on the occasion of the 2011 shortlist.


Click here to see the full longlist, previous winners and a history of the Orange Prize.

 

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