My mother was one of last generation of what I would call the ‘old fashioned women’. She married young, quit her job and had children. But the same fate was not what she wanted for her daughter. I was a bright child, more promising academically than my brothers, so I passed a scholarship exam to a single sex school.
After that, the impetus was on me to shine, to pass more exams and go to university. There was no suggestion that I would follow my mother’s path to marriage and motherhood at 20; the right academic future and the high powered career was what I was destined for.
As I was growing up there was never a doubt in my mind, (or in any of my schoolfriends’,) that we couldn’t have it all. At no point during my studies or subsequent career in local journalism, did I not feel equal. I didn’t think feminism was an issue, I thought we had come far, I just expected to be treated equally.
It was only when I started writing plays that I noticed we hadn’t come far enough. On every writing course I saw a majority of women – but then I saw this did not translate to who is getting their work on. Suddenly I felt part of a minority. And my desire was once again to feel equal. For me, feminism means being treated equally in every sphere of life.
The latest issue of literary magazine Granta is themed around the ripples that feminism has left on women writers, and is a powerful collection of different voices that gives no answers, offers no solutions, and for the main part isn’t polemical, just explores the confusing and often contradictory position women find themselves in, in today’s society.
Rachel Cusk’s ‘Aftermath’ and Laura Bell’s ‘A kept woman’ both really summed up these contradictions brilliantly. Both writers were used to taking the stereotypically ‘masculine’ role of being the ‘bread-winner’, playing against type, and found reverting back to ‘traditional’ gender roles difficult.
Several of the stories are set amongst immigrant families, where the role of women has changed, but not so much, it has to be said, as in the West. ‘A train in winter’ is a frightening historical account of French women in a Nazi death camp, Caroline Moorehead’s factual narrative makes surprisingly emotive reading. There is an amazing letter from Eudora Welty from 1933, where she petitions The New Yorker for a job. That such a spunky and confident letter was written when she was only 23, gives pause for thought.
Another stand out piece for me was ‘The Ojibwe Week’ by Louise Erdrich. A tale about another community that has had to assimilate, and the extent to which they have, or not. The theme of strangers in a strange land is also carried through in stories by Julie Otsuka, Lydia Davis and a debut from Taiye Selasi ‘The sex lives of African girls’; a shocking reminder that while we may moan about women’s position in the Western world, we’ve got it pretty good. ‘Mona’s story’ by Urvashi Butalia is really fascinating, about the hijira, men in India who take the role of women.
There is also a photo essay by Clarisse d’Arcimoles, ‘Un-possible retour’, like Téa Obreht in her introduction to the work, I received a shocking body blow at the last image.
Poetry from Gillian Alnutt, Linda Gregerson, Sadif Halai and Selima Hill gives welcome breathing space.
There is only really one story that is what I would have expected from a collection of feminism-influenced stories; I was in two minds after reading Helen Simpson’s ‘Night Thoughts’, which seemed to lack the subtlety of the other stories in the collection.
On the one hand, it reminded me of a cleverer version of The Two Ronnies sketch ‘The Worm that turned’, in which men are emasculated and have to do the housework while their manly, evil wives go out to work. On the other hand, I thought I might like to give it to my partner to read, as it makes its point…
It is a clever piece by Francine Prose that makes the case for equality most clearly. ‘Other women’ starts out as a feminist memoir of ‘70s America. Prose rails against an unfaithful husband and his affairs;
‘Do I think that women deserve equal pay for equal work? Do I think women
are as smart and capable as men? Do I think that women are still being discriminated against in obvious and subtle ways? Does it disturb me to meet young women who imagine that the playing field is level and that feminism is irrelevant to their domestic lives and careers? Do I think that women need to help one another? Have I noticed that there are men out there who inevitably and consciously or unconsciously treat women like idiots, babies or witches? Of course, the answer to these questions is an emphatic yes.’
Before noting that her exaggeration is indicative of, and a product of, the ‘counter-productive war of men against women’.
The final story by Jeanette Winterson ‘All I know about Gertrude Stein’ is a lovely musing about love.
Granta’s The F Word collection shows us that, in the West, woman are fortunate, in that we can seemingly have it all – but that there still may be too high a price to pay. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we have all been touched by feminism, affected by it in numerous big and little ways daily, echoes of women’s history and histories rippling over us. In other cultures, as this collection shows, feminism’s reach has not been so long or strong, and it is in this high-lighting and comparison, that’s it’s suddenly clear; in the West, we have come a long way towards equality, though there is still far to go.
This issue of Granta is thought-provoking, with some intense moments of power and beauty. Read it, then share it with a man in your life.