A Point of View: The long march of everywoman
- 5 July 2013
- From the section Magazine
Forty years ago, a small publishing house set out to help redress the gender imbalance in literature and the media. There is still work to be done, says Sarah Dunant.
What does this description bring to mind? The books had deep olive spines. The lettering on the side was simple white and at the top was an image of a green apple, its juiciness guaranteed by the fact that someone had already taken a bite out of it.
The message was clear. There were things inside these covers which some might say you shouldn't be reading. But since Eve's disobedience also contained a hunger for forbidden knowledge, for those of us who didn't see ourselves as good girls, there was, in the story of the fall, something to be celebrated as much as condemned.
Soon all those green spines (we are in the late 70s and some will already recognise the design of the feminist press, Virago) started cosying up together on bookshelves. And in the same way that you might check out a guy's album collection as a shorthand for his amorous potential, a little green glade in a new friend's bedsit meant that some of the getting-to-know had already been done.
This is perhaps the moment for a full and frank personal disclosure - I have always loved music and I am a Virago author.
The apple as a symbol of subversion wasn't original of course.
In the same way that Virago had got its apple from the Beatles' label (though there was no feminist bite out of that shiny Cox's pippin), in the years following Virago's formation in 1973, when branding became its own kind of God, the forbidden fruit logo was appropriated by many others - most notably the eponymous computer giant.
But while the sleek white apple with its global reach and Midas sacks of money may have eclipsed the mischievous little green and red one, in terms of passion, vision and underlying impact on our cultural history, there is something to be said for a comparison between little David - or should we perhaps call her Davina - and Goliath.
Both companies started small, very much the underdog, but with big ambitions and founding fathers or mothers not afraid to reach for the skies. Everyone now knows the visionary megalomania of Steve Jobs.
At the party to celebrate Virago's 40th anniversary last week, its current head, Lennie Goodings, told the story of how one night she asked the indefatigable Carmen Callil, the founder, why she had begun the company.
Carmen had been cleaning the office at the time - it was an egalitarian hand-to-mouth operation and cleaning was part of the job. "Why?" Carmen replied. "To change the world of course."
And here's the thing. In a way they did.
Partly it was the contemporary work they published. But the present wasn't the only plank in their plan of world domination. Through the rediscovery and republishing of women writers across the last century - often hugely talented and popular in their time but overlooked by literary history - they set out also to re-write the past. Welcome to Virago Classics, and the greening of our bookshelves.
I still remember when the assault hit. In the late 70s, I was a fledgling radio journalist working for the BBC's local station in London.
The budgets were minuscule but air-space was vast - in particular a daily, hour-and-a-half, live drive-time show on art and culture (given the lamentable state of arts programming now, it seems future and progress don't always go together).
We were a young, overworked bunch with elements of slapstick, as in that great media movie Broadcast News, where the cub reporter in unsuitable heels (that would be me) throws herself across rooms and down stairs clutching the new script to try to make it to the microphone by the time the light comes on.
But it was exactly that exhilaration and urgency that somehow marked the world we were living in. And soon all those new female voices, rehabilitated by the Classics and championed by the women who wrote their introductions, were sitting at the studio table eager to join the cultural conversation.
Over the following years AS Byatt, Hermione Lee, Jenny Uglow, Penelope Lively, Angela Carter and many others used their eloquence and enthusiasm to help raise the dead.
Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Antonia White, Rosamond Lehmann, Vera Brittain, Edith Wharton - you only have to say a few of the names to appreciate the extent of the cultural revolution that took place.
So, there is much to celebrate 40 years on. But, as ever with revolutions, there is still much to be done.
There was a "lively" debate recently on BBC Radio 4 about gender representation in broadcast media. For anyone (men and women) weaned on the idea of equality, it is hard to know whether to laugh or howl.
I mean, how, in "the modern world", with our current demographic, could executives who run our media have failed to spot the problem?
To have missed out on the energy, intelligence, humour and wisdom of a whole generation of now ageing women, while the same old, same old males sit slumped like bull seals, hogging the watering holes. This, you understand, is a David Attenborough commentary, not a direct description.
It's not just about age. A few weeks ago I was on the Today programme to cover a literary spat about non-likable female characters in fiction.
Brought in early, I waited for over an hour as the order changed to fit the news. In all that time I didn't hear a single woman's voice on air.
Later, when the presenter gave me an unwitting opening, I mentioned it. I wasn't cross; actually, I think gobsmacked would be a better word. No sooner had I left the studio and the comment was moving through Twitter's dawn chorus, the smart man who had commissioned me got in touch to apologise. I was right. It was terrible. They hadn't noticed it on the running order.
A similar rumble of dissent is going on in the literary world even as I write this.
Last month Australian writer and teacher Kathryn Heyman and her husband sent a letter to The London Review of Books (LRB), explaining their decision not to renew their subscription because of continual gross gender imbalance.
"We have," the letter ended, "made the astonishing decision to create a life and an environment in which men and women have equal power, equal status, equal space. This is clearly not a world which the LRB chooses to inhabit."
They got back a fast response. An editor apologised but added:
"Despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we've made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful."
Needless to say this interchange went viral. Again the dominant emotion was less outrage than ridicule. One response said it all: "Looking for women who can review books? Ring a clever woman and ask her."
That notion of boys' club had a more vicious outing last week when, on the same day as the Virago anniversary, news broke of Julia Gillard's ousting as prime minister in Australia.
The horror was not so much her leaving - politics is a dirty business and when opinion polls plummet, even your friends have knives in their back pocket - but the way in which, during her three-year term leading a minority government, and despite delivering economic growth in a world recession, she had been subjected to a campaign of clear misogynist abuse.
Faced with accusations of "deliberate barrenness", that her father had died of shame because of her, that her partner was gay (because who else could bear to live with her), she had also watched as opposition leaders took photo opportunities with protesters whose banners read "Bitch" and "Witch".
And finally there was that "joke" entry in a fundraiser menu - "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box."
Shocking though it is, history will have the last word here.
It's already happening. Gillard's "Misogyny" speech, as it's become known - a riveting piece of political rhetoric, delivered to the House of Representatives in 2012 - has already been seen by millions worldwide.
And three days ago her successor in the Labour Party, Kevin Rudd, announced the appointment of an unprecedented six new women to his cabinet. When suggested this might be a response to the treatment of Gillard, he replied: "No. These women are strong, professional and highly experienced and there exclusively on their merit."
At least he's noticed.