Just back from a great celebration of 2000 women at St John’s College, Oxford. Somewhat disconcerting to consider that 2000 men at St John’s was a milestone reached several hundred years ago, while the first women were only admitted in 1979. But now we women have made our mark. The College has a woman President, Professor Maggie Snowling, a woman Vice-President, Professor Kate Nation, (both I am pleased to note psychologists!), and has just appointed its first woman Honorary Fellow, Angela Eagle, MP, Chair of the Labour Party and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons (we were undergraduates at the same time). And many of the women who took part in inspirational workshops, chatted round tables over cups of tea, and gathered in the gardens to drink champagne, have had interesting, exciting, even distinguished careers. Women of all shapes and sizes, beliefs, backgrounds and skin colour, clever women all, joined together to make this a really happy weekend.
I found myself moderating an enjoyable workshop on Writers in the Real World, with freelance journalist Anne-Celine Jaeger, poet Jacci Bulman and award-winning playwright Sarah Grochala. When I discover how to insert links to other websites (and believe me, I have tried – another example of the Old Dog taking A Long Time to learn yet another new trick), I will link to my co-presenters.
We tried to give an overview of the realities of getting published in our four different fields – non-fiction, poetry, theatre and fiction (me). There was a general consensus that traditional publishing gets harder to break into every year, and that the would-be writer in whatever area has to do a lot of work selling when she would much prefer to write. In my youth, I was much influenced by Henry Thoreau’s Walden, which held that if you invented a revolutionary mouse-trap, the world would beat a path to your door. (That is how I remember it, anyway: the book was published in 1854.) But this is a notion that has been well and truly exploded. No one knows, much less cares, about your wonderful invention – until you make sure everyone knows about it. Sigh. And my mousetrap, aka First Novel, aka The Amazon’s Girdle, is definitely worth beating a path to my door!
My first book War of Words: Women and men arguing (Chatto & Windus 1998) is now out of print, but it was adopted by various feminist groups, especially in the States where it was not officially on sale, and by the now defunct Woman’s Press Book Club. Its thesis was, essentially, that stereotypes provided a useful way for men to discount women’s arguments, and my research showed that overall only husbands were an honourable exception to what appeared to be an unspoken rule in all formal and informal relationships. Not an argument that went down well in many quarters, and The Guardian quoted me in its Talking Dirty Column. I do wonder if things have finally changed. Perhaps I should update my research.
Our celebrations at St John’s this weekend proved that women are not only distinguishing themselves in every professional, academic and business field – as they have done for many years – but gains made one year are not inevitably lost the next. Hurrah for that. Congratulations to all at SJC who made celebrating 2000 Women at the College so worth while. And so very enjoyable.