A celebration of the rich tradition of Northern Irish women writers
32 years after pioneering anthology The Female Line, a new anthology is a rich mosaic of today’s talent
Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, co-editor with Linda Anderson of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was established in 1975 as an umbrella for a wide range of women-led groups that campaigned for gender equality in both nationalist and unionist areas of Northern Ireland. In 1985 the organisation marked its 10th anniversary by publishing The Female Line: Northern Irish Women Writers, edited by Ruth Hooley (now Carr). It was the first anthology of literature by women writers from Northern Ireland, several of whom made their publishing debut in its pages.
The 1980s witnessed the success of Virago Press and the Women’s Press in Britain and Arlen House and Attic Press in the Republic of Ireland, but women writers in the North did not have a similar publishing platform. While work by male authors from Northern Ireland flourished, few women writers got exposure. Thus the main purpose of The Female Line was to bring Northern women into print, and the volume included writing by a whopping 45 contributors.
The collection deliberately took risks, offering “a miscellany of poetry, short stories, reflections and extracts from novels and plays”. Significantly, it also placed “published and previously unpublished female authors side by side”. It showcased prominent writers such as Mary Beckett, Anne Devlin, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Marie Jones, Medbh McGuckian, Janet McNeill, Frances Molloy and Christina Reid alongside newer authors.
A pioneering anthology, The Female Line was especially remarkable because it was published amidst the Troubles which, Carr points out, were “never very far from the door”. Despite these challenges, the first edition sold out within a month and the book immediately went into reprint.
Thirty years later, in 2015, it occurred to me that it was vital to publish an update to The Female Line which would explore conditions for women in Northern Ireland post-ceasefires, post-peace process, and post-Good Friday Agreement. I contacted Belfast-born, award-winning author Linda Anderson to ask if she would be interested in serving as co-editor for a new anthology that would examine what it means for women to write in a time of “post-conflict”. Together, we began work on Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, a collection in the spirit of its vibrant feminist predecessor.
2015 was also the advent of “Waking the Feminists” in the South, a grassroots movement for gender equality in the arts sector. The following year, the new initiative Women Aloud Northern Ireland organised events across the six counties for International Women’s Day 2016, and they have since expanded into a cross-border programme.
In 2016 The Female Line was reissued as an e-book by Herself Press and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, was published by New Island Books. These ventures prompted renewed interest in literature by women from Northern Ireland, which continues to go from strength to strength.
Published in October 2017, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland is a stunning mosaic of work by some of the best contemporary women writers from Northern Ireland, and it acts as a staging post and a sequel to The Female Line. Trans-genre in contents and including both experienced and newer writers, this landmark anthology features women writers utilising different modes, forms and innovations, and it highlights fiction, poetry, drama, essays, life writing and photography.
It features work by Linda Anderson, Jean Bleakney, Maureen Boyle, Colette Bryce, Lucy Caldwell, Emma Campbell, Julieann Campbell, Ruth Carr, Jan Carson, Paula Cunningham, Celia de Fréine, Anne Devlin, Moyra Donaldson, Wendy Erskine, Leontia Flynn, Miriam Gamble, Rosemary Jenkinson, Deirdre Madden, Bernie McGill, Medbh McGuckian, Susan McKay, Sinéad Morrissey, Joan Newmann, Kate Newmann, Roisín O’Donnell, Heather Richardson, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons, Cherry Smyth, Gráinne Tobin, Margaret Ward, Tara West, Sheena Wilkinson and the late Ann Zell.
As Ruth Carr remarks, “The Female Line is both handed down and self-written”. Its sequel, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, is a celebration of Northern Irish women writers and their rich tradition. Long may it continue.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is co-editor with Linda Anderson of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, published by New Island Books on October 18th. Follow Dawn on Twitter @drdawnmiranda