Silence, exile and coming second: women writers get same raw deal as in theatre

On Nollaig na mBan, when woman are traditionally given a break, Fiona O’Connor issues a wake-up call. Women have faced discrimination in literature and publishing since Telemachus told Penelope to shut up in Homer’s The Odyssey.

The ongoing row over the Abbey Theatre’s disregard of women playwrights and directors raises some interesting parallels for women writers and for women in general. The wider issue is about the public voice of women, the position of women in relation to the polis, the arts, the workplace, anywhere, actually, beyond hearth and home.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that "the origin of something is the source of its nature". In a lecture given for The London Review of Books, The Public Voice of Women, Prof Mary Beard explores this idea as she unearths the origins of public domain – discrimination in the beginnings of rhetoric itself, some 3,000 years ago. She pulls out of the defining classic of Western literature, Homer's The Odyssey, the first recorded instance of a man telling a woman to shut up – Telemachus to his mum, Penelope, who duly does shut up.

The point of the example is to illustrate how rhetoric – the art of persuasion so dear to the ancients and precursor of every effective means of power and influence we have – is founded on a masculine principle. “It’s a nice demonstration,” Beard writes, “that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”.

Coming to recognise this founding feature of our relations to the public sphere and the roles then assumed might be helpful in developing the changes we need and want to make.


Such an understanding may bring more sense to a wide range of baffling disparities. Take for instance the publicised research by VIDA on the marked absence of reviews of women's writing. Book bestseller lists are powered by women writers – 50 per cent in 2014/15 but they frequently go unreviewed. The Times Literary Supplement, for instance, consistently only devotes 27 per cent of reviews to women's writing. The fact that ignored books still became bestsellers says as much about the effectiveness of women's writing as it does about the utility of the critic. Still, reviewing provides an important subsidy to writers' low incomes. And it's a male domain. Because even though women buy two thirds of books sold in Britain and Ireland, magazine reviews are centred on male writers and male critics.

The Irish Times, for instance, despite devoting much attention to women writers through such brilliant online features as Putting Irish Women Writers Back in the Picture, fares less well on the reviewing front. Based on my own research, of the latest 100 books reviewed on, only 22 were written by women. Criticism of 65 books was handled by 51 men, while 16 women reviewed 35 books. The Irish Times is in august company: VIDA records The London Review of Books fielding 527 males, writers and critics, compared to 151 women in 2014, and only 58 books by women were reviewed. A small increase is shown in 2015, with an average of 31 per cent of writing by women by my own unscientific reckoning. The pattern continues with The New York Review, The New York Times and The Nation, at 29 per cent, this in a market where women are doing most of the buying. What has happened to the notion of free-market, bottom-line, invisible-hand imperatives within this billion-dollar industry? Surely a trick is being missed here?

Research also shows that more than 150 years since the Brontë sisters adopted the Bell brothers as their pseudonyms, because of an expectation of prejudice, women writers still face such discrimination within some sectors of the publishing industry. "It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym," Penguin editor Anne Sowards told the Wall Street Journal. This holds particularly in genres where the target audience is male, such as science fiction. It seems that many men don't want to read books by women. Or to be seen reading them. Therefore many female sci-fi and crime writers use pseudonyms or gender- neutral initials.

In a highly competitive publishing industry the chances of getting a work to the book shelves are minuscule, but for women the bar is much higher and it starts with the name on the manuscript. Author Catherine Nichols found that submitting her novel manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym brought her eight times the number of responses than did her own name. Sent to 50 agents, her novel was requested 17 times when it had the male psuedonym, compared to two requests under her own name. Nichols finds her male alter ego is "8 and a half times better than me at writing the same book".

The persuasiveness of the male name is borne out in the wider frame of rhetorical practice: the CV or résumé – ubiquitous rhetorical document of our time. A seminal study at Cornell University back in 1999 used curriculum vitae reviews of scientist applicants to study the determinants in respect of getting hired across American universities. Although all of the CVs came from one real-life female scientist at two different stages of her career, the responses to the name-changed CV followed predictable bias: the “male” applicant was more likely to be hired, with an identical record. Interesting also was the tendency to record caveats on applications when from a female where such doubts were not recorded for the “male”.

A similar study was carried out at Stanford College of Medicine in 2012. Social psychologist Corrine Moss-Racusim created a fictitious résumé of an applicant for a lab manager position. Whether the name John or Jennifer was given on the résumé radically affected the outcome: Jennifer was perceived as significantly less competent. Scientists were less willing to mentor her or hire her. Scientists also recommended paying her a lower salary – Jennifer was offered, on average, $4,000 per year less than John. This in a context of a serious shortfall of one million qualified STEM workers in the US. Moss-Racusim finds that "gender bias is often an outcome of an implicit cognitive process in which pervasive gender stereotypes shape our judgements, regardless of our intentions". Crucially, the bias registered came from women academics as much as men; in this respect, equality of discrimination was found. Something to think about, perhaps, in relation to the Abbey Theatre, whose board was made up by men and women.

Returning to the literary domain, Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, was chastened to find the bias against reviewing books by women merrily practiced on his watch too. He also found that agents send more books by men than women – even over those female-written bestsellers. Spillman redoubled his efforts to include women, citing his responsibility as a professional to use due diligence in his editorial role. He sees the need actively to seek out women writers to include in the discourse. This because he finds that women are less likely to resend work once they have been rejected. “Men are about four times more likely than women to send something following initial rejection.”

Here again we might see the ghost of Penelope: told to shut up by Telemachus, she does. As Nichols puts it regarding the comments she received as a woman author compared to in her male embodiment: “To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.” To become a writer means developing a unique voice. This takes confidence, which is built usually as a result of responses from those in positions to offer specialist insight: agents, editors, critics and, crucially, readers. Because of stereotypical expectations many women with the potential to produce substantial literary works are being starved out at the early and mid-stages of their efforts. “A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about,” Nichols observes.

The shadow of the classical world is still cast over our contemporary traditions of public performance. Beard points to a tradition of gendered speaking and the theorising of gendered speaking, “of which we are still, directly or indirectly, the heirs”. It is one in which the defining attribute of maleness was the right to speak, and “a woman speaking in public was in most circumstances, by definition, not a woman”. When a woman creates her version of the world as she sees it and sends her work out into the public domain she does so against the grain of a 3,000-year-old history of her exclusion.

It’s different for guys; their names alone proclaim it.

Fiona O’Connor is a former Hennessy Short Story Prize winner. She lectures at the University of Westminster and is artistic director of St John’s Mill Theatre Company, Beaufort, Co Kerry

Instead of putting your feet up for Nollaig na mBan, visit the Irish Writers Centre for an evening of special guests baring their souls. The line-up includes: Erin Fornoff, Evelyn Conlon,Joanna Walsh, Lisa McInerney, Mary O'Donnell, Michelle Read, Sally Rooney, Sinéad Gleeson.

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