How Women Spoke Out At 2016's Hay Festival
“Racism should not trump sexism”, said author Fay Weldon. Speaking at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, otherwise known as Hay, Weldon was remarking on the occasionally-held notion that to be feminist is also to tiptoe around issues affecting all women in the UK.
“Feminists in this country should be helping their fellow feminists who are Muslims who can't live freely or express their thoughts. To say 'Oh we mustn't interfere' seems to be cowardly in the extreme, because we will be accused of racism if we do.”
It’s a bold statement, and surely not one held by all the female speakers at Hay. While diverse in opinion, what unites these women is that, in the same year small press 'And Other Stories' will, in a bid to redress the literary gender imbalance, only publish novels by women, here they are, speaking. Weldon posited: "If you could only get the women to rise up, life could be a very different place,” but as Hay shows, so many are already.
If "Everyday Sexism," Laura Bates’s first book, was about noticing sexism, “Girl Up” is about acting against sexism and being heard, as she explained in her talk to Bryony Gordon. Gordon’s own memoir, "Mad Girl," delves deep into detail about her personal struggle with mental health, an issue dangerously silenced by the stigma surrounding it. Bates also spoke to Lindy West, whose book "Shrill" details not only the way misogynist trolls try to silence her, but what happens when you use your platform - in her case, Twitter - to get people to speak out, louder than any troll. According to Bates, “Lindy is a hero, and so is everybody who takes a deep breath, weighs up the cost and speaks out anyway; about change, about inequality, about their hope for a different future.” If that wasn’t heartening enough, women refugees now settled in nearby Newport were able to speak out at Hay thanks to the English lessons given by the British Red Cross and the Welsh Assembly Government.
Elsewhere, Malorie Blackman, former Children’s Laureate and author of the "Noughts and Crosses" series, thanked an unlikely person in her talk. This was the careers adviser who blocked her plan to become an English teacher by refusing to give her university reference, because “black people aren’t teachers”. Blackman explained: “I thought, well ‘I’ll show you, you old cow’ and you know what, she did me a favour because she made me work even harder because I was determined I would not fail my exam.” She ended up applying for university and advised: “It taught me: find a way to go round them. If you really want something and people are in your face saying no that’s not for you, you can’t, go round them!”
Later, Oxford’s Professor Ursula Martin dealt a blow to the geeky, sexist, boy’s club that is computer science. There to discuss Ada Lovelace’s influence on the world of computer science, and therefore the world at large, Martin shared an anecdote from a symposium on artificial intelligence. A presentation showed “a vision of what an enhanced human would be,” but to Professor Martin’s shock, “This vision of a new kind of humanity was an entirely male vision.” She put this oversight down to nothing more than “staggering” sexism.
The traditionally female sphere of the home also got a look-in. Historian Maggie Andrews, at Hay to discuss her book on the Women’s Institute, recounted the feminist activism of the WI over the years which extend way beyond their assumed remit of making jam and cakes, and explained the success of shows like The Great British Bake Off. Andrews explained: “Both feminism and the Women's Institute have come together a little bit in that domesticity isn't such a bad thing as people thought or possibly that the workplace is not as much fun as we all thought.”
Once again, a tricky line to tread. While some criticised Andrews for her comments, (one headline read “I can’t bake and I give zero f****”), Andrews acknowledged that traditionally feminine domestic work still counts as work, and that “women can, through alternative female cultures and value systems, challenge the low value of domestic labour”.
Looking to challenge the high value of political labour was Caitlin Moran, who promised: “If Boris Johnson is our Prime Minister, I will run for Parliament. We can’t have a man who in the 21st century talked about watermelon smiles and piccaninnies, being the leader of our country. At that point, I will put on my big boots and march to Parliament.” And of course, no intelligent debate could be had this year without a nod to American Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Lionel Shriver, discussing new political book "The Mandibles," explained that he defies narrative: “If you were to write Donald Trump as…a serious nominee, as a character in a novel, he would not be persuasive, nobody would buy it. This guy’s too much of a buffoon, it would come across as farce, bad farce…he is fictionally incredible, he would never work on the page.”
If there's any one thing to be learned from Hay, it's that all the rhetorical qualities which evade this would-be leader of the Free World - nuance, subtlety, positivity and encouragement - are in abundance in this Welsh valley, especially amongst the women using their platforms to speak out.
Photo Credit: Hay Festivals