50 years of the best of female writing

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During the 1970s, despite an industry dominated by men, women writers began to occupy a central place in literature. Today, we can say that women writers and editors dominate publishing, such has been the strength of this movement. Indeed, a recent Sunday Times article questioned whether young male novelists were being left out and whether a men’s award was the answer.

Those who fought for decades to get women’s writings published, reviewed and put on price lists might be forgiven for a moment of schadenfreude. After all, not too long ago, the Women’s Prize was created to make up for the shortage of women on Booker’s shortlist, or since Seamus Deane, editor of the three volumes of Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing “forgot” to include women, requiring the addition of two more volumes.

But as champions of women’s writing know, it’s always better to be inclusive, and the literary realm gets poorer when good books are left out. Better to celebrate the success of women’s writing while keeping an eye on the statistics. Over the next few months, this series will look back on 50 years of some of the best female novels, non-fiction and poetry.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan and The Female Eunuch (1970) by Germaine Greer, among other texts, are due to The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir (1949, English translation by Howard Parshley, 1953). They gave voice to dissatisfied mid-century women and unleashed the “second wave” of feminism. These books exposed patriarchal prejudices in the field of literature and debunked myths about what literature should and could be and do, and with increased access to education for women in the 1960s, paved the way to the novelists, essayists and poets who were to follow.

I met The Female Eunuch in the early 1990s as a young feminist in conflict. On the one hand, I believed that compared to my mother’s generation – married, excluded from her job and stuck at home with children – women had achieved equality, yet I was enrolled in a master’s degree in studies. feminists to understand why there had been almost no women in my four-year undergraduate program in English Literature. The independent, documentary, globe-trotting, independent part of me found Greer’s book dated, or at least useless, while the fledgling writer who couldn’t find her way around the canon saw what Greer saw: that women had been cut off from their creativity and capacity for action and transformation.

For Erica Jong, these feminist texts made it possible to publish her first novel (Salon, February 2006). Vaguely aware of his iconic status, I searched for Fear of Flying in Acres of Books in Long Beach, California, where I was then living. Growing up in 1980s Dublin, where we now had the pill, for goodness sake, and condoms, I was sure this old book would be of little interest to me. I opened the slightly moldy blanket and Isadora Wing pulled me in from her first row. “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I had been treated by at least six of them. And married a seventh. It is this stifling second marriage that brings Isadora, author of erotic poetry (with apologies to Jong for the asterisks), “to evolve [her] fantasy of the f *** without zipper. The fucking zipless was more than a ***. It was a platonic ideal. Without zipper because when you got together, the zippers fell like rose petals, the underwear suddenly flew off like dandelion fluff. The tongues intertwined and became liquid. Your whole soul flowed through your tongue and into your lover’s mouth ”.

Jong’s intrepid portrayal of a female artist exploring her sexuality and creativity was shocking in its frankness (the reader, there wasn’t even the smell of a zipper-less “fuck” in 1980s Dublin. ) and very funny. It has sold over 27 million copies to date.

Women writing about sex were revolutionary and controversial, as Edna O’Brien knew all too well. Her Country Girls trilogy was banned in Ireland in the 1960s for its frank treatment of sexuality; Church and State had little idea what O’Brien had in store for them in the 1970s. A year before Isadora Wing de Jong set out on her quest for sexual freedom, O’Brien’s Mary Hooligan stood in a four-poster bed, deftly speaking to Molly Bloom unrepentant in her sexual twists and turns. Night is the experimental novel that O’Brien wrote after taking LSD with psychiatrist RD Laing, whom she describes as “half-lucifer, half-Christ”, in which she disrupts language and subverts her own writing and that of its predecessors. I started reading O’Brien in the early 1990s for my master’s thesis with ever-widening eyes; They were books from my grandmother’s shelves!

Erica Jong: “Jong’s intrepid portrayal of a female artist exploring her sexuality and creativity was shocking in its frankness and very funny.”

The early 1970s marked the start of a new renaissance in black women’s writing, with Toni Morrison’s novels, The Bluest Eye, and Sula, and Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. , released a few years apart. Alice Walker wrote about the removal of black women’s handwriting in Ms. magazine after discovering the anonymous grave of Zora Neale Hurston, the author of four novels, short stories, plays and numerous anthropological essays, and a light brilliance of the Harlem Renaissance; this would lead to Walker’s Collection of Finding Our Mothers’ Gardens in the 1980s. Like weeds invading a grave, the status quo has a way of reasserting itself (which is why it may be premature to cry. neglect of the young male author).

In the early 1970s, women spoke out against racial and sexual inequality, war and the destruction of nature. They advocated change and their voices were heard; and they were getting the recognition, albeit a little reluctantly. Nadine Gordimer, continuing her chronicle of apartheid in South Africa, won the Booker-McConnell Prize in 1974 for her novel, The Conservationist, although the prize was shared with a man. The year before, Adrienne Rich had won the National Book Award for her feminist collection, Diving into the Wreck; it too was shared with a man. In response, Rich shared his award with other nominees, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker “on behalf of all women.” The texts of Gordimer and Rich remain relevant, as I discovered recently by reading them in the context of ecocriticism and environmental writing.

Women not only innovated with their stories, essays and poems, but they also created new spaces for their work. Judy Blume didn’t appear on this side of the Atlantic in time for me, but generations after mine devoured those pioneering books that were written specifically for teens, tackling difficult or controversial topics. For author, editor and creative writing teacher, Claire Hennessy, “Judy Blume has always been the writer who was honest with you when other adults weren’t.” To date, Blume has sold over 75 million books.

The success of women’s writing in the 1970s was made possible and supported by the creation of publishers such as The Feminist Press (1970) and Ms. (1971) in the United States, Virago (1973) and The Women’s Press ( 1978) in the UK, and here in Ireland Arlen House (1975) and Attic Press (1978). Women also insisted on joining the canon beyond the English-speaking world: women like Annie Ernaux and Hélène Cixous (France); Ingeborg Bachmann (Germany); María Luisa Bombal (Chile); Clarice Lispector (Brazil); Marta Traba (Argentina); Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt), to name a few. El Saadawi’s Woman at Zero Point, about a woman sentenced to death in Cairo for the murder of her pimp, is as radical, courageous and disturbing today as when I first read it in the 1990s. .

British poet and novelist Margaret Drabble with Irish author Edna O'Brien in 1972. Photo: Michael Webb / Keystone / Getty Images

British poet and novelist Margaret Drabble with Irish author Edna O’Brien in 1972. Photo: Michael Webb / Keystone / Getty Images

I was a kid in the 1970s, so I read Women Writers from that decade after the event, and what I found there shocked, surprised, and delighted me. It was exciting, revolutionary, canon-defying experimental writing, often far more daring than what has passed as risk-taking or controversy in the decades since. I often wonder how the trajectory of my life as a writer might have differed if some of these texts had appeared in my undergraduate program. If, like me, you missed them on the first try, I encourage you to take the plunge and catch up on some or all of the titles mentioned here (with more to come). You will not be disappointed.

Paula McGrath is the author of Generation and A History of Running Away and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at UCD

  • I know why the caged bird is singing by Maya Angelou (1969) An account of the author’s early years and how books helped her overcome racism and sexual trauma.
  • Toni Morrison’s bluest eye (1970) Too dark even for her own black community, a young girlI believes she could be beautiful if only she had blue eyes.
  • Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970) Bloom’s best-known book deals with teenage Margaret’s struggles with puberty and religion.
  • Germaine Greer’s woman eunuch (1970) A “second wave” feminist bible.
  • Edna O’Brien Night (1972) Mary Hooligan recounts her life and loves from her four-poster bed in rich and sensual prose.
  • Wreck dive by Adrienne Rich (1973) Fierce and provocative poems about the pain of the lives of queer women and women throughout history.
  • The fear of flying by Erica Jong (1973) A woman struggles to find her place in the world through unattached sexual encounters.
  • Sula by Toni Morrison (1973) Friendship and Betrayal and what it means to be a black woman in America.
  • Nadine Gordimer’s ecologist (1974) Apartheid seen through the eyes of Mehring, a wealthy white man and weekend farmer, told through complex and poetic prose.
  • Finding Zora Neale Hurston by Alice Walker (1975) Walker wrote about the removal of black women’s handwriting after discovering the anonymous grave of Zora Neale Hurston, a brilliant light of the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Woman at zero point of Nawal El Saadawi (1975, translated into English in 1983 by Sherif Hetata) Sentenced to death for the murder of her pimp, Firdaus tells her story from her prison cell.


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