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The Lady Doth Protest: Conference Report

‘The Lady Doth Protest…’: Mapping Feminist Movements, Moments and Mobilisations

FWSA Biennial Conference

University of Nottingham

June 21st-23rd 2013

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Playing on Shakespeare’s oft-(mis)quoted idiom, ‘The Lady Doth Protest’, the FWSA’s biennial conference welcomed a varied and international audience to the University of Nottingham for a three-day conference from the 21st-23rd June 2013. With the theme ‘Mapping Feminist Movements, Moments and Mobilisations,’ this conference aimed to analyse the history of feminism on the global stage to its continuing significance in times of austerity and international political unrest. ‘The Lady Doth Protest’ functioned as a truly interdisciplinary space to discuss feminism within the academy and in activist movements, featuring three keynotes from leading activist-scholars, an advocacy and activism roundtable headed by The Feminist Library, AWAVA and WLUML, and a three-day interactive exhibition from Music & Liberation: Women’s Liberation Music Making in the UK, 1970-1989. If this wasn’t enough, the organisers also arranged evening entertainment with the raucous Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, a Queer Feminist Burlesque Collective who will be performing at The Fringe this year, and a film screening of Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, a poignant documentary directed by Dagmar Schultz. It is a feat in itself to review the sheer breadth of activities on offer so in an attempt to be brief I will focus on the panels I attended. To hear more on the entertainment, exhibition and activist sentiments of the conference, I direct you to Donna Marie Alexander’s review here.

At first glance the four-parallel panel programme looks impressive, if a little overwhelming. Across the weekend the diversity of papers was clear. From panels on negotiating neoliberalism to spirituality and feminism, ‘The Lady Doth Protest’ interrogated feminist pedagogies, critical ontologies and the practical exploration of ‘new’ feminist questions. With such a rich programme one might feel in danger of missing out on all the conference had to offer, however, the organisers thought of this too. For the benefit of attendees and non-attendees alike the organisers arranged bloggers and live-tweeters to be stationed across all panels, and at routine points these summaries were uploaded onto the FWSA conference website.

Championing each day the FWSA arranged a keynote address from an established activist-scholar. Introducing day one, Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London) explored the act of space invading in feminist history. Puwar examined the use of sound, speech and singing as a protest device in feminist past to feminist future(s). On the second day Professor Nadje Al-Ali (SOAS, University of London) spoke on protest, mobilisation and change in the Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring.’ Al-Ali discussed the contributions and marginalisation of feminist and women’s groups in times of wider national unrest. On the third day Professor Diane Elson (Emeritus Professor, University of Essex) shifted the focus to the UK and the current impact of austerity measures on women and children. Chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group (WBG) Professor Elson presented WBG’s economic analysis and revealed the disproportionate effects of austerity for women and single-parent families. The keynote addresses, while diverse in content and methodology, ultimately united on one key issue: women’s voices continue to be silenced world-wide. To hear more on the keynote addresses, visit the FWSA blog.

As for the panels I attended, these were focused on literature and engaged with the politics of the page. Presenters discussed iconic pop-feminist texts from Greer to Moran, post/feminist representations in the fiction of Michèle Roberts and the rape/revenge film, and the destabilising function of Judith Halberstam’s ‘queer art of failure’ in trans* fiction. Other presenters looked beyond the fiction page and located moments of feminism in South Asian autobiography, while others problematised the gender-equalizing resolution 1325 in the United Nations and its revival of Hegel’s ‘beautiful soul.’ Engaging, thought-provoking and well-presented, I left the conference with actor Will Rogers’s words in my ears: ‘A man only learns in two ways, one by reading and the other by association with smarter people.’

Yet still, the literature panels were sparsely attended in relation to other panels focused on the social sciences and activism. There are positives and negatives to arranging panels by discipline and both were felt.  The creator of ‘The New Academic’, Nadine Muller, who was presenting at the event, accurately summed up some of the drawbacks.

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For me as an early postgraduate researcher not presenting at the conference, a smaller audience has its advantages. Smaller audiences make it is easier to approach other attendees and it can often transform stuffy question sessions into more fluid conversations. At the close of the conference it was the questions raised in these panel discussions that stuck with me. How can we define women’s writing when many women writers reproduce the same patterns of marginalization? Does writing have to rely on didactics to be defined as feminist? Why do we do what we do – what is the political potential of literature?

When we turn our gaze to these questions that so often appear at the forefront of our minds as scholars and feminists we are reminded of the importance of feminist conferences as critical forums that challenge our ideas as much as they support them; before the lady doth protest, the lady doth question. The FWSA’s 2013 biennial conference excelled as an intersectional feminist space that presented not only important emerging research but important difficulties, new and old, within feminist activism and the academy.

Michelle Green

University of Nottingham

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Contemporary Women’s Writing and Literary Prizes: Conference Report

CWWA Event  CWWA

Contemporary Women’s Writing and Literary Prize Culture

 24th June, Leeds Metropolitan University

This free one day event was organised and run by the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association, and focussed on the impact of the literary prize culture on the style and, perhaps more importantly, the availability of contemporary women’s writing. It was well attended by a diverse range of delegates. PGRs, academics, and writers were addressed on a varied range of topics presented by academics, an author and a commercial publisher and this cross-industry approach to the advantages and disadvantages of literary prize culture resulted in some interesting discussion, idea generation and even disagreements. There were five speakers at this event, all of whom had been invited to speak by the CWWA in recognition of their unique expertise with regard to the main topic of the day.

Delegates received a warm welcome upon arrival at the Northern Terrace site, and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The absence of pre-presentation nerves among most of those in attendance added to the convivial feeling of the event, and this fed into some interesting conversation following on from some excellent and informative (and even interactive) papers.

Much of the day’s discussion focussed on the way in which market pressures skew the market in favour of books that publishers know they can sell. It seems that one of the biggest impacts as a result of literary prize culture has been the reduction in the availability of titles and the increasing commercialisation of fiction. This inevitably leads to a decline in literary fiction, and the general consensus of the day was that even those literary titles which do get through risk disappearing without trace if they cannot win, or at least get shortlisted, for one of those elusive prizes. In their paper Dr Helen Cousins and Dr Jenni Ramone discussed the antipathy of some readers to these prize winning books, they also referred to figures which show a shortlisted title can increase its sales figures by hundreds of thousands of copies. This trend of readers and publishers is of particular concern for women’s writing as all the speakers acknowledged the markedly lower numbers of female authored books which make it on to these lists (with the exception of the Orange Prize). The papers delivered in the morning sessions were complemented by the highlight of the day: Jane Rogers reading her own work and discussing this with Dr Susan Watkins, chair of the CWWA.

jessie lamb Jane Rogers has written eight books and a collection of short stories, for which she received nominations and awards from various literary prizes, most recently for her novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb. She read a tantalising section of this work, as well as one her short stories ‘Morphogenesis’, form her collection Hitting Trees with Sticks’.  In discussion with Susan Watkins, Jane talked about how Jessie Lamb nearly sank without trace before being ‘rescued’ from obscurity by literary prizes.  Showing a different side to literary prize culture, she discussed the way winning a prize can extend books life and readership, a note in contrast to earlier discussions which suggested books then become part of the hype of the moment, to be forgotten as soon as a new shortlist is announced. Jane acknowledged this complicated effect, particularly highlighting the literary prize culture’s feeding of the high street bookshops fixation on famous names, which further limits the availability of titles. This fascinating interview was concluded with the less positive notion of the artificial lines that literary prize culture creates within the market that has forced the necessity of women only prizes, such as the Orange prize, and with the hope that one day we will just be able to talk about literature, without reference to the gender of the author.

Adele Cook

University of Bedfordshire

Conference Report: The F-Word in Contemporary Women’s Writing

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The Traditional PG CWWN Conference Cake

The F-Word in Contemporary Women’s Writing

 Queens University, Belfast

4-5 April, 2013

The fourth biennial PG CWWN conference was held over two consecutive days in a surprisingly sunny Belfast, despite the remnants of snow lurking in the background. The F-word was scheduled to coincide with the centenary of one of the most infamous acts during the suffragette campaign: the death of Emily Davidson Wilding. The cross-genre approach of this conference celebrated the achievements made by contemporary women’s writing and its role in highlighting the distance we still have to cover to achieve full gender equality. With a keynote address by Diane Negra, training by the CWWA’s Helen Davies, as well as a diverse range of papers from PGRs and ECRs, this PG CWWN conference explored the place of feminism(s) within literary and scholarly writing. Held at a time when feminism within the academy is threatened by increasing cuts, it served to remind scholars of the diversity and importance of feminism as both a theoretical framework and as an active, critical movement.

The conference welcomed delegates from a variety of research backgrounds, including, literature, psychology and the social sciences, serving to highlight the diversity of feminisms within the academy and the value and benefit of these diverse yet related theoretical frameworks. The range of papers was extensive, discussing many varied topics including erotica, myth, detective fiction and manga, and dealing with the various intersections between different forms of feminism(s), media, culture and historical timeframes. The papers certainly reflected the hugely diverse range of opinions and promoted interesting and lively discussion, both during the panels and over coffee – and cake!

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Delegates enjoying the Conference Dinner

As well as this invaluable opportunity to discuss such a range of research on feminism(s), delegates were also lucky enough to share Dr. Helen Davies’ knowledge of early career publishing in a workshop session. This extremely informative session for postgraduate delegates regarding the ‘who, how, where and when’ of early career publishing was regarded by the conference delegates as an invaluable resource in what can seem a minefield! Given the current REF climate, this was a very timely workshop for all those postgraduates and early career researchers who are already wondering how they fit into the next potential REF call.

The keynote address by Diane Negra (University College Dublin), entitled ‘Claiming Feminism: Commentary, Autobiography and Advice Literature for Women in the Recession’, presented research and opinion on several autobiographies written over the last decade by high profile women, including Caitlin Moran and Ana Moura. Setting the tone for the conference, this fantastic Keynote focused on the difficulties of presenting an acceptable face of feminisms to engage the public in issues surrounding the movement, Diane Negra’s fascinating paper provoked much discussion among delegates regarding the ‘fluffy’ feminism, or neo-patriarchalism, offered in such autobiographies, and posited the question of how, as feminist scholars, we can mitigate the effects of this socially acceptable stance and if we can learn something from it.

All in all, this was a fabulous, well-organised and informative conference as always, which achieved everything it set out to do due to the hard work of the (then current) Steering Group. It was, however, extremely sad to lose Dr Claire O’ Callaghan and Cat McGurren, who stepped down from the PG CWWN Steering Group at the conference. We, as two of the four new Steering Group members, and along with the rest of the PG CWWN Steering Group, would like to express our thanks to Claire and Cat for everything they have done for the PG CWWN in their time with the Network.

Adele Cook and Claire Cowling

University of Bedfordshire and University of Hull

Conference Report: ‘(Wo)man and the Body’, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan

Renata Dalmaso, a PhD student from Brasil, won the PG CWWN/CWWA postgraduate bursary competition to attend the CWWA conference ‘Contemporary Women’s Writing: (Wo)man and the Body’ at the National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.

 

The Fourth Biennial International Conference of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association was, for the first time, held on the Asian continent, and, more specifically, in Taiwan in July. Delegates from all parts of the globe received a very warm welcome (literally, as temperatures were soaring in Taipei at the time) and got a chance to interact, discuss, and exchange ideas about the conference main theme: (Wo)Man and the Body. For three consecutive days the delegates — a very mixed group comprised of senior, early career, and postgraduate academics—followed a tight and impeccable schedule that accommodated several feature talks and addresses, as well as three concurrent panels.

 

The wide range of topics and perspectives was reflected in the selection of featured speakers. The conference opened with a keynote address by Professor Clare Hanson, focusing on new narratives of inheritance that interrogate the model of genetic reproduction and go beyond the gene. Writer addresses by Florence Howe, Linda Hogan, Shirley Lim, and Weichen Su added another layer to the discussions by presenting a perspective more closely associated with the production of literature itself, along with its implications such as publication, demand, choice of genre, audience, and style. Susan Friedman and Susan Watkins contributed to the debate raising questions about the body and embodiment in terms of memory, amnesia, and transcorporeality within specific works.

The fact that the conference was held for the first time in Asia worked out in two different ways. It allowed for a large number of Asian scholars and academics to participate in an event that due to costs and scheduling conflicts would have been much smaller if it happened at the other side of the globe. They comprised about a little over half of all the delegates. And second, it provided a new insight into the kind of research being undertaken there and the fascinating literature being produced that does not always cross the continents.

During the event we were lucky enough to attend a traditional Chinese dinner, one of the many treats provided by the organizing committee. Between estrangement and delight we were able to get a taste of another culture and learn a little bit about its histories and traditions. After the conference, a group of the delegates was even able to go on a full-day tour of Taipei, also arranged by the organizing committee, which worked as a great send off to this wonderful conference. On a more personal note, I felt particularly privileged to be able to attend this event in the capacity of a postgraduate bursary winner. To be able to combine academic work and cultural exchange in this way was something specially fortunate.

Renata Dalmaso, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, Brasil.

Conference Report: Mythic, Magical and Monstrous Women in Contemporary Women’s Writing

The last of the PG CWWN nationwide symposium series of ‘Women on Women’ for 2012 was held on 20 June at the University of Leicester. Entitled ‘Mythic, Magical and Monstrous Women in Contemporary Women’s Writing’ it was always going to attract a great deal of interest, and did so, both in the quantity of high quality papers presented and in the volume of postgraduates, at many different stages of their research, who attended the event.

The three panel sessions, ‘Grotesque Mothers’, ‘Monstrous Women I’ and then two simultaneously running panels of ‘Gender, Ghosts and Haunting’ and ‘Monstrous Women II’, negotiated the numerous genres in which femininities are presented in contemporary fiction as metafictional signifiers of gender boundaries. From research work on novels and short stories through to film and manga the papers sought to both expose and challenge the continued dominance of patriarchy and stereotypical masculine roles whilst simultaneously exploring the challenges facing females in developing their own sexualities and identities within, and sometimes consciously outside of, the patriarchal system. The dichotomous representations of the mother figure as both revered yet derided, and the non-mother as villain yet an exemplar of emancipation were addressed in many of the papers which were thoughtful, vibrant and provoked lengthy, wide-ranging questioning from the audience. Indeed, the inclusion of gender theory, feminism, queer theory, historiography and film theory throughout the speakers’ presentations created the opportunity for much discussion throughout the day.

The keynote speaker to round off this fascinating day was Dr Becky Munford, Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. With research interests in feminism and gender, twentieth century women’s writing and Angela Carter in particular, she was perfectly placed, in light of the event’s overall themes and subsequent discussion, to give her keynote speech on ‘Writing in Blood and Dust: Angela Carter and the Sadeian Gothic’. This proved to be as entertaining as it was enlightening, receiving a very warm reception and subject to lively and varied questioning from an enraptured audience.

One of the most appreciated components of the event, and commented upon by numerous attendees, was its overriding friendliness. Those giving papers, from first-time presenters to those more experienced at presenting their research, were very lucky to be doing so in such a supportive and encouraging environment. The venue itself was easy to find and delegates were warmly greeted by the PG CWWN steering group, replete with name badges and conference packs for delegates. Lunch time arrangements merit some praise, too – a welcome cold buffet lunch, given the tremendous heat of the day that continued to keep everyone satiated well into the afternoon sessions. To complete the event, a wine reception, and a great opportunity to utilise this time for networking with other researchers, sent everyone home smiling and with a great deal of food for thought.

Overall, this well-organised and smooth-running conference day was indicative of the exciting and stimulating research which notably strengthens the interdisciplinary cohesiveness between such subjects as English, philosophy, history, film studies and sociology as it explores the continued representation of gender in twenty-first century creative works. It became very clear throughout the day that there is much valid work to be done in the consideration of, and challenge to, the multifarious nature of the mythic, monstrous and fairy tale woman as a (self-) perpetuation of gender stereotypes in modern culture, and that the postgraduate community is particularly pro-active in this strand of research. I can only say that, after such an inspiring PG CWWN event, I look forward immensely to April 2013 and the next PG CWWN conference in Belfast.

 

Claire Cowling, Open University