Yesterday was International Women’s Day and in celebration of this I participated in a rather wonderful event organised by Dr Catherine Han and Cardiff University’s SCOLAR (Special Collections and Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library). The theme was ‘Hidden Histories and Secret Voices’, and showcased the library’s fantastic collection of manuscripts as well as the work of some of the University’s most exciting researchers.
Three speakers – Susan Morgan, Stephanie Clayton, and Dr Becky Munford – gave an introductory talk about these items. Susan spoke about anatomical atlases and their representation of the female body as neo-classical, modest and ‘other’; Stephanie introduced us all to the diaries of Priscilla Scott-Ellis and explored the ways in which they had been edited for publication; Becky spoke of women in trousers in the nineteenth century. It was great to hear about these aspects of women’s history – particularly on this day. It felt like a form of resistance – against dominant versions of history which have often silenced women’s voices, and against the present moment too. Earlier today, I found myself explaining to a family member why we should all be feminists: because there are still people, institutions, governments and systems that consider women as objects to be exploited, bought, sold, abused and undermined. Women are murdered and mutilated and silenced. And sexism is pervasive, even in comparatively privileged spaces (the Everyday Sexism Project shows us this).
Sometimes I feel completely helpless in the face of this, even though I’m in a privileged position. I’m white, educated and British (though I’m not feeling particularly comfortable with that last label at present…and usually I define myself as Welsh). I’m not rich, and I grew up in a working-class household, but I don’t know how it feels to live in real poverty. I have never gone hungry. I have never been at the mercy of someone else’s charity. I’m happy in my marriage. When I am at home I am safe. I’m free to pursue my chosen career. I can write this and put it in a public space and no-one will stop me or punish me for speaking.
One of my new year’s resolutions is to be more active in helping other women to express themselves. It’s more important now than ever to make sure that women’s voices and histories are heard. Poetry and literature is a powerful tool for this – just look at this list of contemporary literature by refugees, or Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook.
So here’s the activity from the poetry workshop I ran yesterday. Thank you to all the participants – you were great.
Prompts (choose one of these):
- You have a secret. Write a poem which shares – or refuses to share – this secret. Is the secret yours or someone else’s? Under what circumstances would you disclose or keep it? There are often ways of telling truths without explicitly saying them (think of the ways in which children sometimes tell the truth through their behaviour, for instance). Play around with the idea of silence: how might you say everything by saying nothing?
- Write a poem based on your sensory experience of a material object. It can be anything: a pair of trousers, a handbag, a letter. What does your encounter with this object tell you about its/your/the owner’s history?
- Write a poem challenging an accepted version of history. Tell it from a different perspective. You might want to write down a list of common-place sayings or ‘truths’ about history (‘history repeats itself’, ‘history is written by the winners’, for example) and use these as your building blocks (as Helen Mort does in ‘Difficult Women’). How can these be altered to make us think about history in a different way?
The poems we read together were ‘Handbag’ by Ruth Fainlight, ‘Inside the Gateway: 1970s Red Clogs with Side Buckle’ by Vahni Capildeo (from the sequence, Investigation of Past Shoes), ‘Difficult Women’ by Helen Mort, ‘My Blood is Black’ by DéLana R.A. Dameron, and ‘How I Abandoned My Body to His Keeping’ by Kim Moore.