I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series. Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four inspirational women writers.
In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926. The dress appears to be of taffeta silk, has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture. It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young, yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.
This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’. In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced. In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.
Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life. But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot). Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century. Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.
Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest. A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group. She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.
I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue. Perhaps it was just an appealing idea; who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken? But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist, aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.
In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman. As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….
“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’
Maybe. But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.
This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.
I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.
For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.
“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”
If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Someone who understood those power structures, and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!
- Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500. She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
- Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
- Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.
In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:
“[in the 1970’s] … we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”
My Own Words is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.
“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”
Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.
Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.
That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.
How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?
Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:
“As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent. There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth. You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”
Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing, and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.
The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote: “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”
“You can see nothing of her but her head
Bent over the page, her hand moving
Moving again, and her hair.
I wrote like that once.
But this is different.
This time, when she looks up, I will be there.
From: Is it Still the Same?
(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007