Recently, I was contacted by the Women Writers Project with regards to a piece I wrote about one of the women writers I studied for my PhD; Margaret Cavendish. I had written a short introduction many moons ago whilst as a PhD student for Cavendish’ unpublished work A Piece of a Play. The WWP are updating the site and will be republishing my introduction, they wanted to know if I was still happy with the text. This stirred up a lot of emotions and thoughts for me. It is around 20 years now since I obtained my PhD and I still have a niggle of regret that I never published my thesis. Reading the work I had written as a lowly PhD student reminded me of the passion and love for “my women” as I called them, the three writers which I studied, Aphra Behn, Anne Bradstreet alongside Margaret Cavendish. I studied their poetry in relation to their presentation of gender, in particular, how they created an androgynous authorial voice to navigate the political implications of writing poetry, when such activity was broadly regarded as a masculine pursuit. For years, whenever anyone has asked me what I wrote my thesis on, I have always given the subject matter with an aside of “yes, women did write poetry in the seventeenth century”. Gradually over the years more people have heard of at least one of my women, usually Behn, sometimes Cavendish. However, when looking to update my introduction I found that there were still no more recent editions of the work since I had written the piece over twenty years ago. I spent a rather indulgent and luxurious half an hour or so looking at more recent writings, the expert scholars in the field at the time, and current undergraduate/postgraduate syllabi to see if women’s writing is now more mainstream than it was when I was studying. I concluded that it is getting there, but the pace is glacially slow. Certainly undergraduate English degrees are more diverse in the range of literature studied, but the module titles still emphasize male writers and Shakespeare features a lot.
How is any of this relevant today, I thought, other than a nice meander down memory lane? Then I came upon the section of my introduction to A Piece of a Play which comments on how women are portrayed in Restoration society. I wrote “mode-gallants are primarily responsible for defaming women, governing their reputation [they] offer opinions on [a woman’s] character, despite having never met her, and disbelieve the reports of those who do actually know her. This attitude towards women is summed up by Sir Puppy who, despite altering his whole appearance and nature to attract women, claims he must learn “to defame great Ladies, not only in private discourse, but in publick Lampoons” (II.i).”
I was quite taken aback at how pertinent this comment was in relation to our approach to inclusivity and diversity today. How true this rings in so many aspects of our society, I was particularly thinking about this in relation to the treatment of Meghan Markle in the British Press recently. And this led me to think about how this is statement could equally be true if applied to race. Earlier this year, I spent a day in a workshop organised by my university around our application for the Race Equality Charter. We discussed white privilege, averse racism, the lived experiences of people of colour and microaggressions amongst other things. It was a sobering, depressing, challenging and inspiring day. I came away renewing my intention again to listen, not to make assumptions and to commit to actually DOING something that will change my university and my interactions with others for the better. It felt like a moment of beautiful serendipity that a foray into my past resulted in a connection with my current and future. Although it is disheartening to think that, in relation to gender, the same tired clichés still apply, I am choosing to hope that we can and will do better today.