From Cynisca to the pages of the TLS, if we write women out of history, we only get half the story

History written by men becomes men’s history. That's why we've started a new prize.

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Growing up, I remember assuming that, with the exception of Jane Austen, there were no female novelists until the Brontës and George Eliot came along – and even then, the pioneers had to adopt male names to get published.

Of course, I was wrong: there were thousands of female writers before the Victorian era (even if they didn’t quite make up the majority of 18th-century novelists, as was thought until a few years ago). Women bought novels in huge numbers – one reason why the form was considered less prestigious than poetry – and many of them wrote prose fiction, too: Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, Delarivier Manley, Mary Hays.

Today, these women are largely unknown outside university English departments. Where we do remember them, it is through the eyes of male writers. Eliza Haywood, for instance, is chastised for the allegedly bawdy nature of her work by being depicted as the judge of a literal pissing contest in The Dunciad by Alexander Pope, deciding “who best can send on high/The salient spout, far-streaming to the sky”. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a talented poet and letter-writer, becomes “furious Sappho”, a “flagrant whore” in a dirty smock.

When we look back at the 18th-century novel now, the classic trajectory – first put forward in Ian Watt’s influential 1957 study The Rise of the Novel, but strangely resilient today – runs from Daniel Defoe to Henry Fielding, then on to the doorstoppers of Samuel Richardson. This analysis is not only sexist, implying that no women wrote a commercial or critical success deserving study in that time, it’s bad scholarship. Sucking all the women out of history creates an artificial narrative and leaves the story of literature only half told. Jane Austen did not simply spring into being, fully formed, from a bleak void, as I assumed during my teenage years. She was writing in the same tradition as Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, and her work becomes richer when placed in its proper context.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even as these women were writing, many of them were aware that the literary equivalent of a man with a bucket of whitewash was following them around, erasing their contributions to history. Mary Hays tried to fight this tendency, creating her own version of the collections of Great Lives popular at the time. She chose 300 women for her six-volume Female Biography, first published in 1803. But just as she is now largely forgotten so, too, are most of the women she wrote about: Cynisca, the first woman to win at the Olympic Games; Anne Askew, the first Englishwoman to demand a divorce; the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, tortured with the thumbscrews after she reported being raped by her tutor.

The story of Hays tells us two things: first, that women have been writing for longer than we might imagine; and second that they have often tried to write other women into history, too. And yet, like tight knicker elastic, the dominant story always seems to snap back into place, leaving men as the default doers and the default recorders. History written by men becomes men’s history.

Thank goodness things have moved on, eh? Well, not as much as you might hope. Today, despite the best efforts of feminist academics, women’s writing is still not getting an equal share of attention and critical respect. Vida, an American organisation that promotes women’s literature, found last year that literary coverage is persistently dominated by men – both in terms of the books reviewed and the gender of the reviewers. The London Review of Books, for example, had 527 male authors and critics in 2014, and just 151 women. The figures for the Times Literary Supplement were 327 women, compared to 715 men. The standard response for publications is to decry the problem, but then solemnly opine that quotas are not a solution, as they judge by merit alone. But that, again, is only half the story. The only publication found in the Vida count to feature more women than men, Tin House, a small quarterly journal based in Oregon, actively seeks out women reviewers and authors.

“Agents sent us two-thirds more men than women,” its editor, Rob Spillman, told the Guardian. “And more disturbing, I found that when I reject someone and tell them to send me something else, men were about four times more likely than women to send me something.” In other words, by doing nothing, you are making a political decision: to perpetuate the status quo.

The New Statesman does not feature in the Vida count, but the proportion of female writers and critics featured in the magazine is a frequent subject of debate in the office. Our culture editor, Tom Gatti, takes the view that “calling out” individual editors, publications and PRs is of limited use: we are all part of an ecosystem where it is easier for men to write and promote their work (partly because they are less likely to have caring responsibilities) and their books are more likely to be reviewed by someone with a background and outlook similar to theirs (hence why novels about middle-aged literature professors having a personal crisis are so often held up as a “universal exploration of what it means to be human”).

That is why the NS has partnered with Virago, the women’s publishing house, to run a competition to uncover a female would-be author with a great book idea on politics and economics. I will be judging it (alongside Tom, the FT’s Gillian Tett and Virago’s Lennie Goodings), and you’ll see the winner in the magazine next year. It might not be much, but it will help redress the balance, just as Mary Hays tried to do; and it will help ensure that future generations don’t only get half the story.

For more details of the competition visit: virago.co.uk/prize

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe

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