Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…
At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.
That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her
feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.
It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.
There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.
When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.
It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.