Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon
This is the preamble to a pledge aimed at redressing the gender imbalance in Irish poetry. The pledge, which we invite scholars and writers of all genders to sign, commits signatories to asking questions about gender representation.
Since the penning of this pledge was prompted by the announcement of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, ed. Gerald Dawe (Cambridge University Press, 2017), we include here a brief account of the misrepresentation of women’s contribution in Irish poetry in critical volumes like the Cambridge Companion as well as in anthologies, conferences and other publications and events. We see the Cambridge Companion as a single stark iteration of a much wider problem.
We suggest some of the ways in which this volume might have acknowledged the contribution of women to Irish poetry. By drawing attention to women’s contribution, we intend to set a positive example for future editors, publishers, teachers and organizers in Irish literature.
Critical volumes such as the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets are presented as surveys of the canon of our national literature, yet they frequently misrepresent our literature by failing to take account of the work of women writers. The absence of women poets from this and other publications leads to a distorted impression of our national literature and to a simplification of women’s roles within it. The implication is that women are a minority in Irish poetry and literary criticism. They are not. In fact, it would not have been burdensome for the Cambridge Companion to more truthfully represent the gender balance in Irish poetry, since women’s contribution to Irish poetry and Irish literary criticism is plentiful and rich. We find it difficult to comprehend that the gender imbalance of this volume was not questioned at any stage of the peer review process.
The forthcoming Cambridge Companion repeats the minimization or obliteration of women’s poetry by previous anthologies and surveys. The most famous of these is the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Field Day, 1991), but the process of exclusion pre-dates the Field Day project (Ní Dhomhnaill 2002, Keating 2017). The Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical text books.
No women poets from the 18th, 19th and earlier 20th century are included in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion. Among the poets of the 18th century who might have been included are Laetitia Pilkington, Mary Barber, Mary Tighe and Dorothea Herbert, while Charlotte Brooke’s creative translation Reliques of Irish Poetry is unquestionably influential (Ní Mhunghaile 2009). The influence of the 19th-century poet and novelist Emily Lawless on 20th-century Irish writers, to take another example, is repeatedly asserted in scholarship (Calahan 1991, Hansson 2007). The Cambridge Companion does not take advantage of the work done on Irish women poets in the early Romantic period (Wright 2006, Behrendt 2010). It does not take advantage of the work done on women’s participation in the archipelagic coterie poetics at the time of Anne Southwell and Katherine Phillips (Prescott 2014, Carpenter and Collins 2014.) Nor does it attend to the poets of the Irish literary revival and the First World War, who include Katharine Tynan, Susan Mitchell, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Ethna Carbery, Eva Gore-Booth and Nora Hopper Chesson. The anthology Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight has made work by these poets widely available and has argued for the centrality of women’s writing to the Irish literary revival, when considered in its European context (Nì Dhuibhne 1995).
In a volume that includes less well-established male poets from the mid-century, the absence of mid-century women poets is particularly striking. It is not new. The repeated neglect of these mid-century women poets in constructions of Irish literary history has been addressed by Fogarty (1999) Clutterbuck (1999), Schreibman (2001), Sullivan (2003), Collins (2012) and Mulhall (2012). The critical anthology Poetry by Women in Ireland 1870-1970 has made the work of women poets from the mid-century widely available (Collins 2012). Despite this availability the powerfully subversive poetry of mid-century women poets is completely omitted from the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets.
The Cambridge Companion misses an opportunity to introduce students and other readers to modernist, avant-garde and experimental Irish poetry. Poets such as Lola Ridge, Freda Laughton, Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, Sheila Wingfield, Catherine Walsh, Maighréad Medbh and Mairéad Byrne are poorly represented as it is, since there are few anthologies which highlight modernist and avant-garde Irish poetry. To redress this neglect, the current volume could have taken advantage of, for instance, Susan Schreibman’s work on the poets of 1929-1959 (2001); work done by Daniel Tobin and Terese Svoboda on Lola Ridge (2004, 2016); Anne Fogarty’s work on Rhoda Coghill (1999); Emma Penney’s work on Freda Laughton (forthcoming); Alex Davis’ work on Sheila Wingfield (2001); Claire Bracken’s work on Catherine Walsh (2005, 2008, 2016); Lucy Collins’ work on Catherine Walsh (2015); and Moynagh Sullivan’s work on Blanaid Selkeld (2003).
Failure to pay adequate attention to Irish-language poetry compounds the exclusion of women from the Cambridge Companion, since it mitigates against the inclusion of, for instance, Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Caitlín Maude, Biddy Jenkinson, Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, Celia de Freine and Collette Ní Ghallchoir, as well as 18th-century oral women’s poetry. There is significant scholarship to be drawn on particularly in the case of Màire Mhac an tSaoi (De Paor (ed.) 2014, De Paor 2013, Titley 2012). The volume risks forfeiting the opportunity for a new generation of students and scholars to interrogate the place women poets writing in the Irish language have occupied in our national cultural development.
Finally, we note the absence of working-class women’s poetry from volumes such as this. While little enough scholarship has been produced in this area, we might point for an obvious example to the work of Paula Meehan, who has engaged explicitly with the landscape and history of working-class Dublin in her poetry. We call on scholars, editors and publishers to attend to diversity in Irish poetry, in all its dimensions.
The absence of women from our critical volumes, literary surveys and anthologies alters literary history and distorts the way we read contemporary women’s poetry, raising a question for readers as to whether Irish women writers existed or exist today in any number. What message do we want to send to our young scholars? Will their contribution to Irish literature or literary criticism be deemed less valuable because they are women?
Why a Pledge?
Our dismay at the gender imbalance in the representation of Irish poets in this volume is exacerbated by the gender imbalance in the critical contributors to it. Out of thirty invited contributors, only four are women. As writers and academics, this is an absence we can easily address in future edited volumes. We propose to do so by means of a pledge, which we invite you to sign with us. Our pledge is short and simple. It commits us to asking questions about gender representation early on in collaborative projects such as edited collections, conferences and festivals. It commits us to withdrawing our participation when, in our opinion, insufficient effort is made to render representation fair.
Pledges like this one are increasingly common in any field where participants want to take positive action to promote gender fairness. An example is the online petition set up by Virginia Valian and Dan Sperber, in which “signatories commit to accepting talk invitations only from conferences that have made good-faith efforts to include women” (For Gender Equity Team 2012). As with Valian and Sperber’s pledge, we place emphasis on good-faith efforts. A good-faith effort does not have to mean 50-50 representation of men and women. A good-faith effort by editors, publishers and event organisers might include taking the following actions (adapted from Martin 2014, Gender Equity Team 2012, Feminist Philosophers 2011.):
I pledge henceforth to withdraw my participation from publications, edited collections, conferences, festivals and other projects which do not make what I consider to be a good-faith effort to adequately represent the contribution women make to literature and literary criticism.
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