The Hay Literary Festival: Debating Gender

Rosemary Evans reviews the feminist trend at this year’s Hay Literary Festival

The annual Hay Literary Festival is renowned for being a hub of current and intellectual debate, and this year was no exception. Visitors to the festival in the Welsh village of Hay-On-Wye in late May saw thought-provoking discussions ranging from mental health to Cold War history to the future of gay fiction, delivered by a wide variety of distinguished speakers.

However, as the festival got underway for its 31st year, one topic of debate seemed to take centre stage: amidst the inevitable discussions on the implications of Brexit and Trump and the odd conversation about the impact of technology, impossible to miss was the prominence of the topic of feminism and gender.

With this year marking 100 years since British women were given the right to vote, the Suffragette undertones at Hay were particularly striking. Historian Fern Riddell delivered a talk on the subject of her book – Death In Ten Minutes – about the life of radical suffragette, Kitty Marion. This complemented a discussion by women’s rights activist, Helen Pankhurst (the great-granddaughter of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst) on the  legacy of the suffrage movement, examining how women’s lives have changed over the past century. Similarly, a panel of female speakers including Sarah Greer and Krista Cowman emphasised the significance of the centenary with their question: Is 2018 the year of women? Reflecting on the political waves created by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, they asked whether 2018 would be a turning point in the battle for gender equality.

Feminism also featured heavily in children’s literature at Hay, with Chelsea Clinton promoting her picture book She Persisted Around the World. With illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, Clinton’s #1 New York Times Bestseller celebrates thirteen inspirational women, including Marie Curie and Malala Yousafzai, who have broken gender barriers and shaped history across the globe.

Discussion of the remaining barriers to gender equality was led by the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates, who talked to Owen Sheers about the scale of the challenge facing feminists in the modern world. Both writers promoted their new collaborative work, Letters to the Future: On Equality and Gender, a series of letters which plan and imagine a future free of gender restrictions. In a similar vein,  Deborah Frances-White, host of the popular comedy podcast The Guilty Feminist, talked about the experience of being a woman in the twenty-first century, suggesting how society could make progress in the area of gender equality.

Exploration of gender in a broader sense also contributed to the debate, with Robert Webb’s discussion of his autobiography, How Not To Be a Boy, providing an exploration of gender conditioning. In his book, Webb discusses the way that expectations surrounding masculinity, particularly the expectation to be violent and emotionally repressed, are harmful to men, emphasising the need to address this gender conditioning in order to improve men’s lives.

A similar challenge to the fixity of gender norms was provided by psychologist Cordelia Fine in her discussion of the validity of ideas about gendered minds. She drew on the arguments raised in her latest book, Testosterone Rex, in which Fine uses scientific research to debunk the myth of difference between male and female brains, arguing that gender binaries are not natural, but cultural.

Despite the array of discourse on feminism and gender, the most talked-about opinion as the festival drew to a close was Germaine Greer’s highly controversial statement that the punishment for rape be reduced. Speaking at the festival on the 30th May about her latest book, On Rape, Greer argued that rape should be viewed  not as a “violent” act, but merely as “lazy, careless and insensitive”. She went on to suggest that the harsh prison sentences given to those convicted of the crime has done nothing to reduce incidents of rape, and has merely resulted in  “an erosion of the civil rights of the accused”.

Greer’s argument was vehemently attacked, with journalists and social media users criticising her comments as dangerous for modern feminism.

Greer’s comments did appear discordant with the progressive wave of feminism that dominated this year’s festival. While such events should undoubtedly be places of healthy debate, it is nonetheless jarring to think that in the year supposedly hailed as the ‘year of women’, one woman used a major platform at Hay to seemingly act as an apologist for rape.

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