Is English Equal? – Gender Equality in the Department of English.

James, Beckett, Keats, Tolkien ,Tennyson. All renowned authors. All worthy of study. All male. All have modules dedicated to them at the University of York. Jane Austen stands as the lone female author to have a module. Is the department doing enough to bring female writers to the forefront? I undertook research into how equal our department really is.

Autumn term modules for third years were my first port of call, with three being dedicated to male writers, none to female. After looking at a break down of each, all except two had less than half of their primary sources written by women. ‘Literature and Ecology’ championed, having four out of the five primary sources on the reading list by women and ‘Modernism’s Queer Spaces’ followed closely behind, featuring an even split of men and women authors too. In contrast, the compulsory first year modules, ‘Translations’ and ‘Approaches: Medieval to Modern’, only two women writers were named sources out of the eight required.

Evidently, some of the modules that offer no women writers among their primary texts have their reasons. In the contextual period for ‘Anglo Saxon: Conquest, Conversion, Assimilation’, it would have been rare for women to produce literature or, if so, it’s unlikely to have been preserved . This opens debate as to how far we can judge gender equality within a module when history plays a huge part in contemporary academic study. I spoke to Dr Matthew Townend, whose research areas include Viking Age England and Anglo-Saxon literary culture, about this issue:

How do you deal with the issue of including women writers in early literature?

MT: We try very hard to include female writers, though of course the particular challenges for medieval modules are: (1) far fewer identifiable female writers than male; and (2) many medieval texts are anonymous. So where there are not enough texts written (…)by female authors, we make sure to include texts, which have female subjects.

In a new module, ‘The Shock of The New: Medieval Literature’, Matt points out that three of the seven core texts are incredibly valuable works written by or about women, including “The Lais of Marie de France, (probably the most important female writer of the whole European Middle Ages)”. Matt added, in other areas, such as Old Norse, there is a more extreme situation, where “there are no known female saga writers” but “Old Norse Literature raises unusually interesting questions about gender roles and expectations”.

Is gender discussed when deciding reading for the modules?

MT: Yes. On team-taught modules such as ‘The Shock of the New’, it’s absolutely something we discuss at planning stage. We also think about modern, secondary scholarship – making sure that our reading lists show a balance of male and female scholars.

I asked Matt about further research into women writers of earlier periods, he suspected that “because the whole corpus of writings is smaller than for the modern period there probably aren’t many – or any – undiscovered or forgotten female writers from the medieval period”, adding that “it’s important to think what else we can do”, emphasizing the department take the issue of gender and diversity “very seriously” and “address them in whatever ways they can”.

Moving forward in time, the 21st Century American Fiction offered in autumn term has merely five works by women out of the twenty essential texts. Where is the department going wrong? Or what are they doing to try address and combat gender equality? I spoke to Head of Department, Helen Smith, about this:

How, as a department head, do you ensure gender equality throughout the department?

HS: Good question! I’m a member of the department’s Athena Swan team, who have been working hard (…) to scrutinise our practices in relation to gender and equality. We’ve analysed data we have on everything from student numbers to staff training and promotions, we also undertook large-scale surveys of all our staff and students to find out about attitudes and experiences.

Is the gender of authors discussed when deciding reading for modules or when new modules are proposed?

HS: It is now, though it’s not something we’ve done systematically in the past. Now, when staff members propose a new module, we ask them to say explicitly how the module addresses questions of diversity and representation. We are surveying all our modules to think about how we can make sure they properly represent the most exciting women’s voices when it comes to both primary and secondary materials. We will be keeping more of an eye on gender equality when it comes to the question of what Advance Option and Topic Modules we offer each year – this year, for instance, my own module (‘Writing Early Modern Women’) and another couple of great women-centered modules aren’t running, and we should have made sure there was something there in their place.

When asking Helen, personally, what more could be done in the department she suggested that there can be a “quite binary view of gender”, stressing that she wants to prioritise “thinking in imaginative ways about issues of gender, sexuality and representation across the spectrum”.

What can students do to promote gender equality then? Helen reminded me that we do have an Equality and Diversity Rep, our student voice, adding “I’d encourage students very warmly to approach her, me, or our Equality and Diversity Officer, Deborah Russell and Athena Swan lead, Freya Sierhuis, if they have good ideas about what the department could be doing”. She also highlighted the importance of students getting involved with the department and participating in events and research; “holding us to account is really important – scrutinise those modules and the department website, and let us know when we’re not getting it right ”.

Gender equality in York’s English Department is a responsibility shared between all of us involved in study and research, we can all take small steps to diversify our study, and thus provide a more equal curriculum for future generations.


Alice Weetman

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