The Berkshire Record published this column by Festival Director Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez in the April 6, 2013 issue:
It takes many villages and many people to create a grand Festival like the month-long, county-wide Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and I want to thank everyone who helped make it happen: the more than 150 women who participated as presenters and hosts, the venue hosts who generously donated their space, the Local Cultural Councils of fifteen Berkshire towns who helped with funding, along with the John A. Sellon Charitable Trust, the Massachusetts Council on the Humanities, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Quality Printing, the Shoppers Guide and the many other donors and advertisers who helped bring the 2013 Festival of Women Writers to the more than 2,000 people who packed the audiences of events throughout the Berkshires during the month of March.
I have been asked, why limit the Festival to just women writers? Why not make it open to all? My answer comes right from the voices of many of the women who participated in this year’s Festival, who underscored how hard it is, still, for women to overcome structural barriers to their full creative and economic participation in the literary world.
Research has shown—from Carol Gilligan to Mary Pipher to Leonard Sax—that in mixed-gender gatherings, women tend to become more reserved, to hesitate and lose the self-confidence needed to assert themselves in public. The current controversy over Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which urges women to be aggressive into order to succeed professionally, underscores the fact that women must overcome strong cultural conditioning to succeed in what is still a male-dominated world.
In addition, it is still true that women bear a disproportionate responsibility on the home front, which can make it hard for them to give their all to their literary careers. A woman who is continually on call as the primary homemaker and child care provider will have a much harder time writing that Great American Novel or becoming a senior editor at a major news organization or publishing company.
Some women, like Sheryl Sandberg, are wealthy enough to be able to employ others to do the housework, but even for these few, it is still true that women are underrepresented in the annals of “great writers” of the past as well as the present, which creates unspoken but powerful expectations—for example, that women only write “chick lit” about “women’s issues.” The truth is that women today are writing about every topic under the sun, making our Festival of Women Writers sessions of great interest to the men as well as the women in our audiences.
I hope that one day there will no longer be a need to provide a special platform for women to step out and share their voices in the public sphere, but right now, from everything I’ve heard back from presenters and audience members, it is clear to me that women still need that extra encouragement, that sense of being welcomed into a space that explicitly seeks their perspectives.
The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers aims to give women writers the boost of a dedicated space of their own, where it is a given that they will have the spotlight and the full attention of all present. I thank the Berkshires for providing such a welcoming, enthusiastic response to the upwelling of women’s creative expression during the Festival month, and look forward to all the ripples that will continue to spread out in the coming weeks and months as we lay the groundwork for the 2014 Festival season.