To mark International Women’s Day (8 March), Professor Diana Wallace, Director of the English Research Unit and Co-Director of USW’s Centre for Gender Studies in Wales, tells us about her area of research.
Tell us about your research
My research is mainly on women’s writing. That came out of my frustration when I did my BA in the 1980s. Around 70-80% of the texts we studied were by male writers (despite the fact that the majority of students were female). I started actively looking for books by women and one day I found Ellen Moers’ wonderful book, Literary Women (first published in 1976), in the library. Pure serendipity! It had a bibliography in the back and I started working my way through it. Historical fiction and the Gothic, both very important for women writers, are two of the main areas I’ve specialised in but I also increasingly work on Welsh writing in English. My current project is an edition of Margiad Evans’s Autobiography for Honno - it’s an extraordinary experiment in what she called ‘earth writing’ – and a monograph on modernist historical fiction.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
It’s a chance to celebrate what we have achieved. But it’s also a chance to take stock and to think about
all the work there is still to do. Progress is never straightforward. The moment in Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale where the women find that their bank cards no longer work slightly haunts me – it’s a
salutary reminder that things can come unpicked more quickly than one expects.
How has women’s writing changed over the years?
There’s more diversity and, maybe, more confidence. Women are writing brilliantly in all the different
genres and, even better, hybridising them: think of Gwyneth Lewis’ The Meat Tree, for instance, which
re-writes the story of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogi as a kind of mytho-poetic science fiction
adventure. Or Bernardine Everisto’s Girl Woman Other, a series of cleverly linked short stories which
make up a novel. Or Alison Bechdel’s acutely observed tragi-comic graphic memoir Fun Home.
Have you seen differences in how women are represented (media, culture etc) since becoming an academic?
Yes, very much so. We’ve had two female National Poets in Wales – Gwyneth Lewis and then Gillian Clarke. The Welsh Government has consistently had a high proportion of women AMs/SM (it’s currently 47%). At USW we had a female VC – the first in Wales – for over a decade. She’s now Dame Julie Lydon. That visibility is really important. But it doesn’t mean everything in the garden is rosy. There are still major problems to be tackled – the gender pay gap, violence against women, the scandalously low number of Black female professors (just 1% of professors in the UK are Black), and childcare provision to name just four. Covid has exacerbated many inequalities. It was striking how visible the problem of childcare was when we were working from home and could actually see colleagues juggling Teams meetings with children asking for help with homework. This should be a good moment to look again at some of those kinds of issues and think about how we can do better.
Reading Virginia Woolf during dangerous times. Popular narratives about Virginia Woolf have tended to focus on her episodes of mental illness and her suicide. But her diaries shows us is the importance of art in making sense of a world which is dangerous, chaotic and fragile but can also offer us beauty, compassion and hope.
Historical romance and escapism. Readers often turn to historical romance for escape during difficult times.