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Championing women writers is crucial for correcting the historical imbalances in literature

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

He recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 13 March 2024.

The Festival of Women Writers is an exciting opportunity to showcase the work of women and serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring writers. Beyond that, it represents intersectional knowledge transformation in practice.

Around the world, as International Women’s Day was celebrated, I reflected on the importance of achieving gender transformation in various spaces. This can often take a multitude of forms.

For example, the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (Jias) hosted its annual Festival of Women Writers just a day later. This festival represents the power of transformation, which literary spaces often cry out for.

Margaret Busby, the editor of Daughters of Africa, who was the keynote speaker this year, once said, “until you can no longer count the number of African women writers who have broken through then we’ve still got work to do.”

This is what transformation really entails. This has often been described as a simultaneous individual and institutional shift. At the opening of this festival last year, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and my predecessor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala said, “in discussions on knowledge transformation, we often erroneously forget gender in the conversation”.

In other words, there is a tendency to focus on broader intellectual and systemic changes in knowledge systems and processes while neglecting the nuanced ways in which gender dynamics intersect with and shape these systems and processes. This requires us to interrogate gender biases, stereotypes and persistent inequalities.

study by Lee and Low Books in 2023, for instance, found that only 24% of published books are written by women despite making up 51% of the global population. Moreover, it is estimated that 51% of the English books tested do not pass the Bechdel Test, which determines the representation of women in media, with only 28% definitively passing.

More so, I would add, we often forget intersectionality — a criticism also levelled against the Bechdel Test, which does not consider race. Intersectionality speaks to these categorisations’ interconnected character, which must be the bedrock of knowledge transformation.

The Festival of Women Writers, which started last year, can be viewed as a case study in this regard. It is an exciting opportunity to showcase the work of women, engage meaningfully, and serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring writers.

Beyond that, it represents intersectional knowledge transformation in practice. It is also a tribute to the legacy of women activists such as Ruth Mompati, a founding member of the Federation of South African Women (Fedsaw) and one of the leaders of the Women’s March in 1956, and Sally Motlana, who was president of the Black Housewives League and a leader of the Black Women’s Federation among other roles.

It is their legacy that allows us to create platforms such as this. The festival demonstrates UJ’s commitment to transformation at every tier. We are surrounded by formidable women in this space and there is much to learn.

This is an important reminder that celebrating women writers, and particularly African writers, is crucial for rectifying historical imbalances in literature and amplifying diverse voices. This is how we actively contribute to a more inclusive and representative literary landscape.

In addition, this is how we challenge stereotypes and create spaces for more nuanced takes. These words take forms that empower and inspire.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”. Her words encapsulate women writers’ indomitable spirit and relentless pursuit of creative expression, even against seemingly insurmountable odds.

The very purpose of festivals such as this is to ensure that gender is at the fore of knowledge transformation and that we are intersectional in this pursuit. We desperately need more of this. It is no secret that globally, gender equality continues to evade us.

While platforms such as this are not a blanket solution to achieving gender equality, they indeed demonstrate how we can do the work, particularly in specific industries. These events are part of a broader movement towards inclusivity. The writers present over the weekend shape a more equitable and enriched literary canon while breaking down barriers.

I am reminded of the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote in We Should All Be Feminists, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful”.

We are called to challenge this notion and make our voices heard through a platform such as this.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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