Women's Protest at International PEN Congress

January 17, 1986


By Edwin McDowell The New York Times


Simmering resentment among women attending the International PEN Congress boiled over yesterday when a women's caucus criticized ''the underrepresentation of women.''

The women drew up a formal protest that they have demanded to present today before the start of the afternoon's plenary session. ''And if Norman Mailer or anyone else tries to say there's no room on the agenda or, 'We'll read the statement,' '' warned Betty Friedan, who assumed an informal leadership role in the caucus, ''we'll make it clear to Mr. Mailer and the others that if they will not give our representatives room on the platform, that we bodily will take that platform.''

By the day's end, PEN officials had apparently notified the women that they could read their protest, but delegates at the congress said the demands that animated the protest might not be so quickly resolved.

The petition asks Mr. Mailer, the president of American PEN, to give a public explanation ''for the failure of the creative imagination of PEN.'' It also asks that PEN ''take immediate steps'' to include American- and International-PEN women in decision-making roles. And it asks that the committee for the next International PEN Congress, in Hamburg, West Germany, in June, ''include women in the decision-making roles.'' Officials Taken by Surprise

The petition, and the noontime meeting at which it was discussed, apparently took PEN officials by surprise. Word that there would be a meeting of the women from which the press would be excluded was circulated during the morning sessions yesterday.

When the ban was lifted and journalists returned to the Casino on the Park in the Essex House hotel, the session was already far along and Miss Friedan was demanding ''immediate structural steps to reform the organization of PEN.''

In a subsequent interview, Miss Friedan, author of ''The Feminine Mystique'' and ''Second Stage,'' said she had attended the congress as a writer and ''not to jump on any wagon.'' But seeing the absence of women in official positions at the welcoming ceremonies and thereafter, she said, she questioned Mr. Mailer.

''He laughed at me,'' she said. ''He said, 'Oh, who's counting?' as though it's my pet peeve. But more and more women expressed concern, and there was an undercurrent, a murmur of protest going on about the whole conference.'' Joined Forces

She said that she and Gail Sheehy had started working on a statement of protest, and then heard that Grace Paley had called a meeting of the women for yesterday.

During the question period on previous days, several women had commented on the absence of women on the panels, but the questions on those occasions soon turned to other matters. Yesterday, however, the resentments quickly surfaced.

''Although nearly half the PEN members attending the congress are women,'' the protest statement said, ''out of the 140 panelists - only 20 women. We are outraged at PEN's failure to invite more women writers from all parts of the world to be panelists, readers, and moderators at this conference discussing imagination and the state. There are many women writers of international status from the U.S. and abroad who could have spoken to the issues which were addressed by the panel.''

Members attending the caucus included Cynthia Macdonald, Martha Weinman Lear, Margaret Atwood, Irene Skolnick and Meredith Tax. Critical but Conciliatory

The meeting, at least that portion open to the press, was spirited but largely cordial. Miss Friedan was sharp in her criticism, yet also conciliatory. ''The men are friends of ours,'' she said, ''and they even believe in social justice.''

''Yet there really is a failure of their own creative imagination,'' she continued. ''Many don't understand how this looks to us and to the world.''

She demanded a public explanation of how it happened and an apology that was ''not perfunctory.''

Mr. Mailer, who had not known about the protest until the caucus broke up at about 1:40 P.M., acknowledged that there was an imbalance of men to women. But he and other PEN officials noted that they had invited nine notable female writers - including Mavis Gallant, Nathalie Sarraute, Iris Murdoch and Marguerite Yourcenar - as guests of honor, but that they had been unable to attend. 'More Men Are Intellectuals First'

Mr. Mailer cited other factors. ''Since the formulation of the panels is reasonably intellectual,'' he said, ''there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men than women.''

Miss Sontag, a member of PEN's program committee, was on two panels.

As for telling Miss Friedan that he doesn't count the number of women, Mr. Mailer said: ''There was a time when the civil-rights movement was trying to dispense with tokenism, and all the rest of it, and insisted on quotas - construction jobs and so forth. This was for something fundamental, the right to make a better living.

''But here, what's being asked for is symbolic, women on panels. That's not a way of saying that I think women are incapable of high discussion, it's just that, given specific circumstances, the lack of many women writers is disproportionate on the panels.''