The Women's Protest at the PEN Congress

PEN Newsletter
SPRING, 1986


I wrote the following articles for the issue of the PEN newsletter that came out after the New York Congress of International PEN that February.  The theme of the Congress, chaired by Norman Mailer, was “the state of the imagination and the imagination of the state.”  Because of the inadequate number of women speakers, Grace Paley and I organized a protest which took over the main hall and led to the formation of a Women’s Committee inside PEN American Center.


When It Changed
[I stole this title from Joanna Russ's story about a female-only planet which was suddenly invaded by men.]

 I kept feeling as though I'd been swept back into the fifties. Was there a time warp on 59th Street? The panels at the PEN Congress were so white, so male; the prevailing notion of art such fifties avant-gardism; the race and gender assumptions so unself-conscious; the political debates so cold war. And the politics seemed to have only two actors, the Artist and the State (Go, Artist, Beat State). What had happened to mass movements, social classes, oppressed peoples? Was the Reagan backlash so strong it could make the sixties seem like they never happened?

     The behavior of PEN President Norman Mailer during the welcoming session of the Congress echoed our worst fears of backlash. First, he refused to call on Grace Paley when she demanded from the audience that a petition protesting George Shultz's presence be read aloud. Mailer's response was to apologize to Shultz for the disturbance and then tell the press he wasn't going to let the secretary of state be "pussy-whipped." It was egregiously offensive: the characteristic use of a dated term, reducing female participation to the genital, belittling one of the few women who had a public presence at the Congress. With so few women onstage, we inevitably took the way Grace was treated as symbolic of our entire condition.

          The lofty intellectual aims of the Congress combined oddly with all the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous brouhaha. There was little talk about writing and a lot of discussion was conducted in the inflated language of politicians. It was a pleasure to see Gunter Grass, Amos Oz, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and the rest in action; but the Congress needed more female voices. It needed any voice that could speak down-to-earth words of everyday life. I grew impatient with the grandiosity and glitz, which didn't seem to go with the democratic aims and cultural pluralism of PEN. Why weren't there more black people, American or foreign! Why did people in the audience seem so isolated and at sea? Why was there so little evidence of solidarity?
     On Tuesday, after the panel on alienation, I said to Grace Paley, "It wouldn't be like this if there were more women speaking. We need a women's meeting." She said many other women felt the same need. The next day she announced a meeting of PEN women for Thursday at 11:30. I have been at enough large, spontaneous meetings to know how disorganized they can be, and I was worried. So I decided to draft a statement to give us something to work from.

          On Thursday, January 16th, 150 to 200 women filed into the Grand Ballroom of the Essex House Hotel, where the big panels were held. Grace and I asked the press to leave; we were afraid their presence might inhibit discussion. Since Grace had just been a panelist and had to go upstairs for the panel press conference, I went to the mike and called the meeting to order. I was nervous because I didn't know anybody and had no idea how people would react. I said I had no more right to chair the meeting than anybody else, but I had prepared · a statement we could work from; did people want me to read it or what? They called out, "Read it." Then I knew they wanted to unite more than they wanted to act like hot shots, and everything was going to be all right. Here is a condensed version of what I read:

   Imagination is gendered. The imagination of the state is male: Women as a group have not shaped a single state. The imagination of writers, as represented on the platforms of this congress, is also male; women have been grotesquely under-represented. No doubt we shall be told that more women speakers were invited but they couldn't come, or that we have no right to complain if we didn't come to the planning meetings. We thought that in 1986, after twenty years of the women's movement, no planning committee would be this dumb. We underestimated the effects of the political backlash in our country. Is PEN too politically underdeveloped to see how badly this discussion has needed the voice of women? Had women been on these panels in equal numbers, peace might have been discussed as something other than the absence of war. The discussion of censorship might have included birth control and abortion. Discussion of Third World revolutions might have included their effects on women. World hunger might have been discussed in terms of the people who put the food on the table....The time has passed when we can allow others to speak in our name on questions as important as war, peace, and literature. We will speak for ourselves from now on and you will hear from us again. 

          Our meeting was not conducted on the star system; it had an open, spontaneous, democratic quality that was in startling contrast to the rest of the Congress. We had only one mike, which was at the table. Speeches were succinct and constructive. People lined up to speak or, if they didn't want to speak, passed notes forward to me, and Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, and Erika Duncan, who were putting the statement on paper. Many ideas were rejected, but nobody sulked or fussed, because the spirit of unity grew stronger than anyone's attachment to her own idea. You can always tell when that happens and a movement takes off: The air gets a kind of fizzy, electric feeling and people get very excited and happy.

     Betty Friedan made a terrific impromptu oration about how shameful it was to be so underrepresented after we'd struggled so long, and how we should be very tough and militant and demand time in the following day's plenary session. She thought we'd been dumb to send away the press. In any case the meeting had gone well enough to get them back, and we did so. We were by this time under considerable pressure to vacate the room so that the afternoon panel could begin. But we had to stay until we'd picked spokespeople. We chose Grace Paley and Cynthia Macdonald, and asked Margaret Atwood to represent the foreign women delegates. Somewhere around then, Karen Kennerly [PEN's Executive Director] offered us twenty minutes of time at the plenary and we voted to accept with thanks.

          At the final session on Friday afternoon, our three representatives spoke, and a number of people commented from the floor. Norman Mailer's response, from the chair, was an embarrassment to all concerned. Some women staged a walkout and the chair eventually handed the floor to Nadine Gordimer, who had things to say about South Africa.

          Many women found the plenary session an anticlimax after all our militant preparation the day before. But it could not have been otherwise. It was far too late in the day to transform the Congress. Our victory consisted in raising important issues and in building solidarity—practically the only solidarity there—among ourselves and also with all the men who supported us. The real test comes now. Can people in PEN understand why there had to be a women's uprising and work with that  realization to build a stronger and more united organization?


A group of us in New York continued to meet after the conference and proposed the creation of a Women’s Committee in PEN American Center to ensure that nothing so disgraceful would happen again.  After considerable struggle, the following resolution was adopted by the board.

Statement of Purpose of the Women's Committee of PEN American Center (as adopted April 13, 1986)

          We want to state at the outset that we recognize that the absence of women on panels at the PEN Congress was equaled by the absence of people of color, men as well as women, and by a painful lack of appreciation of their work in literature.

          We are forming a women's committee: (1) to explore ways of assuring the widest possible audience within PEN and in the general public for literature written by women; (2) to investigate the status of women's literature in America and throughout the world; (3) to create programming that focuses on women's achievement in literature and on issues of particular interest to women writers.

I wrote the following article for the same issue of the newsletter as the previous to explain why a women’s committee was needed.

Why a Women's Committee, or, Mind-Forg'd Manacles

          Most women active in PEN American Center think the Congress was an aberration from the sexual politics that have characterized the organization over the years. PEN has had strong women presidents, and, according to statistics prepared for Norman Mailer, women make up roughly a third of its board members. Women are also heads of a number of committees. We can conclude that the situation of women at the Congress did not mirror the situation in PEN; if it had, there would have been more women up there. It reflected our position in the literary culture, which has an intimate relationship to our position in society as a whole.

          We may be equal within PEN but we are not, by and large, taken seriously as writers and thinkers, or at least not as seriously as men. And no matter what Norman Mailer may tell the New York Times, the number of women heading PEN committees has only a tangential relationship to the problem. Sure, women do a lot of the work in PEN. But doing work in an organization has never been the same as having access to its systems of power and prestige. Woman did a lot of work in the abolitionist movement, but when they got to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, they were not even permitted to speak. It was their position in the society that determined their number of speakers rather than the work they did against slavery.

          We have progressed; we now get to speak at international meetings in token numbers. But let's not kid ourselves: is anybody listening? A lot of men, especially men over fifty, can't hear women. When a woman talks, the static in their heads becomes so loud it blocks out everything else. Fifteen years ago, Norman Mailer was able to discuss as well as illustrate this problem, in "The Prisoner of Sex." I have reason to remember since I was the first woman he quoted. 

     Whether angry or introspective, the voices were a hint disturbing; some trace of a Martian was in the air, or was it the experience of a complex animal finally revealed?”—he was obviously no more accustomed than anyone else to females offering direct speech.  [The Prisoner of Sex]

          In the intervening years, some men have learned to hear our voices, read our writing. Some still block and lash out. Others quietly hold onto their blind spots and pretend there is no problem. I learned what a blind spot is one night on the freeway. Exhausted, I was driving on automatic pilot, checking the left lane without really looking, when a car zoomed up on the right and nearly knocked me off the road. It was scary, but it was my own fault. There was plenty of room for both of us; I just didn't see what was coming.

          So listen, great men, international prose stars, arbiters of excellence. We are your blind spot. Our books are on the shelves but you haven't noticed, much less read them; your eye travels past without registering. You say, "There are no good women writers; they're all birdbrains," with the confidence of one who need not even look. And the one or two women who are your familiars, though they can never really be of the inner circle, echo your words, stilling any flicker of uncertainty. That's why you keep them around. We sit in rows of chairs in your halls and you do not even see us. You look out,. scanning the crowd for important men, and think, 'Nobody's here.'

          We know you so well. We know you from birth. But you hardly know us at all. You talk about the "aristocracy of letters" and "mediocrities," but you don't read anybody you haven't known for twenty years. What provinciality to assume all the good writers in the world are already known to you! And your blind spot shows up in your writing and makes it seem dated and offbase, because the world has changed and you haven't.

          One of the men who planned the Congress was asked why there were so few women speakers. He answered, "We wanted to have the greatest minds in the world." Try to imagine what a woman would have to be like to qualify as one of the greatest minds of the world, by the criteria of this Congress. She would have to be over 60; most of the great men were. She would have to be an intellectual, to think major thoughts about subjects men think are important, preferably in the language of European philosophy. It would not help if she had written great works on minor subjects like women's liberation, or family relations, or peace, especially if she wrote them in ordinary words . It would certainly help if she were a world-class TV celebrity. It would not if she were a feminist; it might make her "abrasive."

          This ranking system is not about literary or intellectual merit. It is about social acceptability and a rather narrow definition of what constitutes a literary intellectual. "Literature is not an equal opportunity employer," say the guardians of the gates. [Note: This was actually said by Susan Sontag.] We must question whether these guardians are really in favor of equal opportunity at all. Do they want to share the road? Or would they rather go back to the fifties, when it was men's job to make art and women's job to make babies, except for a few superwomen who could "make it in a man's world?" The fifties, when a real man was symbolized by his car—big as a dinosaur and hogging the whole road.

          The fifties aren't returning, even if some culture heroes wish they would. Woman have come too far and learned too much to be pushed back so easily. One of the things we have learned is that it takes a movement to change things. Our goal is to move the literary culture from one that is still—as demonstrated by the Congress— white, male, and self-involved, to one that is multicolored and pluralistic. That's why we have organized a woman's committee. Our committee is open to all PEN members who support its purposes. Maybe we can adapt the old Wobbly slogan and build a new culture inside the shell of the old.