HerStory: A Virago By Any Other Name Would Be Bold

HerStory: A Virago By Any Other Name Would Be Bold

Even today, women are offered love, careers, success or whatever it is they may desire, if they are suitably conformist

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, March 07, 2024, 08:36 PM IST
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Representative Image | Victoria/Pixabay

It’s International Women’s Day — the tokenism of it has lost its meaning and definitely outlived its usefulness. But, here it is, and here we are, much more emancipated than our grandmothers and mothers who fought and won some battles, and lost quite a few as well.

Even today, women are offered love, careers, success or whatever it is they may desire, if they are suitably conformist. For the rebels, there is a profusion of unflattering words – hussy, spitfire, witch, termagant, siren, harridan, churail to list a few.

There is Virago too, which was picked as the name for a publishing house of feminist literature, boldly challenging the meaning of the word and turning a gendered insult into a badge of honour. So, it was fitting that Virago’s 50th anniversary anthology, Furies: Stories of the Wicked, Wild and Untamed, should line up some of the world’s best female writers to give their spin to some of these words used on women who will not follow patriarchal rules. The starry roster included Margaret Atwood (now the poster woman of feminism), Ali Smith, Emma Donoghue, Helen Oyeyemi, Chibundu Onuzu and Kamila Shamsie, who take on one cuss word each and toss it around to come up with a delightful anthology.

Sandi Toksvig writes in the introduction, “It seems incredible that not all that long ago, in Victorian times, there was a fairly common notion that reading could be bad for women.” In so many conservative societies, including India, women were not given an education, in case they ‘got ideas’ or grew ‘too big for their boots.’ Their chief function was to be wives and mothers, and quell any ambition of their own should it dare arise. The first thing Taliban-like groups do when they seize power is shut down women’s schools and put them in purdah.

A digression: Women’s Day could be commemorated by reading the story Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, written in 1905 when feminism was still simmering on the stove. In the story, Sultana imagines a world in which men are shut in doors in ‘mardanas’ (the male version of the ‘zenana’), while women run the country called Ladyland, using science, technology and brainpower. As she is taken out walking — unveiled — by her friend Sara, Sultana is astonished to see how green and peaceful the country is. “You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.” Sara tells her that women finish the day’s work in two hours — men take more time on smoke breaks, so the work day is extended — and use the freed up time to do whatever they please.

Back to Virago — founded in 1973 by Carmen Callil, the publishing house was established because at the height of the women’s movement, the male-owned commercial presses did not give adequate representation to women’s writing or feminist thought. The ‘About’ note on their website states, “Inspired by the political and social change of that decade (Seventies), the women who created Virago believed passionately that writing by women should be celebrated, enjoyed, taken seriously and read widely. Writers and readers immediately embraced the list: women wanted a voice, to understand their history, to be championed and to see themselves on the page. Decades later, we at Virago still believe that books can change the world. The name Virago (meaning heroic war-like woman or, as the Thesaurus has it a name for a particular kind of woman: biddy, bitch, dragon, fire-eater, fury, harpy, harridan, hussy, muckraker, scold, she-devil, siren, spitfire, termagant, tigress, vituperator, vixen, wench) signaled the founders’ intent to challenge, entertain, enrich, raise eyebrows and revolutionise the literary landscape.”

When Virago had hit the 40-year milestone, Kir Cochrane’s piece in The Guardian said, “Virago wasn't the only feminist publishing house to start in that era. It was part of a movement that began tentatively in the 1960s and burgeoned over the next two decades. Ambitions varied from publisher to publisher, but included a conviction that women's writing should be taken as seriously as men's, and, as a result, should have the same chance of remaining in print and becoming part of the canon. There was a strong interest in promoting the work of women who might otherwise be ignored; those marginalised by race, class, sexuality and disability, as well as sex.”

Many of the feminist publishing houses shut down, changed hands, merged (Virago too became an imprint of Little, Brown), which was inevitable as generations changed, reading habits dipped or preferences altered. Virago is still holding the fort and speaking up for women.

Toksvig writes, “Attempting to diminish women by name-calling is nothing new. I imagine since humans first vocalized language, there have been those who thought a nasty title might make a woman more docile and deferential, and likely to keep to her place in the cave.”

So, it is only fitting that women writers twist those ugly names into subversive shapes. ‘Churail’ is such a casually used word to describe a strident woman; Kamila Shamsie has used the folkloric aspect of the word and told a story of superstition and fear, that young girl witnesses when her father is so afraid of her dead mother’s ghost, that he flees the country.

Margaret Atwood takes on ‘siren’, that mermaid-like creature of myth, whose songs lured sailors to their deaths. Her hilarious story is about a siren, who leads a knitting circle for “liminal beings” and the chaos that ensues when words are inadequate to address such a wide variety of non-human characters from mythology. To begin with, Siren recognises the irony of calling to order an “assemblage who by their very nature present a challenge to the norms of social order”.

CN Lester’s Virago looks at gender identity in the early 20th century, when doctors are baffled by the case of a transman, who married a woman, and the wife never found out. Emma Donoghue’s Termagant is about a young woman forced to take on domestic work during the world war, and her enlightened “socialist and suffragist” employer understands that she deserves better.

The stories imaginatively include various issues that affect women, but are always provocative; some of them based on true incidents, that go on to illustrate that while time has helped women progress to a great extent, there are areas in which things still remain the same. Maybe the world needs more shrews, nags, hellcats, fishwives, or just plain crazy bitches to keep up the good fights.

Toksvig recalls an incident at a gathering in one of those fancy restaurants, where decorum was expected; Carmen Callil took exception to something and launched into a loud diatribe. One of the guests asked if she could not be told to be quiet, to which the response was,"Why would anyone want to do that?"

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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