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Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle concert poster spotted in Cambridge last month.

Professional contralto and actress Lucy Stevens has developed a new show, Ethel Smyth: Grasp the Nettle, to coincide with and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in the UK getting the vote.

The concert will be staged Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Stapleford Granary. Tickets are £15 for general admission and £8 for those under 16.

About Ethel Smyth

Dame Ethel Smyth, a friend and frequent correspondent of Virginia Woolf and a political activist and composer, was imprisoned in Holloway Prison with Sylvia Pankhurst. As a composer, she wrote the anthem for the suffrage movement “The March of the Women” as well as six operas and many chamber, orchestral, and vocal works.  As an author she published ten books.

In 1902 Ethel Smyth was the first female composer to have an opera performed at Covent Garden and, in 1903, she was the first female composer to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The next opera by a female composer to be performed at Covent Garden was in 2012 and at The Met in 2016.

About the concert

Grasp The Nettle weaves her music, songs and greatest opera, “The Wreckers,” with her battle for an equal voice.It is Illuminated with anecdotes from her confidants, her letters and her own writing “…which is peculiarly beautiful and all of it rippling with life” (Maurice Baring).

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The rise and rise of Ethel Smyth

Editor’s Note: This post was written by David Chandler of the Retrospect Opera and a professor of English at Doshisha University, Kyoto.

The Virginia Woolf community will know that Woolf became a close friend and prolific correspondent of Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Britain’s leading female composer. Smyth fought a long, hard battle to break women’s music out of the heavily gendered constraints which had been placed upon it in the nineteenth century, and from the 1890s onward achieved a long run of important successes.

But like most female composers, her music mostly sank into oblivion after her death, and it was not until the 1990s that it began to be recovered, performed, recorded, and praised. In recent years, Retrospect Opera, a recording company set up as a charity, has led the way in restoring Smyth to her proper place in the history of music, theatre, and women’s cultural history.

Smyth recordings

Our recording of Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), her most commercially successful opera by far, and the one generally recognised as having a feminist story – the overture includes Smyth’s famous Suffragette anthem, “The March of the Women” – was released in 2016, conducted by the famous champion of women’s music, Odaline de la Martinez. It has been highly praised by reviewers and described on BBC Radio 3 as the finest ever recording of Smyth’s music. It is an exceptionally tuneful comic opera and the obvious place to start for anyone new to Smyth.

On the back of The Boatswain’s Mate, we re-released Odaline’s famous recording of The Wreckers (1906), Smyth’s biggest, most ambitious opera, and for that matter the most substantial of all her compositions. This had been released on the Conifer Classics label in 1994, but had long been unavailable.

Fundraising for a third opera

We are now fundraising for a release of a third Smyth opera, Fête Galante (1923), perhaps the most beautiful of all, and certainly the most original. Drawing on the world of the traditional commedia dell’arte, it stands on the border between opera and ballet; Smyth called it a “Dance Dream.” (It was in fact played as a straight ballet in the 1930s, with sets by Vanessa Bell.) Again, Odaline has conducted it.

Like all our releases this is being crowd funded. All donations of £25 or more are listed on our website, and all donations of £50 or more are also listed in the booklet that goes out with the CD, containing the full libretto and three introductory essays.

How you can help

We already have a number of Woolf scholars from all around the world supporting us, but we do hope to find more! If you don’t want to donate to Fête Galante, simply buying The Boatswain’s Mate, or The Wreckers, or any of our other releases, or getting your friends or library to buy them, is another valuable way you can help us put Smyth and women’s music firmly back on the map.

For more information on the Fête Galante project, see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/SMYTH/FeteG.html

And to buy any of our existing catalogue, please see: http://www.retrospectopera.org.uk/CD_Sales.html

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Was Virginia Woolf a feminist? Sometimes she identified as such. And sometimes she didn’t. But Google searches on her name today, International Women’s Day, make it clear that in the eyes of today’s world, she was, indeed, a true feminist.

London’s feminist mural featuring Virginia Woolf

Eight hours ago, from the other side of the pond, Woolf scholar and novelist Maggie Humm reported that there were 27.7 million references to Woolf on Google today, International Women’s Day, a day first celebrated in 1911, during Woolf’s lifetime. A few moments ago, that number had risen to 29.2 million. Those numbers are nearly double those of less than two years ago.

No wonder. Online references to quotes and books for the day include Woolf’s, and blog posts mention her as well. The Norwegians have even named her a tail fin hero in honor of the day.

Woolf search results on the rise

The number of search results for Woolf’s name varies over time and has been on the rise since I began noting it in 2007.

That year, a Google search on Woolf’s name resulted in 2.4 million hits, according to Jane Wood in “Who’s Afraid That Feminism is Finished? Virginia Woolf and Contemporary Commodification,” published in the Virginia Woolf Miscellany 73 (2008) (22-24).

My search two and a half years later, on 27 June 2009, came up with 2.7 million results. Three years down the road, on 10 May 2012, nearly 4.1 million hits resulted. And five years after that, on 12 May 2017, my search showed a whopping 14.9 million hits, a 520 percent increase in 10 years. And now 29.2 million hits less than two years later. I can’t help wondering how high that number will go.

Woolf as feminist icon

Interest in Woolf on a day identified with feminism is fitting, as Woolf has become an iconic feminist in both pop culture and academic circles, despite the fact that she had contradictory feelings about identifying as such.

Woolf’s changeability

Her views about feminism — as a concept and as a label — were changeable. Woolf herself did not consistently identify as a feminist. The word “feminist,” for example, shows up infrequently in her private and public writing but it does appear just often enough to indicate her complicated and changeable attitudes about identifying as one.

And when the word does show up in her diaries and letters, it always appears in connection with politics and war, paralleling the way feminism and anti-militarism are linked throughout the history of the women’s peace movement.

In a 23 January 1916 letter to lifelong friend and fellow feminist and pacifist Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Woolf notes her growing feminism in response to the Great War and its coverage in the popular press:

I become steadily more feminist, owing to the Times, which I read at breakfast and wonder how this preposterous masculine fiction [the war] keeps going a day longer—without some vigorous young woman pulling us together and marching through it (L2 76).

In a 17 October 1924 diary entry, she considers making a feminist response to a political brouhaha covered in the popular press. But this time she speaks of her own feminism in the past tense. She notes,

If I were still a feminist, I should make capital out of the wrangle” (D2 318).

Woolf’s conflicted feelings about her feminist polemics

Five years later, in the same month that she publishes her openly feminist polemic, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf clearly expresses the conflict she feels about being identified as a feminist.

While her text bravely makes a long public argument about the inequities between the sexes – and makes it with what she describes as “ardour and conviction” – she is privately insecure about how the book will be received if she is identified as an advocate for womankind. She frets that her friends will respond with only evasion and jocularity. She worries that the book has a “shrill feminine tone.”

She is concerned she “shall be attacked [by critics] for a feminist” (D3 262). If she is subject to such attacks, though, she has a self-protective strategy steeped in stereotypically feminine behavior at the ready. She will simply dismiss the book as “a trifle” (262).

In a letter to pioneering suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth dated 15 April 1931, Woolf mentions listening to “two love lorn young men” who “caterwaul—with an egotism that, if I were a feminist, would throw great light on the history of the sexes—such complete self-absorption: such entire belief that a woman has nothing to do but listen” (L4 312).

Woolf’s reluctance to be branded as a feminist even while she is writing a feminist tome shows up again in 1932 as she is working on Three Guineas. In a diary entry dated 16 February, she speculates about a title for a book that she is “quivering & itching to write.” What should she call it, she wonders? She suggests a title, “Men are like that.” But she immediately scraps that idea as “too patently feminist” (D4 77).

For more on this topic, see my essay, “Taking Up Her Pen for World Peace: Virginia Woolf, Feminist Pacifist. Or Not?” in Virginia Woolf Writing the World: Selected Papers from the Twenty-fourth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, 2015, edited by Pamela L. Caughie and Diana L. Swanson, and published by Clemson University Press.


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Due to the high level of interest in the inaugural issue of Feminist Modernist Studies (1:1-2), Routledge has provided free access to the entire first issue for the month of January, according to Editor Cassandra Laity of the University of Tennessee.

Short essays in the volume examine the state of and future of feminist modernist studies in global women writers, “intermodernism,” African-American and queer studies.

Longer essays explore transgender and Vita Sackville West; refugees in Olive Moore; feminist modernism in the worlds of fashion, WWII union organizing, psychoanalysis, sculpture, dance, Afro-Caribbean crossings, and much more.

Get full free access.

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to the lighthouseI first read Virginia Woolf as a college junior. I started with Mrs. Dalloway for a class and moved on to The Years on my own. My love for Woolf was immediate, but I knew my readings were only scratching the surface.

Over the years, I dipped into more Woolf — To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando — all just for fun. It wasn’t until I enrolled in a master’s program and made Woolf my focus that I truly took an in-depth approach to her and her writing.

But that doesn’t mean Woolf can’t be instructive for the common reader, as evidenced by my own experiences and those indicated by three recent pieces I found online. An article in Bustle, “18 Books Every Woman Should Read When She’s 18 (Because I Sure Wish I Had),” argues that every 18-year-old woman should read To the Lighthouse. And in Sydney’s Daily Life piece, “The Truth About Feminism,” Annabel Crabb cites A Room of One’s Own as an explicitly feminist piece she read as an 18-year-old, while a current-day college students cites the book as a feminist classic as well.

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Did Virginia Woolf identify as a feminist? That was one of the questions I raised in a paper I presented at the 24th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, which will be included in the Selected Papers from the conference, published in May 2015.

So imagine my satisfaction when during a visit to my local library, I spotted Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) smack in the middle of a section of feminist standards, sandwiched between Steinem and Ensler.

No surprise there. Room is a feminist classic mentioned daily in writing both personal and public. It also appears regularly on lists of books everyone must read and lists of books that have changed the world. It’s mentioned in stories about life-changing books. And it has inspired a women-centered foundation and provided the name for bookstores.

But I doubt Woolf had any inkling that would be the case 73 years after her death.

AROOO on bookshelf

Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is the skinny white-spined volume tenth from the left.

 

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