The Public Humanist

Cede the Floor No More: The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

One of the hallmarks of homo sapiens is that we love to tell each other stories. Our sophisticated use of language is one of the reasons we have been so successful as a species—we have been able to pass on valuable knowledge down the generations, building exponentially on the wisdom of our elders.

But it is only in the past fifty years or so that the ideas and perspectives of women—who make up more than half of humanity—have begun to be adequately represented in the written annals of our species. Even now, in many parts of the world, women’s voices are marginalized and kept out of the public sphere.

Many researchers in psychology, from Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice) to Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) to Leonard Sax (Why Gender Matters), have found that girls tend to lose self-confidence around the time they hit puberty, with the result that they cede the floor to the boys around them in classrooms and other public arenas.

The result, as shown by recent documentary films like the popular MISS REPRESENTATION (2011; dir. Jennifer Siebel Newsom), is that women are still under-represented in top leadership positions worldwide, and are still frequently misrepresented in the media as being more focused on how they look than on what they think, believe and do in the world. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, as girls looking for role models see more women getting accolades for their beauty than their brains.

The annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers aims to counter this prevailing social ethos by opening up multiple platforms for women of all ages and from many walks of life to raise their voices and share their stories with supportive, appreciative audiences.

I founded the Festival, now in its third season, after ten years of organizing an annual International Women’s Day Conference at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA, where I teach world literature by women, human rights and media studies.

For the one-day IWD conference, we would bring in women leaders in a variety of fields to share their expertise with local audiences. But what I noticed over the course of the decade was that the part of the conference the audience loved most was the Q&A period and the lunch—both of which were interactive and afforded the women in attendance the chance to exchange ideas and share their own knowledge with each other.

I realized that there were so many talented, experienced and enthusiastic women right here in the hills of Western Massachusetts, just waiting for more channels to be opened up to let their voices be heard loud and clear in the public sphere.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers does just that. Running throughout the month of March, Women’s History Month, the Festival features 56 events at venues from one end of Berkshire County to the other, offering more than 150 women the chance to share their ideas with each other and the world through readings, panel discussions, performances, screenings and workshops.

The focus is on women as writers, but the scope is broad, since women write about everything, from environmental issues (Cows Save the Planet) to human rights (Sweet Dreams of Women’s Human Rights) to adventure travel (Solo: Writing Our Own Adventures).

From well-established writers like Julia Cameron, whose famous book The Artist’s Way has inspired millions of women to write, to immigrant women writing their Coming to America stories for the first time, to older women like Sondra Zeidenstein, founder of Chicory Blue Press—dedicated to publishing women writers over the age of 70—to high school and college students just stepping out as newly emerging writers, there is something for everyone in this Festival.

Women will share their writing in a variety of genres, from poetry to essay to memoir to fiction, from screenwriting and playwriting to journalism, and will offer workshops to help others tap into their own inner storyteller and let the words flow onto the page.

The winners of this year’s Festival Essay Contest will read their essays at a gala celebration at The Mount, summer home of one of the most famous Berkshire women writers, Edith Wharton. This year’s essay contest theme is “masculinity,” and the contest will be judged by New York Times senior editor Katherine Bouton.

Although the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is dedicated to providing spaces for women writers to share their talents, men are warmly welcomed to attend! It’s one of the curiosities of our society that when men give talks and readings, they expect women to attend as a matter of course, but when women are up on stage, men often feel uninvited—or worse, uninterested.

Having studied literature by women from many regions of the world for more than twenty years, I can say with confidence that women keenly interrogate the world we live in through their writing, exploring ethics, culture and civic life in a variety of genres and disciplines.

Women writers have so much to offer to the on-going conversations about how we can build a world that fully supports every human being to live a fulfilling, rewarding life.

Come on out to the Berkshires this March, and join the conversation!

Photos, top to bottom (all courtesy of Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez):

Audience members at BFWW 2012

Festival Logo

Claudette Webster

Hilda Banks Shapiro

© 2014 The Valley Advocate