A woman school examination invigilator, Pat Schofield, complained about a poem on the syllabus which resulted in the poem, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Education for Leisure”, being removed. The Leeds Salon decided to organise a panel of George Szirtes, Ronan McDonald, Andrew McMillan, Michele Ledda and Wes Brown (the latter two connected with the Leeds Salon) to debate the ban. “Following the censoring of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Education for Leisure” from the school curriculum, poets, critics, teachers and students will debate the significance of this ban. Should children be protected from controversial literature? Should works be studied because of their literary merit or as springboards to discuss particular issues? Should students be taught to analyse poems in order to understand their meaning or should they be asked to provide a personal response? How important should poetry be in teaching English? Who should determine the content of the school curriculum and according to what criteria? What are the roles of the poet, the critic, the teacher and reader in upholding the important of poetry? And what, if any is the role of the government?”
This sparked a debate on the Poetry Business website about the nature of the panel, specifically its lack of women, given that the debate was sparked by a poem written by a woman. Michele Ledda’s response, included the observations,
It didn’t even occur to us to think about the gender of the panellists. They have been invited for what they have to say… I find this kind of gender accountancy mind-numbingly childish and drawing on a contemporary kind of authoritarianism.
Ros Barber pointed out that, “Naturally it didn’t occur to you to think about the gender of the panellists; the exclusion of women is almost invariably an unconscious decision.”
As regards “gender accountancy,” Tillie Olsen in “Silences” advocates accountancy as being essential as it visibly demonstrates inequality. Such accountancy is only authoritarian if you happen to be one of the those who benefit from current inequalities.
It’s also telling that Michele Ledda only thought men had something to say on such a broad, but important topic. Again his response was,
We had a discussion about poetry, literary criticism, the curriculum and censorship, and we had one of Britain’s leading poets who had just published a collection entitled The Burning of Books; an academic who has recently written a highly acclaimed book on literary criticism and the canon; an up and coming young poet and a school teacher (myself) who has written extensively on these issues. The gender of our speakers was irrelevant (as it should be in a democratic society), and we would never choose a panel based on gender, race, disability, or ticking any other box of the contemporary diversity industry… if you do want to discuss the broader issues of equality, diversity and discrimination, would you [Ros Barber] and/or Jackie [Willis] (or can you suggest another speaker if you want) be willing to speak at a Leeds Salon in the next few months?
Age-old trick (surprising for a “young poet and school teacher”), ask the person who pointed out the omission of women to either come and speak or suggest someone else. Again, missing the point that if Michele Ledda was genuinely interested, he’d already know of or have suitable speakers in mind. Throw in the fact that Leeds is in North England and Jackie and Ros live in the south which immediately posts transports and childcare questions, he knows he’s making an offer that would be difficult to take up.
As I pointed out, the problem with a panel that excludes women (note the plural) is that it encourages women (plural) to feel they should exclude themselves from the audience too, because the organisers create the message that they don’t believe women’s (plural) views are worthwhile. Given the topics debated – inconveniently for Michele Ledda’s panel, parents include mothers and teachers, particularly of younger children, and readers tend to be female – excluding women (plural) from the panel really does send the message women (plural) need not bother turning up. Given that the whole debate was triggered by a woman censoring another woman’s poem, how are women (plural) not relevant?
In response, Paul Thomas typed,
The idea that having a woman on the panel would have represented the voices of women is as nonsensical as the idea that any of the men on the panel represented the opinions of all men in the audience or beyond… no individual can claim to be the voice of anyone but themselves. The idea that having a woman on the panel would have represented women assumes that all or most women think the same – an assumption which, if it had come from a man, would rightly have been seen as sexist. On your final question: you deliberately twist what Michele says. The views of anyone, whatever their sex, are potentially relevant to the debate, but their actual sex isn’t, and shouldn’t be.
Actually, Paul Thomas twists what I say. I have always referred to women in the plural. Of course one woman can’t represent the voices of every woman and I never said and would never suggest that. So his comments are an attempt to promote his own article and not engage with the actual debate here. According to his logic, a panel of five men can’t represent all (male) views either, so why bother with a panel?
It’s understood a panel won’t represent all views, but it is a way of debating the most relevant views. A panel debating this topic should encourage attendance from a diverse audience as this ensures the broadest and widest debate, particularly on an important topic. Audiences like reassurance their voices will be heard and their views valued. The panel should have included:-
- Educator or Academic
- Views of students.
A panel of five men tends to suggest these are the only views that count, discouraging others from attending. That’s why it’s vital to consider the make-up of the panel and not just go with the first people who came to mind and happened to be available on that date.
But the central question – how are women not relevant to a debate triggered by the censorship of woman’s poem following a complaint by a woman? – remains unanswered. Did the organisers invite either Carol Ann Duffy or Pat Schofield to attend or at least submit their views? Surely their views are extremely relevant?