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PEN Signs Off With a Flourish of Feminist Wrath

January 22, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Not with a whimper but a bang, the 48th International Congress of PEN came to a noisy, if somewhat exhausted, end here last week. Four straight days of dawn-to-dusk talk were capped by a fifth, but this time the talk turned angry, impassioned, fervent.

"I would like to speak," poet/novelist Erica Jong said, approaching a middle-of-the-aisle microphone, "just so that as usual, a man would not have the last word.

'Issue of Invisibility'

"The issue here is the issue of invisibility," Jong said. "We have written and written and written, from the time of Sappho, all the way up to Jane Austen and the present. And yet we remain, at some level, invisible.

"Our question is, why do you look at us and not see?"

To which PEN American Center chairman Norman Mailer fired back, "I would say that Erica Jong is the last woman in the world who could claim invisibility."

The remark drew boos and hisses, and even a steady stream of female walkouts, an indication of the broiling dissatisfaction that many of the women attending this gathering of about 800 novelists, poets, essayists, editors, biographers, documentarians and translators from around the planet had come to feel. Nearly half the delegates to the PEN congress were women, and yet among 117 panelists, they complained in a formal statement drafted during a heated meeting the day before, only 16 were women. Of 51 "honored guests," just eight were female.

"Sixteen out of 117 is about 14%," Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood told the last-day meeting. "That's about the same as in the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse, which begins in the 11th Century. This is the 20th."

Speaking on behalf of her female colleagues in a 20-minute slot allotted to the women protesters reminded her, Atwood said, "of when I was at Harvard Graduate School"--she glared sharply at conference chairman Mailer. Just the day before, Mailer had attributed the paucity of female panelists in part to the fact that "there are not that many women . . . who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men than women."

With an ironic smile, Atwood explained that she had thrown in the reference to Harvard "to demonstrate the fact that I have at least a smear of intellectualism."

Standing there as a spokesperson for her gender, Atwood said an ad hoc women's caucus had asked her to speak because "we need someone who will be equal to a man."

"Which man and how many at a time, I wondered," Atwood said. "Four out of five men is all right, but 117 is a pretty tall order."

'Amazement, Perplexity'

As novelist Grace Paley observed, the absence of women panelists was a fact that more or less crept up on female delegates. "By Wednesday," she said, "many women had begun to talk to each other--first in absolute amazement, perplexity and with the stunned feeling of what year this is.

"I think we didn't want to believe it," Paley said. "We kept thinking it would be better tomorrow."

Then, reading the statement of protest to a standing-room-only audience, Paley added, "As much as I came to tire of the continuous drone of grown-up male voices, so did we miss dark colors. We want to include in this the failure to include enough people of color."

For his part, Mailer defended the skewed ratio of women to men by explaining that "from the beginning, the notion was to get the very best writers we could." And, he went on, "there are some countries where there are no good writers who were women."

Chastised by Mailer

When comments and catcalls were leveled at him from the floor, Mailer chastised his audience. "We have a great many press people here who love theater," he said. "If you would like to make this organization look like the backside of a horse instead of the front, then keep it up."

Without offering a comparable list of men who had declined PEN's invitation to attend the conference, Mailer rattled off a list of 24 distinguished female writers and poets "who chose not to come." With that in mind, Mailer said, "I will take responsibility for the fact that we didn't keep searching for more and more women."

After all, Mailer said, "We didn't want a congress that would establish a political point at the expense of considerable mediocrity."

At that remark, another large exodus of women from the room began.

"Those women who would like to leave," Mailer said, "may do so with the surrogate literary pope's blessing."

In any case, Mailer said, "These matters are simple. We don't have to get upset about them."

"We are not upset," a woman leaving the room called out. "We are deeply insulted."

Sitting in the second row of the crowded room, the jaw of PEN Los Angeles Center member Phyllis F. Gebauer, a Pasadena novelist, dropped open in amazement.

"I'm in Disneyland!" she exclaimed. "This can't be happening."

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