EVENT REVIEW: Song for Sophia: Radical Women Then and Now: Caitlin Davies, Fern Riddell and Sarah Sayeed

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7th October, 2018


Review by Emily Pritchard

One could be forgiven for supposing that neither book festivals nor history books are particularly radical, but this event certainly proves the opposite to be true. Held in the momentous (and intimidatingly male) headquarters of the Durham Miners’ Association, the event felt truly contemporary, framing knowledge of women’s history as a vital way to make sense of the present, and ultimately find a way forward. As the panel commented, it felt transgressive to have a stage full of women, illuminated within the dark wooden room where portraits of men hang dimly on every wall. 

Although the panellists differ in expertise, their common interest was in the untold stories of the fight for women’s suffrage. Fern Riddell spoke convincingly about how history has sanitised the suffragette movement in glossing over their bombing campaigns. Caitlin Davies, who has written the first history of Holloway prison, talked about how putting women in prison is a way of forgetting about them, as the history of the prisons themselves is often forgotten. Finally, Sarah Sayeed, in a piece commissioned by Durham Book Festival, told the story of the suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, reminding us to question the presentation of the suffragette movement as unambiguously white.

But the balance of the event was hung as much on ‘now’ as ‘then’; Caitlin and Fern talked openly about the struggles they both experienced in getting their books published. Women’s history, it seems, is only deemed relevant during the 100 year anniversary of the right to vote, not before – and, both women fear, not afterwards either. Although there was a great amount of pride present in the room as women’s radical history was talked of, this pride was coupled with a deep frustration and anger, following the Brett Kavanaugh hearing a few days previously. It felt like Fern Riddell spoke for everyone present when she asked: ‘When is it going to get better? I wish I had an answer but all I have at the moment is rage.’ In bringing to light the sacrifices made for women’s rights in the past, this event left its audience questioning what they must do in turn, as the fight for equality continues.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.