International Women’s Day, established in the 1900s and celebrated in countries worldwide, was honored this year on March 8.
A symposium entitled “Celebration of Women’s Voices — Women Writers Past and Present,” a two-day conference for writers of all levels to promote and honor women’s writing, was held in Deyo Hall this past weekend and included two SUNY New Paltz English professors.
Even though women have made immense gains in recent decades towards achieving equality, both culturally, and economically, “the need for ongoing social transformation remains” according to Pauline Uchmanowicz, an associate English Professor who took part in the event.
“The national day is a symbol to remind us all to honor women in everyday life and to continue to acknowledge their achievements,” Uchmanowicz said.
Uchmanowicz said that by looking at many of our most important institutions, from politics to the workplace, one might argue that every day is “National Men’s Day.”
“Until we have the same perception of women’s roles in all spheres of national life, a ‘celebration’ of women’s roles and potential remains vital,” Uchmanowicz said.
A writer of both poetry and nonfiction, Uchmanowicz wrote a weekly food column for the Woodstock Times which focused on broad-ranging topics, including cooking, farming, agricultural tourism and politics, restaurant reviews and profiles of home cooks as well as professional chefs.
She took this expertise to the workshop when she taught in a conference entitled “Telling Stories: Creative Nonfiction,” which focused on writing in a variety of modes: travel and community, profile, memoir, personal essay and food writing.
Uchmanowicz said she wanted the participants to “discover or rediscover” their individual stories through their writing and that she wanted to promote originality in her students.
“I chose several writings by women authors, whose subject matter and textual strategies would likely be inspiring,” Uchmanowicz said.
Jan Schmidt, an English professor as well as a writer and editor who also took part in the event, agreed that although there have been advances in women’s equality, great changes still need to be made for women. Specifically, she said, in terms of wages, violence against women and the sex trade into which women are sold every day.
“The next great revolution is still justice for women,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt, who led the workshop “Memoir Writing: Silencing Anger and Resistance” said that what stuck out most in her mind was the way it resonated with the participants, who she described as vibrant and diverse, ranging in age from 20 to 80.
Studies show that only about one in every four women will report an abusive relationship — this, among other things, motivates Schmidt to help women start turning righteous anger into social action through their writing.
“The end result was that the women wanted to form a writing workshop,” Schmidt said. “And that is what we need, to honor women globally and internationally.”
Schmidt, together with Laurence Carr, collaborated to edit the book “A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley” which celebrates the work of over 100 women writers of the Hudson Valley.
When it comes to well-known, inspirational and strong women writers, Uchmanowicz encourages women to read the works of Phillis Wheatley, who was enslaved in her native country of Africa as a child and then sold to a prominent Bostonian in the eighteenth century. Wheatley then learned English and began writing, becoming the first person of African descent in America — of either gender — to publish a poetry book. Schmidt is a fan of Joan Didion, Slyvia Plath and Ann Sexton, among many other accomplished female writers.
While there are a significantly higher number of women writers today than ever in the past, according to Schmidt, women writers are still getting the short end of the stick.
“More men still get published than women,” she said. “Look at the New York Times best sellers — women are looking for spaces to write, it’s still an issue.”