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    Women, Literature, and Copyright: Holding up Half the Sky (World IP Day)

    • 29.04.2023
    • By Hugh Stephens
    Hugh Stephens Blogs

    There is a well-known Chinese saying, attributed to Mao Zedong, that “women hold up half the sky”. It became one of the ubiquitous propaganda slogans during the Cultural Revolution (along with the somewhat self-justifying “we have friends all over the world”) and was part of the effort to exhort women to contribute to Chinese society in every sphere, ranging from working in steel mills to being “barefoot doctors”. If one is to look at the power structure of China today, one would have to conclude that the current generation of Chinese leaders is not paying much attention to Mao’s guidance. Of the 205 members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, just 11 are female. There are no women among the 24 members of the Politburo, the elite “cabinet” of the Party. That means the 49 percent of the population that is female (701,475,583 females as of 31 December 2022) went unrepresented at the highest levels of political power. Not only are there 56 million more males than females in China, but the guys run the show. However, when it comes to certain fields of endeavour, Chinese women–and women who have lived in China–have left their mark. One such area is literature.

    Some of the most well-known literature on China familiar to western readers was written in English by female writers who lived in China but were not Chinese. Pearl Buck and Agnes Smedley are a couple of good examples. Others were written by Chinese women with western roots or connections, yet they have left us indelible impressions of a China–romance, tragedy and life—at different historical periods. Books such as Han Suyin’s Destination Chunking (1942) or Love is a Many Splendoured Thing (1952) come to mind as do Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Nien Chung’s Life and Death in Shanghai is a compelling personal story of one woman’s suffering under abuse by the Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution. Arguably the two most influential Chinese women writers in the 20th century were Ding Ling and Eileen Chang. More contemporary writers, such as those identified in this essay (Can Xue, pronounced Tsan Shwue, Liu Yu, Di An, Zhang Ling, Lu Min, Yu Mi and Liao Yimei) are less well known but explore themes important to modern Chinese society.

    I am using a male dominated society like China to make a point. Even in the most intellectually repressive environment new ideas can emerge, and often female writers are in the forefront of these developments. This ties well into this year’s theme for World IP Day (April 26) which is “Women and IP: Accelerating innovation and creativity”. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is celebrating the role of female innovators, entrepreneurs and creators across all elements of intellectual property. WIPO states that “Women bring new perspectives and talents to the table. But there is a problem! Too few women are participating in the intellectual property (IP) system. That means too few women are benefitting from IP.”. WIPO perhaps states the obvious when it says, “We all gain from actively encouraging women to use the IP system.”

    There are barriers to gender equity to be sure-social, economic, political (as we have seen in China)—and in some countries such as benighted regimes like the Taliban government in Afghanistan, even legal barriers to basic rights such as education. While not diminishing the barriers to equality of opportunity in the world of IP, I would nonetheless argue that copyright is a relative bright spot in terms of being able to assert protection for author’s rights, whether or not the author is female, male, or non-binary for that matter. A © is a © for an author, unless the author happens to be Naruto the macaque or Stephen Thaler’s Creativity Machine. Indeed, a basic principle of international copyright law (Berne Convention; Article 5.2) is that copyright exists from the moment of creation without any requirement for formalities or registration. That being the case, by its very essence copyright is gender neutral.

    As I wrote in a blog post on feminism and copyright a few years ago, while the drafters of copyright laws were all “men of their times” and hardly had a feminist bone in their body, the result nonetheless was a form of property law (which unlike many other property laws at the time) that made no reference to gender. Moreover, since the 1908 revision to the Berne Convention, copyright protection must not be conditional upon compliance with any formality in any of the countries (now 181 in total) that have acceded to the treaty.  Since protection is automatic, it cannot discriminate among human authors.

    Copyright laws since the 18th century have always given equal protection to “authors”, whether they be male or female. In fact, writing–protected by copyright law–provided one of the areas of artistic and economic opportunity for females (Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott and so on) at a time when so many other avenues were closed. Jane Austen earned a decent living by the standards of the period from her writing. She published some of her books on commission–thus taking on the risks of publication—but in other cases, notably Pride and Prejudice, sold the copyright, thus putting the onus on the publisher. So, while there is plenty of evidence of discrimination against females in many areas of the law, copyright was not part it. That is not to say that there may not have been inequality in the way that copyright was sometimes applied, through contract law for example, but there are also plenty of non-gender examples of authors and artists complaining of disproportionate power when it comes to negotiating contracts with their publishers.

    It was not just English and American female writers who were leaving their mark on 19th century literature. Canadian literature traces its roots back to pre-Confederation times when the first examples of a distinctive Canadian storytelling tradition began to appear. Among the pioneers of “CanLit” were two Englishwomen, not dissimilar in background to Jane Austen and her peers, who in pursuit of a new life emigrated with their husbands to what was, at the time, very much the backwoods of a rough frontier colony. The Strickland family, based in Suffolk, had produced several noted female writers (six in all), but two of them left England to take up life in Upper Canada in the 1830s.

    These two sisters, known to readers as Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, continued their writing as they struggled to raise families and adjust to life in the backwoods. They produced a number of works but the most well known are probably Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada and Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush. As the biographer of Traill and Moodie, Charlotte Gray, has written in her work Sisters in the Wilderness“the two sisters laid the foundation of a literary tradition that still endures in Canada, the pioneer woman who displays extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and humour”.  Well known Canadian Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carol Shields (a biographer of Jane Austen) wrote her dissertation on Moodie. Moodie also served as the inspiration for one of Canada’s best known contemporary authors, Margaret Atwood. Other prominent female Canadian writers include Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Lucy Maud Montgomery, the creator of Anne of Green Gables, and Margaret Laurence. In fact, women have made a major contribution to CanLit. This authoritative source proclaims that six of the top ten Canadian authors of all time, and eleven of the top twenty, are women. That is holding up more than half the sky.

    World IP Day has it right when it says that women bring new talents and perspectives to the table. This has been proven time and again, especially in areas such as literature and art, but also in other areas of creativity. A few years ago I wrote a blog about one of Canada’s earliest professional photographers, Geraldine Moodie, (Geraldine Moodie and her Pioneering Photographs: A Piece of Canada’s Copyright History) who captured some the earliest photographs of the Inuit people while they were still fully engaged in their traditional culture. Geraldine went to particular trouble to ensure that her works were protected by copyright in the young Dominion, ensuring they were recorded and registered with the copyright authority at the time, the Department of Agriculture. What I didn’t know when I wrote that blog post back in 2018 was that Geraldine was Susanna Moodie’s granddaughter! (The Moodie name is coincidental since Geraldine, whose maiden name was Fitzgibbon, married a distant cousin from Glasgow, John Douglas Moodie, who became an inspector in the Northwest Mounted Police).

    But back to World IP Day for a moment. WIPO says that too few women are benefiting from intellectual property (IP) and the protection afforded by intellectual property laws. I have no doubt this is true but would point out that among the various manifestations of IP, copyright stands out as a pioneer by offering a non-discriminatory means for women to protect and benefit economically from their creative works.

    This article was first published in Hugh Stephens Blog.