Women, writing and lockdown – an introduction

On 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK’s first national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People were only allowed to leave their homes for strictly limited reasons and the police were given powers to enforce the rules.

Our project investigates the impact of that lockdown on the lives of British women, in their own words. It makes visible women’s writing during lockdown, in books, newspaper articles, diaries, blogs, on social media, and in poetry.

A life in lockdown

As schools and childcare facilities closed, women took on the bulk of the burden of home schooling and childcare. They were more likely to take furlough payments or leave employment entirely in comparison to men with children. Regardless of age, ethnicity or geographical location, British women were more likely to lose paid work than men, and more likely to increase their domestic work. The Women’s Budget Group tells us that parents were twice as likely to be furloughed as childless workers – and that women did 78% more childcare than men in households with children under 5.

While some women embraced the chance to spend more time with their family, others felt trapped in some kind of 1950s nightmare where food was rationed and a new domesticity encouraged the competitive making of banana bread.

Worries about money, the impact of home schooling on their children, and their own health and those of vulnerable family members, led to sleep loss and an increase in alcohol consumption. There were alarming reports of rises in domestic violence, as women found themselves trapped in homes with their abusers – who were able to use lockdown laws to extend their coercive control.

A[socially isolated] room of one’s own

A century ago, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, in which she argued that women need a room and money of their own in order to write and to counter women’s social silence. Her work helped to establish the significance of spaces, both public and private, as material factors in the writing process.

Woolf’s essay provided for the first time a means of evaluating and rendering visible how women’s writing ‘disappears’. The aim of our project is to prevent the re-emergence of this knowledge gap around the pandemic by capturing a variety of sources of life writing by women, some of whom might not self-identify as writers, to document this unique period in recent history.

How, where and when did women write during lockdown? How did they find space, time and resources to write? How did they negotiate with partners, employers, and family members for their own space? And what did they write about? Women’s writing has often been criticized for its over-identification with the domestic arena, yet lockdown transformed the home into a new front line in what was continually presented as a war against COVID-19.

We will be drawing on Woolf’s methodological framework to evaluate whether the key issues that her essay raised have resurfaced as a direct result of the governmental response to COVID-19 – access to public as well as private spaces, the role of authority figures in establishing the right to entry, the effect of differential income levels. We will also investigate the strategies that women have developed to carve out space to write in these constrained circumstances and how they turned to writing to negotiate their response to enforced domestication.

Why is this project important?

This project will contribute to the documentation of women’s experience during lockdown. Feminist scholars are very aware of the possibility that women’s experience and the representation of them, although visible and acknowledged at the time, can quickly be forgotten. We seek to ensure that the effect of the pandemic on women and women’s writing is not hidden from the historical record. It is extremely important to reflect women’s realities back to them and also to continue to raise awareness of the impact of lockdown on women’s lives and careers.

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