I sat down with Cortina Butler who has had an astounding career in literature, previously as global editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest and then former managing director of BookBrunch, she is now the Director Literature at the British Council.
A huge part of the current feminism discussion is education, the British Council create international opportunities for the people in the UK and other countries. In terms of literature, the British Council develop literature programmes that intend to build long-term connections between writers and other individuals and organisations in the literature sector, in both the UK and internationally.
I asked Cortina about feminism in literature and the publishing industry. “All the art forms are different in a way, such as the ease for women in terms of getting into those art forms, however publishing in general is very female focused, the real issue is about the number of women that achieve senior positions.” She then continued to talk about the real discrimination found in literature: “In terms of publishing, although women get published, what you don’t see is a fair representation in prizes, in book reviews and reviewers.”
I asked Cortina if she feels that prizes such as The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction are important: “I think that people have mixed views about them, but actually I think that it has done a huge amount of good in terms of highlighting the best of writing by women.”
In regards to feminism, education is so significant in terms of the feminist movement, I asked Cortina if she thought there needed to be more feminism in young adult and children’s literature, she told me: “I think there is a lot of feminism expression in writing for young people, I think literature has a role to play in creating good role models for behaviour, particularly behaviour in young women and young men.” However she then went on to say: “The issue isn’t so much the books that are written for girls but the books that are written for boys, I think there is a real role for writing to play in modelling good respectable behaviour in boys, in those relationships.”
This is where her role in the British Council comes in, education and literature are highly important in order to empower young women internationally. “The British Council strive to enable women and girls to believe that they can achieve, we teach them skills such as access to education, entrepreneurship and how to be a professional person. Writing can play a huge part, as a woman literature can model what that achievement looks like.”
The British Council organised the Women in Creative Industries event at the Wonder Women festival, I asked Cortina why she is so passionate about tackling the problems women in the creative industries face. “I think there are huge challenges in the creative industries,” she said. She spoke to me about the screening of Hamlet that was shown at the event, starring Maxine Peake who played Hamlet: “A young woman is taking a role traditionally taken by a man, to me that highlights the lack of those fantastic roles for women, Maxine Peake playing Hamlet raises interesting questions about Shakespeare.”
With the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approaching, the British Council have used Shakespeare as a trigger for a lot of discussions. She said: “Hamlet is one of the big ones about women’s roles actually because the two main roles Gertrude and Ophelia arguably don’t have a voice.” She then went on to talk about women’s access to senior roles in theatre: “Sarah Frankcom, the director, has made a fantastic role as the creative director for the royal exchange, but it is a hard path, a very hard path for women.”
As part of the Wonder Women festival, the Women in Creative Industries event proved to be a huge success, I asked Cortina about the British Council’s plans for future events. She told me: “We have got projects in Nigeria, around encouraging parents to send their daughters to school and projects in North Africa around giving the skills and confidence to young women to be able to take roles and play more of a part in professional life.”
Aside from that they are focusing on number five of the sustainable goals that have replaced the millennium development goals, which is about empowering women. “It is all about mutuality, sharing and recognising we don’t have everything fixed,” she said. ” I think living here, now, is probably one of the best places to live as a woman, but as we have said it is not by any means perfect and there is still a huge way to go and we can’t be complacent.”
Cortina expressed that she fortunately never experienced sexism during her career however she emphasises that just because she hasn’t experienced discrimination, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t stand up for those who have. She told me it is all about saying “Yes I know I am very lucky and I haven’t been affected but what we need is for everyone else to say in thirty years time, actually I’ve never felt disadvantaged and never felt discriminated against and that is where we need to be.”