When writer and artist Joanna Walsh created a set of bookmarks to send as New Year's cards, decorated with drawings of her favorite female authors, she didn't realize she would be jump-starting an entire movement to shift sexist reading habits.
"The bookmarks were created because I'd been too lazy to send Christmas cards, and was shamed into it by the beautiful cards I was sent, especially by illustrator friends," Walsh wrote to BuzzFeed. "I chose to draw women writers inspired by a couple of (male) journalists I was in touch with on Twitter — Matt Jakubowski and Jonathan Gibbs — who'd noticed that, despite being book reviewers, they infrequently read books by women. I was impressed they were willing to make a (public) effort to read more widely."
But once news of the bookmarks — which included not just portraits but lists of prominent women writers as well — began to spread, Walsh received requests for a full reading list. She went to Twitter to get the word out.
That "long clumsy" list was completed in just one day (full list here), but the hashtag has grown as users add their own contributions, insights, and celebrations of women writers.
"I've been massively surprised by the takeup," Walsh told BuzzFeed. "When I started tweeting the names I'd typed on the back of the cards, I worried readers might think I might come across being polemical, or boring, but so many people were eager to run with it themselves: lots of women, many of whom may have been reading female writers already, but also men--and women--who realised they'd hadn't thought about what they were reading, and wanted to try something new."
In addition to the droves of readers showing support through the hashtag, other writers and editors have pledged their dedication to diversification.
Writer Lilit Marcus just finished her year of reading only books written by female authors; while Daniel Pritchard, editor of The Critical Flame, announced that the literary journal would devote one year of its review coverage to women writers and writers of color, beginning in May 2014.
"What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit, everywhere from major publishing houses to small literary journals," Pritchard wrote in the announcement. "As far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default."
The dismissal of female writers is epidemic in the literary world, evidenced by the drastic imbalance between reviews of male-written works and female-written works.
In 2012, according to literary analysis organization VIDA, works written by women accounted for 22% of reviews in The New York Review Of Books, 25% of reviews in The Times Literary Supplement, and 23% of reviews in The Nation. Data on 2013 are yet to be released.
"I think it's important people are willing to consider books by a range of writers they might not usually read (during #readwomen2014 I've been contacted by people running excellent projects to encourage the reading of books by South Asian, Australian, women of colour)," Walsh wrote.
"Most women already read a lot of books by men. It's less common the other way round. One, but not the only, thing diverse reading can do is to give the reader another perspective. This is valuable, but I wouldn't want to argue in such utilitarian terms: books are works of art, and the desire to have art 'do' something to, or for us is problematic. However, to find the art most interesting to us, we have to be willing to experience all kinds."
And which female writer is Walsh enjoying right now?
"I'm reading, and loving, Surrealist writer and artist Leonora Carrington's stories. They've long been out of print in English, and I hope they may be available again soon."
Check out one of those collections here.