Guest Column by Jan Isenhour

August 21, 2019: a 40th anniversary guest column from former Board chair Jan Isenhour:
They Were Our Rock Stars, But They Were Not Divas:
Behind the Scenes in the Early Years at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference
 I’m not sure you can imagine how important, how revolutionary, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference was to me when it burst into town in 1979, but I’m going to help you try.
            I spent four years as an undergraduate English major. In those four years I was assigned exactly two books by women. The instructor for my two-semester British Literature class was a woman, the only woman I had during my time as an English major. First semester she assigned Jane Austen’s Emma; second semester, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And in four years that was it. No poems or essays by women, no short stories. Modern American Novel? Alas, nothing by women.
            The two-year graduate program that followed doubled the tally. That’s right—exactly two more books by women: Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider made the syllabus.
            So in the late 1970s I joined a book group composed of five or six other English majors, and we set about to begin our real education in literature. I am convinced that one of the reasons book groups proliferated so quickly in the 1980s was not because Oprah Winfrey “invented” them, but because women all over the country realized that if they were to read something that truly mattered to them, they would need to organize the experience themselves. The world thought book groups were all about drinking wine and socializing; women knew they were about fostering a life of the mind.
One of my book group members, the late poet Judy Gaines Young, became involved with the board of the Kentucky Women Writers. Through her, I started to get first-hand knowledge of how the conference worked. In the early days, writers stayed in the homes of board members. Judy hosted Tillie Olsen the second year of the conference, and we could barely restrain ourselves. Does Tillie take tea or coffee with breakfast? Is she an early riser? A vegetarian? If only texting had been possible! Landlines were such a slow way of finding out all the intimate details we were curious about. Thanks to the conference I learned that writers were not just lofty and distant individuals but were ordinary people who worked exceptionally hard, sometimes juggling child-raising and second jobs. They were my rock stars, but they were not divas.
Thanks to the conference, I was introduced to literature by women of color, and in my early thirties read my first novels by women of color: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. That’s almost incomprehensible to me now. I had a crash course in feminism and feminist criticism, thanks to writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, and Margaret Atwood, who memorably refused to answer a hostile question from a man in the audience at one of her readings. Could she do that? She could, and did.
Thanks to the conference I learned about the immigrant experience from writers like Chitra Divakaruni, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Ruth Ozeki, Naomi Shihab Nye and Neela Vaswani. They brought the experience of the world to Lexington, Kentucky. Thanks in part to books by Chitra and Neela and the lectures of Dr. Vandana Shiva, travel to India went on my bucket list. I am happy to say that I checked off that item last year.
Thanks to the conference I was reminded that our many local writers are really writers who just happen to live locally. They read for free when we were desperately strapped, they take seats on panels, they moderate conversations, they serve on the board. I am so glad the conference can give them the national stage they deserve.
In 1998 through 2001, board members worked exceptionally  hard to keep the conference going during its time away from the university. I well-remember those Monday night board meetings at the Carnegie Center. Although I get credit for being chair, we actually decided to run ourselves as a nonhierarchical group, a principle we had heard about through the Women Writers Conference. When we finished a grant proposal, we all signed off on it. There has probably never been a board so tediously well-informed.
As you know the conference has continued the tradition of having volunteers host our writers, and that produced some memorable moments as well. Like the year I hosted the New York City food writer. I made dinner reservations for us at Dudley’s, a restaurant owned by a woman. But when I asked my guest to approve the plan, she told me she would prefer to pick up a bucket of KFC that she could eat in my car while I drove her through pretty neighborhoods. Or the time I hosted crime fiction writer Eleanor Taylor Bland who opted to travel to and from her home in Chicago by Greyhound Bus. Shortly after her stay in Lexington I caught a glimpse of a furry animal wedged beneath the seat of my car. Heart pounding, I steered to the curb, only to find Eleanor’s winter hat, which had rolled from her bag as she exited at the bus station. We had a good laugh over that one, and I ended up appearing in her next book.
So congratulations, Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Through the years you have demonstrated what a group of dedicated women can do. You have been prescient in your choices, bringing in fine writers just on the brink of fame. Just five years ago I enjoyed the presentation by Rebecca Makkai at the conference; this year her book The Great Believers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award. You have succeeded in giving Lexington a truly distinctive honor—home to the longest-running conference for women writers in the country. You have persisted, despite funding worries and difficulties finding institutional homes, because in those times women came together and volunteered for administrative duties or donated their time as artists and writers so that the conference could go forward.
Recently in the New York Times, there was an editorial written by Italian writer Elena Ferrante. I urge you to get online and read it. It’s called “A Power of Our Own.” Her analysis of power comes at a critical time. Ferrante says this:
There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.
In this time, we need our power more than ever. We need the Women Writers Conference more than ever. Let’s celebrate this 40th anniversary and then rededicate our efforts to bringing work by women to the attention of the world.