Tag Archives: women

Crocodile tears?

So there is something that’s been bugging me, and I haven’t said anything because it’s all a bit contentious. I can hear the arguments already: about how I’m cold-hearted, or blinkered to the concerns of others, or so biased that I just can’t see the hurt some people are feeling. But do you know what? I’m going to say it anyway.

So here it is: what on earth is going on with all these female MPs being reduced to tears lately?

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It started with Labour leadership challenger Angela Eagle, bemoaning her ‘agonising decision’ to resign by insisting that ‘it’s just not working’. A couple of days later we had Margaret Beckett, again pleading for Jeremy Corbyn to resign by comparing him unfavourably to the eight previous Labour leaders she has felt able to be ‘loyal to’. And then of course there was Ruth Smeeth, who left an antisemitism event in tears after being accused by a supporter of Corbyn of ‘being part of a media conspiracy’.

As a woman, I am embarrassed.

This is an incredibly stressful time for our politicians, I get that. The disastrous EU referendum project brought out the worst in everybody, breeding hatred and animosity that has been felt at every level of our society. My social media timelines have been filled with anger and with grief, and I have no doubt that many tears have been shed behind closed doors over what is happening to our country.

But to do it in public, when what is happening to our country is actually your job, your responsibility? No, that does not sit comfortably with me at all.

I know what it feels like to be pushed to the edge, to be beaten down by the system and by the task that lies before you. As a teacher and a leader in secondary schools I felt that biting pain of tears behind the eyes both in the classroom and in meetings, but I did not let my smile drop until I was alone – or at least alone amongst the most trusted of my colleagues. It takes strength, but keeping those emotions at bay is vital not only to maintain a semblance of professionalism but also to be able to continue to act professionally.

These women who have let down their guard have not been overlooked in some private place: they have let their emotions rise to the surface in front of politicians and journalists. And I do not believe they have done it because they are weak. If I did then I would not be writing this. These are strong, powerful, empowered women – they are choosing to let themselves cry.

The reasons why are to me pretty clear. There is a narrative at work here, a narrative which is placing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in role as bullies. There are undoubtedly within the people who have flocked around Momentum (as with any political cause) those that give the whole movement a bad name. But to blame it on the movement itself is laughable. Jeremy Corbyn is a peacemaker, a champion of kindness and equality, a speaker of truth. He is not a bully. He is being bullied, that much is certain, by the PLP and the media. But I have yet to see his emotions show in public beyond a flicker of resentment and a determination to continue with the job he was elected to do.

And this steely resolve is being used against him. Women are crying as they say his name, and he is being aligned with the bullies. And I do not think that is fair.

It is not fair on him, and it is not fair on us.

Just over a year ago, Tim Hunt and Boris Johnson were at the centre of a furore over gender discrimination: Hunt said, and Johnson agreed, that ‘when you criticise [girls], they cry’ – that ‘it is a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men’. They were despicable comments to have made, and revealed a truth about the underlying misogyny in our society that women have to battle against every single day in order to be taken seriously.

I cannot help but feel that, with their tears, Eagle, Beckett and Smeeth have taken us back even further.

 

Writing Bubble

 

On women and writing

My son has not been 100% the past few days, which has meant much more time sitting on the sofa having cuddles than usual. During one of these moments yesterday afternoon, whilst savouring the calmness of the three year old nestled at my chest, I had a bit of a revelation.

I found myself looking at my bookshelves, idly imagining my own published work sitting up there one day, and then it struck me: the overwhelming majority of the books in my life were written by men.

I couldn’t in that moment put my finger on why that was, but I knew it was significant for me – as a woman and as a writer. So today, what with it being International Women’s Day, I decided to do a little investigation.

As I am so often wont to do, I turned my gaze inwards first: tried to work out what it was about me that had led to such a literary gender imbalance. These books I have around me chart my reading history back to my teens. I have never got around to organising them in any particular way, and the resulting cacophony of titles is not easy to analyse, but however many times I went back again to look the facts remained the same: I have, over the past twenty years of my life as an avid adult reader, amassed a library which is almost entirely male-generated.

McEwan, Banks, Rushdie, Murakami, Self: all literary idols of my teens and twenties, all fantastic authors in their own right, but peculiar role models for a young woman trying to find her way in the world.

I didn’t think so at the time of course. I remember having a strong desire to be taken seriously as a reader and as an intellectual in my very male-dominated social and family circle. I remember arrogantly dismissing Austen – the only female author I remember studying at school – for what I saw as her obsession with vacuous romance. I remember being switched off by chick-lit as frivolous and a waste of reading energy (though I never looked beyond the covers to find out if that was actually true).

Of course as time went on I read – and loved – books by female authors too. Just not enough.

As my mind shifted to the context of all this I began to wonder whether it was merely a phenomenon isolated to my own book collection. I suspected probably not – certainly my sense of the world of the professionally respected writer is of one that is very male dominated. But I had already established that my lifetime’s research in this field was somewhat skewed, so I figured it was worth investigating.

Turns out it wasn’t just me. A quick google search threw up a woman whose novel proved eight times more attractive to agents when submitted under a male pseudonym; a study which revealed that 75% of the books reviewed in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement were written by men. I’m sure further research would have given me plenty more reassurance, but I’m pretty confident that it’s not just my bookshelves that are biased.

The reason why is somewhat more elusive. Are there actually less female authors than male ones – or good ones anyway? This question was explored at length in a fascinating essay written by Francine Prose in 1998, resurfacing when V.S.Naipaul expressed a similar disparagement towards Jane Austen as my teenage self in comments he made in 2011. The answer is of course complex and multilayered, with a multitude of reasons why women write, or don’t, and why people want to read what women write, or don’t (or at least what the publishers think in this regard).

A hypothesis that has recurred over the years is that is has something to do with motherhood: that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. Or if you are going to succumb to kids, just make sure you only have the one.

For me, the opposite is true. Or at least I thought it was. I found becoming a mother extremely motivating – liberating, even – and the birth of my son will always be intrinsically linked with my reasons for finally putting virtual pen to paper and writing my first novel. However as time goes on it has all started to feel a little self-indulgent, a waste of my ‘potential’, of my ‘education’  – both the desire to plunge myself headfirst into parenthood, and the equally strong desire to use all my spare moments to write. The voices from my past are surfacing and telling me that just writing and looking after a kid are hardly valuable uses of my time. So those precious minutes are being eaten away because I feel like I should be earning money (though I am lucky enough at the moment not to strictly need to) and because I feel that I should be doing something ‘worthwhile’ (though I have already dedicated ten years of my life to teaching).

I am wondering now, as I work all this through, whether I shouldn’t be seriously rethinking my priorities. But that would mean a commitment to this role of Writer, an assertion to myself and to others that I am good enough, and it is worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I’m there yet. Though coming across another article about how what separates unsuccessful female writers from successful male ones is the very reticence that I recognise wholeheartedly in myself has given me even more pause for thought.

And I am glad to say that my explorations did not throw up only negatives. I found this article about ten women authors who published after age forty particularly encouraging – there is still time, and hopefully plenty of it.

Also encouraging is the fact that one of these authors is currently sitting on top of my reading pile: a reading pile which for perhaps the first time ever is made up of books entirely written by women.

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None of this is by design. I never consciously set out to not read books by women, or indeed to seek them out as I grew older. But the shift in my literary gender balance is not entirely accidental either. I think it speaks to where I am right now with myself, as a woman and as a writer.

I’m still figuring out exactly where that is, but once I do? You’d better watch out, world.

 

Writing Bubble

Amazing words: amazing women

I was sat on the sofa last night, wanting to write but lacking the words, too tired to drag myself upstairs though I knew I should, when my eye was drawn to a programme on BBC iPlayer: Women Who Spit.

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I’d noticed it before, had idly thought I should check it out to feed my neglected love of performance poetry, but something else had always seemed more important. Yesterday though I clicked the link. And I’m very glad I did.

I hadn’t known what to expect, but here were five stand alone short films, each capturing a spoken word performance from a supremely talented female poet. From the first few bars of the very first poem I knew I’d have to watch them all: it was a bolt of pure inspiring awesomeness.

The words and the rhythm and the spirit and the sass pulled me out from underneath the detritus of the everyday.

I had become buried beneath the very real mess that is piling up on the surfaces of my life, my thinking blurred by the metaphorical steam rising from the watched pots of my first two novels as I wait for feedback from my agent. My notebooks are taunting me with their scrawls of unexplored ideas which keep moving just out of reach as I fail to battle through the seemingly endless tasks that have ranked themselves as more important.

These women reminded me that I need to carve myself some space to wrestle back control.

The first voice which made me sit up and take notice and realise that it was going to be a late night after all was Megan Beech, with her searing analysis of the sexism still ingrained in the BBC and right across our media institutions. I felt recognition, even pride, at her words: ‘I leave the house, get out of bed, because some things need to be said, and somebody needs to be the one to say them‘. I found myself nodding too as she proclaimed ‘we need to stop the laddish, loutish laughter at women displaying their intelligence; their eloquence and elegance and excellence‘. We need to aim high, be role models, get our voices heard.

This was reinforced by Vanessa Kisuule, with her insistence that we, as women, should ‘take up space‘. This resonated with me particularly at the moment because anxiety has been rearing its head again, making me shrink apologetically from the me I know I am deep down. I needed to be told: ‘don’t wait for approval‘, ‘give yourself the space to be fickle … to fluff your lines and make things up‘ and especially ‘don’t doubt the benefit of being the brightest you on the spectrum‘. Because it’s easy to forget.

Cecilia Knapp‘s approach was quieter, gentler, but no less powerful. She spoke of articulately of emotion and memory and the guarded face we show the world because ‘it’s fine, we’re fine, we’re getting on with it‘. Her words wove a tapestry of reasons for why she writes, and I found one of her concluding statements particularly resonant: ‘I write to find a version of myself I’m not at odds with‘.

After this quiet introspection Deanna Rodger‘s poem turned the focus out onto an unfriendly world: a fascinating précis of how the architecture of our cities is undermining our sense of community and duty of care to those who have nowhere to go. Spikes on the edge of pavements, bus shelters that provide no shelter at all, and awkwardly un-ergonomic benches that underline the transient nature of the comfort provided by the urban environment: ‘Sit here for a second it says… Slide here. Don’t stay’.

Finally I smiled and gently hugged myself as I watched Jemima Foxtrot battle it out with her inner demons in front of the mirror, a strong, confident woman longing for the day that we can ‘stop battling the haters on our mission to be free‘ and ‘look in that fucking looking glass and smile‘. Her words captured the ongoing fight that so many of us have to find peace with ourselves and the voices in our heads as ‘we hope together that all of this might be over one day‘.

I have loved performance poetry since I first discovered its power as a newly qualified English teacher trying to get inside the heads of teenagers in East London. There’s something about the lyrical wizardry that comes from a perfect combination of vocabulary and flow that finds its way right to my very core. These films had all of that, and it was reinforced by the visual poetry of beautifully framed shots and synchronistic edits to lend the words and the people who spoke them even more power.

I’m now working on internalising that power to get my writing mojo back. I’m particularly keen to revisit my own spoken word artist, Lili Badger, the heroine of my first novel. She hasn’t found a publisher yet but suddenly it seems even more important that I get her story out there. I just need to make sure I’m telling it right…

If you haven’t seen these films, I recommend you find half an hour somewhere, somehow to watch them. They’re available on iPlayer for two more weeks. I promise you will not be disappointed.

 

Muddled Manuscript
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