A Handy Guide To Work Out Whether You’re A Feminist

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I thought that, among all the Twitter fighting and internet discussion, I would add my own twopenneth-worth.


How do I know I am a feminist?

Aha! Well then, do you believe that EVERYONE, regardless of gender should have access to the same:

  • healthcare
  • education
  • human rights
  • job opportunities

regardless of their:

  • age?
  • race?
  • gender identity?
  • class?
  • sexuality?
  • religion?
  • nationality?

Hooray! You believe in equality. Of course, feminism is a bit more complex than I have presented it here, but it is 6am and I am very tired. However, I am also tired of all the fighting on Twitter and in newspaper columns about what feminism ‘is’. The thing is, if we fight each other, we’re not fighting for the things we should be.

Books 2013: July

A bit of a mixed bag this month; lots more fiction than usual, which is unusual, but necessary. My brain needed a bit of a rest from really factual stuff!

*All images from Waterstones

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town- Mary Beard


This is actually a sneaky inclusion from June that I finished just after I published last month’s books. I read it in the run up to attending the exhibition at the British Museum and it was brilliant to read about some of the things we’d seen in the museum and their history. I love Mary Beard’s approach to history and this book is no exception; witty, full of interesting facts and not afraid to deal with some of the less unsightly areas of Roman life. I would also credit this with being partly responsible for me becoming interested in learning Latin. id bonum est.

The Damnation of John Donellan- Elizabeth Cooke


What do you get when you have a dead, syphilitic aristocrat who is a couple of months’ shy of his 21st birthday (and thus his inheritance), a mother who is perceived as a bit dim and a brother-in-law who, although seems devoted to his wife and children, has a bit of a reputation of a social upstart and past reprobate? The answer: a book very much in the mould of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where social class, scandal and terrible legal defence combine to produce what could be one of the first high profile cases of miscarriage of justice.

Pompeii- Robert Harris


My boss insisted on lending me this after hearing me talk about the exhibition. I’d never read Robert Harris before (I’ve since been told that this isn’t his best work…) and I found that this book was a bit hit and miss. I found it hard to get into and the female characters were a bit frustrating. However, as a fictional account of Pompeii in the lead up to the eruption, it was very vivid. Also, if you like knowing about Roman aqueduct systems in your fiction, you’re in for a treat…

The Daughter of Time- Josephine Tey

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This is another recommendation, this time from our school librarian. The Daughter of Time is apparently quite a famous mystery novel from the 1950s, but if you’re expecting a Miss Marple type, think again. The novel tells the story of a policeman who, in hospital for a few weeks after breaking his leg (ah, the old-style NHS!), is bored. His friend suggests that he do some historical detective work and he chooses the story of the Princes in the Tower. I’ve not really done it justice in my description, but it’s an interesting read, even if some of the theories about Richard III have since been debunked.

Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies- Hadley Freeman


I love reading Hadley Freeman’s work- it’s often like she’s written exactly what’s in my head, but with a slightly more fashionable twist. This book is no exception; a guide through life that is funny and thought provoking (the bits about new mums made me chortle and nod my head in agreement- Hadley later told me on Twitter that she’d written it for her sister who had just had a baby.) What I like about this is that although it’s a feminist book, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, merely points out common sense. To anyone who isn’t sure if they’re a feminist: read this book.

Books 2013: May

I’ve had loads of reservations arrive at the library this month, so it’s pretty non-fiction heavy. I’m beginning to yearn for some fiction, though, so hopefully I’ll find the time in June to remedy this!

(All images Waterstones unless otherwise stated)

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery- Eric Ives


This was an interesting, albeit slightly dry, account of Lady Jane Grey’s reign and the political machine that surrounded her. What’s interesting is that Ives turns the traditional narrative of her father-in-law being power mad on its head. He was, Ives argued, nothing more than a loyal courtier who believed he was carrying out the law and the wishes of his king, Edward VI. Not surprisingly, we hear very little from Jane herself, but she comes through as a spirited, intelligent young woman when we do.

Celebrity- Marina Hyde


This is the polar opposite to the previous book! A take down on the often ridiculous nature of modern celebrity, The Guardian’s gossip columnist deals with everything from Hollywood religion, how celebs fare when it comes to the law, their pets and their children with a biting wit and sharp satire. A very quick read that would be perfect for a plane journey!

From Hell- Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


I am a big fan of graphic novels and I’ve wanted to read this one for ages. I like the film for its utter bonkersness, but it is clearly VERY different to the original book. From Hell is HUGE, complex and very good for stretching the brain. It deals with the Jack the Ripper murders and a masonic cover-up. Anyone who says graphic novels aren’t clever hasn’t read this book.

Girl Trouble- Carol Dyhouse


Carol Dyhouse works with Benn’s dad and a couple of years ago very kindly gave me a copy of her book Glamour, which I loved. So when I saw that the library had a copy of this book, I knew I had to read it! It deals with the way Britain has dealt with the ‘problem’ of young women through the 20th Century. From early fears of white slavery, to flappers, Teddy Girls and ladettes, it looks at how society has coped with the changing status of young women and how feminists have fought to ensure that girls and young women are able to fulfil their potential in all aspects of life. Absolutely fascinating from both a sociological and historical viewpoint.

Fifty Shades of Feminism- Lisa Appignanesi, Susie Orbach Rachel Holmes (ed.)


I don’t really need to explain the name, do I? However, inside are fifty short pieces by a range of women about what feminism means to them (or doesn’t, as the case may be.) All bases are covered here: fashion, history, politics, motherhood, gender identity, sexuality, international feminism and so on. I found this a very quick read and also really quite reassuring. There’s been so much bickering among the feminist community in recent months that it was good to be reminded that although we may all have differing takes on what feminism means to us as individuals, we all want the same thing ultimately.

The Third Sex: Kathoey, Thailand’s Ladyboys- Richard Totman


After seeing The Ladyboys of Bangkok, I wanted to learn more about kathoey, a group of people we now refer to as ‘ladyboys’. I knew that they had some cultural resonance in Thailand, but what really surprised me was how ancient this subculture was. This was a fascinating book that linked kathoey to Buddhism.  The view of ‘ladyboys’ we have in the west is a relatively recent phenomenon and one that initially confused the first westerners to arrive in Thailand. A fascinating sociological read.

Interview: Katie Allen (Just Sew Stories)

Hooray! Katie Allen‘s new book Just Sew Stories is out today (you have until 6pm to win a copy on this very blog, by the way…) and she was kind enough to allow me to interview her for the big occasion.

What inspired you to write the book?

I suppose my jumping-off point was very personal, for two reasons. Firstly, I love making things, but my real creative passion is sewing. I wanted to pass that on in a book, to inspire other people. I’m quite inspired by the DIY, punk movement – of making your own things rather than buying something from a chain store.

And secondly, most of the things I have made over the years have been presents for other people.. I really love making something personal for someone which suits all their idiosyncrasies, plus it’s not often you make something and get lots of thanks and applause afterwards! So I wanted to include simple, imaginative projects in the book which people could make for their nearest and dearest (handy in the run-up to Christmas!) but also cool enough that they might just want to just keep them for themselves.

What’s your favourite project in the book and why?

Probably the “I’m dotty about you” quilt. Not to come over all Winona Ryder, but I think there really is a story in every quilt. Not just in the fabrics you choose and the colour combinations you pick, although those are of course important and fun decisions to make – but in what you think about while you’re stitching all those little squares together. I find making a quilt is a balm for any troubled soul…

I also wanted to show that making a quilt is not as hard as it looks – nor as slow! My dotty quilt took me just a weekend to put together.

What was your soundtrack when writing the book?

A ha! You’ve caught me there. I listened to everything on my iPod at least twice I think – especially Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, which I think is very conducive to a pleasant sewing rhythm. In fact I’ve included a playlist in my book! But when I started to get a little demented with sitting in my kitchen on my own sewing or writing night after night, the radio became my surrogate friend, particularly BBC 6 Music, and BBC Radio 4. Desert Island Discs is particularly good…

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get started with crafting, but was maybe a little nervous?

Go for it! Crafting of all ilks is a wonderful way to spend time creatively- and to make things prettier too. Think of Lisa in Dirty Dancing, whose role is to “decorate” the world. Nothing wrong with that!

I would say do a little research into what you might like to make first. Craft fairs are an excellent way to see what’s out there and get ideas. Then find a nice simple project from a book (ahem!) or a blog – having someone lead you step by step through something is a great confidence boost, especially when you have a lovely little project at the end to show for it. Then demand praise from everyone you know– that always helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

 What would you say to someone who said that crafting was anti-feminist?

I think it comes down to the old ‘choice’ argument. Crafting – or sewing in particular – was only ever a hindrance to women when they were forced to do it as a way to keep them quiet, particularly in the 19th century when “accomplished” women had to spend hours embroidering teacloths and what not. I think sewing was rejected by many in the women’s lib movement of the 70s and 80s because it became a symbol of domestic oppression. But today I don’t think embroidery or dress-making are foisted on anyone – it’s a choice to make things, whether for pleasure or for retail, and anyway I think we should celebrate those skills. There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about say embroidery compared to painting a portrait.

Which four celebrities would you like to start a crafty collective with and why?

Sue Perkins because I suspect she would be as witty and entertaining in real life as she is on TV – plus we could discuss cakes!

Kirsty Wark because I’d love to talk to her about what it’s like to be on Newsnight, and about all the interesting people she’s met

P J Harvey – just because I love her, and perhaps she could sing a song or two

Lady Grantham – of course! I think she’d bring a certain something to proceedings, although I can’t see her getting to grips with a glue gun…

Just Sew Stories is published by Hardie Grant and is out today, priced £16.99. Check out Katie’s blog at www.katiestitches.wordpress.com

If you buy the book and make something, let me know!

Make-up and feminism… a tricky subject?

Today, I read an article in the Daily Mail by Liz Jones in which she says that wearing make-up is “feminist”. Now, I’m neither a DM nor a Jones fan, but I read this article because I’ve had people leave comments on the blog implying that feminists shouldn’t wear make-up. (Also, I’m not going to link to this article, as I reckon the DM could do without the clicking and income it brings.) Jones also argues that those women who, shock horror, self-identify as feminists and/or don’t wear make-up are arrogant. Apparently, all mere mortals should admit we need a bit of help and if we don’t, we’re a bit deluded.

Personally, I think making sweeping gestures is a bit arrogant. My stance on this issue is this (and I’ve said it before): feminism is about choice. If you want to wear make-up, do. We’ve evolved to a point where make-up is acceptable in all areas of society. If you like wearing it, playing with it, buying it or reading about it, then go ahead. If you don’t want to wear it, fine. Feminism is about your views, not what may or may not be on your face.

What I find galling is that Jones works for a paper that regularly attacks women on their appearance (whether that’s celebrities wearing too little/too much make-up, not losing baby weight ‘fast enough’, whatever.) I think, rather than denouncing women for what cosmetics they may or may not use, a feminist should be questioning the way the media is influencing girls and young women. By focusing on whether someone wears make-up means that we conveniently steer away from the role that writers like Jones have in representing positive images.

That Lush campaign

So. At the start of the week, I was intending to write a post about my recent experience of using Lush’s Cacao Henna on my hair. (Disclaimer in case anyone thinks I’m already a bad mother: you can dye your hair when pregnant with this stuff, as it’s plant based. I checked.) I had a really good experience with it and have had loads of compliments. I took some Dutch friends to the Brighton store to have a look and bought some bits and pieces for myself- I was all for Lush.

And then this happened. There is a massive trigger warning attached to watching the video, as it shows a female subject forcibly being  victimised and ‘tested on’ the way an animal is. If you don’t want to watch the video (and, having watched it myself, I don’t blame you), it’s basically that two male ‘scientists’ test products on the woman in the window of their flagship store in Regent’s Street, London.

There has been a whole (in my opinion, deserved, although your mileage may vary) hullabaloo about the stunt and Lush has responded with this statement. The questions, for me, that arise from it are:

1) Why did Lush feel it was “it was important, strong, well and thoroughly considered that the test subject was a woman. […]It would have been disingenuous at best to have pretended that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse”? Is this because women buy cosmetics? The thing that this point misses is that ‘cosmetics’ covers everything from toothpaste to shaving foam and I think that those are pretty much unisex products. Also, why was it vital to have a woman in the role of the abused? Why does Lush think that a man wouldn’t have had such an effect? (I’m pretty sure women are probably more informed about the testing that goes on for makeup than men, as we’ve been the target audience for campaigns against it for years.)

2) The campaign was going pretty well already in stores- every time I went in, I was asked to sign the petition and I saw that most customers did. This is a campaign that has been launched across all stores that many people had a lot of goodwill for. If it was as successful as it looked, why launch a PETA-style shock-tactic campaign? This to me just smacks of desperate publicity stunt. How many new signatures did Lush get on the street as a result of this? I bet it’s not that many.

3) Did you not consider the people in the street: for example, children. I’m very anti having anything forced upon me and this seemed hard to avoid. The imagery was violent and disturbing. A lot of feminist sites have pointed out that victims of abuse would also have been effected. So, you know, not everyone shares the views of the company and putting on such a protest that lasted TEN HOURS is kind of extreme.

4) Was it worth the ire that the whole circus has provoked? I’ve read a lot of comments and although some are very-pro what Lush did, an awful lot are against, for whatever reason. I think maybe it’s snowballed a bit out of where Lush thought it would go. There’s a lot of debate about the gender politics of the piece of ‘performance art’, whether all animal testing is bad (I was an ardent animal rights supporter in my teens, but still acknowledged that without animal tests, I wouldn’t be here, due to my mother’s diabetes, which would have killed her), or whether Lush has been naive/arrogant/preaching to the converted/smug. There’s also a LOT of talk about whether to boycott the company. I have to say, I’m torn. I love Lush products, but then again I can get cruelty free elsewhere. I live in Brighton, for goodness’ sake- everything has its vegan equivalent down here.

Overall, I’m sad. I’m sad that a company that had some good intentions has jumped on the odious women-as-campaign-meat bandwagon so adored by PETA. I’m sad that the ‘defence’ was not a defence, but seemed a bit smug. I’ll not be buying from Lush or featuring a Lush product on my blog until some kind of proper acknowledgement/apology is issued.

The problem with women in the media

I thought long and hard before invoking the name of a certain Daily Mail writer who caused a furore this week… I think that Hadley Freeman pretty much wrote the definitive piece on Ms Brick. But it got me thinking about the way women are portrayed in the media and thought that Samantha Brick was a good place to start.

Do I agree that Ms Brick is beautiful? I think she is probably attractive in person, although no more so than most ‘normal’ attractive people and that also she was misguided in a lot of the things she said. I also think that she over-exaggerated some of the things that have happened to her (for example, how does a man in front of her in a queue at a train station know where she’s going in order to buy her ticket?) Do I think the Mail sold her down the river? Absolutely. For example, in the pictures in the piece, the photographer seemed to want to project more Matalan than Milan. I also think that the Mail deliberately decided not to photoshop out various bits of normality from Brick’s body- the bits that are normal in a woman in her 40s. If this was an article about how normal middle aged women look, bravo. But not when the Mail wants people to comment on her relative unattractiveness to cause a story that will run for days and days. So,when it comes to the images used in the article, that’s the paper’s fault.

This is not to say that I think Brick is blameless. Saying that the ‘sisterhood hates attractive women’ is lazy and plays right into the Mail’s anti-woman agenda. She has spectacularly misunderstood that she has been done a number on. (Was anyone else surprised to learn that she made about £30,000 for the two articles that originally appeared?! That’s more than my yearly wage. Still wouldn’t write for them.) The whole thing has read like a parody- and the Mail is rubbing its hands together  in glee. 100 million hits. We’re fuelling its agenda by reading about a woman with self-esteem issues.

But I think the Brick debacle shows us something else about the general media reaction to women. We’re either “worryingly thin”, “dangerously curvy” or judged on the way we look. This is not just the Daily Mail, most media outlets do it every now and then to some degree.

For example, think back to the start of the hacking scandal at the News of the World. Whose appearance was commented on? Was Andy Coulson referred to as an odd-looking chap? Nope. The whispers and sniggers were aimed at Rebekah Brooks and, later, after pie-gate, Wendi Deng.

Brooks’ picture was used to illustrate the story more than the men involved. There were snide jokes, or off-the-cuff remarks about her hair (described by Vanity Fair as a “pile of red, ringleted hair”.But no-one breathlessly commented on James Murdoch’s hair. I bet he was gutted.) So why did Brooks attract attention? Because of her position in a mainly male dominated top flight career. She has also been described in masculine terms: ‘ruthless’ and ‘ambitious’ are words often used to describe her. Because we all know that if you want to get ahead, you need to act like a man. I don’t agree with what Brooks is alleged to have allowed to happen, but that doesn’t mean I agree with how the media has portrayed her. She’s the calculating bitch to Brick’s daft ditz.

Talking of ditzes, this leads nicely into one of the stories that really gets my goat at the minute. Jessica Simpson’s pregnancy. For some reason, Jessica Simpson is an easy target for the American media. She has said some stupid things (like on her reality show ‘Newlyweds’, when she asked whether tuna was really chicken…) She was also blamed for a then-boyfriend’s poor performance on the football field. Her weight is a constant issue and now she’s pregnant, it’s exploded.

The thing I really like about her is that she has a really great sense of humour and an awareness of the ridiculousness of the whole situation. Simpson is big, but says she’s carrying a lot of fluid. She’s also admitted to odd cravings (deep fried Oreos anyone?) But this has led to tabloid commentators saying she’s ‘too’ big and one doctor, who doesn’t treat Simpson labelling her as ‘an absolute porker’. So what gives this doctor the right to say this? The fact that the media is encouraging her to. Tracie Egan Morrissey over on Jezebel– a new mum herself- wrote why this is wrong. We live in a society where women are encouraged not to put too much weight on during pregnancy; this is initially dressed up as “oh, you don’t want to suffer health problems” (laudable) but in the media is reduced to “But think of the weight! How will you get back to your pre-baby weight in two weeks if you eat crisps?!” Simpson is already  in talks to be the new face of Weight Watchers after the baby is born. This just depresses the hell out of me, because she’ll be on a diet as soon as she’s out of the delivery room and surely that should be the last thing on your mind after giving birth?

To be honest, I’m bored of the constant media need to compare women. It’s a bullying tactic designed to make women feel insecure and undermined. The question is, how do we counteract it?

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the film critics who said Jennifer Lawrence was ‘too fat’ and ‘too womanly’ to play Katniss in The Hunger Games.