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“The left has a tendency to eat itself. The anti-capitalist left, the feminist left”

The new Foyles cafe is like a model of the neo-liberal marketplace. Nothing is as nice as it used to be in the old shabby one; the menu is misleading – the ‘East End Salt Beef’ is plasticised pap with no sinews; and yet there is light and air and decent coffee.

I first met Laurie Penny in the old one, back in 2009, when she was working on a piece on trans issues, and soon afterwards, by her request, I adopted her and became her Fairy Godmother. In so many ways. We are dedicating-books-to-each-other close friends, in spite of the gap in our ages, and this interview makes no pretense otherise. We’re here to talk about her new book, Unspeakable Things.

I asked her why she felt she needed an Evil Aunt.

LP: Everyone needs an evil Auntie, just most people are not lucky enough to have one. Actually that’s an interesting question – you’re probably my most important female mentor. There’s a serious lack of mentors for writers my age, especially female ones. I used to find it hard to have personal and professional relationships with women of other generations. There’s massive hostility there.

RK: That’s weird because it used not to be the case. When I think back to my late 20s and early thirties, I had a wodge of them, Lorna Sage for example.

LP: The difference is that you’re not just a mentor, you’re socially a peer.

RK: That’s because one of the good things about your generation is that you don’t defer. It used to be taken for granted that you did. And the plus point with your generation is that you don’t defer and the minus is that people who had to, back in the day, and now expect their turn resent that.

LP: Absolutely. And there’s even more stock set right now on being young, on being a bright young thing. And so there’s more suspicion. One of the things I say in the book is that being a woman is seen like being your job. It’s the job that everyone has signed up for, anyone who is in any way female and every other woman is your competitor. And if being a woman is our job, we need to unionise.

RK: It’s unpaid work, as being a woman always was.

LP: In the movie All About Eve the central character, Margot Channing, the one played by Bette Davis, says: “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it.” I thought that was so sad and so profound.

RK: Except your generation, you’re not just supposed to work at it, you’re supposed to work at monetising it.

LP: It’s more like a profession, and that’s what I mean in talking about neoliberalism in general.

RK: It’s a portfolio femininity. You’re supposed to be a walking CV.

LP: Back when I was young, very young, feminism was a lifestyle choice – it was all sort of sassy. It was a matter of “can you be a feminist and wear a white wedding dress or high heels?” And you still get those articles. It was all about identity rather than action. Politics didn’t come into it, and feminism was massively depoliticised and also massively dequeered. And that’s something that’s now reversed itself. A new generation of LGBT and genderqueer activists are making their voices heard. In the 90s, feminism seemed only to talk about straight women; if there was any sense of queer, it was just lesbian women, and it wasn’t an inclusive sense that we all live under heteropatriarchy. It was a politics of lesbian women, if at all, that was oriented around political lesbianism and that whole package. So it wasn’t about queer at all. That’s why it’s so great for my politics to know you and people like you. Because I could read it in books but I wouldn’t get the ‘History as gossip’ version.

RK: History as gossip is important because it means you know where the bodies were buried.

LP: There’s that wonderful article about Shulamith Firestone by Susan Faludi, because it’s not dry, it tells you about the personalities involved and the interactions, and what really broke Shulamith was disillusion with that movement and the way she was rejected.

RK: It’s really important to recognise that history, because trashing was what nearly destroyed second wave feminism, or at least seriously crippled it, in the 70s.

LP: Feminists started talking mainly to each other and it’s partly the trashing and partly the way it gets to be about the Perfect Line. And obviously I care about what feminists think of my book, but I am more interested in what fifteen year olds who are reading it in their bedroom think. It’s not about convincing people who are already my comrades that my politics are pure and perfect. That’s the scary thing about writing a book instead of a blog post – you can’t go back and change it.

RK: But there is no pure line, there’s never been a pure line, the pure line is a delusion.

LP: A lot of what’s important in seventies feminism is the stuff it got wrong. There’s the chapter about race in Dialectic of Sex in which Firestone talks as if she has never met anyone who wasn’t white. Yet if you write off the whole book on the basis of that, you’d have lost a lot of important thought. So it’s important to read it alongside feminists of colour writing at the same time, like Angela Davis and Alice Walker.

RK: You’ve learned a lot from feminists of colour. It took a lot of us ages to do that. Intersectionality, for example, as a clear concept and set of ideas.

LP: Intersectionality does crop up in the book. I do use the I word, not a lot. I ration all the other words – neo-liberalism, capitalism – that smack even a tiny bit of jargon. I went through the manuscript with the search function and wherever possible I changed them, rephrased the sentence, cut them down. So it said the same thing without using the words. There are a lot of schoolkids of every gender whose lives would be so much better if [Judith Butler’s] Gender Trouble had been written in a comprehensible manner, in a language that was exciting and accessible to people not already versed in the language of theory.

RK: The version of Gender Trouble explained in Lolcats is a great contribution to the welfare of humanity. Unspeakable Things works very hard at accessibility, at making the language new.

LP: That’s part of the reason it has so much memoir in there. It was difficult to strike a balance between that and polemic – because you have to have the personal gossip that moves polemic along, and there’s a lot of stuff that is straight up polemic. And the memoir bits explain where my politics come from and how they developed. If I were going to write straight memoir – but I’m 27 and far too young to write memoirs – here I barely talk about my family at all – and there are very good reasons for that – and I don’t talk about Oxford at all. University was my least political time, because I went there very young – I was just 17 and just out of hospital. I spent a couple of years just getting myself well and doing a lot of theatre and drinking gin and being a reprobate and scraping through my exams. It was a couple of years off serious politics. I needed to use the time for other things – self-care is radical. People go on at me about Oxford – and sure it’s important to acknowledge privilege.

RK: True, but in this country, privilege is as complex as class. And the language we use has to reflect that.

LP: There’s a failure to understand that privilege is not the same as power. There’s a lot of that in the chapter about boys, about their rage because they were promised things, they were raised to be able to live in a world which does not exist — never existed actually — less so now. There’s that very painful conflict between the stories they grew up with, in stories and films, in home and school, that they would grow up to be these powerful macho guys and their growing awareness, especially if they are moving in social justice circles, that that’s not an ethical way to be, it’s not a way to live your life. James Bond films are cool, but everyone knows now that James Bond is a total prick. You can’t now watch Connery’s Bond from a position of unwatching Craig. We have all these old ideas of what a masculine hero is meant to be and there isn’t much to replace it.

RK: Is it also because of the massive disillusion – and I feel this from the specific viewpoint of someone in their 60s – with the radical heroes of my generation and what became of them?

LP: It’s almost the opposite really. We had to get older and read a bit more before we understood what they used to be. Remember, I was only ten when Labour came to power. I remember kids in the playground talking about it and going “Labour! My mum and dad are voting Labour” And they were going “TONY BLAIR!” I was a Thatcher baby, but my sisters are both Major babies. Kids born when Labour came to power will be turning 18 this summer. I only started reading political papers at 13, and 9/11 was the first major event that registered with me. That was the thing for us.

RK: With me it was the Cuban missile crisis

LP: When you talk about political generations, it’s particular moments rather than purely chronological. Millennials have no idea of the Berlin Wall but are very clear about 9/11. The next generation won’t remember it.

I asked Laurie why she identifies as a geek.

LP: I’ve always been a geek. Stories have always fascinated me – the more engaged I’ve got with writing, the more I have realised that politics is a story we tell ourselves about what life is about, what identity is about, and the more you can change the story the more you can change the future. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story – I’ve been reading her novels – and the danger of the single story. There’s a problem with the stories women have been allowed to tell themselves about themselves. And the reason I am so fascinated by geek feminism is that it interrogates narrative, the stories we are allowed to tell ourselves about identity and sexuality and gender and agency.

RK: Women’s stories have constantly to be fought for – did you see that article the other day about the Trinity version of the strong woman, the woman who is characterized as strong but does not actually do anything?

LP: All you have to do to be a Strong Woman is turn up wearing combat boots and fall for the hero. Surely we can do better than that in 2014. She can have amazing attributes but she never gets to kill the dragon. She is always a character in someone else’s story, the amazing woman who whisks the hero off to a fantasyland like Trinity in the Matrix. Women are encouraged to see themselves as characters in stories that happen to other people rather than the heroes of their own story. And in Doctor Who, maybe not River Song or Martha or Donna, but most of the other recent companions – they’re Manic Pixy Dream Girls. Amy Pond is definitively a Manic Pixy Dream Girl and so is the new one, Clara. They have quirks and eccentricities but what are they actually like? And if anyone uses the words sassy or spunky – or feisty – I hate feisty. Feisty is a word about women that’s a stand-in for having an actual personality. And they don’t have flaws, or if they have flaws, it’s like it is in New Girl, where they were sitting around thinking that the character ought to have a flaw and someone said “let’s make her clumsy”, which means she sometimes drops things. It’s not even actual dyspraxia which might generate plot.

Women are not allowed character development, let alone catharsis; there’s a big fight going on about who gets to tell stories. It’s not just women, it’s people of colour and LGBT people and there’s a struggle to be the subject of one’s own stories, not a point in other people’s. The internet has had a certain amount to do with this – and fan fiction. Especially now that fan writers are breaking into the mainstream. Some of the sci-fi awards lists are full of new interesting women writers telling stories about race and gender – the Hugo shortlist a bit less so – and of course sci-fi is ideal for that. The excitement for me about writing fiction is how many stories are there left to be told? How many lives and sorts of lives need to find narrative embodiment?

I ask Laurie about her role models from the earlier past.

LP: I’ve just reviewed a collection of Nellie Bly‘s writing. She’s the first gonzo journalist, she’s the first woman investigative reporter, and though there have been children’s books about her, and I think at least one television show – in the USA she’s the legend, the plucky girl reporter – but nobody bothered to collect her writing, nobody bothered to read what she actually wrote. She’s so much more radical than the legend – which is all: Young girl comes out of nothing, becomes ace reporter, does whatever a man can do, rarara – but her work about marriage, her work about the condition of working women across the US is really very radical.

RK: Of course, another great product of Bly’s era is London’s THE IRON HEEL – which Orwell thought was terrifyingly predictive in the 40s, but now…

LP: The future isn’t necessarily bright; there is everything to fight for. Stories are the only way we steal the children of the rich, they’re the only way we can fight apart from simply managing to survive. One of the things about the LGBT communities – that we have to give other communities – and also communities of colour have done this – is to realize that survival is the struggle. Self-care is radical, it is politics, and mutual care, and a solidarity that is not merely in name only. It’s not just a hashtag, it’s showing up and taking care of people. And not being a dick on the internet unless you absolutely have to. I wish more people realised this, because in fallow times the left has a tendency to eat itself. The anti-capitalist left, the feminist left…

RK: Which leads us to the queston of ‘what Laurie Penny did next’.

LP: I’m taking a year off. I am going to Harvard on the Nieman Foundation. I applied for it last year just after losing my father. I could no longer do this kind of unremitting engagement without a physical break. If I hadn’t got that fellowship, I would still have taken a year off of some kind. It’s been really difficult to fight my corner and look after myself and do the work – which doesn’t mean it’s not been worth doing, but I have to think long term and not burn out. That would be sad – no one wants to be in the 27 club. I’m 27 but my birthday’s in September, so I am probably all right.

This is my second interview and the first was with a woman who had eating disorders in her 30s and 40s and I realized that getting better is a process. I’d thought that you just got better, and then I’d be done. But you have to work at it your whole life.

Laurie Penny’s new book ‘Unspeakable Things’ was published on 3 July, by Bloomsbury.

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We launch new Members perks with Blazing World competition

This week we launched our brand new online Members-only area, where Feminist Times Members can access exclusive discounts and offers from a selection of our feminist partners. Current offers include 50% off and free P&P on a selection of Zed Books’ feminist titles, free membership to Letterbox Library, 10% off The War Paint’s solid gold “Feminist” necklace, a free feminist mirror with every purchase from Tea Please, free entry to all our events, and regular members-only competitions from the likes of Verso Books. To benefit from all these offers, and more still to come, join us today from as little as £5 per month and help support our independent feminist media organisation.

To celebrate the launch of these Members-only offers, we’re giving away one pair of tickets to The Blazing World at the London Review Bookshop – a book reading by author Siri Hustvedt and discussion on gender bias with art critic Sarah Thornton, on 29 May from 7pm.

In Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel The Blazing World (Sceptre) artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own, to universal acclaim. ‘All intellectual endeavours’ Burden herself remarks pugnaciously at the novel’s opening ‘fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work … it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.’ Siri Hustvedt will be reading from her book, and discussing its themes of art, gender bias and subterfuge with the art critic Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World.

This competition is open to all Feminist Times Members. To enter, simply fill in your details below. One winner will be announced at 5pm on Monday 12 May.

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Be a girl with a mind, be treated like a dog on its hind legs

Last week, 158 writers were whittled down to six finalists and Donna Tartt was heralded as the bookies’ favourite to win the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction).

Bailey’s – a brand of liqueur whose recent advertising slogan encouraged drinkers to “be a girl with a mind, a woman with attitude and a lady with class” – now in association with a prize designed to eradicate such patronising stereotypes.

This latest twist only raises a popular question once more: can gender-segregated prizes for women truly tackle the issue of sexism within publishing?

In 1996 feathers were ruffled. In a column for The Independent philosopher Alain de Botton described the concept of a literary prize purely for women as “patronage of the worst kind”. “What is it,” he asked, “about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man, when it comes to picking up a pen?”

In one respect, de Botton was right and still is: a women’s prize for literature is the worst kind of patronage. It assumes that there is an un-level playing field for men and women within publishing. It assumes, it accepts, and then it packs up its things and decamps to a smaller playing field down the road with a handful of Baileys goodie bags and a sign out front marked: Women Only. Two decades later, is this progress?

Last year Lady Antonia Fraser said, in response to an all-woman Costa shortlist – the first in the prize’s history – that: “one thing it proves is that we don’t need a women’s prize. The only reason for having a prize for one sex was that women weren’t getting fair treatment. That was the case when the Orange prize started.”

In so far as both of these quotes go, both Alain and Antonia got it both right and wrong in equal measure. We don’t need a women’s prize. We need a gender-balanced industry that gives equal exposure to both sexes and makes every literary prize a fair one.

Fast forward to 2014 and women still aren’t getting this fair treatment. On the Waterstones bookshelves, yes, but in the literary supplements of the weekend papers they are still struggling to be seen and understood. Lady Fraser is right that women writers aren’t under threat of never being published, but they do struggle to be visible and considered intellectually credible alongside their male counterparts. This, despite the fact that more than 67% of books sold in the UK were bought by women in 2012.

Don’t believe me? Believe the facts. VIDA Count in the USA (founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of their writing) tallies the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews each year. The statistics make for grim reading. In 2013 the London Review of Books reviewed 245 male authors and 72 female ones, with bylines of 144 male and 42 female writers; The New Yorker magazine’s overall gender count was 555 male to 253 female; the Times Literary Supplement reviewed 907 male authors and 313 female, with bylines by 282 male and 88 female writers; and lastly The New York Review of Books reviewed 307 male authors and 80 female, with 117 male bylines to a woeful 32 female.

A recent admittance from Eleanor Catton, author of Man Booker Prize winning The Luminaries, in a Guardian interview from 2013, puts these statistics into context: “I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”

AS Byatt took Catton’s words and transformed them into stark poetry in 2010 when she likened a critic’s perception of a woman writing intellectual literature as “like a dog standing on its hind legs“. “The Orange prize is a sexist prize,” she continued. “You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in.”

Much like AS Byatt, as a writer myself, I don’t believe that books should be gendered like a French noun. I also don’t believe that women writers should only compete with each other to garner acclaim in a world where John le Carré and Angela Carter sit side by side on the bookshelf. Writing isn’t a 100 metre sprint between Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the Olympics, so why should both be separated? A good book is a good book, regardless of gender. Reading is one of the few freedoms that should sidestep all that. Books are, were, and should always be an opportunity to escape the divisions, not define them. Surely we should be putting pressure on magazine editors to hire more female reviewers and review more female authors, not nurturing talent in a greenhouse.

Has Hilary Mantel’s recent success made us complacent? The twice Booker Prize-winning author is often placed like a plaster over the accusations of sexism in publishing; a simple antidote to Eleanor Catton’s complex observations. Mantel isn’t a one-trophy female-author, she’s amassed two Orange Prizes, two Man Bookers, two Costa Book Prizes and made it look effortless. Yet as far as the media is concerned, she’s a unicorn to be marvelled at.

More worryingly, back in 2013 a lecture by Mantel at the British Museum on the objectification of Royal women led Hilary herself to be objectified as a female writer, her looks cruelly dissected to demean her fierce intellect. In 2013, Orange Prize winning Zadie Smith hit out at the media’s “ridiculous” obsession with her looks, suggesting it implies a beautiful woman can’t be a literary great. Whether we like it or not, women writers are still being judged by their looks not just their words.

Moreover, at a time when female authors are still using initials and male pseudonyms to ‘liberate’ themselves, can we truly celebrate victory with an all-women prize? To quote Doris Lessing rather more eloquently: “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates.”

If the temporary climate is unequal, we must change it, not permanently segregate: where is the freedom in that?

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Review: Everyday Sexism

Last Thursday saw the publication of Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism book. You can read our Q&A with Laura here. Today, Feminist Times Founder Member Lee Chalmers shares her review of the book.

I’m sure I was not alone in waiting for Laura’s book to come out, being a massive fan of the project online. In some ways Everyday Sexism is what you would expect – a thorough examination of the themes that have arisen from the project’s entries over the last 2 years, split down into societal areas, fully researched and rich. There have been a rash of informative books recently focusing on themed gender stats, which I’ve started with great hope only to finish with a slightly deflated sense of impotence. Was Laura’s book going to be the same?

In my optimistic feminist youth I believed that once people became aware of the numbers – the horrifying truth of the rape rate, the pay gap, the crushing lack of female representation – things would change as we pulled together to achieve the equality that was so obviously morally required. Now I’m in my 40s and I hold a different story to be true: stats alone will not lead to equality. What seems a self-evident truth to me, from my perspective as a woman suffering from the effects of gender inequality, barely interests someone who does not suffer from it.

These people (most men) frankly don’t care about the pain of gender inequality and really can’t be bothered changing their behaviour in any way. Let’s face it, it’s the same with race equality for (most) white people, or class inequality for wealthy people, and so on. People are broadly motivated by what matters to them and them alone.

What I found in Laura’s book though was something more powerful and ultimately more useful to those of us pushing for a societal shift in how women are treated. Laura calmly and clearly draws the links between the myriad experiences of sexism women have reported to her. She answers the interlocutor’s persistent refrain: “can you show me the link between page 3 and assault?” or “prove to me that porn is linked with rape?” or “but what about the Diet Coke advert?!”

She does this by stepping back, by illuminating the systemic sexism that runs through society, providing us with the ammunition we need – one consistent argument that draws the picture for all to see. You can’t get to the end of this book and not be fully aware of the negative impact a society structured around increasingly narrow gender roles has on women AND men. And that is what I love so much about the Everyday Sexism Project and this book; this is not solely a ‘make the men wrong’ approach (though there needs to be some of that!) It’s an argument that points out the damage to all of us whilst leaving room for people to change and to become allies. That is crucial. Gender is a system that involves men and if we want change for women it means change for men too. I think we are seeing what happens when they start to realise that and fight back.

It’s once Laura gets to Chapter 11 that the power builds and her calm tone starts to give way to a fully justified anger: “Women are being raped, assaulted and murdered every day, but for heavens sake let’s not upset anybody by worrying too much about what might be contributing to it in an ‘indirect’ way…. We don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable.” Right on sister. More of this please. “Enough is enough”. Yes, it is enough, it really is.

On the recent rise of feminism she says that the storm is just starting, that we haven’t seen the peak of what internet feminism has to offer, that the links drawn between instances of sexism are like the links being drawn between women all around the world through online participation. We are forming a movement here, make no mistake, and we are pissed off. This angry Laura Bates is powerful and inspiring and, though I’m sure she wouldn’t want the role, could lead feminists into the future.

Read this book. Buy this book for your family, your partner, your work mates, your children. Post about it on every social network you belong to. This is an important work and if I had my way would be compulsory school reading across the globe.

Lee Chalmers is a gender campaigner and freelance leadership consultant/trainer. She works on Executive Education faculty at London Business School, is finishing an MSc in Gender at the LSE and is Vice-Chair of The Fawcett Society. She is also a Founder Member of Feminist Times. Follow her @LeeChalmers

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Everyday Sexism Book Launch: Does anything shock Laura Bates anymore?

Laura Bates launched the Everyday Sexism project in April 2012 to offer women a platform to share their experiences. Within 18 months the project had collected 50,000 entries and expanded to 18 countries around the world. Today, almost two years on, sees the publication of the Everyday Sexism book – a collection and analysis of stories and experiences curated by the Project.

We spoke to Laura Bates about how the Everyday Sexism Project became part of the global feminist movement and, to mark the book’s publication, we’re offering three Feminist Times readers the chance to win a signed copy. See below for details.

Why did you decide to put Everyday Sexism into book form as well as online? How do the two formats differ in terms of what they offer?

I wanted to write a book to reach out to a wider audience who might not have come across the Project online. The main aim of the Project has always been raising awareness as widely as possible and that’s very much what I’m trying to do with the book, in a new medium.

The book is very different from the Project website because it isn’t just a collection of stories – it’s much more a commentary and analysis of the stories we have received and it sets out an overview of what those 60,000 voices are telling us about sexism now, in 2014. So, for example, unlike the website, the book divides the problem up thematically, looking at the major strands that have arisen from the Project entries such as sexism in politics, the media, public spaces and the intersection of sexism with other forms of prejudice.

The Project has had a huge amount of coverage – what’s been the effect of retreading the issue of everyday sexism on such a regular basis in the mainstream media?

I really hope it is starting to have an impact by getting these ideas into the public and media consciousness and thereby pushing us to reconsider what previously might have been considered normal. For example, when John Inverdale made inappropriate comments about Marion Bartoli’s looks during the Wimbledon final, the story hit the headlines for days afterwards and resulted in a furious backlash whereas I think, even a few years earlier, that might just have passed without comment.

I also really hope that raising the issue so prominently in the media helps to send a message to people everywhere that if they experience sexism they don’t just have to put up with it because it’s ‘normal’ – that they can fight back, and that we and thousands of others will stand alongside them. We’ve heard a lot of stories from people who have, for example, reported an assault to the police for the first time, after feeling encouraged by the sense of community and solidarity we have created.

Do you ever feel over-saturated and jaded by the stories you’re collecting, like nothing shocks you anymore?

Sadly I never reach a point where nothing shocks me anymore because there are always different stories coming in and there is always something more devastating around the corner. The first stories that really struck me and upset me were the ones we received from really young girls, in their school uniforms.

After that I really struggled with the wave of stories we got from people who had been abused within their own families – a type of testimony we get again and again, almost always with the added detail that they were never able to speak out, or if they did, they weren’t believed. Then there are stories from women who have been raped and have been so affected by victim-blaming within society that they say they believe it was their own fault. Then there are shocking and upsetting stories from trans women who have been made to feel utterly unsafe in public spaces to the extent that it impacts on their entire lives – there is always something else to shock me.

How do you deal with activist fatigue in the face of all those stories?

I find it really important to have two support networks – one of close friends and family and one of women within the feminist community. They each are able to offer a huge amount of strength and help in different ways.

Having a network of amazing and supportive people who really understand what it’s like to be fighting the feminist battle is invaluable, and there are so many women who have been so kind to me and welcomed me with open arms into that community. When I was first going through the experience of reading graphic and explicit threats of how people wanted to rape and kill me, I don’t think I would have got through it without that support – particularly from other women who had been through the same thing.

What’s it like being viewed as a ‘celebrity’ or media feminist?

It’s not something that I think really happens to me to the same extent that it does for some other people because the campaign is very much about Everyday Sexism, not me as an individual, and it’s that idea and that platform that is in the spotlight. I’m very aware that the reason the project has become so successful and well known is because of the incredible strength, bravery, and eloquence of the women who have shared their stories – and making those stories heard is very much my main focus.

I also hope that the idea of everyday sexism is really starting to take off on its own – I’ve seen lots of headlines that mention it as a phrase, without necessarily linking back to me or the project, and I think that’s a brilliant thing – for it to be introduced into the public consciousness as a concept like that.

Besides #ShoutingBack on Twitter, what can women do to challenge Everyday Sexism offline?

Lots of things! I truly believe that what we need now is a collective cultural shift in our normalised attitudes and behaviours towards women, and that can only be achieved if all of us, men and women, take opportunities to challenge sexism in our own everyday lives whenever we see it. Often this is easier and more effective if you take action in situations where you might be a bystander rather than the victim of sexism – it’s all about standing up for each other and reaching a critical mass of people who say “this is unacceptable”. So that could mean: stepping in when you witness street harassment; challenging a rape joke; reporting an incident of groping you witness on the tube; flagging up discrimination and sexism when you see it in the workplace (something that can be particularly hard for the victim themselves to report due to fears of losing their job); challenging your student union or education institution to put in place a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment; lobbying your local MP to back mandatory Sex and Relationships Education; talking to the young people in your life about gender inequality to get those ideas out in the open early, before sexism becomes too ingrained and normalised; buying your niece or daughter a chemistry set even if it’s in the ‘boy’s’ section… the list really does go on and on!

The book’s blurb says “Welcome to the fourth wave of feminism” – what does that mean for you?

I didn’t write the blurb, but I think it comes from the idea that we are seeing a really exciting surge of feminist activism up and down the UK as more and more people become aware of these issues and start fighting for gender equality.

One of the threads running through the book is the experience of what it’s been like to set up the Project and go through this rollercoaster ride – and the hope and excitement of seeing so many people coming to feminism afresh was a big part of that for me. It made it seem like there was a positive sense of change and potential, even in the midst of hearing so many sad and awful testimonies, and it kept me going. I think it’s also there because the Project serves as an easy entry point to feminism – it sets out some of the major inequalities women are facing for people who might not have known about them before, and it provides a simple and clear call to arms that suggests there is a pragmatic solution which we can all be part of.

Other than anecdotal, what evidence have you seen of Everyday Sexism changing attitudes? What will it take to ultimately change society?

Well of course it is something that’s very hard to quantify but I think there are several useful measures. We know that millions of people have visited and read the Project website, and that 133 thousand people receive a constant stream of reminders about sexism every day through our social media accounts.

We know that there have been headlines about sexism in media outlets across the world over the past two years directly because of the project, from the New York Times to the Times of India. A video about the Project which was played at Beyonce’s concert last year was broadcast live to over a billion people worldwide.

I also believe very strongly in the importance of taking these things offline and making sure that we are using them for concrete change in the real-world – that’s why I spend so much time going into schools and universities up and down the country, talking to young people about the project entries we’ve received from their peers and tackling issues like body image pressure, media sexism, healthy relationships and consent. Knowing that thousands of young people have been exposed directly to those issues as a result of the project is another measurable goal I think. We’ve also worked directly with businesses, politicians and police forces, for example using the Project entries to contribute to Project Guardian, a British Transport Police Initiative which we supported with a major social media campaign, which has generated a 26% increase in reporting of sexual offences on public transport over the past year.

Finally our campaigning makes a concrete difference – from persuading iTunes and Google Play to remove a ‘Plastic Surgery for Barbie’ game from sale to nine year old girls, to forcing Facebook to change its policy on rape and domestic violence content through our #FBrape campaign, which sends a strong message about the social unacceptability of violence against women to over a billion users worldwide.

Who do you see as the main target readership for the book? Is it about validating experiences of everyday sexism for young women/new feminists? Preaching to the converted? Convincing men of the reality of everyday sexism? All of the above?

All of the above! Like the main project, it has three goals – awareness raising (the book gives an overview of the problem for those who might not be aware of it) – solidarity (creating a communal sense of support for people who have experienced sexism or sexual violence and showcasing the strength of women who have stood up to it to show others they don’t have to accept it either) – and action – because ultimately the book is a call to arms, to everybody, to stand together in combating gender inequality in our own lives and further afield.


We’re offering three Feminist Times members the chance to win a copy of the Everyday Sexism book, signed by Laura Bates. Enter your details here and we’ll select three winners at random at 5pm today, Thursday 10 April. Please enter the email address you used to sign up as a member; only entries made by current Feminist Times members will be counted. If you are not yet a member, or your membership has expired, click here to join us.

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The most badass women in history: Sister Like You

Sister Like You is a new book from Belly Kids in which Jade Coles looks back at the most fierce females in Ancient History, through poster-worthy illustrations next to each woman’s story, broken down to its most “digestible, radical level”. As a friend of Feminist Times (Jade reported from a Southhall Black Sisters protest for us), she agreed to give our readers a sneak preview and an insight into why she chose the women she did.

One of the reasons I was interested in doing this book is that I don’t remember learning anything about women rulers at school. I don’t want to go all out and blame the corrupt schooling system – maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention; that seems unlikely though, as history was my second favourite subject.

Cleopatra probably popped up, maybe Elizabeth I in the context of being King Henry VIII’s daughter, but nothing major or concentrated. It was all NHS reform and the Holocaust.

Sister Like You by Ellie Andrewsfinale

Image: Sister Like You by Ellie Andrews

When writing the stories it soon became clear that it was going to be hard to have a fave. Every ruler had their own particular style, they came from a very individual background and were ‘endearing’ in their own way. You know, dressing up as a man your whole life, murdering slaves at will, gifting rich European women cute dogs. I was so caught up in each one!


Image: Empress Dowager Cixi by Molly Goldbury.

Saying that, if I had to choose, it would be Empress Dowager Cixi – an ex-prostitute who was sold to the street by her drug addict father before rising to be a brutal Empress. She was gossiped about relentlessly and was never really in power, so she had to flex her muscles in the background, but she did that her whole life.

When researching for the book the word that kept popping up in my head was “PUSH”. Each Sister was pushing against something without a break or hope. Each ruler wanted to claim power and desperately hold onto it for a long period of time. I’ve taken, in my business and personal life, to being focused and push hard. I’m not about to take concubines and kill anyone, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all take a bit of power.

Queen Zenobia by Kaye Blegvadfinale

Image: Queen Zenobia by Kaye Blegvad

The other thing I learnt was that if you’re a strong woman ruler, you get bitched at hard. Rumours flew around about them. They were all seen as sex-crazed, violent psychopaths by their peers, both at the time and also by history. Has stuff really changed as dramatically as we like to think? Do we still get characterised as a weirdo for being strong? Are we still happy to alter our appearances to fit in? Do we go into meetings and have weird power games played on us? It’s like, yeah, tick tick tick tick all those boxes.

COMPETITION: Jade & Belly Kids have given us a signed copy of Sister Like You for one Feminist Times reader to win! To be in with a chance, tweet us (@Feminist_Times) with the name of your own most badass woman and a reason why yours is the best. Make sure you include the hastag #sisterlikeyou. We’ll announce the winner at 5pm on Monday 7 April.

Jade Coles is a lot of things including opinionated, loud, and into a lot of stuff. A curator of culture Jade writes stuff with @bellykids, performs/sometimes tweets for @gaggle, and programmes talks, workshops, music, bands and everything in between for a very popular location in East London. You can follow her adventures on @perpetualcrush.

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Charlotte Raven

#SexIndustryWeek: Review – Playing The Whore

Each weekday throughout our #SexIndustryWeek we will be serialising extracts from Melissa Gira Grant’s new book, Playing The Whore. Editor-in-Chief Charlotte Raven kicks off the week with her review of the book.

I wrote this review of Playing the Whore a week ago, while in a midst of an identity crisis precipitated by a marital crisis. My critical faculties have been disabled, along with my rhetorical élan – I no longer know who I am, or what I think. I have become ruthlessly fairminded and experienced a disturbing, unfamiliar ability to see other points of view. I’ve read positive and negative reviews of Grant’s book and heartily agreed with all of them.

My review reflected this willingness to listen and an unprecedented (and probably fleeting) desire to find the middle ground. I don’t want to be one of the people shouting that prostitutes are collaborators or the ones proclaiming that sex workers are hip, happening and here to stay (the first Bitcoin escort agency opened last year!)

This seemed reasonable. Then I got scared. I woke up at 3 am on Friday morning, terrified that my ambivalence about Grant’s book would be mistaken for complicity in the process by which sex work is being normalised and rebranded as a branch of the leisure industry. People will say, justifiably, that I haven’t defended feminists from the accusation that we are responsible for the oppression and persecution of sex workers. Not capitalism. Nor patriarchy. I was mightily relieved I had the chance to revisit the argument and redeem myself before anything was published. This time I would make a conscious effort not to be seduced by Grant’s theoretical savvy. My intention was to rewrite the piece as an abolitionist polemic pegged on the book rather than a review of it.

Then I changed my mind again and decided to stick with ambivalence and publish the review as was. Was I too easy on Grant? You can judge for yourself. I tried to tune into her wavelength, rather than cut and paste her points into my argument, as I usually do. The extracts we are publishing this week are an open question…

I approached this book with trepidation, expecting a reprise of the argument often made by sex workers in print that their work is an empowering and stimulating lifestyle choice. I have encountered the sex worker in Belle de Jour’s oeuvre but also met some myself, who had very little cultured conversation with their clients while ‘on the clock’ and a lot of depressing sex on cheap sheets. Like many feminists, I think the brutal reality of sex work is often obscured by the image. My job is to distinguish fact from fiction, and challenge false consciousness. I’ve been doing this since the eighties and never thought to question it until now.

I was also expecting lots of sex. As this is a book by someone in the field, I thought the analysis would be spiced with lurid confessional, or displaced completely by it. But Grant thwarts this reader’s expectation. She thinks our prurient fascination with the cut and thrust of sex work prevents us from perceiving the nuanced truth.

The sex worker is ubiquitous but invisible. There are no personal anecdotes here because Grant wants to draw the reader’s gaze away from the sexual mise en scene to what it means. There is no confessional money shot where Grant renounces sex work in favour of the writer’s life. We infer that this has happened but Playing the Whore isn’t a parable.

She doesn’t want to serve as an exemplar to sex workers and warns against seeing other types of work as morally superior and less threatening to personal autonomy. There are no winners in this system – the waitresses, hairdressers and other service sector workers are differently exploited (and less well paid).

I must own up – I have a weakness for deconstructive critical moves like the one Grant performs when she suggests that anti-porn campaigners are porn addicts! I’m also pleased when someone else says the unsayable. At least the resulting Twitter storm won’t be directed at me. Grant believes the anti-porn meetings and speak-outs of feminism’s second wave were pornographic spectacles, delivering the same ‘communal release of feeling’ as the Time Square porn theatres in the pre-Disney era.

She knows how contentious this will be but feels dissenting voices, particularly ones “who have modelled for pictures” have been silenced. “How can you say that the description of a child’s violation by a woman on a stage itself mimes a pornographic revelation?”

Those who presume to save sex workers from themselves have the same proprietary air as porn consumers; a self righteous coalition of NGOs, feminist organizations and high profile media figures have embarked on dramatic search and rescue missions. The American government is committed to “eliminating prostitution” worldwide and threatens to withdraw aid if poor countries don’t comply. Cambodian sex workers have been rounded up and sent to detention centres where they are abused, raped and starved. Many have died. Sex workers are being eliminated but the sex industry is alive and well.

Grant argues persuasively that the recent debate about ‘the sexualisaton’ of society and the pornification of sexuality constitute a standard issue moral panic and contamination fear. Sex workers are thought to have implanted depraved thoughts in ‘normal’ women and frog marched us to the Ministry of Waxing and on to swingers parties in Penge. Many analysts believe that the contamination of our sexual consciousness with pornographic tropes means ‘real’ sex is no longer possible. But Grant insists that sex workers are scapegoats: the burden of our pornographic imagination is placed upon those who will save us from it by their sacrifice. Forty years after Nancy Friday’s collection of sexual fantasies, The Secret Garden, we’re still scared of our ‘outlaw’ desire.

I love polemics and this one certainly carried me along with its energy and undeniable intelligence. However, while Grant’s argument that sex work is no different from hairdressing is well made and points to important ways in which female working lives do share oppressive characteristics, I still believe that selling sex is an abusive commodification of the self. But having read this book I will be much quicker to challenge the presumption of those who oppose prostitution that they also know what’s best for sex workers.

Read Feminist Times’ exclusive serialisation of Playing The Whore each day this week.

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Shakespeare’s Dark Aemilia

DarkAemiliaAbout five years ago, I decided to write a historical novel about Lady Macbeth. I began by researching eleventh century Scotland, but I also read about Shakespeare’s London, and the players, theatres and chaotic streets. As the story was inspired by his play Macbeth, this seemed logical. I didn’t know it at the time, but a sixteenth century poet was looking for me, lurking in the internet ether, between the pages of obscure books on seventeenth century writing and in Shakespeare’s sonnets. A female poet, a woman born out of her time. Her name was Aemilia Lanyer.

Born Aemilia Bassano in 1569 , she was  the illegitimate child of a Jewish Venetian musician. Her father died when she was about seven, her mother ten years later, and she became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey at the age of seventeen. Henry and Aemilia seem to have been happy together, and the relationship lasted until she became pregnant in 1593.

At this point, Aemilia Bassano was married off to her cousin, Alfonso Lanyer, a recorder player at court. He spent her dowry within a year of the marriage and Aemilia was impoverished for the rest of her life. However, rather than disappearing from the pages of history completely, as countless other cast-off mistresses have done, she triumphed over adversity, poverty and the Early Modern patriarchy.

In 1611, against all the odds, Aemilia Lanyer became the first woman to publish a volume of poetry in a professional manner, as a man would have done. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum told the story of the crucifixion of Christ from a female point of view and included a poem suggesting that Adam should be blamed for the Fall of Man rather than Eve.

I’m fascinated by Aemilia’s life story: she is an amazing inspiration for 21st century women. Although we know so little about it, her courage and determination are demonstrated by what she achieved. To become a published poet was an almost impossible goal for any seventeenth century woman. But not only did Aemilia have her gender to contend with, she was poor, illegitimate and saddled with a useless husband.

Researching my novel, I found that one of her great advantages was that she was unusually knowledgable for a woman of her time. Some historians have concluded that Aemilia was educated at court, that she spoke and wrote Latin and Greek, and was widely read. It has even been suggested that her high level of education, her sophistication and her knowledge of Venetian culture might have enabled her to write all of Shakespeare’s plays, though there is no evidence to support this.

Neither is there any evidence to support the other myth associated with her name: that she was ‘the Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets were published in 1609. While the more tender poems in the collection seem to address a handsome young man, ‘the Fair Youth’, the later sonnets are a different story. These are thought to have been inspired by the Dark Lady, and they express ambiguous and jealous feelings. Not so much love poetry as anti-love poetry: an exploration of sexual addiction and despair. I wondered what Aemilia would have made of being the target of such ambivalent and hostile feelings? As a fellow-poet, she might have disliked being the object of poetry, rather than the author of it.

Aemilia Lanyer is one of several candidates for the Dark Lady title. The list includes Jacqueline Field, Lucy Morgan, Penelope Devereux, Mary Fitton, Marie Mountjoy and Jane Davenant. With the exception of Penelope Devereux, an aristrocrat, very little is known about these women.  Other writers have been inspired by other candidates, and their role in Shakespeare’s life is a fascinating area to explore.

My choice was Aemilia because she was an artist herself, which makes her a timeless role model not only for women artists, but for any woman who wants to be treated as the equal of a man. Unfortunately, there is nothing dated about the fact that men dominate the arts, or that we primarily see the world through male eyes. This was the point made recently by Jude Kelly, who set up the Women Of the World festival after becoming artistic director of the Southbank Centre, just a stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s Globe. The festival celebrates the creative achievements of women across the world. Aemilia, a Jewish Venetian of Spanish descent, would be proud to be one of them.

Sally O’Reilly is a former journalist and author of How to be a Writer. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Sally’s first historical novel, Dark Aemilia, is published by Myriad Editions on 27 March

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The unheard voices of World War One

This year sees the centenary of the First World War, which began in July 1914. A hundred years on, when we think of writing from the Great War we think of Flanders Fields and of Anthems for Doomed Youth. We think of trenchfoot and mud; of men in khaki sat pouring their hearts into tattered notebooks by the light of shellfire.

We think of all of that because it happened. Because it’s right to remember, and because it’s right to pay respect. But society’s idea of war literature is not respectful. It ignores a whole bloody swathe of it.

When we read about the war, we don’t read women.

Oh, we know about them alright: how they took up the roles left behind by men and gained the vote as a result. We talk about how wonderful that was for them all the time. What we don’t talk about is how hard it was: how they still came up against sexism, ending up doing twice the work but with half of the respect. How propaganda, when it mentioned them, relied on sexist tropes: girls simpering over soldiers, mothers bravely packing off chivalric sons.

It’s this that’s partly responsible for their exclusion now; perhaps the most remembered women writers of the time were those who fervently took up where the propaganda left off. Daily Mail sweethearts Jessie Pope, Mrs Humphrey Ward and Emma Orczy penned mountains of jingoistic doggerel which so disgusted Wilfred Owen that he wrote the eloquently furious Dulce et Decorum Est and dedicated it to them. Siegfried Sassoon went one step further and tarred an entire gender with one misogynistic brush in The Glory of Women, sneering: “You believe/that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace”.

This disgust at feminine sentimentality is a large part of the picture we have of WW1 women now. But if we don’t look past it we’re as daft as Sassoon was then: fooled by the false picture built up by a war-mongering elite. Not all women  – if any – were sat dutifully at home, creaming themselves over needless sacrifice.

For a start, being left behind was to play a grievously cruel waiting game, something evident in the poetry of Kathleen Tynan and Margaret Widdemer. Tynan had two sons on the front and her poetry, although patriotic, has little to do with nationalism and everything to do with offering comfort to herself and others. Widdemer, meanwhile, manages to be both a loving mother and to mourn the war (who’da thunk it, Siegfried?) in Homes, which sets up a cosy hearthside idyll and then laments: “Somewhere far off I know/ Are ashes on red snow/ That were a home last night”.

There were also women far from hearthsides themselves. Hundreds volunteered to work in field hospitals amonsgt the wounded and dying, although little of their writing has survived our ignorance. May Sinclair’s Journal of Impressions in Belgium is amongst those scraps which do.

Touchingly human, it draws a vivid picture of the front In one heartbreakingly furious entry, where she flies into a rage when a Commandant speaks delightedly that he and another nurse have come under shellfire. “I promised her mother that Ursula Dearmer would be safe,” she writes, “and then here he was, informing me with glee that a shell had fallen and burst at Ursula Dearmer’s feet.”

Sinclair’s journal and the writings of of Louise Mack – who was the first woman reporter on the front – reveal a uniquely female perspective of the trenches. But women writers dealt too with the one aspect of the war dealt with by men and women together: the aftermath.

In place of a solid class system and set gender roles was a decimated upper class, a female workforce and the previously unthinkable horrors of mechanised war: limbs left stumps by shells, jaws shot away by sniper’s bullets. Perhaps cruellest of all were the mental scars, which would take lifetimes to heal.

Everyone had to re-negotiate their place in this world, whether man or woman. Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier depicts this beautifully, telling the story of Chris, a brain-damaged upper class veteran and his working class teenage sweetheart Marge, who is the only person he can recognise since being hit by a shell. The poetry of the woefully underrated Charlotte Mew, too, deals uncompromisingly with a world gone mad: “What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim/From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?”

As Mew wrote, it was the world who looked with horror at the war. The world. Not just men. Not just soldiers, doctors and politicians, but nurses, mothers, reporters and lovers. Tynan, Sinclair, Mack, West, Widdemer and so many others put down their words because they thought others would listen to them, because they knew their experience was as important as any man’s.

And now, whilst we rightly value male trench poetry as a valuable way to pay respect, women writers are dealt a different hand. Only Rebecca West is in print in any large-scale way today, whilst Sinclair’s and Mack’s journals exist only on project Gutenberg, and Mew has been left to rot in obscurity.

Even the one female-authored text which does get attention – Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth – is diminished at the same time as being revered: immensely powerful and deserving of praise, it is at the same time all too often seen as speaking for all women of the war, despite only focusing on a handful of upper-middle class individuals.

The suffering, bravery and talent of the women writers of the Great War have been ignored for too long. Its about time we opened a few more books, and stopped this partial remembrance.

Rebecca Winson is the News Editor for For Books’ Sake, the feminist webzine dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by women. Find out more @rebeccawinson

A centenary edition of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth will be published by Orion Books on 27 March 2014, with a foreword by Kate Mosse OBE. Rebecca West’s Return of the Solider is published by Virago Modern Classics.

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“Plagiarism begins at home” – uncovering the real Zelda Fitzgerald

To write a profile of Zelda Fitzgerald is to cut through a dark thicket of myths, lies, stereotypes and false medical diagnosis. Most of us have never even picked up the blade and tried. But as we near the 66th anniversary of her untimely death on 10 March, one question still remains unanswered: who was the real Zelda Fitzgerald?

For most, the name Zelda Fitzgerald is closely followed by the words ‘lunatic’ and ‘fantasist’. It’s a name synonymous with fur stoles and empty gin bottles. She’s a spoiled party girl who drove her talented husband Scott Fitzgerald to drunken ruin: a flapper, an It girl, a “Witchy Woman” (to quote The Eagles). What Zelda has never been called is an uncredited writer, but she often was: her byline replaced by her husband’s with a “sorry” and a shrug.

The true story of Zelda’s life and her authorship rights is yet to be told with honesty and clarity. Hack away at the dense falsehoods and you let in the light. Headstrong, sharp-tongued and vivacious; an artist, writer and dancer. In many ways Zelda Fitzgerald’s legacy has been judged by her influence and latter bipolar years (scholars now argue her schizophrenia was misdiagnosed at the time), but never her own achievements. Zelda’s life would be dramatically cut short by her own desperate quest to be heard and counted; only now are her words finally being credited with her name.

When Zelda gave birth to their daughter Scottie in 1921, high on anesthesia she babbled: “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool”. All readers of The Great Gatsby will instantly recognise the quote as one of its defining lines, voiced through the effervescently absent Daisy Buchanan. It is a mere drop in the ocean of words Scott skimmed from Zelda’s mouth with a pond net and an ear for its startling lucidity.

Many of the Fitzgeralds’ closest acquaintances would praise Zelda as a witty conversationalist, likening her to contemporary writer Dorothy Parker. Critic Edmund Wilson surmised: “I have rarely known a woman who expressed herself so delightfully and so freshly.” Scott Fitzgerald himself was consistently struck by her words and even read her diaries, directly lifting entries to voice his fictional heroines. Zelda became a crucial source, as she well knew. Her impact on Scott Fitzgerald’s literary works is immeasurable.

“It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. Mr Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home,” Zelda Fitzgerald cheekily joked in the New York Review when asked to review her husband’s latest novel The Beautiful and Damned in 1922. The joke soon wore thin on Zelda, who grew increasingly resentful of Scott’s habit.

Search the archives and you may come across a 1973 edition of 21 uncollected stories entitled Bits of Paradise written by both Scott and Zelda. Flicking through it soon becomes clear that, at the time when they were written, most of Zelda’s short stories were published with a co-authored byline, despite Zelda’s sole authorship. The shocking truth is many of her stories were robbed of her authorship – an arrangement agreed between Scott’s literary agent Harold Ober and the magazine editors.

This is by no means to demonise Scott. The world was hungry for F Scott Fitzgerald and history maintains he was not made aware of this transaction at the time. Nevertheless, it weighed heavily on Zelda’s sense of worth and identity. Over the course of the 1920s, Zelda’s five ‘girl’ stories in College Humour were credited to both Fitzgeralds. Zelda’s A Millionaire’s Girl, deemed too good for College Humour by Ober, was sold to the Post for $4,000 instead of $500, but only if Zelda’s authorship was omitted. It appeared as F Scott Fitzgerald’s work alone.

Ober later admitted he “felt a little guilty about dropping Zelda’s name from that story” but consoled himself “I think she understands.” Zelda didn’t understand. Even if she did at the time, misunderstanding rippled between Zelda and Scott over the proceeding years, their lives ebbing further and further apart like driftwood against the tide.

In 1932 Zelda’s battle to be heard ended in marital catastrophe when Scott finally got round to reading her novel Save Me the Waltz. He was furious. Written in an obsessive 6-week spiral of creativity, Scott was livid at Zelda’s fictionalisation of their marriage. This, despite the fact that his own yet-to-be-published novel Tender is the Night copied direct chunks of Zelda’s letters to Scott in order to fictionalise Zelda’s mental illness.

Zelda would later conclude “I can’t get on with my husband and I can’t live away from him…I’m so tired of compromises. Shaving off one part of oneself after another until there is nothing left…” Perhaps her biggest compromise was yet to come. Scott ordered Zelda to revise her novel. She complied.

Kat Lister is Feminist Times’ new Contributing Editor. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

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Review: My Life in Agony, Irma Kurtz

Our Personal Agony Aunt reviews My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz, published by Alma Books.

Irma Kurtz, “the unshockable Queen of advice”, has been the agony aunt at Cosmopolitan since 1975. Her new book is part memoir, part compilation of typical reader letters, and part agony aunt manual. The book is juicily subtitled Confessions of a Professional Agony Aunt; I wasn’t quite expecting the saucy double entendres you’d see in a 70s British sex comedy, but I wanted to hear her stories – her Jewish New Jersey childhood and post-war adolescence, her move to Paris as a teenager, leading to her decision to lose her virginity on the boat to Europe – in a lifeboat, no less.

She was a lone parent at a time when that was presumably even more frowned on than it is now (the book is short on dates but this seems to be the early 70s). She has the odd teasing career story, such as being sent to interview a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and being thankful that her anti-Semitic hosts mishear her name as Curtis. She was a pioneer in London’s bohemia, living in Notting Hill and Soho when they were poor arty areas for sex workers and outsiders, rather than aspirational Millionaire Rows. Yes, that’s a broad I want to read about.

But if 70s sex comedies taught us anything, it’s that juicy expectations are always frustrated – and sadly Kurtz and her fascinating life are tantalisingly absent from most of her biography. If you’re looking to understand the feminist times of that era, or learn how a creative and independent woman experienced life in a Britain in social turmoil, you won’t find it here.

There’s no doubt she has seen all human life in her post bag – problems on sex, family, friendship, independence, body image, mental health and ageing are all used to illustrate her quietly feminist worldview and to reflect different stages in her life. And for all aspiring agony aunts, she confirms certain intuitions about the role. The person with the problem knows the answer herself deep down but needs to hear it aloud. The agony aunt’s experience “must be one ingredient of her response, but it is never the recipe.”

There’s no shortage of sound advice in this book but the tone can be irritatingly lofty – I kept seeing her sentences sewn and framed like “Home Sweet Home” above mantelpieces of yore. She describes the role of the agony aunt as one of common sense, leading to wisdom over time through constant learning. But this develops into a series of “Common Sense says…. and Wisdom answers… “ homilies, a conceit to which the reader ultimately responds “So what?”

Kurtz’s life story is intriguing – I wish I’d learned more about it from reading her memoir. She seems much more comfortable using reader letters to explain the world than telling her own story. At one point she quotes her advice to an ageing friend who has complained about the lack of attention paid to older women: “Invisibility is no bad thing. People reveal lots more if they can’t see you watching them…” Perhaps after a lifetime of listening to and focusing on other people, she is uncomfortable being in the spotlight herself. Dear Irma, if that’s how you feel, here’s my advice: don’t write a book.

My Life in Agony by Irma Kurtz was published by Alma Books on 15 February.

See more from our Radical Agony Aunts here, or contact them with your own questions: agony@feministtimes.com

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Charlotte Raven

Happy Birthday to Eu-nuch

Today is Germaine Greer’s 75th birthday. Charlotte Raven reflects on her life and work.

I first read The Female Eunuch when I was sixteen. There was no aha moment; I couldn’t understand the title – the what? – and didn’t identify with the main protagonists; the manipulative, weak willed, lame brained feminine cipher (the middle class Western woman) or the freewheeling, sexually rapacious liberationist who disdains activists and housewives (Greer). I took this personally – I had tried being promiscuous; it hadn’t agreed with me.

Free love in eighties Brighton wasn’t as warm and comfortable as a Californian commune. When I was 16, the painful reality of promiscuity was eclipsed by revolutionry zeal. Activism had given me a sense of purpose and an excuse not to have sex with anyone who suggested it. I remember sitting uncomfortably in my school assembly with love bites and carpet burns better than The Female Eunuch; I was disinclined to go back to the grind of casual sex at Greer’s behest.

When I re-read it recently, I felt differently alienated. I understand the title – that sexual repression has robbed women of their vitality – but was more aware of the misogyny. I tried not to take Greer’s disdain for the married, monogamous and committed or the ‘bourgeois perversion of motherhood’ personally but failed. I also realised that Greer was a libertarian who proposed herself as the acme of liberation and cared more about showing off her beauty and Reichian sexual energy; she never empathised with those of us with neither.

It is an energetic book, as many have pointed out; poorly argued but greater than the sum of its parts. I read it a couple of months ago and was sure the introduction was the best bit. It should have been a manifesto! Greer can’t sustain the polemic, and her later books also read as if she got bored a couple of chapters in. I know the feeling! Her best work has been short form, exhilarating contributions to live debates, journalism (I remember her piece about Big Brother better than anything about reality TV) and a ‘little book’ that argues that Australia won’t be healed until is accepts its identity as an aboriginal county.

These days I have an intellectual rather than visceral belief that the sexual revolution had been a disaster for women; I’d read accounts of communes and Gay Talese’s book The Neighbour’s Wife about free love and wondered what had happened to the woman next door whom Talese had slept with in a clothing-optional resort in the Sandstone commune as ‘research’ for the book.

I have felt ambivalant about Greer for years but didn’t dare say so in case my green tinted spectacles were affecting my judgment. I am jealous of her articulacy and ability to marshall    the mot juste in debates. At times I have been jealous of her childlessness, as it freed her to do the debates and TV programmes that have converted her ubiquity into a cultural currency. She finished her feminist book; mine ran aground because, unlike Greer, I was worried about extrapolating general truths about womankind from my personal experience.

Sometimes this works; she could effectively dismiss the idea of feminist porn because she had been there, done that 40 years ago. But a recent piece in Salon reveals the extent to which her books are self portraits presented as social realism: “Greer’s writing is ostensibly about women, at it’s palpitating heart its just about her.” The funniest illustration is “the supermarket rant from The Whole Woman“, in which Greer describes the general indignities suffered by “typical Everyshopper. The generic woman suddenly embarks on a hypothetical quest for a jar of pimentos. She searches the Tex Mex section then ‘among the pickles’ and finally resorts to asking a man with a company pin who tells her he has never heard of them ‘implying that the customer is mad.’ She shows him red peppers and explains that she wants small seeded pepper in brine.. And so on.”

Greer has more in common with contraversialists than feminists – more like Russell Brand than Lynne Segal. Brand’s recent Newsnight apearance was as thrilling and compelling as Greer’s set-to with Norman Mailer in a debate at New York’s Town Hall. They are both unrooted; Brand has no vanguard party or movement primed to enact his call to arms, and Greer had the same problem in the seventies. Their ideas seem arbitrary so I wasn’t surprised to hear Brand describe himself as a feminist. Ironically, he personified the idea of free love, which Greer abandoned when “sex gave up on her.” Both are mischievous at other people’s expense.

Like Madonna, Greer is constantly reinventing herself. She has been an anarchist, Marxist, and is now a Liberal Democrat. She hasn’t converted to Islam, like Lauren Booth, but nothing would surprise me. We are used to expecting the unexpected. In fact the unexpected has become tediously predictable.

Unlike Grayson Perry, Greer’s ubiquity has been diminishing. I wish Greer had a trusted friend or family member who would tell her not to take part in Big Brother or debate with Toby Young. My daughter would certainly do this, if I was ever asked.

Her transphobia has been the only constant. Greer’s essentialism makes sense the more I think about her. She is the only ‘real’ woman; the rest of us – trans and cis women – are faking it.

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Poetry, rather than the media, understands Real Sex

Every few years a concerted effort is made to liberate sex from porn. The stated aim of ‘the campaign for real sex’, launched by the Guardian in 2006, was to combat the ‘Mcdonaldisation of sexuality’ and debate alternatives. Libby Brooks wrote:

“For all that they are over informed about how other people do it, this has not brought young men and women closer to developing a common erotic language. There must be a way to diminish the junk succour of public sex while freeing private appetite.”

Eight years later, if you believe media reports, ‘real sex’ still isn’t happening, but the effects of porn on our sexual consciousness have been widely documented. It’s easier to point out what’s wrong, as playwright Penelope Skinner did brilliantly in The Village Bike, than settle on an alluring alternative. The ‘Mcdonaldisation of sex’ is a sexier concept than ‘freeing private appetite’; which sounds like a post-prandial lunge by a well upholstered restaurant critic, rather than an intimation of liberated sexuality. However well intentioned, media attempts to whiteboard sex are always wide of the mark.

I left Skinner’s play profoundly grateful that my flirtation with porn was a youthful dalliance rather than a life long obsession. I’ve avoided it assiduously for twenty years, even feminist porn, which seems like an oxymoron.

Several years after the Guardian campaign, very little had changed. Then Channel 4 nicked the idea and pornographised it. With staggering literal mindedness their ‘campaign for real sex’ featured real couples having sex in a box, in front of a TV audience of voyeurs. Like the Jacuzzi sex in Celebrity Big Brother, the sex box was staged for the public titillation, inauthentic by definition.

I agree with Frank Furedi (for once). His piece about the sex box in the Huffington Post said it’s worse than “banal porn because it masquerades as a public service.”

There is no need for any public conversation about sex, he says. The media’s alibi for their fetishisation of sex is always that they are “removing the stigma” around it. What stigma? “Sex talk is so constant that you have to search an old people’s home to find a hint of embarrassment about the subject.”

I think the media campaign for real sex is a contradiction in terms as long as it’s conducted in public. A second sexual revolution is needed to return sex to the private realm, where, according to Furedi, “it gains its meaning in the context of an intimate relationship, group of friends or family members.”

I was recently asked to review The Poetry of Sex  for another paper. The big black X on the cover of this anthology made me worry that it would be yet another pornographic spectacle; a series of X rated revelations with a literary, rather than an educational alibi – though the title does offer a different approach to this well trodden terrain.

Media reports about the death of ‘real sex’ have been greatly exaggerated. I wondered why journalists and broadcasters were adamant that ‘real sex’ isn’t happening. Then it dawned on me that the ‘campaign for real sex’ was an expression of erotic ennui; as dangerous liaisons between glamorous media figures, like those described by Julie Burchill in Ambition, have gone the way of expense accounts and Sea Breezes.

Outside the purview of the media however, poets are fucking like rabbits in every conceivable configuration; they are having threesomes and relationships based on sodomy. There is no ‘common erotic language’ but energy and variety, the opposite of porn. Poetry is the right form for sex because it evokes rather than demands.

It is not clear whether the poets are fucking other poets. If so I will go to more poetry readings. I was reassured to hear someone was doing it, but also rather sad to be a middle aged female journalist with a neurological calamity ahead of me, as I feel my own erotic capital declining. If my husband ever left me, who would want me? The poem that affected me most was called Whatever Happened to Sex By Amok Huey, which begins with a quotation from a freshman essay:

“When sex was more popular in the 60s”

I can attest that sex was also popular in the false boom of the 90s and maybe less so in a recession. For Amok, at some point, “Sex is a bungalow the Hollywood Hills/That only comes out at special occasions.”

“Sex tries hard not to whine for the good old days.’ but ‘can’t help but ache to be popular again.”

I liked this collection more than the books about love I poured over when I was looking for a reading for my wedding. I ended up with something from Heidegger’s Being and Time instead. I’ll leave this as an open question rather than another contribution to the wholly inappropriate public debate about sex.

Photo: Jean Koulev

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Inspire: ‘Let’s Start a Pussy Riot!’

I sat down with some of the team behind Let’s Start A Pussy Riot, published by Rough Trade earlier this year. The book is a collection of artistic responses to the phenomenal Pussy Riot, created to raise money and awareness for the women facing imprisonment.

Before I was involved with Feminist Times, Verity, Jade, Beth and Emy – the women behind this project – asked my choir Gaggle to contribute to the book, alongside some incredible artists including: Judy Chicago, Antony Hegarty, Bianca Casady, Sarah Lucas, Kim Gordon, Lucky Dragons, Billy Childish, Jeffrey Lewis. They launched the book at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown, with members of Pussy Riot secretly flown in to speak at the Southbank Centre.

When I joined Feminist Times I wanted to come back to them to discuss the passions that inspired the project, the challenges they faced and how others can follow their lead. This is the first in a series where we interview groups of women who have come together and realised ambitious feminist projects. All in their own words.

If you would like us to interview your group let us know on editorial@feministtimes.com






Emy (25): In Spring 2012, shortly after the women [Pussy Riot] got arrested, I approached three London-based feminist collectives to organise a fundraiser. Within 1½ weeks we organised a mini festival in London, including performances by 11 bands.



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Jade (22): It was in March last year: Storm in a Tea Cup, Girls get Busy and Not So Popular. Bands, performance art…. we took over a pub…




Verity Flecknell


Verity (30): We ran a balaclava workshop, Viv Albertine from The Slits was headlining.






Jade: Who was the performance artists who used fish? We had to rejig Viv, our headliner, because the artist before rubbed herself all over in fish and the stage was covered.

Verity: I had to go round with air freshener for ages before we could put Viv on.

Jade: Me and Emy were involved in Not So Popular, which we started as more of a socialist group where we want people to get involved in the arts who might not normally get a chance too, especially due to these cuts.

Verity: SIATC has been around since 2009; we helped organise Ladyfest 2010 and have taken part in WOW. We all had different skills, networks and contacts. Bringing us all together gave quite a wide range of different scenes – that’s why it worked so well.

Jade: We wanted to continue raising money. I think we raised £400 and we wanted a more regular way of giving money.

Emy: We started Let’s Start A Pussy Riot as a call to action, to respond creatively to the case and its surrounding topics around the time when the trials began. We wanted to engage the public in a creative dialogue, away from the mere consuming of news.

Jade: So every month we were going to do a different feminist zine. We started contacting artists and suddenly we had people like Judy Chicago, Billy Childish and Yoko Ono so we thought maybe we should just make a book. Seemed quite logical. We approached Rough Trade who loved the idea and had a lot of faith in us and gave us a lot of freedom to make the book we wanted to. And yeah, suddenly we had a book! I say suddenly but it was actually a lot of work. Don’t really know how we got here.

Verity: We’d never published a book before and we all come from a grassroots perspective so there were a lot of challenges. But people were very receptive because no one else was getting up and doing stuff like this in London.

Jade: It gave people a chance to respond in their own way. It’s not prescriptively Pussy Riot, it’s about the themes they embody. It asks people who are already on the scene to look at Pussy Riot, and how they exploded on to it, and respond to it.

Verity: Everyone wanted to have their say and support them; lots of artists wanted to show their support.

Feminist Times: HOW DID YOU PICK THEM?

Verity: We all had a knowledge of different scenes – for me it was the LGBT perspective and also I’ve got a lot of experience working in the folk world so I brought in people like Peggy Seagar. I’m really proud of the project because it’s intergenerational – we have all different ages, and movements and perspectives.

Jade: We tried to be as inclusive as possible. For me intersectionality exists and it’s important for feminism. We wanted to create a dialogue so each piece is almost in correspondence with each other.


Jade: One reason we’re doing university talks and going out there ourselves is because you can make one standalone piece that won’t include everybody but once you’re outside of that you can think, ‘ok who didn’t we get in touch with?’ and address those issues.

Verity: There’s a lot of action in universities and to keep this momentum we want to get in there.

Jade: That’s why its called Let’s Start a Pussy Riot. We want people to be inspired to make their own actions.


Jade: One of the things we’ve found is that people don’t know it’s a grassroots production. I think sometimes they might expect it to be much more polished, so the NME kept comparing it to high-class art and coffee table books. In one way we took from that aesthetic.

Verity: Rough Trade marketed it as ‘look at all these amazing people’ but there wasn’t much about the background.

Jade: Which is that it’s grassroots. I’ve never edited a book before. To be honest, I think I’m heavily critical of it – it could always be better. Maybe we should have put it at the top of the press release – three grassroots people did this!

Verity: Also I think some of the high profile artists work was critiqued as being rushed and that people hadn’t spent enough time on it, but we wanted it to be reactionary. It didn’t matter to us if it only took ten minutes, it’s about the message.

Jade: We also had pieces of work donated to us – Sarah Lucas, Yoko Ono – work that’s re-contextualised in this book, so Yoko’s lyrics take on another meaning.


Jade: I’m precocious. From the age of 16 I’ve been involved in different things. In Manchester I used to run something called Same Teens, putting on gigs for young kids. I get bored so easily. I don’t like spare time.

Verity: I want there to be more female role models in the alternative scene. I’m a musician but I’ve put that aside because I care about inspiring change and being a role model. It’s all good sitting there and moaning about stuff but I think it’s way more difficult to go out and do something about it. It’s hard taking that first step and that’s what I find empowering about DIY activism. That’s how I got my foot in the door, putting on this Ladyfest, and I realised that I can put on these events. It’s having that confidence, and in order to have that confidence you need to have people around you to support your work.


Jade: One of the things that annoys me is that things are quite London-centric – coming from Manchester, which is a big city but still there’s parts that are pretty disenfranchised. Elsewhere up north, Newcastle had 100% of its arts funding cut. The current government’s focus is on bringing an international eye on the biggest city we have. But that’s where you get more artists coming out of the framework; though I don’t agree struggling makes you a better artist, it does make you pissed off and want to do something about it.

Verity: I think a lot of people when they first start out expect someone to magically give you funding, but you need to get out there and find all this funding. I want to inspire people to find other ways to make the culture that’s missing in their lives. It’s not easy, but sometimes it is just as simple as getting up and doing it yourself. It’s easier with the internet. I built up my audience on Facebook. You can find your people on the internet. Doesn’t matter where you are.


Jade: Manchester. Grey. The Smiths! Joke. I don’t know what it is, but I just get so annoyed and internalise it and then go, ‘right then let’s put on an event.’ Pussy Riot made me a lot more politically engaged. Things I thought of peripherally have become a lot more important to me – seeing people like that make a stand. That’s why the internet’s good because you can see people like that making a stand and it inspires people.


Verity: I don’t think there was one particular role model. I think it was more my peers, finding that support group. I felt so alone as an artist floating into nothing because I didn’t quite fit into any particular scene so that’s where me and my friend Elizabeth started SIATC. I didn’t call it a feminist collective until two years in. I called it a ‘female arts collective’ and then it was obvious that it was feminist, and Pussy Riot made me more hardcore in my feminist activism.

Emy: Their bravery is truly inspiring. Their performance marks a very important generational moment, kickstarting the dialogue about feminism, freedom of speech, LGBTQ rights, power of collaboration again. When I was younger I listened a lot to Sleater Kinney and bands like that but was too young and detached to understand the Riot grrrl movement.


Jade: Well, you can. For one don’t be daunted. Don’t be daunted by failure because failure only makes the next thing better. If you haven’t got money obviously it’s a tough one but all the stuff I’ve done has been begging for a free venue, charge a quid on the door, which covers a few costs, and ask people to do some stuff for free. Most people oblige because people are great.

Verity: Start with baby steps. You don’t have to have any capital to start, and use the skills of your friends, pull your skills together. You don’t realise the networks you have until you start reaching out. Lot of people don’t have the confidence to ask or take that step but reaching out is the first step.


Jade: With everything there’s highs and lows. It was very stressful doing the project.

Verity: We all had other things we were doing. I’ve got a full time job, Jade was on her third year of her degree, Emy was doing her masters.

Emy: The balance between my one year full-time masters and the project was very challenging, for sure. But to be honest, to see how many incredible people stand behind this has helped me forget about the difficulties. The beautiful bunch who has been involved in this project, who have donated labour and put their heart into it, have really made it much easier. It was very moving to realise that there are people who still make projects like this possible, who stand up for what they believe in.

Jade: The fact we’re sitting in this room now is testament that you bicker and it’s over. You’ll be like, “why you using that font? That’s a shit font”, and then you realise maybe that wasn’t the right choice and those things that seem big at the time aren’t.

Verity: We always kept our focus on the bigger picture and that’s the most important thing – don’t get stressed about the small stuff. You’re always going to have to work through these things, you’re not going to always agree in a collective.

Jade: You’ve got to have a thick skin. If you’re going to become really upset because someone doesn’t like your idea for the front cover it’s not going to work.

Verity: There is a lot of passion so of course there’s fire.

Jade: I’m just so proud of everyone involved.


Jade: Well, Pussy Riot took that action and we made a book instead. We didn’t go and stand outside Westminster.

Verity: You have to find your strengths. I have to tell myself every day that I can’t bloody save the world, I can’t solve everyone’s problems. You’ve got to honor yourself and do what you can within your means.

Jade: Anything you do in the day can be an action. If you didn’t shave your legs today – I really do believe that is an action. Or if you’ve never publicly spoken and you’re really terrified, if you take the step and publicly speak then you’re empowering yourself and there’s a lot to say for small actions everyday. And they’re not acknowledged and you won’t be on the front page of the news, but if you feel a bit better about being a woman then there’s no harm. Don’t compare yourself to Pussy Riot. They chose that action because it almost chose them. Also in this country we have a very bad response to public protest. Why would you go and protest when the Iraq war happened, when the student fees were raised, when the cuts were made? Why would you take to the streets because people don’t seem to listen. We made a book and that’s how we chose to enter the conversation.

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Feminist Events Listings: December 2013

Verity FlecknellWelcome to my feminist event highlight blog for Feminist Times. Storm in a Teacup are thrilled to be highlighting all the best feminist events from London and beyond.

Whether you are an armchair activist or a full time activist, into your international politics, or personal politics, feminist artist, or radical feminist – there are just so many events happening up and down the country – there is bound to be something to tickle your fancy/get your teeth into.

Arguably there are more feminist events popping up more than ever and so many opportunities for you to get involved, meet like minded people, share skills and be a part of the movement.

We will be bringing you highlights of some of the feminist events not to be missed in December.

Verity Flecknell, Storm in a Teacup


16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence | 25 November – 10 December

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is an international campaign originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute conference sponsored by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. Every year from the 25th of November, UN’s International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women until the 10th of December, Human Rights Day -thousands of organisations from across the globe organise events and campaigns to raise awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights issue at a local, national, regional and international level. Over 2,000 organizations in approximately 156 countries have participated in the 16 Days Campaign since 1991. This year’s theme is “Let’s challenge militarism and end violence against women”. There are lots of ways to get involved whether you want to go along to a local event or raise awareness within your own networks –Amnesty International have some great resources and activist toolkit available on their website. There are lots of events happening locally across the country.   Please see below a list of events for 16 Days – coming up in December. For a full Calendar of Events please visit Womensgrid






Leeds (Otley)

London (Kensington & Chelsea)






NOT FOR SALE: Fighting Sexism in Advertising and Toys at The Feminist Library || 2 December

Both the advertising and toy industries are powerful tools in the subjugation of women and shaping ideas of femininity. The former spreads the lies that women are inferior objects and commodities to be consumed, while the latter indoctrinates girls to accept roles of passivity and submission. What can be done to resist that? The Feminist Library is hosting an event with members of the French feminist collective CCP (Collectif Contre le Publisexisme – the Collective Against Sexism Through Advertising), which, since 2001, has fought against sexism in advertising and toys using a variety of tactics. The collective prioritises direct action (with sit-ins in department stores and sticker bombing poster ads, among others), and have produced two books of theory and research to back their actions. 6.30pm onwards.

FACEBOOK EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/events/596284507093456/

TEDx Whitehall Women at BAFTA, London || 6 December

TEDx Whitehall Women is in its second year and this year explores the theme ‘Invented Here’ where speakers will be invited to explore how women and girls are reshaping the future. TEDx features a programme of talks from women who are innovating in business, social enterprise and government; and women who have reinvented themselves or their organisations. Participants will come away with ideas, inspiration and connections to help them in their personal and professional lives. In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. This year speakers include Carla Buzasi, Editor-in-Chief, Huffington Post UK, Stella Creasy MP, Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Walthamstow. Elizabeth Linder, Politics & Government Specialist, Facebook and Belinda Palmer, CEO, Lady Geek.

MORE INFO: http://www.tedxwhitehallwomen.com

Feminist Review Annual Panel: Women in the Media at The Gender Institute, LSE || 10 December

The Gender Institute at London School of Economics co-hosts the Feminist Review annual panel discussion. This year’s panel will interregate current representations of feminism in the media and share suggestions about avenues of intervention. Speakers include Natalie Hanman, editor of Comment is Free at theguardian.com, Lola Okolosie a writer, teacher and prominent member of Black Feminists and Tracey Reynolds who is a reader in social and policy research at London South Bank University.

MORE INFO: http://www.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2013/12/20131210t1830vSZT.aspx

The Feminist Review has also announced its call for papers on ‘The Politics of Austerity’: “The financial and economic crises of the last four years, together with an ascendance of conservative politics, have had far-reaching material and discursive consequences in regards to deepening social and economic inequalities. As capitalism seeks to reinvent itself in order to survive a crisis of its own making, austerity politics exacerbate divides of class, gender, race, ethnicity and disability at local, regional and global levels. In this special themed issue, we invite contributions that will provide new feminist analyses of the origins, modalities and effects of this contemporary economic, political and social crisis.”

PDF DOC: Please read the full Call for Papers [PDF,22KB] for details on suggested submission topics.

DEADLINE: 15 December 2013.

MORE INFO: http://www.feminist-review.com/

Feminist Times Anti-Consumerist Christmas Service at Conway Hall || 13 December

Join us for feminist Christmas carols, an anti-consumerist Santa and guest speakers giving anti-capitalist ‘sermons’. Details available on our Facebook page.

Free to all Feminist Times members and Founder Members but RSVP is essential. Email events@feministtimes.com to confirm your attendance. Tickets are available for non-members to purchase in advance from Eventbrite.

Verity Flecknell is founder of Storm in a Teacup, a London based feminist arts collective set up in 2009 with the aim of promoting women in the arts. In 2010 Storm in a Teacup helped organise Ladyfest Ten festival, in 2011 were part of the first ever Women of the World festival at the Southbank and in 2012 joined forces with Girls Get Busy zine and Not So Popular to form Lets Start a Pussy Riot collective. In June this year, Rough Trade Records published “Lets Start a Pussy Riot” book, a collection of artistic responses created in collaboration with Pussy Riot. Storm in a Teacup also publishes monthly feminist event listings happening around London.

Please visit Storm in a Teacup’s blog for full feminist event listings for December.

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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Infographic: The Guardian’s Best Books of 2013

Click below for full size graphic:


With thanks to Joni Seager and Lucia Ricci of ThinkAgainGraphics

Data from The Guardian

If you enjoyed this article and want to meet other feminists like, and unlike, yourself, join Feminist Times as a Member. Join us and support the building of an incredible feminist organisation and resources like this website.

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#ManWeek: Review – Teaching Men To Be Feminist

Teachingmentobefeminist-QuartetYou shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I know, but I have to confess I struggled when this one arrived at the Feminist Times office. Teaching Men To Be Feminist is the latest book from Anne Dickson, celebrated author of assertiveness manual A Woman in Your Own Right. The cover is clearly designed to be provocative – the title is superimposed over the bare breasts of a faceless slim, white woman, who is pictured from the waist up to the neck – but I was baffled about the feminist implications.

Reading the blurb – “I have come to regard sexism as the most widespread and effective process of brainwashing in the history of mankind” – I first wondered whether maybe the image really was as downright patronising as it appears. Is the author really suggesting men are so brainwashed by sexism that the mere presence of a naked woman will entice them to buy her book and, in the process, learn something about the feminist movement? Surely, I thought, I must be missing something here. “Is it meant to be ironic or something?” my partner asked when I showed him; “must be,” I said, “but it would put me off buying it for anyone in the first place.”

Having read the book, I’m not sure I’m much clearer; the content itself feels just as confused and self-contradictory. The blurb explains that “Teaching Men to be Feminist is for any man who feels excluded by feminism; who finds himself believing there’s some truth in the frequently heard rationalisation that a female rape victim was ‘asking for it’ even though he may not acknowledge this out loud. This book is for men who love their partners and daughters and don’t want to see them hurt or unfairly disadvantaged but can’t find a way to speak out. It is for anyone who believes feminism is just an outdated ‘woman’s thing’ and above all it is a rallying cry for men and women who still believe in a feminism that can lead to genuine and lasting equality.” So far, so confusing.

One thing is clear: this book is for heterosexual men but, beyond that, I’m not quite sure who its audience is. Is it for men with an interest in learning more about feminism, as the title suggests? Or is it for men who think feminism is outdated and that rape victims are ‘asking for it’? From the ‘back-to-basics’ approach, I suspect it’s intended more for the latter; Dickson uses the first eight chapters (56 pages) to prove that we live under a patriarchal system, that sexism exists, and that it has a negative impact on women’s self-esteem. Clearly I am not the intended audience and much of Dickson’s explanation would, I’m sure, be useful to a man or woman who was new to feminism, but after 56 pages of “dominant and muted cultures” and “the female psyche” I found myself wanting to scream: “Yes, we get it!”

At only 99 pages in total, and with an RRP of £8, Teaching Men to be Feminist feels like a lot of money for not very much. It’s quick, easy reading and, as an informative pamphlet, it does contain some useful introductions to feminist concepts like patriarchy, objectification, and the radical idea that rape is a terrible crime and never the victim’s fault. Much emphasis is placed on the psychological effects of sexism on women (Dickson seems to invite the reader to relate this to their mother, their wife, their daughter) and in particular the idea that being treated like sexual objects – and this is where the cover comes in, I suppose – leads to poor body image and internalised sexism. While I don’t object to the idea of men putting themselves in their wives’/daughters’/mothers’ shoes to raise their awareness of the insidious impact of sexism, there were a number of times when I felt I was being led towards a position of pity for womankind.

Dickson here seems to slip into her assertiveness-training mode; there are parts of the book that felt like a self-help guide for women on the ways in which we don’t help ourselves. While much of what she says rings true for some of the women I know, she relies heavily on generalisations (“women feel”, “the majority of women”, “most women think”) based not on research or statistics, hardly any of which are mentioned, but on her anecdotal evidence from the “thousands of women I’ve worked with”. Regardless of how representive her contacts are, some of what Dickson says about women is just downright wrong. In her chapter on ambivalence, which follows her chapter on rape, Dickson writes: “It’s unlikely that women themselves will ever form a protest march against the incidence of rape.” What, like Reclaim The Night? Slutwalk? V Day?

She continues: “If those who had been raped courageously ‘came out’ and formed such a march, it would be surprising to see the sheer numbers. It might show once and for all that all women – not just the young tarty ones who ‘ask for it’ – are at risk of being raped.” In her quest to teach men about feminism, it might have been nice if Dickson had researched and flagged up the feminist activists already working hard to do exactly what she describes women as being “unlikely” to ever do. The book’s greatest weakness, in terms of content, is that it sticks firmly to the domain of the theoretical, ignoring the resurgent feminist movement, and closing with speculation about a utopic world in which equality has been achieved and men are as publically opposed to sexism as they are to racism. What the book teaches men is why they should support feminism, but the concrete action points are more thin on the ground.

Initially I felt that the book’s biggest downfall was the fact I’ve spent more time musing on, discussing and debating the front cover than the content. That is a real weakness but, in actual fact, the cover tells you as much as you need to know. I posted a photo of it on Facebook to garner reactions from an interesting cross-section of friends and relatives, both male and female; the overwhelming response was “patronising” and “off-putting” – my dad asked if the follow-up would be called Teaching Women the Offside Rule. The content felt much the same, which is disappointing for a book that claims such admirable intentions. For men who are genuinely interested in learning to be feminist, the only lesson you need is this: listen to women’s experiences, support women, and stand up to sexist men. I’ve just saved you £8; you’re welcome.

Teaching Men To Be Feminist by Anne Dickson is published on 28 November by Quartet Books.

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Who’s afraid of old age?

Who’s afraid of old age? Most people, it would seem. And what could be scarier than a wrinkled old woman? This was certainly the hackneyed thought of model Heidi Klum, paying some Oscar-winning make-up artists a huge sum of money to age her for Halloween this year. A few commentators mocked Klum’s insensitivity, yet her antics highlighted a cultural truth, which is why age is a feminist issue. Wherever we look, first and foremost, fears of ageing have targeted the ageing female, fed by those terrifying images from myth and folk-tale – the hag, harridan, witch, or Medusa. These frightening figures are not incidentally female, but quintessentially so, seen as monstrous because of the combination of age and gender. So much effort is required, Collette wrote almost a century ago, ‘to disguise that monster, an old woman’, herself resorting to cosmetic surgery at a time when it would have been both exceedingly painful, and also very dangerous. How much have things changed?

It was writing my political memoir, Making Trouble, in my early sixties, that brought me sharply up against the contrast between my shared dreams as a young woman, coming of age in the radical 1960s, and the realities of old age. My feminist attachments should, you might think, have prevented this outcome. ‘Goodbye to all that’, the voice of the American writer, Robin Morgan, had declared, in January 1970. Women would create a new world, one closer to our own heart’s desire, one in which we were no longer forced to become the sort of women men wanted us to be. ‘Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved’, we sang with glorious irony as young women on International Women’s Day in March 1971. I was on that march, so surely, after forty years and more of feminism, things have changed. We shall see.

Certainly, as young women, second-wave feminists were accused of excluding older women from our midst. In this country the Older Feminist Network was founded in 1982 by feminists, who felt that the women’s liberation movement took little notice of them or the challenges they faced as women in an ageist culture (including, so it seemed, the women’s movement itself). ‘Old age’, they said, was self-defining, though most of them saw it as ‘starting with the menopause’. These older feminists and activists, such as the poet, simply calling herself Astra, began working on issues such as housing, sheltered accommodation, living wills, and more. It was also only around the mid-1980s that books by and about older feminists began to appear, again suggesting older that they had been systematically patronized, stereotyped and, above all, ignored in the women’s movement. One of the first collections, edited by the American lesbian feminist writer and activist Barbara Macdonald, and her younger lover, Cynthia Rich, angrily confronted their fellow feminists: Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Agism

However, while older feminists had indeed begun meeting in the 1980s, it would be over a decade more before things began to shift more decisively, if still slowly, within mainstream feminist thought. Indeed, it was only after more of us ‘old-times’ reached middle age ourselves that ageing was more widely addressed. This might seem strange, given that one key feminist goal was always to try to reach out, embracing all women, everywhere. Furthermore, as feminists we had always objected to the cultural dominance of the male gaze, with its almost exclusive focus on youthful female flesh when presenting acceptable femininity. We confidently tried to reject all those male-defined images of women’s ‘attractiveness’, and seemed aware of its harmful ways of ranking women, observing or disregarding us, according to our ‘beauty’. We also noticed of the artificial and ephemeral nature of ‘good looks’.

For all that, ageing feminists remained largely unprepared for the fear, anxiety, even for some the sudden horror, of realizing we were no longer young. ‘Late mid-life astonishment’, is how the American feminist Sarah Pearlman referred to the disruptions of identity and self-esteem that almost all women can suddenly experience at the first intimations of old age, and the feared marginalization and invisibility that so often comes with it. Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir’s many words on the topic exemplify, it can be easier to fight the realities of ageism, than to accept one’s own ageing face. A few years ago, for instance, a large survey of elderly Americans reported not just a disparity between actual age and the age people said they felt, but found that this gap increased with age. Over fifty, most interviewees said they felt ten years younger than their chronological age, while a significant minority over sixty-five reported that they felt up to twenty years younger. Given the cultural diminishment accompanying our images of the elderly, this is hardly surprising.

Nevertheless, feminist resistance to ageism and the neglect of the needs of the elderly has now been growing for years. In addition, more older feminists have been trying to confront, rather simply rage against or disavow, the losses that inevitable multiply in any long life – always sharply etched by class, race, ethnicity and more. It led one of my feminists mentors, Adrienne Rich, to articulate a new role for the older woman, or older activist, as ‘passionate skeptic’, the person who could look back through time and help explain the continuities, slides, shifts and inevitable ruptures in radical thought and action across the generations. It has also led me to write my own book on ageing Out of Time, in search of richer, mutually beneficial narratives, which might encourage more communication between younger and older feminists. It isn’t always easy, with resentments springing from either side, but at least in my dreams, it certainly is possible.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her new book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso.

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Feminist Events Listings: November 2013

Verity Flecknell

Welcome to my feminist event highlight blog for Feminist Times. Storm in a Teacup are thrilled to be highlighting all the best feminist events from London and beyond.

Whether you are an armchair activist or a full time activist, into your international politics, or personal politics, feminist artist, or radical feminist – there are just so many events happening up and down the country – there is bound to be something to tickle your fancy/get your teeth into.

Arguably there are more feminist events popping up more than ever and so many opportunities for you to get involved, meet like minded people, share skills and be a part of the movement.

We will be bringing you highlights of some of the feminist events not to be missed in November.

Verity Flecknell, Storm in a Teacup


Film Spotlight

London Feminist Film Festival || 24 November – 2 December

The London Feminist Film Festival was set up as a response to the underrepresentation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues. In its second year, the festival will take place at Hackney Picturehouse over seven days and will screen 10 feature length films and 21 short films, from 18 different countries, including eight UK Premieres, eight European Premieres, and six World Premieres. Some of the films on show include; En la Casa, la Cama y la Calle about activism in Nicaragua, Still Fighting about abortion clinic escorts in the US, and Foot for Love about a South African football team’s campaign against lesbophobia. And UK-based films such as To Hear Her Voice about suffragette theatre. Each screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring feminist directors, activists, academics, and arts critics. Festival Director, Anna Read says: “We want to celebrate women creatives whilst ensuring that this feminist ethos also extends to the films we show. The festival is a celebration of feminist films past and present. Our aim is to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience. Following the success of last year’s festival, we hope to make the 2nd festival even bigger and better, with even more inspiring feminist films and discussion”.

FACEBOOK EVENTS: https://www.facebook.com/events/424690467597346/

PROGRAMME: http://londonfeministfilmfestival.com/lfff-2013-programme/lfff2013/

MORE INFORMATION: www.londonfeministfilmfestival.com

Underwire Short-Film Festival || 19-23 November

Underwire, the UK’s only short film festival dedicated to showcasing the raw cinematic talents of women return for their 4th annual festival, running 19-23 November at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, London. Featuring an eclectic mix of genres, themes and aesthetic styles across 10 competition screenings. These ten craft awards aim to recognize outstanding female film practitioners working in the UK today. This year’s festival also includes 23 dynamic events, bringing industry icons and familiar faces to our audience.  Underwire Festival 2013 is focusing on feminist issues more so than ever before, bringing women in film and feminist discussion back to the heart of Hackney. With an exciting programme of industry events, this year’s festival questions what it means to be a woman, as a filmmaker and with our society. Teaming up with Little White Lies Underwire presents ‘Girls On Film’ a day of panel discussions focusing on the representation of women in film. The day splits into 4 events; ‘The Bechdel Test: The Ugly Truth?’ featuring guest speaker Muriel d’Ansembourg (BAFTA nominated Good Night); ‘Act Your Age: Is there Space on Screen for Older Women?’ with Kate Hardie (Shoot Me); ‘Honest Lies: The Representation of Prostitution in Cinema’ looking at mainstream films from “Breakfast at Tiffanys” to ‘Monster” and ‘Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dead?’ with Laurie Penny (The Independent, The New Statesman, The New Inquiry) and Catherine Balavage (Writer/Actor, Proses & Cons). Tickets are £7 per session or £20 for an all day pass.

MORE INFO: http://www.underwirefestival.com

Theatre Spotlight

This November we thought it was important to highlight some of the groundbreaking feminist theatre that is currently storming the stage in London.

Clean Break present; “Billy the Girl” at Soho Theatre | Until 24 November

Celebrated theatre company Clean Break return to Soho Theatre with Katie Hims’ ‘Billy the Girl’ which runs from 29 October to 24 November. Clean Break is a women’s theatre company using theatre for personal and political change and working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. On 12 November, a post-show panel conversation features past and present Clean Break commissioned writers discussing the Clean Break commission and its impact on their writing lives. On 13 November, post-show panelists from various disciplines discuss concepts of chaos and women in the criminal justice system.

SOHO THEATRE: http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/billy-the-girl

MORE INFO: http://www.cleanbreak.org.uk/

Camden People’s Theatre present; “Calm Down Dear” | Until 10 November

The Camden People’s Theatre present a festival of feminist theatre “Calm Down Dear” a gathering of artists and companies presenting a three-week season of innovative theatre, performance, comedy, cabaret and discussion about feminism. Programme runs from 23rd October until Sunday 10th of November. CPT co-directors Jenny Paton and Brian Logan say: “we were struck earlier this year by the number of feminist-themed applications to our annual Sprint festival. That didn’t come out of nowhere: the boom in feminist thought and action – from No More Page 3 to Caitlin Moran, from Jane Austen on banknotes to Everyday Sexism on Twitter – has been one of the most heartening features of public life in the last couple of years. Our Calm Down, Dear festival celebrates and channels that. We’re really proud to be hosting some of the most exciting and urgent art to be found at the crest of this feminist new wave.”

TICKETS: http://www.cptheatre.co.uk/event_details.php?sectionid=theatre&eventid=732

MORE INFO: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/sep/19/bridget-christie-festival-feminist-london

Politics Spotlight

Why Gender Should be on Europe’s Agenda || 7 November

Organised by National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO)and taking place at the Amnesty International building in East London. This panel and discussion brings together academics, NGOs, political bodies and youth voices to explore how and why young women can and should get involved in the European agenda. Speakers include: Mary Honeyball MEP, Dr Roberta Guerrina, Rebecca Taylor MEP, Catherine Bearder MEP, Serap Altinisik – Member of EWL Free event.

RSVP: admin@nawo.org.uk.

MORE INFO: http://thewomensresourcecentre.org.uk/why-gender-should-be-on-europes-agenda-london/#more-%27

Zero Tolerance: Eradication Female Genital Mutilation || 13 November

Organised by Public Policy Exchange, this day long conference includes speakers from the Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and the Metropolitan police.  It has been estimated that over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK each year, and that 66,000 women in the UK are living with the consequences of FGM. This timely symposium provides an invaluable opportunity to; Understand the current legal framework for eradicating female genital mutilation. Explore how to overcome sensitive cultural barriers and improve protection, support and the services available. Discuss ways in which to engage with schools and the wider public to raise awareness of FGM. Examine new strategies that encourage communities to challenge FGM and develop a stronger response at a local level.

MORE INFO: http://www.publicpolicyexchange.co.uk/events/DK13-PPE


Women in Politics: Yes We Can! Bradford || 15 November

An event that will discuss how women can get involved in politics, Parliament and campaigning. Find out how you can raise important issues and hear from three experts with unrivalled experience of campaigning on behalf of women inside and out of Parliament: Speakers include; The Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (Paralympian, Crossbench Member of the House of Lords), Ann Cryer (former MP for Keighley) The event runs from 10am to 12pm, taking place at City Training Services, 39-41 Chapel Street, Bradford BD1 5BY.

BOOK TICKETS: contactwinterfloodkl@parliament.uk

This event has been arranged by the Houses of Parliament’s Outreach Service. Further information on their work can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/outreach

Reclaim the Night: Leeds || 16th November

A group of women in Leeds are planning a Reclaim the Night March for Saturday 16th November 2013.  A Reclaim the Night March is direct action by women to reclaim the streets and assert our right to feel free from fear of rape and sexual violence. The march will take women on a route around the city centre to reclaim places where women feel vulnerable from attack; the last stage of the march will be open to all. There will be a rally, which will be open to all  supporters. Reclaim the Night Leeds will be setting off from Victoria Gardens (outside the Art Gallery) at 6.30pm and arriving at Leeds Met Student Union Bar for approx. 7.30pm for speakers and stalls.

MORE INFO: http://reclaimthenightleeds.wordpress.com/

FACEBOOK EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/events/224837194347698/

RECLAIM THE NIGHT: http://www.reclaimthenight.co.uk/

Women’s History Conference, Manchester || 23rd November

The North West Labour History Society is celebrating 40 years of activity promoting labour history with a conference on women’s history on 23 November in Manchester. A day long conference with sessions on “Women, Politics and Music” and “Women as Political Activists” covering topics including trade unionism, socialism, Votes for Women, socialism and feminism. Also a panel discussion on Socialism and Feminism. The speakers will include Lindsey German, Claire Mooney, Alice Nutter, Louise Raw, Rae Street and Sonja Tiernan. The fee for the day will be £10 waged/£5 unwaged.

WEBSITE: http://workershistory.wordpress.com/nwlhs-events/

MORE INFO: redflagwalks@gmail.com

LaDIYfest Sheffield || 30th November

Sheffield’s grassroots feminist festival, LaDIYfest, returns for its third year with a whole day and night of practical activities, discussion workshops and live music raising money for local women’s charities.  Celebrating women in the arts, Ladyfest is a community based not-for profit movement that started in Olympia, Washington in 2000, Riot grrrl identifying bands like; Sleater-Kinney, The Gossip and Bratmobile all performed at the first ever Ladyfest. Since then Ladyfests have been organised by individuals and grassroots organisations all over the world.

During the day, festivalgoers will have the chance to participate in lively workshops and discussions run by local groups and visiting speakers. Workshops will be a mixture of serious and fun, teaching practical skills such as sound engineering, organising your own grassroots events, and t-shirt printing, alongside discussions on men and feminism, women and anti-fascism and the Lose the Lads Mags campaign. Workshops take place from 11am-5.30pm at the Quaker Meeting House, Sheffield. Saturday evening will see the city play host to an exciting line-up of bands including London based band; The Ethical Debating Society, Halo Halo, Weird Menace, and Not Right with DJ sets from local collective INVERT until late. LaDIYfest seeks out the best new women-led bands from the local scene.

FACEBOOK EVENT / DAY: https://www.facebook.com/events/687874341242421/

FACEBOOK EVENT / EVENING: https://www.facebook.com/events/220472771448725/

WEBSITE: http://ladiyfestsheffield.wordpress.com/

26 November || Bristol Women’s Lit Fest presents: The glory of Pride and Prejudice @ Watershed, Bristol, BS1 5TX. The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival invites you to join us at Watershed on Tuesday 26 November for an evening of conversation, discussion and enthusiasm to find out. Chaired by Professor Helen Taylor, this panel discussion will explore Austen’s lasting appeal and the misconceptions that have dogged her public persona. Professor Taylor will be joined by Jean Burnett, author of Who Needs Mr Darcy, and Professor Jane Spencer. 6.15pm – Tickets £8.00 full (£6.50 concs)

BUY TICKETS:  online

MORE INFO:  http://womensliteraturefestival.wordpress.com/

Verity Flecknell is founder of Storm in a Teacup, a London based feminist arts collective set up in 2009 with the aim of promoting women in the arts. In 2010 Storm in a Teacup helped organise Ladyfest Ten festival, in 2011 were part of the first ever Women of the World festival at the Southbank and in 2012 joined forces with Girls Get Busy zine and Not So Popular to form Lets Start a Pussy Riot collective. In June this year, Rough Trade Records published “Lets Start a Pussy Riot” book, a collection of artistic responses created in collaboration with Pussy Riot. Storm in a Teacup also publishes monthly feminist event listings happening around London.

Please visit Storm in a Teacup’s blog for full feminist event listings for November.

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View of utopia

Women’s Realm

At the end of August, BBC News reported on the Venus Project, a utopic vision of a radically different future society. Designed by 97-year-old architect Jacque Fresco, the Venus Project proposes a society where material possessions are unnecessary, mundane jobs are automated, and the main aim of daily life is to improve your knowledge, enjoy hobbies, and find solutions to improving the standard of living for everyone.

The dream of an ideal society is nothing new, appearing in Plato’s Republic in around 350BC, and first described using the term Utopia in 1516 by Sir Thomas More. The Venus Project describes itself as “neither Utopian nor Orwellian” but instead as presenting “attainable goals requiring only the intelligent application of what we already know.”

We’re big dreamers here at Feminist Times. What would an ideal feminist society look like, and what goals could we attain through the intelligent application of what we already know? I turned to the feminist imaginations of the past for inspiration.

The Second Wave of feminism, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, was a heyday of feminist utopian literature, with novels including Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Suzy McKee CharnasMotherlines, Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, and Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Woman on the Edge of Time, published in 1976, Piercy presents alternative utopian and dystopian visions of the future. In the utopian future, pollution, homophobia, racism, phallocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism and totalitarianism have been eradicated. In the dystopian alternative, the wealthy elite use drugs and surgical mood control to subjugate the masses and harvest their organs. Women are only valued for their appearance and sexuality, and their sexual features are exaggerated by cosmetic surgery.

Suzy McKee Charnas, in her 1978 novel Motherlines, describes a group of women who have escaped from a dystopian civilisation where “fems” are slaves to men. Charnas presents strong, self-sufficient female characters. In their world, men are unnecessary and women can reproduce using their horses (think I’ll pass on that one!)

Also published in 1978, Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women presents women living apart from the society of men, having fled the harsh restrictions imposed on them to live communally in nature. The ability to reproduce without men is a popular theme throughout feminist utopian novels – in Gearhart’s novel reproduction takes place asexually, and the women’s other skills include flying and telephathic communication.

This theme of reproduction is explored further in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the sexes are strictly divided, and society values women for their reproductive capacities above all else. Sterile, unmarried women are considered non-persons, forced to wear grey clothing and banished to the ‘Colonies’.

There are clear, recognisable themes recurrent in the feminist dystopias of the Second Wave, often taking existing inequalities to their logical conclusions: societies in which women are valued only for their sexuality and appearance, or for their ability to reproduce. Although exaggerated, it all sounds disconcertingly feasible. Their utopian counterparts represent an opposite extreme, in which women live in societies free from gender oppression and the power dynamics of inequality (often due to a total lack of men) where they are self-sufficient, liberated, and powerful.

Much earlier, Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a similarly utopic ideal in her 1915 novel Herland, written three years before women in the UK were even granted the vote. In Herland, Gilman explores and subverts notions of gender roles, giving the women ‘masculine’ features such as short hair, physical strength and a lack of curves, while Jeff, a male character, exhibits feminine traits. In Herland, the women live in an isolated society and reproduce asexually, as in many Second Wave utopias. In Gilman’s ideal social order women are independent and equal – even superior at times – to men; there is no war, conflict or domination, and education is held up as a high art.

Earlier still, the first example of a feminist utopia was written by medieval French Italian author Christine de Pizan in 1405. Her allegorical work City of Ladies features a wide range of famous historical women, who are both the building blocks and the inhabitants of de Pizan’s symbolic city. In her society, a “lady” is defined as a woman of noble spirit, rather than noble birth, and the ladies named are given as positive examples for other women to follow. Major themes covered include women’s rights to education, the criminality of rape, and women’s political leadership abilities.

Six hundred years after de Pizan dared to imagine such a dream, I wonder what she would have made of the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai, George Galloway describing rape allegations as nothing more than “bad sexual etiquette”, or David Cameron’s cabinet of 18 men and four women. Forget the ability to reproduce with horses (seriously, why?!) my idea of a feminist utopia bears as much resemblance to de Pizan’s 15th century imagination as it does to Gearhart’s Wanderground. I wouldn’t say no to the telepathy though – a woman’s got to have bigger dreams than just a society where women are valued in government.

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Reclaiming the F word book cover

Review: Reclaiming the F Word

Reclaiming The F Word was one of the first feminist books I ever read as a fledgling undergraduate feminist, so when co-author Catherine Redfern offered Feminist Times a review copy, I jumped at the chance.

Reading it the first time around, Reclaiming The F Word came as a huge surprise and relief – at age 20, I suddenly realised there were thousands of feminists across the country who felt the same way I did and were doing something about it.

The book draws on Redfern and Aune’s extensive research into the 21st century feminist movement, quoting articles, books, and most interestingly the responses of the more than a thousand feminists they surveyed, covering all the hot topics of contemporary feminist debate: liberated bodies, sexual freedom and choice, violence against women, equality at work and home, politics and religion, and popular culture.

The tone of the book is, in Redfern and Aune’s own words, “unapologetically positive”, providing a clear – if slightly rose-tinted – window into the best and most diverse of the feminist movement’s work and achievements between 2000 and 2009.

The authors are evangelical about offering newcomers an easy way in via the action points that conclude each chapter. For me, it served exactly that purpose – providing a stepping-stone for discovering feminism and activism for myself.

Having started my feminist journey with Reclaiming The F Word, I’ve seen a huge number of changes – good and bad – since the first edition was released back in 2009. Four years on, and we’ve seen a renaissance in feminism online, in the media, and in popular culture. We’ve seen austerity measures put in place that have disproportionately affected women, we’ve seen a number of attacks on abortion rights across the UK, and we’ve seen the far-reaching shockwaves of Operation Yewtree in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile and others.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and, in their preface to the new edition, Redfern and Aune explore the changes of the last four years – and its impact on national and global activism – thoroughly but concisely. A whole new book could probably have been written to take in those changes, but Redfern and Aune’s new edition brings Reclaiming The F Word up to date and shows why feminism is just as, if not more, relevant today than it was in 2009.

Reclaiming The F Word is a must-read for tentative new feminists, and an encouraging breath of fresh air for jaded older ones. It’s an energising call to arms, and a reminder that feminism is ripe for reclaiming.

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