Talking about women

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. A slow, simmering anger at the way women are treated as second class citizens in society has bubbled underneath the surface of my seemingly placid exterior for many years. Most of the time when I’m harassed, heckled or, worse, touched – this happens a lot on crowded public transport, so I have one thing to thank coronavirus for – I put up and shut up, as we women have been conditioned to since time immemorial. Just ignore it. Just keep walking. Don’t engage, don’t escalate. As we women know, those who think we ask for it by wearing too much make up and too short skirts, the level of harassment we face is not in any way correlative to our appearance – I have even been harassed and heckled while on a school trip with a gaggle of my students staring wide-eyed behind me. I can promise you that my regulation school trip raincoat is not in any way sexy. That was a great lesson for my students on why Miss is always banging on about feminism.

My anger reached boiling point last week in a meeting where as a department we were talking about teaching Of Mice and Men to a class, and how we would handle the racism in the novel without upsetting or making uncomfortable the black students in the room. The n word is said numerous times in the novel, and it’s a discussion so many teachers have around the world every year, I’m sure – do we say it? Is it ok to say it even after we’ve explained the context? Is it a word that should now never be said? As a word, it carries such a weight, and it’s one that needs to rightly be measured with such care when it’s encountered in the classroom. What made me angry in that meeting was the sudden realisation that we weren’t having the same conversation about the words used to describe Curly’s wife in the book. Why weren’t we worrying equally about how the girls would feel about hearing a girl, of a similar age to them, described as a bitch? As jailbait? As a tart? As a rattrap? As a tramp? As poison? Why aren’t these words treated with the same horror and aversion as the n word? Why don’t they carry the same weight of violence and trauma? Because they should, shouldn’t they? Calling a woman a dog means she is being called subhuman. Therefore less than, and not entitled to the same rights as, men. And to call a woman ‘bait’ or a ‘trap’ for men – suggests that they should carry the full responsibility of men’s reactions to them. This is where our victim blaming and shaming comes from. Our language forms our way of seeing the world. The n word is now very rightly recognised as being a horrifically derogatory and demeaning word. However, the fact that similarly derogatory and demeaning words in our vocabulary used to describe women are not seen as such, and have become accepted and normalised, says everything about women’s place in our society.  Every time we use these words we are reaffirming the fact that women are seen as less than men, in every way. And yet no one bats an eyelid at them. In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.

I watched a powerful documentary last night, on Netflix, called Missrepresentation, all about how society’s way of viewing women is formed by the media we consume. It told me nothing I didn’t already know, but seeing it laid out in facts and figures was incredibly upsetting. So many people tell me that feminism isn’t necessary any more – that we have equality now – and yet this documentary shows in indisputable statistics that we’re actually going backwards, not forwards, in the fight for equal rights for women. Less than 10% of films made have women as the main character, but even in those films where women are the main character, the plot of almost all of those films involves the woman’s pursuit of a man to complete her life. What message does this send to the children in our classrooms, who now spend most of their free time watching Netflix? When they see women represented, they see them represented entirely within a context of their relationship to men. Success for a woman, in a film, is, over 90% of the time, seen as achieving a successful relationship with a man. The same cannot be said if you reverse the genders, of course. Men in films are out saving the world, achieving career success, defeating enemies and generally proving how strong and brave they are – of course, this carries just as much of a problematic weight as the passive depictions of women in media, because it makes boys and men think that they have to ape this almost toxic level of masculinity in order to be successful in life. But at least men are told that they have a contribution to make to the world – for women, the overriding message is, success for you is getting that ring on your finger and a baby in the oven. No matter what else you achieve in life, ultimately, without a man by your side, you’ve achieved nothing. Sounds like a plot of a nineteenth century novel, doesn’t it? And yet here we are two hundred years later, still peddling the same narratives.

Last week, one of my female sixth formers said that feminism has gone ‘too far’. I could have cried. The fight is so far from over, and yet the greatest victory patriarchy has achieved in the twenty first century is normalising misogyny to the point where many people have become convinced there was and is no need for a fight in the first place. What’s the solution? Well, we need better stories, and we need better language. And more of us need to recognise that we need these, and we need to fight for them to become reality. No more putting up and shutting up. Because if we keep doing that, nothing will ever change, and in two hundred years’ time, we’ll still be reading novels and watching films where women are bit parts in their own lives.

READING FROM MY SHELVES: SEPTEMBER

Books started: 4

Books finished: 3

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 2

It’s been a slow reading month again here. I am continuing to struggle with exhaustion, despite being back at school for six weeks now; many of my colleagues feel the same. We normally feel pretty tired when we first come back to school in September and are thrown back into the fray again after our bodies and minds have become used to a lovely long rest, but by now, the tiredness has normally abated and we’re back in the rhythm of the teaching day. This is an exhaustion that makes me want to curl up and sleep at 8pm, leaves me struggling to wake up in the morning, and makes me find it hard to concentrate on anything once I get home from work. Discussing it with a colleague yesterday, we came to the realisation that we’re all suffering from an anxiety so deep-seated we haven’t even noticed it anymore. I liken it a bit to how leaving background apps running on your phone slowly drains the battery without you realising. Living in a world that is so different in so many ways, remembering all the new rules, constantly being alert about where you’re standing and what you’re touching and who you might be making feel uncomfortable, as well the lack of certainty about anything, the fear of things never going back to normal, and the general feeling of being totally out of control of your own life, has all contributed to a deep-boned tiredness I’ve never experienced before.

So, I’ve been taking care of myself as much as I can; not pressuring myself to do more than I feel able to, and focusing on what brings me joy, as Marie Kondo would say. The highlight of my month was going to the theatre. I went to see An Evening with An Immigrant by Inua Ellams at the wonderful Bridge Theatre, which was absolutely wonderful – so powerful and thought provoking, but also funny and heartwarming and truly inspiring. I loved every minute, and it was euphoric to be back in a theatre again. As I sipped on my interval wine and sat back and enjoyed the people watching of my fellow audience members, I felt, for a moment, like I had slipped back into my old life. It gave me hope to be there, in that space, with other people who love the Arts and were clearly thrilled to be there too, experiencing something communally again. If you’re in London or its environs, I would strongly recommend booking one of the upcoming performances; we need to support our theatres! The National Theatre is also opening again this month…I shall be booking tickets and can’t wait to get back inside one of my favourite places in London!

Reading this month has been minimal and has consisted of two re-reads and an Agatha Christie, as well as some fantastic Gloria Steinem essays. I kicked off the month with the marvellous The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which left me an emotional wreck for the second time in my life, and is still one of the best books I have ever read – not having read it since I was at university, I was worried it wouldn’t have the same profundity as I had found the first time, but I was delighted to find it just the same work of genius as before. Simon and I discussed it on our Tea or Books? podcast here, and we both agreed it is just the most quietly, brilliantly devastating novel. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a butler, Stevens, in the 1950s, looking back over his career and his relationship with the former housekeeper of the Hall where he continues to work despite its heyday being long gone and its rooms largely shut up, and it has to be the most heart wrenching depiction of emotional repression and missed opportunity I have ever read. Though it’s funny, too, I must mention that – there are some lovely moments and humorous asides that lift the tone and add to the complexity of Stevens’ character. Ishiguro’s artfully restrained prose is pure pleasure to read and the story will continue to stay with me forever. It’s a perfect Autumnal novel, and if you haven’t yet read it, now is the time!

I also re-read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea for teaching purposes, which I found even more brilliant than my first reading back at university. Rhys was a phenomenal writer; this has reminded me I must explore more of her work. The exotic, superstitious malevolence of nineteenth century Jamaica is so vividly drawn, and the descriptions of lush groves singing with the pattering of summer rains, and the stifling nights filled with the fear of eyes watching and plotting revenge in the darkness, are mesmerising. Rhys’ reimagining of the Bertha-Rochester marriage and the experiences that formed both of the characters’ personalities and behaviour towards one another is such a magnificent example of both feminist and postcolonial literature. In giving Bertha a voice and a life outside of the attic of Thornfield Hall, she opens a window into a nineteenth century patriarchal and colonial world that entirely shifts the narrative of Jane Eyre into a new and deeply troubling direction. We’ve been having marvellous discussions in class about it, after having just studied Jane Eyre; it’s a challenging novel for my sixth formers to grapple with, but they’ve loved exploring how an author has taken a story and made it into another one all of her own. We even wondered today whether Jane would one day end up the same way as Bertha, trapped in the lush green dell of Ferndean when Rochester decides he wants a new, younger model…a revisionist sequel lies potentially in the making there!

Here’s hoping October has me finding more time to read; I need to get back to those shelves of mine – I’m still stuck at K!

London’s Notable Women: Lilian Lindsay

Lilian Lindsay, by Kathleen Williams

I have been taking photos of English Heritage’s blue plaques featuring women for quite some time now, meaning to research their lives and form a directory of some nature. So today’s post will be the first of many monthly posts, doing just this. I hope you’ll enjoy finding out more about these many remarkable women!

First up, is Lilian Lindsay (1871-1960), who was the first female dentist to qualify in Britain; note the Britain and not England, as she was forced to move from her home in London to study dentistry in Scotland, as no school in England would accept her. According to the British Dental Association’s very informative profile of her here, she was interviewed for a place at the National Dental Hospital in London on the pavement outside, as the hospital’s director, Henry Weiss, was so concerned that her very presence in the building would form a distraction to male students that he wouldn’t let her in the building. Rejected from her applications to study in England, she went north to Edinburgh, where she was accepted to the city’s dental school, though not without being told by a member of staff there that in doing so, she was taking the bread from a male student’s mouth.

Lilian well and truly proved her detractors wrong through her remarkable capacities as a surgeon and scholar. She won the Wilson Medal for dental surgery and pathology and the medal for materia medica and therapeutics in 1894, and qualified in 1895, becoming the first woman in the UK to do so. She promptly moved back to London, where she established a highly successful dental surgery in Hornsey, North London, and worked for ten years to pay off the bank loan she had taken out to fund her studies.

The bank loan paid off, Lilian married her former university tutor, Robert Lindsay, in 1905. They practised as dentists together in Edinburgh, and were prominent members of the newly established British Dental Association, with Lilian being its first female member. Passionate about her profession, and particularly its history, Lilian became the honorary librarian of the BDA in 1920 when her husband became its secretary. The couple moved into a flat above the BDA’s offices in London’s Russell Square, where Lilian remained after her husband’s death ten years later, and all throughout the Blitz, refusing to leave the library’s precious resources unguarded. Lilian founded the BDA’s library, amassed a world-leading collection on the history of dentistry, and learnt numerous European languages, as well as Old English, to help with her research and translation of historical artefacts. She published a book, A Short History of Dentistry, in 1933, and contributed tens of journal articles to the British Dental Journal, for which she was sub editor for twenty years. She became the first female president of the BDA in 1946.

A leading figure in both the practice and history of dentistry, Lilian was a true pioneer whose perseverance in the face of much resistance to women’s involvement in the world of medicine enabled her to make an enormously valuable and long-lasting contribution to her chosen field. Despite attending Frances Mary Buss’ pioneering North London Collegiate School for Girls as a teenager, Lilian was advised by her teachers to give up any idea of studying dentistry and instead become a teacher – a far more fitting career for a woman. Strong-minded enough to ignore this discouragement, Lilian managed to gain a three year apprenticeship to experience dentistry for herself, and after scraping together enough loans to do so, applied to study dentistry, refusing to give up when she could find no school in England willing to take her. She didn’t allow societal standards, rejection or financial difficulties to stop her from striving to achieve her dreams, and in daring to believe that she could do what no other woman had done before, she made history and paved the way to making dentistry a profession where, in the UK, women are now the majority.

A blue plaque was placed on Lilian’s childhood home in North London in 2013; sadly, a developer illegally demolished the house, and so her plaque was moved to the house where she lived in Russell Square last year, which is right next door to Faber and Faber’s original old offices. Perhaps Lilian and T.S.Eliot used to cross paths! Bloomsbury, where Russell Square is situated, is a treasure trove for blue plaques commemorating women, and I’ll feature another remarkable resident next month.

Reading from my shelves: August

Books started: 5

Books finished: 4

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 4

My reading slowed down enormously in August as I spent three weeks on holiday with little time or inclination to pick up a book. At the beginning of the month, I went on a mammoth road trip to a cottage on the edge of Loch Broom, which is in the Highlands of Scotland, and the furthest point north on this little island I’ve ever ventured. We stopped for a few days en route in beautiful Ambleside in the Lake District, where we were blessed with unusually lovely weather that gave us breathtaking views on our rambles up and around the lakes and fells. Coronavirus had shut some favourite visiting places, but the great outdoors was still very much open for business, and it was such bliss to be amidst such beauty in one of my absolute favourite parts of the country.

Driving from the Lake District up to Loch Broom was such a treat; I’d struggle to find anywhere else, I think, where the landscape changes so dramatically and so quickly as you travel north and transition from rolling green countryside to bracken-browned moorland, dramatic mountain ranges, thick, pungent-scented pine forests and along the edges of huge, sparkling lochs dotted with crumbling castle ruins, every vista offering delight and wonder and awe. The area where we stayed, near Ullapool, was absolutely beautiful, filled with incredible mountains and coastline and lush forests of ferns and trickling waterfalls. We saw dolphins swimming in the distance at Cromarty, drove across the beautiful bridge to the stunning island of Skye, ate fish and chips caught fresh from the sea in Ullapool, and walked along the sandy, almost tropical looking beach at Dornoch. We had a wonderful time, and yet more joy was to come; we finished our epic tour of the North by heading to Whitby, passing through Edinburgh briefly for an all too quick lunch with my dear university friend Emma. We stayed in the picture-postcard moorland village of Lockton, about a twenty minute drive from Whitby, and we walked across the moors (getting horribly lost in the process), watched the sun set over Whitby Abbey, and walked along the cliff path above Robin Hood’s Bay, and stuffed ourselves with fish and chips. It was marvellous. On our way home, we stopped briefly in Scarborough so I could finally visit Anne Brontë’s grave – it’s beautifully situated in a churchyard overlooking the sea, and touchingly covered with recent flowers – as well as in York, so I could pop to Betty’s for some of my favourite biscuits! – before heading home. I must have driven at least 1000 miles over the course of our two week trip, and after a couple of days’ rest, I was on the road again with a different friend, this time heading south, to Devon.

Devon is my absolute favourite place in the whole world; I love its beaches, its countryside, and its relaxed pace of life. I spent every summer there as a child, and it is filled with happy memories for me. Though the heat wave we had all been enjoying had cooled off considerably by the time we made it to the coast, the damper weather didn’t ruin our trip. We stayed in a tiny, beautiful coastal village called Buck’s Mills, just next to the famous Clovelly, and near the Cornish border. We swam in the sea, we visited our favourite National Trust property, Killerton, and our favourite beach at Sandymouth, we went to Tintagel to see King Arthur, and we found a wonderful new place that we’ll go back to again and again – Hartland Abbey, which was used as the film set for Sense and Sensibility. Still a family home, it’s a wonderful place, with amazing grounds, its own fabulous beach, and a tea room to die for. They also have the friendliest staff I’ve ever met – it’s a must see if you’re in the area. We relaxed, we talked, we drank wine, we ate cake – it was blissful. Just what I needed before going back to school.

For back to school I now am, which partly explains the lack of reading, as my final week in August was spent at work, and switching my brain back on all day has been rather exhausting. But on holiday and in between holidays, I did manage four books; Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Summer by Ali Smith, English Climate: Wartime Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (a re-read for school purposes). I enjoyed them all, in very different ways; Corregidora I found a very visceral exploration of the scars of slavery and the burden carried in its descendants through the story of the protagonist, singer Ursa, whose turbulent and violent sexual relationships echo the abuse meted out on her grandmother and great-grandmother by their owner, Corregidora. I found it a painful, troubling and eye-opening read; not an easy one, but a necessary one. I would definitely be interested in reading more of Jones’ work, and would welcome any recommendations!

I picked up the newly released Summer from an independent bookshop in Ullapool, as I’ve been meaning to try Smith’s now quartet of seasonal novels for quite some time. Deliberately written and published incredibly quickly in order to reflect the current state and mood of society on its release, Summer is so current that it even explores the effect of coronavirus and the lockdown. A story about uncertainty, and change, and the ties that bind people together beyond blood, it’s told through the interconnected stories of various people whose lives randomly intersect over the first few months of 2020. I literally couldn’t put it down, and devoured it in a couple of sittings; I found it so powerful, and refreshing, and moving, and so exactly reflective of the confusion and fury and uncertainty I have been feeling over these last few turbulent months. I felt quite tearful with gratitude by the end, to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, and am absolutely in awe at Smith’s genius at being able to capture the zeitgeist so marvellously. I have since worked out that the previous books in the quartet use some of the same characters, though they can be read as stand alones, and I now can’t wait to read the rest. You mustn’t miss them.

Persephone’s new collection of Townsend Warner stories contains some real gems, that offer a rare glimpse of contemporary experiences of war, while the war was still ongoing. Taken mainly from Warner’s stories published in the New Yorker, the collection is a little uneven, and I have to say that I did find some of them quite dull, especially as I was expecting something a little more whimsical, along the lines of Lolly Willowes. Nonetheless, they were an enjoyable read, and as always from Persephone, a fascinating slice of social history. They’d be perfect to dip in and out of as the evenings lengthen.

What will September’s reading hold, as Autumn begins to descend and I feel inclined to reach for cosy rather than cerebral tomes? I am going to give myself some leeway to reach for old favourites as my mind recovers from its long lethargy, but I need to get back on the wagon of reading my unread books from my shelves. I made it as far as I in the alphabet of author’s surnames, so I have Jack Kerouac up next, before moving on to my apparently many unread Ls…

Reading from my shelves: July

Books started: 12

Books finished: 11

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 8

 

The summer holidays are here and as I write, I’m sitting in a cabin perched above a loch in the far north west of Scotland.  There are more birds here than people (and definitely more midges!) and the world and its troubles seems very distant. Being amidst such a dramatic and timeless landscape helps to keep everything in a healthy perspective, and it is so refreshing to my spirit to at last have a proper change of scene, in a part of the world I’ve not explored before. Whilst I was at home in London throughout July, I struggled in a way I hadn’t really experienced throughout the lockdown period. Without the routine of my daily lessons and with limited opportunities to do much other than mooch around the now far too familiar streets of a miserably empty central London, I started to feel really quite trapped, and a despondency descended as each day dawned with so little to offer in terms of excitement or adventure. Reading helped, but it didn’t lift my mood entirely, and July, which I usually look forward to as the start of a lovely rest from the stress of summer term at school, filled with plenty of travel plans and reunions with far-off friends, became a mire of misery.  I indulged myself in this dark frame of mind by repeatedly thinking back to this time last year, when I was living it up in Washington D.C and New York with my much-loved and much-missed US friends, and kept googling pictures of Malawi, where I should have been right now, had coronavirus not arrived, teaching in a charity school for the summer. Not knowing when I can do anything again, or when things will change – the lack of control or agency I have over anything – has been, I think, the root of my struggles. So, spending some time amidst the still waters and magnificent mountainous horizons of Scotland is providing some much needed balm to my troubled soul, as I look up, around and beyond myself. I am lucky in so many ways, I know, with a secure job, income and home, and family and friends who have all, thankfully, so far remained well. I know I really don’t have anything to complain about. I’m hoping that a week of looking at so much natural beauty will sort me out, and have me back to my usual cheerful self!

In order to distract myself from the world around me, I read absolutely loads in July, and had a very successful run of excellent books that I thoroughly enjoyed, and in some cases, found wonderfully inspiring. I also got to some books I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and knew I probably wouldn’t like, but felt the need to get under my belt anyway. I read Henry James’ The Europeans and Washington Square; I’ve never liked James but wondered if I had just read him when I was too young to appreciate him. Lots of people advised these two shorter novels (or perhaps novellas?) as the best entry point, and I wondered whether I might find brilliance within, but sadly, I did not. I found them both incredibly dull, with very forgettable characters doing largely pointless things. Why is Henry James considered a literary great? I certainly can’t think of even one reason why. Both of those books went out onto my ‘please take: free books!’ box that I keep on my front step  – who doesn’t love free stuff? – and they were promptly picked up by someone who either enjoys James or is in for a disappointment. Let’s hope it’s the former. Another book I thought I probably wouldn’t like was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; I’ve seen the film so I knew the ‘twist’, and wondered whether, without that, I’d still find it a compelling read. I have to say that I didn’t. I enjoyed the writing and I was drawn into the story, but it lacked any real emotional gravitas for me and I finished it thinking that it was really rather forgettable, if well executed. It’s a shame, as The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourite books. This also went into the free box, and is now being enjoyed by someone else!

So what did I enjoy? Well, much to my surprise, I couldn’t put Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other down; I had thought it would be a bit too experimental to be my cup of tea, but I absolutely loved the almost free verse writing style and the lively, vibrant voices of each of the every different characters. Evaristo’s exploration of loosely connected groups of women’s lives over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is so thought provoking, challenging and eye-opening, and gave me a glimpse into experiences and realities of women from different cultural and racial backgrounds to me that has been a real, and much needed, education. I particularly loved how Evaristo pairs characters, so that you can see one characters’ perspective of an event, and then how that event was perceived by the other person in the encounter, and she shows through this how easily we can miscommunicate and misunderstand one another, missing out on so much potential for connection and community as a result. I’m now very keen to read more of Evaristo’s writing; she was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize – more so than the terrible The Testaments – and I’m only sorry I hadn’t heard of her before. If you’ve been on the fence about trying Girl, Woman, Other, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.

Non-fiction wise, I loved Rutger Bregnan’s newly published Humankind: A Hopeful History of Humanity, which debunks the myths about the selfishness of humanity through looking at a range of experiments and real-life scenarios to show how we are inherently good. It is quite broad in scope and Bregnan is certainly more of a philosopher than a historian or social scientist, so there is a fair amount of cherry-picking and generalisation, but I found it a lovely, uplifting and inspiring read nonetheless, with plenty of fascinating and thought-provoking nuggets and a wonderful positivity. If we all spent less time moaning on social media and more time volunteering and getting involved in making our communities better places, then the world would be a much better place, and I can’t agree more with this outlook. Armchair activism is one of my greatest bugbears – ‘liking’ something doesn’t mean you’re actually doing anything about it – and my favourite book of the month evidences this perfectly in the life of the remarkable Gloria Steinem, whose autobiography, My Life on the Road, is just brilliant. Famous for her feminist activism, this book is not a traditional autobiography, but more a collection of thematic thoughts and reflections on her life, what drives her and what experiences have changed her and formed her thinking. She refers to herself as an ‘organiser’, and I loved her humility, her wisdom, and willingness to be challenged and changed by her experiences. She has spent most of her life travelling around America, advocating for equality and human rights causes, and her tales of who she has met on her travels, the friendships she has made, and the things she has learned on the way, are just amazing. I loved reading about her experiences in the 1960s and 70s, in the midst of the fight for the ERA in the US, and when she founded Ms magazine; I’ve just watched the HBO series Mrs America (which Steinem is not happy about for many reasons, though it is a very good series, I thought!) and it was so interesting to actually read about what really happened from Steinem’s perspective, and how she got involved and how the experience changed her. She comes across as such a positive, kind, passionate person, with the true journalistic spirit of being genuinely interested in other people, and a heart full of compassion and openness. I am in absolute awe that in her eighties, she is still on the road, still speaking out against injustice, and still inspiring women all over the world to stand up against discrimination. She is an amazing woman, and her words on life should be required reading. I know I’ll come back to this again and again.