Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Women’s History Month has been celebrated during the month of March in the UK since 2011, Australia since 2000 and since 1987 in the US (kind of ironic given their, you know, general attitude towards women and girls) while Canada reserves October for celebrating history’s fiercest females. It coincides with International Women’s Day on 8th March and because one day is just not enough to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and contemporary times and until the history books are rewritten to include the social, cultural, political and economic contributions of women, we spend the month of March saluting these incredible rebel girls.

While I identified as a feminist from a young age, my love of history has only recently been ignited. I absolutely hated history at school and even though I can reel off trivial facts about the Tudors and Victorians (subjects that I learnt at primary school through art, DT and drama), I cannot remember any history I learnt at secondary school (subjects I learnt about from text books about old, white men). I could not relate or see why it was important for me to know and I dropped it as soon as I could.

As a teacher, I now understand how important it is for children to see themselves and their own history and culture reflected back to them. They see the value in their own potential and the power of their actions. Every year, we celebrate Black History Month for the duration of October in my classroom and last year was the first year we celebrated Women’s History Month. I try to make sure that my book corner is an inspirational, as well as aspirational, place for children to get lost in; a place where they can learn about the achievements of women, people of colour and lgbtq+ people throughout history and current times. People like them. Recently, I have had a young girl tell me she wants to be a wing walker when she grows up after reading about Lillian Boyer in Linda Skeers’ Women Who Dared. Another girl dressed as Michelle Obama for World book day after struggling to find a black character she identified with (her second choice was Ada Twist, Scientist). We’ve had open discussions about transgender people thanks to Coy Mathis’ inclusion in Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. These books matter.

My own love of women’s history has been thanks to my discovery of several podcasts. Late to the party, I only discovered podcasts when we moved to the suburbs and started commuting into London for work but now I can’t live without them! I have learnt about incredible women from ancient history through to contemporary times; women whose full, nuanced stories were either edited for the history books or not included at all. So, during the month of March, I am going to be posting about some of these amazing women from history that have touched and inspired me to do better and be better.

Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt (1507-1458b.c.e)

Hatshepsut

Married to her half-brother, King Thutmose II, she became co-regent when his son Thutmose III, her step son/nephew, became Pharaoh at the age of 2 although it is generally believed that she assumed the role of Pharaoh herself (being only the second woman to do so). Reigning for around 22 years, Hatshepsut is regarded as one of the greatest Pharaohs in Ancient Egyptian history.  Major accomplishments during her reign included establishing important trade networks and the construction of countless ambitious building projects, temples and obelisks. While she was not the first female pharaoh, her reign was long, prosperous and included long periods of peace and she was considered a great ‘king.’ She was portrayed in images as both a male pharaoh (at her own instruction) with a ceremonial beard and in some, more feminine regalia. Dying in middle age, she was buried in the Valley of the Kings and Thutmose III finally ascended the throne. During his reign, he had Hatshepsut’s image all but erased from artefacts, buildings and sculptures in what is believed to be an attempt  to remove a powerful woman’s legacy from history. Because of Thutmose III’s fragile male ego, nothing was known of Hatshepsut until 1822 when hieroglyphics were translated and then in 1903, her empty tomb was discovered. We now know about this incredibly powerful, ambitious woman despite the attempts of the patriarchy to literally erase her existence.

 

Ida B. Wells, journalist, suffragist, civil rights activist (1862-1931)

Ida B Wells

Born in Mississippi months before the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved parents, Ida B Wells grew up in a time of great social and political turbulence. Both parents, who died from yellow fever when Ida was 16, were politically active and she learnt her great sense of justice and fairness from them alongside a love for education. To allow her to keep her siblings together following her parents death, she became a school teacher, which fuelled her interest in civil rights after finding out that white teachers were paid over double a black teacher’s wage.

At the age of 22 in 1884, while riding the train to work, she was ordered by a conductor to give up her seat in the first-class ladies’ car, for which she had a ticket, and move to the smoking car which was already full. She refused to give up her seat and three men forcibly removed her from the car while onlookers applauded. Ida hired a lawyer to sue the railroad company and wrote about her experience in a local newspaper. Despite winning her case, it was later reversed on appeal.

She continued to teach, act and participate in a debate society and at around this time started writing for a black owned newspaper called the Living Way.  At 27, she became the editor of an anti-segregation newspaper which published articles on racial injustice. Following the lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss, Ida urged black people to leave Memphis in her newspaper article which covered the lynching. She began a tireless investigation into lynching in the South which resulted in her fleeing Memphis, fearing for her life. She campaigned to raise awareness of lynching throughout her life, along with campaigning for women’s suffrage and was one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909.

Never afraid to speak her truth and fight until the very end, she remains an important figure in intersectional feminism as a woman who fought against racial injustices and for women’s rights.    

If you’re interested in learning more about these brilliant women and other great women from history, check out:

http://thehistorychicks.com/about/

https://deviantwomenpodcast.com/

http://www.shethepeople.libsyn.com/

https://www.facebook.com/UMPBOH/

Blurred Lines

“I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist.” Roxane Gay, 2015.

My entire adolescence is up for questioning thanks to Netflix.

Despite never really leaving the public’s consciousness due to incessant reruns and its pervasive presence in our vernacular, Friends is apparently ‘back.’ The show that dominated every xennial’s Friday night plans. The show that shaped the way we viewed friendship. The show that launched a million haircuts. The show that gave us unrealistic expectations of what it meant to live in a large city in your mid-twenties. But like all good pop culture that was so of its time, watching it through a 2018 lens can make for some uncomfortable moments (Joey’s treatment of women, jokes about Chandler’s ambiguous sexuality, transphobic jokes about his father and fat-shaming jokes at the expense of Monica who married the man that shamed her into slimming. I could go on…)

So what happens when your favourite pop culture is massively problematic? What happens when you realise that a show which was an intrinsic part of your life during your most formative years (11 to 21) was in fact homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic and lacking in any kind of diversity? What happens when you still love it despite all of these issues?

Friends

I recently started to take a closer look at some of my favourite pop culture after watching Roxane Gay’s incredible ‘Confessions of a Bad Feminist’ Ted Talk in which she discusses her attempts to reconcile her love of “thuggish rap” and her feminism. I am white so I am not in a position to discuss the nuances of a genre of music and poetry that was created by and for black people. I am, however, in a position to look at my own problematic pop cultural preferences.

Music

I have always been quite particular about the music I listen to. TV and films? Not so much.  When I was a teenager, I was mocked mercilessly for my music choices by my more musically discerning friends. Now in my thirties, I am still mocked mercilessly for my taste in music by my partner. I have always prefered my music to be made by women, punk with pop melodies and the lyrics had to tell a story, preferably a political one.

But I also fucking love commercial pop music and the first time I heard Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, I just wanted to dance for hours! Then I listened to the lyrics and I didn’t feel like dancing anymore. That was it. Robin Thicke was cancelled and the song turns my stomach whenever I hear it now. When the children in my class asked me if they could listen to ‘Timber’ by Pitbull during their free time, I told them absolutely not as it was not ‘appropriate’ (teacher code for sweary/sexual language). They argued with me but how do you explain to an 8 year old that the song they want to listen to is essentially about date rape? Pitbull? cancelled. I know that Taylor Swift is being hailed as a feminist icon for the social media generation after her victorious sexual assault court case but her political neutrality to maintain her fanbase and constant score settling with former lovers and friends in her songs just doesn’t sit well with me.  

TV

While I developed unrealistic expectations about what my life would be like in my twenties from Friends (great hair, massive apartment and a LOT of free time to drink coffee), the unrealistic expectations I had for my thirties came from a show that first aired when I was 15: Sex and the City (great hair, smaller, cooler apartment and expensive shoes). Being a grown up was going to be amazing! Because of its far more adult themes, Sex and the City comes off even worse than Friends when I look back on the heavy-handed treatment of anyone or anything that was non-white, cisgendered or heteronormative. Throughout the series, we witness the unrelenting slut-shaming of Samantha Jones and we watch as all four white, middle-class women indulge in biphobia, transphobia and islamophobia. We see the fetishisation of the black male body and the tired ‘angry black woman’ trope wheeled out for some ‘diversity’ when Samantha claims she ‘doesn’t see colour.’ Alcoholism and sex work are also up for ridicule in what was supposed to be a progressive and groundbreaking show which celebrated female friendship and women’s sexuality. But only if you’re cishet.

Sex and the City

I could have been the third Gilmore Girl. I cannot function without black coffee, I talk a mile a minute and I consume unnatural amounts of junk food. I fell in love with Rory and Lorelai the first time I met them in Stars Hollow in my mid-twenties. I was like a kid counting down the days until Christmas when the new Netflix series was announced so I rewatched all seven series in anticipation for the grand event. And there it was, that nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Upon third viewing, I had finally realised what a spoilt, privileged little brat Rory was and there was nothing funny about Emily’s cyclical disposal of ‘the help’ who were rarely able to speak English. While there are people of colour in prominent roles, they conformed to tired old stereotypes: Michel, the closeted Celine Dion fan who adored cotillions and Mrs Kim the Asian ‘tiger mom.’ We are encouraged to celebrate free-spirit Lorelai’s emancipation from her wealthy, uptight parents and the new life she has independently carved out for herself and Rory but the truth is, nothing that bad was ever going to happen to either of them while Emily and Richard were around to foot the very expensive bill for a private education or a new marital home. It’s essentially a show about two very privileged white women progressing nicely along in their lives, doing the things they always wanted to do with various handsome men throwing themselves at their feet and wealthy benefactors bailing them out when things get a little icky.  

Gilmore Girls

Film

Roxane Gay finds it hard to make peace with her feminism while listening to rap music; I find it hard to balance my love of classical era Hollywood films and my feminism. They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh? The casual, or even explicit, racism, the absence of diversity, the normalisation of gender-based violence, the clear objectification of women and the trivialisation of poverty and working class struggle. Doesn’t sound so different to the films that are being made these days, does it? Of course there were films with strong female characters, mostly made in the thirties and forties featuring women like Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunn and Rosalind Russell. But these films are not above reproach and the main goal of our female protagonists was always marriage. Again, it doesn’t sound so different to the films being made these days that continually fail the Bechdel test, does it? I’ve also read enough about the studio system during this time to know what horrific atrocities were afforded to the female stars of the time at the hands of studio heads and directors but this is about problematic art, not problematic artists.

Bringing Up Baby

And there is a difference. I can easily make a conscious decision not to watch a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film. I can easily not listen to Chris Brown or R Kelly. But misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and islamophobia permeates everything from music, movies, tv, advertising, sports to literature. If I was to turn off or away from everything that was problematic, I would be sitting in a room, well, not doing a whole lot. I can see what was wrong with these TV shows and films and that allows me to enjoy them for what they were; I see their flaws but I also see what was right with them too. I cannot change a TV show that was made twenty years ago and I’m not going to give up the happy memories that it gave me growing up but I can, going forward, make better choices with the pop culture I buy into and support. We can all bring about change with the choices we make with our remote controls, radio dials and box office pounds. Instead of just turning off, turn on. Seek out and champion the musicians, filmmakers and artists that are doing incredible things. The rich, white men in charge will soon get the message.

So, I will continue to watch Gilmore Girl reruns and loathe myself for it and if that makes me a bad feminist, to quote Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”    

Roxane Gay

https://www.ted.com/talks/roxane_gay_confessions_of_a_bad_feminist/transcript#t-7727

Mediocrity Rules.

“Do you ever get scared of being mediocre?” a friend asked me as she tried on a pair of ostentatious sunglasses in a shop mirror.

I laughed. “Look at me, I’ve spent my life being terrified of being mediocre!” I thought no more about it for another ten years. 

Recent revelations about myself as a teacher and as a woman, however, have brought the kind of peace of mind that yoga never could but I am battling with myself as it contradicts everything I tell children to believe about themselves every day.

I am not special.

I am mediocre.

Coming to terms with my own mediocrity has liberated me in a personal, professional and creative capacity. Whose standards am I trying to live up to now? My own and I am setting the bar pretty low these days so I am never disappointed!

Being told you’re a genius from the age of 4 does things to an unhappy, grieving child who already feels like they don’t fit in anywhere, especially their own family. Being sent to an academically selective school at the age of 11 with the encouragement, “you’re going to be a doctor” does things to a desperately unhappy child who really doesn’t fit in, especially in a school full of overachieving, ruddy-faced hockey players. As soon as I could write my name, I was told that I was destined for greatness (or, at the very least, I would be the first person in my family to go to university). There was nothing I couldn’t do in the eyes of my family and teachers.

Then I went to secondary school. It has only been since becoming a teacher myself with a focus on Carol Dweck’s teachings on fixed and growth mind-sets that I have realised that my complete and utter rejection of and failure at secondary education was because of an intense fear of failure itself. At least my failures were on my terms and no one else’s.

So, I was no longer special because I was smart. I would never be special for being pretty (I was informed in a very matter of fact way by my mother that I was the ‘witty sister’). I could, however, make myself special with the way I dressed and painted my face. It became a form of control as I got older; a mask I could hide behind. I knew that if people could see me and hear me then I knew I existed

My hair went through every shade of pink, red and purple. It went from platinum to black then back to platinum. Twenty years down the line, I cringe at the cultural appropriation of wearing a bindi and henna and my short-lived fuchsia dreadlocks. I pierced my nose and my lips and I wore makeup that me made me look like a strung out Courtney Love at Mardi Gras. I wore a massive pink fur coat and my behaviour became, at best, attention seeking. This soon morphed into a more polished vintage look in my twenties which was no less mask-like and still a form of control over how people saw me and therefore thought of me. I was visible. 

For around 15 years, the first thing people would comment on was the way I looked. Wasn’t I thin? Wasn’t I glamorous? Wasn’t I quirky? Could they touch my hair? They bet it took me forever to get ready! The truth was, it didn’t. It took the same amount of time to put my rollers in and false eyelashes on as it did to artfully clip Hello Kitty hair clips into my hair and smear Max Factor’s Firebrand lipstick around my mouth.

Becoming a teacher in my thirties changed the way I dressed and presented myself to others pretty much over night. I was working with people who literally couldn’t care less whether I wore the right shade or brand of red lipstick and if my dress was repro or original. Although, I have found that nine year olds get really freaked out if you don’t wear mascara. I still wear red lipstick to work most days but it’s generally worn with my hair scraped up in a bun and an old pair of converse. Old habits die hard.  

I still continued to compare myself to others in various ways. Why were my class misbehaving? Obviously, I wasn’t managing them properly. Why did they get those test scores? Clearly, I wasn’t doing my job properly. Why did I want to run to the toilets and cry in the middle of lessons? I knew deep down that I was not cut out for this job.

Aside from all the magnificent things about being a teacher, the feeling that you could and should be doing better haunts every waking moment. At least, for me it does. The hours are long and emotionally draining and I was finding that not only was I hardly ever seeing my friends, I was not a present partner and I had no time for my own hobbies and interests. I wouldn’t have minded all these sacrifices if I was an amazing teacher; we all secretly go into this job hoping to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society with the patience and wisdom of Atticus Finch.

At Christmas, convinced I was going to quit, I had a thought: What if not being an amazing teacher was not the worst thing that could happen to me? What if just being an OK teacher was, in fact, OK? What if I stopped putting pressure on myself to be ‘special’ at something and accept that not overachieving and standing out is not the same as failing? What if, stay with me, being mediocre was actually the best thing to be?

It’s been hard to undo years of conditioning and I remember someone asking me what happens when I go out without makeup on (because I do all the time, I just fucking love wearing it). ‘I’m invisible,’ was my immediate answer. This was nothing to do with beauty standards for which I have given zero fucks about since childhood, but the way I saw myself and my worth. If I couldn’t be seen, I couldn’t be heard. It has been the same feeling coming to terms with just being OK at being a teacher, being a friend, a partner and a woman. When you are taught to be an overachiever and you can no longer fulfill that role, well, everything else just feels like failure.

We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be outstanding at anything and/or everything. I have always lived by the rule that you shouldn’t be friends with anyone, follow anyone on social media or watch anything that makes you feel bad about yourself. I am more than capable of doing that on my own thank you very much. But I’m doing it less and less these days and I’m starting to slowly listen to friends when they tell me I’m good at something. Not amazing, just good.

Good. OK. Alright. Mediocre. They are no longer scary words.

 

How To Build a Girl.

 

I had my tarot cards read when I was about twelve years old. Maybe I was thirteen. Either way, I was at an age when most adolescent girls have zero self-esteem, crippling anxiety and an awkward shyness that was compounded by a body that I was convinced hated me. The doctors had told my mum that I was in the very top percentile for height and the very bottom percentile for weight for my age throughout my childhood. When the only skirt in the shop that fits you around the waist is age 5 and you’re shopping for a new outfit for the year 8 disco, well, you’re not really listening through the tears when your well-meaning mum tells you that you’ll appreciate it when you’re older. That, however, is another post for another time.

I don’t remember much of what was said during the reading other than a blonde mother figure would play an important role in my life. Now, I did not inherit my fair colouring from my dark-eyed, dark-haired mother, so we looked at each other and shrugged. And that was the end of it.

I muddled through my teenage years in a blur of anger, frustration and a lot of glitter and cheap lipstick. Like so many other teenage girls, I spent years trying to piece together an identity from worn copies of Just Seventeen, Melody Maker, Kerrang and music videos on MTV2. I had no idea who I was but I knew exactly who I wanted to be.

courtney
Courtney Love

Having decided that I was obsessed with Courtney Love before I’d even heard Hole’s music, I spent my time during year 9 IT lessons wisely: frantically typing her name into our school’s intranet which contained archived press clippings dating back years. Printing page after page of anything I could find that featured her name, I hungrily devoured every word. She sounded outrageous, caustic, compelling and smart. Every journalist would comment on the way she dressed, some deriding her as a grown woman who needed to take a shower; others believed that she was cleverly subverting the patriarchy’s sexualisation of young women and girls. And then I read something that changed everything for me and still does. It has been over 20 years so I’m going to paraphrase but what made Courtney Love so fascinating, this particular journalist thought, was that she unapologetically challenged what the world thought how a proper woman should speak, dress and behave. She took the archetypal Hollywood image of the blonde bombshell, the ultimate female beauty ideal, and made her punk. I was in love.

As I progressed through my teens, I would love to say that I soon saw Courtney’s problematic feminism and ill-treatment of other women as an issue and started hero worshiping more worthy figures like Kathleen Hanna but I didn’t. I adored Kathleen Hanna (and still do) but she just seemed too cool; I was never going to be as smart as her and I didn’t read feminist theory (it was mostly Valley of the Dolls and Plath). I so wanted to be a cool riot grrrl, and even said that I was one, but I craved tarnished glamour and tragedy from my sheroes as I dreamed of playing guitar as well as the boys while leaving a trail of broken hearts behind me like a feminist Valentino.

The women who shaped me and pieced me back together were all women who I fiercely believed challenged society’s expectations of traditional female beauty, intelligence and behaviour. They taught me how to build a thin layer of confidence strong enough to bleach my hair, wear red lipstick, wear whatever I felt like and still proudly call myself a feminist because it was my body and my choice. I was allowed to be ultra feminine, something that since childhood has always appealed to me, without having to apologise to my strident feminist side. If I hadn’t had role models such as Courtney Love, Madonna and Gwen Stefani as an impressionable young feminist, I may have ended up wiping off that lipstick and glitter that felt like an extension of myself and hiding behind what I thought I was supposed to be. I started wearing glitter smeared around my eyes, thick layers of red lipstick and I frequently lost my shit in the Hello Kitty section at Claire’s. Old slips found in charity shops were teamed with Dr Martens or Mary Janes and Barbie handbags. My natural blonde hair went through various shades of blonde, ginger, red, purple and pink before finally reaching the perfect platinum blonde shade in my early twenties by which time I’d settled on a more pseudo-vintage look.

It was no coincidence that most of my role models during my teens were blonde. I believed that bleached hair was the ultimate fuck you to traditional beauty standards and the wearing of red lipstick was just as bold. I understood from a young age that these women were not dressing or performing for men but for themselves. I fell in love with Debbie Harry when my mum explained to me that she was a pop star and a punk singer. This incredible creature who looked like she had stepped from the pages of Vogue was sweating and writhing around the stage in a bin bag snarling her perfectly glossed lips? Is this who we were allowed to be?

debbie
Debbie Harry

Beyond everything, the blonde hair, the red lipstick, the clothes and music, I knew that these were incredibly smart women. I adored Courtney Love and Marilyn Monroe for their insatiable appetite to educate and better themselves, to smash not just gender stereotypes but also challenge what it meant to be feminine.

Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe

This is why it is so important for our young girls to have strong role models whether they are pop stars, actresses, politicians, sports women, activists, mothers, teachers, you. Be the role model you needed when you were 13. These women built me, they run through my blood.

I’m no longer a platinum blonde but I still carry with me the lessons that these women taught me:

I will never apologise for being a woman.

I will never apologise for my femininity.

I will never apologise for what I do to my body.

I will never apologise for wearing red lipstick with every outfit.

“I’m not a woman. I’m a force of nature,” Courtney Love.

Me at 24

I’m a Woman. Phenomenally.

“Bossy,” “gobby,” “too much,” “feisty,” “high maintenance,” “opinionated,” “arrogant,” “hard work,” “extra,” “childish,” “forceful,” “haughty,” “irrational,” “demanding.”

What is it about me that you are so afraid of?

I am every woman I have ever met and every woman I have yet to meet. I write this on the one year anniversary of the Women’s March; a global movement that galvanised those seeking to validate their humanity to those fighting to deny it. We have not yet won the war so why is it that I am eternally hopeful and my heart bursts with love for the young girls I see linking arms and forming bonds of sisterhood that are stronger than any man-made wall?

My own feminism has never been complicated- I was never smart enough for it to be- but it has been woven into the fibre of my being from a young age. From demanding the right to wear trousers from my school council representatives (I was told to stop being a troublemaker), stealing Ariel and The Colossus from the school library at 14, writing and publishing a fanzine which quoted Valerie Solanas at 15 to playing in a cacophonous pseudo riot grrrl band at 16. I am now a woman of 34; a white, cisgendered, heterosexual woman living in the UK and working in what has traditionally been considered a middle class profession: teaching. I am privileged. I do not try to speak for other women (mostly, because I don’t think anyone is actually listening most of the time but that doesn’t stop me) but I understand that it is my responsibility to pass the mic and pull a chair up to the table for my sisters.  

I am starting this blog because I am, like many women all over the world, constantly grappling with the rollercoaster of emotions of being a woman in 2018. I can’t decide on most days whether I am seething with a blistering anger at the white supremacist patriarchy and ready to punch the next mouth-breathing, manspreader on the tube in the throat; whether I feel just so heartachingly helpless at the violence and poverty our young girls and women face all over the world and want to nap for ten years or do I feel so fucking exhilarated and empowered when I see young women and girls rising up, holding each other up  and screaming for their voices to be heard and join them? Times are a-changing and so are my emotions every five minutes.

I have not had an outlet for my writing in 17 years since I wrote a fanzine and social media has never really motivated me to do anything more than the odd “opinionated” post and share pictures of my adorable rescue mutt. Funnily enough, the latter are far more popular than the former which seem to have lost me many Facebook friends over the years. Twitter has never really worked for me. I have always been a more than 140 characters girl and I am struck with sheer panic when tweeting as I know the few dozen strangers that follow me literally don’t give a shit about my opinions on the latest series of OITNB. If no one cares what I have to say, why am I writing a blog? Because I care and I feel like I am going to implode if I don’t tell someone soon just how angry and sad and excited and hopeful I am about all of you finding your voices in this world and getting your seat at the table.  

Screenshot 2018-01-21 at 17.20.11
Some of the photos I took at last year’s Women’s March London (Instagram: @laurenxeve)