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Thinking about feminism and making a difference

So on Tuesday night I actually went OUT. With a friend. On a school night. SO exciting. And what I went to was even more exciting as it was run by the School of Life as part of their Heroes season and it was Harriet Harman MP interviewing Jo Brand.  There is a video of the Q&A In searching for this, I’ve just found out they have an ace YouTube channel too. 

Anyhow, I digress, the basis of the event was someone interviewing their “hero” about life, love and everything and with the two subjects in this case it was completely fascinating. The insights into the lives of both these hugely successful women were so many and also gave so much food for thought. So much so I have been thinking about it all week and thought I must blog about it.  Given the crazy, somewhat depressing nature of the UK situation at the moment, Tuesday night gave me a bit of hope and a push to do something more empowering. I’m not sure exactly what yet but I will get there. Maybe blogging is a start.

I’m not going to attempt to write the whole talk but just some musings and recollections of things that were important to me. The first thing was the differences and courage that both Harriet and Jo had had to do something different from the paths that their mothers had led. And whilst both women clearly admired and loved their mothers the models they gave them were very traditional ones and they chose very different pathways.  They both felt that their mothers had held themselves back. Jo gave a quotation that was along the lines of “a child is the expression of the unlived life of their mother”. Yikes!! This got me thinking about what model I am for my own children and how they will choose different paths from me and how I will feel about that.  I hope that rather than seeing my own path in a negative light that they will see it as an encouragement that they can do amazing things and not be held back.  During the questions Harriet had a slight rant about why so many women now were being so conventional in relation to marriage (having hen dos, being given away etc) which was quite amusing and struck a chord – I’ve always wondered why so many women take their husband’s name seemingly without question but then not being married this is something I haven’t had to think about.

There was a brief discussion about being a working mother too and suffering from guilt, which Harriet was very open about, Jo less so.  Jo was great but often when subjects got quite close to emotional moments she sidestepped questions in a comedic way, I guess this is the nature of being a comedian! She did add though that being a mother didn’t mean that you had to be there all the time and that instead, if your children knew they were loved and cared for and you were kind to them most of the time that was enough. I liked this as a bit of a contrast to some of the pinterest expectations that we have of motherhood!

One thing that I’ve been musing on ever since was both women saying that they didn’t like the idea of “role models” and they found the notion of role models very limiting.  That women instead should aspire to be themselves, not be like someone else.  This is interesting as I am a designated role model on a women’s leadership programme and I’ve always found it rather uncomfortable but not really known why. I like the idea of casting a shadow and influencing through talking about my journey but I wouldn’t expect others to do the same as me. I think I shall use the idea of “role model” with more caution or not at all in the future.

In the questions the notion of how to support men to be more feminist came up and Harriet was quite adamant that actually men should get on with it themselves that women shouldn’t always be there to fight for men as well as having to fight for equality. I can see her point but I did wonder about working more with men on these issues.

Afterwards I thought of a great (even though I say it myself!) question which was around how can we celebrate and protect quintessentially female traits and activities without them seeming to be lesser? I am thinking particularly about motherhood and birth, breastfeeding and what it is to be a mother.  I would have liked to have heard their views on this as I think sometimes in the drive for equality we belittle or reject some of those amazing things that only women can do.  I’m still trying to articulate precisely what I feel about this.

There was also talk of metaphors and symbols, men occupying space in a different way to women and sometimes taking on the petty issues makes a really important statement. Harriet had some shocking stories about her treatment as Deputy Leader, which also made me feel better strangely about my own imposter syndrome feelings earlier that day in an important meeting at work.

Harriet also discussed the embarrassment that Labour had never had a female leader and talked about how it would be great if men could support women but aspiring themselves to be Deputy. This was such a great concept and one that says so much about gender roles.  The notion of men aspiring to be supporters of women goes back to the earlier point about how we can support men, and how they can support us.

There was a lot of discussion of sisterhood and how we should support each other as women, what kind of coping mechanisms we have and, most importantly, how we should talk about our experiences. The silencing of women was a key area of concern and some shocking examples of bullying and sexism given.  But both Jo and Harriet urged us to call people out on this and speak up.  Harriet said that usually when we are trying to be silenced its at the very point that we have the most to say.

Harriet gave a neat account of the “stages of man” and how whether young, middle aged or old they are always seen at their prime whereas women are either young and not taken seriously, middle aged and scatty or old and ignored. We never get to reach our prime! Urgh!

Naturally, there was a discussion of the media, intrusion of the media and horrific treatment of women on social media, again linking it to speaking out and not being silenced. This also prompted some thoughts on whether the generation of women that Harriet and Jo had belonged to had done “enough”. Harriet, now Mother of the House of Commons as the longest serving female MP, said quite baldly that yes she had and shew as knackered! She felt that it was important for women now to progress and move feminism forward, not take for granted what we had – they both echoed this – but take up new challenges and ideas.  There is still a LONG way to go – don’t we know it.   There was also a discussion in the questions that there was no hierarchy of discrimination and it was important to recognise this. All discrimination is bad and we shouldn’t be favouring addressing one other another.  Certainly that is something that organisations can be guilty of – “oh we’ve done the woman “thing”, lets now do the “race thing”". Urgh.

And there was a lot of laughs amongst the serious business. Especially when Jo Brand recounted how when she’d gone to talk to the reception children at her daughter’s school, one kid had asked her if she changed colour when she went on stage. “Why would you ask that?”, she asked. “Well because you are a stand-up chameleon”, the kid answered.  Ha ha ha.


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