“There is an argument to be made that a woman expressing herself is the most incendiary thing she can do.”
As a feminist when I was bringing up my daughter, Molly, I was keen to encourage her to voice her views. I remember saying, ‘your ideas are important – tell us what you think,’ and then regretting it when the teenage years hit. I was brought up in a family with two brothers in the 1970s and there is no question that my views were dismissed as less valid than those of the boys. This wasn’t unusual at the time any more than it is unusual today, with several studies in the last few years turning in results that show women speak less when there are men in a group, that men overestimate how long women speak and also consider that women dominate discussion even when women speak for less than 50% of the time. There is an argument to be made that a woman expressing herself is the most incendiary thing she can do. Recent online hate campaigns against the work of classics scholar, Professor Mary Beard and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez both focused on their voices – how dare these women speak up and worse, expect to be listened to? In response to abuse, in her book Women and Power, Mary Beard wrote ‘When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.’
This is true but we are also living in times when it is entirely possible for this to change. Digital media amplifies women’s voices in a way that has never happened before. As a result, awareness has been heightened about a spectrum of equality issues, including the voices of women. It seems to me that culturally we focus on the importance of speaking much more than the importance of listening. As a historical novelist I spend a lot of time listening to voices from the past (sometimes in the form of the written word.) It is the only way to understand where we come from. Novelists are almost always good at listening, so it came naturally to me as a mother, and listening to Molly when she was growing up fostered a sense in her that she had a right to be heard. This is a gift she gave me too – me listening to her meant that she understood conversation and also listened back. These days, me in my early 50s and Molly in her late 20s, we have long, involved conversations, often over the phone at long distance.
Good conversation, however interesting, does not end when the phone is put down. It stimulates ideas and provokes actions. My conversations with Molly over time have done just that, giving rise to two joint mother/daughter projects. Over the course of the first we set up (and still run) a perfume company that is born of our, quite different, feminist passions. I want to tell stories from the past to highlight and commemorate our amazing foremothers and Molly passionately objects to the way traditional media objectifies women’s bodies. Together we have so far created two perfumes that do both these things – DAMN REBEL BITCHES commemorates the formidable Jacobite women and WITCHES commemorates the women vilified for their differences during the terror of the witch trials and beyond. As an art director and make up artist, Molly created unretouched visual campaigns for these scents, which use a wide range of models – young, old, larger, smaller, BAME and white. We underestimated the shocking nature of what she was doing when, on launch, the REEK office (AKA my kitchen table) was besieged by a digital storm of objection. ‘This looks like a pig,’ one woman said of a 20-something size 8 model who had been shot with a fold in her skin as she moved. I was shocked that the images were as provocative as they were, but they opened a wider dialogue, beyond my relationship with my daughter, that still continues. Within a few weeks we had started a pan-feminist blog on the REEK site because we wanted to platform different voices as well as different kinds of beauty. It was particularly important to us to give voices to models who, throughout the beauty industry, are given very little agency – and thereby challenge the industry norm.
Our second project was more traditional. A children’s book based on a story that I used to tell Molly when she was wee. It started when we visited friends at Loch Ness and I made up a tale of Nessie finding a secret network of tunnels underneath the water, which allowed her to team up with other monsters, in other places. Like so many children’s stories, it was a way of opening up conversations with my daughter, in this case ones about friendship, travel and responsibility (in the original, Nessie and her friends cleaned up the loch because humans had left behind rubbish – in the book, the same ramshackle group of international monster misfits tackle plastic pollution. Times change.) As we were writing the text we realized that today, this story was more political than it had been. Essentially, Nessie and her friends formed a pan-European alliance, which in the wake of Brexit gave rise to probably the most talked about issue in the country. The publisher, bravely, brought the book out on 29th March, the day the UK was set to leave the EU, but didn’t. Politics is far more polarized today than it was when Molly was a kid and as a result, parents have some difficult conversations to start with their kids – and initial feedback is that the book has helped.
It turns out both our projects, in different ways, deal with the issue of difference - difference of place and of physical appearance as well as different cultures and what they can bring. We live in times when difference is often represented as ‘divisive’. When the arts of debate, conversation and listening are increasingly rare. Where tolerance is sometimes equated with weakness and de-platforming people we disagree with is seen as an empowering act. But maintaining and engaging in conversation is so important – as long as we can keep the standard of that conversation high.
People often look back on history and think, with hindsight, that positive change happened without great division but the truth is that some of our greatest achievements were born from divisive conversation. The Enlightenment is a prime example of a movement that could not have thrived without polarized debate. We forget how radical the idea of the female suffrage was or for that matter, universal male suffrage. That public opinion changed slowly, through argument, to make slavery illegal but that for decades, activists making that argument were thought of as crazy radicals. Today, more than ever, it’s important to look at our history honestly and remember that conversations can and should sometimes cause riots! That good conversation prompts curiosity, experimentation and exploration. Conversely, civilizations that don’t have difficult conversations and conduct them well, find positive change almost impossible. The radical rallying cry needs to be: start a difficult conversation today – preferably with somebody with whom you disagree.
Novelist, activist and parfumier, Sara Sheridan is best known for two series of historical novels: the Mirabelle Bevan novels, noir mysteries set in 1950s Brighton, and a series which explores the real lives of late Victorian adventurers. She has also written for young adults and for children. A trenchant journalist and blogger, Sara has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and blogged for the Guardian and the London Review of Books.