Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Maya Angelou

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I am SO excited to be writing about this extraordinarily colourful and intensely genuine woman. Most recognisable as the poet of ‘Still I Rise’ (often quoted out of context on hipster and faux-feminist instagram posts), Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an acclaimed performer and writer of many forms, and a social activist with a powerful voice. The more I read her work, the more I love her.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve only just come across her seven autobiographies, and my god, I am obsessed! It isn’t her tragic childhood in southern segregated America that inspired me, nor is it her triumph as an adult making her mark on the world (although it goes without saying that both aspects touched my heart). It is her character that really strikes me – despite her flaws, she’s so contagious, so absorbing a story-teller, someone who is able to capture the best in others, and someone who really demonstrates how perspective and reflection can really change the way our lives fold out.

I am not religious anymore, but I genuinely believe that it’s a massive historical blaspheme that God has been represented as an old white man rather than a black woman. I don’t mean this patronizingly at all, but the women Maya talks about in her story have such soul, such character, such integrity and kindness under the insult of racial bigotry, I believe that is the real image of what God looks like. Oh gosh, I could gush even more, and should probably stop before I offend someone, but seriously, Maya is a supremely unique and incredible woman. It is a special thing when you come across someone who lights a fire in you that cannot be put out. Even better when it’s a person you know personally (and I know a few!).

I first read her final book “Me & Mom & Me“, as an Our Shared Shelf monthly feminist book discussion. I was first intrigued by her ability to remember details and feelings so acutely that they didn’t seem made-up or exaggerated for the sake of filling up a page. Her ability to give and receive love and capture the integrity of the people in her life – no matter how minor a character.

Don’t get me wrong. Maya Angelou wasn’t perfect. She is, unfortunately, painted as such by many people who don’t know her, but to say she is so would dismiss everything she stood for. Having just written about perfection in my last post, I really wonder whether saying this of Emma Watson could be construed the same way. But Watson and Angelou came from vary different backgrounds and circumstances – despite their shared vision and inspirational lives.

I recently finished Angelou’s first autobiography, “I know why the Caged Bird Sings“, which is undoubtedly her most famous, if not her most painful and moving memoir. Her interpretation of segregation in the south isn’t a new concept (although it probably was when it was first published in 1969), but WOW the resilience of her people, and her spirit! I wonder if people like myself with the luxuries and privilege of being white and middle class could ever cope with that sort of mistreatment.

Gushing aside, what makes Maya who she is? What can we feminists learn from her? I think in particular, it’s the power of voice, and the power of forgiveness. As a black woman, her story in particular highlights the importance of remembering the struggle but forgiving those who put you through it.

Throughout her illustrious career in letters, Maya Angelo gifted, healed, and inspired the world with her words. The beauty and spirit of those words live on in this new and complete collection of poetry that reflects and honors the writer’s remarkable life.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

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Let's Talk

A Fresh Perspective and The Battle of the Sexes

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Recently, I’ve been getting into self-help books like a bag of crisps. For someone who used to avoid them (if not laugh at them), you might be wondering what made me change my tune? As I am always very honest and confiding, I will admit that I was at a point (during a predicament) where I needed guidance beyond what my friends, family and own reasoning or instincts could give. Open mindedness and a willingness to try was simply the only option left.

One book I am reading stressed on the importance of “giving up frustration and anger in lieu of a new possibility” – basically making positive any negative situation. It encouraged the mindset of making your own life good, not waiting for an external source to do it for you. It also suggested that you can speak to the universe – that your choices and mindset shape what comes to you. Those who read too literally into this would see this as ridiculous, but those who are willing to understand can really take away a lot from this perspective.

The message of this particular book, although not one on feminism, reminded me of my struggles within the Women’s Rights Movement and gave me an idea on how to overcome this. One issue I really find hard to deal with is how many people see feminists as bitter, or a bunch of complainers. It’s easy to bring out the claws in defense, but what good does it do but confirm the accusations? And even if we are in the right, this is a person’s honest opinion of feminism. Perhaps we have to acknowledge this? So how do we deal with the continuing struggles of gender equality being of non-importance to many, while considering these statements against feminism, and still go forward towards our collective goals? (We give them a Pepsi of course. But if that fails…)

We change tactics, and we challenge our mindsets. We look at negative situations as opportunity to grow. 

Let’s take a look at the Women’s March on Washington for example. The love and community that came from that day inspired more than the reason for the march. Embracing the best from a negative situation inspires. Focusing on the negative – i.e. the reason women were marching to begin with – sucks. We have to think of ways to make positive every situation within the Women’s Rights Movement, even when we feel our anger is justified. And yes, it begins with acknowledging how far we have come and how many people have contributed to this ever-improving situation for global gender equality, even if we haven’t achieved a 50-50 world yet.

If this seems like a slap in the face of all those who sacrificed so much for the cause (or those who already do acknowledge how far we have come), I assure you, I originally thought this too. It took a while to get my head around this, but we have to understand that this doesn’t mean we ignore the wrongs that have happened, but we rather look at things with a NEW perspective. If we want a more positive approach and welcome more people into the fold of feminism – perhaps we have to further understand why exactly people don’t support this cause, digging beyond the surface level of people’s opinions.

After all, I think the root of our problems has little to do with superficial stereotyping of feminists, and more to do with a cultural habit that has existed for centuries, if not millennia. And this is where I get to the real guts of this blog entry.

Our whole culture – not just in the case of feminism – encourages a battle of the sexes. Since it’s birth, feminism has been mislabeled as a cause for man-hating, and every modern feminist feels like a broken record trying to communicate the true definition of the word (if not having it man-splained back at us). But let’s continue to zoom out: most men and women are in a constant power struggle to outdo one another and try to prove their superiority. In work, in education, in sports and reality TV, magazines and casual sexism in conversation, even down to the expectations parents place on their children. It’s hard to find one example where men and women, boys and girls aren’t compared or pitted against one another, or even simply separated based on biological differences. Despite the social and political advances of women in the last century, this war wages on, and I believe this is the fundamental reason for why feminism is seen in a negative light. People only see it as segregation of the sexes. This is why so many people opt to be called humanists or egalitarians, or denounce feminism when the values they speak are, in fact, feminist. This mindset runs rampant in our community, and until we recognize the nuances of it’s existence,  we unwittingly participate in the war. So this message is for feminists, self-proclaimed non-feminists alike:

If we all truly want gender equality in our lifetime, we have to recognise that the battle of the sexes – and how we stereotype men and women – are fundamental in our viewpoint of feminism. We need to redirect our understanding to be based around social justice (the principal of equality in all definitions, for all people), not solely focusing on the semantics of the name.

I became a feminist because I wanted to prove my value as a woman. The more I invested in the movement, the more I realised that this cause was bigger than my own. Our ideas on feminism are palpable and resonate with others. We need to make them positive and inclusive, if we want positivism and inclusiveness to come back to us. It goes back to that idea of putting out to the universe what we want returned. Basically, we have to acknowledge that most people want equality, and feminism is called feminism because it’s a cause directly associated with women, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for women, or beneficial only to women. Changing the name of feminism simply takes away the special significance of women’s suffrage in the movement.

Call me idealistic, but I think if we actually learned to understand the reasons why people see our values differently, and learn to not take it personally when someone disagrees, we may become closer to Planet 50/50 faster than we think.

“Now you know better, so you do better” – Maya Angelou

This entry skipped and hopped around a bit, much like my thoughts tend to do when excited about an idea. But do you agree? Do you disagree? I want to know your thoughts! Share in the comment section below.

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Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Nawal El Saadawi

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I haven’t ever discussed, let alone thought about the practice of female genital mutilation (FMG). Simply because I had never heard of it. We’ve heard of the practice of male circumcision, and the pros and cons of undergoing this for religious or practical reasons. But go figure that we wouldn’t ever hear about female mutilation – especially because it’s most commonly forced upon girls at a prepubescent age, and actually carries more health risks and long-term suffering for the victim.

Which makes sense as to why so many people don’t appreciate the feminism movement. They just don’t hear about what happens to women. They only believe that what they see, or what they experience. For me at least, feminism is not about the equality I can gain, but what can be gained for women who need it the most.

So when I came across this 84-year-old Egyptian feminist and radical activist, whose experience of FGM shaped her values and initiated her story, I was spellbound. As an Islamic girl, she was forced to undergo genital mutilation because of the obsolete beliefs of her religion. It left her with deep physical pain and torment, and a determination to rid the world of this illogical, and cruel practice. Her non-hesitation to criticise religion – where many fear it – is what I really find admirable. Religion may preach peace and love, but man does not. They say that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and this is never a good thing for women. If men aren’t held accountable, which is often the case under religion, that is when practices of cruelty, or bigotry, or messages of hate spiral out of control.

“If the power of religious groups increases, so does the oppression of women. Women are oppressed in all religions”

FGM has existed since 2,000BC, but in the last ten years, FGM has only just been banned in Egypt. In the UK, it now carries a 14 year imprisonment sentence for anyone who practices it on a permanent UK citizen, but it is apparently still widely performed. Dr El Saadawi believes that you can’t eradicate historical and rooted habits by law only. Education is necessary to combat the spread of lies through misinformation.

Nawal El Saadawi has been published over 50 times, and she may have been nominated for Woman of the Year, but she has sacrificed so much in the name of feminism. In one case, it even lost her the prestigious Minister of Health post in her home country. In another, she was jailed for three months for ‘crimes against the state’. What crimes were these, to fight for the human rights of half a country’s population? And protest the brutality of an outdated religious practice? When feminist are compared with Nazis for standing up for what is right – you know that men have successfully oppressed an entire gender, and brainwashed the other half – all of which will take generations to fix.

“I’m fighting against the patriarchal, military, capitalist, racist post-modern slave system. I am going to fight for this for ever.”

***

What we can learn from Nawal El Saadawi’s story is not just the acknowledgement of cruelty in religious practice, but the importance of standing up for others and for what you believe in no matter what. Gender, age, persecution and imprisonment, and most difficulty: religious and governmental restrictions… if El Saadawi can do all this for the advancement of society – surely we in more privileged positions shouldn’t be afraid to do the same?

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” – Jon Stewart

The way people roll their eyes and say “that’s just the way it is,” or “it’s none of my business,” or “perhaps it’s for the best,” when they are dead sure it’s not, makes me so angry. Resignation is not an escape route. My challenge to you for tomorrow, or today, is this: if ever you find yourself in a position where you feel obliged to stay quiet to avoid confrontation, or look the other way to avoid involvement,  I challenge you to do the opposite. Even if it’s calling someone out for everyday sexism. Even if it’s taking a stand against social and racial stereotyping. Even if it’s giving a few coins to a homeless person. We aren’t all called to be revolutionary leaders for change like El Saadawi, but every one of us has a duty to lend a hand when we have two. Small steps can change fixed mindsets.

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Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Ms Pankhurst

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I’m a little late on the posting schedule today, but I really wanted to think this blog post through. I might come across as having an adamantly single view on this topic, but I promise you, I’m open to discussion!

In every wave of feminism over the last 100 years, there is a figure who stands out as the face of the movement at that time. For the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century, that person was Emmeline Pankhurst. A warrior in a corset, Pankhurst was possibly the most critical political and social agitator in the 20th century.

I first became aware of the significance of Emmeline Pankhurst when Meryl Streep portrayed her in the movie Suffragette in 2015. She was in the movie for a whole 5 minutes, so you didn’t really get to know much about her apart from the fact that a) she was the head of the Suffragette movement in Britain, b) she had been arrested quite a bit c) she encouraged the use of force when peaceful protesting wasn’t working and d) for that, she was a controversial protagonist in many ways.

When the movement for Women’s rights wasn’t making progression, Pankhurst encouraged adopting the man’s method in order to make women’s voices heard: Violence.

Deeds not Words

This was a commentary about reform. Fight back. Make the news. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Sounds pretty terrible, but if you think about it, women engaged in peaceful protest were already being arrested, tortured, beaten by the police, and with little success; it would have been madness to continue with the same methods and expect a different result. I have to note that that this message didn’t involve murder. No one died – at least until Emily Davison stepped in front of the King’s Horse at Ascot 1913 and accidentally did. It did mark a turning point in the movement though – her death gained international attention and coverage and forwarded the movement.

As mad as it sounds, while it looked like suicide, Davison was simply trying to attach a Suffragette banner to the moving horse. A risky move, but it’s clear she was prepared to go to considerable lengths to make a statement. And she did so, as part of the struggle against the inequalities of society, in the face of hostility, imprisonment and violence. It raises the question of what we would be prepared to die for.

I have made speeches urging women to adopt methods of rebellion such as have been adopted by men in every revolution. – Emmeline Pankhurst

This resonates with the biblical belief that faith without works is dead, as seen through Jesus’ death for humanity. So can we really blame her?

Violence aside, ‘deeds not words’ teaches us that we need to walk our talk. Make whatever we believe in our lives and passion and commit to it through real action. It may open doors for persecution and hate, but this is all part of the struggle for change. Where in the old days people would stand on a soapbox in the street and yell out revelations, today we have social media in which to vocalise our thoughts, and these messages spread faster and further. A certain responsibility is necessary with this power. If the message isn’t ethical, moral or promoting the advancement or equality of all people, this tool can be more of a curse than a blessing. In the case of taking action, many people are keen to step up and help others out but often for the wrong reasons. For example, there is a problem of ‘voluntourism’ where well-meaning folk sign up to volunteer for people in need – particularly in impoverished and diseased places – but often end up providing superficial service dedicated to the social media experience rather than the goal of making a genuine difference. Now while I certainly don’t want to bag anyone willing to give up time for a good cause, and any sort of charity or volunteering is gratefully required, these people often end up being more of a burden than a help for the organisations they are working for. Similarly, most volunteers travel in summer time, so during winter these people and places can be desperately under-staffed.

Discipline. Sacrifice. Commitment. I know how hard this is! I’ve often flaked or half-heartedly committed to something. I wouldn’t expect everyone to drop their full-time job and travel to Kenya for a full year of intense volunteering in order to convince me they’re committed to the cause. I also wouldn’t expect anyone to die for it. But I have promised myself that whether I end up volunteering for or sponsoring a woman, or a community of women, I will travel during winter, or keep up sponsorship for as long as I agreed to sign up for. Our actions should not be the case of ‘lip service’, or because of ‘duty’, or when one is in the mood. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, it’s simply a matter of following through with a promise. It doesn’t even have to be volunteering! It could be keeping a blog alive. Or donating money, time or skill without complaint. Or standing up for something that matters to you.

But whatever the circumstance, please, please don’t die for any cause!

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Uncategorised

The World needs this as a Regular Chat Show

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I’m a part of Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads. I don’t actively participate, but I got involved when Caitlin Moran’s memoir ‘How to be a Woman‘ was selected for book of the month.

Initially I wasn’t drawn to Moran, I found her a bit too brash. I also didn’t like her views on how women were portrayed in history, which I found surprisingly assumptious for a published writer. She said, and I quote, For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female – citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably, into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Gandhi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen“.

Many people on the OSS forum thought it might have just been her sense of humour, but most of us (quite confused and frustrated) went on to challenge this; making a point that most women weren’t given the opportunity to learn and make a difference, or had male superiors take credit for their work and achievements. But I softened after watching the clip below. This clip comes from an extended interview between Watson and Moran discussing issues raised in her book (these two make good discussion TV). What Moran says does not only support the views I already had, but she also acknowledges that she wasn’t enlightened when she wrote the book five years previously (a feminist who admits faults, how refreshing) and that school had never taught her why women were absent in history. I really encourage you to watch the following clip(s) discussing this.

“You make a point why women didn’t play a role in human history. How did you come to these conclusions, how did they enlighten you?”

(I’m super excited to source The Ascent of Women by Dr Amanda Foreman. I don’t have netflix, but I will no doubt read up about it if I can!)

I also found one aspect they talk about in the video very interesting. Possibly, at some point in history, men and women were equal. And in ancient times when laws were being constructed, men made specific laws that defined women as inferior. This is such an interesting aspect of our history – I agree – why aren’t we taught it specifically in schools?

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Making Herstory

The troubling and toxic phenomenon of anti-feminism.

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You’d think one wouldn’t have to justify a movement that promotes the welfare of 50% of the world’s population. But here I am.

Last week I mentioned that the wave we are currently going through is facing backlash and obstruction in a surprisingly similar fashion to its predecessors. Despite the relevancy of women’s suffrage (and even when you think people today would be enlightened to it), there is still a strong sense of anti-feminism out there. Just the other day I read a revolting article (written by a woman), discussing the dangers of modern feminists/’feminazis’ because they are “tyrannical and cliquey”.

Apparently we’re back in high school. I also didn’t realise that feminists were the cause of the biggest racial genocide in modern history… (bit of an unfair comparison, don’t you think?)

Meryl Streep (whom I ADORE) was brought into the conversation (was it a conversation? I felt it very biased). While promoting her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Streep was asked by an interviewer, “Are you a feminist?”, she replied: “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance”. It’s confusing why she’d avoid using the term feminist, considering her actions are unfailingly feminist. This is a woman who sent letters to Congress demanding they pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and set up a fund for women screenwriters over 40. She also called out Hollywood for being too male-dominated. The writer of the article was affronted by the outrage generated by feminists over Streep’s statement. As a feminist (and I probably speak for many in our circles), I have nothing against a person who calls themselves a humanist – but you have to understand that in this context – by not identifying with the term, she was holding back a movement which is having to spend too much unnecessary time changing the negative context of the word instead of getting on with the things that really matter. As JK Rowling claims:

“Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself”.

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Making Herstory

Tides of Change at the Turning of the Century

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I have a special place in my heart for the Edwardian era. There is something quite endearing about the time, from the absorbing history and elaborate dresses to the sentimental stories in literature and art nouveau architecture (even if one may sniff at the overkill). I’m certainly not impartial to modern adaptions and impressions of Edwardian life and history, such as Downton Abbey, Berkeley Square, Anne of Green Gables, Goodbye Mr Chips, Titanic and Mr Selfridge etc. but one of the issues with the representation of this era is the Pictorialist approach that emphasises beauty of the subject matter and tone, rather than the documentation of reality. There is more focus on aesthetic, and therefore the representation is rather romantic and utopian.

In reality, it wasn’t a utopian society for women at all. Following the end of the Victorian Era in 1900, it was unfeminine for women to have opinions, be political, or to hold ideas or desires of their own. Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything simply because of the social expectations placed on their gender. If I were transported 100 years into the past, I would have been on the bottom most rung of the social ladder as an unmarried woman. I wouldn’t have had much of an education (unless very wealthy), and my brothers and father would have the control over what I could or couldn’t do in terms of my job and lifestyle. As a teacher, I would be unable to marry. What interests me the most about the Edwardian Era is the social changes that were happening. Many people mistake the 20s as the era of rebellion, but it was really the 1900s-1910s where revolutions towards modern society were beginning to take place – their effects finally being recognised ten years later. Wider access to education and economic and social gaps between the rich, poor, men and women were rallying points for socialists and suffragettes. Dresses were baring shoulders and shaved armpits, and Hollywood – the instigator of all things scandalous – was in its heyday. One of my interests is actually the art of the silent film, and the birth of the Hollywood Star. I even started a drawing challenge based around Silent Film actresses. I love Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita Page….Even though it was scandalous to be an actress at that time, I seriously think that their power to influence society was just as powerful as it is today. No doubt the expectations of how women ought to behave in society were softened when these actresses presented diversity and complexity to the female character. Despite the legends of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd et al, I really do think that women dominated the silent screen.

I started collecting candid photos of the Edwardian era around 2014, with the goal of completing a book of anonymous photos. I’d like to think of these photos as ‘reflective nostalgia’; looking at the issues of the era with critically aware eyes. What I do appreciate is the dominance of women in the collected candid photographs – particularly young, middle class women without the ‘gift wrap’ – reflecting women’s emerging voice and freedom. The ‘New Woman’, as they called her, was free-spirited, well-read and worldly. She was no longer the sweet, chaperoned sort, happy to play a background part in history. She was independent and scary: she represented the reform that well-to-do people frowned upon. Despite the layer of nostalgia (I struggled to find anyone who wasn’t white) there is a visual cry of the New Woman taking her rightful place in society.Our freedom of choice today is largely thanks to the suffragettes and New Women of the Edwardian Era for their nerve, courage, and non-conformity.

 

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