Friday, 18 January 2019

52 weeks 52 books – My Year in Literature

At the start of January 2018, I was in a bit of a funk, feeling that familiar combination of mid-winter-blues-post-holiday-come-down coupled with a slight cold-y under the weather sensation. You know the one. And so I made a beeline for a bookshop. I come from a family of keen readers and books have always been a huge part of my life, and so it is natural for me to turn to them when I am feeling a little low or introspective. 

I had recently read that Mark Zuckerberg had pledged to read a book a week and I thought I would buy a couple of books and see if I could match his reading rate. I duly purchased a couple of comedic tomes – Animal by stand-up comic and actor Sarah Pascoe, and Nomad ‘ghostwritten’ for fictional character Alan Partridge. These, along with The Big Push by feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe, kicked off my literary year.

Some of the books were significant works of literature, ones regarded as classics such as Great Expectations (okay), The Grapes of Wrath (brilliant), and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (misogynistic pro-establishment masquerading as counterculture). Some were light hearted, though probably not enough of them given the challenges of the year. Many of them were consciously or unconsciously feminist, which got my total of female authors up quite significantly, though still not 50% which is something I want to redress in the future. Many of them weighed in at the hundreds of pages long, but the shortest book was a mediocre one called It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden. If I’m honest, I read it in order to boost my numbers at a point when I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the full 52. I also read the Ladybird book of Brexit but at a whopping 200 words or whatever it was, I left it off the list.

I read fantasy, sci-fi, history, comedy, erotica, drama, booker prize winning, classics and mercifully little pap. I read things that made me want to throw the book in question at the wall. Ken Kesey - you have a lot to answer for. One Hundred Years of Solitude should be entitled One Hundred Years to Read This Book. I read things that made me cry and things that made me laugh out loud and things that made me want to stop reading because they were so horrible. Namely the description of Waris Dirie’s genital mutilation in Desert Flower, and the harrowing real events of Operation Lighthouse, the book written by the brothers who survived abuse and the murder of their beloved sister and mother at the hands of their narcissistic father. But I read every single word, no matter how difficult, because these were people’s lived experiences and we, as compassionate human beings, should not turn away from them.
My list of 100 fiction books from the TES

More stats. Quite unwittingly, although I made a conscious effort to read both fiction and non-fiction, I ended up reading them in an exact 1:1 ratio! My total of female authors came to 22.5 out of 52 or 43% of all books (the half is because one book was co-written by a female and male author). However, of those female authors, most were in the non-fiction section. Because I was consciously reading a lot of classics in order to cross them off my dog-eared list of 100 books all teenagers should have read by the time they finish their GCSEs according to the Times Ed, most of my fiction was written by men and about men and boys. In fact, of 26 fiction books, only 10 were written by women even though I was really trying to read books written by women! I am reminded of my own article about women’s writing as an undervalued and underexposed medium even in today’s supposedly ‘enlightened’ times.

Any surprises? I enjoyed Mark Twain more than I thought I would. And I learned about public speaking , the menstrual cycle, and how to cultivate good gut bacteria. I also tried the fast diet but that’s a blog post all of its own, probably titled ‘Hangry’.

Top book of the year was If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie, just because I have never read anything quite like it before, with its inspirational mix of female- centred Celtic myths and personal story of finding one’s place in a world that devalues women and the qualities of nurturance, cooperation and preservation of nature. This is the text that probably had the most profound effect on me as it further helped to raise my consciousness and confidence. And I will never forget The Grapes of Wrath. I really didn’t like Of Mice and Men so I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for this much more sizeable work by Steinbeck, but I was pleasantly surprised at how compelling it was. Shout outs also to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontё and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, though reading Austen’s Emma was a chore.

One of the nicest things about my year in literature was the way in which I acquired books. Many of them were borrowed from friends, even from my students, some from family, some from book swaps at the local community centre, some from the library, though I purchased several myself.  I deliberately tried to get them from other sources as this would keep costs down, but it also had the added bonus of creating discussions around shared books, some where our opinions differed quite sharply, and others where we found something similar to love.

Rather memorably, I finished my 52 book challenge at about 50 minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve having imbibed some substances which somewhat interfered with my focus and understanding of the work. I will fondly cherish the memory of Germaine Greer’s no nonsense prose dancing around the page with only a few minutes to go before entering 2019.

I admit that during the course of the year there were times when I wished I could just read without the deadline of December 31st looming on the horizon. I am a keen reader by any metric but the target of reading a book a week sometimes seemed impossible as life had other ideas. However, the challenge had me reaching for the written word more often than a screen or remote control than otherwise. I firmly believe that this conscious action gave me more of a calm, focused mind than if I’d passively reached for tech to entertain me. And in an otherwise testing year with plenty of painful truths emerging, books gave me solace and support as well as plenty of painful truths of their own.

And as for 2019, I have joined an online book group that only suggests a minimum of 12 books for the year in all sorts of interesting categories. After reading in isolation, and pushing myself in quite the literary marathon, this should be a pleasure and a relative breeze.

There is a 26 book alphabet challenge though. Tempted.

Here's the list in full, women authors in green and men in purple, with fiction first can probably work out the rest.

1.       The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

2.       Kensuke’s Kingdom - Michael Morpurgo

3.       The Hobbit - JRR Tolkein

4.       The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

5.       Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

6.       Siddartha - Herman Hesse

7.       Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

8.       The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain

9.       The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte

10.   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

11.   An Abundance of Katherines - John Green

12.   Refugee Boy - Benjamin Zephaniah

13.   Emma – Jane Austen

14.   The Daughters of Egalia – Gerd Brantenberg

15.   Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

16.   Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

17.   The Girls – Emma Cline

18.   Fanny Hill: A Memoir of a Woman of Pleasure – John Cleland

19.   The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

20.   100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

21.   The Story of Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

22.   I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

23.   My Sister Jodie – Jacqueline Wilson

24.   Wonder – RJ Palacio

25.   The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman

26.   One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

27.       The Big Push - Cynthia Enloe

28.       Animal - Sarah Pascoe

29.       Nomad, Alan Partridge - Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Steve Coogan

30.       No Is Not Enough - Naomi Klein

31.       Healing with Crystals and Chakra Energes - Sue and Simon Lilly

32.       Surviving the Future - David Fleming

33.       Utopia for Realists - Rutger Bregman

34.       Peace of Mind - Thach Nhat Hanh

35.       Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World - Mark Williams and Danny Penman

36.   Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now - Helen Pankhurst

37.   The Fast Diet - Michael Mosley

38.   The Clever Guts Diet - Michael Mosley

39.   Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

40.   Desert Flower – Waris Dirie

41.   Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine

42.   Cavaliers and Roundheads; The English Civil War 1642-49 – Christopher Hibbert

43.   Freedom Fallacy; The Limits of Liberal Feminism – Miranda Kiraly and Megean Tyler

44.   A Book for Her – Bridget Christie

45.   Notes From a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

46.   It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be – Paul Arden

47.   Wild Power – Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer

48.   If Women Rose Rooted – Sharon Blackie

49.   TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking- Chris Anderson

50.   Operation Lighthouse: Reflections on our Family’s Devastating Story of Coercive Control – Luke and Ryan Hart

51.   A History of the World in 21 Women – Jenni Murray

52.   The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Blood, sweat and tears: a perspective on menstruation from one of the 51%

Aunt Flo from popular and bizarre 70s
children's cartoon, Bod. Did they know??

The other day, I shared a post about a woman’s recent thesis about the taboo of menstruation with the following words: ‘Ffs. It happens to half the population of the world. Let's talk about it.’ And quite a few women did want to talk about it. For too long, the stigma of menstruation and having the biological equipment that enables it, has forced the vast majority of the menstruating population into hushed conspiratorial tones and a look of embarrassment whenever the topic rarely rears its head. Until very recently, all adverts regarding sanitary products contained blue liquid and women in very tight white jeans jumping about to upbeat music. Ask anyone who has ever menstruated and they will tell you that this is about the last thing you feel like doing and white anything is a massive, massive risk. And you won’t be accidentally dying your underwear blue either.

Some anecdotal facts about my menstruating experiences:

·         I have messed up two hotel beds in my life. This is crushingly embarrassing.
·         I started my period at school just before a chemistry lesson, and the sanitary towel the school nurse gave me looked and felt like a small mattress in my knickers. When I returned to the lab, I was convinced all the boys could see it poking my skirt out like some kind of compacted cotton wool banana.
·         I was introduced to my new immediate manager at a school (a man) at a Teacher Training Day who put out his hand to shake mine, but I couldn’t shake his because I had a tampon concealed in my right hand and up the sleeve in a ‘manoeuvre of shame’ and was on my way to the toilet at the time. Cue embarrassed shuffling, rustling and sleight of hand repositioning of the offending item worthy of Paul Daniels. Actually it wasn’t smooth. He saw it and got equally flustered.
·         I used to avoid male checkout staff if I was buying sanitary items because of, you know, the shame of it all.
·         I used to go out with a Tunisian man who genuinely believed that when you were on your period, you should not wash or allow any water to come into contact with your lady parts. He had two sisters who apparently observed this rule and goodness knows what kind of hideous discomfort they must have gone through every month.


·         Periods seem to make my body temperature rise and I don’t sleep well during mine. I have heard other women talk about this too, though it doesn’t seem like it’s a widely known phenomenon. However, I used to go out with someone who complained about sharing a bed with a woman on her period because it was like sleeping next to a furnace. Try being the furnace! Obviously his empathy knew no beginnings, unlike his sense of entitlement which knew no bounds. He also refused to ride buses because of their working class associations. I’m not entirely convinced these things are not linked. Funnily enough, the relationship did not last.


·         Sometimes my cramps are so bad that I feel like crying. Once, in an exam, I sat there with silent tears running down my face unable to write more than a page of mediocre scribble, which was unfortunate because this was an English exam. But mostly I am very stoic though I am known to groan a bit.

Not everyone experiences pain and suffering. Maybe a few drops of blood here and there and no cramps like my lucky sister who tells me of her quick wipe and then done monthly event. But some people, like me, have a truly spongy and prodigious womb lining experience on a regular basis. For example, I once tutored a young woman who had periods so bad that she vomited and had diarrhoea every month. I had to leave her house mid-session because she was too ill for the tutoring.  As well as looking ashen and clearly being in a great deal of pain, she was also very embarrassed to tell me why she was so ill.

So what do these experiences tell me? They tell me that in spite of living in a relatively progressive country in such matters, we still have a very long way to go. The amount of ignorance surrounding menstruation is astonishing. Apparently, some men still believe that periods can be held in at will, like urine, and that any accident is a result of slovenly behaviour rather than something entirely involuntary. And the lack of understanding from non-menstruating human beings about the debilitating effects of menstruation, both physical and in terms of stigma and shame, not to mention the financial burden, is widespread and contributes to continuing suffering here and abroad. Period poverty is an issue in the UK whereby girls and women are missing school or work, or having to choose between food and sanitary items because they just can’t afford them. This should not be happening in a civilised society.

Women and girls should not be made to feel ashamed for a biological function that ultimately results in the existence of every single human being who walks the globe and who has ever done so.

On an optimistic note, I have to extol the virtues of the glorious menstrual cup. For someone who struggled with tampons until my late twenties, the idea of shoving something with a rather wider circumference into my vagina did not appeal. And indeed, I did struggle with it when I first bought it over five years ago. However, I decided to give it another go this year after getting some tips on insertion from the wonderful women at No More Taboo, a not-for-profit social enterprise who tackle period poverty and challenge taboos around menstruation. Six months on and I am pleased to say that the combination of the cup and reusable pad means I am no longer shelling out for disposable sanitary products every month (sticking it to The Man), or cluttering up landfill, or subjecting my delicate areas with irritating chemical treated cotton wool. I can honestly say that I get fewer cramps. And you can leave the cup in pretty much all day and sort it out when you get home. That said, I have mastered the wash out in public bathrooms as well so it’s all good. And far from being icky and disgusting, it is actually a more hygienic alternative to more conventional methods.

The fact that menstruation is still considered a taboo topic, a 'dirty shame' the world over, tells us all we need to know about how much the world hates women. This is one part of the struggle for true equity but a fundamental one, as ideas about women's bodies and attempts to control and deny our basic biological functions underpin so many other dysfunctional behaviours towards women and girls. Perhaps when we start educating everyone properly, properly, about menstruation, men and boys as well, and treat the process with the respect it deserves, we will see an end to the segregation of women and girls during menses from communities in developing parts of the world. This has resulted in actual deaths. Perhaps this destigmatisation of the so-called ‘mysteries’ of female biology will result in a greater respect for female bodily autonomy. Perhaps we will see an end to a tax on essential sanitary items which is without question a tax on female biology. Perhaps we will also see an end to other terrible behaviours towards women, like FGM, as women and girls gain a greater understanding of their own bodies and what a healthy one looks and feels like.

The last time I had my period, I took a hot water bottle to work tutoring. My two male students asked me why. I told them. Period pain. I would not have shared that information a few years ago. In fact, I would have left the hot water bottle at home as I would have prioritised their potential discomfort at learning their tutor was an adult woman who menstruates above my own very real physical pain. Did they faint? Nope. They filled it up with hot water for me. Perhaps, finally, the times are changing. I certainly hope so.

Monday, 2 April 2018

If it’s broke, try to fix it!

Question: What’s free, helps the environment, helps you to meet people and make new friends, skills you up, let’s you have interesting philosophical chats (or is that just me?), drink tea and eat biscuits, and saves you money?

Answer: The Repair Café.
I can’t remember when I first heard of the Repair Café phenomenon sweeping the globe, but I do remember the first time I went to one. It was held at the St Paul’s Learning Centre one Saturday morning in November, and I went along clutching a non-functioning blender and low expectations. I remember approaching the group of friendly volunteers, busily unscrewing things with screwdrivers, sewing things up and generally being industrious and convivial. I was encouraged to take my blender apart and given advice on what to look for, and then shown that my blender had worked all along, and it was just an attachment that was at fault. I remember my sense of wonderment. After all, this was happening in my ‘hood, for free, no charge, gratis, and with free tea, and plenty of smiles. Awesome. It seems that there IS such a thing as a free lunch, or at least, a free fix of a household appliance otherwise destined for landfill from a person who is just doing it for the love of it. It’s striking that in our modern society where everything has a price tag, that this is such an alien concept.

So when they told me that there was another one opening up in my local library, about 1 minute’s walk from where I live in Easton, I went along. More fixing successes followed; a vacuum cleaner unblocked and a zip replaced on a favourite dress. And because things happen organically in a totally cooperative organisation with no hierarchy and no constituted structure and absolutely no profit involved, I ended up being a co-host for my local café. Although I have no particular fixing expertise beyond sewing on the odd button, I am good at talking to people and organising and things, so I just let the very capable volunteer fixers do their own thing and hope to absorb some of their skills and knowhow by osmosis. I am woefully underskilled in practical matters, and the repairs café gives me a great opportunity to take things to bits (fun) and put them back together again (satisfying). I also learn about how things are made, what bits can be replaced, what can’t, and what to buy in future so that I don’t end up with an item that’s likely to go wrong, and end up in landfill within a year or two. And like so many others who end up volunteering at the Repair Café, I have a newfound confidence about my ability to solve simple household or gadgetry issues. Confidence – you can’t put a price on that!

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of a successful café, with lots of happy people taking their mended possessions home with them, or with tips and knowledge on how to fix their item, even if it hasn’t been successful on the day. I have really enjoyed being a part of it, not least because I have met lots of pleasant, interesting people who are as keen as I am to end the consumerist cycle of constantly replacing broken items with new. But more importantly, it reminds me that I am part of a wider community. That people, even complete strangers, are approachable and kind. And this is an incredibly valuable and potent thing to know, especially in a fractured society where we are separate and encouraged to remain so.
A society made up of the fearful and the un-trusting is a society that is easy to manipulate, either into spending more money on crap we don’t need, or into supporting suspect political causes that result in the election of governments which operate in the service of big business, banks and corporations rather than ordinary people like us, living in ordinary communities like ours.

The Repair Café phenomenon is just that. Started in Amsterdam in 2007 by Martine Postma and with over 1500 cafes globally, and currently four in Bristol (St Pauls, Fishponds, Bedminster, and Horfield) it is an idea that has captured the public imagination and taken off in ways that no one had imagined. But perhaps we should be less surprised. After all, it is a common sense solution to so many of our collective woes: it helps people save their money, helps to keep the environment clean and safe, helps to promote community and cohesion, and counter loneliness and isolation. It also encourages skill sharing, problem solving, team work and the sense of a good job well done. The importance of the ethos of the Repair Café cannot be overstated AND if everything operated along similar lines, we would have a more equal, happier society. We’d be living in a world where we are truly mindful of the consequences of unimpeded waste and environmental destruction. Essentially, this is one idea where we are sticking it squarely to ‘the man’ and having a jolly good time while we’re going about it.

Conversely, it seems that our institutions and governments are less taken with it. For example, while individual people within local government here in Bristol might see the merit in what we are doing, the machinery of our bureaucratic institutions are creating obstacles, and in some cases, there is suspicion and downright hostility from certain quarters. It seems that there is still some misunderstanding about what the Repair Café does and does not do. For example, we don’t take revenue from charity shops, since charity shops don’t sell broken goods or clothes. And we’re not a charity ourselves, and so we don’t take any money from anyone. We are not professional fixers, and so if you take something to a Repair Café and it subsequently breaks, we are not liable, but since no money has exchanged hands, nobody feels cheated. However, we do have an approximate success rate of 85%, in line with the international average of Repair Cafes, and that’s surely something to be proud of.

I think it’s important for us that we leave money out of the equation, since it turns something that is done out of a genuine desire for good - a purer motive - into something where somebody somewhere has a vested interest. Much has been made of ‘sustainability’ but I would argue that money does not necessarily equate to sustainability. In fact, it often stifles it. There are many among us who want to show that it’s possible to do something differently, without money and price tags muddying the waters. Perhaps this makes the Repair Café unique, but surely that’s the point. I fervently hope that in time it will prove to be a less unique model.

Sadly in Easton, we lost our place at the local library with a casual email sent with less than 24 hours’ notice of the commencement of the café. We only have one a month, so the timing really could have been better, particularly as we had made an effort to promote it locally. Posters up, flyers sent, social media invites out and…sorry, no café. I don’t want to be negative or turn this blog post into a rant about Bristol City Council, except to say that there are better, more courteous, ways to deal with the citizens of this fair city. Instead, I would extend an invitation outwards to any member of any government institution or political party, and ask them to come to a Repair Café themselves. Come along, have a cup of tea, get something fixed, see what we do, and then decide whether or not it’s a good thing for Bristol and what you can do to help us. Be part of the change we so desperately need to see.

In the meantime, after some further discussions with BCC who did offer an apology or two, we are on the lookout for another venue for Easton as it would be a shame not to have one here. We have had some initial offers and will be looking into these, but if anyone has any further suggestions, we would be grateful. Please check out our Facebook page for the Bristol Repair Café network to find out when and where they are happening. I’ll be going to the St Pauls café on 21st April so maybe I’ll see you there?

If you’re reading this from further afield, perhaps there is one happening near you? I’d really like to hear from anyone who has a positive story to share about their local café, so please feel free to comment!

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

All Woman - My experiences as a volunteer with the International Women’s Day event at City Hall on 3rd March 2018

100 years ago this year the first women in the UK achieved the vote. The struggle for women’s suffrage was long and arduous, spanning decades, and with its roots in the campaign to abolish slavery. The fact that only rich white women over 30 were granted the vote in 1918 spoke less to any entrenched bigotry in the movement, but far more to the patriarchal elitism coupled with infantilisation of women of the government of the day. Indeed, so glacial has the pace been on shifting perceptions of women in wider society, we are still battling some of the same deeply, deeply erroneous and ingrained misogynistic views today.

And so this is why, in spite of some murmurs of discomfort, I believe that it is a wonderful thing to be celebrating such a watershed moment in women’s history. And so wonderful to have been part of this truly amazing event put on by Bristol Women’s Voice at City Hall on Saturday 3rd March 2018, 100 years after women began their journey into public life beyond the role of monarch, which only one woman at a time could occupy anyway. This was the start of the recognition of women as human beings in their own right, and paved the way for increasingly diverse women to enter spheres of power and influence, assorted careers, and to gain access to a greater variety of life choices. That there are still barriers, and that we have still not achieved anything like equality is a given, but let’s not underestimate the huge leaps forward that the feminist movement has achieved in the last century. And so, with a gladness in my heart, and surrounded by fabulous people doing all manner of wondrous things, I began my day of volunteering at the event.

Prior to my first shift on the front desk, I had a chance to chat to a few stallholders, including some of the women representing the Feminist Archive, a group responsible for collecting and archiving feminist memorabilia from the women’s movement from 1960 to 2000. We chatted about the work they do, the underground nature of women’s work and activism, the paucity of women’s history represented in the mainstream, and especially the history of ordinary women. With my background as a student and teacher of history, it struck me that I had never reconciled the two conflicting ideas in my head. I knew that there was little women’s history available because of, you know, how sexist everyone was in the old days. But what I was really unable to reconcile was the fact that in a time when all those battles were fought and won, and when equality had supposedly been achieved, there were still very few books or lessons on women’s history. It seems that women’s history, like so much of women’s endeavours in general, are still barely given a thought. This is one of the reasons why the work of the Feminist Archive is so valuable. Little girls need to grow up in a world where women’s achievements, both historically speaking and currently speaking, need to be spoken of and celebrated.
Then, onto my first stint at the front desk, greeting event-goers as they entered City Hall with a smile, a programme, and a Suffrage purple wristband. It was a lot of fun ticking off names and signing people up to Bristol Women’s Voice, and I was struck by the diversity of people keen to attend in spite of the snow. Although the majority of folk at the event were identifying as female, there were plenty of men and boys too, representing Bristol’s ethnic diversity and age range, as well as people with disabilities. I enjoyed a laugh and a joke with the event attendees, and my fumbling attempts to get wristbands on without trapping arm hairs certainly lent some unintentional comedy to proceedings. I also really enjoyed chatting with my fellow front desk volunteers. Some were as young as eleven or twelve, and doing an astonishingly assured job of it! And a kind fellow volunteer who responded to my hunger pangs with a timely yoghurt covered rice cake deserves a mention too!

So, a quick dash off for lunch and then back to the exciting task of being a roving reporter for the day. Thus followed a hectic ten minutes or so where I bumped into lots of familiar faces, and even had some time to interview one or two, including Carly Lightbown, who organised the first Bristol Women’s March in 2017, an event so big that it even got a mention in political scientist Cynthia Enloe’s The Big Push. She has also coordinated the setting up of Bristol’s Female Empowerment Network or FEN, which is an online community of some 6-700 people who are interested in discussing issues that affect women and girls, share stories of inspiration, opportunities for training and jobs, and attending Bristol’s feminist events among a myriad of other things. She explained all the various things she was hoping to do at the event, and said:

‘I love what Bristol Women’s Voice do. They do so much around the city and we’re so lucky to have them.’

Bristol is also lucky to have inspirational women like Carly, whose work within various communities was recognised later that day with a Wonderful Woman award in a touching ceremony where each recipient was given a posy of spring daffodils, in spite of the wintry weather outside, in front of an appreciative audience of supporters.

Next, I took a look around various stalls, particularly attracted to the brightly coloured posters and pins designed by graphic designer Jess Augarde of Augarde Art. I’d already purchased a ‘Well behaved women rarely make history’ postcard for my mum for Christmas a few months before, so it was lovely to take a few moments to chat to her and buy three badges with fun but pithy quotes on them – ‘Nasty Woman’ now takes pride of place on my lapel. Apparently the stall had attracted a lot of interest, and the incidentally the ‘Well behaved women’ badge was sold out. Thanks to Jess and the event, there are now plenty of young girls in particular sporting similar badges around Bristol. I bought one for my niece with ‘Girl Power’ on it. The Spice Girls might have made the quote famous but it still bears repeating in a world where girls’ power is rarely acknowledged and seen as aberrant, and where running or throwing ‘like a girl’ is still an insult.

The range and breadth of workshops and talks on that day was truly breath taking, and it was very hard to decide which ones to go to. In fact, some were so popular, you couldn’t even get in the door – the Women in Media panel discussion was a non-starter for me as I got there way too late and there wasn’t even standing room.

One area of particular interest to me is the way in which education either reinforces or challenges existing stereotypes. As a teacher and as a tutor, I have been on my own voyage of discovery when it comes to how we deal with different genders in the classroom, and how our educational approaches and expected outcomes are influenced by unconscious bias and pre-conceived ideas about how girls and boys learn and behave. I was luckily able to attend the first half of the TIGER (Teaching Individuals Gender Equality and Respect) workshop and watch them introduce the topic and begin a series of activities inviting participants to consider their own experiences in education or as parents.

TIGER are a group working places of education, including schools and universities, who work with educators and students in order to facilitate often difficult conversations around the topic, and to raise awareness of how unconscious bias adversely affects girls in particular. One particularly striking example they gave was that in a blind maths exam, where the teachers had to mark anonymous papers, the girls were marked higher than boys overall, but when the same papers were given with names to teachers who knew the students, the boys were marked up and the girls marked down. Apparently, 71% of 11-21 year old girls have reported gender stereotypes used by teachers, and with this example in mind, it shows just how important it is to have gender stereotyping and sexism being countered in the same way that racist bullying or homophobia has in recent years.

Natalie Bennett who works with TIGER explained how the workshops give young people the opportunity to think critically about their own identity, and the identity of their peers, and how sometimes although it might appear that no difference has been made, the workshops often start the process of awareness in students:

‘We’ve had some students where you feel like you’re not making a difference or that you haven’t done anything. But then they’ve gone away and I’ve found out that a couple of months later they’ve started a feminist society. So even the people you’re not sure you’ve changed…you’re still planting the seeds you’ve had these conversations which is really, really powerful, and they’re going to see stuff around them, about gender and how identities are being represented, and start critically thinking about that because of the conversations that we’ve had.’

Ours was a really insightful conversation as well, and certainly chimed with my own experiences in schools and working with students as a tutor. Institutional sexism and gender stereotyping is rife in education, as in all areas of our lives, because of the pervasive culture that teaches that boys and girls are fundamentally different in ways that create an artificial hierarchy which places boys and men above girls and women. She mentioned the particular challenges the group has faced when offering these workshops, and the resistance and defensiveness, often coming from male members of staff, who feel threatened by the messages they are trying to convey. It is unsurprising, given how much of this culture goes unnoticed by all of us, but just underlined for me how essential this work is and that we need to challenge gender stereotypes from a very young age.

This is an issue very close to my heart as an educator, and I will be exploring this issue in more depth with more details of my conversation with Natalie in a separate article in the near future, so look out for that on my blog!

Determined to pack as much into my day as possible, I decided to attend one of the panel discussions held in the Lord Mayor’s Reception, on Women in Public Life. Chaired by Bristol Women’s Voice, Penny Gane, the panel was made up of women who had achieved a public role and the powers and responsibilities that come with it, including Cleo Lake (Green Cllr), Marg Hickman (Labour Cllr), Eve Szczelkun (Youth Mayor) and Sumita Hutchinson (Race Commission). They were discussing why it is important to have women in public life, and what can be done to encourage more women into roles like these.

I have considered representing my ward as a Councillor myself, so it was very interesting to hear what these inspiring and hardworking Bristolian women had to say. They were clear about the particular challenges women face when trying to push themselves forward (‘cut-throat’ was mentioned along with entrenched resistance to change, particularly from the right of the political spectrum) but equally open about the opportunities to shape change and direction that would otherwise have been closed, such as positions on boards etc. This is why it is so important that we have diversity that reflects the true make-up of our societies, or the decisions made by one type of person only reflect the needs of that particular group. We all know only too well what it feels like to live in a world where only one type of voice is dominant.

One particular message that struck a chord with me came from Marg Hickman, who emphasised a need for a different type of politics – a ‘heart-based approach’ which more room for the feminine, as we currently only value masculine-coded survivalist qualities. In a world dominated by voices of fear and hatred and ruthless competition, we have never needed a different approach, a feminine led approach, more than we do right now.

One more talk. This time a more academic one, given by Silu Pascoe, on intersectional barriers to suffrage. Although I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, I found her account of the lesser-known individuals who fought for the vote, such as women of colour and men of colour who supported the movement fascinating. It certainly filled in one or two blanks in my knowledge of the struggle and reinforced my passion for different stories and for a fully rounded history to be taught as standard, instead of the dusty trawl through the successes of rich white men and military leaders that it is today.

After all the listening and recording and furious scribbling of notes, I decided to spend the last hour of the event browsing stalls and seeing who I might bump into. The No More Taboo stall selling reusable sanitary products and supporting women in period poverty drew my attention, not least because of my own desire to stop using disposable products that harm the environment and my back pocket every month. I didn’t even realise until recently that period poverty was even a thing in this UK, but as 1 in 10 girls aged 14-21 in this country (this country!) haven’t been able to afford sanitary protection, it seems that unless we get this on the table and start talking about it, many more girls will miss out on education because of an unavoidable part of being a woman.

I’d been able to talk to Jenna from No More Taboo earlier that day, and she had been effusive about the success of the event:

‘It’s been a really nice day. We’ve had lots of interest at the stall and made some sales and really raised awareness…lots of people asking lots of questions so it’s been really positive in that respect. We have had a lot of people who are menstrual cup curious who come over and ask us, how does it work, is it comfortable? And lots of people asking about the pads because that for a lot of people is something totally new.’

Indeed, it was new for me, so I purchased a pad, got some advice about how to insert the menstrual cup I’d purchased five years ago and totally failed to use due to, I assumed, my unique anatomy. I also felt genuinely excited about having my next period – a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced since I was thirteen and still hadn’t had one yet!

What then followed was a flurry of chats and interviews with all sorts of folk, including the wonderful women from the Somali Kitchen who were at the event showcasing Somali food and spices. They do essential work in their communities, raising awareness of how proper home cooked food is so much better than the cheap takeaways that proliferate in the parts of Bristol where they live, and to encourage pride in their cultural identity through the medium of food. ‘Food brings people together’, Sahra told me, and I couldn’t agree more.

I chatted to 69 year old Linda who had attended for the day, who proclaimed the event ‘amazing’ and saw ’so many parallels’ with the women’s movement in the 70s, which she had been actively involved in. I had a chinwag with Gus, 35, who was there to support his mum who was received a Wonderful Woman award for her work bringing the diffuse community of Jacob’s Wells together. I also managed to exchange a brief word with another recipient of an award, Hannah Hier, who at 15 is the newly elected Youth Mayor, and had managed to fit in a Charleston or two (jealous). And finally, Rhea Warner, 18, who I’d marched and hollered with on the recent Times Up Women’s March in January, who remarked on the great diversity and the atmosphere of the event:

‘It’s been great..I haven’t been in Bristol for a long time…and it’s so nice to be in this environment. Bristolians are hungry to create change and create spaces like this and when they are created you can tell that everyone who comes into them are so eager to be there, so ready to be in that space and to be creative with whatever that space is going to build.’

Yes. This is the point of events like these. You come away brimming with ideas, enthusiasm and potent energy, ready to take on whatever challenges come your way. You feel empowered in the truest sense of the word. And proud – extremely proud – to have been part of something so much bigger than yourself. As Cleo Lake said earlier in the day, we need new stories. I wonder how many new stories were started in the toasty environment of City Hall that day?

As I stepped out into the rapidly thawing streets of Bristol, I could not help but feel humbled by the incredible things I saw and heard, and heartened by the very many friendships and connections I had reinforced or created in one day. I was a little sad that I didn’t get a chance to make a cyanotype photograph, practise the Charleston or get up and improvise some spoken word poetry, but you can’t have everything. Maybe next time. After all, the centenary for women’s suffrage comes once in a lifetime, but the International Women’s Day even is held every year, and I will most definitely be there.