Thursday, 29 December 2011

‘How It Feels To Be The Husband of a Suffragette’ – a 1914 guide for men

Imagine the horror. You’re a respectable man with a good job and a nice life and then, blimey, you discover your wife’s one of those ruddy suffragettes.  This 1914 manual for men – anonymously written by ‘Him’ and illustrated by May Wilson Preston (published by George H Doran Co, New York) – attempts to make the suffragette situation a little clearer for the troubled male at the turn of the last century. It's something of an obscure text now, and I can only find reference to it in two other books...
How It Feels To Be The Husband of a Suffragette is not as derisive about suffragettes as you might imagine, and – with the aid of a little out-of-date humour – attempts to portray women’s demands for suffrage in a somewhat sympathetic light.  Although there are still a few areas where the more enlightened reader will flinch. For instance, ‘Him’ refers to his wife as ‘his’ property, and seems somewhat patronising in his condescension that women are not intelligent enough to know how to vote unaided. And, most eye-popping of all is the following excerpt:

You’ll be pleased to know that Him concedes that since women make up about 50% of the population, he supposes they are indeed people. Phew.
Moving on, our author suggests that gun-owning readers have less reason to be afraid of their suffragette wives than their more peaceful brothers, which is strange logic – you’d think the wives would have more to fear from their gun-toting spouses.
Him also asks for some sympathy from both his male readers and his wife and her sisters because he insists a maid washes the daily dishes (rather than his wife), and that he himself takes over the cooking when they are away camping – presumably a barbecuing role that sees him revert to caveman stereotypes.
Mrs Pankhurst is dismissed as “a bit trying at times”, but even so, Him somehow manages – despite all the toss mentioned above – to generate some concealed semblance of sympathy, if not support, for the emancipation of women.
How It Feels To Be The Husband of a Suffragette is mostly interesting only as a historical curiosity. At almost 100 years old, it is a text of its time and mostly of its country – the American campaign having a fair few differences to the British one.  Yet the principles remain the same, and it is interesting to read a man’s view of the fight – especially one written while the demand for votes was still being shouted.  It’s a slim 63-page document of small pages, so don’t expect to learn too much from How It Feels To Be The Husband of a Suffragette, but it’s interesting from a historical and humorous point of view. And lest we forget, the fight for female emancipation was really all about how it affected men!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Jaclyn Friedman – What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety

Why didn’t this book exist when I was younger? But at least it exists now!

Jaclyn Friedman – author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, as well as a regular media commentator on gender issues – has produced a vital and engaging go-to book to help inform young women to make safe sexual choices, and to feel liberated by the choices they make.

Whether Jaclyn’s readers are yet to embark on their sex lives, in a monogamous relationship, or enjoying regular casual flings, What You Really Really Want (Seal Press,November 2011, £11.99) provides them with the tools to separate what they actually want from what society tells them they want, thereby arming them with the skills to define and create their own sexual identity.

What is most satisfying about Jaclyn’s book is that it succeeds in being non-judgemental. The media, schools and even our families often portray sex as a taboo subject that young women must never engage in for fear of becoming infected, tarnished or ousted as a whore. Yet at the same time, young women are told that unless they dress provocatively and are willing to perform virtually any sexual act imaginable, they are frigid prudes. And nobody wants to be seen as a prude. It’s an absolute minefield, and I can’t say I envy today’s teenagers for all the mixed messages and hypocritical views hurled at them by the world.

What You Really Really Want is a welcome text to help young women make informed decisions about what it is they, as individual people, want sexually. Instructive and interactive, the book uses case studies, quizzes, creative exercises and more to help illustrate the points it raises. Jaclyn writes in a friendly, accessible and un-patronising tone, but because the content provides a lot of food for thought, you should set aside a fair whack of time to fully digest the book and work through the exercises she suggests.

Along with MichaelKaufman and Michael Kimmel’s book The Guy’s Guide to Feminism (also published by Seal Press recently, and reviewed by me here), Jaclyn Friedman’s latest book should take pride of place in the library of every school, college and youth club, and ought to be an essential read for all young women as they consider their sexuality. I wish this book had existed when I was in my teens – it would have made those treacherous years just that bit easier to manage. As it is, this book exists now and thank goodness it does!

In my humble view, teachers and parents will be failing in their responsibilities if they don’t give this book to the young women under their care. So, congratulations to Jaclyn for writing this book, and to Seal Press for publishing yet another essential book for women. There is a microsite for What You Really Really Want here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Coram Boy at Colston Hall, Bristol

Because essential building works are continuing at Bristol Old Vic, this year the famous theatre is putting on its Christmas show at another of the city’s iconic venues: Colston Hall.

Hot on the heels of last Christmas’s magical Swallows and Amazons, and the exhilarating outdoor summer production of Treasure Island, there was every expectation that Coram Boy (directed by Melly Still) would be just as breathtaking. And, of course, it didn’t disappoint.

Based on the award winning novel by Jamila Gavin, and adapted here by Helen Edmundson, Coram Boy is billed as “an epic tale of love, loss and reunion”. Set in the South West in the 18th Century, the play follows Alexander (George Clark and Freddie Hutchins) on his dream of becoming a musician – despite his wealthy father insisting that the minute Alexander’s voice broke he must leave the cathedral choir and take on the family estate. But after a passionate night with the beautiful Melissa (Mabel Moll and Emily Head), Alexander flees the family home – unaware that Melissa is now carrying his child.

Alongside all this is a much darker plot circling around child-murdering Otis (played by the mighty Tristan Sturrock – who recently delighted as Long John Silver in Treasure Island), who is known as the ‘Coram Man’. He takes the unwanted babies from poor and vulnerable women, who pay Otis in the belief he will take their children to Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in London, where they will be looked after. In reality, evil Otis kills the babies and – with the help of his traumatised simpleton son Meshak (Fionn Gill) – buries their bodies in the forest, pocketing the money for himself.

Taking in a variety of locations from cathedrals to orphanages, stately homes to slave tunnels, Coram Boy follows Alexander and the child he never knew existed as they embark on a remarkable journey, eventually to find each other.

As with Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island, it is the simplicity of the set design (by Anna Fleischle) that renders it most effective. From some of the young cast being draped over banisters to represent statues of church angels, to the extremely effective interpretation of the sea using just a thin sheet of clear plastic.

The stark messages coming out of Coram Boy – between the beautiful musical interpretations of Handel’s music, and the chilling singing – are the vital developments that have been made in terms of birth control information, abortion advice, and the care of children – both in the family home and by the state. And it is important to remember that while Coram Boy, set in the late 1700s, may depict an era of long, long ago… it was only in the early 1900s that scant information about birth control began to circulate, it was only in 1967 that abortion was legalised in the UK, and the care system still has a great deal of progress to make. Coram Boy is a historical play, but please don’t be mistaken for thinking that the issues it addresses have all been resolved.

Unsurprisingly, Coram Boy comes with a warning that it is unsuitable for those under the age of 12 – and there are some very dark sequences, involving crying babies being murdered, the bedraggled bodies of dead babies being dug up, an agonising and degrading scene where Melissa gives birth, and – most creepy of all – the heads of baby dolls with ghostly bodies appearing from all over the stage.
However, this is an overwhelmingly excellent production, encompassing a cast of 35, and featuring a full chorus, a live orchestra and a host of Bristolian children – who all gather on stage for a spine-tingling performance of Handel’s Hallelujah at the end: I had goose bumps all over my arms. Just wonderful.

I can’t wait to see what Bristol Old Vic will pull out of its talented bag next… And I hope it includes Tristan Sturrock again. The man’s a local legend!

Coram Boy is being performed at Colston Hall until December 30. For full information and to buy tickets, please click here.
To visit the Coram Boy microsite, please click here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"Miss Rivers & Miss Bridges" – by Geraldine Symons

I was tipped off about this 1970s children’s book by someone on Twitter who knew I was working my way through as many suffragette books as possible. And although Miss Rivers & Miss Bridges by Geraldine Symons (Puffin Books) is sadly long out of print, there are a fair few second hand copies available on Amazon Marketplace at very reasonable prices, so I snapped one up.
Miss Rivers & Miss Bridges is aimed at readers of around 11 years old, and follows teen heroines Pansy and Atalanta over a week in the early 1910s, when Pansy has come to stay with her friend and see the big smoke. Free-spirited Atalanta, who is blessed with a bohemian author and actress for parents, is impassioned by the suffrage movement and determined that she and Pansy will make their mark for the cause, and attract the attention of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Their determination sees them hurl a brick through a window at 10 Downing Street, dive into the Thames, cause a scene in front of the Prime Minister at the theatre, and even end up in the police cells… A busy week by anyone’s standards.
While it is, of course, entirely ridiculous that Pansy and Atalanta could get away with all this without serious repercussion, just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow of these passionate and spirited young women as they illustrate the depth of feeling that exists in people of all ages for female emancipation.
The long-running fight of our foremothers for the vote must never be forgotten, and it is important that our children are educated to know about this important part of their history. And Miss Rivers & Miss Bridges is an entirely readable and fun way of doing that.

2011: What was that all about?

Everyone else does an end of year round-up, so here’s my vainglorious stab at the thing.

Maggie O’Farrell – The Hand That First Held Mine

Gary Younge – Who Are We: And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?


GIGS OF 2011:
British Electric Foundation at Camden Roundhouse, London, October
Scritti Politti at the Trinity Centre, Bristol, October

Plus a festive nod to Coram Boy at Colston Hall, which I’ll be seeing tomorrow and reviewing shortly (with, err, Bristol Old Vic again!)

The Glamour of the Gods – at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Sistershow Revisted at Centrespace Gallery, Bristol

MOST POPULAR MJM POSTS OF 2011 (in terms of hits):

Sunday, 11 December 2011

“The Suffragette” by Janet MacLeod Trotter

My ongoing mission to compile an exhaustive directory of novels and non-fiction books about the suffrage movement continues with this review of Janet MacLeod Trotter’s novel The Suffragette (originally published in 1995, but republished in 2011).

Janet has made her career writing novels, mostly historical fiction, which clearly is the category The Suffragette falls into. The novel begins at the turn of the last century, and follows our heroine Maggie Beaton on her fight for female emancipation. What immediately makes The Suffragette different from so many other novels about the movement is that it is not only set in the north of England, but also profiles a working-class protagonist.
The Suffragette is literally illustrated with such detail about the slums of Newcastle, and the degradation and filth that Maggie and her family live and work in, that it is easy to quickly become absorbed in the world Janet recreates here. And the further Maggie becomes involved in the cause for suffrage, the faster you start turning the pages to see where her story goes next. I found that after Maggie was locked up in prison, and after reading the harrowing descriptions of her force feeding, that the story really picked up pace for me and I became completely absorbed in her tale.
Perhaps this is because Janet herself has such a strong link to the suffrage movement. She explained to me in an email: “My interest in the suffragettes was sparked by family stories of my three great aunts in Edinburgh, who were all members of the WSPU, and their mother, my great granny Janet, who accosted Winston Churchill with an umbrella and shouted ‘Votes for Women’ at him! He was then in the Liberal government who were denying women the franchise.  Women got arrested for doing less, but luckily Janet was not.” This family story is paid tribute to in an anecdote near the start of The Suffragette.
Janet continued: “They also took part in the 1911 census revolt and the 1909 mass rally in Edinburgh for the Pankhursts, in which my aunties dressed up as figures from history – Mary Queen of Scots and Agnes Bar-Lass (both Scottish heroines). In the early 1990s, we moved to Morpeth and lived near the grave of Emily Davison, the great suffragette martyr, and it was researching more about her that spurred me on to write the novel.  I wanted to highlight that there had been plenty of women outside London who fought hard to win emancipation.”
There are a lot of twists in the novel and I won’t spoil them, but I’d urge you to read Janet’s book and find out for yourself. There were quite a few areas where I really started racing through the pages to find out what happened as soon as I could, and also quite a few places where I seethed with rage on Maggie’s behalf. The Suffragette is a very convincing and vital novel on this topic.
As well as being for sale via Amazon and Janet’s website, you can also buy an e-book of The Suffragette. Please visit Janet’s website for more information about the author and her other books.

The feminist and the sex shop owner… An interview

How does a self-styled erotic boutique differ from Ann Summers or an old-fashioned Soho sex shop? Despite a few cursory visits to Pomegranate on Bristol’s Park Street, I remained unclear. So I met with owner Amy Whittaker to find out what it is Pomegranate does that is so different or liberating for women. (I should add at this point that while I’m pro-sex, I’m NOT pro the sex industry.)
The shop, with its dusky purple frontage, nestles between bars, clothes shops and cafes on Bristol’s equivalent of London’s Regent Street. It has a window that (at the time of my visit) showed an extremely expensive and anatomically incorrect purple vibrator, among other things. In the past, the window has offered crotchless knickers and peephole bras on a headless mannequin, and a wicker hamper full of honeymoon treats for Wills and Kate. On the opening evening, burlesque dancers performed in the window for the, err, pleasure of those on the street. Classy.
Inside, Pomegranate is trying to create a boutique look. But it feels rather hard and cold, not the soft and sensuous boudoir I’d anticipated. There is lots of black and purple painted wood, and changing cubicles with a peep show-style booth in between. It feels a little grubby… but not in a saucy way.
However, owner Amy is delightful. She’s smiley and friendly, and assures me that after a year or so of being in business pretty much nothing embarrasses her.

My cynical side cocks an eyebrow at the nod to ethical trading with Fairtrade condoms, Soil Association approved lube, and phthalate-free toys. But undeniably, all of these are good things. Apparently, the Fairtrade condoms were stocked after Amy visited Central America and met women’s groups there. She explains: “It was inspiring seeing these women in poor countries setting up small businesses to support their families. So we wanted to bring some inspiration from that into Pomegranate. I wanted to have the same ethics and values. Admittedly, it’s not quite the same here!” Err… no!
And you can’t argue with the phthalate-free toys. Pomegranate’s website boasts: “We are extremely proud that all of our products are phthalate free. … We learnt about phthalates recently, and decided on a personal level to steer clear (words like more research needed, toxic, infertility, cancer etc will do that). We can’t then morally sell toys containing phthalates to our customers, so we don’t.” Good.
However, Pomegranate’s main stock is a wide range of lingerie, toys, books etc, and all at a varied budget – from under £10 to £6,000 for a golden vibrator (although Amy admits she hasn’t sold one yet!).

But I wonder if this type of sex shop (I’m sorry, I just can’t call it an “erotic boutique”) isn’t just another link to the corporate pornification of feminism. We’re a long way from a post-feminist society, and sadly all around us the message is shouted at women that they need to look like a synthesised version of sexy in order to be successful and attractive, and men are bombarded with images of how a synthethically sexy women looks (which of course is nothing like a human woman). It's got so bad that there are even some porn sites for men who have a fetish for "normal" women. Good grief!
And this is part of my problem with sex shops. Call them “erotic boutiques” if you will, but they still exist to sell products to women (and some men) to make themselves look sexy to their partners (who are mostly men). Yes, some of the products are for solo enjoyment, but the majority are to make a woman look more sexy for her partner – presumably because the theory is that on her own she just isn’t very sexy.
We sadly live in a world where women are expected to do anything sexually in order to prove that they’re not frigid – which is largely the fault of the porn industry. And last Saturday’s Muff March in London’s Harley Street cocked a snook to the labioplasty surgeons that designer vaginas (as glorified by the porn industry) are neither healthy nor sexy.
Amy’s response to my inevitable question about whether or not she’s a feminist goes like this: “My understanding of feminism is it’s the cause to advance women’s place in society to an equal place with men. We should do this by helping each other to be the best we can be, individually and collectively.”
She continues: “Women are harsh critics. Mostly of themselves but also of other women. It’s not my place to judge how other women live or the choices they make - or rather, I will judge, I’m human, but I’ll hold that judgement to myself. It’s feminism’s role to ensure that women are in a position where choices are available to them.”
So how does Pomegranate fit with your idea of feminism?
“That depends on the feminist!” says Amy. “If the stereotypical dungaree wearing, man hating, frigid lesbian feminist still exists, then perhaps not very well! In 2011 though, I think Pomegranate’s aim of giving women greater sexual confidence to enjoy greater sexual pleasure is a natural fit with feminism.
“Putting to one side society’s demands that women are either virgins, whores or mothers, I believe that every woman, and man, has the right, in the UK, in 2011, to enjoy a healthy, pleasurable sex life. Whether they want no sex at all, masturbation only, sex with lots of partners, monogamy or polyamory, as long as they’re doing it safely, who are we, as feminists, to judge? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the freedom that women have here to live the sexual life they desire?”

There are no formal conditions when opening a shop like Pomegranate – it is only if a sex shop is licensed (ie, it can sell R18 DVDs etc) that the licencing committee take an interest. But Amy stresses she always gives thought as to what goes in the window: “A big part of what we’re doing is not being shy. But there’s definitely a balance, as kids walk up and down the street and we take that very seriously… but you’ve got to have some fun with it as well.”
That said, Amy adds that only 30% of her stock is supposed to be explicitly for sex. Looking around at the books of sexual positions, the multitude of vibrators, and the variety of handcuffs, I ask what the 70% of not explicitly sexual stock consists of. “Lingerie,” Amy says, but I look unconvinced. She continues: “But that’s my point – what’s sexy, what isn’t?” Pointing to a row of black basques behind her, she says: “I would say those basques are not sex related, it’s just nice clothing.” Hmm.
What else is not explicitly for sex? “The organic lube that we stock – is that for health?” What else would it be used for? “Apparently, it’s good for dry knees.” Realising it’s a thin argument, Amy adds: “Obviously the lube is a fine line as it’s primarily used for sex. But the love eggs, which strengthen the pelvic floor, they’re good for incontinence and pregnancy, because you carry your baby better and heal quicker as the blood flow is stronger. They’re also good for sex, as the blood flow is stronger.”
What about the games and the books that you sell? They’re clearly about and for sex. Amy begins: “If they were in John Lewis…” I interrupt laughing: “But they wouldn’t be stocked in John Lewis!” Amy starts to argue the defence for a game called Nookie, then relents: “I guess I can’t argue that it’s for anything but sex, but the thing is you learn more about your partner… Yeah, it’s about sex!”

The attitude at Pomegranate is that they “don’t judge, but try to give women sexual confidence”. And whether this is through enlisting a woman onto one of the regular evening classes, or selling her a strap-on dildo, Amy says: “We’re trying to say that having sex is OK, whether you’re having it regularly with one partner, or having it with millions of different partners, just do it safely, do it well so you enjoy it, and take responsibility. You’ve got to look after yourself.”
I point out that on Pomegranate’s website, on the vibrators page, it says that the shop doesn’t stock “ugly lifelike monstrosities”, yet the evening classes and the ethos of the shop seems to include promoting a healthy body perception to women. But doesn’t that also apply to men?
“I guess it could be double standards,” Amy says. “When I wrote it, I was thinking of those jelly sex toys, and to me that’s trying to be lifelike. That’s what I was thinking of. The dildos in the realistic colour with the ridges and anatomical detail.”

I was probably never going to be convinced by Pomegranate, and as much as I liked Amy and admired her for running her own business (and in such a harsh economical climate), after our conversation I felt no clearer about what role a sex shop has in promoting realistic attitudes about sex in men and women. The stock is largely aimed at trussing women up to (apparently) look appealing for men.
There are pros and cons, in my mind, about a shop like Pomegranate – toxin-free toys are obviously a great thing, affordable prices are also good, and the evening classes sound like they could be positive experiences. I also like the way Amy teams up with other independent businesses nearby.
But I’m still struggling with the mountain of ideological problems about needing to spend money to be sexy (surely sex is the most basic and natural thing we’ve got?!), and largely marketing these products at women rather than men – as if being sexy and having good sex is yet another responsibility of women. And the further implications that women have “failed” in their “natural duty” unless they cough up for expensive gadgets and strap themselves into uncomfortable-looking gear.
The issue of sex shops is an enormous one, and I can’t do it justice in one post. I’m grateful to Amy for sparing time to talk with me and for making me so welcome in her shop, and I admire her for being an independent businesswoman. But I’m not convinced that a sex shop (whether Pomegranate or any similar business) has any place in the post-patriarchal feminist future.

Pomegranate is hosting a Christmas shopping event on December 15, from 4-8pm. Tickets are free, but click here for more information.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Meet the men who *really* understand feminism...

There’s a book that’s just been published – and while it’s a pity it wasn’t published centuries ago, at least it’s in print now. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism by Dr Michael Kaufman and Dr Michael Kimmel (Seal Publishing) hit the shelves this November, and should surely be an essential present for all the teenagers in your lives this Christmas.

Written in an A-Z format (and using mechanisms from jokes to cartoons to lists and scripts), The Guy’s Guide to Feminism covers more than 100 topics in an accessible, informative and straight-talking way. Of course, the book isn’t always light-hearted – it would be impossible to write about, for instance, FGM or rape in any way other than factual and straight. But the overall tone is friendly, approachable and gently suggests: ‘Maybe this is another way to think about things.’

Quite why such a book has never existed before (to my knowledge) is a pity, but thank goodness it’s here now. And the fact it has been co-authored by two such well-respected feminist men only adds to the authority and weight of the book. Dr Michael Kaufman is not only a co-founder of the global White Ribbon Campaign, but he also works with the United Nations to help end gender-based violence. And Dr Michael Kimmel is one of the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world, and has authored around 20 books on the topic. So you know you’re in safe hands here!

Dr Kaufman (he's on Twitter as @GenderEQ) was recently kind enough to spare me some time to answer a few questions about The Guy’s Guide to Feminism and how the book came to be.


How much demand had there been for you to write this book in the first place? I imagine it was high because I can’t think of a similar book.

“We actually started writing this book 18 years ago! But it’s only in the past few years, with the emergence of a new wave of feminism and with the ever-increasing realisation that we must engage men and boys to achieve gender equality, that we really found the right voice for it… and also found a publisher!”

Had you worked with Dr Kimmel before? How did that collaboration come about?     

“Yes, we’ve been friends and colleagues for 26 years. He’s had articles in some of my books and vice versa.”

Is the launch of the book accompanied by a tour of schools and universities etc?

“Unfortunately, the US/Canadian publisher is a small, feminist publisher [Seal Publishing] without a budget for that type of tour. But both Michael and I speak in a lot of communities and on campuses each year, so we’ll be bringing the book and its message with us.       

“I’m working up a new talk/semi-performance piece based on The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. I’m looking forward to launching it in the new year. It’s working title is: The Guy’s Guide to Feminism: The Talk. The Rant. The Conversation We Really Need To Have.”

What do you think are the best ways for young men to get involved with feminism? Part of the trouble seems to be (and your book is part of the solution to addressing this) that feminism is still often seen as unfashionable and out of date. Many people think women and men are equal (including a lot of women!). What do you think are the best steps a young man can take to become more involved?

“There is no end of things! I encourage men to ask women about their experiences and simply listen and learn. Or start a White Ribbon Campaign in their school, campus or workplace. Figure out how to best challenge sexist and homophobic language and jokes. Get informed: yes, things have improved around gender equality – but that’s because we’ve had 40 years of a vibrant women’s movement, yet we still have a way to go. And don’t fall for the idiotic media stereotypes about feminists and feminism.”

What kind of feedback have you had to the book from the young men who are your target audience? Young men who might not have previously been so sure that feminism was anything to do with them?
“So far we’re getting a great response from young men. They see this book and our use of humour and they realise they can read about gender equality, learn about feminism, and be in support of gender equality without their dicks falling off!”

I think there can be issues sometimes with pro-feminist men who are very well intentioned but sometimes come across as a little patronising, or as if they are telling women what to do – however unintentionally. I hasten to add that your book doesn't do this! But what do you think the solution is? I agree that men are vital on the journey to gender equality, but I definitely think women need to lead the way – otherwise we won't be achieving equality on our own terms. It seems a tricky area...

“Sometimes pro-feminist men feel they need to prove their pro-feminist credentials for women. They end up holding forth, lecturing, to prove themselves. It’s yet another form of men’s performance anxiety! I say: ‘Chill! Struggle to live your life based on equality in relationships and friendships. Keep examining your own behavior and language. Learn to challenge sexism and abuse. But also live your life with delight, humour, and grace!’”

Do you ever get a hostile reaction from other men because you’re a feminist, and because you promote gender equality?
“Of course! There are anti-woman, anti-feminist men’s rights types who spend their time attacking and criticising men like me. I suppose they figure we’re traitors to patriarchy! But far more men support what I do.”

I wish you both would come to England and lead some seminars or workshops at the growing number of national feminist conferences we have. What are the chances?! You'd be very welcome!

“I come to the UK every year. I’m currently trying to pull together a speaking tour in late February. I hope to do some half-day or, better, full-day training on engaging men and boys to promote gender equality and end violence against women. Also, I hope to arrange some talks, including on my new theme: The Guy’s Guide to Feminism: The Talk. The Rant. The Conversation We Really Need To Have.”

The Guy's Guide to Feminism has a dedicated website here

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dorothy Whipple – ‘Greenbanks’

Dorothy Whipple, taken from Persephone's website
If you don’t yet know who Dorothy Whipple is, you’re really missing something special and I suggest you hot click it to the Persephone Books website – as they are steadily republishing this once-forgotten author’s back catalogue.
Greenbanks is the seventh Dorothy Whipple novel to get the Persephone treatment – a process involving the book being bound in the publisher’s recognisable dove grey cover with a carefully considered endpaper, sold with a matching bookmark, topped off with a contemporary foreword, and the novel itself reprinted in a sympathetic font. The whole package is comforting, delightful and such a simple idea that it’s no wonder Persephone books are so popular after 10+ years.
Dorothy Whipple was a favourite writer for many in the 1930s, writing page turning novels about, well, families. But these weren’t forerunners to the so-say Aga sagas – these were timely warnings of morality, or small town thinking, or comments about how hard it is to escape our past.
Like another of Whipple’s novels, The Priory, Greenbanks turns a property into a character, and the Greenbanks of this novel is the site for all of the book’s main twists and developments.
Louisa is a devoted mother and grandmother, who’s stood by and supported her husband and children whether through right or wrong. She shows herself to be a loyal, kind and devoted woman, who repeatedly ends up putting herself out for others, sacrificing her wants, and considering the needs of others. But before you think she’s a nauseating do-gooder, Louisa isn’t at all. Hers is simply a tale of kindness winning out.
With a family tree of philanderers, money grabbers and big heads, Louisa has quietly looked out for the underdog. And we watch as she nurtures former neighbour Kate, who was shunned by the village for having had an illegitimate child as a teenager. And we watch as Louisa provides a home for her free-spirited granddaughter Rachel, one that the girl is denied by her own parents due to her father’s pig-headedness.
These are frequent traits in a Whipple novel – women picking up the pieces after men squander their money, or men bring shame on a family, or find other selfish ways to ruin a good woman. But at the same time, these novels don’t hate men – they are also filled with kind and sensitive men, and there are plenty of loathsome female characters to choose from in a Whipple novel.
Trying to decide just what it is that makes Whipple’s novels so readable, so exciting and so compelling, even 80 years after initial publication, is surprisingly tricky. They clearly bring different things to different people – and different readers find different stories and messages in Whipple’s words. Maybe that’s part of her appeal – that she says so much to so many different people. Whatever it is, her novels are comforting, exhilarating and gripping – I worry Persephone are running out of Whipple’s to republish, and am keeping my fingers crossed that somewhere, someone will discover a chest of her unpublished manuscripts in their loft. And soon.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Gary Speed’s death shows we urgently need to tackle the ignorance surrounding mental illness

When I started reading mysterious tweets on Sunday saying “Gary Speed RIP”, I did not know who they were referring to. But the volume of these tweets made me curious to know who Gary Speed was and why his death had caused such a stir. I discovered he was a 42-year-old husband, father and football manager and that he had committed suicide on Sunday.

That somebody felt so desperate and in such mental pain that they could not bear to live is obviously extremely sad, and I have every sympathy for Gary’s family and friends. I also have every sympathy for Gary – to take your own life is a terrifying thing for an individual to do.

But what struck me even more than the public outpouring of respect for this man, was the joyous tittle-tattle I overheard in my day-to-day life from ignorant people gossiping on buses, in shops, in offices…

On Monday, I overheard different people say – with evident delirious excitement at having something to dissect, despite their own clear ignorance of mental illness – such terrifyingly ignorant statements as:

-       “Ooh, did you hear about Gary Speed? Ooh, what was that all about?” (Said as if they’d just heard that someone famous had been caught having an affair, or something equally salacious.)

-       “How selfish of him. He had kids, and to do that just before Christmas? So selfish.” (Said as if to imply that if only Gary had waited until January 2, it would have been OK.)

-       “But I saw him on TV the other day and he didn’t look depressed.” (Said as if to imply that people with depression and mental illness wear their pyjamas all day, their pants on their heads and shuffle about dribbling.)

In all of these situations, the people these statements were said to agreed with the first person, and joined in the gleeful bashing of Gary Speed for being so ‘mental’, ‘selfish’ or ‘deceptive’.

I’m annoyed with myself for not butting in and calmly explaining to these people how frightening their ignorance was, and suggesting that perhaps it would be a good idea for them to find out a little bit more about the many types of depression and mental illness, so that they could have more empathy next time something like this happens. Because there will, unfortunately, be a next time. And next time, it may not be a public figure: it may be their partner, their friend or even themselves. Regardless of being a public figure, Gary Speed was also someone’s partner, father and friend.

But I didn’t say anything because I felt too angry and too upset with them, and I knew I would not be able to talk calmly – in all likelihood I would have fumed, ranted and maybe even cried. And these are not actions that would have effectively put my point across – more than likely I would have merely reinforced their view that people with mental health problems are ‘deranged’.

Because I do have mental health problems – I was diagnosed with depression four-and-a-half years ago, and was too ill to work for almost two years. While most of the time I am now much, much better than I was, like everyone with mental illness, I still have times when I struggle. And sometimes I don’t feel brave enough, or well enough, to talk to people about it – especially when I realise how ignorant they are about mental illness, or how amused they are by the topic.

Mental illness can affect anyone. It is not a joke. It is not a subject to be laughed about over the water cooler in the office. Someone feeling so desperate that they take their own life is not a topic for gossiping about like an excited fishwife.
Gary Speed’s suicide has brought several issues into the open air, but the one that is most apparent to me is the glaring and desperate need for us to keep talking about mental illness, to fight to remove the unfortunate stigma attached to mental illness, and to work to educate those who don’t understand mental illness.
Figures from the Mental Health Foundation suggest that one in four people in the UK will be affected by some kind of mental health problem. So it is imperative that the gross ignorance surrounding mental illness is addressed.
There are already some good campaigns being run that are trying to do this. Time to Change has a lot of information on their website about ways to talk about mental illness openly, and offers advice for people wanting to find out more. Put simply, talking tackles discrimination. It really is that simple. It can take courage to talk about mental health (and I know I’ve failed at times to speak up when I hear ignorance about mental illness), but it’s the only way.
Mind is another excellent organisation fighting to help people with mental illness and to raise awareness, and it was only on November 28 that they published an article showing that recent Mind research proved mental health was still a taboo topic in the media. It’s frightening.
We must take something from Gary Speed’s death, and if that something is the ability to talk about mental illness, suicide and depression, then so be it. The ignorance surrounding these topics needs to be addressed, and now is as good a time as any to start.
And let’s start by stopping decrying something as ‘mental’ if we find it unusual. Let’s start by stopping calling something ‘mad’ if it is silly. Let’s start by stopping using all those terms as ‘nutty’, ‘manic’, ‘crazy’, 'batty', 'loopy' etc in derogative, light-hearted or dismissive ways. Even if you don’t feel able to start talking about mental health, you CAN stop using those terms in the wrong way.