Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was going to be something different. It will turn up at a later date. It’s been a weird few days. I woke up this morning and the first thing I spotted when I checked the Guardian (I do that everyday before I get out of bed) was that in Afghanistan, a country rated as the worst place in the world to be a woman, some families rebel by raising their daughters as boys to give them some measure of freedom and education during their childhoods. Later today, myself and the rest of my all-female team had a very extensive training session for our new database system. The person providing the instruction was a man. A nice man. But a man who quite clearly did not believe that our feeble female brains would be able to grasp the operating system and continually advised us to ask the IT help-desk (all-male) to do any editing for us. Then I checked the Guardian again on my way home. And I started to feel genuinely angry.
This weekend, I was lucky enough to hear Lord Leslie Griffiths preach a sermon in which he spoke very angrily against class, racial and gender bias, particularly how he hated to hear how churches encouraged women to take on more submissive roles and to be silent. It was really nice to hear this because I’ve heard a fair few rather depressing sermons on similar subjects; a good number of years ago, I watched a friend get married in a church which had reached infamy within my household the previous year for having preached a sermon advising women to be silent if they felt their husbands were able to answer the question. It is the urge to keep women silent – to shut them up – that really troubles me. Yesterday, Emma Watson of Hermione fame gave a speech to the UN which was articulate, informed and considered. She spoke with warmth and feeling about the importance of gender equality. Today, she received a barrage of online abuse and was threatened with having nude photographs leaked over the internet.
Thanks to the internet, the world has become a much smaller place. A photograph can race across the world in moments, reputations can be destroyed within hours. I don’t know if the photos of Ms Watson are genuine. It’s not my business. I don’t care. Even if they are, stealing images from someone’s computer and then posting them on the internet is very low behaviour. A few years ago, our own Kate Middleton was similarly caught, the magazines insisted that she was embarrassed and apologetic – but why should she be? She had been papped by a long-range lens while in the company of Prince William to whom she was legally married. We can be as stuffy as we like but the succession was never going to be secured if the pair of them spent all their time fully clothed. Myself, I grew up Presbyterian – I have a feeling that as a race we have evolved to become prudish as a way of surviving the cold temperatures of the countries in which we tend to congregate (Northern Ireland, Scotland, etc.) Still, I am disgusted at the dirty tactics being resorted to because men don’t like Emma Watson having an opinion.
Yet slut-shaming is not new. As far back as the middle-ages and no doubt before, the quickest way to discredit a woman was to go after her reputation. Margaret of Anjou was accused of getting her son via adultery. Elizabeth Wydville was accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth I was accused of being a man and a whore. The list goes on. It does seem to be the first insult that people reach for – as soon as a woman begins to say things that people do not want to hear, out comes our old friend misogyny. I was startled to realise how unpopular the term feminism was but participating in the Christian Union while at university taught me a lot. A good number of years ago now a long-term friendship broke down as the young man in question informed me that I was ‘immoral’. Looking back, I don’t think he actually meant that – he was embarrassed because he had been caught being rude and threw a temper tantrum to get out of apologising but still, his automatic ‘go-to’ response while arguing with a girl was to impugn her morality. Hello, misogynist! Don’t misunderstand me – I am a very girly girl. I wear dresses and skirts a lot. I got excited yesterday that it was finally cold enough to try out my new coat. Like Emma Watson though, I recognise that feminism is nothing more than the acknowledgement that men and women have equal rights.
We deserve equal pay, equal access to education, equal control over our own bodies. In the words of the wonderful Caitlin Moran there is “a rule of thumb that allows me to judge, when time is pressing and one needs to make a snap judgement, whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot […] and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this as it’s letting the side down? […] If the answer is no, then some sexist bullshit is afoot’. Bluntly – a man can make a speech and not have people trying to publicly humiliate him the next day and in fact there is no equivalent on-line humiliation.
So – I got to thinking. How can we arm the young girls and women of our world to prepare them for a life which will very probably be spent having to deal with all this rubbish? I have no children and I have just stopped being a teacher but I know that reading opened my mind to thinking about what it meant to be a girl and indeed what it means to be a human. I’m not thinking about books with an explicit feminist message although All The Rebel Women, Fifty Shades of Feminism, The Vagenda and How to be a Woman are all worth taking a look at. Instead, I got to thinking on my way home today about what books first got me thinking about what it meant to be a girl – I think that How to be a Heroine may have partially inspired this but the list is my own. Below is that list I came up with on the bus today, a list of books with positive gender messages for girls because you’ve got to start early.
As a small child, I loved Cinderella more than any other Disney movie. Then The Lion King was released and I loved that instead. Not only were the songs catchier, Timon and Pumba were a lot funnier than the mice and also by the age of seven I had really begun to question whether Cinderella was someone I wanted to aspire to be. Surely she could have sorted herself out rather than waiting for a fairy godmother/prince to rescue her? As I grew up, rejected dresses and discovered feminism, the more the idea of the submissive princess heroine bothered me. Why did these personality-free vacuums just do as they were told? Why was their reward for being good just being married off to some equally boring and insipid prince? What was so good about being obedient? Did marriage vows seriously have the word ‘to obey’ in them? (NB – these are all questions that I expressed out loud by the age of ten, usually posed to my mother while we were walking around the supermarket). I did not discover Ella Enchanted until I was about fifteen when I bought it intending it to be a birthday present for my cousin. Then I started reading it and kept it. I think I did end up getting her another copy a few years later. I know there’s a film too but it’s awful – just ignore it and read the book. In this version of the old story, Ella was visited by a fairy godmother at birth who gave her the ‘gift’ of obedience. It has plagued her existence ever since. Ella has no choice but to do as she is told, hence how her new stepmother is able to make her into a drudge. Although Ella loves the prince as he does her, she cannot allow herself to marry him because she knows that her curse would make her a national security risk. She can be ordered to do anything, even if it endangers her own life or that of someone she loves. Levine emphasises the perils of mindless obedience – hers is a story of wit and intelligence set in the land of fairies but in the real world too it does not do to give up one’s own mind and opinions to another. The earlier we learn that, the better.
I often feel like I talk about this series too often. But never mind – I’m going to talk about them again. With their frontier wholesomeness, many people confuse this with the ancient television series which was light on the narrative integrity and heavy on the mealy-mouthed moralising. The two are very different. First of all, I think this series is important because it celebrates the domestic courage of frontier women. We think of the cowboys roughing it on the Wild West but the women just sit quietly on the edges of the drama. Caroline Ingalls is firm in her determination that her girls are going to be educated, tidily dressed no matter where they are (she irons the girls’ dresses while on the wagon trail). Early in the series, Caroline Ingalls has to confront a bear and she does. The whole family works to get the eldest Mary to a college for the blind. Laura does field work with her father to help him since there is no son to share the load. Laura stands up for her sister Carrie in front of the mean teacher (her own future sister-in-law). She also sticks up for herself when she has to act as a teacher to children who are older than her. When Almanzo Wilder tries to put his arm around her when they are out for a drive, Laura startles his horses to make sure that he does not do it again. Most memorably of all for me though, when the two finally decide to get married, Laura asks Almanzo if he wants her to promise to obey. He replies no, that he never knew a woman who would do that nor a decent man who would expect it. The Wilders got married towards the very beginning of the twentieth century. The sense of this reasoning has always had a real resonance for me. I also think that people can get unnecessarily squeamish about certain aspects of Little House on the Prairie (the death of Willie the pig) and it’s good to read it early in life – meat becomes from animals and there’s no good pretending otherwise.
Lyra is another one of my favourite fictional heroines – she is not afraid to speak up. I have always found the central mythology of Pullman’s world to be fascinating; the external construct of the soul is such a beautiful idea. In this imagining, the daemon represents a part of the person’s true nature and is usually of the opposite sex. I loved this notion of an expanded concept of the self. I also just love Lyra – she is a heroine who confident in her own self. Her power is her brain, she seeks the truth, she fights for what she sees as right and it is her quick-wit and silver tongue that gets her out of trouble. There are some very interesting female figures in His Dark Materials and the whole series rests on the idea that self-knowledge, the Dust, is the most powerful and important and beautiful thing in the universe. His Dark Materials rejects the notion that ignorance and innocence are in any way synonymous and reminds us to work constantly towards building a better society. I need to write a full review of this one day.
There are many reasons why I love Catherine but the main one is this; Catherine spends most of this novel trying to be someone else, to please others or even just to please herself. She realises though over the course of events that this is not the right way. Catherine comes to understand that at the time of her judgement, God will not ask her why she was not born a boy or born cleverer or prettier or any other thing but rather why she did not accept her own self. It is not an easy lesson to learn but it is one well worth considering and pondering and returning to.
I only discovered Ruby in later life but I adore her. Ruby’s insights into social leprosy, the behaviour of boys and gradual shift into considering her own behaviour is always a joy to read. Having started to have panic attacks after a horrendous week which saw her lose her boyfriend to her best friend and then alienate all her friends and gain a hideous reputation, Ruby has been sent to a shrink by her parents. Without ever seeming didactic, Doctor Z guides Ruby to moments of epiphany and increasing self-awareness that are very useful for the reader too. Girls are conditioned to be ‘reactive’, to wait for the boy to ask them out, to not make the first move, to make excuses for the boy – to reject control over their own emotions. The Ruby Oliver series is an intelligent and very original take on the teen angst genre.
This is a beautiful book but although we think we know what we can expect from it – a poor family is visited by their rich American landlord – there is far more going on here than a simple marriage plot. Dodie Smith subverts the expectations of the genre and instead delivers this tale of Cassandra, a girl who is still deciding what kind of woman she wants to be. I read it repeatedly as I grew up and re-reading it this year reminded me again about a very warm-hearted story it is. There are no villains, simply people who make understandable mistakes and the ending is surprisingly uplifting as Cassandra chooses herself.
Rose is another rather awkward heroine – she was the first girl I ever read who actually had sex. I never read Judy Blume’s Forever but I think that this one filled that gap instead. Still, although Rose’s discoveries were rather eye-opening for a sheltered eleven year-old such as I was way back when, that is not what I mostly remember her for. I cherish Rose because she was a girl who was successfully emerging from an unpleasant adolescence, something that I was just beginning when I read it. When Rose was finally able to say out loud – to shout even – that she liked being female, I was delighted and hoped that one day I would feel the same. And I do. It took a little while but now I think it’s brilliant. And I would like that message to be shared with as many people as possible.
This book has the distinction within my family of being the only novel which ever led my grandmother to endorse higher education. Set in the 1900s, Mattie Gokey has gotten in to college but a rather good-looking young man has also asked her to marry him. She’s working in a hotel over the summer and finds herself reading the letters of a young woman who recently drowned in the lake. Through the letters, Mattie comes to certain realisations about her future and that of those around her. This is a novel packed with women having to look after themselves, from Mattie’s friend Minnie who married young and is now expecting twins to Mattie’s own family of sisters who embarrass their father with their monthly sufferings. Times are tough for girls and choices between domestic and personal fulfilment are not easy but this novel explores the issues with sensitivity and consideration.