On Solidarity

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I’ve just got back from the Women’s March in Amsterdam and my hands are so cold that it has taken me five minutes to type this sentence. The march was the perfect antidote to what had a been a bleak Friday evening. Nothing will lift the spirits more than seeing over three thousand men, women and children braving the cold in defense of human rights. I met people from London, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, America and France. People from all around the world had come to protest. Despite the cold everyone seemed to be in suitably high spirits, they chanted and sang with enthusiasm as we marched through the Museumplein – the atmosphere was electrifying.

I’ve been on a dozens of rallies and protest marches over the last few years so to me it feels like a very normal, positive and proactive way of expressing your views. All the protests I’ve been on have been very family friendly and completely peaceful (apart from the teacher’s rallies which are noisy affairs because they all have their own whistles.) But there were a few scathing opinions about the women’s marches on social media this morning. There were some people saying the marches were too much/not enough about women’s rights and others/Piers Morgan accused the march of being sexist. Why weren’t we marching for men’s rights? It’s important to remember that Piers Morgan was Editor of the Mirror when they were hacking Nigel Havers’ phone whilst he cared for his terminally ill wife so we mustn’t worry too much about what he thinks of our peaceful protest this is the perfect response:

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These marches weren’t sexist or anti-men – a huge number of men turned up in support. These protests are a response to a President who has no regard or respect for women. The man who boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy” is now the leader of free world – or, if you prefer, Eve Ensler’s title: the predator-in-chief. He leads with Mike Pence,  his Vice President, who plans to “gut” Planned Parenthood services and who said that same-sex relationships were a sign of “societal collapse.” Both men have said they believe there should be a punishment for abortion and already a bill has been passed in Ohio to ban abortions from the time a heartbeat can be detected (which is usually about six weeks.) Yes hundreds of women turned up to vote for Trump but this doesn’t mean other women can’t or shouldn’t protest. The message today was loud and clear: women’s rights and women’s bodies are not up for grabs.

For some people today was an opportunity to have a good old rant about the fact of Trump (my personal highlight was an 8-year-old boy running around shouting, “DONALD TRUMP IS AN IDIOT” at the top of his lungs.) I know how an election can break your heart. I know the anger and pain that follows and how cathartic it is to walk among thousands of like-minded people to stand up for what you believe in. It is not anti-democratic to protest against Trump. By voting him in the victors do not have the right to silence the opposition. People still have the right to a peaceful protest – for now at least.

And ultimately it’s not just women’s rights that are threatened by the rise of the far-right. Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric carried him to the White House. During his campaign he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” promised to deport 3 million immigrants in his first year and let’s not forget that wall he wants to build around the southern border. His inauguration speech made it abundantly clear that it’s “America First.” (Incidentally  “America First” was also the name of the isolationist, anti-Semitic organisation that urged the United States to appease Hitler and stay out of WWII.) Over the next four years we are going to have to fight to defend internationalism and the rights of immigrants. We’ll protest against walls being put up and bridges being burnt in both America and Europe.

For me the march today was about hope. Last night was bleak –  it felt like we were turning the clock back on years of progress. I couldn’t shift this unsettling feeling that one day I’d be seeing Trump’s inauguration speech on a documentary about the causes of WW3. I went to bed with a heavy heart and trying to work through some dark thoughts. Walking in the sunshine this afternoon with thousands of positive, tolerant and passionate women, men and children reminded me that there are still people who, when threats are made to our rights will step up and defend them. Who won’t allow young girls to grow up accepting that wealthy and powerful men can touch their genitals without consent. Who believe that the only person who should make decisions about a woman’s uterus is the woman herself  – radical I know. I returned home tired and happy and so cold that I couldn’t feel my face. My social media feed was littered with pictures with friends on marches around the world: Washington, Budapest, London, Bangkok and Paris. The marches served as a global display of solidarity and one I am proud to have been part of.

 

Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now

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One of the most difficult things about saying goodbye to Year 6 at the end of the year is the knowledge that, regardless of which school they are off to next, they are about to enter a really difficult few years. Being a teenager is bloody horrible. You can be the most well-adjusted child, from the most stable and loving home and still have days, weeks, months where you hate yourself. Not just hate your arms, your nose or your thighs but genuinely hate yourself.

So it was depressing, but not surprising, to read that young girls in Britain are increasingly unhappy.  Research carried out by the Children’s Society found that 14% of 10 to 15-year-old girls are unhappy with their life as a whole and a third of them are unhappy with their appearance. Apparently the researchers who interviewed the girls heard them describe themselves as “ugly” and “worthless.” If I’m really honest, I was surprised that it wasn’t a higher percentage. To me the fact that 66% of the young people interviewed DIDN’T feel unhappy about their appearance is very encouraging. The worry is that the number of young girls who are unhappy has risen by 10% in the last 5 years (interestingly boys percentages haven’t budged.) Are teenage girls getting more unhappy? Isn’t being unhappy and hating your body almost par for the course in your teenage years? Isn’t teenage melancholy the reason entire genres of music were created and why people listened to the Smiths. Or is that just one of those horribly insensitive “didn’t worry about that in my day” comments? In a letter to his 16 year-old self Stephen Fry wrote:

“I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel.”

I am not trying to dismiss mental health issues or play them down in any way I just don’t know anyone that at some point in their teenage years wasn’t filled with insecurities about their appearance. Obviously just because “that’s how it’s always been” is no reason to allow anything to continue and our hope is that quality of life would improve with each generation. I’ve only read two short articles on this piece of research. I’m currently on a train trundling through the Gobi desert and downloading articles on my phone is a bit like like trying to download music with dial-up internet. I’ve only managed to find articles sharing the percentages and suggesting we increase support for teen mental health – so far so good. What I haven’t found is any analysis as to WHY these girls are unhappier, particularly with their appearance, compared to girls in previous years. So I thought I’d do my own.

I think every generation believes that when they were younger “kids were allowed to be kids” for a lot longer – I’m not sure this is true. A 10-year-old living on London in the 1940s for example would have faced traumas that are incomprehensible to a 10 -year-old growing up in London today. Still each generation sees the world their children are growing up in as more cynical than their own childhoods. When my parents were 10 they could play out in the street until it was dark, front doors could be kept unlocked and everybody knew their name. Similarly, when I was 10 if I wanted to phone a friend I used the phone in the lounge, after 6 o’clock (and for no longer than 10 minutes because we’re not made of money.) I didn’t have my own mobile until I was 14 (Nokia 3210 – obvs) and there was no internet access at home until I 15. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook even MySpace was still an idea waiting to be developed

It was the 90s and the height of Britpop, arguably a time that was less image obsessed than the X-Factor world young people grow up in today. The women I saw on TV and in the newspapers were Denise Van Outen, Zoe Ball and Sarah Cox – smart, confident and funny women who were as comfortable at Glastonbury as they were on the sofa of the children’s programmes I loved. They wore baggy clothes, hung out with Oasis and drank lager; I thought they were cool as anything. Like most young girls in 1997 my idols were the Spice Girls. Say what you want about them but they were five normal looking girls without a fake tan or a size 0 between them (at least in the early days.) They had frizzy hair, mad clothes and were all proud to be different. When I compare them to the role models the current generation of children have from Cheryl Cole to any one of the Kardashians, perfectly groomed within an inch of their lives, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that these women are more damaging role models for young girls than the women I admired 20 years ago… right? Not quite.

In 1996 a magazine published a photograph of Emma Bunton and her mum walking along a beach in their swimming costumes. The headline read, “Which One Is The Spice Girl?” The implication being that Emma Bunton’s figure was indistinguishable from that of woman over double her age. I remember looking at the picture and admiring Emma’s lovely figure (thankfully I was completely unaware of the magazines attempt to body shame a 21-year-old) I thought to myself, “My legs look a bit like Emma Bunton’s” At 10 years-old I was proud – I looked like a Spice Girl! For the next couple of years I would look at photos of Emma and try and judge if I was still as thin as her. I’d replicate her poses and judge whether my thighs spread out more than hers when I crossed my legs or if I had more rolls of fat on my stomach when I sat down. I didn’t ever tell anyone about my Bunton Body Barometer and by the time I was 14 my obsession with the Spice Girls had been replaced by an obsession with Robbie Williams – and my thighs were definitely much narrower than his so that was fine.

The photographs I have from my early teenage years are generally awful. There were no GHDs so if you were blessed with unruly, frizzy hair then that is what you had. Limited income and a lack of affordable brands meant most of my make-up came from the bargain bin in Superdrug: orange eye shadow and foundation two shades too dark. It didn’t matter that we had shit hair, hand me down clothes or crap make up – it was what we didn’t have that made a difference. There was no, what my husband refers to as, “Personal PR” social media accounts to present our lives as glossier, happier and sexier than they really are. I read in an article that teenagers are guilty of “checking in” on Facebook to places they haven’t actually been in an attempt to make their lives seem more interesting. The 90s equivalent was just bullshitting about what you did at the weekend and, more often than not, you got called out on it.

We couldn’t edit photos to make them more attractive and we knew nothing about the hand on the hip/leg forward pose I now rely on to hide all manner of sins in photographs. We didn’t have to deal with Instagram: hundreds of thousands of images, carefully prepped and posed for, cropped and filtered to make everyone look thin, beautiful and blemish free. We didn’t have social media promoting “The A4 Waist Challenge” or “The Thigh Gap Challenge” – in fact the phrase “thigh gap” wasn’t in the shared lexicon of the time.

Adam Edwards in Year 9 may have fantasised about seeing pictures of us in our underwear (because that’s what teenage boys do) but he would have never have had the nerve to have the conversation to ask for one. Even if he had we would never have agreed mainly because it would have meant buying a disposable camera, waiting for our parents to be out, getting the bus to Boots, hoping the person that developed the film didn’t know our parents. Then finally, upon receiving the photos, we’d have had to have prayed there was at least one that was taken without our finger over the lens. Today all Adam Edwards has to do is send a text, Snapchat or WhatsApp to the phone that also has the camera on. He may even be chivalrous enough to send a picture of his genitals to get us in the mood. The pressure is huge.

I am not for a second suggesting that the current generation of teenagers are in anyway more naïve or foolish – in fact the opposite is probably the case. Teenagers have enough on their plates without women in their late twenties sticking the knife in from behind the the safety of a computer screen. There are plenty of teenagers who have a perfectly healthy relationship with social media. Those that are struggling need nothing other than our support and reassurance. After all, they are dealing with pressures and challenges that those before them never had to. Worse than that – a lot of those challenges are ones we did not know we had to prepare them for.

So what do we do? Social media continues to grow at an exponential rate; we can’t hold it back. Some might suggest that young people should spend less time on their phones but it would be astonishingly hypocritical for me to argue for that. We need to accept that social media and the challenges that come with it are here to stay and we need to educate. We need to teach that who they are is more important than how they look. That being smart, loyal and kind is as important as looking good in skinny jeans. It’s taken me 29 years to learn this lesson and I still have days where I fail completely, where I delete photographs taken from an angle that doesn’t flatter my thighs.

More than anything we need to be loud. The positive messages that these young people hear from us have to be so loud that we drown out the doubts put in their mind every time they log on.

 

2015 – Who Runs The World? (Girls)

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Despite not being Liz Kendall’s biggest fan, I practically whooped with joy when I read that she’d told a Daily Mail journalist to fuck off for asking about her weight. 2015 was a big year in politics and particularly for women. 2015 was the year that saw Turkey and Saudi Arabia elect record number of female politicians, Hilary Clinton have resounding success in the Presidential debates and The Sun finally succumb to the “No More Page 3” campaign. We’ll quietly ignore the pink bus; it turns out that a vehicle reminiscent to something Barbie might drive is not the way to turn women onto politics.

Now, I understand it’s Boxing Day so in between eating leftovers and watching “Space Jam” no one’s up for reading anything too heavy. For that reason I’ll stick to the much loved list format for this one. So – happy Boxing Day: 9 times women won politics.

1. Corbyn’s Cabinet

Yes, he should have appointed Angela Eagle as his chancellor, but that aside, with the final headcount standing at 16 women and 15 men this is still the first women heavy Shadow cabinet we’ve seen. Although I still think the press missed a trick by not referring to it as The Corbynet…

2. Stella Creasy and the Tampon Tax

There are a number of reasons to love Stella Creasy her but her best moment of the year for me was her argument against the Tampon Tax (and forcing MP Bill Cash to say the word “tampon”)

3. Abby Tomlinson

I make no secret of my admiration of Abby. This year she shot to fame after creating #milifandom to try and counteract the unfair media portrayal of Ed Miliband. Since then Abby’s shown she is a force to be reckoned – she took on the Murdoch press for hounding her extended family and (my favourite ever moment) she stood up to bullying from the ever delightful Louise Mensch.  This is just the start of things to come for Miss Tomlinson; I’m certain we’ll be hearing about her for years to come. Is it too soon to start #Abbyfandom?

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This girl bloody rocks.

4. Kezia Dugdale

Although the rest of the UK may have voted for a sausage fest of a Labour party Scotland elected Kezia Dudale as the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Well done Scotland.

5. Nicola Sturgeon

Whilst we’re on the subject of Scotland, you can’t review the year in politics without mentioning “The Most Dangerous Women In Britain.” Whatever you think of her politics there is no denying that Nicola Sturgeon lead an impressive campaign in the run up to the Election. Straight talking, quick witted and feisty as hell Sturgeon made herself the selfie Queen of Scotland, lead her party to a stonking victory winning 56 out of a possible 59 seats and topped the Women’s Hour 2015 Power List.

6. Jess Phillips

Jess Phillips MP hit the headlines a number of times this year. The most controversial incident was when she responded to the suggestion men’s issues should be debated in parliament on International Men’s Day (as there are few opportunities to discuss issues important to men) with:

When I’ve got parity, when women in these buildings have parity, you can have your debate. And that will take an awfully long time”
Whether or not you agree with her, Phillips was unfairly trolled with threats of violence and rape after this incident. Initially she reacted the same way most human beings would: by avoiding the internet but then came back fighting and showed women around the world how to deal with trolls: by promptly reporting and shaming their disgusting behaviour. Excellent work.

7. Mhaira Black

Mhaira Black, the youngest MP elected to the House of Commons, gave a killer maiden speech attacking the Conservative’s austerity programme, “I am the only 20 year  old in the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.”

8. Saudi Arabia

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Not famed for their equality agenda, Saudia Arabia took a big leap forward this year by allowing women to vote for the first time ever. 130,000 women registered to vote which falls massively short of the 1.35m men that registered but in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, this is progress.

 

9. Angela Merkel

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In the face of harsh criticism, Merkel stood firm on her policy to not limit the number of refugees that could enter Germany even though it meant standing alone. This year Germany have welcomed over 250,000 refugees which is over 12 times the number Britain has pledged to take in the next 5 years. Her response to critics that say she is compromising the security of Germany and stretching their resources too thinly? ” Wir schaffen das.”  We will cope.

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone.

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Vivienne Durham hit the headlines this week for arguing that school girls should be warned that they “can’t have it all” and will need to choose between a family or a career. As you can imagine I have a few issues with this. Before I go into this it is probably worth noting that Vivienne Durham won the Tatler Award for “Best Head of A Public School” last year so she clearly knows her stuff (in the eyes of a fashion and lifestyle magazine.) Anyway, here’s what the award-winning Head Teacher had to say:

“I’m sorry, I’m not a feminist. I believe there is a glass ceiling – if we tell them there isn’t one, we are telling them a lie.”

I’m going to put aside the fact that Durham expects women to have to choose between childcare or a career, and not men, as there are a plethora of posts and articles about this and I think you can unpack that argument for yourselves. If you are really struggling – Google it.

My concern is Durham’s claim that she is: “not a feminist.” Not. A. Feminist. So I assume she went for the job of Head Teacher of a girls’ school to make sure those girls were taught to “know their place” in society? Or maybe Durham just doesn’t think it’s important that women can own things, or choose who they have sex with. When you break down what being a feminist means into its simplest terms, is Durham honestly saying she does not believe in equality between men and women? Even if that is her view, what on earth makes her think that’s an appropriate message to pass on to impressionable teenage girls?

Sadly, regarding the choices women have to make, a lot of what Durham said is actually true for many women. A recent Gender Equality report by Mervyn Davies has set a new target for FTSE 100 firms to have 33% female board members by 2020. Just 1/3 of the board has to be women. Not half, not a majority (heaven forbid) just a measly 33%.  The report found that, at present, there are more women on FTSE 100 boards than ever before but that still only makes up 26%.

Only 190 of our 650 MPs are female and women are still more likely to earn less than their male counterparts. We are also more likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence – and we’re a country in which the women’s movement has been relatively successful especially when you compare us to somewhere like Afghanistan, which was recently named the most dangerous country for women to live in.

So Durham has a point and she was right to raise her pupils’ awareness of the issues they will have to confront as adults. However, she IS a teacher and the golden rule of inspiring future generations is – you’re equipping them with the skills to go and create a better, more equal society. So yes, tell the girls you teach about the glass ceiling but only whilst at the same time helping them create the sharpest, heaviest tool to smash through it. Durham’s message seems to be: “this is the status quo girls, accept it” – which is fucking shameful.

I often tell the children I teach that I don’t want them to follow in my generation’s footsteps I want them to be even better. I hope the pupils I teach will grow up smarter, wiser and with critical faculties far superior to my own and I hope the society they create will be fairer. If I did not want these things for my pupils or I did not believe them to be possible, I could not, and would not, be a teacher.