Right in time for Christmas shopping, this month sees the publication of She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices by Yvette Cooper. A collection of humdinger speeches by women who have changed the course of history – from Boudica to Benazir Bhutto – it’s a wonderful book that I would happily unwrap and spend half of Christmas avoiding the family with. It’s also part of a slow-burning trend for anthologies that champion women’s long marginalised stories, including Wonder Women, A History of Britain in 21 Women and a whole slew of jauntily feminist children’s titles aimed at raising girls who will put down the Play-Doh and lean in.
As a phenomenon, it gives me mixed feelings. To start with the obvious: these books are a much-needed rebuttal to a culture that gives off the ineffable impression that the only woman who did anything of note in the past two millennia was Marie Curie. Leaders included in She Speaks like Sojourner Truth, a former slave turned powerful activist, should be part of the collective consciousness, but they’re not. As recently as the mid Nineties, as Cooper points out, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches blithely noted that “women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough.”
Today, of course, that would prompt a Twitter storm to make a raging tornado sound like my Dyson when it’s clogged up with cat hair. When Emma Watson delivered her resonant “He For She” speech to the entire UN general assembly or when Angela Merkel told US graduates to “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”, nobody needed an ear trumpet to hear them.
We have moved a long way in the right direction, and yet there’s something about the female-only focus that I find just faintly dispiriting. Why, after all, should Queen Elizabeth I brush shoulders with Greta Thunberg, or Margaret Thatcher with Maya Angelou? That’s not a book; that’s a Machiavellian seating plan for a dinner party.
Personally, I’m happiest when women are celebrated for their achievements as human beings, not de facto representatives of their gender, sodden with symbolic responsibility. My heart lifts when I hear pioneers who don’t want to be pigeon-holed by their sex: when Drew Faust says, “I’m not the female president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard,” or when the rock climber Lynn Hill, who scaled a 880m-high Yosemite precipice, says, “I was the first person to free climb the Nose. Not the first female, the first person.”
I’ve got a copy of the book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, with its cutesy tales of inspiring historical women, but it’s currently gathering dust on my four-year-old daughter’s bookshelf. I keep hesitating. At what point do I want to induct her into a world where men are the default and women need their own special book? It’s going to happen, but I want to put it off a little longer. When she was at nursery, before social awareness generally kicks in at around three, her group seemed oblivious to gender: boys grabbed shiny beads from the dressing-up box, girls played with fire engines, toys were toys, friends were friends. Already I can see that changing as she skips off to school with her Frozen rucksack.
But as much as I’d like my daughter to grow up in a world where gender isn’t your defining characteristic and everyone is free to be themselves, the reality is much darker – and it’s impossible to ignore.
Cooper’s book is more than a woke stocking-filler; it’s an urgent reminder of the current chilling climate of political violence that is aimed disproportionately at women. Leaders profiled in She Speaks include the murdered British MP Jo Cox; Lilit Martirosyan, the Armenian transgender activist whom a parliamentarian called on to be burnt alive; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising star of the US Democrats who regularly receives death threats.
Cooper, who herself shows extraordinary bravery simply in continuing to do her job, writes of Cox’s death and the recent sickening lurch towards extremism: “Every five years, I could not have imagined any of this happening. I could never have imagined losing a friend to such violence. I would never have dreamed when I first became an MP that there would be weeks when my office would have to repeat 35 different threats to the police, when some would be so serious that arrests would follow, or when fellow human beings I had never met would call for me to be beaten, shot or strung up because they didn’t like something I’d said. None of this is normal. We must never treat it as so.”
The best gift would be a sane and safe political climate, and a world where women’s anthologies didn’t need to exist because everyone was included in the mainstream. But reindeer can’t fly, and we’re stuck with reality. In which case, put Cooper’s book on your Christmas list, and do everything you can to resist the toxic politics that seeks to silence and intimidate women.
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