Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Author provides tools to empower young women

LAURA BATES is a feminist. It’s probably best to establish this fact now

LAURA BATES is a feminist. It’s probably best to establish this fact now, so that the initial battle of perception that she so often faces can be fought.

Despite having founded the blindingly successful Everyday Sexism Project, and having now written two books on the subject, when I speak to Laura, she tells me that it’s still the first problem she faces in her campaigning.

“It’s so hard to solve a problem when people won’t acknowledge it exists,” Laura says, and I can’t help but wonder why, a century after women’s rights began to gain recognition, she continues to have to argue their importance.

But, I hear you wonder, aren’t women equal now, more or less? Well, Laura is on a mission to prove that no, actually, “We still have a long way to go”.

To look at the problem more closely, our discussion falls to street harassment, which Laura describes as a “phenomenon”. I’m willing to bet that every woman reading this has experienced it at some point; I was shouted at from a van even on my way to speak to Laura. And yet, I never would have thought of it as sexist until she adeptly outlines why.

“It doesn’t happen to men on the same scale at all; it is a gendered problem,” Laura says, and it’s hard to argue with her there. In fact, it’s hard to argue with her at all when you listen to the passion in her words, the eloquence and tenacity with which Laura speaks about why, in reality, it’s more than just an inconvenience exclusive to women.

“It’s about what the message is behind [it] really, because the reason it’s sexist, for me, is that it carries a message about power in our society and about our roles as people,” she explains, pointing out that “it goes beyond just one incident of a wolf whistle.

“It’s about the kind of normalised attitudes about women that we’re then setting up, that pervade throughout our society.” She herself is a fantastic example of how just one “normal” incident of sexism can have an immeasurable impact.

Despite her brilliance, her substantial knowledge with which she can reel off facts and figures as if she were a walking encyclopaedia, Laura fell into her career almost by accident.

In her first book, Everyday Sexism, she tells the story of how one bad day, and a few normal cases of harassment, became the last straw, and she created a blog inviting other women to share their experiences.

The response was astounding. Indeed, she was so inundated with tales of the struggles encountered by other women that she decided to do something about it.

Laura set out on a path to “disrupt the normalisation [of sexism], the acceptability that allows people to walk past and not react to it,” and most importantly, to “start to change the reality of what [women] face on a daily basis”.

Fast forward a few years, and Laura is narrowing her focus with the release of her latest book, Girl Up. With the spotlight now on young women, Laura has adopted an entirely different tone in her writing — more irreverent, more playful.

Believe it or not, Girl Up is funny. Where Everyday Sexism had statistics, this has illustrations. Yet it still shares one key trait with its predecessor — it’s completely eye-opening.

Apparently my response isn’t unique, as Laura tells me that “the most consistent reaction I’ve had since completing the book, from adult women, has been shock and amazement from things they’ve learnt from it that they didn’t know.”

Even basic female anatomy comes as a revelation to many women, with Laura’s own editor questioning the accuracy of the book’s diagrams.

It’s pretty absurd when you think about it, and overwhelming evidence of our need for people like Laura to speak up. She told me of her hopes that young women will feel “empowered and informed by [ Girl Up],”, and I truly believe that they will, with Laura’s wit and courage as inspiration.

As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Laura what advice she would give to her younger self (a question she poses to other successful women in her book).

With a hint of sentiment in her voice, she replies: “I think I’d just want to say that it’s not you. You’re not wrong and too fat, and too outspoken, too feminist, too ugly, all those things that girls are told you need to make smaller to fit into this box.

“I’d want to tell myself, it’s not you — it’s the box. I suppose that’s what I was hoping to tell young women with the book as well.”

Still not yet convinced that we need feminism? Let Laura inspire you herself tomorrow (Saturday) at 3pm in the town hall, as part of the Henley Literary Festival.

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