Thoughts on the Cambridge Girl Talk art exhibition

Julia Lasica

On the evening of Friday the 25th of January 2019, Girl Talk celebrated the opening of its first ever exhibition – a special thank you is due to Alicia Lethbridge, one of our events co-ordinators, for her tireless work and enthusiasm on this incredibly special project!

A selection of submissions on the theme of ‘Taking Back the Narrative’ were displayed around the lower level of Murray Edwards bar, with pieces ranging in their media from clay to kohl and lip liner. Across the pieces, the most obvious and immediate focus was on the female body and the way in which it is perceived. Pink Squire-Lindsay’s juxtaposition between her drawings of the female nude and a letter from Clare College’s Accommodation Manager explaining that they had removed the pictures from the walls of her bedroom because they were ‘offensive’, created a very striking lead on the theme which both Kate Towsey in her piece ‘Bodily Embroidery’ and Anna Seale in her ‘Various States of Undress’ sketch tackled. Both Towsey and Seale used the commonplace items women handle every day, underwear and makeup, with which they may have a complicated relationship, and usurped them to create their individual, subversive pieces.

This motif stretched across to the sole sculpture in the exhibition, Amber Li’s ‘Declining Nude.’ Surrounded by the mirrors on a section of the bar’s walls, the female figure was refracted from various angles, highlighting the playful and adventurous tone it struck in comparison to the inert passiveness of the classical female nude, which Li referred to in her caption. This sculpture was also a portal through which the exhibition linked on to the college’s New Hall Art Collection, widely reputed as one of the world’s largest and most significant accumulations of female art. With her anonymous, circlet face looking directly up at the Guerrilla Girls’ print ‘Do Women have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum’ housed just a floor above, Li’s nude sculpture engaged in the question posed by the 1989 piece from her own twenty-first century, dynamic and hopeful perspective.

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Watercolour of Sculpture by Amber Li 

Communication between the surrounding art and the pieces in the exhibition had been something Alicia and the rest of us on the committee had really wanted. As the viewers wandered around the space, ascending and descending the stairs between the two collections of art, they mirrored with their movements the ways in which the questions, themes and ideas raised in one section were grappled with in the other. The expressive way in which emotion pours over the subject of Aleah Chaplin’s ‘The Tempest’, situated in the permanent collection, was found in more subtle tones in the pensive, deep colours of Isabelle Weir’s ‘The Green Velvet Coat’, one of the first pieces to greet the viewer in the exhibition.

Isobel Richards’ ‘Narrative Thread’, Aleydis Nissen’s ‘DELIGHT’, Claire Qin Yi Whiting’s ‘Untitled’ and Sara Pocher’s ‘Freedom To Be’ emphasised this part of the exhibition’s focus, too. Their pieces demonstrated how art could be an outlet for female narrative and a form for the confessional female voice to be heard, echoing in variations what Tracey Emin had expressed fifteen years earlier in her ruminations on the impact of her tattoos on her body, found in a print in the New Hall Collection.

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Narrative Thread by Isobel Richards

The transformation of lived experience into objects or symbols, something which Emin mused upon in this print, manifested itself in a slightly different light in both Madeleine Pulman-Jones’s Petersburg Portraits, Cathy MacTaggart’s hand stitched sampler titled ‘Migrant Worker Woman’ and our artist-in-resident’s, Anna Curzon Price, watercolours. Correlating with the wider theme of how female experience can be recorded and how exactly it could be quantified, which was present amongst the exhibition work, these pieces cemented the role of material objects in this process, whether it was the rubber gloves depicted in both Curzon Price and MacTaggart’s work or the cutlery lying beside fish and croissants in Pulman-Jones’s sketches.

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Migrant Worker Woman by Cathy MacTaggart

The common streams of thoughts and concerns which were passed along and caught in between the permanent New Hall art collection and the pieces in our exhibition showed how prevalent and universal our female experience and expression can be, at times. Walking around the exhibition and then passing on to the permanent collection, I was struck by the common themes which flowed from work to work, and the motifs I found myself being moved by again and again. Around a week earlier, the Girl Talk committee had been to a talk given by the creators of the White Pube, Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad. Both of these women talked about the importance of how the individual views and experiences art from their own unique perspective, with all their thoughts and histories crowding around them as they encountered pieces displayed before them. Thinking about their words, I was grateful that we had had the opportunity to create a space like this and to allow our thoughts and ideas to mingle with those female artists who had come before us – for really, in many ways, they were not that different after all.

Featured image by artist in residence Anna Curzon Price 

Why #januhairy isn’t all that smooth

Jess Molyneux

It was as if the stars had aligned earlier this month, when I first heard about #januhairy: a combination of my two favourite things, feminism and wordplay, it was yet another way for us women to stick it to the patriarchy.

I was initially impressed with the pun, as well as the concept and movement behind it (women ditching the razor for this month and baring natural armpits and fluffy legs on Instagram.) However, after thinking about it and discussing it a little more with some friends, made me realise that this movement, although so empowering on the surface, may need a little interrogation if it is going to move forward in the most positive direction possible.

Firstly, I’ll be showing solidarity in smoothness, which makes me feel a little guilty.

I have amazing respect for all the women baring the hair right now, and I’m thankful that so many girls and boys will be seeing at least some of our bodies in their natural state. But I’m also in awe of those women whose reason for defying this norm is because it’s what they want to do with their bodies. Of course, those posts which stick two-fingers up at the expectation for women to be silky smooth all over, those posts which say ‘I think I’m more beautiful like this and society needs to get its head around that’ are inspirational. But I’m not quite there yet.

The problem with the beauty standard of shaven armpits, legs, and everything else, isn’t that anyone – family, friends, current or prospective partners – forces women to remove their hair. What’s wrong, exhausting and anxiety-inducing, is that the standard is so pervasive that it becomes internalised. On billboards, on Instagram, on the women in the media who we think are beautiful, we just don’t see hair. It’s so normalised that we don’t think twice, after reaching a certain age, about the necessity of repeatedly, routinely pruning ourselves.

The common, pseudo-feminist (as I see it) justification is ‘I do it for me’. Meaning, I shave so that I feel beautiful, not because I think I need to for someone else. But isn’t it far more problematic that you only feel beautiful even to yourself when have you seen, felt or know that you are smooth all over? Isn’t it problematic that you feel beautiful only after having nipped yourself with a razor, or sat shivering on the floor of the shower for ten minutes, or gritted your teeth through a wax? And that you’ll have to do it all over again in a few days’ or weeks’ time? To make it worse, this ‘gain’ will run out in a few days at worst, and a few weeks at best.

We shouldn’t feel like bad feminists when we shave, and there are plenty of women who say that the choice to do so is just as valid and empowering as the choice not to.

But I can’t agree – or at least I think writing it off, even reclaiming it, as ‘our choice’ isn’t particularly helpful for the deeper issues at stake. I don’t think women have a choice, at least not a simple and easy one, when they would have to redefine what makes them feel beautiful before being made happy by that choice, when the liberation we gain from defying the standard is tainted by a suppression of those instilled instincts which make us feel better about our bodies with glossy legs rather than furry ones.

Secondly, is having one month where we talk about the problem with hair – and a winter one, at that, where it’s less of an ever-present concern for women – enough? I do think, especially considering the ‘guilty feminism’ I’ve discussed, that baby steps might be best. Internalised standards aren’t going away anytime soon – we won’t change what this generation, instinctively, holds to be attractive. But little-by-little exposure – maybe we could add a month every year, or hope that lots of women will bear the hair all year round after this #januhairy induction – is a good way to start.

Lastly, and most importantly, is this a very white, Western feminist issue?

I think when we talk specifically about the hashtag, probably. It’s a campaign for female empowerment, but most women Instagramming are already pretty empowered. But when we look deeper, at the reasons women are rejecting this norm, the wider implications are important on two counts. First: the problem with body hair is a double standard between men and women (rather than anything inherent in the act of shaving). And flagging up anything which places different, more expensive, more time-consuming, and more socially exhausting pressures on one gender can be a useful tool for prompting thought and discourse around other, more serious and detrimental inequalities. Second: placing expectations on women, their bodies, their behaviours, shaming them when they fail or refuse to meet those expectations, is one form of the patriarchal control over women which, in the UK and across the globe, has much more sinister manifestations.

But we should also be sensitive to the fact that some women will be more privileged in the extent to which they can join the movement and feel empowered by it. I’ve already spoken about how hard I would find it to let everything grow – but what about women of different ethnicities, women with naturally darker, thicker, or just more hair? They already have to exert a lot more financial, physical, and mental energy, shaving more frequently, struggling to wax or get laser treatment, and could easily feel excluded by a movement which focuses on a small selection of ‘acceptably hairy’ women.

Eventually, I hope that with a positive reception, support, women like @themamabelle getting stuck in and Instagramming it, more women can join in the movement. These are the women we need to be seeing, thinking about, and bringing aboard as we move forward so that #januhairy and movements like it can have an awesome impact for all.

 

Featured image source: Instagram @themamabelle 

A summer in black and white

Alice Gilderdale 

During the cold winter holiday, two of my rolls of film were developed from the year of 2018.

Even though these photos are all black and white, they still remind me of the colours, smells and warmth of those long summer days.

 

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Waking in the morning with long hours stretching ahead of us, summer took on colours of its own. Colours which could not be captured through the lens of my camera, but which are hazily remembered – the colour of the early morning sky through my curtain, the colour of the rusty orange dress we dyed and hung out in the garden. These were colours which we bathed in, the light of summer’s energy, an energy which rejuvenated rather than enervated.

 

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Rather than its warped nature at University, time slipped and slowed down, with the hot sunshine on our arms and legs. I soon accepted that it was okay to stop and spend long days without moving, creating or producing something to show for them.

 

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Some days were spent travelling from place to place with backpacks on and bags full of foraged fruit. We would gorge ourselves on the ripe (or not-so-ripe) figs, blackberries, wild strawberries and plums which we found along the roads we walked. I filled my body with fruits bursting with sunshine.

 

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In the coldest moments of December, memories of summer have served as a reminder of these special moments. It’s easy to forget, in the midst of our busy lives, that we can give ourselves space to settle and take our time: we don’t need the validation of a holiday or of the hot sunshine.

 

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It took me some time to realise that all of these photos are missing something. They’re missing the faces, expressions and features of each person I’ve photographed. Perhaps it’s the secretive nature of the peace I found over summer, which has evaded my lens; or perhaps that is the nature of serene moments, they move in front of your eyes with a calm silence which doesn’t require any added expressions. Maybe it’s something we catch every day, something we see in our peripheral vision. Through my lens, these moments have become captured in the peaceful colours of black and white; however this hasn’t muted their tones, but captured the evasive impression of summer’s lazy, warm days.

 

Summarising our Women in Science event

Blanca Schofield-Legorburo

On the evening of the 18th January, Cambridge students gathered at a Robinson auditorium to hear from three amazing women in science: Patricia Fara, Patricia Lebre Alireza and Barbara Sahakian. Interviewing them were Bea Carpenter, co-director of Cambridge Girl Talk, and Roa Powell, co-founder of Cambridge Women in Science Society. All five women gave the audience so much for their time, with the guests giving honest accounts of their careers in science and personal reflections on their lives, prompted by poignant questions from Bea and Roa.

The evening began with Bea asking them to give a brief personal introduction. Though, as is inevitable, these took ten minutes each, there was no point at which the audience lost interest, as the biographies were extremely engaging.

Patricia Fara started with the important premise that she was going to give “two versions of her story”, i.e. that it is vital that we do not simply hear a list of successes as it can be discouraging in its dishonest, unrealistic nature. Thus she told us of her incredible career, starting with a Physics degree from Oxford, where she was just 1 of 8 women and over 200 men. She then went on to work in computing with her husband, but at the age of 40 decided on a sudden career change and decided to do a PhD in the History of Science. She is now a science historian academic and has written many books such as Lab of One’s Own: a history of science and suffragism. Yet the other side of this story is that her father being an immigrant brought many difficulties in their lives, she became bored of Physics at university, and was discriminated against in the very male-dominated department. She also suffered in a turbulent marriage for 20 years and became ill at the age of 40, which prompted her career change. Moreover, as Patricia pointed out, being a college employee, a sphere which is dominated by women, makes it difficult for her to get promotions. Thus, she gave us a realistic, and actually more inspiring picture of her life, with its ups and downs and a drive for passion.

Patricia Lebre Alireza also did not achieve her position as experimental quantum physicist easily in the slightest. Beginning by saying “I love what I do and I always wanted to be a scientist”, she went on to tell us about her young marriage to her Saudi Arabian husband, their move to Saudi Arabia and the impossibility of her doing her degree there. She had children at a young age and had to study online. Finally, after they moved to California when she was in her thirties, she managed to do her degree in physics and work part time, juggling it with her dedication to her children. Finally, in her fourties, she was accepted to do a PhD in physics at Cambridge and received it at 45. She said being a mother and homemaker made it much more difficult, but that she had a lot of support from her husband and Cambridge supervisors. Interestingly, she noted that being a minority was much more of a problem in the US than it was in the UK. Ultimately, she concluded that everyone needs support in their career!

Barbara also highlighted the importance of having a supportive partner. She is a psychiatrist and works on treatment for conditions such as OCD and depression, and also on government policy for mental health. She spoke of the inspiration given to her by her all-female school and university, spaces where a woman’s ability in any subject was never questioned. Her determination to help people drove her, even in her position as the only woman in labs or departments, and she is still passionate about finding new treatments.

Barbara even handed out a sheet with advice on it, and I caught up with the other two at the end to ask for their most vital pieces of advice:

  • Keep learning!
  • Have confidence in yourself! You will not get a job if you don’t apply for it.
  • Focus on achievements, not failures. Remember all the work you did to get where you are, don’t just thank luck for it.
  • Stay resilient and keep positive.
  • Follow your dreams and goals and work at what you love.
  • Try and make the future better.

They also spoke about how much better the environment is for women in science than it was 20 years ago, and how much it is improving each year. However, the point that they all collectively agreed on and stressed is the importance of cheap good childcare for women to be able to partake in STEM careers, or any career. A work-life balance and drive is vital too, as well as passion, but a woman cannot be made to feel guilty about having a desire to work and be at home and network and also spend time with her children. This is the question that we must answer and solve in our generation, as well as losing the taboo around women in maths and engineering and around men helping with homemaking and sacrificing some of their career.

Thank you to everyone involved and to everyone who came! It was certainly an inspiring and memorable evening.

Lessons and advice from women in STEM

Selin Zeyrek

Women in STEM are inspirational, broadly, for one of two reasons. They either act as role models with their actions providing lessons in and of themselves, or they are people who know you well, and help you realise that you can do whatever you set your mind to. These lecturers, class-mates and teachers stand alongside the scientists I have happened upon because of their fame, and their words of encouragement have stayed with me since.

The very first lesson I learned is perhaps the most important: do science well, because it is firmly within your capabilities.

 My Biology teacher was the sort you tend to only read about and are never lucky enough to come across in real life. She taught us science instead of the syllabus, refused to let us take notes because it ‘stops you listening and absorbing information properly’ and, for the first time, we were made to actually think in Biology class instead of just learning the CGP book. Those were the lessons I looked forward to the most; the lessons where we were made to think our way through concepts by ourselves, from basic principles like the properties of water, until we had figured out an explanation as to why ice was necessary for life to develop at the Arctic. She was strict but fair, demanded excellence but only because she believed we were capable of it, and was enthusiastic about practicals: in short, she was the first person I had come across who seemed like a scientist first and a teacher second, rather than the other way around.

A year and a half later, in March 2018, I came across somebody who embodies this principle.

Jennifer Doudna was the first to suggest that a bacterial immune system could be reprogrammed for gene editing and spoke about the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 system she pioneered. It was held in the B-MS, the largest scientific lecture theatre in Cambridge; despite attending lectures there for over a year, I have never seen that room that full. There were people watching from a balcony I hadn’t even realised existed; there were people sitting on stairs; there were people sharing seats – all to see this eminent biochemist. Not because she was an exceptional female, but because she was exceptional full stop, and would have been so no matter her background or gender. She was more than a good scientist; she was an engaging speaker and I remember thinking: ‘this is who I aim to be. I could do that, I can do that with a couple decades of hard work and a bit of luck’. Seeing her speak made me believe I had a chance of becoming like her. It is much easier to put yourself in the shoes of someone who resembles you, and that is why representation is important. Believing you can do something is the first step towards achieving it.

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Press conference with Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, pioneers in CRISPR technology. Source: fpa.es

The next woman who inspired me is perhaps an odd choice because she is not principally known for science: Natalie Portman, who did in fact study a STEM subject at Harvard University, and 12 years after graduation, returned to give the commencement speech. She imparts a wealth of good advice, but her focus is on the fact that if she had been aware of her supposed limitations, she never would have taken the risk to learn ballet for Black Swan, or to study what she did. The sense of realism we develop as we grow older about what we are capable of doing is something she regards as a great loss and encourages the students to remain idealistic about their abilities. Ignore what your limitations are supposed to be, because that information is no more than a burden. I came across this talk during sixth form, but I was not to realise how much it would mean to me until I started at Cambridge. My seven years in an all-girls school had had made me unable to see, in the best possible way, what my ‘limitations’ as a woman in STEM were supposed to be. Participation in STEM subjects was encouraged, and it was never even a discussion that we may struggle with it or perform worse than the boys school across the road (we didn’t, by the way). I never considered that women were worse at science, because (bar a few male teachers) all of the scientists around me were female.

 The importance of science communication is best demonstrated by Rachel Carson. She taught me that nature is beautiful, so tell the world about it! The marine biologist is known for Silent Spring, her book on whether humans have the right to control nature; more specifically, on the environmental effects of the use of pesticides. The popularity of this book led to a ban of the use of DDT (a pesticide) in the US and put in motion a series of events that resulted in the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. If you read any of her writing, Silent Spring or otherwise, you can see why: she is a master storyteller, and seamlessly blends science with beauty and wonder. Her books on the ocean inspired a country to become more conscious of the environment, and instead of studying the oceans with the aim of answering the question ‘what can humans do with this?’, she encouraged their investigation from the perspective of the creatures that inhabit it. She fulfils what Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in the US, called for 150 years ago: ‘We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.’ Carson saw the poetry in nature with perfect clarity and communicated that to the rest of the world.

Ada Lovelace is a figure I admire immensely, and amongst her achievements is being the world’s first computer programmer. She began a correspondence with Charles Babbage after observing his calculator prototype, ‘The Analytical Machine’, and was dubbed by him to be ‘an enchantress of numbers’. She was asked to translate an Italian paper about Babbage’s machine, and her comprehensive notes on it are now considered the foundations of modern computing. She realised what Babbage failed to: his computer could do far more than calculate mathematical tables, it could be used for pretty much any function (she even predicted that it would one day compose music) and would see in the birth of a new field of science. Oh, and she also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter. Lovelace shows that you can be defined by your own achievements, and not by your relation to someone else.

A final, very important source of encouragement comes in the form of my course-mates: the girl with whom I shared all my supervisions last year is an inspiration from her sheer dedication and hard work, but also her unstinting willingness to help me whenever I come knocking on her door with yet another question.

I owe my motivation in science to the women who came before me and led by example, but also to those who helped me to believe that I could be successful.

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Margaret Hamilton, NASA, standing next to the software she and her team wrote. Source: news.mit.edu

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The 1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Marie Curie on bottom row, third from left. Also pictured are Einstein and Planck. Source: ETH Zürich 

Cover image – “Forces of nature” with Ada Lovelace, second from right. Source: womenyoushouldknow.net

 

All hail the capitalist feminist narrative

Lily Guenault 

We all have our own problematic interests, and for many Brits the Royal Family is one of them. Their influence on popular culture is undeniable – hit shows like ‘The Crown’ demonstrate our fascination with one of the most powerful families in the world. In the media, eyes are almost always on the women of this family – Elizabeth, Diana, Kate and, most recently, Meghan have all been hailed as role models for the modern woman and credited with revolutionising the inherently patriarchal institution that is the monarchy. And yet you can’t help but wonder whether the Royal Family, and in fact any system where power or wealth is inherited rather than earned, can ever not be sexist. Can we ever regard these women as feminist icons?

As the longest ever reigning English monarch, Elizabeth II has taken big steps towards gender equality in the structure of the monarchy. She pushed through the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act, which changed the rules of succession to absolute primogeniture – in other words, the eldest child, regardless of gender, is the heir. And she’s not short of the odd funny feminist anecdote, having taken the King of Saudi Arabia for a spin in her Range Rover. Unsurprisingly he was reportedly terrified by the idea of a female driver and the Queen succeeded in making a pointed statement about his country’s misogynistic driving laws.

Meghan Markle, the latest addition to the family, has also made headlines as the first woman of colour to be a member of the Royal Family, and is herself a self-proclaimed feminist. She has broken royal etiquette by expressing her political views on Trump openly and has worked with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women for years, long before any affiliation to blue blood.

But despite all of this, there is no hiding the true nature of the monarchy. Should we really be celebrating or trying to justify the existence of an elitist institution that merely highlights the gaping problem Britain has with wealth inequality? Can we really ignore the way in which the women of the Royal Family are still constantly policed on their clothing and behaviour? Whilst on an individual level these are two remarkably accomplished women, their actions do nothing to dismantle greater issues of institutionalised sexism, racism or classism – they uphold it, and in fact the media uses their identities as women and people of colour to gloss over the greater injustices that lie at the heart of the Crown.

Moving away from Europe, where monarchies are generally male-dominated, there are many societies in other continents whose monarchies or dynasties are based on matrilineal succession, meaning that titles and assets are inherited by the women of the family, often the youngest daughter. One such society is the Khasi people, a tribe indigenous to Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Here, the mother and youngest daughter are predominantly responsible for the livelihood of the family, collecting, preparing and selling produce harvested from the perimeters of the forest areas they live next to. But strangely, the village council in a Khasi village is made up entirely of men – women may have ownership of property, but they have barely any control over it. Any female power comes from an identity as a mother, not an individual and a woman is inescapably tied to the domestic sphere. It seems that even in matriarchal societies, women are not deemed capable of dealing with power outside the realms of motherhood.

When discussing powerful families, it’s important not to ignore those which have amassed extreme wealth over not only the last century or so, but in some cases over the last few decades. We now live in a modern society where inherited wealth is not just found in monarchies, but in the corporate world: the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds, and more recently the Kardashians, dominate the major sectors of business, technology and beauty. Can these ‘self-made’ family empires provide feminist role models with their entrepreneurial businesswomen?

The Kardashian-Jenners are one of the most successful family empires brands in the world. They are also headed by a notorious matriarch, Kris Jenner, and those of them in the media spotlight are all women. According to Forbes, Kylie Jenner is the 27th richest self-made woman in the United States and is estimated to be worth around $1 billion thanks to her brand Kylie Cosmetics. Their embracing of their sexuality on social media and their message of empowerment for women with curves have also earned them a reputation as ‘feminist role models’.

However, they have also experienced their fair share of controversy over the years: most recently, Kim Kardashian has been slated for advertising appetite suppressants on social media, and her $2.99 set of International Women’s Day emojis on her app ‘Kimoji’ was criticised as a mere exploitation of feminism for profit – ironic, as she doesn’t call herself a feminist.

Personally, I think the Kardashians are not entirely deserving of the title ‘self-made’: the Kardashian and Jenner sisters were all born into a wealth which they have simply used as a springboard. Kendall Jenner has even admitted herself inadvertently that she didn’t have to work anywhere near as hard as other runway models to become as successful. Kim’s exploitation of her fanbase by perpetuating diet culture through her appetite suppressants and leeching off the hard work of feminist activists by monetising her “feminist” sentiments, makes her a harmful role model for all women, especially young girls. Whilst the Kardashian family claims to represent the ‘modern woman’, they in fact uphold society’s unrealistic standards of beauty for women and perpetuate a consumerist, hierarchical society that profits off the oppression of others.

As individuals, a lot of these women in positions of inherited power and wealth do a lot to assert their independence and to try to affect change that will benefit women. However, this can never take away from the fact that the systems they are a part of, systems which colonised and enslaved millions of people of colour, systems which take from the most vulnerable in society, systems which profit off other women’s insecurities, are only strengthened by their own complicit endorsement of them.

Featured image – Andy Warhol’s “The Reigning Queens”, source: pikbee.me

In conversation with Helen Pankhurst

Bea Carpenter 

Pankhurst is a name many of us associate with the incredible fight for women’s right to vote. 2018 marked the centenary of some women gaining that right.

You are already likely to know the names of Emmeline and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, yet another family member whom we must add to our list is Helen, the grand daughter of Sylvia. An author, she has worked as a human rights activist for many charities, including CARE international where she has led their #March4women for many years, and was awarded a CBE in the 2018 New Years honours list.

Towards the end of 2018 I was lucky enough to chat to Helen about her upbringing and entrance into activism, the fight for suffrage today and the advice she has for the future. We also discussed her new book Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights – Then and Nowthat I can not recommend enough. My conversation left me in awe of the incredible work she has done over the years and I am very grateful to be able to share her wisdom with followers of Girl Talk.

Helen’s childhood was spent in Ethiopia living with her father and his mother Sylvia. When we discussed why she was first moved to enter the world of activism she credited it partly to the exposure to poverty and the clear need for development she saw as a young girl. She particularly noticed the double standards in the attitude towards women, with the contrast between the stereotype of supposed weakness and their active roles such as carrying jugs of water and fuel wood on their backs.

Helen then moved permanently to the UK to study Economics, something she considered to be a middle ground between two of her passions, languages and the sciences. Here she began to develop an interest in working in international development particularly at a grass roots level, which felt more tangible to her rather than distant policy level. To her the disparity in economic and political issues between men and women was apparent as was a lack of campaigning from NGOs, something she wished to further develop. Interestingly, Helen said she didn’t feel her opinion was isolated and despite it being a male dominated sector she was able to find others who understood the need for change. Her work at Womankind was completely focused on women’s issues but her move to WaterAid presented a greater challenge due to the much higher proportion of men working there as a result of the “technical” nature of water. Here she was one of just three women national representatives out of 14 and had to push a little harder to get women’s issues into the forum and to ensure their voices were heard.

It is easy to assume that someone with Helen’s ancestry would have had a ready made path carved for her into the world of activism, but she describes the journey as one that was much more self-motivated. The conversation that filled her childhood home revolved around the work of her father who continued in his mother Sylvia’s footsteps and was passionate about Ethiopian culture. Helen says her mother came from a background that was “not particularly feminist at all” and felt as the first woman being directly related to Sylvia she felt she had to “find her own route” into feminism.

We then got on to the topic of intersectionality, a word I only encountered when I first arrived at Cambridge. Helen put it into a different context for me when she described Sylvia as being “well ahead of the game” and what we would “now call an intersectional feminist”. Her demands were not limited to just votes for privileged, educated women of society, but for all women and for a universal vote. Schisms within the movement developed between those who were willing to compromise and those who were not.

Helen also explained that the Pankhursts became divided over the issue of violence. We tend to look back only on the Suffragettes, the women who were prepared to use violent means to get their way, but many women didn’t agree with these methods. Sylvia, a pacifist with a particular passion for Art, objected to the violent acts particularly the destruction of artwork. Christabel and Emmeline were more relaxed, reasoning their approach by referencing how men used violence in the war to fight for what they believed in and refusing to let there be any double standards.

Helen’s latest book “Deeds not Words” is a reflection of the valiant work of the suffragettes and the impact they had as well as the cultural interest we have in them. It delves into different sectors of women’s lives, comparing the progress that has been made in each of those areas, each chapter ending with a score from 0-5, reflecting this progress. Her reason for this was to force the reader to be “more reflective” as well as providing continuous prompts for reflection and comparison throughout the book. During the tour of her book Helen has asked members of the audience to rate sectors in a similar manner and revealed the differences she has seen between various groups of people. One obvious divide she noticed was between men and women but she also saw disparity across different age groups and professions, this highlights how there is not one “single line of improvement” that suits everyone. The issue Helen considers most important to tackle is violence due to the lack of progress across the board. She believes that women’s experience of violence “affects every other aspect of… [their]…lives” whether it be the workplace or in their own homes. In November 2018 the BBC published shocking statistics that simply prove this point further, new UN data now indicates that on average 137 women are killed by a partner or family member every day, highlighting the disproportionate effect domestic violence has on women.

To end things on a more cheerful note, I wanted to share Helen’s key pieces of advice for the future and how to move forward as a feminist:

The first is “the more you engage with the world the more it engages with you”, emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what’s going on around you.

The second is aimed more towards our generation: “ignore the future at your peril”. It is often so easy to adopt a position of ignorance, blind assurance that ‘everything will be ok in the end’. Frequently this comes from a point of privilege where we are safe enough or perhaps financially secure enough to chose to ignore the awful fates of many women.

Her final piece of advice is to go out and do everything with “fun and purpose”, to find a balance and be aware of past sacrifices, but also to embrace the community feminism establishes and the comfort that comes from collaborating with like-minded people.

My interview with Helen reminded me how important it is as a modern day feminist not to become blindsided by the personal issues you face and to continue to engage and educate yourself in the wider world.

Helen also wanted to stress how crucial it is that feminism does not turn in to a gender battle and how feminism is simply believing in equality for all. We must recognize how far we have come and continue on the long road we have ahead to achieve it.

If you would like to hear more from Helen, she will be speaking at Churchill College as part of their history lecture series on the title “From the Suffragettes to the ‘Snowflakes’ “on 14th January, follow the link below for more details.

Be sure to grab a copy of her book, available at all good bookshops and from amazon, also linked below.

Churchill College Lecture: https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/events/churchill-history-lecture-series-suffragettes-snow/

Helen’s Book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0769YLV3B/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Featured image – Helen ( middle) with organisers of recent Women’s festival ‘ Deeds and Words’ that took place in October last year. Source: writer’s own