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.


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.


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.


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:

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:

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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:


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:

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:

Helen’s Book:

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 



Chloe Newbold

Hi, I am Chloe and I am a sucker for apologising.

I am unsure when my tendency to apologise a little too much became an addiction. It is difficult to explain how the word “sorry” moved from a linguistic term to a central component of my identity. Somehow in nineteen years I had come to equate my own existence and the space I occupied as something that needed to be excused or qualified.

As 2018 ended, I decided that it had to mark a turning point in my relationship with apologising. It took until this Michaelmas to realise how it had come to infiltrate my everyday interactions, with most of my time being spent attaching my apologies for causing any “inconveniences” to emails and hedging supervision contributions with the qualification that my participation represented a distraction. I even started to apologise to people who should have been apologising to me; the friend who forgot to pay me back, the boys who made unwarranted sexual comments, to the person who had taken away my right to consent. It snowballed into a compulsive habit; a method of protection against failure, an excuse for existence, an explanation for the incomprehensible.

To clear my head whilst writing this, I pulled out a dictionary from the shelf, which provided me with a simple definition of an apology. It is “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.” These two last words, offence and failure, both possess a similar characteristic – they are external to the individual to which they refer. I realised that to ‘fail’ or to ‘offend’, I break or fall short of achieving a goal, law, expectation or convention which is utterly separate to me. This includes self-imposed standards too, ones which I internalised from the values and criticisms I can see around me in society- there is nothing more alienating than imposing those upon your own body and abilities.

When I became aware of the interactive element which is tied to the act of apologising, it became a lot easier to realise the consequences that this had for both my relationships with others and myself. Saying “sorry” refers to more than a direct discourse, but represented a deeper communication to myself, those around me and with society itself.

Where does society come into all of this? By apologising for my failure to match up to ideals and expectations set by my wider social environment, I give them greater legitimacy. It can be in the small unconscious apologies for my appearance; showing up to group engagements in sports gear, for forgetting to shave my legs, for the simple fact that my hair was too frizzy in a picture. Each of these scenarios gives weight to an external standard of behaviour to which I conformed each time I apologised for failing to fall in line. Attempting to excuse my appearance is just one way in which I had become an active participant in legitimising expectations that a woman should dress and behave in a certain way. Ironically, I had always considered myself to be in active rebellion against the ideal of the “nice girl” in embracing an individual dress sense and voicing my political opinions. Ironically, by apologising for these acts of rebellion I was endorsing the status quo, making a girl willing to voice her opinions as something that needed to be explained and a divergence from formal expectations.

One of the common consequences of an addiction is its impact on personal relationships. We never really stop to consider the subconscious assumptions underpinning the word “sorry”. Every time that we apologise directly to another individual, we unknowingly and often unfairly attach a series of attitudes and opinions to them. It was hard to discover that over the past year I had been doing this exact thing to some of the people closest to me. During a series of panic attacks this term I felt it necessary to constantly apologise to a close friend both during and after the event merely for seeking her help. What I failed to understand was that, through my incessant repetitions of “sorry” and “are you sure it’s okay”, I was projecting a series of unfair assumptions. Returning to the definition of an apology, it runs deeper than a mere acknowledgement of an objective offence but assumes that the one we apologise to feels “offended”. Every time I asked for her forgiveness, I was subconsciously assuming that a good friend would feel inconvenienced or be unwilling to be there for someone they care about. My addiction had blinded me to the genuine affection and agency involved in providing love and support to a friend in time of need.

The most inaudible message communicated in an apology is ironically the loudest of all. Greater than a mere acknowledgement of offence or failure, this mode of communication tells someone that they are an offence, that they are a failure. Whether it be for speaking during a supervision, my appearance or even reaching out for help, I was consistently devaluing myself. The form of self-criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don’t believe in your opinions and abilities than how are they supposed to succeed? Like many women around me, I find the obstacle of self-doubt an everyday struggle in fully acting on the potential opportunities and experiences that life has to offer.

We are now in the very early days of 2019 and I wish to propose a collection of resolutions, which diverge from the typical variety one sees on their various social media feeds. Rather than striving towards an instantaneous transformation, this list represents a messy experience of learning and reflection as I struggle against my addiction to apologising. In response to the three levels at which this addiction manifests itself (society, relationships and the self), I propose three goals which will start now:

  • Resist all expectations, without explaining myself.
  • Substitute “sorry” for “thank you” in order to acknowledge love and support.
  • To myself: be kind, not critical.


(Featured image source: Tumblr)

New Year, Same Me

Why I’m changing the way I do New Year’s resolutions.

Ciara Dossett

It’s that time of year again. That odd no man’s land between Christmas and New Year’s. A time of lazy reflection on the year gone by. But, being the often self-critical human beings we are, this rarely goes anything like ‘hey, congrats on a fab year, let’s reflect on the things that went really well’. Instead our internal monologue more often resembles ‘we talked about this last year, you promised to be better and we all know you’re not. This year: pull it together’. And from this toxic internal chatter emerges the trusty New Year’s Resolution, or as my younger sister used to call them, New Year’s Revolutions (arguably equally as apt).

I consider myself to be a relatively determined person and yet I have never managed to successfully implement a New Year’s Resolution. Not one single time. Why not? Firstly a year is really quite a long space of time, a whole 365 days if you didn’t know, and sometimes the prospect of keeping something up or going without something for this long seems so daunting a prospect that I don’t even really bother to start. I’m not alone in this: roughly 80% of people apparently give up on their resolution by February. This seems unsurprising as January can be a pretty miserable month and how anyone manages to get through this while going to the gym everyday or without eating chocolate is frankly baffling.

My New Year’s Resolutions have often been too vague. Peaking nervously at the list I made this time last year I wonder how I ever thought I’d achieve any of them at all: exercise more regularly, go on social media less, eat more healthily. The problem with these type of resolutions is that it would be almost impossible to know if you’d achieved them at all and if, like me, you’re quite self-critical you’re more likely to decide that you didn’t reach these lofty heights of self-improvement. If you really want to achieve these things experts (of which, you may have gathered, I am certainly not one) say it’s better to set clear, short term goals so you can measure and celebrate your success.

Mostly, however, I think I never successfully implemented any of these changes because, deep down, I never really wanted to do them at all. Rarely did I choose meaningful resolutions which I really cared about or felt motivated and excited to fulfil. Instead, I often felt guilt-tripped, both by myself and by my surroundings. Instagram is flooded with #newyearnewme type inspo pictures, gym membership adverts appear to pop up like vermin and virtually every publication appears to feature a piece entitled ‘What Resolutions You Should Make in 2019’ (translation: what things you should beat yourself up about not doing this year).

This time of year seems to come packed with pressure to be a better version of yourself, often resulting in an unsustainable approach to change. A lot of resolutions come from the wrong place: a short-term desire to lose weight to look a certain way, a need to appear a certain way in front of certain people or a wish to be someone you know you’re really not. Rather than being a celebration of something or an exciting challenge, resolutions can end up being a form of self-punishment and something we later feel a little guilty about not seeing out.

So this year I have decided to embark on a revolution in resolutions. I started by considering all the things that had gone well in 2018 so my resolutions came from a place of positivity rather than self-flagellation: I may still not be able to speak fluent French but I did fly 3000 miles away from home by myself! I then began thinking about what I actually want to change, rather than what I was being told I needed to change. I have decided to set resolutions which excite me and which I actually want to carry out. These will be verifiable, so I can clearly judge whether or not I succeed. I will set attainable changes which I am more likely to implement.

And here comes the really revolutionary bit: to make it less daunting and more interesting, these resolutions will be for one month only. I will make a new resolution each month, as, like dogs, resolutions are not just for Christmas. Hopefully, these will become habits which last even longer. I will not beat myself up if I don’t always succeed but simply pledge to try my best. So here is my first (hopefully attainable!) resolution for January 2019: I will run at least twice a week, not in pursuit of looking a certain way but as an exciting physical and mental challenge. Let the revolution begin!

(Featured image source:

A time to reflect, part 2

Cambridge Girl Talk committee 

Following on from A time to reflect, this post continues with reflections by the other three committee members.

Alicia, co-events coordinator

This year has been big and busy, full of transitions and lessons and new experiences. Finally throwing myself into extracurriculars has been a major highlight of my year. Finding communities like Girl Talk has made university feel a lot more like home in the last few months of the year than it did in the first. Learning how to build a support network from scratch, and how to work hard without going crazy are two of the biggest lessons I have learnt this year, both of which came from looking outside of the library window and getting involved.

New experiences and new friendships have made this year one of growth and of going outside my comfort zone. Things have shifted and altered many times this last year, as they are bound to do. I’ve never been very good with change, but as I settle into the routine of university life and enter 2019 with a year’s worth of experience behind me I’m beginning to look forward to whatever changes the next year throws at me too.

Blanca, co-director and blog editor

This year was one filled with so much love and new adventures. Love flourished, new friendships solidified, I visited new countries and cultures, and I grew to know and be truer to myself even more after the confusing transition of school – gap year – freshers.

Leaping outside of a comfort zone has always been difficult for me, particularly since acknowledging my anxious tendency. In the past I would be brave in conventional senses, but I would often recline when more rare experiences presented themselves. This is something I still struggle with, and I look at the planning of any moment or period, such as my year abroad, with apprehension, whereupon I beat myself up for this lack of positivity and ingratitude for my privilege. Yet I am trying more than ever to see things with happiness, rather than dread, in their context rather than as an overwhelming collection.

I am trying to apply this to every moment, really wanting to make sure I think ahead less unless it is with excitement. The last term was interesting and amazing, but also difficult with many personal situations that did not let me fully breathe. In the holidays it has been hard to transition away to a state where I could relax completely, allowing myself time without guilt.

As our artist in residence, Anna, said in her reflection – every moment has its own context and should be rooted in it. I want to observe and acknowledge this, whether by creating, recording or simply slowing down and living!

Julia, blog sub-editor

I like to track time with music. I create playlists for all the months and weeks which pass, adding in the songs and pieces of music which I associate with them. Music can become a deeply sentimental thing, when one attaches enough memories and associations to it- when I press play on a particular playlist or song, I can close my eyes and imagine a younger version of myself listening to it, in whichever season or mood I once did.

Spotify only indulges this nostalgia, particularly their 2018 Wrapped playlists. DakhaBrakha’s Baby was on there and I remembered with particular vividness the white blanket of snow which muffled up the world, and how I walked through the rugby fields behind college when the light was fading into blueness and thistles were framed against the darkening sky. H.E.R’s Focus was next and immediately I thought of the transition between winter and summer, and the masses of white flowers all mixed up with one another, growing beside each road and melting into a rush of colour when I cycled past.

Then I found the songs which I would listen to walking down from the Barbican towards the river in the evening, the ones which made me think of the aches in the back of my neck and the UL’s dusty bookcases, the ones which I would listen to whilst looking at the Granta’s lights reflected in the water below, bubbles and currents crumpling up the little glitters of light.

The last one to come on was Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. That was summer for me, the very hot evenings which I spent on my grandmother’s roof. Below me, there would have been walnut trees pressing their leaves into one another in the heavy atmosphere and I would have been looking out at the glowing horizon, counting the glimmers of trains, listening to their thunder as they crossed from one end of the horizon to another. My 2018 wasn’t governed, of course, by the music I decided to listen to, but to hear the songs which I matched up with my circumstances replayed helped me pick up all of these feelings and images, and pack them up in a box, to replay again once more, when the time was right.

If you would like to be involved in writing, creating, reflecting for Cambridge Girl Talk, please do get in touch with us.

(Featured image designed by Soli Rachwal, source: femmagazine)

Top books of 2018 written by women

Lucy Bell

This is a list of my favourite books written by women from 2018 – those I’ve read this year, rather than those published this year, although most fit into both categories. With starting to study English at Cambridge, my reading for pleasure has probably declined a bit – however this is something I’m now consciously trying to rectify, especially by keeping up with some new releases.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox imagines a world in which women have been limited to only 100 words a day – say any more, and they are electrocuted by a counter fitted to their wrists. Reminiscent of both Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and, more recently, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Vox is both brilliant and terrifying. The world it creates feels so incredibly real and a lot of the events and characters hit uncomfortably close to home.

Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill

This collection of poetry, short stories and what could perhaps be described as musings, reimagines classic fairy tales with a feminist retelling. A personal favourite is “Why Tinkerbell Quit Anger Management”. The subtitle of this collection is “and other stories to stir your soul”, and this rings true. At times sad, funny, angry and heart-breaking, Fierce Fairytales keeps the essence of the tales whilst twisting them into something new and exciting.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The perfect cosy winter read as you’re filling that space between Christmas and New Year, or the gap before returning to Cambridge. The characters of this novel (recently adapted into a film starring Lily James) make it what it is, as you are unable to not love them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set after the end of the Second World War and is made up of a collection of letters between the author Juliet and her publisher and friends as she discovers the fate of Guernsey during its German Occupation. Despite the, at times, upsetting subject matter, this story is heart-warming at its core.

Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J Maas

This Young Adult series, which begins with Throne of Glass, remains a guilty pleasure of mine- particularly considering the rushed essay I handed in because I’d spent half my week devouring this final instalment. Maas’ heroine and her supporting cast show a journey throughout the series and it is brilliantly rounded off here.

If We Were Villains by M.L Rio

Perfect for fans of dark academia novels such as The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, If We Were Villains tells of a group of students at an elite college where their drama course revolves around the plays of Shakespeare. In this, their third and final year, they are finally being allowed to tackle tragedy. When their real life becomes startlingly close to the plays they are performing, friendships start to unravel. I loved the dark nature of this narrative, and the many Shakespeare references added to the theme beautifully.

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

“”Magic doesn’t require beauty,” she said. “Easy magic is pretty. Great magic asks that you trouble the waters. It requires a disruption, something new.””

This is another collection of fairy tales, this time, set in the universe of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows duology. This collection draws out both the magic and the darkness which make a traditional fairy tale and create something entirely new.


(Featured image by Ada Thilén, source: Biblioklept)

A time to reflect

Cambridge Girl Talk committee

With the new year around the corner and all of its traditional self-renewal expectations, we thought we would sit down individually and jot down a few thoughts on what we have learnt or been thinking about in our personal lives or selves these last few months of 2018. These reflections are not really meant as strict resolutions or agendas, but ideas which could help to clear our pathways.

Here are the first few by three of our committee members.

Anna, artist in residence

There is something I can’t get used to about the rhythm of a year punctuated by sporadic Cambridge terms. The dramatic change in tempo, the moving in and out, the need to create a home in two completely different types of environments. The post-Cambridge term hangover is something I still can’t figure out how to solve. Every time I return home after term I spend a few weeks in a strange state of high anxiety, completely unable to get used to the lack of structure, stimulus and need for self discipline which is so characteristic of Cambridge life.

I think part of the uneasiness of returning to life at home comes from an inability to feel like I can build a coherent picture of what my life in Cambridge actually is. I am completely unable to come up with a summary of my term. I remember general manic busyness, a few highs and lows here and there but the moment I leave Cambridge the whole place and experience feels like its own self-contained and make-belief world. A lack of time to reflect and record during term (I’m terrible at even taking photos) reinforces this disconcerting impression that my life is split into two distinct halves.

My aim for next term is to place the Cambridge world firmly within the context of real life. Cambridge should not feel like its own planet where it is expected that one moulds one’s values and ideas about what constitutes a good life in order to fit with the institution’s. I hope that by spending a little bit more time recording and reflecting during my next term will help to put the Cambridge bubble into the proper perspective of a wider world and therefore reduce the jarring unease of leaving for holidays next term.

Phoebe, co-events coordinator

For all that Christmas and the end of the year is ‘the most magical time of the year’, I’ve always found it a bit melancholy. It’s a time to reflect on memories of the year: the successes, friendships, trips and things gained, but also the things that was lost. To me, this year feels like the fastest a year has ever passed, but last Christmas also feels worlds away.

As I think about the person I was, I am grateful for the wonderful people that I still have in my life – now close in ways I could not have imagined. I am proud, and lucky, to have recovered from things that were dragging me down. My actual degree doesn’t feel like torture any more (most of the time). I’m more confident, more focussed, more self-reliant.

I am also possibly less soft than I was, with less time to spend really caring for the friends whom I love. I am probably a bit more of a pessimist than an optimist, now aware of the limits of what Cambridge is and who I can be within it. I also remember the friendships I’ve lost; some naturally, some due to a lack of effort, some disrupted by various events.

It’s both the good and the bad that form a year, and in a sense it’s healthy to remember a mixture of both. Let’s hope I can be as profound as this in 2019.

Bea, co-director

To reflect on this year I thought I’d share some moments I’m proud of, some rather trivial ones and some moments I wish I could correct. I also want to acknowledge the fantastic people in my life who have made my year enjoyable and the tough bits bearable.

Firstly a couple of glory moments, the obvious one for me being passing First Year Natsci, a horror story in itself. I’m also proud of myself for being braver and taking the time to start conversations with strangers and engaging with them. I’ve tried harder this year to carve out more time for my friends too and to try and be more thoughtful to others.

A few mistakes – one being cycling to 3 miles outside of Cambridge just to buy myself a more exciting potted plant for my Uni room (her name is Titania and she is almost worth it).

I wish I had taken more time to relax, to wind down fully and be present for a few hours simply watching a play or Netflix.

There have of course been a few more substantial mistakes, most of which could have been avoided if I’d taken a few minutes to breathe before speaking, (especially to my family to prevent arguments) something I’m still working on.

The thing I’m most proud of, really, is getting involved in Girl Talk. I’ve already learnt a lot – especially those “soft skills” people always talk about – and its been overall incredibly fun to collaborate with some truly inspirational women and make other women’s voices sound a little bit louder.

Christmas is traditionally a time spent with family and I’m so grateful for mine. They are some of the funniest and most loving people I’ve met and without them I would probably be a mess.

Reflection has reaffirmed my adoration for my friends; home, uni, lifelong and new, they have all filled my year with laughter and I am so grateful for them.

Most of all reflecting on this year has made me excited for the next and everything it has in store.

If you would like to be involved in writing, creating, reflecting for Cambridge Girl Talk, please do get in touch with us.

(Featured image designed by Soli Rachwal, source: femmagazine)

An exhibition of one’s own

Phoebe Day 

In feminist art theory, the one-woman retrospective is a contentious issue. Whereas some feminist art historians believe that the format enables women artists who have been excluded from the patriarchal western canon to be reassessed, others believe that it is a mistake to try to accommodate women artists into a format designed to celebrate ‘Great Men.’ Whatever side of the debate you are on, 2018 was undoubtedly a great year for retrospectives of modern and contemporary women artists. Here is a brief summary of my five favourite one-woman exhibitions from 2018, and the five that that I am most looking forward to in 2019.

Exhibitions you (may have) missed in 2018:

1. Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, V&A, London

Instead of focusing on Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, this unorthodox exhibition explored how the painter fashioned her iconic image. The exhibition was based on Kahlo’s extraordinary collection of possessions and clothes that was unearthed in 2004, fifty years after her death, in the bathroom of the Casa Azul – her home in Mexico City – now known as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Despite its popularity, the exhibition was not without controversy. Some critics have accused the curators of fetishizing Kahlo’s disability – she was disabled by childhood polio and a bus crash when she was an adolescent – and of conflating her artwork with her biography. Others have praised the curators for foregrounding Kahlo’s disability.

Screen Shot 2018-12-27 at 13.02.47

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939. Source: V&A

2. Anni Albers, Tate Modern, London

Whereas the Kahlo exhibition explored a well-known artist through a new lens, this exhibition introduced us to an historically marginalised artist. Although Anni Albers has posthumously been overshadowed by her husband, the abstract painter Josef Albers, she was his artistic equal during her lifetime. Her tactile, chromatic, and geometric weavings blurred the boundaries between traditional craft and fine art. During the 1920s, Albers studied and taught the weaving workshop at the radical Bauhaus art school in Weimar. When the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazi Party in 1933, the Albers couple moved to North Carolina and joined the first generation of teachers at the Black Mountain College, another radical art school.

3. Tacita Dean: Still Life, Portrait, Landscape, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy, London

2018 was a good year for the British artist Tacita Dean, who curated a three-part meditation on the genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life at three major London art galleries. The centrepiece of Landscape was Antigone, Dean’s new 35mm film which was shown as two simultaneous cinemascope projections. This experimental, multi-layered film is best explained as a meditation on Dean’s relationship with her sister, the eponymous Antigone. The film was inspired by the undramatized action between Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, in which Antigone leads her blind and lame father, Oedipus, through the wilderness. Much of the film follows Oedipus, who is played by the actor Stephen Dillane, as he wanders alone through disparate deserted landscapes, blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse.

4. Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield

This was the first exhibition to focus on the British photographer Lee Miller’s involvement with surrealist circles in Britain in the late 1930s. This is surprising since, together with her husband Roland Penrose, she played a pivotal role in organising the International Surrealism Exhibition that took place in London in 1936. In my favourite of Miller’s photographs from the exhibition, two glamorous women model fire masks on the steps of an air-raid shelter during the blitz. This photograph, which Miller took for American Vogue, demonstrates her ability to blur the boundaries between documentary and fantasy to create disquieting images.

Screen Shot 2018-12-27 at 13.07.54

Lee Miller, Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Source: The Guardian

5. Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman: Life in Motion, Tate Liverpool

Although this juxtaposition of Egon Schiele’s erotic paintings and Francesca Woodman’s intimate photographs was not wholly successful, I am always grateful for an opportunity to see Woodman’s work. Woodman was a precociously talented photographer who died by suicide in 1981 when she was only twenty-two. Her blurred black-and-white photographs capture women, either herself or female models, in a surreal world of deserted, decaying interiors.

Exhibitions you shouldn’t miss in 2019:

1. Louise Bourgeois, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 22 January 2019-24 March 2019

This exhibition is intended as an introduction to the French artist Louise Bourgeois’ diverse oeuvre. Through her semi-autobiographical paintings, sculptures, installations, and prints, Bourgeois unravelled the complexities of familial relationships.

2. Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern, London, 27 February-9 June 2019

If you visit one exhibition in 2019 then I recommend that you visit this one, though  I admit that I am slightly biased because this exhibition is co-curated by Dr Alyce Mahon, who is one of my supervisors at Cambridge. This is the first large-scale exhibition of the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning’s paintings and sculptures for over twenty-five years. Tanning became involved with the surrealists when they moved from Paris to New York in the 1930s and, in 1946, she married the surrealist artist Max Ernst. The exhibition will not only include Tanning’s early surrealist paintings, but her ballet designs, uncanny fabric sculptures, installations, and poems amongst other lesser known works.

Screen Shot 2018-12-27 at 13.12.02

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943. Source: Tate Modern

3. Emma Kunz, Serpentine Galleries, London, 23 March-19 May 2019

Like Anni Albers, I had never heard of the Swiss artist Emma Kunz before the Serpentine Galleries announced this exhibition. Although Kunz was known as a natural healer during her lifetime, the she has posthumously been celebrated for the spiritual, geometric drawings which she created using graph paper, pencils, and oil pastels.

4. Natalia Goncharova, Tate Modern, London, 6 June-8 September 2019

This exhibition promises to be the largest ever UK retrospective of the Ukrainian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. The exhibition will include Goncharova’s set and costume designs for the Ballets Russes, fashion designs, and avant-garde films alongside her paintings.

5. Dora Maar, Tate Modern, London, 20 November 2019-15 March 2020

Dora Maar is often referred to as one of Picasso’s lovers and muses, despite the fact that she was a talented photographer in her own right. This exhibition, which will be the largest ever UK retrospective of Maar, restores her photomontages to their rightful place in the narrative of surrealism.

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Dora Maar, Untitled, Untitled, c.1940. Source:

(Cover art piece by Louise Bourgeois. Source: 

“Women talk.”

Jess Molyneux 

It’s not the only example of casual gender stereotyping in F.R.I.E.N.D.S which makes re-watching your favourite teenage TV show a revealing and uncomfortable experience. Ross is annoyed at Chandler for spilling the beans to his girlfriend Janice (who in turn spills them to Ross’s girlfriend Rachel) on his secret ‘hug and roll’ technique. And in his frustration, he seizes on the cultural trope of ‘gossipy women’ for blame.

There are quite a few of these intriguingly pervasive, and more intriguingly unfounded, myths about female speech floating around. Here we’re dealing with the idea of women who just can’t stop themselves sharing, which isn’t too far from that stereotype of ‘the loud mouth’, the fishwife, that inane, mundane female babbler. There’s this perception that little girls are chatterboxes and continue to be so into womanhood. Looking into the actual research in this area, though, is confounding because the linguistic reality is so at odds with our cultural perceptions.

In a study by linguist Marjorie Swacker, both men and women were asked to describe the events in a picture, and while female participants managed it in an average of just over three minutes, their male counterparts took over thirteen. Spender did a similar experiment, this time in an online environment with higher stakes: the topic in discussion was men’s literature. Over the course of 5 weeks, men contributed around 70% of the total words in the discussion. There were two days in that whole period where women said more than men – and on both of these days male participants actually complained about being drowned out. Woman don’t talk more than men. (Recognising, of course, that we can never really say ‘what women do’ and ‘what men do’ without generalising and homogenising, but speaking in terms of tracked trends.) But they do talk more than silence, and plenty of female linguists have come to the conclusion that that’s what we must be measuring women against whilst this myth continues to pervade.

We also have this idea that what women talk about is different from what men do. Words like ‘gossip’ are gendered, and we tend to assume that female conversation revolves around feelings, people, and other small-talk, rather than ‘things’ and politics. We might consider, if this is true, what it has to do with how gendered roles influence the conversation at our disposal, or we might think about how ridiculous it is to have an idea of what ‘female conversation’ looks like that could possibly come close to capturing the content of every woman-to-woman conversation in all the contexts of all the conversations taking place right now and throughout history.

Finally, we still like to believe certain things about the way women speak. Ever since linguist Robin Lakoff published her list of ‘women’s language’ features (based purely on anecdotal evidence) the linguistic community has, like the general one, had a script from which it assumes women will speak, and according to which it can judge and analyse their deviance from the male norm. Women, as propounded by Lakoff and the cultural consciousness from which her ideas sprung, use more empty adjectives, more super polite forms, more hedging, more conditional constructions. In short, fewer of the features that we would traditionally see as ‘powerful’.

But let’s think about what the reality might be. Some amazing studies by feminist linguists like Pamela Fishmann and Victoria DeFranscisco have shown us pretty damningly that it is women who ‘do the conversational shitwork’. That they’re certainly not the ones who are responsible for the majority of delayed, minimal, or absent responses. That they’re likely to ask more questions, to use more attention beginnings (‘Guess what?’, ’This is interesting…’), and more facilitative tag questions (‘wasn’t it?’, ‘wouldn’t you say?’) in order to engage their conversational partner. Male ‘statements’, by the by, which tended to be speaker-focussed and require far less conversational effort than women’s questions, were still, in the studies, two times more likely to elicit a response. This speaks volumes for the way we value the contributions of one gender in conversation.

In short, women have been proven to work harder to facilitate conversation than men, not least because it is expected of them, because it is viewed as part of ‘gender activity’. Those ‘powerless’ features that are supposedly characteristic of women, those maybes and coulds and don’t-you-thinks, might be better described as co-operative, considerate, facilitative, listener-oriented. Maybe it seems like women talk more because they’re the ones, as Fishmann puts it, who are doing ‘the active maintenance and continuation work’ in most of our conversations.

Maybe we’d do better to see ‘women’s talk’ as a valuable form of social interaction, and a necessary one when we think about the intersections between conversation and mental health. Maybe there’s something incredibly productive about talking, something uniquely important about natter. Maybe we’d do better to start celebrating and encouraging those voices which are keeping our conversations going.

Image source: Canva

Little Miss Chatterbox

Lucy Bell 

When I was little, I was often, affectionately (I think anyway), referred to as “Little Miss Chatterbox”. As far as I can recall, this was not used as an insult, or as a way to tell me essentially to shut up – it was just a way to describe me. So when, exactly, did I go from being the chatty one to being the loud one? When does talking become something that can be used against us, become more of an insult than simply a personality trait?

Not so long ago, when involved in a discussion with someone at school over America’s gun legislation, rather than present a reasoned argument to counter mine, the person I was debating it with referred to me as “hysterical” and “screeching”. I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I was furious. He may have been somewhat correct – I was becoming frustrated with the discussion, and it was something I was passionately sure of my opinion upon. Yet why should this be something I should be ashamed of? Why should this be something that can be used against me? I have never heard the words “hysterical” or “screeching” used to refer to a male, so why is it that this is how arguments against women can be won: by attacking their way of argument rather than the argument itself?

Now, studying at Cambridge, I think I probably remain the loud one. In the first few weeks, it was something I was incredibly conscious of. I know that I have a tendency to talk someone’s ear off, particularly if I’m meeting an abundance of new people and I’m a bit nervous (Fresher’s Week in a nutshell.) However I’m also pretty vocal in supervisions. In my eyes, this wasn’t something I expected to be an issue – yet I quickly noticed the pointed glances or rolling eyes when I chipped in again, or stopped to ask a question. Before long, I noticed that I began to censor myself – I tried to speak less, or to wait longer before answering, leaving, more than once, some uncomfortably long silences. But about halfway through term, as I began to become more confident in my surroundings, I started to question my new behaviour. I came to the realisation that if I wasn’t going to be myself here, If I wasn’t going to work hard and offer my opinions in my supervisions, thereby making the most out of them, then I was doing myself a disservice.

Maybe I do just talk too much sometimes. I know I probably do, and I certainly am making more of an effort to talk less, and listen more. (Burr’s line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton comes to mind: ‘Talk less, smile more’ – yet Hamilton’s response to this is ‘You can’t be serious?’) But I don’t think that being the loud one is something I should be ashamed of or try to change. If that’s how people are going to see me, I may as well make the most of it. Because being loud doesn’t have to be synonymous with being obnoxious, or being rude. To me, it means having the confidence (or getting there) to share my opinions, and to challenge others on theirs; to ask the question when I don’t understand something, and to answer it if I do. So if I have learnt anything in my journey to Cambridge and my first term here, it’s to embrace, and utilise, being the loud one.

Some of our favourite art by women

Cambridge Girl Talk committee (cover art by Anna Curzon Price)

Inspired by the amazing women’s art in the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Fitz, the inspiring New Hall Collection talk given by Katy Hessel (founder of the Instagram account, @thegreatwomenartists) on women artists 1550-1945, and especially by the announcement of our exciting upcoming art exhibition in Murray Edwards bar (the location of many of the best pieces by women in the world), the Cambridge Girl Talk committee decided to collate some of our favourite art by women. Here are our selections and what we have to say about them.

Bea on Alice Palser’s figures:

Alice Palser, who sadly passed away in 2015, was an extraordinarily talented artist who trained at the Slade school of art then went on to teach in schools in Suffolk. Amongst watercolour and oil paintings, she crafted figures of African women, using clay and resin, inspired by her childhood in Africa. These women sit or stand tall with disproportionately long bodies and longer feet.

Growing up, I didn’t see the appeal of her sculptures that my parents would be tempted into buying each time we ‘nipped in to’ Craftco, an independent art shop in Southwold. I have since grown particularly fond of them. They are simple but not understated and hold their own in our sitting room amongst bright coloured walls and furniture. Her work is clever and poignant and she imparted a sort of strength into her figures. They feel like a physical representation of powerful women and, particularly to me, of the inspiring women in my family.

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Image source: thestudio-gallery

Blanca chose the 1801 Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers:

I had seen this portrait before as a child in the Met and in passing on art journals and collages. I remember always being pacified by the glow and calm in this woman’s private space, with the subtle determination in her somewhat innocent look.

However I only found out its turbulent history at Katy Hessel’s 20th October talk on women artists. For a long time this painting was attributed to Villers’ mentor and contemporary, Jacques-Louis David, and was only recognised as Villers’ work in 1995 when Margaret Oppenheimer convincingly proved that it was by her, and was maybe even a self-portrait.

This story infuriates me as it is just one of many examples of the tendency for historical narratives to write over women, and of the general lack of women artists displayed in major galleries. Yet the conclusion also gives me hope for women’s power in supporting each other, and for the history and future of women’s art – this piece is wonderful in its luminosity and its beautiful strength.


Image source: Wikipedia

Julia on why she identifies with 1979 Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman:

I chose this work by Sherman because there was something about the way in which the girl was looking out at an uncertain, unclear landscape, which I immediately related to. A moment of change is being represented here, and for me, that moment of change seems to be the time in which we, as girls slowly turning into women, become aware of our bodies and presence. We grow confident with ourselves as we change or we attempt to shroud parts of our form. The thoughtful way in which the woman in the photograph is standing, her hands drawn back in a reserved manner and her head turned towards the darkness, surveying it, pervades a curiosity without any inclination to follow the white line on the tarmac as it snakes into greyness. What I like about this is that it focuses not only on the comprehension that girls standing on that brink of change understand that their bodies will change and the way that they are viewed will alter as time goes on, but it puts a greater emphasis on that individual girl’s very thought process. It is not her body which is the focus but rather her head as the viewers imagine what she is projecting in her mind on to that landscape. It reminds us of what we hoped and feared for, and still do, in those periods of transition. Sherman allows us to stand in her place, for it is a photograph of the artist herself, for a second and imagine with her what lies beyond- our experiences are linked to hers for that short snippet of time.


Image source: The Tate

Anna writing about Mie Olise:

Mie Olise combines sculpture, monumental painting, abstract impressions of places and drawings on site. A lot of her work is based on her visits to failed utopian spaces – such as The Pyramid in Russia. She makes the process of how we carve out inhabitable spaces for ourselves and create domestic environments look magical. And she does this by creating work on the monumental scale which is normally associated with male artists such as the American Abstract expressionists.

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Keeping an eye on the depths (2009) – source:

Phoebe and Work in Progress by Jann Howarth:

American pop artist Jann Haworth’s accreditation has waned over time, likely due to her decision to focus on her family instead of her art – a decision every woman is entitled to. Her most famous work, however, is incredibly famous, being the sleeve art and album cover for the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). The artwork is often solely attributed to her husband, Peter Blake, despite it being a collaborative design. Haworth, however, has continued to re-examine and rework the piece. In 2005 she redesigned the piece as a mural in Salt Lake City, changing the crowd to include 50% women and racial diversity. Then, on the dawn of what was supposed to be the election of the first female President of the United States, Haworth created another re-working of the collage that depicts 180 women who have shaped the world through a variety of fields – ‘Work in Progress’. (She says she’s far more proud of her redesigns, and no longer listens to the Beatles.)

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Image source: Deseret News

And lastly, Alicia chose a video work by Martha Rosler!

Martha Rosler is an eminent artist and theorist, as well as a leading voice within feminist critical discourse. In her renowned video work Semiotics of the Kitchen Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularized by Julia Child in the 1960s. Standing in a kitchen, she goes through the alphabet from A to Z, assigning a letter to the various tools associated with women’s domesticity and work. Wielding knives, a nutcracker, and a rolling pin, as she goes along her gestures sharply punctuate the rage and frustration of oppressive women’s roles. The violent gestures demonstrated by Rosler link to the sense of pent up anger and frustration felt by women trapped in constrictive and gendered roles and can also be seen as relating to domestic abuse.  Rosler was interested in the dichotomy between public and private video and confronts the public image of the happy and fulfilled housewife with this video. Her violent persona serves as a foil to the false nature of TV cooking programmes such as Julia Childs. Instead Rosler reveals the real experience of many women in the role of housewife, voicing the frustrations of confinement and the experience of domestic abuse.

The women who worked for peace

Rachel Cox 

100 years ago from last Sunday, an armistice was signed, bringing the First World War to an end. In the years which followed, conferences and treaties were drawn up to agree on the terms of peace. The process was dominated largely by men – all the representatives at the Paris Peace Conference were male, whilst the ‘Big Three’, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, pushed for their countries’ interests as the settlements dragged on. But there were women too, working tirelessly to create a peaceful world in the years after WW1. Their work has had a much longer-lasting impact, yet their names are seldom mentioned when the end of the war is discussed.

One such woman was Dr Harriette Chick. While those at the Paris Peace Conference were arguing over territory and reparations, Harriette was more concerned about the terrible living conditions and food shortages in the collapsing Austrian Empire and the devastating effect this was having on the health of Austrian children. With a team of female scientists, Harriette began investigating the relationship between the poor nutrition these children were receiving and the symptoms they displayed. She discovered that nutritional deficiency was one of the main causes of rickets, allowing her to develop cures for this and other diseases in the form of vitamin supplements. Harriette not only managed to save hundreds of children that she encountered in Austria, but also made discoveries that continue to be used in modern medicine.


Dr Harriette Chick – source: foodheroesandheroines

Concerns about starvation and disease among the children of Austria and Germany were shared by Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb. Outraged that the British naval blockade was still causing food shortages in Austria and Germany even after the armistice had been signed, Eglantyne joined the Fight the Famine Council, which had been set up in 1919 and aimed to force the British Government to end the blockade. Her actions while campaigning for this cause led to her arrest, but while on trial, the judge was so moved by her case that he voluntarily paid the fine that was to be her punishment. The sisters took this money and put it towards a new fundraising project, which they called the “Save the Children Fund”. This time, their efforts had greater success and attracted much support from the British Public. By the end of 1920, Save the Children had raised an equivalent of £8,000,000 in today’s money. The sisters continued to fight for the rights of those affected by war throughout their lives. Dorothy campaigned for the protection of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, while Eglantyne presented the Declaration of the Rights of the Child at the 1924 League of Nations convention. This declaration led to the creation of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which organisations such as UNICEF continue to use as the basis of their work. The Save the Children organisation also continued to grow, and remains one of the most major organisations that provide aid to children affected by war in areas such as Syria and Iraq.


Eglantyne Jebb at her Save the Children desk, 1921 – source: The History Girls 

At the same time, another non-profit organisation was being created by a group of women who hoped to prevent future wars by studying the causes of previous conflicts. Jane Addams, Marian Cripps and Margaret E. Dungan founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1919. These women argued that the lack of female politicians at this time meant women’s voices were overlooked, and so they had no opportunity to prevent war. They saw the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as overly harsh, and feared it would cause more conflict rather than maintain peace, so began campaigning for international peace initiatives such as global disarmament and an end to economic imperialism. At the time, the WILPF was often criticised as being ‘unpatriotic’, and the women involved were deemed too politically active and, as a result, ‘unfeminine’. However, Jane was not deterred and continued to travel to war-torn areas and meet with world leaders and soldiers. In 1931, she finally received recognition for her work, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first American Woman to be awarded one. Remaining devoted to her cause, she donated her prize money to the WILPF. The organisation went on to work closely with the United Nations, and to this day remains one of the few societies to have special consultative relations with the UN.


Mary McDowell and Jane Adams at a peace protest, 1932 – source: world of faces

The names of these women are not brought up nearly as much as those of the men who led the official peace-making process, but their work to support those affected by war was arguably more successful and lasted longer than the settlement drawn up at the Paris Peace Conference. While the Big Three focused on maintaining their own country’s international prestige, these women set up organisations and made discoveries that continue to save lives every day. Perhaps it is time that their stories become better known, as they remind us that when faced with the difficult task of maintaining world peace, focusing on providing for the needs of vulnerable individuals can be far more beneficial than fighting for your own county’s superiority.

Hidden figures: in conversation with Rashidat, FLY Cambridge facilitator

Anna Curzon Price (based on her conversation with Rashidat Fredrika Animashaun)

Underlying my initial interpretation of “Hidden figures” (this week’s theme) was a pretty simplistic narrative. I knew the story I wanted to write: hidden figures need to be revealed – through inculcation into the mainstream, power structures are challenged and we move towards a less racist and less sexist society.

I wanted Rashidat to provide me with a few figures whom I could actually write about and lament unfairness of their erasure from history. But what actually ensued was a far more interesting discussion which complicates this narrative. Here are some thoughts which the conversation triggered.

This is a record of the pictures and themes which I – from my position as a white female in Cambridge – found most interesting from our discussion.

Clearly I am not making any claim of being in a position to be able to truthfully represent experiences which Rashidat was trying to convey to me. Instead, I hope to use this article to provoke thinking about the different things which hidden-ness and visibility do, the different ways in which power structures make visible and hide, and the way in which resistance, too, is dependent on the negotiation of visibility and invisibility.

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On copywriting, copying and writing

Eleanor Surbey 

One of the very first “grown-up” books I ever read was Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. My dad bought me a bargain-bin copy at Walmart one summer and explained to my pubescent self that “reading this book is a requirement for your cultural education. Although Harper Lee was friends with this guy Truman Capote and everyone thinks he wrote it.” At the time, I didn’t think much of this; looking back on it, however, it sends a clear message that many people think women can’t actually write. When I read further into it, I see that women’s authorship is so often questioned: rumor has it that Harper Lee, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, and even Courtney Love used ghostwriters, despite these claims repeatedly being refuted. Ironically, more often than not, women are the ghostwriters in some form or another, whether they use male-sounding names as pen names, extensively edit manuscripts, or write in their diaries only for those same entries to be reused by the men in their lives. The truth of the matter is that many great works of literature or film are actually the products of women writers and editors.

The examples are endless. Harper Lee actually attended every single Kansas interview Truman Capote conducted as part of his preparation for In Cold Blood, and wrote up her own summaries for him to use. Dan Brown’s wife did most of the research for The Da Vinci Code. Woman editors are to thank for films such as Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, Star Wars, The Wolf of Wall Street, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and Lawrence of Arabia — the latter being one of seven films for which Barbara McLean was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Editing. Zelda Fitzgerald stated that large parts of This Side of Paradise reminded her of her missing diaries. And on top of repeatedly saving Lolita from the household fireplace, Vera Nabokov typed, proofread, edited, chauffeured, and cut up food for her husband Vladimir.

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Truman Capote signing copies of “In Cold Blood” with Harper Lee in 1966. Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis, source:

Or take Sophia Tolstaya, wife of Leo, who transcribed War and Peace seven times and significantly edited it, all while in a state of permanent pregnancy (she gave birth to thirteen children), as well as nursing and managing her husband’s estate. She did the same for Anna Karenina, too, staying up well into the night with a magnifying glass to decipher her husbands scrawl. Sophia served as her husband’s muse and was the inspiration for many of his heroines, yet her own diaries are the depressing writings of a tired woman in a difficult and complex marriage. While she certainly respected and admired her husband, she also suffered extensive emotional pain as a result of her relationship with him. At nineteen, while pregnant for the first time, she wrote “I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman”; the diaries her husband kept and forced her to read, on the other hand, involved detailed accounts of affairs with serfs as well as the sentence “there is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion.” Sonya – as she was called – was not even allowed to see her husband, who had run away ten days earlier, on his deathbed, and was kept away from him by his circle of Tolstoyans, especially Vladimir Chertkov.

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Sophia and Leo Tolstoy at their home, Yasnaya Polyana. Photograph: Corbis/© Underwood & Underwood

Continuing in the vein of families, the relationship between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy is also one involving diaries. The precise nature of their relationship has been the subject of speculation for years — some scholars believe she is the basis for the Lucy poems and some, such as F.W. Bateson, go so far as to call it incestuous — but it was certainly a friendship that was born out of the shared state of being an orphan and living in poverty. The two actually lived together relatively happily, and continued to do so even after William married his wife Mary in 1802. Mary and Dorothy transcribed many of William’s poems, just like Tolstaya. And much like how Leo Tolstoy made his wife read his diaries, Dorothy too shared her poetic and carefully detailed writings with her brother. In one entry, she minutely and precisely described some daffodils she had seen while on a walk with him. In Dorothy’s words, “some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing;” in Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” published five years later, the daffodils lie “[b]eside the lake, beneath the trees, // Fluttering and dancing in the breeze // […] Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” Dorothy’s own poetic observations of a shared experience are pillaged and reused in a poem which, from the title, emphasizes the speaker’s solitude, and erases both Dorothy’s presence in the moment and her own literary talent.

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Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere Journal”, showing the description of daffodils at Ullswater. Copyright: The Wordsworth Trust

It is at this point that I start to wonder how it is that so often parts of women’s diaries ended up in their male companions’ writings, how it is that women are so often accused of using ghostwriters, and, especially, why it is that women are so often delegated the role of editor. It would be simplistic to reduce the situation to “men who can’t come up with their own ideas make women do all the hard labor,” but sometimes it does feel as if women are delegated the task of changing and rethinking, of rephrasing, with little to no recognition. I can’t help but draw the parallel between these editors and the women in my life, who almost always seem to do a lot of the emotional labor in their relationships with men. “I devote so much love and care to him, and his heart is so icy,” could have easily been said by me or one of my friends over buttery dinner, and yet it comes from another of Tolstaya’s diary entries. The universal feeling of being looked over is echoed in these women’s roles as editors, as writers and as “ghostwriters.” But their indelible presence in great works of literature, looming and ghostly, is, at the very least, a bit of consolation — as long as it is not kept secret.

“A thing happened to me that usually happens to men!” – the un-hidden women in pre-code film

Madeleine Pulman-Jones

In 1931, in a back-lot-oriental apartment in Paris, Russian flyer Alexis (Ramon Novarro) declares to glamorously mysterious spy, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo), “I love you as one adores sacred things.” A routine compliment in melodramatic Hollywood parlance, but Mata Hari’s response is perhaps less commonplace. “What sacred things?” she asks. “God… country… honour… you,” he replies. “I come last?” she pushes, “You come first. Before anything.” He replies. He shows her his apartment, including the candle he keeps burning day and night in front of an orthodox icon. Before he can make love to her, Mata Hari asks that all the lights in the apartment be put out, insisting that he blow out the candle in front of the icon before she will let him come near her. The light of the candle casts dancing shadows across his youthful face in high-contrast black and white, “forgive me,” he whispers, and blows out the candle.


(Source –

Two years later in a back-lot-bohemian Parisian apartment in early 1933, friends George (a youthful Gary Cooper) and Thomas (Frederic March), a painter and playwright respectively, receive a visit from Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a young commercial artist they met on the train. She is the epitome of what came to define the heroines of Screwball Comedy in 1930s Hollywood. She is petite, blonde, striking, viciously witty and independent. They are both smitten with her and have been pursuing her independently for days. What differentiates this scene from a million other love-triangle scenes in Classical Hollywood cinema, is that Gilda has not come to choose between her two suiters, but to inform them that she has decided that she wants both of them. The following rapport ensues:

GILDA: A thing happened to me that usually happens to men! You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of… interesting elimination, he’s able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. It’s perfectly alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out –

TOMMY: But which chapeau do you want Madame?

GILDA: Both.

The scenes from Mata Hari, dir. George Fitzmaurice, and Design for Living, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, respectively, exemplify the sensibility of what has come to be known as “Pre-Code Hollywood.” In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code or the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known in reference to Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was enforced. The end of the 1920s had presented the already audacious films of the silent era with a new toy – sound, and a new purpose – the Great Depression. The freedom given to directors and scriptwriters by witty and suggestive dialogue opened up new possibilities for the humour and subversion that depression audiences craved. That censorship would be enforced to tame these films was almost inevitable, and what was clearly so shocking at the time was the agency and sexual status being afforded to women in these films. The code aimed to censor and restrict “indecency” in Hollywood cinema. Among the things banned or advised against in the code were any form of nudity, interracial and extra-marital relationships. In short, it was implicit in the new dictates of the code that the sexual freedoms of women be suppressed onscreen. The prelapsarian freedoms of pre-Hays Hollywood as detailed above were over.

It often strikes modern viewers as strange that the female protagonists of Hollywood films made pre-1934 are more empowered than many of their modern-day counterparts. The fierce independence of wartime heroines played by stars such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn are cemented in Hollywood’s collective consciousness, but their earlier incarnations who championed a more subversive form of female empowerment were denied a place in Hollywood legend.

The two women in the aforementioned films embody the two main categories into which women fell in pre-code films. Garbo’s performance as Mata Hari is emblematic of a host of other characters, many of which played by Garbo herself, who revel in opulence and use their mystery and sexual status to manipulate men. Garbo’s Mata Hari is in many ways the archetypal “vamp.” By contrast, Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda is an independent “modern” woman who uses her wit and intelligence to subvert gender norms. Hopkins’ Gilda is the epitome of the then nascent screwball heroine. In examining these two archetypes I might as well have chosen Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) as my vamp, or Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934) as my screwball heroine. The performances in question, though particularly shocking and evocative, are not what is essential to this study in general. What makes watching pre-code cinema today so surprising is that these archetypes which ought to restrict the portrayal of rounded, real women, often engender multi-faceted and complex portraits of women.


Mata Hari, set in Paris in the middle of the first world war, follows Mata Hari, a spy and mistress to Russian General Serge Shubin, as she falls in love with Alexis Rosanoff, Russian pilot from whom she then is asked to steal government information. When Shubin finds out that she is about to leave him for a younger man, he calls the head of the French spy bureau to inform on her, but she shoots him before he can mention the pilot’s name so as to save him from disgrace. She is eventually executed by firing squad for murder and treason. The film, at face value a superficial Hollywood melodrama, features expressionistic lighting and futuristic costumes almost worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, what is still more modern than its expressionistic lighting and avant-garde costumes is its depiction of female empowerment.

Though the narrative remains traditional in the sense that it culminates in the reformation of Mata Hari and her execution for treason, she is always in control of her interactions with men. Empowered and unafraid to fight for what she wants, Fitzmaurice never portrays Garbo’s Mata Hari as anything less than fully in control of her self-presentation and her emotions. As in many Hollywood films, pre or post-code, the female protagonist is punished at the end of the film for her earlier transgressions. Looking at this ending within the film’s historical context, this is unsurprising. However, the presentation of Mata Hari’s subversion is apparent less in details of plot and more in visual representation. The way in which Mata Hari’s head, sheathed in a gold headdress, glimmers like the head of the Virgin Mary as she lies beneath the icon in Rosanoff’s room. The powerful simplicity of her black gown and sleeked back hair before her execution. These images are not those of a submissive, traditionally feminine heroine. Coupled with Garbo’s natural magnetism and androgynous beauty, Mata Hari lies firmly outside the confines of the traditionally feminine object of the male gaze. Less than five years later, the sexual liberties of Fitzmaurice’s Mata Hari would be unimaginable.


More light hearted yet in many ways more shocking is Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. Adapted by Ben Hecht from the Noël Coward play of the same name, Design for Living’s story of a ménage a trois was deemed so scandalous that it was banned in 1934 after the enforcement of the Hays code, and was only made widely accessible when it was released on DVD in a Gary Cooper box-set in 2005. One could easily make an argument for Ernst Lubitch being the premier filmmaker of 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. Having emigrated from Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, Lubitsch made a name for himself making sophisticated comedies. He was revered to such a degree that his subtle style became known “The Lubitsch Touch.” Though he made what are arguably his two most brilliant films after the code, Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1941), Design for Living is his most daring and exciting film, and quite possibly the most subversive of the era.

Making a film about a ménage a trois alone would have been shocking, but what is so unusual about the film is the agency it affords its female protagonist. It is Gilda who proposes she live with Tommy and George, just as it is Gilda who sets up the ground rules for their life together, “no sex – it’s a gentleman’s agreement!” she exclaims as the three shake hands. Of course this agreement doesn’t last for long. Gilda ends up flitting from one man to the other, unable to make up her mind about who she loves best, destroying the boys’ friendship in the process. Ultimately they reunite as a trio, with George and Tommy rescuing her from the boring husband she married in an attempt to forget them. The final shot of the film of three of them sitting together in the back of a taxi cab has become somewhat iconic – first Gilda kisses George, then Tommy, then they shake hands again on their “gentleman’s agreement,” fade to black.

On the surface, Gilda’s intellectual status compared to the boys is more conventional. In the same scene in which Gilda suggests the three of them live together, she declares that she is going to devote herself to the improvement of their work, she says:

“We’re going to concentrate on work. Your work. My work doesn’t count. I think both you boys have a great deal of talent, but too much ego. You spend one day working, and a whole month bragging. Gentlemen, there are going to be a few changes. I’m going to jump up and down on your ego. I’m going to criticize your work with a baseball bat. I’ll tell you everyday how bad your stuff is till you get something good, and if it’s good, I’m going to tell you it’s rotten till you get something better. I’m going to be a mother of the arts.”

While declaring that her work “doesn’t count,” she simultaneously asserts her own intellectual prowess and her confidence in her judgement, embracing maternal patronage as a source of empowerment. Perhaps this is all we could hope to expect from a film of the period, but at any rate, Gilda’s prioritisation of the boys’ work is not simply submissive. Just as Mata Hari’s independence and power shines through the oppressive Hollywood tropes of exoticism and sexism, Gilda’s intelligence and intellect is covertly expressed through humour and glamour.


We cannot say with the certainty of a Hollywood “fade-to-black” that women were uniformly and consistently portrayed as liberated in pre-code Hollywood. What we can do is identify a kind of proto-feminism in this bubble of cinema history and an exciting subversion that allowed for the portrayal of more rounded women. These women, unlike those of today’s Hollywood output, were not hampered by years of censorship and societal pressures – cinema was a blank canvas for the 30s’ “new woman.” Whether or not we can wholeheartedly endorse these films as feminist, their female protagonists are tantalizingly glamourous and empowered in a way we, unfortunately, are not accustomed to watching in today’s mainstream cinema.

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