In Conversation with Baroness Cohen

Interview by Xanthe Fuller

Baroness Cohen is a senior lawyer and Labour peer. Graduating from Newnham College with a B.A. in Law in 1962, Janet Cohen went on to forge a colourful career as a solicitor, civil servant and merchant banker, culminating with her appointment to The House of Lords in 2000. She was formerly Director of the London Stock Exchange for over ten years, Governor of the BBC, Chairman of the Cambridge Arts Theatre and currently holds the position as Chancellor of BPP. A published author specialising in crime fiction, Cohen has also written 10 books. I sat down to talk with Baroness Cohen before our Women in Law event in November, and I found her impressive and remarkably likeable.

Baroness Cohen came to Cambridge for the first time when she was fifteen, as a prospective student. She fell in love with King’s, ‘fat lot of good that did me’, a college that was, at that time, a complete impossibility. The only colleges open for women in the late fifties were Newnham, Girton and the newly-founded Newhall (now Murray-Edwards). Women being few and far between was a bit of a recurring theme during Cohen’s time at Cambridge, Cohen was never supervised by a woman, ‘I cannot name you a single female lawyer of that time who was here’. The Law School itself had 702 students, 700 men and 2 women, quite a contrast to the contemporary statistics, in 2014 55.9% of the admission acceptances to the Law school were by women. To look at Cohen’s professional trajectory in the civil service, merchant banking, the London Stock Exchange and the House of Lords, one could believe that she continued to face similar ratios, but in fact she ‘never had as bad a ratio as in the Cambridge Law school’.

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From left: Judge Liza Helen Gordon-Saker, Baroness Janet Cohen, and Jackie Wells.

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Bedside Table Manners

By Xanthe Fuller

Bedside tables are funny things, they are immensely practical and mundane, yet have a somewhat symbolic status. While many pieces of furniture are exchangeable – tables for desks, cupboards for wardrobes etc. – the function, or indeed absence, of a bedside table is categorical. But why is this object quite so important?

Like all tables, it is a gathering place, although in this case of objects rather than people.  It is the surface for things that have been forgotten until the end of the day and things that must be remembered at the start of the next; rings, wallets, passports, post-it notes and phones placed like monuments on day’s final table-top.

Beyond the practical, it gathers up our most valued – and secret – items. The surface, or interior of the bedside table, is littered with books we read or intend to read, diaries we fill, and pills we take. It has strong associations with sex, as the custodian of contraception, and yet is also, somewhat ironically, a well-established home for sacred texts and religious acts, with the distribution of Gideon Bibles in hotel bedside tables and the perfect space for pre-bed prayers.  Novelist and academic, Ian Sansom, states that ‘everything significant that happen to us, tends to take place in bed’, from birth, to sleep, to sex, to death itself. If this is the case, the bedside table is of great importance. It reflects who we are, what we chose to conceal and reveal, and emphasises the objects and acts that we deem most immediately important.

With the long evenings of winter stretching out, and the increasing need for warm bedside lamps, and restorative lie-ins, I asked the women of Cambridge Girl Talk to share this private space.

Alina:

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Photo of my family in Rome in 2016, in Zara Home frame

‘Confabulations’ by John Berger with Girl Talk bookmark

The Pill

Watch (grandmother’s), ring (mother’s), ring (mine)

‘Advantages of Being a Woman Artist’ poster by the Guerrilla Girls, a gift from my friend Luke

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A Not-So-Happy Birthday: Waving the Teenage Years Goodbye

Text collated by Ciara Dossett

Recently a number of my friends and I have turned 20. We’ve been joking, calling each other old ladies in our birthday cards but why are we so scared of growing older? Here, a few friends and I discuss our feelings towards entering our third decade.

Amy Baxter

On my nineteenth birthday, my coworker handed me a cup of coffee with a nostalgic sniff and said words that changed my attitude to life forever. Maybe not quite forever, but at the least a significant period of time. ‘Nineteen was the best year of my life,’ she said, and as she was a great deal wiser at twenty-five years old, I took her at her word. So, I went about the next year living my life sure that it was to be the best time I did anything. First boyfriend? Best boyfriend of my life. First term at university? Best term of my life. First time in hospital? Best hospital trip of my life.

The problem was on my twentieth birthday. I woke up, and I cried. Well, perhaps not cried outright. But I cried in my head. Because I was no longer a teenager, I was no longer living a fun and carefree life. I was twenty, and I’d have to fill in a tax return. Twenty year olds did not have the excuse of ‘just being a teenager’. They were old and full of responsibilities. No one was nostalgic for their first year of responsibilities. But I was wrong. Nineteen wasn’t the best year of my life, it was just the best year of my life so far. Twenty was actually much more fun, especially after I got an accountant to do my tax return for me instead.

India Gommo

I entered into the first hour of my 20th birthday with little outward excitement or abnormality; I was sat curled up in my bed, hair scruffily tied up, finishing a movie. Seemingly just the start of another day that just happened to be my birthday. Yet inwardly, my head was filled with a whirlwind of thoughts that produced an odd sense of a new and heightened consciousness about ageing. I was entering my third decade and the notorious stage of a quarter-life crisis: the uncertainty between teenagerhood and adulthood, between complete reliance and total independence, between recognisable youth and, as my brother so understatedly put it, ‘’the unrelenting approach of death’’. It is this paradoxical limbo of 20 that can be somewhat unnerving and overwhelming- you feel at once terribly aged (let us all gasp in horror at the realisation that Finding Nemo came out 14 years ago) yet still awfully unprepared for your future in the ‘real world’ (not least embodied in the fact that it is no longer acceptable for your Mum to book your doctor’s appointments for you). The number 20 itself is thus charged with contradiction. However, let it not be necessarily negative. This limbo, this abyss, is a turning point of change, excitement and choice! It is a year in which most of us can look fondly at our teenage years and determinedly to our future ones. 20 maintains the youthful and forgiving elements of the past while bestowing a new sense of control and maturity. From all its daunting uncertainties, there emerges freedom and adventure.

Ciara Dossett

For me, although it may seem futile, turning 20 seemed like a much bigger deal than turning 19. My fear of turning 20 partly came from regretting things things I never did. Like Theresa May, when asked what the naughtiest thing I’ve ever done is I am dumbfounded. Not only have I not done anything vaguely rebellious, I haven’t done anything particularly phenomenal either. Simone Biles is 20 and she has five gold medals and with only a slightly wonky cartwheel to my repertoire an international gymnastics career now seems unfeasible. Before I turned 20, I had somehow tricked myself into thinking that one day I would carry out one of these extraordinary feats at a young age. Now, the possibility seems unlikely.

I recently had to write an essay on British youth culture: images of Twiggy light-heartedly flying through the streets on a moped made me feel like I had wasted something, wishing I had done more with my teenage years. Perhaps this is part of the problem: so many of the images of what is seemingly the ‘epitomé of female teenage culture’ are unattainable. In so many films and TV shows teenage girls are played by older women and thus their composure and allure are impossible for us mere mortals to meet. There is a contradictory pressure in popular culture for girls to be both youthful and ‘together’. The Dancing Queen was only 17 but simultaneously young girls in many popular TV programmes, Rory Gilmore of Gilmore Girls springs to mind, seem to have their whole lives perfectly planned. From their perfectly curled hair (seriously who looks like that all the time?) to their straight A grades. In this youth culture girls are encouraged to be perfect whilst boys often receive the treatment of ‘boys will be boys’. None of my male friends, for example, seem to feel scared about turning 20. As Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, said in her 2016 Ted talk “we’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave”. This social pressure for perfection is perhaps part of the reason for my short list of youthful indiscretions.

 

Feature Photo: Siblings Sharing Birthday Party – Corbis – XX Century in Black and White Photos BBC

Not Going Home Anymore

By Alannah Lewis

My home has a changing face.

There is a pub at the end of my road where Reggie and Ronnie Kray used to drink. When I was growing up, you could catch a whiff of egg from just standing outside. They would play karaoke into the small hours and a neighbour of ours swore he once saw a rat run across the carpet. These days the pub is full of mahogany tables and William Morris wallpaper. They serve craft beer and roast chicken at the weekends. It no longer smells of egg. I am yet to see another rat.

Home is Walthamstow, E17. It is the borough in which I learned how to ride a bike, tie my shoelaces, and stopped believing in Father Christmas. It is also one of London’s poorest boroughs, where approximately 16,000 children grow up in poverty and government cuts continue to hit public sector services particularly harshly.

Home is where I went to school, where I received the best education that money couldn’t buy, and where I learned that nobody looks good in a bottle green uniform. It is the playground where I grazed my knees, it is the cold grey Church where I used to pipe out ‘Silent Night’ on the flute every Christmas Eve. Badly. Home is a dirty old shopping centre, it is Claire’s Accessories on a Friday afternoon after lessons had finished, it is rolls of strawberry hubba-bubba, it is hot salty chips and petty fights. I find that every time I go home, things get older or smaller. I’m not sure how.

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Looking into Long Evenings

By Xanthe Fuller 

In Old English the word for sunset was sunnansetlgong. It seems a strange word for such a lovely thing, with clunky consonants clinging onto the two syllables the English language has chosen to hold on to: sun & set.  But what is perhaps more strange, is the fact that there are always sunrises and sunsets, and there always have been. Over a thousand years ago, the same sun would disappear and the sky would – unless dense with clouds – glow somewhere on a soft spectrum between red and blue, and people would almost certainly notice and mention the sunnansetlgong, sharing the two of the same syllables that we form in our twenty-first-century mouths. It seems to be one of the sole certainties: that the sun will rise and it will set, the day will come and it will go.

Sunset did exist in Old English, and while it didn’t carry the meaning used today, it referred to the cardinal direction, ‘west’. Riding into the sunset, in spite of its typically romanticised connotations, is really a question of orientation. A sunset is a reminder of place and of direction, something that we have little need for in the digital age, where at no stage do you need to know whether you are heading north, south, east or west, we simply follow red virtual lines rather than being guided by the sun. However, when the sky is illuminated by the sun’s last light, we all turn to the west and try to capture it. Here is a selection of sunset photographs taken by members of the Girl Talk community. The photos are taken all around the globe, yet in each, the one certainty is that the photographer was looking to the west. There is some significance in this westerly gaze as the word ‘west’ is taken from the Latin term vesper meaning ‘evening star, evening, west’. So to admire a sunset is to look west, and to look to the west is to gaze into the evening.

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The Girl Talk Christmas Playlist

By Kitty Grady

Hark! Christmastime is here, and Girl Talk’s yuletide celebrations are fully underway with our feminist holiday playlist. From Marika Hackman and Kate Bush to Dusty Springfield and Destiny’s Child, this is festive femininity at its shimmering best. A gift-wrapped present for your ears as you trudge through your final deadlines of the term, with old favourites and new gems to discover, you won’t even notice Michael Bublé’s missing.

The Girl Talk Christmas Mingle will take place from 7.30-11pm on Wednesday 29th November at Novi. Join us for mulled wine, festive cocktails, non-alcoholic alternatives, free mince pies as well as music and singing by the Gonville Girls. See our Facebook event page for more details.

Who’s that girl? In conversation with Tamara Hill-Norton, founder of Sweaty Betty

Tamara Hill-Norton is the founder of the women’s sports brand, Sweaty BettyIt’s the ultimate active-wear brand, battling against Nike, Adidas and Puma. But Sweaty Betty is different: founded in 1998, the focus has always been on women’s activewear, rather than it being a twenty-first century after-thought. Since its launch it has gone from strength to strength, winning countless awards (one for healthiest employees!) and opening shops on both sides of the Atlantic. Here Tamara talks about the empowering effect of exercise, the endorphin-filled day-to-day of a CEO, and why she went for the name Sweaty Betty.

Interview by Xanthe Fuller 

Hello! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. First things first: how are you?

I’m really well, thank you!

To start a business is always a courageous move, but a brand exclusively for women’s activewear, that’s bold. What’s the story and how did you get there? 

I started Sweaty Betty in 1998 after spotting a gap in the women’s activewear market. At the time I was working as a buyer for Knickerbox. We started to do a little bit of sportswear, and I discovered some amazing female sportswear brands, which you couldn’t find anything like on the high street. Activewear for women was very bleak and dark at the time, there were just big, male-oriented sportswear stores. So, then, I thought, ‘Right, this is a proper gap in the market.’ After being made redundant. I took the opportunity to evolve the concept to create beautiful clothes for women who live active lifestyles.

How important is it for you that it’s a brand for women? And why? 

Incredibly important, we aim to empower women through fitness and beyond and achieving this is definitely the most rewarding aspect of my job. I love that we help women find their confidence and that we support them in their journey to becoming fitter and stronger.

Continue reading Who’s that girl? In conversation with Tamara Hill-Norton, founder of Sweaty Betty