A hundred years of equality, hmm? Before we roll out that green, purple and white bunting let’s review. We’re told we have equal rights, but in the century following women getting the vote we’ve seen that universal suffrage was only the beginning. In 2017, we may have the same rights as men in law, but we know our role, our visibility and our power as women in this society is far from equal. Our stories aren’t valued in the same way.
As the essayist Rebecca Solnit writes: “We are our stories; stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison. We make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others – stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
Again and again men’s stories are given prominence – in the media and publishing, in culture and in politics. Our daughters are told that they’re ‘just as good’ as boys, but society tells them in a hundred ways, every day, that they’re secondary. Girls understand at a very young age that they’re judged on how they look over what they say and do, and punished if they deviate from cultural norms. So they learn how to navigate a world that has subtly different expectations for women than men – typically, by absorbing the language of silence. Self-censorship: the oldest, saddest and most pervasive kind of erasure.
We learn to bite back a sharp retort, rise above it, keep schtum and hope it’ll blow over. We learn a series of automatic responses: to swaddle emails in apologetic phrases, to laugh gamely at hurtful banter, to curate public personas attractive to patriarchy. We listen to that insidious inner voice telling us ‘who’d want to read about my life? There’s nothing special about me.’
It’s not easy, but we can begin to unlearn these old lessons. In my own writing – across essays, poetry, fiction and journalism – I’ve understood the strange and wild joy that comes from making a narrative out of one’s own experience that resonates with others. I’ve also gained so much understanding and inspiration from reading about other people’s lives. I believe that sharing stories is how we create empathy and enlightenment – the best of humanity. Empowering people to tell stories from their own lives is something I’m very passionate about, and that’s why I was so happy to be involved in this project.
Of course, we can’t hope to redress centuries of inequality with one project. But what Women’s Words can do is empower women to share stories from their lives, here in this city where the fight for gender equality put down such strong roots. There is a current joining the work of Mancunian suffragists such as the Pankhursts, Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth and the many Manchester women coming together for this glorious collective effort. Telling stories is a hopeful and political act. Recording our struggles and triumphs, our frustrations and small joys and the quotidian song of our specific existence is important work. Only by doing this can we ourselves really understand that our stories are worth sharing and hearing, and teach our daughters and sons to value them equally. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do.
*Kate is running the “My Own Story” workshop in Chorlton this coming Saturday – November 4th from 14.00 – 16.00.
Deadline for submitting your story to the archive is the 24th of November.