In her new book, Do it Like a Woman, Caroline Criado-Perez tells her story of campaigning for women’s rights and dealing with the cyber backlash after she proposed that a woman, Jane Austen, should appear on banknotes. Ellen Orange was inspired by her passionate talk at Durham Book Festival.
In July 2013 the Bank of England confirmed its intention to have Jane Austen on one of its bank notes, making Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign for better representation a success. However this announcement sparked a torrent of abuse for Criado-Perez and other women, including rape and death threats. This highlighted for the journalist how much women’s voices were being silenced, and so she has fought back, releasing her first book Do it Like a Woman, which tells the stories of women all across the world who are fighting for their voices to be heard.
Forgetting to bring her book onto the stage, Criado-Perez was funny, accessible and identifiable from the get go. She was constantly joking, laughing at herself and even condemning herself for being a bad feminist, despite her success, making her an instantly likeable speaker.
When she finally had her book, she chose to read from the section “Speaking Like a Woman,” emphasising the importance of voice, and the idea of speaking out as themes in her book. The extract was an empowering and heart-breaking portrayal of the difficulties, oppression and violence experienced by Afgan women who are attempting to find a voice through traditional poetry.
for no malicious reasons, women have simply been overlooked because they are underrepresented
The discussion beyond this was fascinating, as Criado-Perez reeled off statistics that continue to be shocking about the representation and treatment of women. Incredibly well-researched, she addressed issues which I had never even considered, such as the idea that, in medicine, treatments have traditionally been developed using the male body as standard, not accounting for the fact that women may be affected differently by certain drugs or that they may present different symptoms of illness, for example in the case of heart attacks. This kind of oversight is what she referred to as the ‘male default’, where for no malicious reasons, women have simply been overlooked because they are underrepresented.
Her responses were passionate and dynamic, illustrating her investment in the issue. Equally her examples were well balanced between generalised statistics and individual anecdotes from different women, which allowed her to avoid depicting one single female viewpoint but to show the diversity of issues faced.
The main issue she pointed towards was the prevalence of unpaid care-work that women conduct and the social impact this has, even in developed countries; whether it is caring for children, elderly parents or ill relatives. She argued that these roles of carer are seen as secondarily important to public facing roles and that they are dominated by women, often preventing progression in other aspects of their lives.
The solution to these issues? A female perspective, she argues, which is why representation is so important. This includes having role models that allow women to aspire and live up to their potential.
As well as being incredibly educational and thought-provoking, the discussion was funny in a number of places, with Criado-Perez using it to emphasise that we are all ‘human beings’. This notably occurred in a discussion on ‘manspreading’ and how men and women use physical space, in which she became distracted by perceiving how gendered codes of conduct have been internalised and were being demonstrated in the very room. She was crossing her own legs, while she noted a man in the front row was ‘spreading’, inciting laughter across the audience.
Equally when asked about how to deal with people who rank issues as being more or less important she offered the wisdom that ‘any injustice is still an injustice,’ followed by the more personal reaction ‘honestly I would just ignore people like that, they are idiots,’ causing another outburst of laughter from the room.
Criado-Perez’s open and frank style was inviting and accessible and, alongside her passion, made for an engaging discussion on contemporary feminist issues, which have certainly given me, if not others, food for thought.
Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.