If you follow me on social media, you might be aware there’s a correlation between the number of sticky tabs in the book I’ve just finished reading and my level of enjoyment. Here, then, is my copy of Everywoman by Jess Phillips.
Which leaves me with the question: how the hell do I review this? Well, maybe by doing something along these lines…
‘You will never be popular.’
It’s alright, I never have been. Oh, Harriet Harman was talking to you. Blimey, what had you done?
In my sixteen weeks in Westminster I had become, in some quarters, fairly unpopular both in and out of the parliamentary bubble […] In that short time, I’d marked myself out as an angry feminist.
Those two words have to go together, don’t they? You can’t just be angry about something or be a feminist, you have to be an angry feminist. But that means you’re doing something right, doesn’t it? People are rattled because you’ve got a point. I wish someone had told me that when I was sixteen and being called angry and scary. What were you like when you were sixteen?
When I was sixteen, I needed taking down a peg or twenty. I was not a quiet young woman; I was in-your-face and bold as brass. I was a teenager in the era of girl power, Brit Pop girl bands and grunge. I remember deciding that Courtney Love would play me in a film of my life…
Oh, Courtney. She was my hero. I wanted to be like her and Shirley Manson. Women who don’t give a fuck. Or, at least, that was how I perceived them. That’s what powerful women are like, right?
During one of our many chats on the phone when we try to keep each other going, Alison [McGovern] commented that she had convinced herself that she didn’t have the right sort of body to be on TV. My response was simply, ‘Bab, if you don’t, then we are all screwed.’ […] She was famously castigated for showing a bit too much cleavage on the Channel 4 news while talking economics. Not by anyone with sense; just some sexist fool who said that her ‘prominent cleavage’ distracted her male observers from hearing what she was saying.
I didn’t realise breasts worked like noise-reduction headphones. Have I been using them incorrectly? How come this doesn’t affect other women watching?
Do you worry about doing this stuff, Jess, about people watching everything you do?
I’ll let you in on a secret, I am terrified most of the time. Every single day I have to force myself out of the door, into a meeting or up onto my feet to make a speech. In my job I get invited along to lots of events […]En route, I always have to give myself a talking-to, I have to fight the constant urge to turn around and go back to the comfort zone of my office.
Thank fuck for that. Me too. What can we do to help women who can’t give themselves the pep talk though?
I am certain that to get women to say sod it and give something a go, they need cheerleaders along the way. We have to be those cheerleaders. If we see a woman with potential, we should tell her and then pester her with opportunities […]So now I am a pusher. We women will only succeed if we all start pushing each other.
On it. I’m ordering pompoms as we speak.
What if we want to get into parliament. How did you do it?
I have made no secret of the fact that I was selected on an all-woman shortlist (AWS). People often use this to assert that I was not the best person for the job, merely the best woman. Because, you know, women aren’t people apparently. I wonder if Jessica Ennis-Hill was ever told this? ‘Er, sorry, Jess, your Olympic gold medal isn’t a real one because you only competed against other women; instead we’ve given you this medal we call girlie gold.’
I’m with Caitlin Moran on this one: mediocre white men have been benefiting from selective discrimination for centuries, it’s time we did the same.
So now you’re in parliament, what sort of things do your constituents contact you about?
People really care about animals and they want to tell their MP about it. […] In 2016, a woman was murdered in the UK every three days. The number of sexual offences recorded in 2015 was the highest ever. Yet the number of emails I have had lobbying for women’s services is six; the number I have had about child abuse: eight. In the same period, I have had ninety emails about bees, 324 about foxes, seventeen about dog meat and twenty-five about dogs fighting.
Wow. I don’t have any pets so maybe I’m the wrong demographic but that seems skewed to me. Don’t people care about women being murdered?
Every day, up and down the country, people fail to compute why a woman stays in an abusive relationship. This has nothing to do with knowledge and understanding; it is entirely to do with projecting our fears and discomfort onto a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with us. We are so desperate to convince ourselves that this would never happen to us, we have to diminish the credibility of the person it does happen to in order to feel safe.
That’s uncomfortable reading. You worked for a domestic violence charity before you were an MP. Is there anything we can do to support women suffering from domestic violence (while the lengthy work of dismantling the patriarchy goes on)?
I am tired of people complaining about the lack of services for men but never piping up about the fact that there are almost no special services for older women, disabled women or women with learning difficulties. These are areas that really need a champion.
Noted. Thank you. Women supporting women is important, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be where I am without other women.
Women’s relationships and friendships are so fierce that I am not sure why we have not been able to achieve more with our collective strength. Shoulder to shoulder into the fray and all that jazz. I think it is perhaps the idea of ‘the sisterhood’ has been disputed.
I agree. I hear women regularly say there’s no such thing. There is, I’ve benefitted from it (and hope I pay it back/forwards too) but I think women – by which I mean predominantly white, middle class, cis, heterosexual women – are prone to forget that this means standing alongside women of colour, working class women, trans women, disabled women. We need to be reminded that if we want to achieve more, we need to listen and ensure we’re not just trying to further our own cause.
You go out knocking on doors in your constituency; is there anything in particular you’ve become an advocate for after listening to other people’s viewpoint on it?
…I meet single people or couples without kids who feel that they are ignored by Westminster […] This is one of the reasons why I am an advocate of the idea of a universal basic income for everyone, regardless of whether you have 2.4 children or you live on your own with seventeen cats. As someone who lived on welfare benefits when my children were little, I am constantly riled by the distinction made in Parliament between taxpayers and benefit claimants. They are the same thing; they are not two distinct groups who can be pitted against each other […] If everyone received some universal benefit from the government, we could stop the ‘othering’ of people on benefits; we could stop people who don’t have children feeling like they get nothing; we could all be in the same boat.
Yes! I’m a big fan of the universal basic income. From my perspective, also because it would allow people to pursue creative endeavours, explore new options for work. I think we’d all be more fulfilled if we weren’t worrying about how to pay the bills all the time. It might also leave people from a wider range of backgrounds able to pursue a career in politics…
Have you got any advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps, Jess? Women, in particular, because we know we need more women – from all backgrounds – in parliament.
A little bit of delusion goes a long way.
I suppose this is my Lean In moment, but I want to say in no uncertain terms to people reading this: you are better than you think. Ordinary, everyday people should be much more delusional than they are. […] Every day I meet women who say, ‘I could never do what you did.’ Or ‘How on earth did you cope with everything in your life?’ Women everywhere are convincing themselves that they don’t have the right to be in their position, or the right to get into positions. Imposter syndrome afflicts each and every one of us. I’d ask everyone who thinks they will look a fool if they speak up in a meeting to remember all the times they encountered someone who was not at all brilliant or amazing but seemed to have a really good job.
Hmmm. I’m not the only person thinking of a rollcall of white men right now, am I?
So Jess, I found your book empowering. It reminded me of all the women who’ve supported me; it made me angry about women who are marginalised, ignored and abused; it made me want to fight for change for all of us. What do you want people to take away from the book?
I hope that if nothing else, this book shows you that I am not exceptional, that I am worried and scared about using my voice. I hate it when people shout me down or call me thick, as they do every day. I always think there is someone better for the job than me. I’m just like you; you are kick-ass too, just like every woman.
Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.