On Wednesday 30th July, two other members of the Belle Jar team and I travelled up to London to see Mary Beard in conversation with Laurie Penny at Conway Hall. Mary is head of Classics at Cambridge University, and Laurie is a journalist who writes for The New Statesman and The Guardian. Given we also speak publicly about feminism through this blog, hearing these women speak about their academic and journalistic experiences of sexism was of profound importance to us budding writers.
The event was chaired by Helen Lewis, the deputy editor of The New Statesman. She welcomed the audience, and pointed out Caroline Criado Perez, who was seated in the front row. The evening began with a slideshow of screenshots of the horrific trolling and abuse Caroline received on twitter in 2013. Mary Beard received similar abuse when she appeared on Question Time in the same year. Laurie Penny is also no stranger to online abuse. The slideshow and subsequent discussion demonstrated that regardless of what Caroline was campaigning for, what Mary was discussing, or what Laurie was writing about; their voices were not wanted in the public sphere because they were female. This was the main topic of the evening; why are we so afraid of outspoken women?
Mary was asked about how she dealt with sexism as a young academic. She said it was easier to deal with in the days before the internet, but it was still a persistent problem. She found the internet ‘revelatory’ because it exposed the pre-existing misogyny inherent in society.
Mary also spoke of how at seminars for female businesswomen or entrepreneurs, many speakers advise women to deepen their voices (like a man) in order to gain the attention and authority of their colleagues. Laurie Penny added that women’s voices are always branded as insufficient or dehumanised; they are ‘shrill’ or they ‘shriek’; they are never just opinions, they are invasive, irrelevant noise. Mary urged women to speak as themselves, to not dismiss things with laughter or a smile and to ‘bloody answer back’ in your own voice. With regards to voicing opinions on the internet, Laurie Penny dubbed modern women’s online opinions as ‘the mini-skirt of the internet.’ Regardless of the topic she was writing about; from politics to the idea of having a pet owl; her opinion was questioned because of her gender, not her profession.
Laurie gave some fantastic advice towards the close of the discussion. When asked by an audience member how she prioritises her feminist activism without physically, and emotionally burning out; Laurie replied that we must ‘kill the idea of the perfect feminist who has infinite time to challenge every instance of sexism’. As women, we are taught from a young age to burden ourselves with the responsibilities of others, and that can at times be overwhelming. Laurie urged the audience to fight for what they believe in, to pick their specific battles and to not feel like it is their assignment or duty to fight every feminist battle. I may be exaggerating; but I’m sure I heard the room breathe a collective sigh of relief afterwards.
The quote of the night undoubtedly, came from Mary Beard. When asked by an audience member what she thought of the recent online movement ‘Women against feminism’, Mary replied: ‘I think it’s a triumph of modern feminism that women are against it’. The audience applauded Mary’s wit, and collectively shared in said triumph.
Laurie Penny then added that ‘it doesn’t matter if some women are against feminism. Feminism isn’t against them, and that’s what matters.’
Ultimately, neither Mary, Laurie, nor Helen could provide a solid answer about why society is still fearful of women’s voices; they did, however, provide insightful and useful discussion about the issues surrounding women’s public voices. We all left Conway Hall that evening feeling inspired, and more importantly; empowered.