More than meets the eye

Diversity – and equality – is something I think about a lot. I am very biased, but I was fortunate enough to be raised by a brilliant feminist mother, who proudly sports a t-shirt proclaiming “This is what a feminist looks like”. As a result I developed a deep-set, unshakeable and core belief early on that there should be equality between men and women. And perhaps given I am also a woman, when I think about diversity and equality I tend to focus on gender.

Recently though I’ve been part of a few conversations about other kinds of diversity, parts of our identity that may not be visible to the eye but that can be just as important. Its been genuinely thought-provoking.

The first was centred around the concept of need. As I’ve mentioned on here many times, I’m a Trustee of an amazing charity Young Women’s Trust, which helps young women trapped in low or no pay. In the years I’ve been working with the charity I’m still struck by the number of young women we help who, on paper, don’t meet the traditional definition of being ‘needy’. They may well have a degree, come from lower middle income homes. But after graduation they find themselves unable to secure work, falling into a soul-destroying downwards cycle of weekly trips to the Job Centre, whilst claiming benefits and sending out countless C.V’s not to get even a single acknowledgement back. The repercussions on mental health, self-esteem and well-being are horrific.

I was moved to tears by a recent anonymous YWT case study by a woman who suffered awful childhood abuse, spent her teens battling depression, anxiety and self-harm, stuck on long waiting lists to get help. But she did well at school and then at university. In her own words:

“My academic record disguised the carnage that was my private life…I had a series of abusive relationships…violence and abuse had been part of my life for so long that I didn’t even recognise there was a problem.”

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From the inside looking out you can never see how it looks from the outside looking in

This time last week I was deep in the intellectual buffet that is the Hay (formerly known as Literary) Festival in Wales. Spanning just over a week its a proper smorgasbord of talks from incredibly talented authors, with a smattering of politicians, scientists, musicians and other entertainers mixed in for good measure. As a proper book addict who is dangerously close to filling her eighth bookshelf – with no immediately obvious space for a ninth – it was literally my heaven.

Whilst Margaret Atwood discussing her Handmaid’s Tale had to take top spot, I would be hard pressed to choose a clear second between the other events I attended, because they were. Just. All. So. Good. My reading wish list for at least the next couple of months is completely full up.

That said, there were two authors whose stories especially struck me, each discussing something seemingly quite different yet with a common shared vein.

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GALs and Visonaries*

As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve just finished reading Mary Beard’s ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’ (which has now been book-napped by my mother, and I will be taking back for a second read very soon!) It really took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to have such light sharply shone on things about the relationship between women and power, or how women in power are treated, that I’ve either never noticed or had never thought about the implications of.

On Friday I wrote about how powerful women through history were often made more ‘masculine’, or effectively had their femininity removed, in order to make them more acceptable, just like the ancient Greek goddess Anthea. I mentioned there was one other thing that had struck me reading the book.

That was the discussion about women speaking about women’s issues. And how Mary brings into question whether this is done just because women want to, or because this is the ‘safe’ space we are allowed to comfortably occupy, front and centre, in the public sphere. She looks back – obviously – to the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the few examples of women who were allowed to “publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole” and even then only in “extreme examples”. She also points to a few more modern-day examples where the public speeches made by women which we hold up and laud are often women speaking about ‘women’s issues’. The implication being that the well known speeches made by men in contrast are much more diverse.

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