It was sunny, for the first time in weeks. My boyfriend and I had invited his family to join us on our narrowboat as we passed through Stratford-Upon-Avon. While boyfriend steered, I set the “lock,” the (usually rusty) mechanism which fills with water or empties to allows boats to travel down or uphill. The crowds of tourists gathered — on the bridge above, slurping ice lollies or at the sides of the canal, wasting time between their Shakespeare appointments. As I’m a performer and born show-off, I revelled in the attention, working quickly to adjust the water levels — which involves a fair amount of winching — and heaving open the wooden lock “gates”. You might have seen these large wooden beams sticking out of locks across the country. They weigh about 2 tonnes each, but when the lock is working, they open with (relative) ease. You just have to pick your moment and where to push. When the boat was in and it was time to close the gates, I yelled to my boyfriend’s brother to help. He, a kind soul, leapt to it. I took the other side. Then it happened. As we struggled for purchase on the stiff gates, a girl, maybe six or seven called from above. “Look mum,” she said. “The girl is faster!”
Now, it was not a competition and I am not competitive. Much. But did I increase my already near-Olympian speed? Is Beyoncé a feminist?
“Of course a girl can be faster” I wanted to shout as I slammed the gate shut. “You can do anything you want as a girl!”
But I said nothing because that would have been weird, and anyway, I was out of breath. Of course, what that perceptive little girl didn’t know, is that of the two of us, he was a relative novice, and I was the expert. I had spent the previous week setting around 100 locks, mostly in driving rain. So it wasn’t a strength test, more of a skill test. But if she’d been asked which of the two of us knew what they were doing, would she have picked “the girl”? How often do we see female experts in our media, on adverts, on our bookshelves? I would say less than male ones. But I struggle to believe that there are fewer women at the top of their game.
I’m currently making a book, 100 Voices, which features stories by over 100 women writers on the theme of achievement. We’re hoping to publish it though the crowdfunding platform Unbound where people preorder copies to raise funds. One of the writers I’ve commissioned especially for the book sent me her piece a couple of weeks ago. In it, she talks about how she felt after seeing the US women’s football team captain lift the World Cup and cry “I deserve this”. The thought of anyone British, let alone a woman, doing this makes me turn a bit green. But, because it is something that is so rare to see, especially in a woman, the power of Megan Rapinoe’s confidence is worth talking about.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about worth. Because so often, women are made to be seen as valuable only in terms of our relationship to men. That’s not a new complaint — women were saying it 100 years ago. Is it still really an issue or do I spend too much time on feminist blogs? In Stratford, home of storytelling, the girl on the bridge and her astonishment told me it is. It seems women need to keep surprising people with our mastery of basic tasks. And as with any story you hear over again from many varied sources — we will start to believe it’s true. Women can do what men can, because we are human, too.
It seems almost trite to say it, but this is what I was thinking about when I set up 100 Voices. It was a cold Sunday evening in mid-January 2018, just under a month before the country would mark the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, the piece of legislation that permitted all men over 21 and a section of property-owning women over 30, the right to vote. It was the beginning of a long journey, one which nearly 100 years later, I did not feel was complete. On that Sunday, after a chilly swim in the local lido, where all my best ideas occur, I decided I was going to do something about it.
The year before, I had been given a “Votes for Women” badge which I wore proudly throughout 2017. People noticed it and (men) often told me “bit late for that isn’t it?” They really didn’t get the point. 100 years after we were meant to be equal, women in the UK are still paid less, have the majority of caring and domestic labour duties, suffer violence and murder (two women a week are killed by a current or former partner) and roundly objectified, oggled and talked down-to. That’s the serious stuff. But there’s also the softer, sneaky ways that women are held back.
In Parliament, 32 per cent of MPs are women, so there’s a 70% chance you’ll be hearing a male voice if you tune in to watch a debate (if the house is sitting, but that’s another story for another day…) Of 2300 works in the National Gallery, only 21 are by female artists, though we see the female form as painted by men on every wall. Just 7% of British blockbusters are written by women, though they bring in higher revenues when they get the job. And though the Booker Prize has really made an effort this year, when I started my project, only 3 different women had won it in the preceding decade.
I’m obsessed with stories, always have been, and I would say my world-view is significantly affected by the different books I read, films I see, theatre I discover… I’m not alone in this. Media, arts and words are powerful. But women are rarely the ones in control of telling our own stories. I really do believe the mantra If you can’t see it you can’t be it. I wanted to see, and hear some different stories.
So the idea came to ask women to tell their stories, to ask about what people were proud of, and to celebrate the last 100 years of progress while looking to the next. I asked the writers to record their pieces for a podcast 100voicesfor100years —because I like listening to stories and because podcasts are so intimate, like you’re in the room with the speaker. It felt like a very modern way to mark the centenary. Having had the thought, I didn’t really know where to begin. On that Sunday in January, I typed an email to all my contacts — friends, mentors, colleagues, people I admired — and told them my idea. Luckily for me, I got back a whole raft of responses telling me to go for it.
The first voice recording I received was from Rachel Barnett, a playwright, who had been forwarded my email by a mutual friend and whose piece is about learning to make lemon curd. I have yet to meet her in person, but I am eternally grateful to her because when she sent me her recording, she told me I was worth something. I posted her piece on 6 February 2018, on the anniversary of those 100 years of voting rights. Rachel’s confidence in me made me feel able to ask others. Made me believe I knew what I was doing. To tell myself “I deserve this” (actually, that phrase still makes me a bit sick). How about this — we ALL deserve better. When women are getting punched on buses for being gay, when coverage about the meeting of two female leaders focuses on their legs, we are being put in our places. Told we are only worth as much as men allow us to be.
It’s a ridiculous situation because it serves no one. Back at the lock in Stratford it didn’t matter who closed that gate first, we needed to work together, however much quicker I was (no really, I’m not competitive) . Yet the stories we are told set us all against each other, the battle of the sexes they liked to call it, but if so, it is one where certain men, with a certain idea of what these sexes mean, have designed. We need those new stories, told by new voices, to give us a new way of thinking. I’m definitely not saying get rid of the storytellers we have already. I am absolutely saying there is room for us all.
Collecting the pieces last year was a huge privilege. I listened on buses, at airports, in bed, on my lunch hour. I first heard Felicity Goodman’s piece Behind The Green Curtains outside Oval tube and spent a good twenty minutes bawling my eyes out. Some were dark, others joyful. Each one raised me up, wherever I was, because they are defiant and honest and full of the truth of what it is like to be a woman, in all its ways.
I am really excited we are making the stories from the podcast into a book, not least so that we have a beautiful artefact to commemorate our very own achievement. I want people to read the book and feel they are wandering through a brilliant house-party, discovering with every turn of the page a new writer who will welcome them into their world, whisper a story into their ears and fill their cup so they are ready for the next piece.
From Deborah Frances-White, Yvonne Battle-Felton, Sabrina Mahfouz, Eloise Williams and Rebecca Root to other brilliant women whose names you might not know (yet) the stories are inspiring, varied and deep. Like the women who wrote them. We’ve all agreed, any profits are going to support other women to get their voices heard, too.
Publishing the book means we’ll get another 110 writers into the world. It won’t happen overnight, but if we make it, and the book gets out there (we deserve this!) we’ll be helping to shift the scales a little bit. And then, if we know where to push, we might find that the lock gate opens with ease. Once their open, we can all get on with our journeys.
About the author
Miranda Roszkowski is a writer and civil servant currently living on a boat somewhere on Britain’s waterways. She has worked with the National Theatre Wales and Royal Court playwrighting programmes and has had fiction published in print and online, and been an editor of literary magazine The Mechanics Institute Review. She is the host and curator of the spoken word night There Goes The Neighbourhood in Hackney, London and is currently working on her first novel. Most importantly, she is passionate about great stories and who gets to tell them.
You can support her project, 100 Voices through award-winning publishers, Unbound.
And listen to her podcast, which inspired the book, here.