Telling a different story

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Listening to my interviews with three women who have been in dispute for two years with Durham County Council, I was struck by the way all of them described themselves before they got involved with the campaign; unpolitical, lacking confidence, depressed, asleep.

The campaign had pushed them into new spheres of activity that they embraced, two of them said that having reached their 50s they thought they had to change. And in doing so, they had experienced themselves as very different people – women capable of addressing a room full of people at a Momentum conference, addressing a packed auditorium at their union’s conference, standing on picket lines, standing on bollards and addressing a crowd through a loud hailer.

One of the women spoke of how significant it had been to her that her daughter said that she was proud of her.
Their stories reminded me of the women I met in Athens who camped outside the ministry of finance week after week to save their jobs.

At City University students carried out research into women’s appearances in the news media and discovered that not only were women under-represented, they were also less likely to appear as experts, more likely to be case studies and speak as victims.

There’s a lot could be said about the separation of expertise from lived experience and the validity of drawing on emotional knowledge as well as intellectual to reflect on a situation. But the tendency to portray women as victims means that we hear stories about women who struggle, women who take ground, challenge themselves by putting themselves in situations that they never would have imagined.

The women I spoke to in Hull about their experiences of street prostitution showed remarkable resilience, wisdom and guts and I left them feeling stirred and moved, and with an awareness that I had been changed in some way by the experience of listening to their story.

One of the Durham women said when she addressed a crowd, she told women not to be afraid to speak up, even if it was often dismissed as nagging or moaning. What stores are we told about women? One of the reasons I’m enjoying watching or listening to less media is that I don’t feel awash with ideas, notions about how we are supposed to be. It seems to me we that young women in particular are supposed to be vibrant, funny, energetic, occasionally cheekily subversive, but not in a way that rocks the boat, not disruptive and not in any way that seems over the top.

How significant stories about women not acting to type become. The TAs in Durham think the councillors reckoned on them being a pushover, as women who wash paint pots and make tea don’t make a fuss. But not only has the job changed a great deal, women have pushed against their own inclination to be supportive, nurturing and not cause trouble and have learnt that they are capable of being far more determined and passionate than they had thought. Those stories that make their daughters proud also stir the spirits of other women and we need to be hearing them more.