Did your education and home life make you aware of sexism and gender inequality at an early age?
No, it’s something I wasn’t particularly aware of at all until relatively recently. I was a debater at school so I was vaguely exposed to those kinds of ideas but it wasn’t until after university that I became really aware of feminism.
What was the trigger that led you to start the Everyday Sexism Project?
It was just a really bad week where loads of incidents happened to occur within a really short space of time. One of them was a man who followed me off the bus all the way home, sexually propositioning me and refusing to take no for an answer. Another was a man on a bus who started groping and stroking my legs. I was on the phone to my mum and stood up and said “I’m on the bus and this man’s groping me,” but everyone else just looked out the window. It sent such a strong message to me that this is just the way things are. Then I was walking past a couple of guys working on a construction lorry and one of them said “Look at the tits on that”. If those things hadn’t happened so close together I would never have thought twice because it would have been so normal. And that’s what made me think.
What action did you take from there?
From there I started talking to other women. Because one of the common responses is that you doubt yourself. So I started asking other women ‘have you ever experienced anything like this?’ and I could not believe their responses. It was every woman I spoke to, and it was hundreds of stories, so I suddenly felt completely overwhelmed by how bad the problem was, that people had this really massive sense of ‘don’t make a fuss it’s not a big deal, women are equal now and sexism doesn’t exist’ and that made it really difficult to talk about. So very simply I started the website to put all these stories in one place, to try and make people realise how bad it still was.
How did the project evolve?
Initially it was mostly about awareness raising. I wanted to force people to see how bad the problem was and I wanted to provide a safe online space for women where their stories could be believed for the first time, and where I could create a sense of solidarity and of being part of a community, so you know it’s not your fault and you’re not alone. But it grew so quickly that it became something I hadn’t anticipated. Because it had been in the press so much, and because we had built up such a strong social media following, it was able to develop into more of a campaigning tool. So we were able to campaign to change Facebook’s policies on rape and domestic violence content, and work with the British Transport Police on an initiative called Project Guardian, which has increased the reporting of sexual offences by 25 per cent on public transport. We’ve also been able to take what we started online into the community to try and create real concrete change. I’ve been spending a lot of time going into schools and universities, talking to young people about the issues, working with politicians and using real women’s voices and stories to influence their decisions.
How important is it for gender equality to be introduced in a meaningful way in schools?
I think it’s absolutely vital. If I could name one thing that I think could make a concrete difference it would be for it to be part of the curriculum in schools, for children in schools to be learning about gender equality but also about ending violence against women, about very simple principles like what consent means and what a healthy relationship looks like. There is a real lack of understanding about these most basic principles. I talked to teenage girls who say they regularly hear the boys in their year using phrases like rape is a compliment really or it’s not rape if she enjoys it. So why we aren’t giving young people the tools to find a way through this to deal with this kind of bombardment I just don’t understand.
What will you be talking about at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival?
I’ll probably be talking about the new Everyday Sexism book which basically grew out of a desire to reach a wider audience and hopefully raise awareness among some people who may not have seen the project online. We had reached this point where we had 60,000 entries sent in from women around the world. No one has time to sit down and read all of them so the book distills and crystallises all that information into a kind of snapshot; an overview of what women are dealing with now in 2014. Unlike the project website, the book separates entries thematically, so it looks at what women are dealing with in public spaces, in the media, in education, in politics, in the home, and it looks at kind of different aspects and areas of the problem and how closely interconnected they are.
In 1914 Sylvia Pankhurst established the East London Federation of Suffragettes in Bow. A hundred years on, what further changes to public life need to be made so that men and women are equal?
I think the media have a massive impact in terms of public life and public sentiment and have a large part to play. This is in part because of how the media objectify women. Seeing women, for example, on page three sends such a very clear message to young people growing up about the role of women in society, the way we should look at and treat them. Secondly, it’s the way the media portray women in public life, so regardless of the reason why they are in the news we still hear about what women look like and whether or not they’re sexy, whether it’s Amanda Knox being described as Foxy Knoxy, or whether it’s Reeva Steenkamp being flashed on the front page of the Sun in her bikini the morning after she was killed. So I think the perception of women in public life is hugely influenced by the media but I also think it’s about increasing the representation of women in politics, in business, throughout public life in areas like science and technology, and giving them that visibility as role models so that little girls growing up can look up and say I could be that because she’s doing it.
Hackney is a borough linked to Mary Wollstonecraft, regarded by many as the first feminist. But the word ‘feminist’ doesn’t seem to appear often in your writing – is the word ‘feminism’ no longer useful in the fight for equality?
It’s not a word that I use constantly perhaps because I think there’s a real pragmatism and sense of urgency and action about this new wave of activism, this new wave of feminism, and for young people particularly I think it’s quite accessible because they see an issue, they see how it impacts them, and they feel able to stand up and take action on it. They don’t necessarily feel that they have to be signing up to a big ideology, they don’t necessarily feel like it has to be academic or something that they’ve read books about. And I think that’s a powerful and positive thing. But I always feel quite hopeful that the word feminism, in its simplest meaning of believing everyone should be equal regardless of their sex, is having a come back.
Everyday Sexism is published by Simon & Schuster UK. RRP: £14.99. ISBN: 9781471131578
Stoke Newington Literary Festival
6-8 June, Various N16 venues