The Vagenda List of the Quietly Awesome

From ITV's Agenda to the comedian Tiffany Stevenson, a run-down of the people and causes Rhiannon and Holly feel deserve broader recognition in 2013.

Welcome to our List of the Quietly Awesome: a collection of British feminists who we think deserve a Vagenda accolade at the beginning of 2013. Thanks for all the good work, ladies and gentlemen! Any further suggestions of awesomeness are, of course, thoroughly welcome.

Kat Banyard

The founder and director of UK Feminista and author of The Equality Illusion is one of the UK’s leading young feminists, so not exactly under-the-radar. However, her lack of Twitter profile and commitment to grassroots activism makes her something of an anomaly - someone who, it’s fair to say, goes beyond mouthing off. UK Feminista is currently campaigning on a range of issues – from 1 March vote on plastic surgery advertisements to addressing violence in teenage relationships. Get involved here.

WOW Festival

The Women of the World Festival at the Southbank has a plethora of lovely feministy stuff lined up next month (6-10 March), including talks, debates, comedy, music and film, all of which aim to celebrate women in an innovative and inclusive way. They’ve got Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, Julie Walters, and Jenni Murray, as well as a feminist corner for the under-10s (seriously), Hadley Freeman discussing fashion, and Criptease, a neo-burlesque performance celebrating disabled women’s bodies (tagline: "it’s diversity gone wild!") It sounds like the Sun’s worst nightmare, which is why you should totally go.

 

Tiffany Stevenson

Actress and comedian Tiffany Stevenson is genuinely engaging and brashly hilarious, discussing everything from Grazia’s bizarre fashion obsession with the under-5s to whether seeing a dress in M&S and thinking "hmmm…maybe" means you’re officially getting old. When we saw her a couple of months ago at a Stand Up To Sexism Gig we were amazed not to have heard of her before, despite the fact that she seems to have worked with everyone from Ricky Gervais to Stewart Lee. See her website for upcoming gigs and festivals.

Education for Choice

Education for Choice is a charity supporting young people’s informed choice on abortion, through workshops for London schoolchildren, professional training, and providing resources and materials for teenagers, parents and teachers. It has recently been absorbed by Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity. In providing accurate, non-biased information to those who need it most, they’re performing an incredibly valuable service in a society where sex education still doesn’t seem to be considered a great priority. For more information or to ask them visit your school, go here.

Stella Creasy MP

The Labour/Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow is making a name for herself as one of the politicians at the forefront of feminist campaigning. Her commitment to the One Billion Rising movement has seen her calling on the government to support an end to violence against women and to rethink sex education in schools. Having been mistaken for an underling in the lift at the houses of parliament, and declared "quite bummable for a Labour MP" by a Tory activist, it’s fair to say that she has experienced sexism firsthand and is campaigning tirelessly to put a stop to it. Find out more at her website.

This Petition

One of the things we feel most strongly about is women’s limited access to emergency contraception, which, believe it or not, remains a problem in the UK. It’s our firm belief that the General Pharmaceutical Council needs to prohibit pharmacists from refusing services on religious or moral grounds, as this can result in judgmental and often traumatic attitudes towards women who did nothing more than seek out the morning-after pill. This petition, calling for an end to this policy, was set up by Liz Morrow after she was refused the morning-after pill herself. Sign and share if you agree that your right to contraception shouldn’t hinge on one person’s religious views.

Girl Guides

In the last year, the Girl Guides have made a concerted effort to shake off their old reputation as inoffensive local youth clubs with novelty badges. In January they announced (and the Telegraph reported, in tones of abject hysteria) that they were considering the removal of God and the Queen from the oath; weeks earlier, waves had been made when their new head, who hails from the upper echelons of the Family Planning Association, described the Girl Guides as the "ultimate feminist organisation". Their 2012 Girls’ Attitudes Survey conducted national research into the attitudes of young girls on such diverse issues as culture, education, health, environment, and relationships - and they intend to send out another this year that addresses issues such as sexual pressure and slut-shaming. 

Women’s Institute

Similarly to the Guides, the WI has modernised massively in the twenty-first century. Their local groups are hugely diverse in age and offerings - community meetings for new mothers making homemade chutney operate comfortably alongside regular protest groups, and others like the Dalston Darlings, who have hosted debates on the meaning of modern feminism, cocktail classes, and taxidermy demonstrations (for which they were apparently ejected from a pub.) As the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK, they get their oars stuck in on a variety of very worthy issues, including midwifery and maternity, mental health issues, and ethical food. Despite one rogue member referring to us as "aggressive-looking harridans with nothing to say about jam-making" on Facebook, we retain a lot of love for the institute’s work.

Team AWOT

Team AWOT - which, for those not permanently sutured to their social networks, stands for Awesome Women of Twitter - is a community of women who found each other through the art of the tweet and put together a network based upon the two central tenets of gin and cake. From these humble beginnings, AWOT has become a huge success, with regular networking events, a community blog discussing women’s issues (everything from "what’s a Marxist Darwinian anarchist feminist?" to what should you expect at a smear test?"), and a jobs board. Their website is highly recommended for the woman who likes her bitesize communication at 140 characters or less.

ITV Agenda

In a move that aimed to counteract gender-based panel show controversy - where the "token woman" appears, is subject to unfair and usually negative scrutiny throughout, and functions as a cautionary tale for any other female in the public eye who thought she might try out telly - ITV’s year-old creation, The Agenda, always hosts two male and two female panellists. An interesting social experiment which boasts an eclectic list of guests: Germaine Greer, David Cameron, Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Ross Kemp have all made appearances.

J K Rowling

Our final word goes to J K Rowling, who became the first person to lose her billionaire status as a result of philanthropy this year. Having written the Harry Potter series as an unemployed single mother on benefits - and having spoken at Harvard, post-success, about having felt like "the biggest failure possible" as she started work on the books - hers is a characteristically British story that champions the underdog. And it comes complete with inspirational ending.

Who have we missed? Nominate your own Quietly Awesome People below, or tweet us @vagendamagazine

POW! (Ssh.) Photo: Etsy Ketsy/Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.