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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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.