What does it mean to Do It Like A Woman in a sexist society?

After successfully earning Jane Austen a place on the £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez has turned to feminist action around the globe.

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Do It Like a Woman
Caroline Criado-Perez
Portobello Books, 326pp, £12.99

Feminism is a tradition of thought and ­political action that goes back more than 300 years. It is one of the great democratic global movements of our time, no matter what you make of its conclusions. So you would think that when Caroline Criado-Perez pointed out to the Bank of England in 2013 that dropping Elizabeth Fry as the face of the fiver and replacing her with Winston Churchill would leave us with no woman on a banknote apart from the Queen, it would have thanked her. But the Bank stonewalled. Criado-Perez took it on and launched a campaign – thanks to which we will now have the mighty Great Briton Jane Austen as the face of the £10 note.

Criado-Perez’s mother, Alison, who became a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières in her post-divorce fifties, is the maternal role model who launches this debut about women in our present day whom we must not allow to be forgotten and what it means to “do it like a woman” in a sexist society.
Criado-Perez collects the contemporary feminist equivalent of an international brigade of non-violent freedom fighters from around the globe and reminds us of their stories. The book reads as an extended and immersive piece of investigative journalism, strong on sound facts and figures, finding interconnections and then leaving readers space to draw our own conclusions.

Criado-Perez organises her subjects in five themed chapters on “doing”, “speaking”, “leading”, “advocating” and “choosing” like a woman, crossing continents in her case studies and making international comparisons within each chapter. It’s an effective structure, supporting both the personal quest and political investigations of a book that is – in keeping with Criado-Perez’s peripatetic upbringing – deftly global, not parochial.

Visibility is the price of activism and has always made campaigners vulnerable to attack. But the relentless, misogynistic Twitter terrorism of extreme and explicit rape and death threats to which Criado-Perez was subjected – just because she supported celebrating women’s achievements on a banknote – was off the scale. It is typical of her style and integrity that she spends just a few pages frankly summarising her experience in a chapter about the consequences to women of speaking out. Then she moves on swiftly to Asmaa Mahfouz, whose video calling on people to join her in Tahrir Square to protest publicly against the regime of Hosni Mubarak sparked off Egypt’s revolution; then to the still-raging controversy over the journalist Mona Eltahawy’s magazine piece “Why do they hate us?”, about women in the Arab world; and onwards to the work of Emma Norton, a solicitor for Liberty, representing the case of the Royal Military Police (RMP) officer Anne-Marie Ellement. In 2009, Ellement reported being raped by two colleagues. RMP officers investigated but no charges were brought and she was bullied and harassed. In 2011, she took her own life.

Criado-Perez pursues the incidence of unprosecuted rape in the military from the UK to the US, sifts the statistics and steps back to reflect on institutional sexual violence. Keeping her vision broad and objective, she turns her sights on development NGOs that bolster and perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence in, for example, India, with insensitive local solutions blinkered by an imperialistic white saviour complex.

These are just a few examples from a book packed with stories ranging from the mainstream to those from the margins of activist work. The pleasure of Do It Like a Woman is that it’s about other women – their campaigns, their political interventions, their stories. In a world overstuffed with tedious me-myself-and-I-as-hero-of-my-own-narrative books, Criado-Perez has had the good sense to deliver an overview that grasps the essential impetus of feminism – as collective, connective action by a diversity of women whose voices are as brave and informed as Criado-Perez’s.

Emerging clearly from Do It Like a Woman is the impact of social media and digital networks on feminism. In 1970, in The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone looked to future technology as an unpredictable but certain force for feminism and gender equality. Not surprisingly, since she was writing in the 1970s, Firestone mused with accuracy on revolutions in reproductive technologies and labour-saving automation. But what she didn’t predict was the revolution in communications technology. Criado-Perez – who shares some of the clarity and insight of the young Firestone – shows that, for better and for worse, it is the internet, not in vitro fertilisation, that has become the enabler of the new 21st-century feminist movement.

Rachel Holmes is the author of “Eleanor Marx: a Life” (Bloomsbury)

Rachel Holmes is the author of, most recently, Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury).

This article appears in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable