International Women's Day: a selection of talks

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This is a selection of the talks delivered at our International Women’s Day Gathering.

Great Aunt Lillian – by Lawry Ross

When I first started to think about women who had inspired me I drew a blank. I don’t think I really knew what being inspired by somebody really meant, but then I started to think about the women in my family and realised that I talk about them all the time.

My mum and my grandma Lawry were great role models in all sorts of ways but the really amazing person was Great Aunt Lillian. She was born in 1870 or thereabouts and when I knew her she was running a successful business selling posh frocks to the wealthier ladies of Bristol. I can still remember her salon: pale coffee coloured carpets, antique tables, and all the dresses hidden behind velvet drapes.  The rest of the family couldn’t afford to shop there but I think we were proud to have such a successful and adventurous woman in our midst and there were many stories about her exploits.  

She had travelled alone to the US in the 1920s during Prohibition and drank champagne for breakfast. She was the first woman in Bristol to ride a motorcycle – I imagine her in a racy divided skirt and leather helmet and goggles. She was an early adopter of the permanent wave and was almost bald by her 70s having been badly burnt by the perm solution. She was married twice. Her first husband died in his 30s of tuberculosis and she divorced her second because he was a bully and a drunk.  

I stayed with her for a while after she had had a serious operation on her stomach. During that time we went shopping and she bought cockles and rum babas for our tea – an indigestible combination at the best of times. She was violently sick after eating them and I remember being impressed that, at the age of 85, she could still be naughty!

So why is she so important to me? At the beginning of the 20th century she was a very modern woman, feisty, independent, elegant, sociable and smart. She wouldn’t have called herself a feminist but she didn’t let being a woman stop her from doing anything she wanted to. She combined being glamorous with being assertive and determined. She liked men but she stood no nonsense from them. She ran a successful business when female entrepreneurs were few and far between. She travelled abroad on her own when that was most unusual for a woman. And, when the rest of the family faced difficulties, she was always ready to provide help and support – like taking the seven-year-old me and my twin brother on holiday when my dad was in hospital with TB.

So thanks Aunt Lil, I am immensely glad that I knew you, you were a wonderful role model for the youthful me, and I really appreciate having had the chance to share my memories of you.

Feminist Future - by Candice

“One hundred women are not worth a single testicle” - Confucius

It’s easy to look at attitudes from the past and think that people were unbelievably backward at that time. But I wonder how people in year 3000 will view our attitudes? 

In his book ‘The Laws of Human Nature’, Robert Greene puts forward the idea that most of us have feminine and masculine aspects of our personalities, and that problems arise when we deny or repress aspects of these. He also believes that masculinity and femininity is expressed through styles of thinking, styles of taking action, styles of learning from experience and relating to people and leadership. Most of us lean towards one style or the other. Historically, feminine styles in these areas have been viewed as ineffective or weak, but in fact Robert Greene believes that the most effective people utilise a mixture of both styles. 

We may have outwardly progressed somewhat in terms of equality between the genders, but inwardly these judgements still have deep roots within us. 

For example, the author believes that masculine thinking tends towards focusing on what separates phenomena from each other and categorising them. It looks for contrasts between things to better label them. It prefers to look at things from the outside with emotional detachment. A masculine thinking style tends to prefer specialisation, digging deep into something specific. Feminine-style thinking likes to focus on the whole, how the parts connect to each other, the gestalt. In trying to solve a puzzle, the feminine style will prefer to meditate on several aspects, absorb the patterns and let answers come to the individual over time, in intuitive flashes. As opposed to specialisation, it is more interested in how different fields or forms of knowledge connect to each other. For too long, the masculine style has been seen as more rational and scientific but this does not reflect reality. All of the greatest scientists in history have displayed a powerful mix of the masculine and feminine thinking styles. 

Almost all of us are imbalanced in our styles to one side or the other. Our task is to open ourselves up to the opposite style of thinking. We have only our rigidity to lose. What is truly needed in the modern world is to see the masculine and the feminine as completely equal in potential reasoning power and strength of action, but in different ways.

The outer conflict between the genders is a reflection of inner conflict. As long as the inner feminine or masculine is denied, the outer distance will only grow. Acceptance of the different facets of ourselves and effort to understand and appreciate other ways of thinking will strengthen women and men and our relationship to each other.