Girl Up by Laura Bates is an extraordinary book. It’s a book I wish had existed when I was a teenager. It’s a book I want to buy for all the teenagers I know. It’s a book I want to give out to my colleagues at school, especially those with a direct responsibility for the welfare of our girls. It’s powerful, necessary and insightful.
It’s also bloody funny. In amongst educating her reader about media representation of women, the female anatomy and the evils of social media, Bates made me laugh out loud repeatedly. If the dancing vaginas in the inside cover aren’t hilarious enough, there’s brilliant commentary on the women who have made waves in the past; from eighteenth century Frenchwoman Emilie du Chatelet “having zero fucks to give” for Voltaire’s childishness, to Hillary Rodham “having not one solitary fuck to give” when she was told that NASA was not interested in recruiting female astronauts, Bates uses historical detail and one of my favourite phrases to move the reader in a number of ways. Sometimes even the chapter headings felt like things I should have tattooed on my body: “It’s My Face and I’ll Smile If I Want To,” I’m looking at you.
Although Girl Up is ostensibly aimed at younger women, it’s a book that will resonate with all of us. Unless, somehow, you are a woman who has never been catcalled, or patronised, or suffered mansplaining, or been told you shouldn’t do something because you’re a girl, or critiqued for what you’re wearing. As founder of the Everyday Sexism project (and author of the excellent book of the same name), Laura Bates is well placed to tap into the universal experiences of being a woman. She writes in a way that embraces the reader rather than alienating, even if they happen to be male; I’d love to think that men would read this book and find out something they didn’t know or hadn’t realised.
I was impressed by Bates on paper, but I was blown away by her in person. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to hear her talk about Girl Up at the Ilkley Literature Festival in a sold-out room packed with women from the age of 11 all the way up to their grandmothers. I also spotted at least three men in the room.
Bates began by talking about how she came to set up the Everyday Sexism project and how this ultimately led to the writing of Girl Up; in a position of influence after the project attracted comments from over 100,000 women worldwide, she found herself invited to visit schools and shocked by what she heard on those visits. What I find most inspiring about Laura Bates is that she saw something that she felt needed to change and she’s trying to enact that change; from lobbying the government to add sex and relationships education to the curriculum, to supporting the establishing of feminist societies in schools, she’s a wonderful advocate for human rights. Yes, a lot of those rights apply specifically to women, but she does not neglect men in her discussion. When asked what three changes she’d make if she replaced Theresa May as PM, she responded that she’d ratify the Istanbul convention (something I’d never heard of before she spoke about it), enact the legislation on sex and relationships education and, crucially, change the law on paternal leave and flexible working, to protect and advance the rights of fathers who wish to take time off work after the birth of a child.
In addition to my own, much Post-It-ed copy of Girl Up, I have bought and already lent out another copy to keep at school. I feel really strongly that this is a book which needs to find its way into the hands of all humans, starting with teenage girls who need to hear Bates’ voice.