Women of the Revolution – Kira Cochrane – Book review
Women of the Revolution is an anthology of feminist writing selected from Guardian archives by journalist Kira Cochrane. The resulting book is a guide to feminism as written about in the Guardian. It would be understandable to expect it to be a largely white educated middle class discussion of the women’s movement, and this is true to a degree, but voices and opinions of minority groups within the movement are also represented. Alongside regular Guardian contributors such as Polly Toynbee and noted feminist luminaries like Germaine Greer and Bell Hooks, Raekha Prasad interviews Sampat Devi Pal of India’s ‘Gulabi Gang,’ there are interviews with working class women in the UK, rape survivors in Congo and Rwandan politicians, but the majority of viewpoints come from Guardian journalists or women whose voices are heard in the mainstream. Altogether there are 72 articles.
The first piece from 1971 is by Mary Stott, a long serving women’s page editor. In it she attempts to answer the question; “What is the Women’s Liberation fuss about?” Some of the language in the early articles is almost quaint. Michael Behr’s patronising if well intentioned assessment of Betty Friedan back in 1971; “How to be Voluble, Sexy and Liberated,” may seem cringeworthy now, but even old fashioned sexism such as that from the union executive who calls a journalist ‘sweetheart’ and refuses to answer her question about union rules because they’re too complex for her, is mild in comparison to the sexually explicit abuse openly directed at women online today, as discussed in 2007’s ‘How the Web Became a Sexists’ Paradise’, by Jessica Valenti.
The linear nature of the articles makes it possible to trace the changing shape of the women’s movement over the years, and often makes disheartening reading. Issues facing women today are acute as old gains in areas such as equal pay, education and abortion are being eroded, while the technological age has brought new concerns such as the explosion of misogynistic sadistic pornography. Many of the later articles discuss the effects of the sexual saturation of our society, sexual violence against women having reached epidemic proportions. Emine Saner’s interview with a sex worker quotes her as saying, “I believe there is a conspiracy to turn women into readily accessible semen receptacles,” this was one of the first articles I read and I raised a sceptical eyebrow, but after reading through the rest of the book it doesn’t seem such an outlandish statement. Ariel Levy’s critique of raunch culture makes more salient points. On a positive note the internet provides many women with a space to discuss and organise. In the penultimate article Libby Brooks calls for a debate on what feminism means today and also makes the point that young feminists can find answers to present day issues in the history of the movement. Much current discussion goes over old ground, and marginalises older women in the process.
Women of the Revolution makes a good starting point for people interested in feminism. Whilst it could never be a comprehensive guide, readers will discover voices that speak to them and can choose to read further, (although it does lack a further reading list). As a collection of short pieces, there is little room to go into feminist theory, but this is not an academic book, it acts as both an interesting period piece and a springboard for ideas. The range of styles and content means articles may be interesting, amusing, offensive, contradictory, or utterly harrowing, such as Emily Wax’s 2003 report on sexual violence during the war in Congo. Whilst ‘Forty Years’ may seem the kind of book to dip in and out of, it’s interesting to see follow up pieces and notice recurring themes, which means it is best read in date order, and every article is worth a read. Although at times depressing, ‘forty years’ is ultimately inspirational.