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Our latest post is by Karla McLaren, Campaign Manager: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan for Amnesty International UK who are campaigning for women in Afghanistan.

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A year ago I founded a forum, Ladies Who Impress, hosting events, which celebrate female role models and inspire women to be more confident, creative and make the most of their talents.

It is admittedly challenging, amidst work, family and other responsibilities, to find time and energy for recreational activities, which are not just relaxing and distracting, but also intellectually stimulating, throughout-provoking and inspiring. What's more, when we think about role models, we often imagine them to be perfect, flawless superwomen, effortlessly juggling career and home, smiling at mere mortals from the cover of the magazines.

Ladies Who Impress would like to challenge that perception of female role models. Women I admire are talented, passionate, brilliant at what they do, but they are not perfect. They are down-to-earth, grounded, a little bit vulnerable, which is what makes them genuinely inspiring.

In October 2012 at the very first Ladies Who Impress celebration I interviewed theatre director Marianne Elliott, much accoladed for her productions of the War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. During the interview in front of the live audience, Marianne talked less about her success and more about the challenges of putting on a play, of her uncontrollable nerves on the first night of every show and of how difficult it is not to take negative reviews personally. She appeared so 'normal' that one could easily believe that such rare achievements as theatre box office sensations are in fact possible for ordinary humans with a bit of talent, passion and hard work put in for good measure. The audience loved her.

Earlier this year I interviewed the amazing Katherine Grainger, who told the audience about her rowing career and her journey to that very special Gold at the London Olympic Games. However, for me personally, one of the most memorable things she said was about having a bad day and how to let yourself accept it and move on. What a trivial memory and yet what a revelation that even such a strong, determined woman of unfathomable willpower can have a weak moment. Listening to Katherine, I could relate to her experience, which led me to become kinder to myself on even the most disastrous of days.

One year on, I am more passionate than ever to showcase female talent in order to demonstrate that it's not superwomen who reach tremendous heights but ordinary women who one day take one huge gulp of confidence, fire up with passion and decide to follow their stars. I am convinced we all have it in us to make dreams come true, and it's by no means easy. One thing is required, and that's to take your first step. And this when I come in with my female role models and their inspiring, life-changing stories.

Jana Bakunina, founder, www.ladieswhoimpress.com.




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Discovering the First Female English Playwright; or, Why We Should Care About Cary

It’s the kind of question you might find in a pub quiz: name the first original play in English known to have been written by a woman.  Now name the playwright.  Yet having spent the last few months working on said play, we have found that very few people have heard of The Tragedy of Mariam and its author, Elizabeth Cary.  When we’ve been out publicising the show, people have responded with surprise that the woman occupying this unique place in English literature should be unknown to them.  Yet Cary’s relative obscurity no doubt stems from the fact that in the four hundred years since its publication, there has never been a fully staged production of her work in the capital…until now.

We have been working with Lazarus Theatre Company on their production of The Tragedy of Mariam which is the first known staging of the play in London since its publication in 1613.  As practitioners we are both well versed in the work of Shakespeare and our knowledge of the time at which he was writing is shaped by its depiction in his plays. 

Yet Mariam sheds new light on some of the preconceptions that we might have had about Jacobean England and particularly women’s role within society.  Exploring issues such as female agency, divorce and abusive relationships, many of the themes of Mariam remain all too relevant today.  Written by a woman at a time when women were banned from performing on the public stage, Cary’s text is remarkable not only for giving a voice to a host of varied and nuanced female protagonists, but also for waiting until the fifth scene before featuring a male character.

At first glance it might be easy to brand these wildly contrasting women with a sensational Hollywood tag-line to define them: Mariam the Chaste, Salome the Black Widow, Alexandra (Mariam's mother) the Betrayer, Doris the Spurned Woman and Graphina the Naïve.  Cary's text however offers a much more in-depth consideration of femininity, exploring what success means for these women and the tactics they use to achieve it.  Dying for their beliefs, fighting against the injustices of gender discrimination, and putting their own pain and suffering to one side for the sake of their children, these women are so much more than a tag-line. Using their intellect, connections and guile to gain influence and power, each one of them makes huge sacrifices along the way.

Lazarus are well-known for producing plays with strong female leads and all-female casts, such as their all-female production of Women Of Troy at the Blue Elephant Theatre last year. This is extremely exciting and wonderfully refreshing in an industry where (to quote Richard Schechner) “For every Ophelia and Gertrude there are Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gravediggers [and] the Ghost”.

The casting practice adopted by Lazarus goes further than simply placing female actors in male roles, as the text is adapted to transform male protagonists into female characters.  This was a key component in Lazarus' recent production of Lear, which featured the brilliant Jennifer Shakesby in the title role, and in Gavin Harrington-Odedra's adaptation of Mariam, a handful of male characters have been adapted into female characters and the remaining male roles stripped back to just one protagonist, Herod.  This device gave us the space to create a world that had been freed from the oppressive rule of a tyrannical King, exploring how these women existed without the fear and weight of male domination, only to have that freedom taken away when Herod returned.

In contrast to the patriarchal society depicted in the drama, our rehearsal room was a female dominated space, comprised of two men (one of whom was the director Gavin Harrington-Odedra) and 10 women (one of whom was Sara, the assistant director).  Some companies would have rehearsed by only calling in the actors required for a particular scene, which would have seen our Herod being called in pretty late in the day, but the ensemble nature of this production is uniquely cultivated in the rehearsal room; this means everyone has to be in attendance at each rehearsal as we work through the text, write the music and devise the action.  This inclusive style of rehearsal, lead skilfully by Gavin, meant that every voice had the space to express itself while we as a company uncovered and developed these remarkable characters.

Classical drama’s 2:1 casting ratio in favour of male performers has been widely reported and it is refreshing to work with a company which is committed to addressing this inequality.  Furthermore, choosing to stage Mariam, Lazarus is challenging the ongoing lack of recognition for female playwrights.  Last year The Guardian reported that women writers accounted for only 35% of the new plays put on at England’s top ten most subsidised theatres and when combined with numerous revivals of canonical works by writers such as Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekov, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before women’s voices are equally heard in the theatre.  That Mariam begins with a female character musing on her experience of speaking publically, ‘How oft have I with public voice run on’, demonstrates how many of the issues that Cary explores remain pertinent today.

It has been a humbling experience to work on this landmark production of Cary’s challenging and inspiring play and hopefully now, should the question of England’s first female playwright arise, a few more people will know the answer.


Paula James & Sara Reimers

Lazarus Theatre Company


Black women, feminism and the view from the outside: #solidarityisforwhitewomen

When #solidarityisforwhitewomen first appeared in my timeline I was really curious about what it was. As a Black women, I was worried that it was an attempt to exclude me from the feminist movement. Of course the opposite is true and the hashtag highlights the exclusion Black women currently face within the feminist "movement".

It reminded me of a trade union course I attended a few years ago. The course was aimed at women activists. When I arrived early I found a seat and started reading the coursework. As the room began to fill up, delegates were free to choose where they sat. There was an ebb and flow of women as delegates arrived and selected their seat before getting coffee or going for a comfort beak. Noise levels started to build as the room filled as we all knew each other.  

When the course started, I looked up at the presenter and then I looked around the room and I noticed that something odd had happened. In the middle of a room of white women there was a single table of Black women. It hadn't been prearranged, there was no seating plan and there had been no discussion beforehand - it just happened that way.

It happened that way, in my opinion, because we draw strength from each other. There was an unspoken level of support amongst the Black women as we are too often excluded from the main group. We have all experienced being shut out by white feminists.

We also have a shared understanding of what happens when sexism meets racism in modern Britain. There is no need to explain the nuances the insidious racism we face on a daily basis or to convince each other that our experiences are real.  

As a Black woman, I face the same gender discrimination issues as a white woman, however, as a Black woman there is and will always be a race dimension. When a white feminist shouts out against an injustice she will be told to get back into her kitchen and get the dinner ready for her husband and kids. As a Black feminist, I'm told f**k off back to where I came from as if the concept of a Black Scottish woman is such an alien concept. While some men will attempt to reduce a white women to the components of her physical appearance when they are handing out a put down to a Black women they are more likely to try and dehumanise us.

Black women are doubly disadvantaged in the workplace and in society as a whole. Too often, not only do we have to fight our corner but we also have to fight our white sisters to even get our issues on the agenda. When we raise our issues we are often told to be quiet that "we" are fighting for equality for all. Well the problem is how can you really tackle discrimination if you are not even willing to believe our experiences.

It is disappointing to see that the predictable backlash has begun in earnest that some feel uncomfortable that their white privileges have been laid bare for all to see. I love the hashtag. I know I shouldn't say this but I love the fact it is making some feel uncomfortable because in a lot of situations I face on a daily basis this is how I am made to feel. Most mainstream feminists are unable to step out of their comfort zone and recognise that at times being a Black woman (let alone a Black feminist) in Britain can be soul destroying. 

If the hashtag actually leads to a debate where everyone's voices and experiences can be heard it's a good thing. It may not lead to lasting change but while it is trending it allows the voices of Black women to be heard and allow us to contribute to the fight as equals.

Davena Rankin

News Index

1) The Unsung Heroes of Afghanistan

2) Overdue: a plan of action to tackle pregnancy discrimination now

3) Just how accessible are the UK's free, universal Health Service?

4) Why We Need Female Role Models

5) Discovering the First Female English Playwright; or, Why We Should Care About Cary

6) Black women, feminism and the view from the outside: #solidarityisforwhitewomen

7) Why hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen went viral in 24h

8) From Sexist Exclusion to Feminist Inclusion: the Art of Pauline Boty

9) Lean In Public Speaking

10) Starting a new business following redundancy

11) equals - Blank Media Collective

12) The Wench Front Interviews Churchill On This, His Fiver Hour

13) Comedy and Continence

14) EverydaySexism

15) Check out our latest storify, by @bluecowmoo

16) Sound Women Festival

17) An invitation to Sky News

18) Why it is Time for a Criminal Offence of Domestic Abuse

19) Standing on the shoulders of giants

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