Courage calls, we need to talk…

Dec 18, 2018

After a lifetime of quietly getting on with my own brand of feminism, I have recently been involved in not one but two all-female line ups, more or less overtly questioning the roles of women in the world and the folk world more locally.

‘Courage Calls’ was the brain child of Jess Arrowsmith, driven with a desire to do something to commemorate 100 years since women got the vote. She gathered seven Sheffield based women together for a one off special – no particular remit, some big choruses with everyone to close the night with and a couple of solos each. Needless to say we all piled in on each other’s songs and made quite a meal of it. The night sold out very quickly, and from the general chatter about it I think we could have sold it out three times over. There is certainly an appetite for shouting (about) women in Sheffield.

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Photo by Elly Lucas

‘In conversation with…’ was part of a series of events at Cecil Sharp House again marking the Representation of the People Act 1918. Maz O’Connor, Nicola Kearey and I were invited by Verity Sharp to talk about our music and careers, and the different paths they have taken. Before the show it became apparent that Maz, Nic and I were all a little uneasy about the womeny-ness of the event. That somehow we were to represent the whole of female experience in the folk scene. Between the three of us there was wide diversity of experience, and we really didn’t feel qualified to represent our careers from an ‘as a woman….’ Perspective. We all lamented the fact we have never been invited to discuss our careers in a more general sense, that it needed the lens of women’s event to warrant inspection, to make them interesting.

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I don’t want to be one of those people who says ‘I’m a feminist, but…’

I’m a feminist.

But…

These events have made me reflect on what kind of feminist I am and how I represent that, or contribute to change, in the world. I have always been a lead-by-example kind of person. Being brought up believing I could do anything, and not facing any overt discrimination or harassment, I felt that the battle was won and we just needed to get on with it now. As I get older I see there are people without my middle class luxury and a lot more subtle elements at play causing people to fail to achieve, or even imagine, their goals.

Before the Courage Calls gig Gina forewarned us that there might be a disturbance in the performance by some anti gender realignment representatives. This didn’t happen, nor was I concerned it might, but Gina was. This is a real concern for her and something that has clearly got in the way of her own career progression and capacity to go out gigging. I dare say performing on stage with 6 other women, to a crowd of 100 politically aligned supporters helped her feel secure, and I’m pleased she could perform with us, but it did make me think. Touring endless clubs solo, wanting to stay true to your political opinions but not being sure what kind of reception you are going to receive – not just for your musical taste and abilities, or even for your politics, but for your very being.

Now, we all love a good raffle, not least me. This is a generally understood phenomenon in my world – we often have them to boost the club coffers, or for a virtuous charity, but this night, as I read out the blurb to tell the audience what tier money was going towards, it felt hugely poignant. The raffle was for LASS – Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield. These are women who are fleeing persecution in their home country, arriving in my home city and being tried for their right to stay. Part of this process is having to produce evidence of their sexuality, the cornerstone of their claim to need asylum. The mind boggles what kind of evidence could be produced, or how they go about getting it. I bet theirs does too. Hence the very real need for such a group of dedicated people helping these women in such crisis. In my home town. Today.

These people are clearly facing hideous problems and they are easy to shout about. But there are more subtle inequalities that skip under the radar, the % of female headliners on festival bills, the significant lack of female backing musicians, the gender highlighting of all female lineups – a general lack of presence gives a dearth of role models for new female musicians to emulate and be inspired by. It reminds me of the experiment about children’s stories below:

Exposure to these things make me want to call it out, to be a bit more politically engaged, a bit more vocal. I need to get out of my bubble, both socially and see what problems other women are facing, and conceptually to really see how imbalanced the world is. I no longer feel just being representative is enough. This made me feel like singing traditional songs on a stage to 100 like minded people was something of a panacea. But this is a new realisation for me, and I am wary of not just becoming a preacher to the converted, or a shouty mess no one will listen to.

I went to Roy Bailey’s funeral this week, he really was the most amazing exponent of merging the political with his art. I don’t think I can aspire to be such an eloquent songwriter, but through considering what I do and how it might affect the aspirations of others I can be a more aware and engaged feminist. This made me question my songs – is it OK not to be shouting about politics, or should I be using my platform and trying to write like Roy? Here I am reminded of ‘Bread and Roses’ – the bread is our basic human rights, the roses the art, beauty and love that surround it. We need both of these to thrive so while I can certainly support the bread more openly, perhaps I am playing my part through the roses as well.

As we go marching, marching
We battle too for men
For they are women's children
And we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweetened
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread, but give us roses