‘You will never be popular’, starts Jess Phillips – words spoken to her by Harriet Harman when she first began speaking out for women in parliament.
Women who speak out tend to receive a barrage of abuse – especially, ironically, when they are talking about the abuses women face. Harman knows this better than anyone. Phillips has also faced serious harassment in her first two years in parliament, which she outlines in detail in a chapter about trolling.
This backlash – from a misogynist minority – too often achieves exactly what it sets out to: it silences women, stops us standing for public office and prevents progress. It makes speaking out harder for everyone.
I cannot help but feel that if more of us went out determined to make the arguments and be unpopular, perhaps we could make it … you know, popular. Phillips’ ‘call to arms for activism’ contains the advice and reassurances women need to stop doubting ourselves, get out there and make ourselves unpopular – all for the good cause of equality. (There is a lot that men can do too, by the way – do not think you are getting off lightly.)
Everywoman is characteristically relatable and to the point. It tackles head-on the challenges women face every day that can set us back. That self-doubt we feel sometimes about our abilities, about our bodies and about speaking out? Phillips feels it too.
By page five, I am already reading about my own experiences and I am ready to be unpopular. Do not listen to men who try to shut you up by warning you against getting ‘pigeonholed with the whole feminism thing,’ Phillips writes, as I start to reassess about half of my friendships.
During my commute I find myself habitually moving over to let busy-looking men pass by. The book makes me more aware of it and I see this as a metaphor for Phillips’ key message. Having just finished the first chapter, I slam it shut and spring out of my carriage: ‘Not this time’, I think, as I push the suits out of the way. I am not sure if this is what Jess means, but I already feel I am succeeding at being unpopular.
Anyone who knows me knows that I never really held back on putting myself forward or calling out sexism anyway. I would apologise in advance for how unbearable I am about to become now, but Phillips would say that that is not allowed.
What shines through most is Phillips’ unrelenting mission to help other women; her chapter on the sisterhood is a particular highlight. She goes out of her way to make women who speak out about unpopular issues feel popular; she uses her influence to amplify their voices, ensures they get credit for their good work and stands by their side while they deliver tough messages.
The book reflects her ability to lead by example. Throughout, she backs up her advice with personal experience – of calling out the sexism she has faced, of taking credit for her own great work, of saying yes even when it seems scary (unless it involves sheep-herding in lederhosen), and of bringing women up behind her.
It has served her well. She is successfully making the arguments we need to progress gender equality and now she has written a great book too. If this is what being unpopular is like, I’m in.