Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Bold Girls by Sheena Wilkinson

As a young woman, I never hesitated to say I was a feminist. I had a very consciousness-raising sort of aunt who used to take me on International Women’s Day marches before such things were cool and mainstream. None of my friends ever even knew that it was IWD, and I certainly couldn't have persuaded them to join me. I remember, in eighties Belfast, as a young teen, being shouted at in the street on such a march: ‘Get back to Greenham Common, ya pack of lezzies.’ It was all a bit wearing, but it helped inspire Star By Star, my suffrage novel with its determined feminist heroine, Stella. 

In some ways I'm not very far removed my younger bolshy teenage self who braved ridicule to march the streets of Belfast. That's why I was so thrilled to be included in Children’s Books Ireland’s new initiative, Bold Girls, a celebration of girls and women in children’s books. 

Here is what CBI has to say about their  project:

BOLD GIRLS' aim is to break down societal barriers and to instil confidence in girls and young women by showing them female characters in children’s books with agency, power and opinions, addressing at a young age some of the issues that stand in the way of women achieving their ambitions, whether that be in leadership, in government, in the arts. BOLD GIRLS will highlight and review books that feature strong, intelligent, self-possessed female protagonists in children’s books, as well as celebrating twenty female Irish authors and illustrators, both emerging and established, who have made an exceptional contribution to the canon of Irish children’s literature.
We’re delighted to be presenting Bold Girls with our partners Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, KPMG Families for Literacy Program, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University and the G-Book Project and the National Women’s Council of Ireland.
For the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland in 2018, Children’s Books Ireland’s BOLD GIRLS project celebrates strong, confident, intelligent, brave women and girls in children’s books, giving them much-needed visibility alongside their male counterparts.
The Bold Girls Reading Guide

This is the short essay I wrote for inclusion in the Bold Girls Reading Guide: 

Sometimes I was a tomboy; sometimes I played with dolls. Sometimes I had plaits; sometimes I wore my hair cropped short like George in the Famous Five. I owned nothing pink, but as everything in the 1970s was swathed in brown-and-orange paisley swirls, that wasn’t a political statement. At my girls’ school, it was fine to be good at maths and science, though I wasn’t, and I always knew I could grow up whatever way I chose to.

I was a bold, confident girl – the first hand up in class; the first one on to the stage; always ready with an opinion. I loved writing stories and music and books, and I called myself a feminist as soon as I was old enough to spell it. For me, feminism has always meant fairness.

The estate I lived on was quite rough, and I was the kind of bold girl who easily got into fights, so I was encouraged to spend most of my spare time in the local library. This wonderland was where I first fell in love with the world of books and stories, a world I’ve never left. I used to look at the books on the shelves and imagine seeing one – or two, or a whole row – with Sheena Wilkinson on them.
a bolder girl than she looks...

At school and in books I was used to seeing women in positions of leadership, but growing up in Northern Ireland in the Troubles, it seemed to me that men made conflict and women tried to stop it, but men were in charge. Mrs Thatcher was a bold girl, right enough, and a leader, but even as a teenager I could see that she didn’t stand up for other women.

Studying books set in girls’ schools for my PhD deepened my feminism because it allowed me to read women’s history in much more depth than the wars-and-rebellions history we’d done at school. I learned that this history wasn’t considered as important as “real” history. This is changing now, as we celebrate the role women played in shaping our present, the battles they fought for votes and equality and respect.
Now I write those books I dreamed of in my orange-and-brown paisley-patterned library-haunting days. I write about girls and boys and horses and wars and rebellions and music and suffragettes and schools and stars and friendship.

I visit a lot of schools and I see plenty of bold girls, but I also see girls who don’t like to speak up, girls who are worried about not being “nice”, girls who let themselves be defined by how they think society wants them to be. And even though in some ways there are so many more choices now, and society is so much freer, I often feel that it was easier for me to be my own kind of girl back then.

I’ll always write about bold girls, and I’ll be a bold girl even when I’m an old woman. Being a bold old woman sounds like fun.

In the company of some other Bold Girls at TCD

Last week I was in the magnificent Long Room of Trinity College Dublin, seeing the project launched in the company of other writers and book enthusiasts, many of them now friends. I can't wait to get involved in whatever the project has to offer and to spread the boldness!


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for sharing this, Sheena - I raise my coffee mug to bold girls everywhere!

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Sheena! Great post!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks! All hail to CBI for the great idea.

Helen Larder said...

Brilliant! xxxx

Penny Dolan said...

Good loud wishes to Bold Girls everywhere - and their books! That list is a great initiative. Thanks for this post, Sheena, and good luck with Star by Star.

Sue Purkiss said...

The only thing I would say is that obviously, personalities vary hugely. A girl who's quiet in class may be quiet because that's just how she is - not because she's a girl. There are quiet boys too!

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, Sue. It is. And there are.

Andrew Preston said...

I guess that saying that men are the architects of violence, and are the gun wielders does suit a feminist argument.

Do the names of, for example, Dolours Price, Donna Macguire... figure anywhere in your narrative ?

In 1968, I lived 20 miles across the water, in Stranraer, the Irish ferry port. I well recall from the TV news, the initial civil rights marching, and the attacks on the marchers. I knew nothing about the electoral gerrymandering, and how everything
was fixed to ensure that Roman Catholics were openly discriminated against. And that, in the Westminster parliament, Northern Ireland was a 'reserved matter', which meant that questions about Northern Ireland were not admissable.

I do recall all the TV broadcasts of Belfast in the '70's, the stone throwing, the barricades. I'm fairly certain that furious women were very much among those hurling stones, bricks , anything ... at soldiers.

Later, when I worked In the Republic in 1980, I acquired a girlfriend. ( or to be more exact, she acquired me. Anonymous phone call received at work. " My friend really fancies you.....". This was my introduction to some of the 19th and early 20th century history of Ireland. The Potato Famine, Easter Rising, the Civil War.. She was from Dundalk, rife with Republicanism. I can't recall her ever uttering the word 'Brit.." without it sounding like a spit.

Yes, maybe in a conflict the vast majority of those involved in the gun wielding are overwhelmingly men. I find it very hard to accept, though, that women were not significantly involved in the violence.

An aside...

A couple of years ago, at a meeting I got into conversation with a woman named Jo Berry. Her father, an MP at Westminster, was blown up by an IRA bomb in 1984. She became a peace activist. She said, at the time, it was all a devastating surprise to her, why would anyone wish to kill her father ? I could think of quite a lot of reasons, and said as much. I knew some of the history, hadn't she read newspapers, TV, people left to die on hunger strikes only a couple of years prior. It transpired that her life up to then had been almost like a, 'scuse me, hippy chick. Well heeled family, West Sussex, or Surrey..., completely oblivious to all the mayhem.

I was totally gobsmacked.