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At first glance, The Attack of the 50ft Women, by Catherine Mayer, looks like a sequel to Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Prize-winning novel, The Power, about women gaining physical power over men, which in turn echoes some aspects of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fantasy classic, A Handmaid’s Tale. But, far from being a fantasy, this hard-hitting, non-fiction book shows how dystopian our reality still is for women in the UK and beyond.
In the business world, Mayer points out, there are more CEOs called John in the UK and US than there are CEOs who are women. There still is an income gap, as we’ve heard most recently from the BBC, and only a minority of women reach senior positions. This, despite the fact that large-scale studies, such as the one conducted by Credit Suisse, show that companies with a significant amount of women in decision-making roles are more profitable. Mayer presents depressing research on gender discrimination, sexual violence and the ordeals victims have to go through in court. What makes her extrapolations even more valuable is how she connects violence against women with the broader cultural narratives created about us; the “value” placed on women in advertising and the film industry.
Mayer is an award-winning journalist and co-founder, together with Sandi Toksvig, of the Women’s Equality Party. Her book is many-sided — the memoir of a journalist, an account of the founding of a political party, travelogue, research project and feminist manifesto. Her geographic reach is impressive, taking in gender inequalities from Saudi Arabia to China. She writes about what she has learnt from Maze prisoners in Northern Ireland, as well as the most gender-equal country in the world, Iceland. And she shows why a fairer society for women is equally important and beneficial for men.
Some feminist authors put the onus on women as individuals to act differently, while others focus on changing the societal structures that are skewed against us. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “lean in”, while political scientist Anne-Mary Slaughter, who famously wrote that “women still can’t have it all”, suggests child-rearing needs to be given greater status in society. As ever, the personal is political. Mayer’s book, too, is on the structural and cultural side of the debate, and it offers a clear lens into the UK, without remaining confined to it.
Her rationale for forming the Women’s Equality Party is to bring feminism into the mainstream and, like UKIP or the Green Party, influence the main parties. At a time when many find it hard to vote for any main political party, supporting the WEP makes a great deal of sense.
This review was originally published in the Jewish Chronicle on July 28, 2017: https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/the-attack-of-the-50ft-women-driving-on-equality-street-1.442180