Stella Hervey Birrell is an emerging writer of women’s fiction living in East Lothian, Scotland. Her first novel How Many Wrongs make a Mr Right? is published by Crooked Cat Books. Stella suffered from psychosis in her early twenties, eventually completing her degree with the Open University. She gave up her job with a Local Authority after realising her whole salary was accounted for within the cost of childcare, and she was paying to work. She looks after her children (with the help of the television) and gigs with her band The Domestics in her so-called spare time.
Sophia is in the top group for reading, spelling, handwriting and maths. She is switched-on and confident, and when I’m in school playing a maths game, she is the one who knows when group work is finished. ‘Time’s up, Ethan’s mummy,’ she says.
We go back into the classroom and they start work on something new: let’s say that today, it’s maths stories. What is the connection between two, three and five? And what is the other side of the story?
I notice the other girls in the room. Already fully convinced – at the age of seven – that they can’t do it, they scrunch up their perfect noses. They are not even processing towards a possible answer, for surely this sum is men’s work?
I go home and wonder at their mothers, who have told me that feminism isn’t necessary anymore.
The most dangerous women in my life are those who have been fooled into thinking that the war of wine and roses is over: that eighty-five equals one hundred. Those who would wonder at Sophia. Why does she want to do maths? She’s such a pretty girl. It is a master sleight of hand, to truly believe you are worth more than your beauty: or more accurately, that you are only worth your other talents if you are beautiful. Beautiful, first.
To know your choices are your own, like being unaware of a tightening corset: society, tradition and expectation, pulling and tugging from the day you were born.
To work, not realising that your job has been put into the crush marked ‘women’s work: for devaluation.’ GPs and teachers squeezed shut tight alongside full-time parents and those working in care. Women’s work. Worth so much less than those lucrative industries in which we are not welcomed, not kept.
Of course, there are women in these male worlds. Women that use a baking metaphor, instead of a sporting metaphor: that soufflé really fell flat, didn’t it Bob?
Of course, there are truly brave women: broken, bloodied, shouted down, shot, maimed, raped, judged, bitched about. Still rising, like bread dough, doubling and filling with air for the screaming.
To others, I am the dangerous woman. Not because I am armed with anything more deadly than a paring knife or a wooden spoon. Not because I am in charge of anything more important than five columns of a family calendar and the grocery list.
No, of course not.
To be dangerous, all you need is a brain and eyes.
If I can look over the craning heads of society and notice that it is moisturiser: sold to us as anti-wrinkle cream, bought at £60 for 30ml?
If I can see that not using hair dye is considered a deeply subversive act?
If I can work out that ‘girl’ is a marketing construct?
Then so can your daughters.
If I can carry my children for nine months but know that the rest of the burden will be shared?
If men can gently take the baby and rock it to sleep, call the dentist, sit for hours with the sick bowl, wrap their arms and hands and brains around their families and not be considered weird?
If men are told ‘yes, we’re mostly equal, but men can’t have babies,’ and hear that, and believe that?
Then so can your sons.
To be a dangerous woman, I don’t have to craft, or protest, or debate. It is so much more terrifying to bring up children to crumple, toss and burn these roles we apply to ourselves. To raise men differently. To raise women who can make their own sentences, choose their own work, women who can argue the toss with those who matter, and those who … hadn’t thought of that, actually. Women who can link around grass and trees and running water and remind us of their necessity. Women who, like Sophia, went into school at the age of seven, and got on with their maths.