Sara Sheridan reflects on attitudes to female achievement and sexism while raising a glass to CAMRA's recent banning of beers with sexist names
‘The value in history isn’t in looking backwards – it’s that history gives you the skill to understand where you are and to see where you are going.’
My particular interest is in women’s history – not because I’m more fascinated by women’s stories than I am by men’s, but because in the stories we tell about ourselves, women’s history is missing. Many people assume that the paucity of female history in our archive and print culture is down to the lack of impact women have had on society. I would argue that it is because we have been conditioned not to memorialize female achievement. Consider this: there are more statues to commemorate animals than women in the capital city of Scotland, the birthplace of the Enlightenment…
In 2018, I undertook a study looking at how our urban and rural landscape is gendered. The resulting book, Where are the Women, published this year by Historic Environment Scotland, imagines a landscape where our female heritage is commemorated in the same way as the real world memorialises men.
The book is a provocation and proves that though we talk about the ‘changing role of women’ there have been female high achievers for centuries. We simply don’t record them in the same way as we do their male counterparts. I included the stories of twelve hundred of the women I uncovered for the book, placing them in our landscape as statues, bells, festivals, lightshows and other memorials. Stories are important – they are the principle way in which we acquire, hold and digest information. The resulting imaginary guide is a glimpse into the mindset of our dominant gender.
This work, however, more generally feeds into a difficult conversation about misogyny, or institutional sexism with which many organisations are currently grappling. Though they are late to the party, I was heartened to read that the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) banned beers with sexist names or imagery at its recent Great British Beer Festival.
With names like Leg Spreader, Dizzy Blonde, Village Bike and Slack Alice (a perry marketed as ‘a little tart’) it’s easy to see why women might be put off from attending beer festivals. It’s a sign that the industry might be waking up from decades of being apparently OK with alienating a huge swathe of its potential customer base. I wondered if Brewdog’s now infamous patronising ‘pink’ ‘beer for girls’ was also going to be banned – it seems likely to me that Camra’s stand was at least in part incited by the outcry following the Brewdog launch last year which claimed to be ‘satirical’ but really missed the mark.
I wonder which beer company will have the idea of actually celebrating beer’s female heritage. Though it has long been marketed as a ‘man’s drink’, brewing was historically a female pursuit. As far back as ancient Egypt, and throughout the Medieval era, women were the primary beer-makers – in fact much of the iconography associated with witches involves the tools of the medieval brewing trade – tall hats and brooms, as male beer makers tried to demonise women already in the industry.
Women of course remain interested in beer, even if it isn’t marketed at them. Social media groups such as Crafty Beer Girls and regular events such as the Fem.Ale festival in Norwich, an annual event aimed at the women who brew and drink craft ale, are helping to redress the imbalance in the mainstream of the industry. Similarly Beers Without Beards will hold its biggest gathering yet in Edinburgh this October.
Female history is littered with stories of confrontational pioneers who have provoked legislative and societal change – from the fiery Jacobite women whose actions led to the first call for female MPs at Westminster in 1746, to the suffragettes who won votes for women in 1918 – both considered ‘divisive’ in their own eras. All of these women’s demands seem entirely rational today. In many regards female history is the story of how radical change becomes normalized.
Knowing and understanding those stories is empowering for both genders – allowing a more rounded understanding of where we come from, but in particular it gives women confidence in the validity of their own voices. There is a growing ‘reclamation’ movement to support this by recognizing women’s history (and therefore their contribution) and honouring it. When I wrote Where are the Women I was inspired by the words of American feminist, Rebecca Solnit, ‘I can’t imagine how I might have conceived of myself and my possibilities if in my formative years I had moved through a city where most things were named after women.’ I imagined that city – indeed, that country in my book and as a result am currently working on a book about how activism changes the world – both by directly confronting out of date ideology (as CAMRA has just done) and by working creatively with existing assumptions.
We swim in strange waters. The first step is to notice their strangeness.
Sara Sheridan is a feminist, activist, author, perfumer, journalist, board member, charity patron and blogger - to read more about Sara visit https://www.speakerbuzz.co.uk/sara-sheridan