Telling the truth | In Everywoman, Labour politician Jess Phillips shouts long and loudly about the things she cares most about: poverty, equality, the rights of refugees and serving her Birmingham Yardley constituents. If you didn’t know before why she’s created such a storm in Parliament, you will now.
“I want people to be their own activists.”
Jess Phillips kicks off the This Woman Can strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival talking about her manifesto Everywoman. She wrote the book to bring about some kind of change – what’s the response been so far?Mostly good! Her favourite review is actually a bad one in the Sunday Times that said she should have talked about her brother more. The perfect idea for a book on women.
“I want people to be their own activists,” says Jess. There’s one young girl who tells her every time she stands up for herself or speaks back, querying teachers who treat the girls differently to the boys, so the book has at least served its purpose for one person, she jokes, though in reality she hears from readers every day struck by what she says.
Jess worked with Women’s Aid and with violence against women prior to becoming an MP. She found herself frustrated that she was slamming her fist on the wrong side of the table to people who didn’t know what they were talking about and sought about getting to the other side of the table.
Four weeks after she was elected to Parliament in 2015, icon of hers Harriet Harman said, “You’ll never be liked.” It wasn’t personal, it was a passing of the baton: an awareness that she would be derided, that people wouldn’t want to share their power with her. “I worship her,” says Jess on Harriet. “She has made it so women like me can be in politics.” She had to be smarter, more perfect and serious than her male counterparts, because she was underestimated as a woman. “She ploughed the furrow so people like me could come along and say fuck it.” At this point, Jess notices the sign language interpreter signing ‘fuck it’. “I love the sign for fuck it!”
“I turn [the hate] into power. I let it build me.”
Back to politics, people try to shut you down from all angles. Jess had been told by friends, “Careful you don’t get pigeonholed into that women thing. We’re half of the population!” A subtle silencing. She notes that no one ever turned to George Osborne, “Dude, you’re always banging on about the economy, careful you don’t get pigeonholed.” Then there’s the flat out shooshing and patronising hand gestures from the Tory benches. The silencing is the start, the constant death threats are what follows as a woman in politics. She’s always had a pretty thick skin. “I take it, and I turn it into power. I let it build me.”
And that ties into the book. “Memoir sounds really grand,” she explains. “I can write very quickly if I have something to say. These are things I’ve been saying to mates at the pub for 20 years. Now more people want to hear it.” She has lots to say on sexual violence, workplace violence, treatment of young mothers, speaking up, the celebration of sisterhood. A manifesto felt more fitting than a memoir.
Jess has a lot to draw from. Working with Women’s Aid is still the most eye-opening job she had. The characters and children you’d meet in refuge were full of brilliant, vibrant, funny stories of hope could fill books. There was loads of love and laughter in the job and while she was sad to leave it behind, she knew she could help more people by moving into government, and that’s what she’s dedicated to do. She keeps an open office, makes herself available to constituents and doesn’t hide away like others do,
She never realised how much a Labour government had given her when she grew up until the 2010 election came around and the Tories returned to power; she realised she had become complacent. Now she fights to give people what she was given, to make sure people don’t lose out under a Tory government; she fights against repeated attempts to silence too, from “alt-right, Trump-esque knobs” dogpiling her on Twitter. There was one who publicly said his goal was to harass her, and he said “she’s too ugly for rape”, to which her Twitter was flooded with thousands of tweets describing horrific situations. In those instances you have to switch off the account, come back when they get bored, and go back to owning it. That’s why she’d never leave Twitter – it’s a direct connection to her constituents, and “You can’t let them win.”
The conversation turns to her friend Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered for speaking up for equality, Europe, and empathy. It was evidence of the visibility and vulnerability of MPs. “It makes you reevaluate and then end up back where you started,” admits Jess. “She was killed as an act of terror. Right wing terrorism.” It made her take the death threats more seriously, and the police now have to look into every one she receives for risk. But bar protecting her children, little has ultimately changed for her day to day life. “Fuck it. I’m still going to go and buy milk and do what I did before. I just carry on my life as I did before.”
And that sums up Jess Phillips: she speaks up and will not be silenced. Many try, from government to groups on the internet, but she has a job to do, and she’ll keep doing it no matter what is thrown at her. Her manifesto Everywoman is excellent, and a starting point on how you can follow suit, and become your own activist and use your voice loudly and proudly.