HOW TO BEND THE UNIVERSE
…and other stories from our last Heroine’s Journey Nights
Stories have the power to change the world. That’s something I’ve known for a really long time: I began to be transported around the world by words long before I had a passport. But there was a problem for a little girl with big ideas. The shoes I was travelling in always belonged to a man. I indulged my dual passions of dressing up and storytelling by hosting lavish themed birthday parties. Memorable outfits included Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island), Colonel Custer (Custer’s Last Stand), and – more bizarrely – Mr Tumnus (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe).
In Swallows and Amazons I found some heroes my own gender. Nancy and Peggy Blackett sail their boat under a pirate flag and disrupt the perfect children’s family holiday. I cajoled my parents into buying us a tent and slept in it all summer long. Adventures aren’t just for boys, I told them.
If you’re here following Heroine’s Journey you’ll already know it aims to connect and inspire female pioneers by telling adventure stories for women. “The idea came about while I was doing some research on the magazine industry,” says Kim Willis — journalist, strategist and Heroine’s Journey founder. “What I discovered really bothered me. Because if you look at the covers of today’s newsstand magazines or the lead story on most news websites, what you’ll find is that our leading women are typically one of three things: a model, an actress, or a musician. They’re always pretty, and they’re usually under 30.”
“But when the lead story is about a man, we see variety. He is telling a story about becoming an astronaut, or revealing what it’s like to be an international CEO trying to save the planet, or discussing the challenges of being President. Stories shape our imaginations and yet here we are, in 2019, and there is a huge gender divide in our storytelling. That’s a problem we want to solve.”
The stories we tell about men are very broad. But the ones we tell about women are very very narrow. Why is that? Why is that happening? It’s not a reflection of reality, because the world is full of very amazing women. Something the guest list at this stories night proves. There were film directors, writers, phds, coders. A charity founder. A military police woman. Ordinary women, each doing something pioneering. Some knew Kim, others had seen a post on social media or heard about it through a friend, and the idea resonated.
Gathered under the vaulted ceilings at Acre 42 – incidentally their own website tells us “Change your story, change your reality”– the room buzzed with anticipation. It’s brave to step out of your comfort zone and go to an event where you might not know anybody, but conversation flowed. I’m a gregarious party goer (see above) but when it comes to networking I tend to find myself hiding in the bathroom. But this isn’t like normal networking. It was more like being in a room with old friends where every one is interested, engaged, and ready to offer support. By the end of the evening I’m actively encouraging someone I’ve never met before to leave her job – tomorrow – and go on the adventure she told me she’s longing for.
Speakers Joanna Schwarz, Dr Liz Bruton and Catherine Edsell took us on a journey exploring music in Mali, through the lost history of Britain’s female engineers and then adventuring into some of the world’s wildest places. These were stories of extraordinary achievements in the face of adversity. Our heroines overcame external obstacles, and obstacles within themselves, and gave us confidence that we too can change our story.
“Sometime you need to bend the universe,” says multi-award winning filmmaker Schwarz whose film They will have to kill us first showcases the struggle of musicians in Mali banned from making music by extremist Islamic groups in control of the country. “I was driven to make this film after realising that no one was going to give me the opportunity to do it. I was going to have to create that space for myself.”
So she got a credit card, made some phone calls and got on a plane. The project itself was fraught with difficulties, including the inherent threat from Jihadist groups, two male filmmakers – one backed by Bono – who wanted to make a similar film, and finding out she was pregnant midway through. “I didn’t have a commission or a budget or contacts or money, but I had an angry drive to prove myself in a world of men, and a connection to this story. It was a story I wanted to tell.”
Bending the universe can take a lot out of you. But, says the Science Museum’s Curator of Technology and Engineering Dr Bruton, it’s easier if we work together. She told us the story of a woman whose story has not been told, Britain’s first professionally recognised female electrical engineer, Hertha Ayrton. An “electrifying woman” who made huge advances in the field of arc lighting (early flood lighting now common in arenas) and invented new gas clearing devices designed to protect WW1 soldiers from poison gas in trench warfare. She died 1923 and, a century later, most people still haven’t heard of her.
She studied at Cambridge, but wasn’t award a degree because she was a women. After university she had to work from a makeshift home laboratory because her gender barred her from being affiliated to a recognised institution. Yet through these trials she was emotionally and financially supported by a community of women, fellow Suffragettes, including a lifelong friendship with Marie Curie. “It’s vital that we continue to promote engineering, technology, science and maths to women,” says Dr Bruton. “It’s not weird of geeky or uncool to be a woman in engineering. In fact it’s very cool.”
Sometimes, our worst enemies are within. “My biggest challenge was motherhood,” says Edsell, a former expedition leader who founded The Matriarch Adventure after recognising the need in other women for adventure. “For me it was a very isolating experience. After travelling in some of the world’s wildest places it felt like I’d lost my community and sense of self. I thought I couldn’t go back to work, my work is in the jungle. But then I decided to stop making excuses and I took my children with me.”
Now she takes groups of women on adventures, encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone and live richer, more fulfilling lives. “Adventure is fundamental to our human experience. You might think, ‘I can’t do that I have kids.’ But you can. These heightened experiences recalibrate us to expect more of ourselves. They raise the benchmark of what we realise we can cope with and this instills confidence and encourages us to live richer and more confident lives.”
Although these stories are very different, they all tell us one thing — there are amazing women everywhere creating positive change. Yes, we’re going to have to fight for it. But it can be done. If you want to change your life you need to change your story. Stories change the way that our brains are made up. What we imagine, becomes what we can achieve. As a child I never dared to believe that I could become a travel writer. Even though last year I adventured to all seven continents, I still barely dare to say the words out loud. I feel like a liar saying it now. But the more we tell stories of women doing amazing things is the more we imagine we can do them too. The next step is believing we have the right to inhabit that space. That’s why it’s so important that we tell and share stories of women.
Ellie Fazan is an award-winning editor and journalist with a passion for the world’s wide-open spaces, teeming cities and wind-swept coastlines. She can be found writing and creating at www.elliefazan.com/