Bailey’s Prize winner Naomi Alderman tells Stylist why we need feminism more than ever

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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As women, there’s a lot of change we’d like to see in the world right now: the election of more female MPs into Parliament, for example, or more women sitting at the top of powerful businesses, helping to close the gender pay gap once and for all.

But with these monumental shifts feeling (at times) out of reach, perhaps we need to start with something closer to home.

Perhaps we just need to start with ourselves.

That’s certainly the message that Naomi Alderman, who last night won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, tells us she’s keen to get across.

Alderman’s winning novel, The Power, is a searing feminist tome that reimagines a world where women hold all the power, to the extent that they can literally stop men dead with a flick of their fingers.

It poses some important questions – not least about our expectations of women and how they should behave – while paving the way for women to challenge perceptions about themselves they may not have even known they had.

And alongside the book, Alderman herself wants to help women champion themselves, by encouraging them to lift off the dead weight of everyday sexism that can all too often stop them from doing so.

After thanking the women’s movement for “changing [her] life” during her acceptance speech, Alderman sat down with to explain how women and girls can go out and make the changes they want to see in the world – whether that be advocating equality in their relationships, or simply feeling able to leave the house without first shaving their legs.

Firstly, Alderman outlines the importance of feminism in challenging age-old gender stereotypes.

“The women’s movement gave me a set of tools to think about things like my body, and how people react to me, and the way that my dating life was going,” she explains. “It’s a very practical movement – yes, it’s about issues like how we can get more women MPs elected, but it’s also about how feminism affects things like your relationship.”

Illustrating the power of the movement on an everyday level, Alderman challenges the idea of empathy being the traditionally “female” trait within relationships, urging women not to repeatedly fall back into the role of the listener.

“Are you the one who always listens to your male partner’s problems, or do you find that he doesn’t listen to you, or that he only offers a practical solution?” she asks.

“That’s not a man-woman issue, that an ‘everybody wants to be listened to’ issue – and women are trained to do that work.”

The author goes on to point out that the same thinking applies to issues such as body confidence and body positivity, before again encouraging women not to submit to gender stereotypes – but this time about how they feel society wants them to look.

“Do you feel like it’s not OK to leave the house if you haven’t shaved your legs? And can we think about how men are not under that pressure?”

Without missing a beat, she produces a solution to the problem: “How would you feel about walking out of your house with unshaved legs? Maybe you, in a little way, are part of a big thing, by saying you don’t want women to be judged just by what they look like.

“It’s absolutely delightful to get dressed up for a lovely evening, but when it goes from being a fun thing to being a chore, and a chore that men don’t have to do, then we need to think about it differently.”

It’s the kind of attitude that you want to bottle up and sprinkle over a generation of young girls and women everywhere, if only to prove to them that they don’t have to live their lives under a shadow of crushingly unrealistic expectations.

Luckily, Alderman’s book is far from the only example in mainstream culture working to challenge these gender stereotypes.

Discussing the new Wonder Woman film, for example, Alderman is quick to point out how necessary it is for us all to see strong women playing main characters in films, books and TV shows.

“The movie is amazing and I love it, but it made me cry and cry,” she says. “It’s that dream that there could be a girl living in the world who doesn’t know about sexism – but we haven’t even managed to make one so far.

“Seeing the images in the film of women being in control and effective in the world, and not sexualised, is incredibly powerful. That’s why there are so many women crying at that movie, because we are just starved for those images.”

The theme of women being in control was obviously something that Alderman wanted to explore in The Power, and while the concept of women holding all the power might make the book sound like a dystopian novel, she is adamant that it’s not.

“It’s only a dystopia for the men,” she explains.

“This is very important – nothing happens to a man in this book that is not happening right now to a woman somewhere in the world. If my novel is a dystopia then we are living in a dystopia right now.”

Alderman goes on to compare her novel to an artist exercise in which you turn a painting upside down and copy it, which makes the task much easier because you’re simply focusing on the lines and you don’t know what’s supposed to be in there.

“That’s what I hope the book is,” she says. “I hope it’s just turning something upside down, and defamiliarising it, so you can see something new.”

And in a way this is also what we hope feminism can achieve for men, women, boys and girls living across the world today.

“Feminists are asking the practical questions about how you want to live your life,” Alderman says.

“They want to come and say, ‘Hey listen, some of the things that are making you miserable every day aren’t doing so because there’s something wrong with you, it’s just the way you’re living that’s wrong – and together we can make it better.’”

The Power by Naomi Alderman, £6.99,

Images: Rex / iStock / film still