THE BLOG

The Great Feminist Taboo

09/03/2017 16:56 GMT | Updated 09/03/2017 16:57 GMT
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I'm an historical novelist. I spend a lot of time inhabiting the past. History isn't a series of dates - to understand it is to be experiential. How it feels to ride sidesaddle or the terror of pre-antibiotic medicine helps to draw characters that shed light on where we come from. I'm fascinated by women's history - much of it hidden or lost. You can tell a lot about an era by what it deems acceptable for women.

In my time I've trawled archives to build my fictional worlds. I've discovered women are almost always defined by how they look. When Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, supported Charles James Fox for Prime Minister at the end of the 18th century, nary a newspaper article rolled off the press without a description of her outfit. Some things don't change. But then again, some do. One thing is sure though, changes to women's societal roles take a long time to gain acceptance.

Last year, increasingly frustrated by the lack of recognition for female historical figures and spurred on by the controversial nature of putting a woman on a banknote, I created a perfume to memorialize the past's amazing women. The resulting company, REEKperfume, launched last autumn, with its first scent, Damn Rebel Bitches in memory of the Jacobite women so named by the Duke of Cumberland who apart from dispensing verbal lashings, sent troops to subdue these rebels with orders to rape at will. Maggie Craig's book of the same name put flesh on the bones of these extraordinary ladies - every bit as brave as the female resistance fighters of WWII, they inhabited a world as dangerous. My favourite, Lady Nithsdale, broke her husband out of the Tower of London in 1716.

I love the idea of perfume in remembrance. Only 15% of the UK's statues are raised to women, most to Queen Victoria. But statues fall into the category of historical fact. I prefer the experiential. It struck me that perfume was a very female way way to memorialize- think of the scent of your mother's perfume or the soap you used as a child. For me, Damn Rebel Bitches quickly became a day-to-day rebellion - a silent way to honour my heroines. Change is a long road and only possible because someone did something that seemed shocking at the time.

With this in mind, when it came to shooting the company's campaign images, there was no question of doing anything other than taking a stand. Working with photographer, Bethany Grace and art director, Molly Sheridan, we invited models from size 8 to 22. The youngest was in her 20s. The oldest, almost 80. They had underarm hair, wrinkles, curves and creases - and every one of them was beautiful. We did not retouch a single shot. When we unveiled the images, I hadn't realised how shocking they would be in the face of a billion-pound industry that sells a sanitized and unattainable version of female beauty. The response online was a rainbow. While some women found the images liberating, others were offended. 'This looks like a pig,' one woman said of a size 10 model, aged 24. It was particularly telling that some of those criticizing the pictures seemed to feel guilty doing so. At one point it felt as if a body-shaming army was camped on our social media doorstep.

Feminism is a broad church. There are times it seems the true cause of equality is lost in squabbling over whether you can be a feminist if you hold certain views, choose to wear make up or take time off work to have children. This amounts to a game of 'my feminism is more feminist than yours'. It is sad when competing feminisms don't extend to supporting other women's choices and, for that matter, their bodies. Not that all the troops coming at us were feminists - there were those close to the beauty industry who found what we had done challenging and some women who had clearly been conditioned about what models 'ought' to look like.

Shocked, in part, by the response to our campaign we decided we wanted to go further and take a stand against objectifying our models. Uniquely for a beauty brand we gave them a voice by starting a blog. It's called Bitches Unite. We like the word bitches - we'd like to reclaim it. There aren't enough positive words for women to stand alongside the myriad terms of abuse. We asked our models to choose which images of them we used and also to talk about their perceptions of beauty. In balance we invited male feminists, perfumers and activists to talk about what inspires them. Smelling good is important, we said, we love our perfume, but we also love our people.

Women have always changed the world - we are ourselves, history - but those changes require action. It might be marching. It might be holding the line in a twitter debate. For me, it's finding ways to help change how women feel about themselves. The hands-down best feeling was hearing my MP wore Damn Rebel Bitches at Westminster when she had to make a speech. I watched the (mostly male) benches opposite her, braying, and I knew the Jacobite women would have been proud.