Welcome to Sophie McDermott’s guest blog. She is the first of five guests I will be welcoming on this post between now and the end of September. Each of my guests has inspired or fascinated me and it’s a pleasure to be able to introduce them to you.
Sophie McDermott is a graduate, (2018), of Newcastle University, where she studied politics and history and is currently the elected representative for the alumni. She is based in London and works on major infrastructure projects in her role as a project controller. In 2020, she began her entrepreneurial journey, founding Women’s Writes an online book club and subscription. Sophie is approaching her 23rd birthday, and in her free time can be found cooking, jogging or reading with a glass of prosecco never far away.
I chose Sophie because I have been inspired by her fearless go getting attitude, her enthusiasm for learning, humility and sense of social responsibility. I believe she’s a fantastic role model for young women and a leader in the making. In this post, Sophie shares her reading journey.
“I feel fortunate that I was very much encouraged to read growing up. My parents were avid readers, and our house was filled to the brim with books. My Mum always encouraged my hobby and even now as an adult, when I go to visit them, most days Mum and I can be found lounging side-by-side digging into an old classic, a contemporary fiction or the hottest non-fiction releases.
As an only child, not only did reading provide an escape from boredom, books were a direct insight into the perspectives of someone different to me. Malory Towers by Enid Blyton, alongside St Clare’s, were boarding school adventurers that I devoured. I adored escaping to this Cornish seaside school on weekends and on long camping holidays with my parents. Blyton’s boarders were my companions and I had a lot of fun joining them in all the nonsense and tricks they got up to. They taught me about teenage squabbles and the value of real friendship and honesty.
My obsession with boarding schools took me on a journey to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all their friends taught me that love and friendship can win, but that we all go through loss in our lives.
While I read these books with the naivety of a child, as an adult I think the lessons learned from Harry Potter will last me a lifetime. Despite the authors current failing, in my opinion, to live by the lessons she herself taught so many, the books and their film adaptions will always have a place in my heart.
Let’s fast forward a few years. We’ll navigate quickly through the Judy Blume years, where I learnt what it was to have teenage love, through the seemingly endless Young Adult sagas, until I suddenly found myself halfway across the country at Newcastle University. It was there that I devoured books by Bell Hooks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mary Wollstonecraft, Laura Bates, Rebecca Solnit, Laurie Penny, Angela Saini and more.
Despite what I have said about books being an opportunity to learn new perspectives, my early reading was mostly by British, white authors and their characters were generally a reproduction of this. This was a mirror image of my life at the time. I attended the same private school in the South West of England from the age of three up until eighteen, and we lived in the same village for all of my conscious memory. I don’t remember there being very much diversity at all, and despite my parents support to join extracurricular programmes outside of these settings, it was books that opened my eyes to the world around me. Upon reflection, I know that at the time I was growing up, there were very few people of colour in publishing, or agencies, and rarely would you see black authors on the Young Adult shelves. The same can be said now.
A series that is as pertinent now as it was when it was first published (2001), is Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. Written by a black woman, in these books, the African people colonise Europe, and while slavery has been abolished, segregation keeps the Crosses (the darker-skinned people) in power over the Noughts (the lighter-skinned people). The series made comprehensible the systematic, and systemic, ways in which one class of race keeps power over another. At twelve years old, this was my first opportunity to understand and explore racism in a way I had not been exposed to before. I cannot recommend enough these books to parents who are unsure of how to talk to their children about race. It is an important conversation that needs to be had because even today, there are significant racial inequalities in the world.
University was really where I homed in on what it meant to me to be a feminist. I had a particularly fantastic lecturer in second year at Newcastle who opened my eyes to feminism. He introduced me to the theory of Intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw. He pushed me to interrogate and ask myself the difficult, critical questions about my own understanding of the world and of society. Without him, I would not be the feminist I am today.
Ultimately, a socially just society is one where men and women are equal in all things, with no one group holding privilege or entitlement over the other. Everything I have done since University has been to understand the world and push for gender equality.
As feminists, our learning is never done. I feel the pressure on my shoulders to continue this education for myself and others so in 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic, I set up Women’s Writes, a feminist business centred around promoting female authors and their work.
At first, simply a Twitter account and a basic website, we hosted evening book clubs and I reached out to Liz Coward to be my first guest author. We hosted an hour session about Liz’s personal experience of becoming a writer. The event was one of the best attended we had, and I realised what I had created here could act as a support for women writers and connect them with their readers. Since then we have grown, and even developed into a full membership and book subscription service. As we begin our third month of operation, we have seen significant month on month growth in followers on social media and our membership numbers. We have ambitions to start and support overseas chapters and are beginning a podcast specifically highlighting debut authors. You can find more information or sign up on our website.
Despite the pressure to aid the education of feminists all over the world, I am not scared of the task. For every book I send out, I get ten recommendations back. It is refreshing to see young debut authors writing about these topics, for calling out the accepted, and for challenging the historic gatekeepers of the book world. I encourage all of you to pick up their books and learn something new, you won’t regret it. If you are looking for a place to start, here are my suggestions:
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
At every event I have learned something new. I see a continuation of the progress that has been made over the last 50 years. Already the next generation are learning, questioning, teaching. It is humbling and reassuring to know the fight for social justice is in good hands.”
Thank you Sophie for your fascinating contribution. My reading list has just doubled.
My next guest is Josephine Chia, award-winning Singaporean author, who will be sharing her memories of growing up in Singapore before its transformation from a third to a first world country. Her post will appear on 3rd July.
Thanks for dropping by. With love from Singapore.