I imagine sharing a bottle of Prosecco with Jess Phillips would be a right laugh. Despite disagreeing with almost every word of the Labour MP’s just released book, Everywoman: One woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth, it still has an exuberance that’s irrepressible. At the very least, I’d rather be trapped in a lift with her than, say, the simpering Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism fame. Phillips could probably be relied upon to whip out a crafty fag and regale me with instructions: ‘Never trust the polls ... don’t say that sentence out loud. I have in the past, and to an untrained ear it sounds as if you belong in Ukip.’
We’d spend our time in the lift discussing parenting, one of the few areas where Phillips talks sense: ‘For some reason, we all sign up to the idea that women are doing something sacred in a baby’s first year that no one else could manage.’ ‘I was mainly crying and eating six Bakewell tarts in one sitting, which to be fair is a habit my son has picked up’, she writes. You can’t imagine she has much truck with gluten intolerances and sugar fasts. Phillips even takes the breastfeeding obsessives to task: ‘I know all the statistics about how natural birth is safer and how breast is best, but up and down the country new moms are weeping over the heads of their newborns because they can’t get the hang of breastfeeding and have for some reason been led to believe by some crappy meme on Facebook that if they give them baby formula they will basically be feeding them crack.’
Everywoman doesn’t appear to have been written at all, but dictated as and when time and inspiration came together, and then transcribed, perhaps by someone else. It’s pretty much a stream of consciousness where little seems to be off-limits and one thought sparks off a detour into an anecdote on something else entirely. This is not a criticism. Phillips’ fast-paced autobiography/feminist manifesto/Labour Party apologetic comes, at first, as a breath of fresh air. This is mainly because the star, ‘a heroine’ according to J K Rowling, has no time to waste on false modesty. ‘I deserve a massive wedge of credit for my own success’, she tells us straight away. ‘I don’t mean to brag, but I count myself in the cool crowd. I was your classic popular kid at school.’ When we’ve become so used to talented, famous and beautiful women parading their insecurities at every turn, revelling in their anxieties, eating disorders and struggles with mental health problems, this is a blast.
But there’s a massive contradiction at the heart of Everywoman and the more I read, the more it began to grate. The ‘truth’ revealed by Phillips – a woman whose gobbiness and self-confidence are, by her own admission, off the scale and have earned her a seat in parliament, a media profile and a book deal – is that women’s voices are delegitimised and infantilised. The key message of Everywoman, told and retold in umpteen different ways, is that ‘Women have a rough deal in society’. ‘We get beaten, abused and raped more often’, Phillips informs us. ‘It’s crap that caring responsibilities still mostly fall to us, and our razors and deodorant cost more because they are pink.’ Yes, we really do move from rape to the cost of pink razor blades in the space of a sentence. Phillips is clearly, and brilliantly, no victim, yet her message is that to be a woman is to be abused, and we’re all in need of heroine Jess to come and rescue us. If we don’t realise it yet then this book is here to tell us.
Sadly, it seems that the more Phillips talks about women having a rough deal, the more she comes to internalise the message. Her advice to her 16-year-old self, the bolshy, stroppy madam she once was, is: ‘You are nowhere near as good as you think you are. Take yourself down a peg or two.’ ‘The things I bragged about while smoking fags around the back of the gym should have been shared with the police instead’, the now contrite Phillips informs us. She is the antithesis of Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders star who hit the headlines in 2015 for standing by her misspent youth and saying she was responsible for putting herself in the situation that led to her rape. Phillips, in contrast, pays penance through going round schools talking to young people ‘about rape and sexual exploitation’.