It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a read, featuring a selection of women who have been through a multitude of experiences. Each tells her story with her own stroke of comic and literary genius.
Lisa Smosarski, the launch editor of women’s weekly magazine Stylist—which compiled the book—introduces lesson one, “Why having it all is a myth”. She candidly sets the scene, with her story of balancing a baby and a career. This leads to a frank and, at times, humorous look at the experiences of the 25 women who contributed to the publication.
Love, sex and relationships are all on the cards. Sometimes reaching uncomfortable depth, journalist, broadcaster and sex educator Alix Fox unabashedly talks about her personal sexual encounters. She notes, “If they don’t treat love like a verb, you must kick them to the kerb”.
Besides the humorous quips, more sombre topics are tackled. These include the serious issue of female genital mutilation, told through the eyes of Nimko Ali. She campaigns to break the taboo surrounding discussion of the practice. Not for the faint-hearted, the chapter is guaranteed to jolt anyone out of their comfort zone.
The term perspective comes to mind as one trawls through the memories of Christina Lamb OBE. With a career that will leave any journalist in awe, she recalls being in the midst of suicide bombings, war and famine, as well as being witness to women struggling to be allowed to take control of something as essential as their own education. Reading about her experiences will surely put into perspective the everyday troubles of most people.
Identity is another theme that comes through in each life lesson. One striking account is from Jo Clifford, one of Scotland’s leading playwrights, who recounts her journey to self-discovery. It is only after having spent 49 years as John, a husband and father, that she comes to terms with, and accepts, her gender identity. “We all have to learn, somehow, to disentangle the false from the true and become our own real selves”, she says.
Of particular relevance, in a Japan context, are the words of Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley. She talks about taking risks and the general perception that women will take fewer chances. She analyses this through the lens of her own rocky road in politics, noting that women walk a “tightrope of independence in the face of risk” and that, “we women are masters in the art of risk, for fear is—for many of us—a part of life”.
Activist, author and inspirational speaker Katie Piper highlights the fact that developing confidence is much like going to the gym or practising mindfulness. Reference is made to her only partly recounted and harrowing tale of having been in an acid attack in March 2008. A personal poem—My Old Face—at the end of her chapter opens up some raw memories.
And for all of the mums out there, there is Robyn Wilder, journalist and mental health awareness advocate. Her life lesson—“You’re not the worst mum in the world”—takes another honest look at the imperfections that come with being a new mother. She recalls the difficulty of pregnancy and giving birth, which ranged from gestational diabetes and anaemia, to having an emergency caesarean and post-traumatic stress disorder after the birth of her son. “Letting go of others’ expectations was key”, she tells readers.
Meanwhile, the vigour and energy from Nicola Adams OBE in lesson number 18 is particularly poignant. “I’m never willing to settle down, to pat myself on the back and say, ‘I’m done now’”, she writes. Her determination is palpable, and her growth as an athlete, as expressed through her thoughts and considerations, is significant.
The questions she asks herself link well to award-winning journalist Poorna Bell’s contribution, “The five questions everyone needs to ask themselves”. These provide a revealing insight into her goals, but also prompt the reader to think.
This guileless collection is rounded out by essays with thoughts and stories from notable women, including beauty giant Bobbi Brown, American writer Roxanne Gay, award-winning journalist Tanya Gold and comedian Francesca Martinez—who has cerebral palsy, or, as she puts it, is just “wobbly”.
Once you have finished making your way through the views and emotions of the book’s 25 remarkable women, a sense of understanding may wash over you. Suddenly, you are no longer alone.
Life Lessons from Remarkable Women: Tales of Triumph, Failure & Learning to Love Yourself