I’ve never made it to the Emirates Lit Fest in Dubai before because I was either at, or cowering in a darkened room to recover from, Paris Fashion Week. Tough breaks, I know. However next month, for the first time in over a decade, March doesn’t mean endless catwalk shows, tracking down dodgy French Ubers and panicking over what to wear; this year it means seeing in person some of the geniuses whose words have enveloped me for hours on end, expanding my mind forever. Because when it comes to the million dollar question: Books v Clothes? I’d go naked every time.
Heading the Festival’s 2019 line-up is Jennifer Palmieri, the former White House Director of Communications and Director of Communications for the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign. Her book, Dear Madam President, is essentially an open letter to the woman who will become the first female US President. In practice it’s so much more than that. Below are the five main points that I took away, but please do read the book yourself as my ramblings in no way do it justice and I am sure different parts will resonate with different people. These are just the bits that lingered for me. I even made myself get over my inner cheeseball alarm and read a passage out loud on my Instagram page.
It is a leadership manual for any woman, whatever the scale of her ambition. What I came away with was a fierce defence of allowing women - and indeed men - to be humane in the workplace. To value empathy and respect and to be kind. These are the things I admire most in corporate culture and if they can be put into play in the offices of world leaders then the roadmap for everyone else looks a lot brighter. ‘A woman can be both strong and emotional… it’s our world and we should be able to cry in it if we want to.’ I strongly suspect someone in Nike’s marketing department read the chapter entitled Nod Less, Cry More when coming up with this.
It is an important reminder of how we judge other women vying for the top, or even simply for recognition. The chapter on how well-received Hillary Clinton’s concession speech was compared to her appearances throughout the campaign, when she was fighting to be elected, really struck a chord with me. Hands up, I was one of those who wondered, in Jennifer’s words, ‘“Where was this Hillary during the campaign?”’ I and everyone else who thought the same, was so much more comfortable when Hillary was conceding rather than fighting, the far more socially acceptable stance for a woman. ‘We think a woman shines brightest when she is selflessly putting others’ interests above her own. It is more flattering than seeking her own spotlight.’ As Jennifer concludes in the chapter, ‘There remains something that makes a lot of people uneasy about women trying to move forward… I hope you draw less fire, but whatever happens, don’t let anyone stop you from continuing to move forward.’ Thank you for making me see my ow prejudices and attempting to banish them.
We’re so not there yet. Whenever I think feminism is a fait accompli, I’ll think back to Hillary. ‘I didn’t see all the complexities inherent in the task of electing the first woman president,’ Jennifer writes. ‘Hillary Clinton’s mother was born on the day Congress took final action to give women the right to vote. Not her great-grandmother, not her grandmother: her mother. That’s how new this “women in charge” stuff is in the United States.’
It’s a shout out for the visibility of anyone over the age of 35. Whenever I see Helen Mirren at the Oscars my soul does a little dance. TV shows fronted by the British actors Olivia Colman, Sarah Lancashire, Eve Myles, Nicola Walker are as compelling as they come (why do these women not get major fashion campaigns? I’d buy what they wear far more enthusiastically than anything shown on a teenage Insta-star.) I’m not swearing off Botox, but I do think we all need to do a better job of giving airtime to women across the age spectrum. ‘I hope that society eases up on the pressure for each of us to look young. I am exhausted by the omnipresent, stifling pressure of now I see and feel everywhere. Seeing an older face makes me feel more grounded. There was something before this moment, and there will be something after.’
Staff Van 3 is where it’s at. Aside from the gender politics, the little nuggets of political insidership are thrilling. I love(d) politics. I wanted to be a politician until five years of A-levels and a Bachelors degree knocked the passion out of me. Still, a part of me yearns to be what Jennifer calls, ‘a real veteran of motorcades’. Staff Van 3, we learn, ‘is never as crowded as the other two vans… and riders are best positioned to catch up to Hillary when the motorcade stops. Because what matters most in your ability to get where you need to be is the ability to get out of the van fast.’
So, please read Dear Madam President and check-out the line-up at the Emirates Lit Fest for all the other inspiring authors. While my six-year-old daughter Leo doesn’t really get the intricacies of what happened in November 2016, she does love Kate Pankhurst’s book Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, who come with their own set of life advice, including: stand up for what you believe, tell your own story, never stop dreaming, change things for the better and notice everything. Now those ideas, a six-year-old can get her head round.