Living

In her own words

To get to the heart of women’s issues, read a woman's diary

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

The American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote this. I used to believe that her sentiment wasn’t true. Be wild, be free, I would say. Now I am more cautious about the welfare of the women I advise. It depends on how public your truth-telling is going to be, I tell them.

And we women do tell the truth. We keep diaries.

I am massively in favour of the writing of diaries. It’s the most democratic thing imaginable. If writing comes awkwardly to you, who’s going to read it and judge? It’s not like a blog or a talkboard where faceless people hiding behind false names attack your grammar, your intelligence and your right to live on this planet.

In a diary you can write any damn thing you please because anyone who reads it without permission knows they have done a loathsome thing. They’ll have to live with the slimy intrusion. All you did was whisper the truth to yourself.

Oh, the heaven of diaries. Especially for women, who are told that they must be measured and tactful, and keep their faces as blank as Hillary Clinton’s when she is asked a tough question.

Here’s my manual on diary-keeping. You can write about events if you wish, whether painful or full of joy. Or you can write about your feelings, although I promise you this will be fantastically dull when you read it years later, mainly because your feelings won’t have changed. Still, it’s educational.

Or you could simply write an observational diary about things you have seen and heard. I have been enthralled in the past year by the revelations of the Mass Observation project, now being published at a great rate. Mass Observation was a scheme dreamed up in Britain in 1937 to record daily life, to create “an anthropology of ourselves.” Avoiding big events and rich people, the British government wanted a tapestry of ordinary life. So it set up a team of observers and a group of volunteers to record what they saw and heard each day. This is the seventieth anniversary of its founding and jewels keep tumbling out of the archives. Amazingly, the project has continued to this day.

The key to Mass Observation was that the diaries had to be utterly truthful. Now, in this new millennium, I read that on Sept. 28, 1946, Maggie Joy Blunt, 35, a secretary in a metal factory, inveterate smoker and fine writer, wrote that she backed a change in the laws banning abortion. “Have heard of three in the past year. One, the woman was sufficiently well-off to have it done safely in a private nursing home. The other two, unknown to each other in London, had to have unskilled help in the most sordid circumstances and went through such agony. . . . It certainly isn’t fair that safe abortion is available only to enlightened women with long purses.” (Sixty-one years later, women in New Brunswick are still fighting this battle. I recently made a speech to Fredericton law students on this very matter. It’s good to know I would have had Maggie Joy’s backing.)

Nella Last, working-class mother, wrote her Mass Observation diary for 30 years. It has just been published as Nella Last’s War. Among Nella’s many battles is a quarrel with another woman at the Red Cross Centre where she works. The woman is domineering and jealous of Nella, and they finally have it out in a spitting argument. Fast-forward to 2007 and office life hasn’t changed.

It’s a balm to my soul to read Nella’s diary and it clearly gave her enormous comfort to write it. So why not learn from the Mass Observation triumph? Let’s all write diaries, without artful evasions of the truth. The older diaries describe a life without “supermarkets, highways, tea bags, frozen food, microwaves, dishwashers, CDs, computers, mobiles, duvets, birth-control pills, or Starbucks,” as one historian remarks with awe. And yet the women’s thoughts and feelings ring as clear and true today. If they were alive, they would be our girlfriends.

Get started on that diary. Just write to please yourself and make yourself laugh, as Helen “Bridget Jones” Fielding advises. Words are free.