Written by Sarah Ledger


Poly Styrene… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. A punk legend with wild hair and braces gave Sarah Ledger the confidence to refuse to be defined by the limits of traditional femininity.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

If being a feminist means assuming that anyone can do anything regardless of the configuration of their genitals, then really, I’ve always been one. Of course, I’m white, middle-class, educated, salaried – it might sound like I’m showing off here, but really I’m just checking my privilege – and the notion that being female is not a massive disadvantage is relatively straightforward for me. But I don’t take it for granted.

When I was about 10, I remember laughing in astonishment when my mother explained Freud’s theory of penis envy to me. Really? I hooted; envy of a penis? Why on earth would anyone think that?

But as time went on, I had to admit Freud might have had a point. That epiphany came to me one summer evening as I watered the garden with a powerful hose. It occurred to me that the ability to piss standing up confers upon blokes a sense of god-like supremacy and that might be something they’d be reluctant to hand over. The delphiniums got a beasting that afternoon, I can tell you.

“Poly Styrene’s attitude, exuberance, insubordination and an absolute refusal to be defined by the limits of traditional femininity gave me confidence. If she could get up and do it, so could I.”

Once I got into my teens, however, it became much clearer that my view of equality for all was not a world view. In 1978, girls were expected to be pretty and quiet and thin and not make a big deal if they thought they might have something interesting or clever to say. Sexism and misogyny no longer surprised me. I became accustomed to it, even, to some extent, accepted it.

That’s why Poly Styrene was a shock. I saw her before I heard her. She had a mop of wild hair, wore braces on her teeth and looked as if she didn’t give a fuck. In those days, in my mind, female beauty began with Olivia Newton John’s doe eyes and ended with Diana Ross’s straightened hair, and I have to admit, to my shame, I thought Poly was ugly. But then, as I didn’t look like Olivia or Diana either, I thought I was ugly too.

I was a little bit afraid of her as well, particularly when someone played me X-Ray Spex and I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. That lisped opening “little girls should be seen and not heard” followed by a defiant “Oh Bondage! Up Yours” was disconcerting. As well as being ugly, it didn’t sound as if Poly Styrene was very good at singing.

But gradually I got it. Her attitude, exuberance, insubordination and an absolute refusal to be defined by the limits of traditional femininity gave me confidence. If she could get up and do it, so could I. I’d love to tell you I went on to become a punk legend too, but I didn’t. I just grew up to be an outspoken woman who doesn’t take any shit. Perhaps that’s enough.

I’m sad that there’s no one like Poly in the mainstream now. I thought she was the start of a revolution, but she was just a glimpse of what we could have won. Women in the public eye are still evenly featured, well groomed, pert breasted. And if they aren’t, heaven help them. Acres of print and cyberspace are given over to criticise women who dare to refuse to conform while corkingly ugly men are accepted for what they can do, what they say and how they say it, not how they look.

I’m looking forward to the day when that applies to us all. Then Poly’s legacy will have been realised.

Read about more of our writers’ feminist lightbulb moments here.


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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com