“Our Jess” entered the stage to rapturous applause alongside Helen Pankhurst (yes of that Pankhurst suffragette heritage). Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, and the author of Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth and Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on B.S was back in her home city and the love for her was evident in the noise erupting around the room. “The best part of the world,” Jess Phillips announced, causing whoops of agreement to echo around the Bradshaw Hall.
When Helen Pankhurst and Jess Phillips were seated on stage and the noise had finally dimmed to a quiet, excited buzz of anticipation the Birmingham Literature Festival event, Truth to Power with Jess Phillip began.
Jess Phillips’ Truth to Power was published earlier in the month and alongside fellow feminist, Helen Pankhurst, the author was in Birmingham to discuss her writing. “Look how studious Helen has been,” Jess Phillips joked in reference to the countless markers sticking out of Helen Pankhurst’s own copy of Truth to Power.
“First question, why did you decide to write this book?” asked Helen Pankhurst. In answer, Phillips explained that she is constantly being asked by people to write books, which she struggles to say no to but after writing her first book she discovered how difficult this actually is. In the case of Truth to Power however, she was approached by the publisher who said this book would be a timely thing for people to read in an era where people feel so hopeless and need to hear that we can change things. “The world at the moment seems, not just here in the UK but globally, that just it’s hopeless,” stated Jess. She then added, “I can never write anything unless I have something to say… I write best when I’m angry about something and I feel really, really angry with the idea that people feel powerless…. I think people have much, much more power than they realise… I want people to realise how much power they have.” Jess Phillips then went on to say that “The only way people’s voices ever get heard is if they use them.”
During the event, Jess Phillips also admitted, that when she is no longer a member of parliament, she has plans to write a specific fiction book, although she also added that she would be giving nothing away about the idea itself. “Hopefully I’ll be in parliament for a while but who knows, the world changes every 15 seconds at the moment,” laughed Jess.
Steering back onto the subject of her book Truth to Power, Jess Phillips told the audience that “The main thing I want people to get when they read the book is that they can do this, they can speak truth to power.” Every person she interviewed for the book is ordinary and real, and Phillips wants her readers to realise that this could be them. “Anyone can speak up and anyone can change the law… We’ve just got to believe we can do it.”
Jess Phillips’ highlighted the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up campaign as one of the biggest movements in history of people speaking the truth to power. When the Weinstein scandal first broke, Phillips spent a lot of time on the phone to LA but she also warns that when these stories are told, “just speaking truth to power, whilst it will be a release, if it isn’t followed with an actual plan or even having a plan before you do it, it will likely fade to nothing.”
Jess Phillips then read an extract from her book from the chapter on ‘Backlash’, which portrays some of the things that might hold you back in your attempts to change something. Phillips told the audience of the Birmingham Literature Festival about Amika George, a teenager who campaigned against Period Poverty, asking for schools in the UK to provide free sanitary products so that girls weren’t taking time off school. Despite winning a big pot of money “admittedly it was from the tampon tax, which we shouldn’t have to pay”, a lot of campaigners announced it was general austerity causing the issue thus belittling Amika George’s success. “Lots of people will try to throw you off course by saying ‘if you can’t change everything, what’s the point in changing anything,’” Jess Phillips stated, then added, “You have to test your motivation constantly and if your motivation is good, ignore people who say it’s not pure enough.”
In the remaining time left in the event, Helen Pankhurst turned her attention to the audience who were given their chance to ask Jess Phillips some questions. One of the most poignant came from a young girl, who was a member of youth parliament. She wanted to know how we can break down the barrier of disengagement with youths who do not yet have the right to vote. In answer, Jess Phillips said that she was shocked that young people still don’t think they have any political power, using the example of Greta Thunberg and the climate crisis school strikers. “It is simply not true,” stated Phillips’ of young people’s lack of power. While Helen Pankhurst, with her iconic suffragette surname and background, took this opportunity to urge everyone, especially young people to vote and have their voice heard.
Truth to Power with Jess Phillips was by far the best event we visited as part of Birmingham Literature Festival this year. Jess Phillips was her usual, inspiring, thought-provoking, honest and, of course, hilarious self, and I left feeling uplifted and hopeful for the future.
Everywomen and Truth to Power by Jess Phillips are out now and available from all good bookshops and online retailers. Helen Pankhurst has also published a book entitled Deeds not Words which is also out now, and you can read more about the book and its author in our event write up from last year’s Birmingham Literature Festival.