Dangerous Women

By Jo Shaw, Ben Fletcher-Watson and Abrisham Ahmadzadeh

Fifty reflections on women, power and identity

Autobiography | Feminism
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What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?

‘The most dangerous woman in Britain’ – the Sun

‘Meet the most dangerous wee woman in the world’ – Daily Mail

We may laugh at the media’s label for women such as Shami Chakrabarti or Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but behind it lie serious questions about the dynamics, conflicts and power relations with which women live today. The idea that women are dangerous individually or collectively permeates many historical periods, cultures and areas of contemporary life.

But what does it mean for a woman to be dangerous? Who, or what, does she present a danger to? Who gets to say she’s dangerous? Why do they want to say it? Does she consider herself dangerous? Is feminism dangerous? And what do the answers to those questions tell us about societies past and present? About our social and political structures, about our everyday lives, our attitudes and our very identities? Dangerous Women gives fifty wide-ranging perspectives on these questions.

We have welcomed poets, playwrights, artists, academics, journalists, historians, performers and opinion-formers, and indeed anyone with an angle on the theme, to reflect on the danger of females. Speaking from a variety of ages, ethnicities and cultures, we have come together from all over the world to give agency to any woman dismissed for her power, talent or success, trivialised as a threat or condemned for challenging the status quo. We are here to celebrate these women and applaud them for their strength.

In doing so, we have reclaimed the right to be dangerous, and highlighted the power of otherwise dismissed female figures. If you lack female idols, this book is for you. If you want to challenge the narrative that a powerful woman is a threat, this inclusive and diverse book is for you. Dangerous Women is for anyone and everyone who questions how to be dangerous, and indeed what that means.

Contributors include Nicola Sturgeon MSP, broadcaster and journalist Bidisha, playwright Jo Clifford, prize-winning novelist Irenosen Okojie, acclaimed journalist Jean Rafferty, essayist and writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett, novelist and architect Yewande Omotoso, poet and performer Rachel McCrum, prize-winning novelist and poet Claire Askew, celebrated author Nada Awar Jarrar, critic and publisher Laura E. Waddell, BBC comedy writer Jasmine Tonie, writer and editor Annee Lawrence, award-winning poet and translator A.C. Clarke, poet, writer and presenter Mab Jones and feminist historian Chiara Bonfiglioli.

This book is drawn from contributions by people who identify as women and their allies to the Dangerous Women Project, which ran from International Women’s Day 2016 to International Women’s Day 2017. The fifty selections have been revised and updated, and details of almost 350 more pieces from the project are included in the book.

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  • Jo Shaw avatar

    Jo Shaw

    Ben Fletcher-Watson avatar

    Ben Fletcher-Watson

    Abrisham Ahmadzadeh avatar

    Abrisham Ahmadzadeh

    Jo is a European Union legal scholar, and has held the Salvesen Chair of European Institutions in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh since 2005. From 2014-2017 she was Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, where she founded the Dangerous Women Project with Peta Freestone. Her current research examines citizenship regimes: what they are and how they work. She is also co-Director of the Global Citizenship Observatory.


    Ben manages the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. He was born in Germany, trained as a theatre director and dramaturg in the USA, and holds a PhD from the University of St Andrews. His interests include accessible and inclusive performance, theatre for babies and contemporary European drama. He lives in Edinburgh.


    Abrisham is studying at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in the sexual agency of goddesses in antiquity. Her dangerous female idol has to be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and without the wise words of Audre Lorde or the dulcet tones of Aretha Franklin she wouldn’t get through the day.

  • What does it mean to be a truly dangerous woman, in this dangerous world? - Bidisha

    We live in a dangerous world, and that danger comes from male violence. It is hardly radical to point this out, as it’s a fact: governments know it, the police know it, crime reporters know it, judges know it and victim support workers know it. Statistically, this violence is perpetrated by men and boys against women, girls, other men and other boys. Statistically, it is males who rape, traffic, terrorise, buy and sell and rent, harass, exploit, use and abuse females and sometimes other males. Statistically, it is men who physically beat and brutalise women and other men.

    This abuse is supported by an inescapable network of macho social and cultural misogyny in which male authority figures with money and power head up every area, be it politics or the arts, finance or the charity sector, medicine or academia, law or engineering. Meanwhile, but for some few exceptions, women are kept in the lower echelons of each organisation and often paid less for the same work as men, discriminated against, sexually harassed, dismissed through ageism, punished for becoming mothers and overlooked for promotions.

    In a patriarchal society like this, women are punished through comparison with negative stereotypes, impossible ideals and hypocritical double standards which sexist men invent and reinforce among themselves to ensure their own dominance (although many women have absorbed and internalised the same values): a woman is shrill while her male counterpart is assertive; a friendly woman is a tease who deserves what is done to her by any men who abuse her while a friendly man has easy charm; a child-free woman is a selfish careerist while a new mother is a matronly sap who can’t be trusted to concentrate at work, whereas a man with kids is a ‘family man’ even if he does no actual parenting and leaves the childcare labour to the mother or a female nanny.

    And so on.

    In culture and in the mass media women are ignored, sidelined or under-represented as writers, directors, artists, experts, architects, designers, photographers, composers, conductors, panel speakers, whatever it is. If it involves money, influence, self-expression, the power to influence images and narratives, to create great spectacles and show the world our creative vision, we are kept out, whether that’s making films or getting on best-of lists or prize shortlists or receiving big commissions and exciting work trips as DJs, as scientists, as academics, as poets, or whatever it might be. Those who are not ‘lucky’ to be treated like this in full-time, middle class professional employment are struggling as exploited workers in ‘flexible’ jobs which offer no pension, no stability, no progression and no safeguards.

    At the same time, in the home, many men still use women’s labour as cleaners, cooks, child-raisers, sexual service providers, family admin organisers and parent-carers. And yet providing all of these free services for a man who does far less than 50% of all the work does not mean that a woman will not be beaten, raped, bullied, controlled, deceived or betrayed by him; two women a week are killed by their male partner or ex-partner. And when a woman is abused, and she speaks about it, she will be told she is lying.

    Women are cornered and trapped in their lives by severe funding cuts which have affected domestic violence, rape, legal aid, housing, early years education and elderly care charities. Women are bearing the brunt of a macho government’s sadistic ‘austerity’, where those at the bottom of society – always women, and in particular women of colour – are punished again and again and sometimes kept in abusive situations through lack of a way out, because the Chancellor doesn’t want to tax rich white chaps like himself.

    Yet it is not we who are the liars. Narratives and images about women in mass culture from films to music videos to adverts do not derive from reality but are chock full of malicious lies and patronising, belittling insults. So often, the stories we ingest as part of our daily entertainment are full of slanders against women, and give us a pantheon of females who represent everything that sexist men really think about us. At the very best we can hope to be sexually objectified as a ‘hot’ body to be used and then discarded or a crying and desperate kidnap victim to be saved. We can be turned into pornography and masturbated over, or rented and used by the hour to give a man sexual gratification and a feeling of power and control. We can be patronised as an infantile and endlessly supportive love interest or pityingly leered over as a murdered prostitute on a mortuary slab. There is the useless frump, the nagging wife, the interfering mother in law, the hard-faced police detective, the petty fusspot, the pathetic yet predatory ‘cougar’. We are either stupid bimbos to be used then ignored or scheming, dried-up witches to be mocked then ignored.

    When our very youthful beauty fades the true hatred and derision felt for us is revealed.

    And at the very worst, we are represented as dangerous women who will destroy the world out of our irrational malice if we are not stopped. The succubus, the ugly hag, the sinister crone, the cold bitch who can’t take a joke, the demonic castrator, the shrill feminist who overreacts to every tiny thing, the dried-up spinster aunt, the baby-hungry obsessed woman, the demanding high-maintenance girlfriend, the shallow high-maintenance wife, the ‘psycho’ ex-wife, the scheming harridan, the un-maternal career woman ‘ballbreaker’, the embittered former beauty queen, the vengeful stalker who’s mad, sad and bad and lives to emasculate men.

    These images bleed out of the arts and culture and are used to judge and attack all women in public life, especially in politics and business leadership. Women who aim for power of any kind, in any area, are represented as ravenously ambitious, selfish, inhuman witches who want to take something away from men. Actually forget about trying to get power; when a woman wants justice, basic justice in law, against a man who has harmed her, and is strong enough to go to the police and even through a court to get it, it is she who is put on trial, said to be lying, psychologically exposed, cross-examined and destroyed in front of strangers.

    Read more...
  • 31st October 2019 Author Spotlight: Sujana Upadhyay

    This week we hear from Sujana Upadhyay, whose Dangerous Women piece is called “A deep shade of red”. A bilingual poet, playwright and researcher, Sujana’s work mainly explores human relationships, traditional practices and our interconnectedness with nature, often drawing inspiration from her childhood in Nepal, interest in folklore and work in gender relations.

    - What is your writing process…

    24th October 2019 New podcast: "Sharing Things"

    Episode 5 of Sharing things is out today! This week’s podcast guests are Srishti Chaudhary and Abrisham Ahmadzadeh. Srishti studied creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, and her first novel, Once Upon A Curfew, was released in April 2019. Abrisham is a fourth-year classics student who’s working on the launch of Dangerous Women, a book consisting of 50 pieces all answering the question,…

    11th October 2019 Author Spotlight: Glynis Ridley

    Today in our author spotlights, we hear from Glynis Ridley, an academic who focusses on the 18th century. Glynis is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Her current book project stems from a flea-market purchase of a notebook kept from 1824-27 by Thomasina Gleadowe-Newcomen of Dublin, Ireland, and will become a biography of Thomasina, her family…

    20th September 2019 Author Spotlight: Meltem Naz Kaso Corral Sánchez

    To bring some insight into Dangerous Women behind the scenes, some of our authors have answered questions about their writing process, their involvement with the Dangerous Women Project and their favourite women from history. In bringing the project into 2019, the authors have worked tirelessly to do themselves and the dangerous women they are representing proud, in amending and updating their…

    5th September 2019 25% funded!

    We are officially 25% funded! We can’t thank you enough for your support and dedication - in pledging for our book, you have got us one step closer to telling the stories of women unheard. We couldn’t have got here without you! And in doing so, we are placing many more people on the map with your names in the back of the book.

    If you haven’t yet pledged, now is the time! Please help us get to 50…

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