Katie Roiphe interview: "There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women"

Helen Lewis talks to Katie Roiphe, columnist and author, most recently of <em>In Praise of Messy Lives</em>.

Katie Roiphe likes to provoke. The American essayist describes herself in her latest collection as an “uncomfortablist”. Considering her career began with a book suggesting that date rape statistics were overblown and asserting, “Rape is a natural trump card for feminism,” that is a small understatement.

In person, though, Roiphe has a demeanour that is quiet and watchful, although her defiant halo of tight curls and the loud print of her minidress suggest she is less of a wallflower than she might at first seem. “It’s the goal to get people to think about things in a new way and if that’s what you’re doing, you can’t then complain about people attacking you,” she tells me. “You know, we say that women writers have a harder time on the internet with the angry comments – but a lot of those angry comments come from women. There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women.”

Roiphe’s recent book In Praise of Messy Lives begins with an appropriately uncomfortable description of her divorce. Her unhappily married friends, she notices, are desperate to believe that she is miserable, desperate to think that her children are suffering; her happily married friends do not judge.

It is tempting to dismiss Roiphe as just another confessional columnist and some do. Hamilton Nolan of Gawker seems to write an angry blog every time she publishes an essay, blog with titles such as “Shut up, Katie Roiphe” and “Your rape fantasy is boring, Katie Roiphe”. (She responded with a piece about the site’s “autopilot Schadenfreude” entitled “Gawker is big immature baby”.)

Despite her personal focus and her tendency to enrage, Roiphe is more than a starspangled Liz Jones. For a start, her range is impressive. She has a PhD in English from Princeton and teaches at New York University and she seems as happy writing about why so many mothers are keen to replace their Facebook profile pictures with photos of their babies – “The choice seems to constitute a retreat to an older form of identity, to a time when women were called Mrs John Smith” – as she is close-reading a forgotten female author.

She is brave, too. In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted”, she casually picks a fight with a generation of male American writers, describing Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel and David Foster Wallace as boringly guilt-ridden and emasculated, particularly in comparison to the “onanistic exuberance” of Philip Roth and John Updike’s ability to “do poetry and whorehouse”. (To compound the offence, she blames feminist critics for inflicting all this snuggling on us by being so hard on Roth’s and Updike’s bawdiness in the first place.)

Despite the negative reaction, Roiphe is unrepentant. “I am saying something that I think is common sense but other people think is really crazy.” She pauses. “That’s a position I often find myself in.”

The writer Katie Roiphe. Photograph: Anna Schori / Camera Press

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.