In defence of Caitlin Moran and populist feminism

Some educated women seem to want to keep feminism for themselves and cloak it in esoteric theory.

Feminism has a lot to answer for. In precise terms, it is called upon to answer for 3.3 billion very different individuals, united (mostly) by an additional X chromosome and a vagina - and sometimes not even that. This means that issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege often end up fracturing feminist dialogue, most regularly causing disagreements between those armed with an MA in Gender Studies and a large vocabulary to match, and those without. Recent weeks have seen a backlash against the populist feminism of writers such as Caitlin Moran, whose bestselling book How To Be a Woman has been somewhat snobbishly referred to by academic feminists as "an intro to feminism." It was suggested that because Moran had written a book with such an encompassing title, that she owed it to her audience to attempt to represent every facet of female experience. As the most popular figurehead of modern feminism today, there was an overriding consensus amongst certain groups that she should be campaigning for as many sections of female society as possible.

In How To Be a Woman, however, Moran had depicted a very specific tale of femininity: white, working class womanhood in Wolverhampton. This is not unusual, considering that her book is essentially an autobiography. The fact that it has become an international bestseller is no small achievement: an "intro" to feminism, perhaps, but one that is, unusually, completely free of pomposity. The fact that a feminist book has managed not only to have mass appeal but also to be funny with it is something to be celebrated. The fact that it deals with the experience of someone who grew up on benefits makes the two of us (and our single mums) want to dance around our bedrooms with joy. This woman has removed the dust and the stuffiness from a movement which at its most academic is almost incomprehensible, instead expressing its ideals in a way that thousands of women understand and identify with. It is a massive achievement.

And therein lies the nub of the problem: feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement. Watching Loose Women the other day, we were struck by how the question put to the panel seemed to woefully underestimate the inequalities still rife in our society. "Does feminism still have a place in this world?" they asked, as we banged our heads against our desks. But then Paul O’Grady said something about how his auntie in rollers, with her Woodbine sticking out of her gob, was completely a feminist, just wouldn’t necessarily have used the term, and we started thinking that perhaps many of the women watching and those in the audience would have answered the question with a resounding "no. Feminism doesn’t have a place. Not in our world, anyway."

And to an extent, why should it? If class or race, and not merely gender, is what is preventing you from becoming Director General of the BBC, or Prime Minister, or the editor of the Telegraph, then equal rights for women in isolation of these factors are going to make sod-all difference. You’ll still be left with hungry mouths to feed, or a violent partner, or a shit school. Winning places for women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is not a priority when your benefits have just been cut and your ex-partner keeps moving house to avoid the CSA. Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse (what are they going to do? Protect or feed themselves with theory? Women cannot dine on Greer alone.) "This woman does not represent me", they will think of their well-meaning lecturer, because how can she, with her private education and her alienating terminology and her privilege, how can she know how poverty gnaws away at your insides and suppresses your voice? How would she know how that feels?

What feminism needs is more voices - a whole chorus of them. By all means, we can criticise those already at the top, but we should be combining that with a real desire to listen to women from all walks of life and their experiences: to actively seek them out, rather than waiting for the lucky few to claw their way into our ranks. Giving them jobs on newspapers so that they can write movingly and persuasively about the inequalities they suffer. Because working class women are rarer than hen’s teeth in almost all sections of the media, and just as unexpected. From the newspapers we read a study in, to the PR consultants who compiled it, to the advertising agencies who placed the pictures, the working class are demonstrably underrepresented. Only last month, London ad agency Iris was berated online for producing a pamphlet called Iris on Benefits: a guide on the benefits of working for the company (private healthcare, extended holiday, etcetera) that illustrated itself tastelessly with pictures of "chav" clichés. The joke was that it was a play on the word ‘benefits’, which these Burberry-hatted, Nike-trainered, Jeremy-Kyle-watching stereotypes were assumedly claiming. One of Iris’s lines of defence was that the pamphlet was "only meant to be seen internally", as if it went without saying that none of their own internal employees would be working class, past recipients of benefits, or indeed merely offended by such depictions. Fuck that.

The fact that these assumptions prevail is disappointing but not surprising. And in the case of feminism, real campaigning can often only be done with the time and money afforded to privileged people: students with the privilege of time, middle class people with the privilege of money, or squatting activists playing at being poor with the privilege of knowing they have a moneyed parental safety net behind them. This is not to say that those who campaign are not doing positive things for women everywhere. But when we seek out an actual, tangible voice to the campaigns that are supposed to be equalising the playing field for women everywhere, all too often it’s the same voice that we hear. And it doesn’t have a Geordie accent. 

It almost seems as though some educated women want to keep feminism for themselves, cloak it in esoteric theory and hide it under their mattresses, safe and warm beneath the duck down duvet. As long as that happens, though, the lives of many women and men in this country will remain the same. Feminism should not be a discipline far removed from the lives of ordinary people, but part of a larger social justice movement that strives to achieve a better life for everyone. Caitlin Moran may not be perfect, but she has come closest thus far. In the last few weeks some have been bandying about the oft-quoted phrase "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit." We would suggest that anyone with an interest in genuine equality for all adapt that phrase to "my feminism will be comprehensible or it will be bullshit." Achieving "intersectionality" is impossible unless you can communicate clearly, with everyone.  Moran at least speaks a language that we all understand. And how many other feminists can you credit with that?

Caitlin Moran attends the Attitude Magazine Awards at One Mayfair on October 16, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Tim Farron: We must not let racists hijack the EU referendum result

The Liberal Democrat leader says in an IPPR speech that "Britain is better" than "Farage, Le Pen and their ilk". 

Like so many people, I felt shocked and emotional about the result of the vote on 23 June.
 
I know many people who wept at the news.
 
I can understand that.​
 
Not because I love the specific institutions of the European Union, but because I feel European.
 
I also feel British. And English.
 
And northern.  And I don’t feel any conflict between those identities, in fact they reinforce each other.
 
But the result seemed to throw this balance into doubt.
 
And yes, I also felt angry.
 
I still feel angry now, but perhaps for a different reason.
 
Because never in recent history have we, in the political classes, let down the people of this country so disastrously.
 
And I make no distinction here between those who voted to Remain and those who voted to Leave.
 
They were battered with dodgy statistics. From both sides.
 
They were lied to.
 
On both sides too – though it is the NHS and the £350 million that particularly sticks in the throat.
 
And worse than that.
 
They were misled by lackadaisical politicians, playing games, who had campaigned for years to leave the EU – but hadn’t bothered to come up with a plan about what to do if it happened.
 
We, the political classes, have left a country bitterly divided as a result.
 
Between parents and children, families, neighbours.
 
Between the nations of our own union, who have worked and fought together for centuries.
 
Between us and our continental neighbours.
 
And now the biggest danger of them all.
 
That because of those divisions, we are in danger of letting malevolent forces hijack the result.
 
Plenty of my mates voted leave and I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of those who did vote leave are utterly appalled that Farage, Le Pen and their ilk now seek to claim the result as a victory for their hateful brand of intolerance, racism and insularity.  Britain is better than that.
 
But I’m not so blinded by those emotions that I don’t see the new divisions that are opening up between us.
 
New political boundaries which chop the old certainties of Tory and Labour into little pieces.
 
Because there’s a new battle emerging.
 
Between the forces of tolerant liberalism and intolerant, closed-minded nationalism.
 
And, of course, you know that, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which side I’m on.
 
But I also know what side most people in this country are on too.
 
In the 48 per cent and also in the 52 per cent.
 
So let’s be clear about this.
 
I am absolutely committed to the cause of an open-minded, open-hearted United Kingdom.
 
United in every sense of the word.
 
Because, as Jo Cox said, we have more in common with each other in this country than what divides us. 
 
And, yes, I campaigned my heart out to stay a member of the European Union. And would do again given the chance.
 
But a nation divided against itself can’t stand.
 
Nor can it hammer out a way forward from the current impasse.
 
And our combined history cries out for some more inspiring political leadership.
 
Which can say that, in or out, we remain an open-minded, outward-looking nation.
 
Which can say, in or out, we will be European and British and from our own towns, villages and cities.
 
And be proud of all of them.
 
Which can say to those from other countries who have committed their lives alongside us in the UK: we will stand by you, no matter what.
 
Let me just say that again.
 
We will stand by you.
 
As we stood by each other across Europe in the Second World War.
 
We will stand by you, who have chosen British communities to live in.
 
Not only that but we need you.
 
If the tens of thousands of people who make it possible to run our schools and health service were to worry about our commitment to them...
 
So much so that it threatens their commitment to us...
 
It would seriously undermine services that are used by some of the most vulnerable people in this country.
 
The Conservative and Labour parties may have so forgotten themselves that they’ve missed this urgent consideration.
 
But we haven’t.
 
So I make this absolute promise.
 
To use what power we can muster, to make sure that those who have committed their lives and families to this country will be protected.
 
That no kneejerk populism will be allowed to threaten them or uproot them.
 
And I ask now all the many candidates for high positions in Westminster to join me in this undertaking.
 
I don’t just say this as the leader of a political party.
 
I don’t just commit my own party to this.
 
I speak as a Member of Parliament in one of the most open-hearted nations on earth.
 
I speak as a proud citizen of this country.
 
We will not stand by to let Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen dictate our policy, our direction, or our morality.
 
So, yes, I campaigned to remain.  I’ll carry on campaigning to remain.
 
But we have gone beyond June’s referendum now.
 
There are more fundamental, more urgent issues that we must face today.
 
Existential issues about our nation.
 
About what they’re saying about us in the rest of the planet.
 
The newspapers.
 
The investors.
 
About protecting neighbours and friends born in other countries from hate.
 
So, yes, I recognise and understand the motivations of many of those who voted the other way to me.
 
I’m a white, working class, middle aged, northern male.  By voting remain, I pretty much confounded the predicted behaviour my demographic might suggest!  And for once it put me at odds with lots of the people I grew up with. 
 
Who are as proud as I am about the same things I’m proud of in our country.
 
I understand their fears for their own communities.
 
I completely get why being talked down to by Cameron and Osborne, threatened with a ‘punishment budget’ might push even the most internationalist person to vote leave! 
 
And nobody ever said the European Union was perfect. Least of all me.
 
Its aspiration of peace and co-operation in Europe is vitally important.
 
It still is.
 
But I’m aware that the reality of the EU can often be inflexible.
 
I understand that people’s liberal commitment to local communities, which I absolutely share, sometimes led them to vote differently to me.
 
I understand those who voted for Brexit and their frustration about the way that the big banks were allowed to torpedo the economy.
 
And torpedo so many people’s lives.
 
Without sanction. Without even a loss of bonuses.
 
While those who have tried to make a more tangible contribution their whole lives, have been sidelined, bullied and left behind.
 
I understand that, possibly better than any other leader.  Because whilst South Lakeland voted remain, it was the only place in Lancashire or Cumbria that did.  And I grew up in and I belong to the very part of British society that most heavily voted leave. 
 
And yes I understand their fears that their communities have been changed. Maybe even overwhelmed.
 
Not so much to satisfy Brussels, but specifically to reduce the wages of the big food manufacturers. 
 
Or the cleaning contractors.
 
Or the care homes.
 
Because what June’s vote did reveal, above everything else, is how angry people have become.
 
And though we might argue about the reasons for it, their anger is justified.
 
We have banking institutions that have let them down, suffocating their businesses.
 
We have an economic policy that favours the rich over everyone else, middle class, working class alike.
 
We have a housing crisis that’s consuming our children.
 
We have a Treasury so cut off from reality that they urged people not to vote for Brexit – because it might mean property prices would rise more slowly.
 
As if people weren’t struggling now to get a foot on the housing ladder.
 
To help their children scrape enough together to rent a place of their own.
 
We have people treated like cattle with zero-hour contracts.
 
We have those who worked as pillars of their community all their lives...
 
Running small businesses.
 
Managing farms...
 
Making a difference...
 
Only to see themselves gazumped by salaries ten or a hundred times as much by cash-hungry bankers in their twenties.  The devastation of our communities n the Lakes overwhelmed by excessive second home ownership is a case in point.
 
In short, we have an underlying, aching discomfort which goes to the heart of the reasons for the immediate crisis.
 
More than a discomfort.
 
It is a great and abiding fear, gnawing away at the heart of our society.
 
And we have a political class, which I don’t particularly like having to accept I’m a member of, which has abandoned people disastrously to their fate.
 
I believe that, in the national interest, we remainers and brexiters can most of us understand the motivations of voters on the other side to us.
 
We’re able to see beyond the stereotypes.
 
And to say together.
 
This open-minded nation will survive.
 
It will survive because these Liberal values are shared by so many of us. 
 
The right to say ‘this is who I am’. ‘This is who we are’.
 
And the enterprising commitment to challenge the big bureaucracies and the big businesses from below.
 
That’s why we will defend people wherever they came from originally.
 
Those who were born and bred here who are locked out of success by boneheaded cuts in adult education.
 
But also the Polish families who have work three jobs just to pay the rent, but who still help to run the school fete.
 
And the refugees who provide lynchpins to hospital after hospital from one side of the country to the other.
 
Right across the nation, and woven together, from Cornwall to Caithness.
 
Again, I say this not just as a party leader.
 
I don’t just say this to commit my party to it.
 
I say it as a proud citizen of this country.
 
With a shared history that’s always been outward-looking.
 
Connected through trade to other corners of the world in a way that no nation ever was before.
 
We provided the international language of the world.
 
We led the world in industrial development, moral development and scientific development.
 
And we stood up against tyranny even when it didn’t threaten us directly.
 
When all over Europe, those suffering under occupation, risked their lives to huddle around their wirelesses to listen to broadcasts from London.
 
There never was a moment in our history when we pulled up the drawbridge.
 
There never will be.
 
It just isn’t true that Britain voted to do that.
 
So that’s also my commitment as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
 
To listen to that fear and take it seriously. 
 
And then to hammer out and enact a more humane, more successful, more effective way of doing economics.
 
More challenging, more enterprising and more ambitious.
 
Which shares the rewards of success so that the state doesn’t have to step in so much.
 
To take on the real vested interests that hold us back as a nation.
 
The zero hour contractors.
 
The speculators.
 
The monopolists.
 
Those who would hijack people’s anger for their own racist agenda.
 
So that we can shape a fairer nation.
 
But also keep those outward-looking British values of tolerance and mutual respect that we all believe in.
 
Because there are going to be difficult, maybe dark, times ahead.
 
We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad.
 
We’ve had to watch the shaming pictures of Nigel Farage sneering on our behalf in the European Parliament.
 
We have to find a solution when both the biggest national parties have preferred to unravel than to take a lead.
 
But I’m a Liberal.
 
I believe in people.
 
And I especially believe in our people.
 
In their sense and their humanity, whether they voted to stay or to go.
 
People have been let down for decades by short-termist politicians who put the needs of one part of society above the rest.
 
Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote those divisions are more exposed than ever before.
 
With our country facing huge challenges…
 
– from inequality and injustice to an NHS in crisis and an economy in jeopardy –
 
…we are left with a reckless, divisive and uncaring Conservative Government and Labour fighting among themselves with no plan for the economy or the country.
 
That’s why the Liberal Democrats are needed more than ever.
 
We are the real voice of opposition to the Conservative Brexit Government and the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.
 
Britain is the most sophisticated and welcoming and innovative nation in the world and, in or out, we will stay that.
 
And we Liberal Democrats will do whatever we can, in Parliament and outside.
 
To reshape the way the nation works, to bring it back together.
 
To stay civilised. 
 
To stay united.
 
Because, wherever we were born, we love our country.​
 

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.