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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Barack Obama throws a Reaganesque baton of hope to Hillary Clinton

The 44th President's speech backing Clinton was also his swan song. 

Barack Obama looked at ease as he stepped up to praise Hillary Clinton and endorse her as the Democratic Presidential nominee.

To an upbeat soundtrack by U2 and cheers of his 2008 campaign slogan, "yes we can", he took to the podium at the Democratic convention. 

Borrowing the sunny optimism once so skilfully deployed by Republicans, Obama struck back against Republican nominee Donald Trump's "deeply pessimistic vision" of the United States.

He declared: "The America I know is full of courage and optimism and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous."

Like his wife Michelle, Obama painted Clinton as a grafter who wasn't in it for the fame. 

He praised her campaign when they were rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and said that when she served as a member of his team he had "a front-row seat" to her intelligence, judgement and discipline. 

He declared: "I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America."

He then joked to Bill Clinton, the former President, who was standing applausing: "I hope you don't mind, Bill, but I was just telling the truth, man."

The two-terms President continually urged Democratic voters, many of whom originally backed Bernie Sanders, to get out and vote. "Democracy isn't a spectator sport," he said.

But while Obama was there to add some sparkle to the Clinton campaign, it was also an opportunity to shape his legacy. 

Commentators have often compared Obama to the popular Democratic President John F Kennedy, or the less popular but idealistic Jimmy Carter. 

Obama, though, has in the past praised the Republican President Ronald Reagan for changing the trajectory of US politics. 

In his speech, he borrowed from the "eternal optimist" to compare the Democrats with the Republicans. 

He said: "Ronald Reagan called America "a shining city on a hill." Donald Trump calls it "a divided crime scene" that only he can fix.

"It doesn't matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they've been in decades, because he's not actually offering any real solutions to those issues. He's just offering slogans, and he's offering fear. He's betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election."

Obama praised a diverse country, where immigrant cultures combined: "That is America. That is America. Those bonds of affection, that common creed. We don't fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own."

The 44th President bowed out by referring to his 2008 campaign of hope, and telling voters "America, you have vindicated that hope". And he thanked them "for this incredible journey":

"I'm ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen. So this year, in this election, I'm asking you to join me, to reject cynicism and reject fear and to summon what is best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States."

There is no doubt that Obama's warm audience was ready to pick up that baton and pass it on. Whether the wider country will be warmed up enough by his Reagan rhetoric remains to be seen. 

You can read the full speech here