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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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.