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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I organised so much support for Maria, I wonder if I became part of the problem

She began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Maria hardly ever came to the doctor’s. So, it was surprising when, out of the blue, I took an urgent call from an occupational health adviser. Maria, he said, was sitting in his office, having been referred for an assessment by her employers. In the course of the interview, she’d disclosed that she was contemplating suicide. The adviser sounded rattled. He wasn’t prepared to let her leave unless he knew I was going to follow her up that day. I duly fixed an appointment, and told him I would take it from there.

So began a two-year relationship. Initially, I saw Maria at frequent intervals to develop an understanding of her situation. She had been suspended from work following an alleged breach of duties. She felt powerless against the juggernaut of disciplinary action that had been unleashed. Divorced some years earlier, and with volatile relationships with her parents and siblings, she had little social support. Suicide had come to seem the only way out as her world tumbled around her.

I started her on antidepressants, but more importantly I set about shoring her up. She was in a trade union, so I encouraged her to get assistance. I referred her to the mental health service, which allocated a key worker with time and expertise to come alongside. They put her in touch with an employment support team. Fairly soon, she was surrounded by an array of professionals, all of them fighting her corner.

Over the next five months the conflict with her employers polarised irretrievably, and eventually the union negotiated a severance deal that allowed her to walk away with a reference. Still more torrid times lay ahead as she sought to rebuild her confidence to seek new employment. Every so often there would be a new crisis in her personal life to complicate matters: various family members would cut off relations with each other or with her. Her mood fluctuated between guarded optimism and despair.

Then came the breakthrough: a job at a department store. It was seasonal, so not a permanent contract, and in many ways that seemed ideal, allowing a time-limited try-out of a new environment. And once she’d overcome her initial fear it went swimmingly. She enjoyed the customer contact, and found the return of structure and income positive. It was fantastic to see her happier again, and all the work of the preceding months seemed to have borne fruit.

As the temporary post drew to a close, she became despondent at the prospect of leaving. Her managers were evidently pleased with her and there was talk of a permanent contract. But, crushingly, it came to nothing.

That proved to be the last straw. What confidence Maria had regained, disintegrated. Over the ensuing year she became ever more entrenched in the sick role, the professionals around her now merely validating her fragility, rather than helping her move forward. I continued to certify her unfit so that her benefits were maintained, but persisted with our cognitive work, encouraging small steps, my memory of how transformed she had been when she worked at the department store still fresh. Maybe that was a misjudgement: she began to attend our appointments with a support worker in tow, almost as a symbol of her incapacity.

Eventually Maria was summoned for an independent medical to assess her ability to work. She was placed in the “support group”, meaning the benefits agency accepted that she was long-term unfit. I tried to establish how she felt about this, but couldn’t work out if it was a relief, or whether deep down it felt like being consigned to the scrapheap.

Shortly afterwards, she left my list and registered with a neighbouring practice. Perhaps she blamed me for her redundancy; or maybe my reluctance to give up hope was no longer compatible with how she saw herself. Either way, the rejection hurt – an inkling, perhaps, of the way Maria herself experiences the world in which she lives. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war