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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Women-only train carriages are just a way of ensuring more spaces are male by default

We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

“A decent girl,” says bus driver Mukesh Singh, “won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Singh is one of four men sentenced to death for the rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2013. His defence was that she shouldn’t have been on the bus in the first place. Presumably he’d have said the same if she’d been on a train. In the eyes of a rapist, all space is male-owned by default.

I find myself thinking of this in light of shadow fire minister Chris Williamson’s suggestion that woman-only train carriages be introduced in order to combat sexual violence on public transport. It’s an idea originally proposed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, only to be shelved following criticism from female MPs.

Now Williamson feels that a rise in sex attacks on public transport has made it worth considering again. Speaking to PoliticsHome, he argues that “complemented with having more guards on trains, it would be a way of combating these attacks”. He does not bother to mention who the perpetrators might be. Bears, vampires, monsters? Doesn’t really matter. As long as you keep the bait safely stored away in a sealed compartment, no one’s going to sniff it out and get tempted. Problem solved, right?

And that’s not the only benefit of a woman-only carriage. What better way to free up space for the people who matter than to designate one solitary carriage for the less important half of the human race?

Sure, women can still go in the free-for-all, male-violence-is-inevitable, frat-house carriages if they want to. But come on, ladies - wouldn’t that be asking for it? If something were to happen to you, wouldn’t people want to know why you hadn’t opted for the safer space?

It’s interesting, at a time when gender neutrality is supposed to be all the rage, that we’re seeing one form of sex segregated space promoted while another is withdrawn. The difference might, in some cases, seem subtle, but earlier sex segregation has been about enabling women to take up more space in the world – when they otherwise might have stayed at home – whereas today’s version seem more about reducing the amount of space women already occupy.

When feminists seek to defend female-only toilets, swimming sessions and changing rooms as a means of facilitating women’s freedom of movement, we’re told we’re being, at best, silly, at worst, bigoted. By contrast, when men propose female-only carriages as a means of accommodating male violence and sexual entitlement, women are supposed to be grateful (just look at the smack-downs Labour’s Stella Creasy received for her failure to be sufficiently overjoyed).

As long as over 80 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, there can be no such thing as a gender-neutral space. Any mixed space is a male-dominated space, which is something women have to deal with every day of their lives. Our freedoms are already limited. We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about personal safety. Each time it is proposed that women don’t go there or don’t do that, just to be on the safe side, our world gets a little bit smaller. What’s more, removing the facilities we already use in order to go there or do that tends to have the exact same effect.

Regarding female-only carriages, Williamson claims “it would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of [them].” But what does that mean? Does any woman make the “personal choice” to put herself at risk of assault? All women want is the right to move freely without that constant low-level monologue – no, those men look fine, don’t be so paranoid, you can always do the key thing, if you’ve thought it’s going to happen that means it won’t …. We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

In 1975’s Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller pointed out that the fact that a minority of men rape “provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation”. Whether they want to or not, all men benefit from the actions of those Brownmiller calls “front-line masculine shock troops”. The violence of some men should not be used as an opportunity for all men to mark out yet more space as essentially theirs, but this is what happens whenever men “benevolently” tell us this bus, this train carriage, this item of clothing just isn’t safe enough for us.

“A decent girl,” says the future rapist, “wouldn’t have been in a mixed-sex carriage late at night.” It’s time to end this constant curtailment of women’s freedoms. A decent man would start by naming the problem – male violence – and dealing with that. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.