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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage