The Vagenda List of the Quietly Awesome

From ITV's Agenda to the comedian Tiffany Stevenson, a run-down of the people and causes Rhiannon and Holly feel deserve broader recognition in 2013.

Welcome to our List of the Quietly Awesome: a collection of British feminists who we think deserve a Vagenda accolade at the beginning of 2013. Thanks for all the good work, ladies and gentlemen! Any further suggestions of awesomeness are, of course, thoroughly welcome.

Kat Banyard

The founder and director of UK Feminista and author of The Equality Illusion is one of the UK’s leading young feminists, so not exactly under-the-radar. However, her lack of Twitter profile and commitment to grassroots activism makes her something of an anomaly - someone who, it’s fair to say, goes beyond mouthing off. UK Feminista is currently campaigning on a range of issues – from 1 March vote on plastic surgery advertisements to addressing violence in teenage relationships. Get involved here.

WOW Festival

The Women of the World Festival at the Southbank has a plethora of lovely feministy stuff lined up next month (6-10 March), including talks, debates, comedy, music and film, all of which aim to celebrate women in an innovative and inclusive way. They’ve got Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, Julie Walters, and Jenni Murray, as well as a feminist corner for the under-10s (seriously), Hadley Freeman discussing fashion, and Criptease, a neo-burlesque performance celebrating disabled women’s bodies (tagline: "it’s diversity gone wild!") It sounds like the Sun’s worst nightmare, which is why you should totally go.


Tiffany Stevenson

Actress and comedian Tiffany Stevenson is genuinely engaging and brashly hilarious, discussing everything from Grazia’s bizarre fashion obsession with the under-5s to whether seeing a dress in M&S and thinking "hmmm…maybe" means you’re officially getting old. When we saw her a couple of months ago at a Stand Up To Sexism Gig we were amazed not to have heard of her before, despite the fact that she seems to have worked with everyone from Ricky Gervais to Stewart Lee. See her website for upcoming gigs and festivals.

Education for Choice

Education for Choice is a charity supporting young people’s informed choice on abortion, through workshops for London schoolchildren, professional training, and providing resources and materials for teenagers, parents and teachers. It has recently been absorbed by Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity. In providing accurate, non-biased information to those who need it most, they’re performing an incredibly valuable service in a society where sex education still doesn’t seem to be considered a great priority. For more information or to ask them visit your school, go here.

Stella Creasy MP

The Labour/Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow is making a name for herself as one of the politicians at the forefront of feminist campaigning. Her commitment to the One Billion Rising movement has seen her calling on the government to support an end to violence against women and to rethink sex education in schools. Having been mistaken for an underling in the lift at the houses of parliament, and declared "quite bummable for a Labour MP" by a Tory activist, it’s fair to say that she has experienced sexism firsthand and is campaigning tirelessly to put a stop to it. Find out more at her website.

This Petition

One of the things we feel most strongly about is women’s limited access to emergency contraception, which, believe it or not, remains a problem in the UK. It’s our firm belief that the General Pharmaceutical Council needs to prohibit pharmacists from refusing services on religious or moral grounds, as this can result in judgmental and often traumatic attitudes towards women who did nothing more than seek out the morning-after pill. This petition, calling for an end to this policy, was set up by Liz Morrow after she was refused the morning-after pill herself. Sign and share if you agree that your right to contraception shouldn’t hinge on one person’s religious views.

Girl Guides

In the last year, the Girl Guides have made a concerted effort to shake off their old reputation as inoffensive local youth clubs with novelty badges. In January they announced (and the Telegraph reported, in tones of abject hysteria) that they were considering the removal of God and the Queen from the oath; weeks earlier, waves had been made when their new head, who hails from the upper echelons of the Family Planning Association, described the Girl Guides as the "ultimate feminist organisation". Their 2012 Girls’ Attitudes Survey conducted national research into the attitudes of young girls on such diverse issues as culture, education, health, environment, and relationships - and they intend to send out another this year that addresses issues such as sexual pressure and slut-shaming. 

Women’s Institute

Similarly to the Guides, the WI has modernised massively in the twenty-first century. Their local groups are hugely diverse in age and offerings - community meetings for new mothers making homemade chutney operate comfortably alongside regular protest groups, and others like the Dalston Darlings, who have hosted debates on the meaning of modern feminism, cocktail classes, and taxidermy demonstrations (for which they were apparently ejected from a pub.) As the largest women’s voluntary organisation in the UK, they get their oars stuck in on a variety of very worthy issues, including midwifery and maternity, mental health issues, and ethical food. Despite one rogue member referring to us as "aggressive-looking harridans with nothing to say about jam-making" on Facebook, we retain a lot of love for the institute’s work.


Team AWOT - which, for those not permanently sutured to their social networks, stands for Awesome Women of Twitter - is a community of women who found each other through the art of the tweet and put together a network based upon the two central tenets of gin and cake. From these humble beginnings, AWOT has become a huge success, with regular networking events, a community blog discussing women’s issues (everything from "what’s a Marxist Darwinian anarchist feminist?" to what should you expect at a smear test?"), and a jobs board. Their website is highly recommended for the woman who likes her bitesize communication at 140 characters or less.

ITV Agenda

In a move that aimed to counteract gender-based panel show controversy - where the "token woman" appears, is subject to unfair and usually negative scrutiny throughout, and functions as a cautionary tale for any other female in the public eye who thought she might try out telly - ITV’s year-old creation, The Agenda, always hosts two male and two female panellists. An interesting social experiment which boasts an eclectic list of guests: Germaine Greer, David Cameron, Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Ross Kemp have all made appearances.

J K Rowling

Our final word goes to J K Rowling, who became the first person to lose her billionaire status as a result of philanthropy this year. Having written the Harry Potter series as an unemployed single mother on benefits - and having spoken at Harvard, post-success, about having felt like "the biggest failure possible" as she started work on the books - hers is a characteristically British story that champions the underdog. And it comes complete with inspirational ending.

Who have we missed? Nominate your own Quietly Awesome People below, or tweet us @vagendamagazine

POW! (Ssh.) Photo: Etsy Ketsy/Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.