Dr Charlotte Proudman calls herself “the Feminist Barrister”. She is known for outspoken appearances on TV, in magazines, and on Twitter. Often, she allies herself with the similarly controversial lawyer Jolyon Maugham. Often, she argues online with the Secret Barrister. She first entered the public eye in 2015 after tweeting about Alexander Carter-Silk, a partner at a law firm who sent her a LinkedIn message calling her “stunning” (the Daily Mail subsequently called her a “Feminazi”).
Media noise can distract from the fact that Proudman, 35, is a practising legal professional. Last month she was on the front cover of Counsel Magazine, the monthly journal for barristers, talking about reporting colleagues who bullied her to the Bar Standards Board. As a barrister, she has represented survivors of rape, founded an organisation called Right to Equality, and was a visiting researcher at Berkeley and Harvard.
It’s hard to reconcile this with a story which has appeared in various newspapers this week, which showed Proudman posing, arms outstretched, on the front lawn of King’s College, Cambridge. She had tweeted the photo, saying: “As my cousin took this picture of me in King’s College, Cambridge – a white male student shouted, ‘if they catch you, you’ll get chucked out.’ I sharply told him: I belong here, my portrait hangs in the College Chapel – not his.” If you didn’t know (and many people didn’t), Proudman’s point was that at King’s College fellows and completed PhD students are allowed to walk across lawns at the college. She didn’t think that, say, the student might have been trying to be helpful, because he thought no one could walk on the grass. Instead, she seemingly thought he had actively assumed she couldn’t be a former PhD student because she was a woman, and because he was a white man.
One thing that becomes clear with Proudman: much of her life appears to exist only in relation to “white men”. Since writing about “white upper class men” in the Independent in 2015, she has spoken so frequently about white people that you might expect Proudman to acknowledge that she is… white. During the King’s coronation she tweeted, “What a beautiful photograph of white male privilege and entitlement. Sums up who rules our country.” Twitter users added a contextual note (this often happens with Proudman’s tweets), to explain that for 134 of the last 200 years the UK’s head of state had been a woman.
Proudman’s forte is sensationalist, simplistic rhetoric. She wrote for the blog Left Foot Forward in 2015 about how men create a “repugnant world” in the workplace. This week she declared everywhere from Good Morning Britain to LBC radio that mothers should make their babies take their surname because women do most of the child-rearing. I’m uncertain what this would achieve except perpetuating the cycle she fears, of babies being seen as a “woman thing”. A more nuanced egalitarian might argue for double-barrelled surnames.
[See also: Elizabeth Day is not your friend]
Nuance is rarely on offer with Proudman. You constantly get the impression she is trying to appear the most progressive person in the room – to the extent people frequently ask on social media whether she’s a spoof, like Titania McGrath, the “intersectionalist poet and ecosexual”. Upon seeing the Amazon Prime series The Power this month, Proudman praised the “unapologetic female violence” tweeting: “This is quite possibly the most empowering feminist drama I’ve ever watched. Their feminist revolution brought me to tears.” Worst of all, however, are the platitudes, frequently delivered in a mic drop fashion: “A not guilty verdict does not mean they are innocent”; “No woman deserves to be killed by a man”. You want to slow clap.
You’d hope, though, that when it came to the law, things might be different. But when interviewed by the journalist Nick Wallis about the US Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard defamation case last year, Proudman contradicted herself. She talked repeatedly about the case against Depp, but when asked about a recording of Heard allegedly taunting Depp, said: “I don’t want to comment on that at the moment because obviously it’s going through [this] trial.” Earlier this year, the Secret Barrister ran a piece after Proudman tweeted a complaint about Gary Glitter’s eight-year sentence for crimes including raping a child, asking, “Where’s the justice?” The Secret Barrister suggested that someone well-acquainted with the law would know that the sentencing system under which Glitter was jailed in 2015 no longer exists – today he would be sentenced to at least twenty years and couldn’t be released half way through.
It is on this legal standard that Proudman is most concerning. Proudman is one of the loudest representatives to the wider world of a profession which prides itself on “standards of proof”. She weighs in on criminal law, when her background is mostly in family, civil and immigration law. Young female barristers are well aware of sexism at the male-dominated Bar, but is Proudman the advocate they want?
I would like to be supportive of Proudman. She has been vocal about abuse from colleagues and her receipt of death and rape threats (one man has been prosecuted for harassing her). In her professional life, she does valid work; she has drafted legislation to criminalise forced marriage and worked on the Domestic Abuse Bill. And there’s a reason she’s still in the publicity game – she is retweeted widely and mentioned by Labour politicians such as Jess Phillips. When Piers Morgan or Dan Wootton says something extreme, she lobs back something equally outrageous.
But then, the flaw of Proudman is that she has made her activism about her, and this distracts from the cause she seeks to advance. On Depp vs Heard, the public didn’t hear “believe women” any more, they heard “believe women at the expense of due process” – from a barrister, no less. The problem with being a parody is that even when you do make a valid point, you can’t be taken seriously.
I wonder what Proudman proved with her King’s College photo. Her attempt to point out others’ entitlement only served to expose her own: in her rebuke to the student, telling him her portrait hangs in the college, she essentially says, “Don’t you know who I am?” And so, Charlotte Proudman fails on her own terms.