Catherine Mayer’s Diary: my sexual fantasies about equality

A century since the first British women got the right to vote, yet women are still only partially enfranchised under a political system that too often fails and excludes us.

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On 21 January 2017, I stood with a group of Women’s Equality Party staff and volunteers on a traffic island in Hanover Square and wondered if anyone else would show up for the London Women’s March we’d helped to organise.

Within minutes, I got my answer. New arrivals swiftly overran the island to fill a broad stretch of roadway. Hundreds more never made it to the meeting point, caught up in the throngs arriving from every direction. People had travelled from across the UK and further afield to celebrate women’s rights and demonstrate their rejection of racism and misogyny. Some came on the spur of the moment; others devoted hours to making witty placards and knitting pussy hats.

What a sight this was for eyes sore from weeping over the US elections, or rubbed in astonishment at the incoming president’s incontinent tweeting. Sandi Toksvig, my Women’s Equality Party co-founder and compere for the rally, was marooned with me on the traffic island along with the actor and activist Tanya Moodie, due to speak at the rally. They had to leave the procession to dash to the stage. Our numbers grew so large – up to 100,000 – that the head of the march reached Trafalgar Square before many of us had even set out.

Deeds and words

Last Sunday, thousands took to the streets again on the first anniversary of the Women’s March. In London, Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker addressed a rally outside Downing Street that also marked the centenary of the Representation of the People Act on 6 February. Here we were, she said, a century since the first British women got the right to vote, yet still women are only partially enfranchised under a political system that too often fails and excludes us. “We’ve marched for a hundred years. Now we’re putting our foot down.”

The rally took as its slogan “Time’s Up”. Allegations against Harvey Weinstein have prompted wider testimony about the endemic sexual harassment and violence afflicting women in many industries and in private spheres. “Me too,” we murmur, “me too.” The value of telling these stories cannot be overstated. Women become so used to keeping quiet, for fear of reprisals or because it’s exhausting to keep challenging and explaining, that we often forget how to speak out. Yet doing so is just the beginning of the process if the revelations of the past year are to trigger lasting change. That’s why women in Hollywood have come together with an action plan and an action-oriented slogan that has been adopted by a linked initiative on this side of the Atlantic.

The phrase resonated for many at the rally, not least Labour activist Ava Etemadzadeh, who alleged to party officials that MP Kelvin Hopkins had groped her, only to see Hopkins promoted to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and Kate Maltby, whose treatment by the Conservative Party has been similarly dispiriting. In revealing in a newspaper article her uncomfortable interactions with Damian Green, Maltby intended to highlight how low-level harassment also takes a toll. She wrote that the experience dampened her political ambitions; a key reason the allegations roiling Westminster should worry us is that women remain severely underrepresented in politics. Maltby’s subsequent vilification by the Daily Mail (“one very pushy lady” they called her) appeared designed to intimidate. Both women continue to speak out despite the hostility.

Any umbrellas

At the rally, I offered them such shelter as I could – from the rain – under an umbrella left over from a long-forgotten Time magazine promotion. The logo had needed only minor adjustment to read #TIMEsup. This also has resonance for me. Last year I launched a lawsuit against Time, my former employer, for sex and age discrimination. When news of my suit became public, other people recognised their own experiences in my testimony. I have told the full story of the suit and its fallout in a new chapter of my book, Attack of the 50ft Women.

Battling a media corporation is stressful, sometimes terrifying, but occasionally there have been moments of light relief. One such moment came in December with news that Time had selected as its Person of the Year some of the leading figures in the #MeToo movement, whom it approvingly dubbed “the Silence Breakers”. What a great choice this was – and how ironic. If the disconnect between my experience of Time and its stated values hadn’t made me chuckle, another detail certainly did: two of the Person of the Year recipients, Jessica Cantlon and Celeste Kidd – professors at the University of Rochester who have taken legal action against it, arising out of sexual harassment – are represented by the same law firm bringing my case against Time.

Bickering with Grayson

Attack of the 50ft Women sets out the evidence of the social and economic benefits of equality. There’s more consensus around the latter than the former. My final chapter takes readers on a tour of Equalia, a gender-equal country of the future, to dispel fears that this would be a joyless, sexless place. These fears are remarkably pervasive.

Last year, during his one-man show at the London Palladium, Grayson Perry asked the audience to raise their hands if they had sexual fantasies about equality. Mine was the only hand to go up. Grayson and I will be debuting a two-person show, Hello Boys, at London’s Bridge Theatre next month. The question of sex in a gender-equal world will certainly feature in our evening of discussion, laughs and occasional bickering. Grayson and I do agree on this central point: that men are themselves damaged by patriarchy and should be actively involved in dismantling it. We encourage anyone coming to the show to bring along a friend, colleague or family member who grouches about white men being at a disadvantage or dismisses the gender pay gap as a myth. We’ll do our best to turn them into feminists. 

“Attack of the 50ft Women” is published by HQ. “Hello Boys” is on 26 February

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power