I often bemoan the fact that so many young women seem to think there is no need for feminism and that we have achieved full equality (Mary Beard made a good comment on that in my last interview-“I think they confuse legal equality with the real thing”) so I was thrilled to come across a young, very active feminist, Caroline Criado-Perez via Twitter, where she tweets as @Weekwoman.
Caroline finished her degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is now undertaking a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and one of the founders of The Women’s Room.
Jane: Caroline, welcome and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Let’s dive right in, do you think that younger women realise/agree with/support feminism? What was your experience as a student and as a young woman before you went up to Oxford?
That’s a tough question, because my experience of being a girl doesn’t marry with the many impressive girls I’ve met since becoming actively involved in feminism. Frankly, they put me to shame. As a girl I had no conception of feminism beyond media myths of embarrassing ranty women who made us all look bad. We were equal, weren’t we? So why all the whining and complaining? In retrospect I can see that a lot of my attitude was down to buying into the patriarchal presentation of women as lesser than men – I didn’t want to be part of that group that men derided – I wanted to be “one of the boys”. In stark contrast to me as a young woman there are some wonderful young feminists around – a great example being the TYFA or Twitter Youth Feminist Army, who are intelligent, well-informed and passionate in a way that gives me great hope for the future.
You are now an ardent campaigner for gender equality (and we’ll talk about the Women’s room shortly) but what was the young Caroline like? What were your aspirations at 13 or 14?
I can’t really remember to be honest! Which I suppose means I didn’t have any particular ones. I wasn’t one of those driven children with a clear vocation. I drifted along in many ways – but part of this was definitely down to a lack of self-confidence, which is something I think a lot of girls share. It was hard for me to imagine what I could be I think – which explains the length of time it took me to get to university!
When did lack of gender equality really strike you, your Damascene moment?
In general, Oxford is not exactly a bastion of gender awareness; they’ve recently started their first gender course and it’s called “Women’s Studies” – QED. However, I can’t deny that it was while at Oxford that I became aware of the iniquitous and pervasive nature of gender inequality. The ground-work was being laid from the beginning, as I read feminist-informed criticism of literature, but the real light-bulb moment came when reading for the language component of my degree.
This opened my eyes to the hugely powerful role language plays in shaping our reality – I particularly remember Deborah Cameron’s writing about “he” being the default “ungendered” personal pronoun; it made me realise that, contrary to grammarians’ insistence that it was without meaning, in reality, when I heard “he” I thought of a man. This led me on to thinking about how a man was regularly the default image I had in my head when I thought of so many professions. It was pretty sobering.
“Freud so embodied male privilege that he based his whole theory of gender around his own penis” This is the phrase that you have at the top of your Twitter account and I love it. I’ve never been a great fan of Freud and certainly didn’t sign up to the penis envy theory. Can you say a bit more about this, please?
Ha! Glad you like it! I suppose that’s my way of highlighting the utterly blinkered nature of Freud’s theory. I actually quite like Freud, because I don’t think there’s ever been such a clear articulation of patriarchy’s thought-process. He talks of the “riddle of femininity” and of women as a “problem”, which so clearly indicates that it never occurred to him that women might have a different point of view, that they might not find themselves so mysterious, that perhaps they might find men a bit odd and not so common sense default as Freud presented them.
Like Aristotle, Freud presented women as defective man. Women are castrated – but why not think of it the other way? Why not think men have weird growths? I think Freud’s total incapability of seeing things from the opposite perspective illustrates a lot that’s wrong with the world – still, sadly, today.
How did the Women’s Room come about?
An angry conversation on twitter basically! Two days in a row in October 2012, the Today programme had an all-male panel, discussing female issues – in particular, female bodies. Not only was it all male, there were men in the discussion who were by no means “expert” on the issues – it was farcical.
A friend of mine, Catherine Smith, suggested that we put together a list since the BBC had such difficulty finding women – and I said, yes let’s actually do this! And so The Women’s Room was born! We now exist in the form of an online database to which women can sign up – and over 1500 female experts have already done so.
If you could introduce one piece of legislation to tip the balance for gender equality what would it be?
Joint parental leave. Not only would it send out a powerful message that women are not the default carers for children, but it would be a great step towards ending the “motherhood pay penalty” – which is also a female career penalty.
Do you think women only networking groups at work are a good idea?
This is such a tough question and I feel conflicted about it. On the one hand, I think women only networking has such a lovely dynamic – women are truly supportive of each other. Since starting The Women’s Room I’ve been blown away by the generosity of other women, who have come forward to offer their time and expertise. On the other hand, there is a slight sense of “ghettoization” – so that “networking” is for men, and “women’s networking” is its lesser sister. I suppose I think it’s a positive temporary measure until we achieve gender equality, when they will no longer be necessary.
Who most inspires you? Do you have a role model?
I know it’s a cliché, but my mother. She’s an incredible woman, who is currently out on the Syrian border working for Médecins Sans Frontières, working with refugees – despite being almost twice the age of many of the people out there. She came out of a hugely painful and tough divorce, dusted herself off and used it as an opportunity to follow a dream she’d always had, but had never had a chance to pursue as a result of bringing up her children and following her husband’s career around the world. She taught me to always be self-reliant, and inspired me to believe in never giving up.
Once you have your Masters in Gender Studies what’s the next step? What would be your dream career?
I haven’t a clue! I’m taking one day at a time at the moment. I am passionate about politics, but I hate the political process in this country – it’s so stodgy and resistant to real, revolutionary change, which is what we need if we’re ever going to achieve an equitable society. Whatever I end up doing I want it to be something that helps towards improving people’s lives – whether that be through journalism, activism, or somehow revolutionising politics!
What book on feminism or gender equality has most impact on you? Which one would you recommend to our readers?
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender* – I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s hugely readable, she has a lovely wry writing style, but at the same time it’s so erudite and packs such a powerful scientific punch. She explodes so many damaging gender myths – I think it should be required reading for all teachers and parents – or everyone really. Maybe that would be my one piece of legislation I’d introduce – make everyone read Cordelia Fine!
If you could live at any period in history which would you choose and why?
As a woman it would be hard to pick any period prior to this one – we’re by no means perfect but we certainly have it better off than our mothers and their mothers before them. Maybe I’ll go for one in the future if that’s allowed, where rape victims are no longer asked what they were wearing, where women have equal pay and equal opportunity, and where projects like The Women’s Room, EverydaySexism and NoMorePage3 are historical curiosities.
Caroline, thank you – I’ve so enjoyed talking to you. I wish you well with your MSc and I look forward to ‘What Caroline Does Next!‘
* Thanks, I’ll be writing more on that book at a later date!
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Posted on February 11th, 2013 by Jane