I have long admired the journalist Joan Smith for her brave and fearless writing: even when I don’t agree with what she says (it’s rare but it happens) I usually applaud her reasoning and style, and she’s always interesting. I have a confession to make though – until I did a little research for this interview (for ‘research’ read ‘Googling’) I didn’t realise that she was the author of *five detective novels as well as her non-fiction books. If the internet is to be believed she also turned down the offer of an MBE. Her latest book is The Public Woman.
What I did know about Joan is that she believes, as I do, that the press in the UK is misogynistic and that her latest book includes a bill or rights for women which almost made me stand up and cheer.
Joan, I am so pleased to be talking with you. I ‘loved’ The Public Woman’, but found myself sad, if not surprised, that in some ways we’ve travelled so short a distance. We’re of a similar age and I can remember the enthusiasm and excitement I had at age 18 when it seemed like the role of women was to change dramatically in my lifetime. I can also remember the shock and disapproval I received when I refused to change my name on marriage in 1977 and a similar disapprobation from University friends that I was choosing to marry at all. I was amazed that as a married woman the tax office treated me as a different species (we had some interesting conversations and my refusal to fill in the bit of their forms which I decided were totally sexist probably means I am still in credit with them.)
Jane: Joan, my first question to you: what is the single biggest achievement for gender equality that has happened in your lifetime?
Joan: I think it really is the emergence of women into public life. When I was at school, I assumed I could do any job I set my mind to, but it wasn’t supported by evidence. The world was run by white men in suits and you had to argue your right to be there every step of the way. Now it’s normal for women to be lawyers, politicians, journalists, doctors – though there still aren’t enough of us.
If I may, I’d like go back to the young Joan. What kind of family did you come from? Were there many discussions about politics in your household?
My parents moved to London from the North-East before I was born. My Dad was a council gardener and we lived in a series of council flats and houses – the first was in the servants’ quarters in the old Rothschild mansion in Gunnersbury Park, which is in West London. It was a very political household, my Dad and I talked about politics and ideas all the time. I used to think about Labour politicians like Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle as if they were distant relatives or friends – I couldn’t wait to vote for the first time.
When you went off to University were you already fixed on journalism as a career?
No but I knew I’d do something public and political. I knew I was going to write fiction, which I have, but I also assumed it was my job to change the world. That’s how I ended up doing so much work on violence against women – I want the world to be a safer place for us all.
How did you get your first break in journalism? Did you have any kind of plan?
Not exactly. I had no contacts and a degree in Latin, so I thought I’d better start writing to local papers. I was offered a job in Blackpool, which is where my career started.
How is it being a woman in journalism? Given that we probably both agree that the press in general is hardly a bastion of gender equality what have been your worst experiences of working in that milieu and how did you ‘manage’ it?
That’s a big subject. I think there is still pressure on women to write about ‘soft’ subjects and personal life, which isn’t something that appeals to me. And of course I dislike the objectification of women in the popular press – I don’t like the way rape is reported and I can’t believe Page 3 still exists. In 2013? Incredible! Probably my worst experience was having my mobile phone hacked, which is why I’m now on the board of Hacked Off.
And your best?
I’ve had a lot of good experiences, being involved in campaigns ( for example) to give more legal rights to trafficked women. I am thrilled to have a public voice which allows me to speak up for vulnerable people.
What do you think has been the biggest advance for gender equality (i.e. women) over the last decade?
This may seem an odd choice but I think the Savile inquiry has transformed how people think about sexual abuse and violence. So many women have cone forward to talk about their own experience, not just with Savile, and it’s exposed a lot of rape myths. An awful subject but I think something good will come of it.
Although I confess to despondency about the apparent lack of progress re gender equality I am cheered greatly by the young cohort of feminists coming to the fore. Similarly, campaigns like No More Page 3 seem to be capturing the public imagination in a way that Claire Short could only dream of. What’s your view of this new wave of very vocal feminists?
I think they’re terrific. I’ve just become an ambassador for OBJECT and I love this new wave of activism.
If you could make or change one law in the UK, what it would be?
Just one? I’d use existing equality legislation to force employers to be open about what they pay people – it’s the only way we’ll get equal pay. The provision is there but this government doesn’t want to enforce it.
Who has been a role model or influence on you?
I don’t really have a role model but I often think about the French feminist Olympe de Gouges. She wanted the French Revolution to give equal rights to women and men, which was too revolutionary for her time – she was guillotined, tragically.
Similarly, is there a book which has had a life changing impact on you?
Not a single book – I read about four a week, there are so many.
What has been the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t dwell on things. It’s the curse of having a very active mind and makes it hard to sleep!
If you could have an alternative career what would you choose?
I wouldn’t – I love what I do.
Joan, thank you. I confess to not having read any of your fiction but I am struck with a burning desire to read about your feminist detective, Loretta! That is a Christmas present hint should anyone be listening…
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Posted on December 10th, 2013 by Jane