Catherine Mayer is an author and journalist and the co-founder with Sandi Toksvig of the Women’s Equality Party. That last fact alone is a great reason for interviewing her, (have I mentioned how thrilled I am to see a party for women at last? I am ecstatic!) Apart from that great achievement, she has also written successful books and is a journalist of some renown.
Jane: Catherine, can we start with the Women’s Equality Party? I feel like I’ve been waiting for this all of my life. In fact, I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek post about a feminist party last year. And inevitably, I am a life member and urging others, men and women, to join (see link at end of article). Unusually, and in the spirit of inclusiveness, WE welcomes members from all the established political parties too. What effect do you think the party will have on them?
Catherine: Galvanising! We’ll make the established parties better. We’re offering an opportunity and a challenge. Our six goals are equal representation in politics, business, industry and throughout working life; equal pay and an equal opportunity to thrive; equal parenting and caregiving; equality through and in education; equal treatment of women by and in the media and an end to violence against women—all aims mainstream parties claim to support. But the older parties haven’t done enough to encourage diversity in their own ranks, much less in wider society. They never consistently work for gender equality and have all sorts of competing priorities.
That’s why WE is needed and why there’s such hunger for WE. Our growth rate has been extraordinary. I first proposed the party in March and now WE is a reality with 60 branches across the UK. Many members tell us they have never joined political parties before or had long given up on politics. Lots of men are joining us too. And the more popular WE becomes, the more other parties will try to be like us. They can do that by working with us or just by nicking our policies, that’s great. Either way WE wins. Either way everyone wins.
If WE reaches its goals, what impact do you think that would have on the ‘average’ woman in Britain? By ‘average’ I mean someone earning about the average wage, not a high flying career woman, or a woman not in paid employment. What differences could they expect to see?
As your question acknowledges, women are diverse, so rather than talking about the “average woman”, let’s look at our common experiences and the inequalities routinely afflicting women that can be magnified still further by factors such as class and ethnicity.
There’s a pay gap that means women in all kinds of jobs and at different income levels routinely find themselves at a disadvantage to men.
There’s a pensions gap, not only because women earn less than men and live longer, but because women take more time off to parent and to care for relatives.
Jobs regarded as “women’s work” are often valued less than jobs thought to be the province of men, so cleaners find they’re paid less than refuse collectors and shelf-stackers bring home less than employees in supermarket warehouses. These are all the sorts of issues we’ll be looking at. This is partly a question of pushing through new laws or getting existing laws implemented but it’s also about identifying obstacles to equality that people don’t always recognise and in so doing helping to change social attitudes.
What roles will you and Sandi play in the party now that you have appointed Sophie Walker as leader?
Sandi and I didn’t appoint Sophie. She spoke at WE’s first ever meeting, at the Royal Festival Hall in March. I knew Sophie to be a brilliant campaigner on autism and hold strong views on shared parenting and when the party was first starting up, I tried to badger everyone I knew into getting involved, which is also how I found out that Sandi had had the same idea at exactly the same time as me. I rang Sandi up the day after I first suggested at the Women of the World festival that a women’s equality party might be a good idea and blethered on for a while and she said, “but I’m proposing exactly the same thing at the Women of the World festival later this week”.
A steering committee formed itself quite quickly after the first meeting and we would vote on decisions in the committee. Very early on Sandi and I agreed that neither of us had aspirations to lead the party, and it quickly became clear, not just to us, but the whole committee, that Sophie was the best person for the job, so the committee unanimously voted for her. That was of course before WE was fully registered as a major party and open for membership. Now we have members, we’ll have conferences and membership votes including next year a leadership election. Sandi and I remain fully involved in the party. Setting up a party is a humungous job. Sandi is our MC—we’re the only party with an MC to my knowledge—and I’ve been voted president, which sounds loftier than the reality. I don’t even have a business card. But I do have a WE phone sticker. And I am WE member 0000001, which is pretty cool.
I spend a lot of time talking to the other parties and increasingly I focus on fundraising. People don’t realise how expensive it is to set up a party and campaign. Everything about the British electoral system is stacked against new parties breaking through.
I’ve always been hugely proud and noisy about being a feminist, but there was a period a decade or so ago when it was very ‘old fashioned’. Several younger women were telling me there was no need for feminism because we had equality. (‘Girl Power’ had a lot to answer for. ;>) I sometimes think we’ve had so many waves of feminism that one more and I’ll go overboard! Do you remember when you first realised that you were a feminist? And have you always been proud to call yourself one?
I’m all for waves—making them. Don’t you find it astonishing and depressing that in 2015 women are still second class citizens? I remember running up against all sorts of barriers and prejudices when I first started working as a journalist in the 1980s and at the time thinking 20 years from now this sort of thing will be history. Instead I’ve been emailing today with a former colleague, a brilliant woman who’s rising high in journalism but is wrestling with the same sorts of problems I encountered all those years ago.
That’s why I’m still noisy on gender politics and yes, I certainly describe myself as a feminist and have done so for as long as I understood the word. The phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…” almost always ends badly. The people who say it generally misrepresent feminism, unintentionally or deliberately, as a campaign again men.
Loath as I am to leave the WEP topic, I’d also like to ask you about your journalistic career. Your connections will be a huge asset in publicising the party (see, failed already) but do you think it might prove a professional disadvantage in any way clearly nailing your colours to the feminist mast like this?
Women who work in journalism come under all sorts of pressures. Sometimes these are pressures women in other fields encounter, such as the pressure to be a good sport, not to call out male colleagues or bosses on sexism, to tolerate low level harassment and not just tolerate it but to smile. There are also pressures specific to journalism. I spent a lot of my career resisting being consigned to supposedly “soft” subjects, lifestyle journalism, fashion, the arts. Of course these aren’t soft subjects at all, but they don’t confer the lustre (or the money) that you’d get from being a conflict reporter or a political editor or a business journalist or a tech expert.
It’s hard enough forcing your way into any of these supposedly male areas as a woman if you play the game; if you also want to tackle gender politics, as a journalist or an employee, you risk being pigeonholed in a number of career-damaging ways. If you try to stop editors from perpetuating reductive images of women, you get labelled as a bore and a troublemaker.
One of the things spurring me on is that I feel I owe it to younger women to take risks they can’t so easily justify.
Have you ever had to deal with any trolling or similar negativity because you espouse feminist views? Or maybe simply because you are a female?
You could say so. I was one of a number of women to get a bomb threat on Twitter a few years ago. But I didn’t take it seriously in any other sense than as an example of the hostility social media directs towards people of all genders and most often towards women, apparently for no reason other than that we are women. I do get a fair bit of unsolicited advice about my appearance. For which I am suitably grateful.
What was your childhood like? Were there any early indications of the campaigner?
I was born in the US and lived there as a young child. I found a diary a few years ago from when I was really young, and I was writing about the Vietnam war. I could also induce a nosebleed, just by thinking about it, which turned out to be quite useful as a form of passive resistance. My family came to the UK and eventually ended up in Manchester where I went to the school attended by the Pankhursts.
How did you first get into journalism and writing as a career?
Somebody in the marketing department of the Economist offered me a cash-in-hand job analysing the source of orders for the Economist diary. That was how they knew if direct marketing campaigns had worked well or not. While I was there, I became friends with a woman who is even now volunteering for the Women’s Equality Party. She and her colleagues noticed I could write direct marketing campaigns as well as logging their results. So I ended up getting a job as a marketing executive there.
Then another colleague one day put an advert from the Economist on my desk, for an editorial assistant. I applied, not realising that my commercial experience would count not for me but against me and without being aware of the really considerable odds against someone who was not British, male, public school and Oxbridge-educated getting the job. And I got the job.
Your writing career has not been without controversy. I am referring, of course, to your book about Prince Charles. I read that the palace was not best pleased, despite allowing you access. I imagine not being flavour of the month with the Royal family is tricky at best (although clearly good for sales as you were in Sunday Times bestseller list – congratulations). How did you deal with that?
I’m just working on the paperback edition and will explore some of those questions in greater depth in a new author’s note. But the short answer is that a lot of the noise around publication was not only predictable but something I had predicted in the book itself, and as you say, it all helped to propel the book into the bestseller lists, not just here but in other countries too.
The book is quite different to many royal biographies: I am interested in the serious issues around Prince Charles, what he does as an activist and campaigner and what that means for the UK and the wider world, but I also find some aspects of his life irresistibly funny, such as the way people bow and scrape around him. I seem to lack the gene for being reverential.
What role do you see the monarchy playing in equality issues? When Caroline Criado – Perez launched her appeal to have a women on British banknotes the most common response was, but the Queen is on all of them, massively missing the point. Is there a role for the Royal Family? Has having a woman as our titular head of state helped in any way?
I point out in the book that Prince Charles pushes social mobility—the Prince’s Trust does a magnificent job of helping people who haven’t got the qualifications or skills they need to make the most of their potential. Yet the Prince also represents and in some cases argues passionately for a system of entrenched privilege. Nothing makes sense about the monarchy.
Has the Queen helped women? Not in any active way but she’s also a woman who is known for doing her job very well. She’s not a sexpot or a victim. There are so few archetypes of women on show in public life—there are so few women in public life—that I’m disinclined to discount the beneficial influence of any strong female figure on the basis of how or why she came to prominence.
Who has had the most influence on you professionally?
I keep saying this, but I’ve been lucky. For every difficult person I’ve worked with, there have been many more great people from whom I’ve been able to learn. There have been some great women, including Barbara Beck, who is now Surveys Editor of the Economist, and some great men, including Michael Elliott, whom I first met at the Economist and ended up being my boss at TIME for a number of years.
If your current self could give your 18 year self some advice what would you tell her?
Accept every dare.
Finally, Catherine, if you could live in any period of history, which would it be and why?
Could I please live in the future? That’s where my hopes reside.
Catherine Mayer is the co-founder, with Sandi Toksvig, of the Women’s Equality Party An award-winning journalist, she has served as TIME Magazine’s Europe Editor and Editor at Large, as a foreign correspondent for the German news magazine FOCUS and as a staff writer at the Economist. She is the author of the bestselling biography of Prince Charles, Charles: The Heart of a King (WH Allen/Penguin Random House), published in the US as Born to Be King (Henry Holt/Macmillan), and of Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly (Ebury/Penguin Random House).
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Posted on September 1st, 2015 by Jane