Natasha Walter, thanks for agreeing to this interview and welcome to The F-Word. As a fellow British feminist it’s great to talk with you, and ask you questions about issues I’ve been pondering over in my own mind, as well as others suggested by the readers of this site. So without further ado, here are the questions…
In your book The New Feminism, you stressed that British feminists do not have to feel “that they are trailing in the wake of their sisters across the Atlantic.” What would you say is distinctive about British-style feminism as opposed to the U.S. kind?
The impression that I get from American feminists is that their idea of feminism is very much about individual success and power. British feminists tend to talk much more about empowering all women – even women who don’t fit the image of a glamorous career woman. I think that means that in Britain we have traditionally seen a greater emphasis on workplace and welfare rights – for instance, maternity rights are very poor in the US, and so are benefit levels for families. But that’s not to say that we necessarily lag behind the US in the ability of women to break through into the corridors of power – after all, there has been a British woman prime minister, but I think it will be a long time before we see an American woman as president.
Speaking of the U.S., over the past few years, the idea of a feminist “thirdwave” has developed over there. Do you think this is a meaningful concept in Britain (or at all)?
I think the idea of a third wave of feminism can be quite useful. Certainly there are differences between the way young women who call themselves feminists tend to talk and the way that their mothers might have talked. For instance, one thing that I think has changed in this generation is that there is a much greater realisation that we want to work with men to change society, and not against men. After all, especially if things are to change in the domestic arena, that’s about men taking on a fair share of domestic work as much as about women moving more and more out of the home. Many young women now seem to take that for granted, and to expect that the men in their lives will join them in trying to achieve this kind of equality.
Despite the “thirdwave” idea, it’s a common belief that young women are generally conservative but become more radical as they age when they experience discrimination. Do you think this is true?
Yes, I think it’s very common for young women – especially young middle-class, educated women to feel that everything is okay and that the fight is over. Certainly I drifted through school and university feeling that the struggles of feminism were more or less in the past. Then I went out into the working world and it really hit me that there was still such a lot to be done before women could fulfil their dreams on an equal basis to men. And then I got angry!
Naomi Wolf has recently claimed that having a child has made her more radical, and you once wrote that having a baby could feel like “a tiny fist has come through your world and smashed it to pieces – and then put it back together again with everything subtly changed.” Has giving birth changed your feminism, and if so, how?
Giving birth hasn’t changed my feminism. I always argued that this society has a long, long way to go before parenting is properly rewarded, and I feel that even more strongly now. I’m lucky because I have a great partner and the kind of work that leaves us both time to be with our daughter and to pay for excellent childcare when we can’t be, but I feel outraged by the way a lot of women have to struggle on poverty-level benefits or low wages when they are bringing up their children. Why do we, in one of the richest countries in the world, allow one in three children to grow up in poverty? The poverty of children is predicated on the poverty of women – most poor children live in families headed by single women.
Also, a lot of people told me that once I had a child I would stop feeling that equality was attainable at home. But frankly, I think that’s nonsense, because I can see that parenting has come as naturally to my partner as it did to me.
Do you think that your call for feminism to be “less personal and more political” (in The New Feminism) has been misunderstood by other feminists? Is there anything you’d like to set straight?
Yes, I think it was wilfully misunderstood. I wanted to return the debate to one about real, basic inequality, about why women are still poorer and less powerful than men. I felt that too much feminist debate had just become too personal, all about inner self-esteem and body image and fashion and so on. For some reason the argument was often read in a way that was directly the opposite of what I said, as if I was keen to see lifestyle and fashion as a central part of women’s liberation. Why was this? I have no idea. To this day, people come up to me and say, I read the reviews of your book and then I read your book and you say the opposite of what your attackers said that you say. And I just say, yes, that’s true. But the book is out there and anyone who is interested can see what I actually wrote.
Do you have a feminist icon or heroine?
Yes, thousands – fictional, historical, and real. From Jane Eyre to Mary Wollstonecraft to my mother. I take the all-inclusive view of feminist heroines – anyone who inspires other women to bravery and integrity and freedom is a feminist heroine to me.
What one book should every young feminist read?
No one has ever done feminist polemic better than Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own. But the point is to read widely and to read critically, in all fields, and then to make up your own mind.
If you had the power, what would be the first thing you would change to improve women’s lives?
If we’re talking women throughout the world, and not just in the West, then I’m afraid it has to be something as basic as a living wage. No one can dream of freedom if they don’t have the money to eat.
We are currently living through the “War Against Terrorism” in Afganistan. Should we forget about feminism for now and concentrate on ‘the bigger issues’ – or can feminism actually offer something relevant and helpful at such a disturbing time?
I think feminism is essential if we are to look clearly at this war against terrorism. The fundamentalist Islamic rulers of Afghanistan were brought to power with aid and arms given to them by the West, and the West could only do that because they ignored utterly the way the mujahedin treated women. If civil society is now to be built up in Afghanistan, then the West must not turn their backs on women again. Stability and tolerance will only flourish in societies where women have a voice. Islam does not inevitably involve the oppression of women.
Finally, Natasha, you wrote “The New Feminism” and edited “On the Move: feminism for a new generation.” Do you have anything else in the pipline that we can look forward to?
Right now I’m just concentrating on my journalism and bringing up my daughter.
Well, that’s it! Thank you very much Natasha, and happy new year!