Interview with Mary-Ann Stephenson

Mary-Ann Stephenson is probably one of the most high-profile British feminists around today. Her work as director of the Fawcett Society, the nationwide organisation committed to achieving gender equality, has been vital to the third wave movement in the UK, and she has also played an integral role on the Women’s National Commission steering committee. Now, as she leaves Fawcett for pastures new, The F-Word caught up with Mary-Ann to discuss breastfeeding, Bridget Jones, and how she became a feminist?

Mary-Ann, why are you leaving Fawcett now after six years?

I am leaving because I think it is time to move on. I have loved working at Fawcett, but think that it is good not to stay too long in one organisation – you get scared to move, and the organisation gets stale without new ideas.

I also wanted to work on women’s issues internationally. As a small organisation Fawcett has to focus on women in the UK, but feminism is a global struggle and I wanted to see if I could play a part beyond this country. So from June, I am going to be working as a consultant for the British Council organising seminars on women and democracy around the world for a year.

How did you first come across Fawcett, and what persuaded you to run for the director’s position?

I heard about Fawcett through a friend who worked at Liberty (the national council for civil liberties). I was impressed by an organisation which had such a clear focus on campaigning for practical changes to improve women’s lives. I had felt that the feminist groups I had come across up until then were very theoretical. I think theory is hugely important, and feminists need to take time to develop a clear sense of the way the world is and a vision for change. But I also wanted to be involved in actually bringing about real change – Fawcett was doing that.

Give it your best shot, act like you know what you are doing and don’t be afraid to ask for help

I was a member of Fawcett for a few years before joining the staff as campaigns officer in 1996. I only applied for the job as director after Fiona MacTaggart (MP for Slough) talked me into it. I hadn’t been confident that I knew enough to do the job, and she persuaded me that most people didn’t know everything about their jobs when they first started and that I would work out what to do as I went along. This advice has continued to be useful – give it your best shot, act like you know what you are doing and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What has been the most enjoyable part of your time at Fawcett (and the least enjoyable)?

The best thing about Fawcett is the people involved in it. I have been privileged to work with some extraordinary women (and quite a few men). The youngest Fawcett volunteer is still in primary school and comes in to help out during half terms. I’ve enjoyed sitting with her stuffing envelopes and talking about how horrible it is when boys pick on you for being a ‘girly swot’. Our oldest members are in their nineties, and a real high point for me was meeting Kathleen Halpin who set up Fawcett’s youth wing in the 1920s because as she said “some women thought that since they had won us the vote they were entitled to tell us what to do for the rest of their lives.”

Least enjoyable will probably be familiar to anyone who has worked in a small under-funded voluntary organisation – computers crashing, endless envelopes to stuff, never being able to do everything you would like.

What will you miss most about working with Fawcett?

Feeling part of a wider movement that involves thousands of women, and working with creative, committed staff who know that you have to be able to have a laugh while you are trying to change the world.

Was there a particular point at which you became a feminist? When did you first become interested in the movement?

I have always thought of myself as a feminist for as long as I was aware of the concept. I feel very much a child of second wave feminism. One of my first memories is as a small child wearing my favourite purple T-shirt, which had a picture of Lucy from Peanuts on the front with the slogan ‘I am a new feminist’.

My mother was not an active feminist in the sense of being part of a woman’s group, but she brought me up thinking and talking about equality. Her grandmother, my great-grandmother, was a suffragist and I can’t remember a time when I did not know about the struggle for the vote. My father also encouraged me to think that there was nothing I could not do because I was a girl.

Do you feel comfortable labelling yourself a feminist to others? Have you received any extreme reactions when doing so?

There is an assumption that if you are a feminist you like nothing better than sitting around listening to people talk about the failings of men

I have always been proud to call myself a feminist, although I think that what people do is more important than what they call themselves. I have sometimes experienced negative reactions. In Russia a group of male politicians looked at me like I had said I murdered small babies when I described myself as a feminist. When the other women at the conference from the UK also said they were feminists the response was complete bafflement. The only Russian woman speaking at the event spent at least half of her speech explaining that she was not a feminist before going on to talk about women in the media in Russia.

Harder to deal with are people who attack feminism, and then when I say that I am a feminist say, “I don’t mean people like you, I mean the real man haters.” What is really strange is that many of these women (and it is often women) then go on to spend several hours telling me about how awful the men at work or in their personal life are. There is an assumption that if you are a feminist you like nothing better than sitting around listening to people talk about the failings of men.

Why do you think US feminism and feminists are more prominent than their UK counterparts?

It may be because of the relative weakness of trade unions in the US – employment rights issues that are dealt with by unions in the UK are often taken up by women’s groups in the States. Also, the issue of abortion acts as a focus for campaigning – and partly it is a fairly lazy media that pick on a few key people who they keep going back to.

What do you think of the representation of women in pop culture today? Do high-flying females such as Ally McBeal represent a step forward for gender equality, or do they embody the same old cliches?

The thing that strikes me both about Ally McBeal and about books like ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ is not that the women in them are obsessed with finding a man, but that they won’t settle for second best. And while they go on about wanting men, they live their lives as though the friendship of women is just as, if not more important.

I think feminism needs to go beyond trying either to claim individual women (whether real or fictional) as role models or condemn then as letting the side down, or for creating unrealistic images. We can analyse and critique popular culture but the messages it sends are as contradictory and complex as most of our lives are.

Could you possibly name some books that any young UK feminist should read?

Each generation of feminists has to re-invent itself

I think we read different books at different stages in our lives. Some of the books that were most influential on me I know disagree with, but still find them really useful. I thought Natasha Walter was unfairly criticised for writing what had been said before, I know several young women who found her book [‘The New Feminism’] incredibly powerful. Each generation of feminists has to re-invent itself.

For a quick gallop through feminist thought the Vintage books of contemporary feminism and historical feminism are good over-views. Kate Millett’s ‘Sexual Politics’ is so important in the history of second wave feminism it should be read. Andrea Dworkin, even though I disagree with a lot of what she says. Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, because it is good to be reminded that we are not the first people to have thought all of this.

Joan Smith is always worth reading. There’s an Australian book called ‘Wifework’ [by Susan Maushart] which came out a few months ago that I thought was good. And On the Move, a collection of essays by Natasha Walter, particularly the essay by Julie Bindel, where she describes sending out a letter on forged police-headed paper telling men to stay indoors after dark, after the police had advised women not to go out at night when Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women.

I have sometimes considered writing a book myself, but I don’t have any plans to do so at the moment.

What, in your opinion, is the single most important advance that women have made in the past 100 years? What is the most important issue on which women should campaign now?

I think access to contraception changed the shape of women’s lives in a way that nothing else has. A few generations ago most women spent most of their adult life pregnant or breastfeeding.

I don’t think that there is one issue that is more important than anything else. I have often focused on campaigns against poverty and for women’s financial security, but that is because that has been a key area of expertise for Fawcett. There are different issues for different women in different parts of the world.

Finally, any words of advice to UK feminists?

I think as a movement we need to remember that we can’t complain if women don’t call themselves feminists if when they do we tell them that they are not good enough feminists.

I think we need to keep remembering that any successful movement involves people working at different levels and in different ways. We need some people who will focus on the pragmatic, making the compromises necessary to be in a position to change things. And we need some people that refuse to compromise, that keep a vision and a passion alive. We need people who provide practical support in women’s daily lives, and we need people who will settle for nothing less than changing the world. We need women in women’s organisations, and we need women who will take feminism into the mainstream. And, most of all, we need to remember that feminism should be fun.