Catherine Mayer is a doer and a thinker; when she has an idea she goes for it immediately. Rising up the ranks of The Economist, she’s worked as an editor at TIME magazine, and as head of the Foreign Press Association. She’s about to release her third book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: How Gender Equality Can Save The World!, a one-stop shop for understanding contemporary feminism and a book she wrote, she says, because she was looking for it and it didn’t exist.
This week, Catherine will be appearing at the Southbank Centre’s brilliant Women of the World (WOW) Festival to discuss the new book, among other things. Catherine has close ties to WOW – not only because she’s on the founding committee but because it’s where she stood up in 2015 and announced that she was going to start the Women’s Equality Party, which she then promptly set up, along with Sandi Toksvig.
Below, we talk to Catherine about her many projects, but mostly about what good feminist politics look like in 2017.
Hi Catherine. Since WOW Festival is on this week and we’re all feeling excited, do you want to start by telling us how you got involved and why you think it’s important?
Yes! I was working as an editor at TIME magazine, and Jude Kelly came to see me at my offices and she said, ‘I’ve got this idea for setting up a festival to celebrate female achievement... but also to highlight the barriers to female success’, and she said ‘I’d really like you to be one of the members of the founding committee’. I then had this moment of being profoundly depressed, because I thought, ‘It’s so sad that we are now well into the 21st century and we’re still having to do these things at all’. But I said yes, and from the very first festival, it has been incredibly apparent how necessary WOW is. There’s so much humour in it; it takes topics that are quite harrowing and makes them things that you want to go and get involved with.
You started the Women’s Equality Party at WOW – how did that happen?
WOW creates a lot of energy but one of the great frustrations that came out of that was, each year, people would be immensely energised to act but there was then no obvious vehicle for that energy. In 2013 there was a mock parliament and I was one of the MPs, along with Shami Chakrabarti, Helena Kennedy and Sandi Toksvig. We put forward proposals for ways to lead the process towards gender equality, and at the end everybody voted for them, but then the question was: What do you do with that? People were going, ‘Oh, let’s have a petition at Downing Street’ and it was so obviously inadequate to the level of enthusiasm there was for change.
At the same time, I was recognising the very severe limitations of the old political parties; they talk about gender but they’re very, very bad at promoting women within their own ranks. In 2015 I stood up at a meeting at WOW where there were three female MPs on stage, and suggested that maybe what we needed was the Women’s Equality Party. I hadn’t planned to do that but the idea took off – I woke up the next morning to find my timeline completely clogged with people saying ‘Let’s do it!’ I rang Sandi about it and she went, ‘That’s my idea!’ At her show Mirth Control she was planning to create a fictitious women’s party. She said: ‘I was just about to ring you and ask you to be foreign secretary’. We decided to go for a drink and talk about it, and that’s basically how it happened...
The Women's Equality Party officially became a party in July 2015. What would you say have been the main achievements since then?
Well, you can divide them quite easily into growth and reach. We’re now at 63,000 members and supporters and 73 branches across the UK. We have really successfully changed the conversation in terms of pushing gender equality into the political arena, into media spaces, in ways that it wasn’t before. The most obvious example was in the local elections in May 2016. Sophie Walker ran for Mayor of London and got more than 53,000 votes, which is extraordinary for a first-time outing for a party. Sadiq Khan sounded like he’d actually swallowed our manifesto whole, and he did also publicly say he was going to give us his second preference, which of course is symbolic rather than helpful but nevertheless, it shows the impact we were having.
My goal was always that the other parties could no longer ignore us, and I’m afraid I’d drawn inspiration from UKIP, who proved that even without representation, you can create change by threatening the other parties at the ballot box. They made the other parties – in very regrettable ways – contort themselves into UKIP-like positions. And so I thought, ‘Maybe we can do the same thing for gender equality’. I thought that if we can prove it’s a vote-winner, they will try and, in the better case scenario, work with us – because I do think politics needs to be more collaborative – and in worst case scenario they’ll steal our policies, and that’ll be good for everyone anyway.
If I were to ask, ‘Why should women join the Women's Equality Party?’ what would your answer be?
I happen to think that the Women’s Equality Party is, politically, the best option in the UK. We did some incredibly radical things, like opened the party to members of all other democratic parties – which nobody ever does – and we’re doing this to say, ‘Look, the old style of politics is absolutely not working, we need to find ways of collaborating on these big areas of common ground’ – rejecting partisan politics and the idea that it is necessarily a left-right split. We now have a fully implemented internal democracy and the steering committee is partly appointed in order to ensure the diversity of perspectives that is necessary for the party to function properly. People were rung up randomly and asked: would you like to join the steering committee? And they all did.
We also currently have a fantastic mayoral candidate in Liverpool: Tabitha Morton, who grew up on a housing estate, left school at 16, and works in manufacturing. She’s very different to the sort of identikit men in suits that throng Westminster. I think the reason we are in the political crisis we are in now – and you know, make no mistake, we are in a crisis – is because mainstream politics became too remote from the people it was supposed to be representing, and there is a lot of anger and a lot of disengagement. And so a lot of what we’re about is trying to open things up and to get new voices and perspectives in there. Again, that’s very much inspired by WOW.
To stand up in a room and announce off the cuff that you’re going to start a political party is very bold. Was there anything that shaped you to be like that?
I think that ascribes too much intent to what happened! A lot of the best things I’ve done in life have been accidental, but there is one element in my history that I think makes a difference: I’m American-born, to American parents, and didn’t move here until I was a child. America, actually, in many ways, is less equal than a lot of countries but that strange belief with which Americans are inculcated – that anyone can become president – is a very real thing, whereas I think in this country people are horribly brought up to know their place. It wasn’t until I got to The Economist that I even understood that I was on a lower class tier as far as other people there were concerned, so I think I sometimes haven’t seen obstacles until I’ve hit them.
Tell me about your book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women – why’s it called that?
Well, I’m a big science fiction fan and there’s a science fiction B movie that was made in 1958 with the same name, about a woman who has an encounter with a space alien, grows 50 ft tall and goes on a rampage and kills her cheating husband and his mistress. So it’s actually a kind of parable of the dangerous power of women unleashed, and it’s one of those films that’s kind of unintentionally hilarious. It was also because a lot of the imagery of women that we see is the 50 ft women of billboards – these sort of prostrate, pornified women. And so I started thinking about what stature really means, what female achievement really looks like and about all the things that the WOW festival explores, like what the mechanisms are that keep women down.
In the book there are lots of horrifying little facts, like ‘There are more male CEOs with the name John than women CEOs generally’. Did anything surprise you?
The thing that surprised me is a biological thing, it’s the fact that female hyenas have penises too! I knew that no country in the world was gender-equal, but it’s this systemic nature of gender inequality that becomes increasingly surprising the more you dig into it. I have a chapter on the entertainment industry, and I interviewed a female director in Hollywood who talked about a lot of her experiences of feeling she wasn’t up to the job and that’s why she wasn’t getting work which she thought she should get, and then she looked at the statistics about what movies get funding and how absolutely ridiculously tiny the representation of women in the movie-making industry is, and suddenly she thought, ‘OK, it’s not me, it’s the system’. That’s hugely important – showing people that is one of the things that I want this book to do; it’s the accretion of small things rather than one big oppression.
You mention in the introduction, ‘I spent a life asking when we will get there’, speaking of gender equality. My final question is, how hopeful are you feeling?
Although everything looks so frightening now, I do really think that there is opportunity in turbulence. I think: if not now, when? It is the time for action. If you look at the history of women, it is often after periods of exceptional turbulence that women break through, and then what happens is there’s a backlash. We’re in a period of exceptional turbulence, we have the chance to break through but then what we have to do is remember that what happens is there’s a backlash. We have to find ways of embedding progress, so that it can’t be undone.
Catherine Mayer will be in conversation with Sandi Toksvig about her new book, Attack of the 50 ft. Women on Tuesday 7th March at Southbank Centre's WOW – Women of the World festival, supported by Bloomberg.