The Guilty Feminist

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By Deborah Frances-White.
Published by Virago.

My teenage daughter’s class was recently asked by a guest speaker: “Hands up — who is a feminist?” A few tentative hands were raised. “Who thinks women and men should be treated equally?” Every hand shot up. “So you’re all feminists,” was the conclusion, proving that the very word “feminist” can still be misconstrued.

This feminist handbook by the comedian and podcast star Deborah Frances-White aims to bridge the chasm between the extreme end of the feminist movement (which like much in life has become its defining factor) and the more temperate, grass-roots believers.

The book, which is more serious than the author’s often gag-laden podcast, is divided into three parts: How We Got Here; Now We’re Here, What Do We Do about It?; and All Change! Her schtick is to begin each chapter with: “I’m a feminist but…”; one of my favourites being: “I’m a feminist but I negotiated a half-price kitchen by studying the men’s team on The Apprentice.”

Positive body image plays a pivotal role in Frances-White’s modern feminism, and early on in the book she rallies her readers, without any seeming cynicism, against living in “the patriarchy’s body cult”. Because the patriarchy is the enemy. 

And Frances-White’s charge sheet against it could not be more timely. 

In the age of #MeToo and increasing demands for female equality, she points a finger at the mostly “white, straight, cis*” men in power, who stand accused of “undermining generations of women, keeping their top-class brains away from books and their wit under house arrest”. (“Cis-gendered*” is the politically correct term for identifying with the sex you were born into, about which more later.)

The Guilty Feminist brims with facts and inspiring women you might not have heard of but are now glad you have. From what she insists would have been egalitarian early hunter-gatherers, she charts the fall in gender equality through the years, the political and legal gains of the 20th century and how feminism has recently been “dramatically jump-started”.

“Let’s ride this incoming fifth wave like we stole it from the patriarchy and they’re not getting it back,” she writes.

The book’s passionate tone is similar to her podcasts and if you listen to those (all 112 of them, downloaded 25m times) you’ll understand its power. Her mixture of wit, fallibility and inclusivity is immensely appealing. 

Born in Australia, adopted as a baby and sucked into the cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a teenager, Frances-White once flew from London to Vancouver to liberate a fourth-generation Witness who pleaded for her help to break free. That sort of empathy enables her to make feminism user-friendly. She constructs a formidable feminist case for white weddings, romcoms, make-up and even rape fantasies — “we’re allowed anything in our head”, she reasons. 

“Owning my paradoxes and laughing at them releases them, and any shame I carried for them, with it.”

That thinking gets thousands of women of all ages and ethnicities queueing for her live shows, as I witnessed one evening in May while walking past the sold-out 2,286-seat London Palladium. “Wherever I go, it’s my aim to take other women with me and amplify their voices because...most people we include, include us back.”

The book emboldens women to find their voice, to say no more often, yes less, and to demand more than the 75p in the pound they get paid compared with men.

Her genius for satire is what makes her voice so sonorous — her Open Letter from the Gentlemen of Hollywood, a riposte to the Weinstein saga, is worth the cover price alone.

However, it’s not all lols and rabble-rousing prose, and the book sometimes strays into woo-woo politically correct territory. Chapters are interspersed with Q&As with leading feminists who speak the new language of gender politics (“intersectionality”, “gender queer spaces”, “non-binary people”). We read that the rather terrifying academic Reubs Walsh believes we “don’t need to assign people a legal gender at birth”. Or ever. 

I’m a feminist but…when reading stuff like that, my mind tends to drift and I begin wondering, guiltily, if there’s any ice cream in the freezer.  

Jackie Annesley