The cover of Catherine Mayer’s new book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World, may remind you of an old ’50s film by a very similar name. Only, instead of a woman towering high above a freeway clothed in bedsheets and holding a crushed car, this time she’s in jeans and a t-shirt, cellphone in hand, with Big Ben and the White House within her reach. It’s an update to the classic imagery—and it couldn’t be timelier.
Mayer was an editor at Time before leaving the publication two years ago to co-found the Women’s Equality Party in the U.K. with TV presenter Sandi Toksvig. Since then, through persistent canvassing and campaigning, she helped secure more than 350,000 votes for the party in the 2016 London mayoral election—and wrote a book about the fight for gender equality and what she believes a gender-equal future could look like.
And what a compelling picture of a brave, new world she paints. On a stop during her Canadian book tour, she spoke with FLARE about Brexit and Trump, how feminism isn’t a zero-sum game, why it’s important to have the word “women” in the name of her party and the motivation behind her rallying cry: “Bring on the 50 ft. women!”
What made you decide to write this book?
When I was starting the Women’s Equality Party, I looked for books that should be on my reading list. I knew there were all these great feminist books I’d read in the past, but I wanted something that could tell me where we are now and why it is that nowhere in the world is gender equal. I thought that a book like that could help inform arguments on people’s doorsteps when I was out canvassing for the party, because I realized, after speaking with people, that although they were broadly supportive of gender equality, no one had any idea of what that world would actually look like.
In the final chapter, you put forward an idea of a gender-equal future set in a place called Equalia. Do you think we’ll ever get there?
Somebody very young interviewed me recently and she asked me that same question—but she interrupted herself and said, “Oh, well, no, of course you won’t live to see it, you’re too old,” and I laughed and said, “I am an optimist, and I do believe that we will get there in my lifetime.” That’s because I actually see a great deal of opportunity in the current turbulence. I think if you look at history you will find that the great steps forward for women don’t occur during periods of stability and calm, but during times of turbulence. So scary as it is, and the very real though the threats to our rights and protections are, this is a very important moment for us, and it’s a moment to seize.
Talking about the turbulent climate we’re living in, why do you think your book is important to read right now?
One of the key reasons that we haven’t got gender equality—even though there’s a vast amount of research showing that it would be better not just for women but for everyone—is because people don’t know what it would look like, and also because they don’t often see the inequality around them. I wanted to make it very visible and understandable. For example, there’s a chapter in the book on the entertainment industry, where I talked to a female director who was vastly relieved in a way to see the terrible statistics on the number of women actually being able to tell stories about women in the movies, because she had really begun to doubt herself and to assume that in fact the failing was hers. So that inequality and discrimination can be invisible to us even when we’re on the receiving end. I also wanted to make it visible for men, because I know a lot of men who are broadly sympathetic to gender equality, who would consider themselves progressives, and yet they can’t actually see what is happening to us and the ways in which they are unintentionally contributing to it.
Most recently, cast members from remake of The Handmaid’s Tale said the story wasn’t feminist. And we saw Ivanka Trump identify herself as a feminist at the Women20 Summit in Berlin, but then we also heard her say that the term is “loaded” and carries a negative connotation. What’s your response to all of this?
Part of the way in which the progress of women has been retarded, and the women’s movement has been denied its goals, has been in the deliberate misrepresentation of what feminism is: To be something that is anti-men, to be something that is about gaining power for women at the exclusion of men. It is a complete and utter misunderstanding to see what we’re after as being a kind of zero-sum game, where if I get more equality there’s less for men. It’s actually the other way around. That’s a very important element in the book, where I share the figures that show men would be better off in a gender-equal world. The main reason that feminism has detractors is because people don’t understand that feminism is something positive. It’s about lifting women to lift everyone.
There is one absolutely reasonable objection to feminism though, and that comes from some women of colour in the women’s movement. There have been periods of feminism where white Western feminism has tended to not look carefully enough at the other kinds of experiences of women, and so there are some women who reject the term on that basis and I have a lot of respect for that.
The Women’s Marches in early January were criticized for not being as inclusive as they could have been. How can we get better at intersectional feminism?
I don’t think that feminism will achieve what it has set out to achieve unless it recognizes differing experiences and perspectives. Being white and middle class, I had to ask myself a lot of hard questions about it, because I was starting a political party from scratch. To me, the answer has to be that what I’m doing is designed to bring in and create platforms for other women, and to try to make sure that it’s not about me taking up space, but creating space for other women. I have to continue making sure the policies that we’re looking at are shaped by that full range of experiences and opinions.
How do you put the idea of creating space into practice?
When we started the Women’s Equality Party, it wasn’t planned, it was accidental. But I think if it had been planned, the starting point would have been to go and try and get a very wide range of people on board early. Because it didn’t start like that, it was a question of actually trying to structure an ad hoc kind of steering committee that brought together as many possible forms of experience, and to grow from there, and to grow in ways that ensured real diversity. As I explained in the book, there is a tendency to entirely misunderstand diversity as something that’s a kind of catchphrase that you throw around in order to look good and check boxes, as opposed to something that will actually make you a much better organization. For the party, it meant making sure there was a diversity of experience in so many different ways, including people with disabilities, with different income groups and backgrounds, with different life experiences and different ages. And actually, for us, very importantly, people of different political persuasions, because we wanted to make the point that it was possible to carve out a huge area of common ground around the fight for gender equality, rather than letting one part of the political spectrum own it. So it was actually even more diversity than people normally think of I guess, and the thing about that, and one of the reasons that I think people are inclined to make groups of people that are rather like themselves, is because if you have lots of different perspectives round the table you tend to have more difficulty reaching decisions. You have more arguments, you have more discussions. But those arguments and discussions and debates are the things that end up with the better outcomes. So even though you slow things down, it’s important because then you can get it right the first time.
Why was it important to you to include the word ‘women’ in the name of the Women’s Equality Party?
What you might ask instead was why was it that so many people wanted us to immediately drop it? I think I quote my co-founder Sandi Toksvig in the book as saying it’s quite useful for people to know what we’re about. Having the word ‘women’ in the name of the party may potentially put off men, but I don’t have any sympathy with the idea that we should drop it on that account. I think it means that we have to make men understand that they should be supporting us not only for reasons of social justice, but out of their own naked self-interest because it will benefit them too. So it’s a job of advocacy. The point is that there is no country in the world that is gender equal, and we are all losing out as a result. Women are the biggest single part of the world’s population who are inherently discriminated against and at best considered second-class citizens. So what else should we call the party?
You are a U.S. and U.K. national who voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Knowing what you know about, as you describe in your book, “turkeys voting for Christmas,” were you surprised by the outcome
I do think the biggest single factor in Hillary not winning is her being a woman, but I also think that she fought a bad campaign in one really key respect, which was that she and her team somehow didn’t see that what voters wanted was change, and they would have potentially responded to her if she had herself been aware that she was an outsider and actually promoted the idea of herself as an outsider. One of the things that she was punished for, ironically, was that she looked to voters like an insider, like somebody who was profiting from all the existing power structures from which they felt excluded, and they punished her for that even though in fact because she was a woman she was an outsider. Meanwhile Trump, who is the ultimate insider, managed to present himself as an insurgent.
The Daily Mail recently ran the headline, “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it?” Why do you think we’re still seeing women represented in this way?
It’s 2017. Two women’s decisions will determine if United Kingdom continues to exist. And front page news is their lower limbs. Obviously pic.twitter.com/AMp0YvtISa
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) March 27, 2017
In my 30 years as journalist, I saw that the higher one rose in journalism the fewer women there were, the less diversity of any kind that there was, and that shapes the kind of stories that are told and how they are covered. With something like the Daily Mail, it’s consciously sexist—they are deliberating trolling large portions of the population and they do it because they get enough love from a particular set of readers that they think it’s worth it. But there is a much more diffuse and constant form of sexism that is present in pretty much all of the media, and even media that considers itself liberal and progressive and everything else, because there is almost no form of media in which women are adequately represented. Except for the forms of media that are considered to be specifically for women, and the problem with that is it means only women are consuming it, and so that’s frustrating because it means the views and ideas that need to be spread to the entire population become siloed.
Going back to your book, you write, “Bring on the 50 ft. women!” What’s the reasoning behind that rallying cry?
In the 1958 movie, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a woman encounters a space alien, grows to 50-feet tall and uses that extraordinary power to kill and maim. And my view is of course that if you unleash the power of women it will be an extremely beneficial force, and so I used that image in the book, and 50 feet, of course, is not literal—although my god, if I now had a Canadian dollar for every time somebody meets me and goes, “Well, you’re not 50 ft.,” I would be donating it to the Women’s Equality Party—but it is a metaphor for women towering in different ways. Many of the ways in which women do great things are actually invisible and overlooked and excluded from public discourse, so it’s about potential and achievements that are already there and how we can build upon them.