Why does feminism have such an image problem? Charlotte Raven hopes to change that with humour and irreverence – and anyone can join the debate
THE F-WORD. Feminism. Where do we stand? Most of us take for granted what it has delivered – votes, equal pay, childcare, the right of women to have a say about their own bodies, but ask if we’re feminists and the ‘buts’ and equivocations will start.
Last month David Cameron said in an interview that he wasn’t a feminist. A week later, presumably after a handbagging by Sam with one of her beautifully crafted Smythson numbers had put him in touch with his feminine side, he was suddenly telling Channel 4 News: “When I was asked that question, what I should have said is, if that means equal rights for women, then yes. If that is what you mean by feminist, then yes, I am a feminist.”
Charlotte Raven, who last week launched the Feminist Times website, with a print magazine to follow next month in a bid to recreate 1970s feminist bible Spare Rib magazine, is having none of it, saying the Prime Minister is not entitled to call himself a feminist. “Men can be, but not him, because he isn’t [one].”
Whether he is or he isn’t, the F-word is on everyone’s lips, which is exactly where Raven and Feminist Times want it. Not that it ever went away, it’s just had an image problem, something Raven and Co want to address by resurrecting the humour and irreverence the early Spare Rib enjoyed, producing a website and magazine that “will be a feminist Private Eye, combining mordantly witty humour and satire with serious in-depth analyses of the complexities of modern femininity”.
Their aim is to fill the gap left by the glossies and fashion magazines for debate by intelligent women for intelligent women. Oh, and intelligent men too.
“It’s non-conformist, of both genders. It isn’t a women-only space. There’s a man on the editorial board and a lot of men writing. Feminist Times is a PR, celebrity and ad-free membership-funded website. It’s the only real alternative to normal ‘women’s’ magazines with a focus on life, not lifestyle. As a mainstream feminist media platform, we want to represent the wonderful diversity of modern feminism – we already know we have a broad appeal because our membership ranges from teenagers to grandmothers.”
Now in her mid-forties, the once enfant terrible of 1990s journalism sits in her north London home, aka Feminist Times HQ, co-ordinating the launch. The kitchen is buzzing with activity, the deputy editor and editorial assistant sit at a large dining table, tapping away at laptops, while a cat with a broken pelvis glares balefully from his cage. Another enters through French windows and parades the length of the light-filled room that takes up the ground floor of the terraced house Raven shares with her film-maker husband Tom Sheahan. Tall in a structured black dress and mustard tights, her shiny black Louise Brooks/Cornelia Parker bob swings as she makes tea for everyone, answers texts, talks about her new venture, all the while controlling the biscuit intake of her children Anna, nine, and John, four. The embodiment of the working woman, despite suffering from the early effects of the degenerative Huntington’s disease, she holds forth on politics and publishing, porn and personalities.
In its launch edition Feminist Times has writing on twerking, online bingo, women in comedy, traditional Dublin biscuit folding (as opposed to Belfast biscuit bending), an article in defence of lads’ mags, radical agony aunts and music journalist Garry Mulholland writing about his relationship with porn. Controversial from the start, a story about forced sterilisation caused such a storm from contributors it was later removed and FT apologised, Raven commenting that “this is what happens if you’re trying to voice uncomfortable truths”.
Raven is no stranger to controversy, and handles it with an air of acceptance, ditto the internet glitches – her appearance on Radio Four’s Women’s Hour caused such a stooshie it crashed FT’s website on launch day. She’s a risk-taker, a bring-it-on kind of woman who knows what she is getting into and has a firm belief in freedom of speech.
Reviving Spare Rib was controversial from the start, with the original magazine’s editors Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe coming over all unsisterly and getting in touch with their lawyers, copywriting the name and stopping its use.
“The process was so enervating and weird and it felt like a parody. They were pissed off. My daughter said, ‘They’re just jealous really’. She’s right. It’s because they didn’t think of relaunching it themselves. But I really admired Marsha and could have benefitted from all her experience and wisdom.
“So Rosie Boycott and Marsha are not on board. There’s an endless legal thing going on in the background where they are trying to get me to sign a series of undertakings – for example that I won’t use the name and that in the beginning I shouldn’t have used it. The whole thing was shocking because it was never theirs and they never proved what they owned.
“They didn’t like the idea of the funding model I was proposing either, with money raised by direct debits from the membership. This means we can have a dialogue with people that could extend beyond the kitchen tables of north London using the tools of the digital age. It means they can contribute and tell us what they want in it.”
New names were considered and rejected – Hip Bone still had associations with Spare Rib, so there was Femtext (“I liked that one,” says Raven), The Wanderground, Women’s Brigade, Ourselves, The Other Women, The Purple Notebook, Speculum and Monstrous Regiment (take that, John Knox).
“It was actually bloody difficult thinking of another name and every time I came up with something, they were shit. Feminist Times was most popular, although I didn’t like it at first because it didn’t seem clever enough, but then I realised the clever names sounded like they’d been brainstormed by people on The Apprentice, so it had a lot to recommend it.”
Raven is comfortable with name changes. Her blond-haired son John was called Patrick for the first six months of his life until Raven decided it just wasn’t working.
“Patrick Sheahan sounded right but within minutes everyone was calling him Pat. No. Everyone told me I was mad to change his name, including my husband. ‘You can’t change his name, he’ll be traumatised,’ they said. But he’s fine. I just did a dramatic volte face, which is what happened with Spare Rib come to think of it.”
She pauses for breath, takes a drag of her cigarette and sighs. “When the magazine comes out I will be in my element. It’s been a form of torture. An awful, big battle and then running out of money, and now doing this f***ing website. I just wanted to launch a magazine, but I realised it had to be a website, to be updated regularly and look different. I’m looking forward to just writing it.
“The whole thing started as something I thought only me and a few friends felt, that we weren’t being spoken to by the media, and broadened into a dialogue with hundreds of members and supporters. Even the media that’s meant to be aimed at us, we felt alienated from. The middle class favourites of Women’s Hour and the Guardian are more and more about lifestyle and it seemed to me we’re not as interested in the things the media seems to say we must be. There are more and more people who have that same sense that they’re not being spoken for and their voice isn’t being heard – women who are slightly to one side of the mainstream rather than radical.
“When I thought of launching an alternative women’s magazine I found the 1970s version of Spare Rib and fell in love with it. Not the 1980s one that became a cypher of earnestness and navel-gazing, all about stuff like toxic shock, as if Jeremy Clarkson had made it up, but the earlier one, that had wit, irreverence, was passionate, political, engaging, with a commitment to telling people’s personal stories and giving a platform to marginalised people. That’s what we want to be.”
Raven has experience of running a magazine, having helped relaunch the “low culture for high brows” Modern Review in 1997 with Julie Burchill, with whom she also had an affair. She also worked on the less glossy previous incarnation launched by Burchill, Cosmo Landesman and Toby Young, that ran from 1991-95 but ended when the pair started their affair. Burchill is now married to Raven’s brother Daniel.
“The Modern Review was very 1990s. It was a hubristic enterprise and very much of its time. I learnt from that. Don’t get expensive offices and have several launch parties up to a year before the magazine appears. It only lasted six months. This time we’re doing it in a low-fi way that feels more in synch with the way Britain is at the moment.”
Once the darlings of the Groucho Club set, Raven doesn’t see much of Burchill these days as she and Raven’s brother Daniel “don’t live together. That’s a good thing. It’s good for him”, she says.
“I hardly ever see Julie apart from on weird family occasions. I still feel guilty about bits of it. I felt particularly guilty about her son because when I was going out with her she was splitting up from her family, but I didn’t have any comprehension, being self-absorbed, about what that meant to a six or seven-year-old boy and that’s what I’m most ashamed of. Being in this mindset of imperviousness to his needs and reality. He would come round and sit on the edge of the sofa and was super polite with Julie, who of course pointed out how well brought up he was. But it wasn’t that. He and Julie are now estranged. I heard her on Desert Island Discs recently. She was good, actually. She’s brutally honest.”
Raven’s preoccupations are wide-ranging. One minute she’s discussing how she and her mother joined Militant Tendency while railing against her father who was out “making money” with his magazine publishing business to fund their comfortable lifestyle, the next she’s discussing the brilliance of her iron with its vast water tank that means you can do loads at once. She’s into Marxism – “more so than ever. I think he was right about everything, in particular about the glamour of capitalism. I don’t know whether it’s going to collapse under the weight of its contradictions but it feels impossible that it could go on like this” – and clothes, though nowadays she trawls charity shops.
“My clothes are secondhand, from Oxfam. I have a fur coat and an Ossie Clark dress upstairs. This Uniqlo one was secondhand. I don’t buy anything new because the price of clothes is insane. The only people who can afford to buy clothes are the super rich. Everyone else has to go to Primark.”
And body hair? She didn’t shave her legs all summer but she admits to an addiction to an eyebrow threader she always goes to. Appearance and body issues are surely to the front of Raven’s mind, given that she has Huntington’s disease, which causes involuntary movements. It also causes possible personality changes. Raven had the test six years ago as her father is a sufferer so she expected it to be positive. It was.
“I was surprised how few people do find out when there’s a test for it. Once I realised that I could, I had to. I think it’s better to know. I don’t ever regret finding out, but my brother has decided not to be tested and I don’t think he dwells on it any less than I do, whether he’s going to get it or when.
“It’s very difficult to tell whether something’s happening to me because of the illness or because I’m in a stressful situation, the combination of having a young family and working on this project. It’s a very complex disease. My dad can’t speak so everyone thinks he’s just another dopey old man and in fact he’s totally aware of what’s happening. It’s not the same as having Alzheimer’s,” she says.
When Raven got the diagnosis she contemplated suicide, but reconsidered after a trip to a colony in Venezuela where Huntington’s patients were being treated and she saw them still able to engage with their families.
“In Venezuela everyone was just being hugged continuously. That’s what my father is lacking in his care home: love. There, compassion is the treatment. They have no drugs and there’s nothing other you can do. I saw that Huntington’s patients don’t ever lose the ability to communicate emotionally with their families.”
“Knowing certainly makes it easier, but how do you adjust your life around it if you think you have only a short time to live?”
However long she has, Charlotte Raven intends to make a difference and enjoy the times she has left. Feminist Times.