During Women’s Week 2012 I interviewed feminists Cath Elliott and Kate Smurthwaite on the representation of women in public life.

Cath Elliott is a freelance writer and blogger. She also works for a rape crisis centre and is a trade union activist. She took part in a Women’s Week debate on the glass ceiling because “it’s important to spread the word and politicise younger women”.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. She’s involved with various organisations including Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) and Abortion Rights UK. As part of Women’s Week, she taught a comedy workshop for students and then hosted a comedy show where those students performed.

Sarah Graham: We’ve looked recently at the lack of women in politics and journalism, so what about comedy – where are all the women?

KS: There are loads and loads of women in comedy – at the workshop and entry level there’s undoubtedly more women than men who are interested in getting involved in comedy. And then at every stage there are blocks and hurdles. I’ve heard, “we had a woman once, we didn’t like her” as if that’s the whole genre. I’ve been told “I bet you talk about periods all the time” as if periods aren’t a perfectly legitimate source of humour if I so choose. I’ve seen enough blokes who go on stage and talk about masturbating for four hours – it seems not unreasonable that I should be able to talk about whatever the heck I like. And then that goes up to TV executives and everybody the whole way through.

Do you think the popularity of sexist humour has an impact on the lack of women in comedy?

KS: Totally. There are certainly comedy clubs that feel like sexism theme nights. It’s difficult as a woman to go on stage and follow an act like that. It’s so common that I have to go on stage and some guy’s just been talking about how he was having sex with his girlfriend and then she woke up, or something that really is just noxious. In any other context you wouldn’t expect me to work with somebody who talked like that but somehow it’s comedy and, as long as two people are laughing, I’m some sort of prudish stick in the mud if I dare to put my hand up. I think it’s brilliant these days that racist comedy is really frowned upon – not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s brilliant that we’ve done so well. We’re such a long way away from doing that with sexism in comedy, and I think we’ve still got quite a long way to go on homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, and everything else on the list.

What do you make of the recent Uni Lad controversy?

KS: It comes out of this idea that’s so widely pervasive that comedy is about blokes. To be honest, I really do blame the lads mags – they decided to publish porn and market it as “Men’s Lifestyle” but unfortunately there really wasn’t anything else to put in those magazines because there are already sports magazines and motoring magazines, so they chose comedy – and they had to use relatively sexist comedy to make it clear that it was for men. Now we get that backlash where if you don’t laugh along it’s because “you haven’t got a sense of humour”, as if we couldn’t just appreciate different things.

Is there a link, do you think, between that kind of sexist, misogynistic humour and the kind of hatred that female bloggers, female journalists receive?

CE: Yes, I think there is. The site that attacked me is just full of that kind of crap, albeit they do critique men as well. All the women that they write about and the comments that they allow, it’s all very similar. It’s like, “oh, aren’t we being funny, aren’t we oh so clever” and actually it’s just pure misogyny and hatred. I think it all comes from the same place.

KS: I agree. It’s almost the worst get-out clause ever – you say something that’s deeply offensive and unpleasant, and then you go: “It was a joke! I was being ironic!”

Do you think it puts women off?

KS: I am absolutely certain that the sort of abuse that you get on the Internet affects women writers. When I write on my own blog I know what subjects will really trigger a lot of abusive comments and I just won’t publish it. That’s me, and as I’ve already said, I like a fight. So if I feel that way, there must be women out there who simply don’t blog at all.

CE: There was a men’s rights website where some guy posted a file that you could download giving details of American feminist bloggers. This file had identified them, where they worked, where they lived, all this information. Some of these women lost their jobs because their employers were getting bombarded. It’s just astounding.

Are there any other broader factors about the lack of women in public life?

CE: There’s an issue about the lack of role models. If you don’t see yourself being represented in places you think well that’s obviously not for me because people like me aren’t welcome there.

What can we do to get women out there and make them more visible?

CE: I think as feminists we have to be out there promoting, we have to be the ones saying: “Look, you’re wrong”.

There’s an idea that in order for women to get to the top they have to take on more ‘masculine’ traits and get indoctrinated into the culture of business or politics. Do you think it’s possible for women to succeed in their career without having to totally compromise their principles?

CE: I like to think that women can play the game so that they maybe do what you have to do to get there. But it seems to be that so many of them get there and are completely absorbed with all this crap, the corporate culture and sexist culture and all that. But it would be nice to think that there could be some who would get there and go: “Right. Now I’m in charge, there’s going to be some changes.”

Is there a sense that getting 50/50 representation into top jobs is not enough if they’re women like Nadine Dorries, for example, whose policies are not actually helping other women?

KS: I’m all in favour of programmes which encourage women to be more ambitious and put themselves forward and do all this kind of stuff, but there is also a point where actually they’re taking women who are very seriously indoctrinated into a particular way of thinking. It’s a shame if we allow the patriarchy to pick which women can be the spokespeople. We need to be doing the picking – specifically me and Cath! We won’t be picking Dorries, incidentally. Or Mensch.

How then do we get feminist women into politics? Do you think feminist women should be getting involved with politics?

KS: I would love it, yeah.

CE: I do think we’ve got some. But I do think that they have to compromise an awful lot. People tell me that I should stand and I look at the stuff that they have to do – and I’m really crap at party lines, I’m just appalling at it. If I think something’s wrong I’ll get gobby about it and say it’s wrong, and I don’t care. But you can’t in politics; you have to take collective responsibility.

KS: What would be brilliant of course is if we could get proportional representation and then we’d just start a feminist party.

CE: Jo Cameron was talking about that – a women-only party. But we wouldn’t have her women-only party, we’d have our own!

Written for The Student Journals

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