May
13

2013

Charlotte Raven: why feminism needs to get radical again



When I go to speak to Charlotte Raven about her relaunch of feminist magazine Spare Rib – born 1972, died 1993 – I quickly realise she is talking about something much bigger. She is 43, and has been fulminating about feminism for a decade now, she says, a fact that shows in the fizz of her ideas, the way she jumps from one innovation or exhumation to another. There’s her plan to revive consciousness-raising groups, for instance, despite some of her activist friends dismissing them as “bourgeois navel-gazing”. She sees these gatherings – which burgeoned in the 70s as a place where women could discuss how specific feminist issues affected them – as a way of mending “that link between the personal and political that has just been completely broken”.

She wants to hold immersive events, with a political edge, which explains why numerous performance artists are involved in the Spare Rib project. And there will be activism, although she isn’t quite sure what the political demands will be. Raven and some friends were going to protest at the Epsom Derby next month, in memory of the militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who, 100 years ago, stepped in front of the king’s horse, Anmer, and died of her injuries. “But we couldn’t think what we were going to be asking for. It was the same problem – how do you capture it in a sash? Actually, austerity is one of the really big things that we want to talk about. That’s unsexy, [but] actually, what is the damn point of having a vote if you can’t feed your bloody children?” She doesn’t care about issues such as the dearth of women on FTSE boards, she says: “I care about bloody women who are affected by the fucking benefit cuts, but I don’t really care about that other thing. I can’t pretend I do.” Her thoughts unspool wildly, entertainingly, through utopian feminism, radical feminism and collectivism. Raven clearly isn’t just looking to relaunch a magazine. She wants to start a movement.

Not that her burning ambition is immediately obvious. When I arrive at her big, beautiful house in north London at the agreed time she is initially surprised to see me, but hugs a greeting and shows me through to the garden while she rushes off to prepare for the photographer. This is an interesting moment for Raven, a dramatic turn in a dramatic life. She had a tumultuous 1990s, working as an editorial assistant to Toby Young at the Modern Review; when she started a relationship with the magazine’s co-founder, Julie Burchill, in a blaze of publicity, Young accused them of plotting to turn the publication into a “cross between the New Statesman and Spare Rib”. He therefore closed it without telling them. Raven went on to edit a short-lived relaunch, and became a columnist for this newspaper, while Burchill achieved maximum shock value, as ever, by marrying Raven’s brother Daniel. (The two women still see each other at family occasions, but I get the impression they’re not close. Raven says she’s sure “Julie will do the job of creating the unsisterly rants” when it comes to critiquing Spare Rib.) Back in the 90s, she says, she thought the party would just keep going.

Raven married the film-maker Tom Sheahan, and they have two children – a daughter, eight, and son, three. In 2006, after her father was diagnosed with the incurable neurodegenerative disorder Huntington’s disease – which causes involuntary, uncontrollable movements, along with severe cognitive problems – she tested positive for it too. Its symptoms typically appear in mid-life, her age now. She wrote movingly in 2010 about how she had considered suicide as a result, eventually deciding against it after visiting a community of HD sufferers in Venezuela. “The case for carrying on can’t be argued,” she concluded. “Suicide is rhetoric. Life is life.”

At the same time, she was wrestling with writing a confessional feminist memoir. She laboured over this for 10 years, the idea being that it would be a “consciousness-raising exercise,” she says, “in that you’d expose the truth of what it’s like from inside the prison of femininity. But the trouble is, trying to do that without making yourself just look like a cunt is actually almost impossible.” She rewrote it 20 different ways, she laughs – she says repeatedly that this was a difficult time, but hoots through the telling – “and then Caitlin Moran’s book [How To Be a Woman] came out, and I realised that was the end of the road … She got there first, and hers took six months to write, famously, and it has this great sort of jeu d’esprit, whereas mine was this intense combination of theory … and my continuing battle with my narcissism. Which Caitlin’s is about, probably as a subtext. She’s managing to conceal it with a load of good gags. And mine didn’t have enough good gags. So, over a period of time, my daughter had to tell me when we went to the [local] bookshop to put my blinkers on so I didn’t see the huge piles of How To Be a Woman.”

She had been fantasising about starting a feminist magazine anyway and, six months ago, she went to the Women’s Library and started looking through its collection. Raven has been politically engaged since childhood. While her father was making “a load of money” publishing magazines for the Duty Free industry, she and her “Marxist mother” were sitting at home, cursing him, she says. But back in the 80s and early 90s, Spare Rib never appealed to her. By this time, the magazine had been edited by a collective for years and, though it still ran groundbreaking material, – it covered issues the mainstream media wouldn’t have touched at the time – it also had a reputation for being dour. Once, early on, for instance, it ran a helpful editorial for confused readers headed: “Why is it such a depressing magazine?”

But looking at the very first issues, edited by co-founders Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, Raven felt inspired. She loved the “wonderful, countercultural” tone, and determined to relaunch it. She began forming an editorial board, comprising “middle-aged punks”, a strongly feminist schoolgirl and Boycott herself, and started thinking how to fund it. Advertising was the obvious answer, but she felt this was inappropriate. The problem with mainstream feminist debate, she says, is the way it’s been commodified. She points to the furore around Pussy Riot, last year, in which the Russian anti-Putin protesters were seized on as the latest hip manifestation of feminism; soon after, their image was for sale on T-shirts under the “Free Pussy Riot” slogan. Raven believes feminism has become “a marketing device – it always was. Cosmo always used feminism to market itself. But now it feels like that’s universal. And so I think the only way of de-commodifying it is by not having bloody brands next door to it. You can’t write about feminism within that context.”

She decided to raise seed money by sending an email around to “a hundred rich friends, and get them to send it to all their rich friends”. That email was leaked last month, with journalists focusing on one of its more hair-raising assertions – that Rod Liddle and George Galloway would appear as “costumed penitents”, serving guests at a Spare Rib founders’ event. Raven says the tone of the email was actually just intended to “make Simon-bloody-Kelner [former editor of the Independent] laugh and part with a hundred quid,” and, on reflection, Liddle and Galloway would probably enjoy the experience a little too much, so that idea’s been scrapped.

The email, though, was a success. She has received nearly 1,000 responses, and the £20,000 fundraising target has been hit. The idea is to run the magazine, which will launch later this year, as a membership organisation – what Raven calls “a politicised version of crowd-funding” – where those who sign up will be consulted about content. It will also be available on newsstands, priced £3.50. Alongside this there will be a website, expected to go live at the end of July, where content will be free, and people will be able to upload their own writing for possible inclusion in the magazine.

She rushes off to find some of the emails she has been sent, and starts reading me one. “‘I want to tell you how immensely relieved and excited I am that you and others are relaunching Spare Rib. I am utterly desperate for an antidote to the suffocating proliferation of vacuous crud that spews from every vein of the media, and I know that many of my friends feel the same.’ That’s honestly absolutely representative of the people who have got in touch with us,” she says.

Charlotte Raven

Charlotte Raven: the magazine will launch later in the year, but she hopes to have its website up in July. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Raven wants to leave behind what she sees as a 1990s form of feminism, where “you could just be as superficial as you liked, and you could call yourself a feminist, and still be obsessed with shoes. I think you’ve got to just draw a line under that and say it’s better not to be obsessed with shoes, actually.” Does she think Spare Rib can get feminism back on course? “Yeah! Absolutely! Without a doubt,” she says. “It will take a while, but it feels like the right moment suddenly. I don’t know why. But it feels like there’s a wind behind us.”



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