Who is your feminist icon?
I am not too keen on the trade in icons, which I think exploits the ignorant and gullible among us. An icon is a sacred image that is replicated thousands upon thousands of times, until there is a copy of it exposed and venerated in every room of every home and in every public place. If you attend a religious service in Russia, for example, you may see women of my age kneeling and prostrating themselves before icons, kissing them and squandering their hard-earned copecks on tapers to light before them. Perish the thought that feminism should be infested with icons. No human being, not even the most valiant feminist, deserves to be elevated to divine status so that others abuse themselves before her. Journobabble about "High Priestesses of feminism" and such is designed to reduce the feminist movement to the status of superstitious cult, but it will have to accomplish this aim without my assistance.
If what this question really means is: "Who are the living feminists you most respect?" it can be answered thus (in no particular order): Ti- Grace Atkinson, Florynce Kennedy, Anne Oakley, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Helena Kennedy, Juliet Mitchell, Selma James, the Guerilla Girls, Dacia Maraini, Helene Cixous, Orlan, Adrienne Rich, Bea Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Jo Freeman, bell hooks, Nancy Chodorow, Audre Lorde, Charlotte Bunch, Phyllis Chesler, Josepha Grieve, Janice Raymond, Alison Jaggar, Terry Lovell, Mary Daly, Madonna, Janice Raymond, Iris Marion Young, Nina Simone, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Monique Wittig, Gisele Halimi, Mehry Manoutcherian, Luce Irigaray, Natalya Malakhovskaya, Tatyana Mamonova, Sheila Rowbotham, Ellen Frankfort.
How do you define feminism?
I don't. Definitio est negatio. To define is to limit. Feminism is a habit of thought that is still taking shape within a razor-wire tangle of paradox; I do not know which way it will go. It may be that women will eventually opt for the cyborg option and vote, like the House of Lords, for their own abolition. This I would not do, because I am a child of the Fifties and the born body warts and all is a central value in my moral system. I would fight for reality over virtuality any time, but I am old. Although I am possibly condemned to remain on Earth for the next 40 years or so, my self will be considered irrelevant, and my views quaint, old- fashioned and retrograde, at least until the cyborgs are wiped out by internecine cyberterrorism and we find ourselves back where we started. Then the plot that was thought to have been lost will be found, safe and sound.
If I must define feminism, I must do so without issuing a set of commandments. Historically, radical movements have dissipated too much of their limited resources of energy in rooting out heterodoxy, so the last thing I would want to do is suggest a framework for doing just that. A feminist is one who considers herself first and foremost a woman and identifies primarily with other women. Before she is of any race or nationality or creed, any age set or social class or political party or sexual orientation or profession, she is a woman, and her loyalty is to women.
If you had to name one person who has set back the feminist movement most in the last 30 years, who would it be?
To answer this I would have to admit that feminism has been set back in the last 30 years which, in view of the fact that the last 30 years have seen a veritable explosion of feminist activity, would be quixotic. There has never been any shortage of opponents of feminism and the most insidious among them are those who mouth pro-feminist sentiments at the same time as they divide woman against woman and demand more and more from women who are already running full tilt in order to stay on the spot. The most immediate and effective enemy British feminism has is the Labour Government, which points to the number of women Labour MPs as a way of proving its claim to political correctness beyond doubt, so that it can pursue anti-woman policies and beat up on single mothers and teachers and nurses with impunity.
What is your reaction to "post-feminism"?
Post-feminism does not actually exist because we are still in the phase of pre-feminism. The coinage is a misuse, much as "post-colonial" used to describe a system that is still colonial in root and branch. In these "post" times, imperialist exploitation, in the guise of lending hard currencies to nations without them, and exacting compound interest, is bleeding the colonised nations white. Just so, capitalism is using women, as a completely biddable, entirely expendable workforce, to build the very systems that oppress them. Women, like other colonised peoples, still have a long climb ahead of them to freedom and self-determination.
Do you regret your critical article about the motivation of Mother Teresa, in The Independent some years ago?
In the Heroes and Villains series in The Independent's Magazine for 22 September 1990 I nominated Mother Teresa as my villain. It was not her motivation that I questioned. That was always crystal clear. She cared for the poor of Calcutta not for love of them or out of commitment to any ideal of social justice, but for love of Christ. Others more distinguished and better informed have since written about Mother Teresa in greater detail.
My only regret is that in 1990 I did not have the information on Mother Teresa's activities, her political allegiances, her financial dealings, the sub-standard care delivered by her nuns, and her obstruction of other charitable initiatives, that has since come to light. Mother Teresa is a modern, media-fed icon, in whose image (as distinct from her reality) the gullible and guilty faithful have invested all their own longing for virtue. It will be interesting to see which way the Vatican will jump in the matter of her beatification, because all the relevant information has been laid before the Holy See. My own feeling is that the Catholic authorities will assess whether canonising Mother Teresa will give the Church more grief than not canonising her would, and act accordingly.
Your comments on programmes such as Late Review are usually ungenerous and often unpleasantly ad hominem (or ad feminam). I shed no tears over the unappealing Suzanne Moore, her cleavage or her welcoming shoes. That at least was funny. But "Tom Hanks has a face like a King Edward potato" and "What is the point of Mary Steenburgen?" are neither amusing nor interesting. So in a similar vein, can I ask you: What is the point of Germaine Greer?
Movie stars who are cast as romantic leads are supposed to be attractive; if they are unattractive the point is material and the criticism is justified. As Mark Lawson is invariably on the point of interrupting me I have to make my points succinctly, so they come out brutal. What I really wanted to say was that with a mouth like that, Tom Hanks is bound to be a slimy kisser. Just look at the fumbled (un)climactic kiss at the end of You've Got Mail. A million dollars couldn't get Meg Ryan to put her head in a position where those wet, wobbly lips might come down on hers.
Suzanne Moore may be unattractive to you, but she is not a movie star and criticism of her appearance was not justified in the same way. My intention was to say of her things that are easily verifiable and not actionable, and do not invade her privacy, to pay her back for saying of me things that were untrue and were actionable and represented a gross intrusion of privacy. The newspaper paid the damages, but I did not intend to let Moore get away scot free. The chastisement has done her nothing but good. As for the point of "Germaine Greer", damned if I know.
Since animals are nowadays understood to have rights, how about men? You know, to education, employment, treatment under the NHS.
I agree that men are animals and as such are entitled to humane treatment and should not be trapped or shot or bred for food or fur. Their access to education depends upon their capacity to profit by it. Nobody, male or female, has any right to employment. As for medical treatment, as men control the medical profession, if men had wanted to spend their lives under the doctor as women do, they would have made sure that they did. As it is, they make sure that they do not, by refusing pointless procedures such as mass screening for prostate cancer. If you want your life medicalising, I'm sure it can be arranged, but life under the doctor is a good deal less pleasant than you appear to imagine.
Questions sent by: Andrew Schofield, Cambridge; Douglas Blane; David Blair, Watford; Claire Follain, Jersey
Tony Banks, followed by Eileen Drewery
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