Charlotte Raven: Is she the new voice of feminism?

In her desire to reboot feminism for the 21st century the Nineties’ ‘enfant terrible’ shows she doesn’t lack ambition

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The Independent Online

A new online magazine promises to give today’s women “top tips” on promoting female solidarity while “all around are goading us into bitch fests and cat fights”. The need has never been greater. Shame then that Charlotte Raven’s Feminist Times has already broken ranks by brewing up a thoroughly unsisterly row in its first week.

Raven, as uncompromising as her geometrically perfect bobbed hair, has eschewed all advertising because of the frequently demeaning female images it uses. But she welcomes, it would seem, what critics consider “woman-hating” editorial on the benefits of forced sterilisation. Such was the furore, she was forced to pull the piece within hours of publication.

But then Raven, now in her mid-forties and suffering from the early effects of the degenerative Huntingdon’s disease, is a born-to-shock, one-time cohort of those other ageing controversialists Toby Young and Julie Burchill. Back in the Nineties, she had affairs with both. She was Young’s editorial assistant on the much-hyped but now defunct Modern Review magazine (whose strapline was “low culture for high brows”), and worked closely with Burchill, its co-founder. They posed together dressed all in black, revelling in the notoriety of the status of Britain’s leading celebrity lesbian couple. The clique drank Bollinger and admitted to snorting cocaine at the Groucho Club while loudly discussing Marxist interpretations of Madonna’s lyrics.

Raven later became editor of the mag once Young had left and tried to close it down. But then Burchill married Raven’s brother, while she later got hitched to film-maker Tom Sheahan, with whom she has two young children. Rebellion gave way to what Raven herself calls a classic nuclear family unit.

Now, after a decade of getting cross with the likes of Grazia and Mail Online, Raven is fighting back against the Hello-reading generation of feminists. She rails against the idea that “you could call yourself a feminist and still be obsessed with shoes”. She aims to replace what she dubs the “marketing” version of feminism – a consumerist tag placed on anything targeted at women however demeaning – with something genuine, “spirited and soulful”.

Yet when the Prime Minister can number only one powerful woman in his entire government and still brands himself a “feminist” what exactly does 21st century feminism mean?

While she attempts to answer that question, Raven has funded the magazine launch with donations from “members”. And indeed such is the interest in her project that after her appearance on Thursday’s Woman’s Hour with Jenni Murray, the Feminist Times fundraising page crashed under the burden of traffic. It remains to be seen, though, whether someone who can hyper-intellectualise dealing with toddlers or wearing a pinny, can edit a “girls’ club” magazine for women who don’t use words such as “simulacra” in their everyday discourse.

It sits uncomfortably with her assertion that she’s more interested in the effect on women of benefit cuts than their under-representation on FTSE boards. And will her desire to make headlines – such as with the ill-advised sterilisation piece but also another on a man’s love for porn – also hold her back from appealing to a wider audience? There are also pieces on burning your shapewear and a new kind of feminist agony aunt (offering personal and political advice to a breast cancer sufferer) – but will these sustain a movement? Can the clunky, old-fashioned design cut the mustard against jazzier competitors?

Raven originally wanted to call her publication Spare Rib, in tribute to the pioneering feminist magazine that enjoyed a Seventies heyday and foundered in the shoulder-pad Nineties. But Raven fell out with its founders Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, who refused to take part in what Rowe dismissed as a “commodity”. They even threatened Raven with legal action if she revived the name.

Raven has also taken issue with that other feminist idol, Caitlin Moran, whom she accused of using “a load of good gags” to conceal her “battle with narcissism” in her bestselling book How to Be a Woman. To be fair, Raven concedes her own narcissistic tendencies, a trait perhaps borne out by the number of images of her in the Feminist Times to the virtual exclusion of anyone else. She recalls how her mother brought her up to say “whatever came to mind and was never once upbraided for interrupting. When they told me off for doing it at school, I was shocked.”

The Feminist Times is not a bad title, highlighting the fact we live in a decidedly unfeminist age. Raven’s solution to the disturbing decline of “interesting women in public life” is to hold a series of “immersive events with a political edge”. Little light is shed on what this might mean apart from a possible revival of consciousness-raising groups and a fanciful Restitution Ball where “penitent” men (journalist Rod Liddle and politician George Galloway were cited as potential candidates) would serve drinks, sweep up, keep fit and fret over their work/life balance. What is clear is that she burns with ambition not merely to launch a magazine but to start a movement.

Raven’s determination not to let her condition become an obstacle is, for all her tendency to grandstand, inspiring. Huntingdon’s causes involuntary, uncontrollable movements and even personality changes, and already her voice no longer has the super-confident timbre of her youth. Where once her look was birdsnest black hair, plucked arched eyebrows and a “don’t you dare” grin, a more sombre air clings to her now. True, the once all-black Issey Miyake uniform is discarded – she professes to hate black now – in favour of softer colours and patterns. But this is a woman adjusting to horrifically changed circumstances. Maybe it’s clearer now what really matters.

She’s given up make-up – which she says always made her feel uncomfortable – but waxes her legs. Painful bikini waxes, though, have been abandoned; the whole politics of beauty is surely a fertile area to explore. “I’ve been obsessed with clothes and my hair,” she says, “but it didn’t make me happy. The hidden truth is that consumerism isn’t a path to fulfilment.”

Her father, another Huntingdon’s sufferer, can no longer speak, but has signalled support for her new venture. In her childhood he made enough money from publishing magazines for the duty-free industry to educate her privately and finance a comfortable life. Raven says she and her “Marxist mother”, who joined the Militant Tendency at the same time, were meanwhile sitting at home in Streatham, south London, and “cursing” him. She feels guilty about that now. In truth, as a bundle of energy, brains and attitude she has probably never been an easy person to live with. Motherhood and a happy marriage though seem to have softened her – her illness perhaps even more so.

It is clear that there is an interest – a need – for a renaissance of the feminist voice. As Raven points out female unemployment outstrips male, sexual assault often still goes unpunished, austerity measures hurt women the most, and there are still woefully few women in Parliament or at the top of the professions and the media.

She also hints that perversely her illness has given her the impetus to try to do something about it. “If you get to my age and find out you might not live very much longer it brings the whole thing into view,” she says.

Immediately after her diagnosis she contemplated suicide – and even wrote a letter to her daughter, then her only child, about her decision. But she changed her mind after visiting a community of Huntingdon’s sufferers in Venezuela and seeing sufferers still able to enjoy their families, however undignified their lives might become.

“The more worried I am about the future, the more I don’t want to be on my own,” she says. “I need the common bonds of humanity.”  

A Life In Brief

Born: Charlotte Raven, 1969

Family: Father was a successful publisher. Mother a radical Marxist and member of the Militant Tendency. Born and grew up in Streatham, south London. Married film-maker Tom Sheahan in 2003. Two children: Anna, born in 2004, John 2010

Education: Attended a private day school. Degree from Manchester University. Masters degree in Critical Theory from Sussex University

Career: Launched her career as a journalist by contributing to the cultural magazine, Modern Review, founded by Julie Burchill and Toby Young in 1991. It closed in 1995 after her affair with Burchill. Diagnosed with Huntingdon’s disease in 2006. This April she announced the launch of a new magazine, Feminist Times.

What she says: “If you get to my age and find out you might not live very much longer it brings the whole thing into view.”

What they say: “I’d known Julie for 11 years and seen dozens of New Best Friends come and go, but Charlotte was different. She introduced Julie to some of the ideas she’d picked up on her critical theory course and Julie experienced a political reawakening, becoming a kind of Marxist feminist.” Toby Young