Interview in Collaboration with Latitude Festival: Catherine Mayer on Journalism, the Women's Equality Party, and her Latitude Panel

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There's something extra special for you today, as I've teamed up with the wonderful team promoting the newly-renamed 'Speakeasy' literary stage at Latitude Festival to bring you an interview with the fantastic Catherine Mayer, who will be there as part of the 'Stories for Rebel Girls' panel. Catherine is the co-founder of the Women's Equality Party, as well as, in her own words, a 'recovering journalist' and author.

Latitude is, without a doubt, my favourite festival (I've been three times and never not loved it), mixing your favourite music with literary discussion, theatre and circus performances, comedy, dance, and anything else your little heart can dream of. The entire event feels like a fairytale, with rainbow sheep, mysteries lying in the woods, and dazzling water displays. If you're going to be at Henham Park during 13-16th July, I urge you to lounge around the Speakeasy, where you'll feel at home surrounded by your fellow word-lovers and poets. For more information, visit Latitude's website!

On with the interview!

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Magic & Musings:
Thank you for chatting with me today, Catherine, and congratulations on the Women’s Equality Party’s first general election! Thank you for bringing this conversation to centre stage. Now, to start with, can you introduce yourself for anyone who doesn’t know you? What is it that you do?

Catherine Mayer:
You tell me. I’m a journalist—or, more accurately, a recovering journalist. I worked in journalism for three decades, most recently as Europe Editor and then Editor at Large of TIME magazine. In 2015 I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party and although I still write, I spend big chunks of my time campaigning, not least for a media culture that challenges damaging stereotypes. I’m also the author of three books. The latest, Attack of the 50 Ft Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World!, explains exactly how and why women are at best second-class citizens, globally and in the UK, and looks forward to a gender-equal world. I even take readers on a tour of that world, Equalia.

Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into journalism? Is this something you studied formally or did you come across it as a hobby?

Catherine Mayer:
My career path was… unusual. Young and unemployed, I got a cash-in-hand job at The Economist, helping the marketing department to log orders for their branded diaries. My new colleagues noticed that I had a talent for writing and set me to composing those mail shots you may remember from pre-digital days… “Dear X, You are obviously a man of discerning taste. How better to signal your general amazingness and social superiority than by plonking a big, red, leather-bound diary stamped with The Economist logo on your desk in your enormous corner office?” I became a marketing executive and that made my subsequent move to my first job in journalism, on the editorial staff of The Economist, even more unlikely… The vast majority of Economist journalists were male, posh, public school, and Oxbridge—and I was none of those things—and in those days there was also a strict division between the commercial and editorial sides of the business. When this odd young American woman with punk-ish eye makeup applied for a job in editorial, they interviewed me more out of curiosity than faith in my abilities. That wasn’t the only twist in my work history. While at The Economist, I met the London correspondent of Der Spiegel in the lift—he had an office in the building. I spoke German to him, and we became friends and a decade later, when someone came to him, planning to start a rival publication to Der Spiegel and looking for German-speaking correspondents in London, he thought of me. I ended up as a foreign correspondent for a big German news weekly for more than a decade until TIME poached me and I returned to my American roots.

Magic & Musings:
When did you first start sharing your writing and did you have to overcome any self-confidence barriers in order to get to that place?

Catherine Mayer:
I shared my writing from early childhood. Primary school teachers would ask me to write a few sentences, and I'd fill whole notebooks with stories. I wrote essays for my classmates and the scripts for school plays. Like many women, I’ve suffered from bouts of impostor syndrome, but I’ve always known I could write.

Magic & Musings:
In 2015 you proposed the idea of a Women’s Equality Party and went on to co-found it with Sandi Toksvig. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and how the idea came about for you? What are your aims with the party for the country at large?

Catherine Mayer:
Sandi and I had no plan to found a party. During the 2015 WOW—The Women of the World Festival I suggested that such a party would be a good idea, not that we would set it up. But then so many people got enthused that we decided to give it a go. The party has one overarching aim—gender equality, plus seven core objectives, a trio of central strategies and a raft of brilliant policies. The objectives are equal representation, equal pay, equality in education, health and media, shared parenting and caregiving and an end to violence against women and girls. The strategies are to win seats, to change the other parties by getting them to work with us or adopt—or steal—our policies, and to foster a new generation of activists. We delivered our 2017 manifesto to other parties with a note saying “Please steal me”. It was the only manifesto to understand social care not as an unfortunate expense but the potential motor of the economy; the only manifesto to value the work women do, paid and unpaid; and the only manifesto to set out fully costed plans for universal childcare and shared parental leave. Women everywhere are at best second class citizens—many are doubly or triply disadvantaged by factors such as race, age, sexuality and disability. No country in the world is gender equal. We aim to see the countries of the UK become the first to reach that happy state and to reap the rewards in terms of economic growth and a society more at ease with itself.

Magic & Musings:
As discussed, you also have three published books. Do you ever find yourself stuck in a rut when writing and, if you do, what do you do when you’re in that place?

Catherine Mayer:
Sometimes you can work through writer’s block, and all journalists are used to deadlines that give us no choice in the matter, but when there is the option to defer, it’s less painful to circle back to the problem via sections of the book or article that flow more easily. I write better in the morning, so even as a news journalist, rather than pulling all-nighters, I'd go to bed for an hour and then wake myself up again. If I have a book to write, I set the alarm at 5am and work every day for at least a few hours, without exception, until the first draft is finished.


Magic & Musings:
You’re on the ‘Stories for Rebel Girls’ panel at Latitude Festival this year! Are there any topics in particular you’re looking forward to discussing with your fellow panelists? (For those reading, these are Naomi Alderman, Elif Shafak, and Sam Baker!)

Catherine Mayer:
I’m glad I’ve met Elif before, otherwise I might just stare at her in admiration. Naomi Alderman and our chair Sam Baker are extraordinary too. They all write fiction so I’m the odd-woman-out, though of course Attack of the 50 Ft Women does contain the sci-fi chapter on Equalia. Fiction, and in particular science fiction, is an incredibly useful tool not only for understanding the past and present but glimpsing the future. A sense of possible futures is vitally important for rebel women and girls, and this is something I would like to discuss.

Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Catherine Mayer:
Most days I lie on the floor and perform ungainly and inaccurate Pilates exercises. Aren’t you glad you asked? A bottle of pale ale in the evening generally unlocks another good hour of writing. I write in the room next to my husband's music studio so I don’t need to put on an album… I hear them being made. He’s a guitarist, music producer and founder member of Gang of Four.

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out writing?

Catherine Mayer:
That female perspectives and stories are as important as the male variety, but you have to be prepared to fight to get them out there. In 2015 a survey of biographies published in the US found that more than three-quarters had been written by men, 71.1 per cent had male subjects, and 87 per cent of the biographers were men and only six per cent of male biographers attempted female subjects. Men tend not to buy books by women or about women, but why would they? Our whole culture tells them we’re less significant than they are. There’s a vicious circle in which stories by and about women are deemed uninteresting by men and so not marketed to men or given publicity in media consumed by men, reinforcing the idea that women do little and have little to say. The biggest global inequality is between men and women—that’s a pretty huge, serious topic, right? Yet articles unpacking this inequality most often are banished to the lifestyle pages.

Magic & Musings:
If you knew the whole world was listening and you could only say one thing to them, what would it be?

Catherine Mayer:
Seize the turbulence. A lot of people are frightened by the state of the world and they’re right to be so, but all the significant leaps forward for women, such as winning the vote, came at times of tumult not stability.


Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song?

Catherine Mayer:
As you may have gathered, I’m a fan of science fiction—or speculative fiction if you prefer. So obviously I recommend Naomi Alderman’s The Power (You can read my review of The Power here!). And I’m keenly awaiting the final installment of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy. I’ve been too busy to go to the cinema and I’m probably the last person on earth not to have a subscription service such as Netflix but I did catch the documentary Weiner on a flight to the US recently and found it so breathtaking I watched it on the return flight as well. It’s about Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who became embroiled in serial sexting scandals and inadvertently triggered renewed interest in Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The pathology of the man is horribly fascinating and for a politics junkie like me, the inside look at his doomed 2013 campaign to be Mayor of New York is also gripping. As for music, as I’ve already mentioned, I hear a lot of live music gratis and whether I want to or not. Gang of Four has just been rehearsing in our music studio and I have the brilliant track 'To Hell with Poverty' on the brain… Particularly these lines: "In this land right now / Some are insane, and they're in charge”.

Magic & Musings:
There’s a lot of pressure with this next question, so take a deep breath! What one thing can we all do to change the world for the better?

Catherine Mayer:
Back women, in deed as well as word.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work?

Catherine Mayer:
My personal website is www.catherinemayer.co.uk and I’m on Twitter almost as much as Donald Trump. And please check out—and join!—the Women’s Equality Party www.womensequality.org.uk

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If you're at Latitude next weekend and fancy some literary badassery, head over to the Speakeasy. You'll be in for some debate, a sprinkling of poetry, a dash of fiction, and a whole lot of discussion! Find out more at Latitude's website and follow the lovely festival on Twitter and Instagram to join in with the fun if you can't quite make it there yourself.

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