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Catherine Mayer on Writing Attack of the Fifty Foot Women

Posted on 28th February 2017 by Sally Campbell & Martha Greengrass
Catherine Mayer has never been one to sit back and wait for the story. Having made her name as a journalist, first with The Economist and then eventually with TIME where she rose to become Editor at Large, she turned her attention to tackling the same issues on a larger canvas, publishing Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly and the royal biography, Charles: The Heart of a King. Now as she turns her attention to the challenges of contemporary feminism in Attack of the Fifty Foot Women she talks candidly to Waterstones about setting up her own political party, why women need a new manifesto and the classic works that have inspired her along the way.

When I couldn’t find a political party to vote for, I started one—the Women’s Equality Party (co-founded with Sandi Toksvig in 2015). When I can’t find a book that meets my requirements, I sometimes write one. Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly allowed me to tackle questions about why our expectations of age and ageing are changing and what this might mean for the world. With Charles: The Heart of a King I set out to write a political biography of the heir to the throne that would be free from the reverence and sensationalism that often fogs royal studies. My latest book, Attack of the Fifty Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World!, came about after I searched in vain for a single source that explained why women everywhere are still at best second-class citizens, surveyed the debates and strands within feminism, assessed the impact on gender roles of everything from the media to religion, and, crucially, thought about how a gender-equal society might actually look and feel. 

The book didn’t exist so it was necessary to invent it, but the search itself provided hours of pleasure, sending me back to feminist classics and helping me to discover newer texts. Revisiting Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was fascinating. It remains a great read, angry and hilarious, but it is also easy to pick out lines of thought, in 1970 only partially formed, that today make its author such a divisive figure in feminism. Decades ago, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to learn about American second-wave feminism. This time I found in its pages a greater appreciation for the achievements of my own mother, whose generation Friedan chronicled. I returned, with admiration, to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s groundbreaking 1992 essay Whose Story Is It, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill. Her work and texts by other writers of colour including Bell Hooks and Audre Lorde are essential for anyone hoping to understand “intersectionality”, the term given by Crenshaw to the ways in which factors such as race and gender intersect and intensify disadvantage and discrimination. The fight for gender equality can only succeed if it navigates these intersections.

 Among more recent publications about gender politics, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists is a model of clarity and brevity. Other unmissable books include Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens.

Fiction, too, gave me inspiration. It is no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale is climbing bestseller lists 32 years after Margaret Atwood first unveiled her dystopian vision of a totalitarian USA that subjugates women. By contrast, Ursula K le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, imagines a very different kind of world, in which gender plays no part. In an essay about her novel, Le Guin explained: “If men and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, equal legally and economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility and in self-esteem, then society would be a very different thing. What our problems might be, God Knows. I only know we would have them. But it seems likely that our central problem would not be the one it is now: the problem of exploitation—exploitation of the woman, of the weak, of the earth.” In Attack of the Fifty Foot Women, I go further, describing a gender equal world—and its problems and its joys—not as a work of science fiction but to show readers the future that could be ours. 




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