At the Women’s Organisation, reaching out to women and sharing their stories and knowledge is a large part of what we do. It’s also what Opinion Editor of the Guardian Newspaper, Kira Cochrane has been doing in the research and development of her new book.
Modern Women: 52 Pioneers, Kira celebrates fifty-two ground-breaking women, from all walks of life, who have changed the world through their lives, work and actions.
Among Kira’s fifty-two pioneering women are activists and artists, directors and athletes, suffragettes and scientists, politicians and pilots and more. Together they form a collection of influential and inspiring women who have paved the way for change and equality in their own indomitable way.
We were lucky enough to get our hands on a copy, and we think that it is an incredibly inspiring book. Kira profiles fifty-two pioneering women, who have led and inspired revolutionary change for women through relentless endeavour. Our philosophy is that it’s important for women to inspire women, it can be difficult to identify role models, but Modern Women: 52 Pioneers has someone for everyone.
Kira took it upon herself to shine a spotlight on fifty-two incredible women, we were lucky enough to shine the spotlight back on Kira. Previously the Women’s Editor of The Guardian, author of novels The Naked Season and Escape Routes for Beginners, as well as writing the short book All the Rebel Women: An Account of the Fourth Wave of Feminism, we think that Kira Cochrane is a modern pioneer in her own right.
We spoke to Kira about her life, her work, her career and of course, her new book. In fact, we will actually be giving out some free copies over the coming weeks. Keep posted with our Facebook and Twitter pages to be in with a chance.
Kira’s book is out Thursday 2nd of March and available for order NOW – you can grab your copy here.
1) When did you become interested in women’s issues?
I was brought up by a single mother, who was widowed when I was two, and my other major influence as a child was my paternal grandmother, who had also been widowed in her thirties. They were both immensely, ferociously capable women, who had left school in their mid-teens, and lived through very difficult circumstances (my grandmother buried her husband, her first son, and her first grandson, my brother, who was run over when he was eight). So when I realised, probably at the age of about eight or nine, that some people considered women less intelligent or able than men - in any respect weaker - this seemed ludicrous.
Then, when I was in my mid-teens, one of my teachers gave me the book Eve Was Framed, by the barrister Helena Kennedy. It concerns sexism within the British legal system, and was the first proper feminist book I’d read - it prompted me to start reading much more widely, and while studying at Sussex University, I worked my way through their collection of feminist books.
2) Can you tell us a bit about your working background and how you ended up where you are now?
I wasn’t sure what to do after university - I was interested in being a writer and journalist, but was more drawn to the features side than the news side. One day I heard a radio ad for a new course at Brighton College of Technology, in magazine journalism, and decided to apply. It was a difficult year - I was completely broke, living in a slug-infested bedsit, working every second I wasn’t at college in a call centre, and running a cafe at a water sports centre (I did a lot of temporary jobs to get me through university, from working in a toilet duck factory to night cleaning in Primark).
I also did as much work experience as I could that year - my mother lives in Essex, just outside London, so I was lucky to be able to stay with her while doing these short stints. This confirmed for me that I didn’t want to work for a women’s magazine, but that I’d love to work for a newspaper (I think work experience might be even more important as a guide to what you don’t want to do, as to what you do want to do, and it had made me realise that I preferred the pace of a weekly or daily publication to a monthly one). When my college course came to an end, I decided to try freelancing, but I was nervous about it - I knew that you could pitch a piece in the morning, and, if you were fortunate enough to be commissioned, you might be asked to file the piece within two hours. Those tiny time frames terrified me, so I decided to send out my CV to all the specific newspaper sections that I’d like to work for, with a covering letter asking if they had any research projects they needed help with.
My CV ended up on the desk of Eleanor Mills, who was acting editor of the News Review section of The Sunday Times, and she and the permanent editor there, Sarah Baxter, were looking for an assistant for the section - within a few months of arriving, the staff member who was one step above me had left, and I took over her job, and was soon writing and editing pieces. I stayed there for a year and a half, before getting a book deal for two novels. It made me realise how important it is to put yourself out there, in a straightforward and professional way.
3) Do you have a particular career-highlight so far?
I love my job at the moment as Opinion editor of the Guardian, alongside my co-editor Katherine Butler - the Opinion desk is peopled with brilliant, funny, clever, inspiring writers and editors, so it’s a privilege to go into work each day. But prior to this, my stand out job was as Women’s editor of the Guardian. It was my dream job, and when Katharine Viner - now the editor of the paper, and then editor of the features section, G2 - rang me to say I’d got it, I remember running around my house, whooping with happiness.
4) Your new book, Modern Women: 52 Pioneers, is out detailing 52 pioneering women – what makes a woman pioneering?
My criteria for choosing the women in the book was that they had to be those who had helped build a more feminist and equal world; those who embody what we would now think of as modern and progressive values. They’re women who opened up the world for the women who came after them, whether that was the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman in space, at a time when there were genuine questions about whether a woman’s body could withstand this; or Jayaben Desai, leading the Grunwick strike, and protesting for the rights of migrant workers.
There’s a quote in the book from Maya Angelou - “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently” - and I think bravery (as distinct from fearlessness) is what defines all these women. It’s what enabled Sophie Scholl to speak out against the Nazis in Germany; Miriam Makeba to oppose apartheid in South Africa; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon to organise for gay rights in the US at a time when this was seriously dangerous. So in answer to the question of what makes a woman pioneering, courage is it, every time.
|Maya Angelou - Writer & Teacher|
There’s that quote from the US activist Marian Wright Edelman, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. When we think about the idea of entitlement, there’s clearly a huge confidence that some people have - mainly white, heterosexual, middle and upper middle class men - which is based on the fact that they’re able to look at the highest echelons of power, and, beyond that, at a huge range of appealing careers, and see themselves reflected back. They know they belong there, because they can see it. For women, and especially women of colour, LGBT women, and working class women, they’re far less represented in the public eye. I don’t think that elevating a few women solves this problem, but I do think that highlighting the stories of women who have succeeded on their own terms, in a huge variety of areas - activists, artists, writers, scientists - can help open up possibilities, and provide partial road maps.
6) Who is your ultimate pioneering woman and a standout from your book – the first woman you knew had to be in it?
There are so many women in there who I feel passionate about, from the writer and activist Audre Lorde to artists Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta; musician Nina Simone; writer and journalist Jan Morris; the peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee; environmentalist Wangari Maathai; abolitionist Harriet Tubman; and the extraordinary Ida B Wells, the first woman to own and edit a black newspaper in the US, a newspaper in which she began a campaign against lynching which made her famous.
One of the women whose story affected me most was Lee Miller, the US photojournalist. She survived being raped as a child, and went on to become a model for the surrealists, and a well-known portrait photographer. In the second world war, she was the only female photojournalist to see combat, and she was one of the first to reach Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, to record the human horror. She told her biographer, Carolyn Burke, in 1977, “I got in over my head. I could never get the stench of Dachau out of my nostrils” and suffered what seems to have been post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. Her work clearly took a huge toll on her, but she did it anyway, she bore witness with phenomenal resolve, and after her death more than 60,000 photographs and negatives were found in her attic.
|Lee Miller - Photojournalist|
I think we’re seeing a huge energy in the feminist movement at the moment - which is a reaction to a world which, in the last year, in many ways seems to have taken quite a few steps back. I’m not sure technology is the driving force, but it is a force that enables people to organise in a way that’s hugely necessary and important.
8) You touch on arguments surrounding whether we’re becoming complacent with retweeting, sharing, signing petitions but not actually doing anything – ‘clicktivists’, ‘slacktivists’ as they’re referred to. January saw nearly 5 million women take to the streets off the back of online organisation and conversation. Do you think there is still power in the internet as a means for real social change?
The internet is just a starting point, I think - it’s a brilliant organising tool, and without it it’s hard to imagine such an extraordinary mass mobilisation as the women’s march taking place. That march was organised in the space of just a few months, and along with the March on Washington, there were more than 600 marches in solidarity around the world. The internet was a powerful part of that movement. But it’s also really important that - as with the march itself - activism takes place beyond the web, beyond Twitter and Facebook, that we’re organising in our communities, that we work to protect essential services such as rape crisis centres and refuges for those escaping domestic violence, and that we’re meeting in real life to discuss what needs to happen next.
9) The Suffragettes began campaigning over a 100 years ago and we’re currently in the fourth wave of feminism, and although we’re moving in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. You say in your book that over the past few decades more and more feminist campaigners have dedicated themselves to highlighting women’s issues, which is what we as The Women’s Organisation do, and you as a women’s writer – do you think if we just keep doing what we do and make our voices heard, fourth-wave feminism can change the world?
Feminism has already changed the world, and I think today’s activists will continue to do so. What is more obvious than ever, right now, is the fact that progress isn’t always linear, and that it’s not enough for an advance to be made - we then have to fight to make sure it’s protected, that it isn’t rolled back. As the saying goes: “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
10) So your new book, Modern Women: 52 Pioneers, is out and available for pre-order, what’s next from here?
There’s a novel that I’ve been planning, but I don’t want to say more than that!
11) And as a final note, it’s our 21st birthday and our mission over the past 21 years has been to make a positive impact on the lives of women by reaching out and enhancing their role in their own lives, whether that be in the local communities, in business or in the wider world. Is there anything you would like to say to us, or organisations like us that continue this fight for equality?
Keep going! And have courage! It might not always seem like it, but I’m pretty sure the arc of history will bend in your favour.
This was one of our favourite interviews to date! A huge thank you to Kira Cochrane and her team.