“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in.” Roxane Gay
I’m probably twenty years older than Roxane Gay, and I haven’t even read her book, because I come from a generation of lazy feminists: the previous decade before I came of age had seen Betty Friedan, Erica Jong, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem. It felt like all those radical feminists had fought our battles for us, and we could just sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour when we joined the work force.
I started working in publishing in the late 1970s, and my own boss, the exceptional and rather splendid Norah Smallwood (who ran Chatto & Windus) was a woman. But there was no sisterhood: she didn’t much care for young women, and certainly didn’t want them to get on as well she had done. As an assistant I wasn’t invited to the sacred editorial meeting, while all the young male assistants were. She never had to justify herself, and when asked for a pay raise (my starting salary was £1800) she would suggest that you ask your father for help; she told the Rights Manager (now distinguished agent) Jane Gregory, “Girls without private incomes shouldn’t really go into publishing”.
So, already in my early twenties, chafing against that old fashioned Snipcock & Tweed style, I took myself off to New York, working very happily in the publishing industry there for six years. It seemed on the surface more modern, more dynamic. People talked about marketing, they seemed to want to sell books. But again, women didn’t seem to do quite as well as men, and there was quite a bit of the Rona Jaffe The Best of Everything ethos (Read it! Second best novel on women in publishing ever): a subtle misogynist atmosphere – mild sexual harassment, a lot of gentle bullying of younger women to sleep with older men for their careers, the extraordinary American attitude to maternity leave (I could hear the Executive Editor sobbing in her stall in the Ladies as she breast pumped away five weeks after the birth of her baby).
After six years I came home, to work at that bastion of 1980s male chauvinism, Collins – soon and sadly to become HarperCollins. What a place to have children (which I did), and maternity leave (soon I was weeping in the loo too, even though I had three months instead of three weeks off). Oddly it was relatively easy to get on: I do, though, remember being asked at a board meeting to put my balls on the table. Well, I was the only woman at the table, so he probably forgot I didn’t have them. But more women were beginning to get the big jobs in publishing all over, and there was the delightful invention in the 1990s of a monthly lunch called WIMP – Women in Media Publishing – which was full of supportive, amazing senior women. I lapped up their advice.
Then in 1997 I came to Penguin and like all bad feminists, I’ve been too busy to think about feminism in work and writing and publishing that much. I applaud the Bailey’s Prize; I lament the lack of reviews of books by women and that they are not more often written by women; I published the best novel ever about a woman in publishing; I started an imprint at Penguin, Fig Tree, whose aim was to mostly publish books by women, although I haven’t stuck to that. I try to help female colleagues get on.
All pretty mild stuff: and then just occasionally something happens that make my lazy feminist blood boil all over again and I feel I must DO SOMETHING. In December last year, the Guardian asked 13 publishers or editors to list their hits and misses of the year. All but two of the 13 they asked were men. I simply couldn’t believe that they (of all newspapers) could have done this in 2014. Publishing is dominated by women. Book readers are mostly women. Book editors are mostly women.
I made a fuss. And I’ll make a fuss again. So fight on, lazy or bad feminists. There’s always going to be that little something to fight for.
Juliet Annan is Publishing Director of Fig Tree and Penguin and has published among others Penelope Lively, Zoe Heller, India Knight, Kathryn Stockett and Marina Lewycka. She hates writing short biographies like this one, as she swears she has had a richer life than they can ever suggest.
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