In conversation with Joan Smith

I was privileged to speak with novelist, essayist, columnist and human rights campaigner Joan Smith about her fiction and non-fiction writing, long walks, and combating men’s violence against women. 

It was the non-fiction bestseller Misogynies(1989) that brought me to Joan’s work after she spoke up for women’s free expression in the summer of 2019, when a handful of brave souls were putting their head above the parapet regarding trans extremism. The book is a series of crisp essays which has never been out of print. Joan had published two novels before she wrote Misogynies. When people asked her what she was writing, she would tell them, and they would say “what’s that?” 

“I thought of writing a book about the so-called Yorkshire Ripper case, but I decided not to because then you’re writing true crime. It’s important to fit that case into a larger framework which is about the extraordinary reach of hatred and fear of women, so that’s why I wrote the book. When it came out the reaction was extraordinary. The first run sold out before publication. It got a lot of attention. The Sunday Telegraph commissioned a review under a female pseudonym by, I think it was, a Cambridge don. It was dripping with class contempt and loathing. He claimed Joan Smith had to be a pseudonym because nobody could be called Smith.” 

We laugh. It’s too absurd, and an interesting glimpse into how culture has changed since I was a child. 

“And the Telegraph ran a piece which said something along the lines of ‘Joan Smith doesn’t realise that the horrible ideology she espouses in this book leads straight to the gas chamber.’” 

Despite regularly being compared to a racist war criminal for defending women’s rights, I find this a shocking reversal, more remarkable as it was published in a broadsheet. Joan has had decades of it.  

“I’ve had quite a bit of that over the years, accusing me of hating all kinds of people—mainly men—because I wrote a book about people hating women. It is the most extraordinary reversal.”

Since 1989, has misogyny progressed, or is it a form of eternal male fascism which isn’t going anywhere, I ask?

“I think I made one mistake when I was thinking about it and doing the research for the book. I rather naively hoped that it was a hangover from previous centuries and that things were actually going to get better. As women emerged into having full personhood, which we were denied for so many centuries, I thought ‘these are archaic views which will eventually wither away as everyone gets used to some form of equality between the sexes.’ That was completely wrong, unfortunately. But I think there’s an element of this which is about the power of the status quo. My generation and older, who grew up with an unconscious assumption that men were the superior sex—even if they’d never thought about it or interrogated it—just assumed that that state of affairs was natural, and when the status quo was challenged and overturned, a lot of them reacted as thought it was absolutely terrible, that something had been taken away from them. And now we are in an existential struggle for the right to be women and name ourselves as women.”

I suggest it’s become even more extreme. Men feel they have to reduce us to a concept, then claim that they own us, because they literally can’t cope with our separate existence as sexed beings who are different to them.

“I wrote a short comment piece for the Guardian about the response to Maradona’s death. I was really frustrated by what happened when he died. A lot of men will now say they condemn domestic violence, it’s awful, but then when a men with his history dies everybody goes dewy-eyed. I think if you condemn DV in theory, but then give someone a pass because they happen to be famous and you admire what they do, that’s not really condemning domestic abuse at all. And I was so frustrated by that. This is happening again and again. How far we have to go. Most ‘right thinking people’ will condemn DV and agree that there should be more resources for victims, that we’ve got to take it more seriously. But when they’re faced with Maradona in that video clip—and his previous history—or when Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, people jump to make excuses for them. I think there’s an attitude that ‘OK, these men are flawed, but isn’t that part of the heroic personality? Yes, it’s regrettable that they behave like this to women, but it’s all part of the heroic character.’ Really it’s making excuses for abuse.”

Joan’s most recent book is Home Grown: how Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists. It explores the link between violence in the home, and escalation to public acts of terrorism. When invited into New Scotland Yard to talk to community groups, she ran into the new head of counter-terrorism command. 

“He said ‘I’m really interested in your book because what we’re seeing more and more is that we’re getting young men engaged in terrorism who have a very weak affiliation to any ideology.’ I wasn’t surprised in the least – my argument is that these ideologies encourage & ‘justify’ pre-existing violent impulses.”

I ask whether the policy implications of this are beginning to filter through, and Joan is confident that they are. 

“I met with Lord Carlisle when he was reviewing the Prevent programme. The book was shortlisted for the Airey Neave Memorial Book Prize, and commended by the five male judges. But the most significant development is very recent – Counter-Terrorism Policing have reviewed data on individuals referred to the Prevent programme and found high levels of domestic abuse in their histories. It’s ground-breaking, and already leading to changes in how risk is assessed.”

At the same time, Joan says she didn’t set out to write books saying very controversial things. “With the Yorkshire Ripper ‘investigation’, I thought women were dying because of underlying attitudes, and later people were dying because of the failure to connect terrorism to other forms of male violence. If you have a powerful idea which isn’t being noticed, you have to write about it. If it means the state finally puts more resources into getting women & kids out of violent households and away from dangerous men, it will be worth it. When police were called to a DV incident, the children used to be treated as witnesses. Now they’re regarded as victims as well. It’s a really significant change.”

We talk about celebrating the incremental wins, and keeping the spirits up when dealing with the relentlessly horrifying materials that come with the subject area. 

“I have PTSD and I thought it was because, on a couple of occasions, I’ve been very close to terrorist attacks. I was at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when a bomb went off in the next street and killed three people. In 1999, I walked past a gay pub in Soho shortly before a bomb planted by a neo-Nazi went off. But when Peter Sutcliffe died last year, and during the lockdown, I had time to think, and I realised my PTSD goes back to reporting the Sutcliffe murders. Over a period of 24 hours in the week when Jaqueline Hill was murdered, I interviewed three of the surviving victims. It was horrendous for them – there was no training then in how to interview distressed people. I had to work it out for myself, and I also didn’t realise the effect it would have on me. It has continued. I spent a year researching and writing about some of the most violent men you can imagine for Home Grown, and it does have a very profound effect. It’s vicarious trauma, not that you’re actually injured yourself but an accumulation of hearing about awful, almost unimaginable things. I understand that now – when you start to recognise symptoms like panic attacks and hyper vigilance, you can begin to deal with them.”

“There is a downside. When I decided to become involved in the issue of trans extremism, I was very aware of how many women were afraid to speak out. It had consequences for their jobs, their friendships. I thought it was important to get involved and say to other women—what’s happening is really, really awful. We have to stand up against it, and there are a lot of us.” 

“I think it’s essential when you’re taking on this kind of campaign to be aware that it will have real physical and emotional effects on you, and to look for solidarity from other women involved in the cause, and to look after yourself. There are times when you can’t do it, when you think ‘I can’t get involved in this right now.’”

“When you have a history, like mine, of observing misogyny over a long period of time, to see one organisation after another deny that women exist, and using this shifty language, is infuriating.” I ask whether she has ever seen purported human rights organisations clamp down on one group’s speech, as they have in recent years?

“I don’t think I have, and one thing that really concerns me is how silent most of the free expression organisations have been. I chaired the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee for four years and we were absolutely clear about the importance of free expression at that time. There’s a tendency to think ‘authoritarian governments are terrible for putting people in prison for writing things,’ but it’s not just governments and unpleasant regimes who don’t like free expression. Now what’s happening is a really overt attempt to intimidate writers like JK Rowling. I think both English and Scottish PEN have been really mealy-mouthed. I’m shocked by their failure to come out and say ‘this is a concerted campaign of bullying against one of our most successful & admired authors, who is also a major philanthropist.’”

“I’m also increasingly angry with the Labour Party. I’ve been a member for years, but left under Jeremy Corbyn because I don’t like hard left authoritarianism, and I was shocked by the antisemitism which seemed to mushroom in the party when he was leader. I left in 2019, then once Labour lost the next election and it was clear there would be a new leader, I rejoined at the beginning of last year. I had hopes for Kier Starmer, that he would bring some reasonableness and sanity back to the party. But I’m really, really dismayed by his silence on both JK Rowling—who was a major donor to the party—and also his failure to stand up for Rosie Duffield.

“I don’t know if Starmer realises yet how many women are angry and disappointed. It’s history repeating itself. He’s already seen what happens when any kind of attack on a particular group is not dealt with at a very early stage. And now the same thing is happening again, over women who speak out against trans extremism. He remains silent. It’s shocking.”

I ask Joan about studying Classics.

“It was the best thing I could possibly have done. I found the Romans more interesting and my degree is in Latin. It seemed to me that the ancient Greeks mostly had women under control, keeping them in a separate part of the house called the gynaeceum. Apart from occasional examples like Sappho, it was a very male dominated culture. But in Rome they had endless problems with opinionated women, I’m glad to say. When I read Juvenal’s satire Against Women, he complains that you can’t go to a dinner party in Rome these days without some woman sitting next to a general and telling him what he’s doing wrong. When you go to Pompeii it’s clear that women owned shops and ran businesses, it was a culture where women were taking a much more active role. Of course, there was a lot of misogyny in Roman culture, in particular the lyric poets whom I kind of like, but at the same time I think ‘oh come on, why do they all have a terrible girlfriend?’ So having that from a state education, being able to look at what was happening two thousand years ago, and begin to see patterns, was essential to everything I’ve done since.” 

Joan can take a news story and go on a deep dive thanks to this historic pattern-recognition.

“I come from a very working class Northern family, and by complete accident I got an incredibly good education—such as I might have got at a boys’ public school—because it was still possible to do Latin at a state school. Not Greek, I had to learn that at University, but I started learning Latin at twelve at Grammar School, and I absolutely loved it from the first moment. I wanted to immerse myself in this amazing culture which was opening out in front of me. One of my favourite writers to this day is Tacitus. When I started writing fiction it was quite successful and I was being interviewed a lot. People would ask who were my favourite authors & I’d say Tacitus, Catullus.” 

Next I ask her whether she was, or felt part of, the second wave feminist movement?

“I grew up in a time when I was mystified by everything. My father was a council gardener and he was an autodidact. So I grew up in a household where, once I was eleven, he gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto and said ‘I don’t agree with this but it’s very important and it’s had a huge impact, so you ought to know about it.’ I just thought that was normal. He and I discussed books all the time. He said ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re working class, it doesn’t matter that you’re a girl, you can do anything.’ I went blithely into situations expecting that this would be the general view.”

What a dad. We hoot with laughter, knowing how widely this view is not held.

“When I was eight or nine at primary school, I remember queuing up to see the teacher and a boy in front saying ‘but you can’t do that, you’re just a girl’ and I replied ‘I’d rather be a girl than a twit like you’. Even when I got my first job in journalism at a paper in Blackpool, they said ‘as part of your training you have to go and sit in the magistrates’ courts but we know you’re looking forward to doing features and fashion’ and I said ‘no, I’m not.’ I was just surprised all the time. It was a combination of asking ‘why do people have these expectations of me because I’m a woman?’ but also having this historical background—it’s been going on a very long time.”

I suggest that fathers are important in enabling daughters to swerve the conditioning.

“Absolutely. The second wave was full of books about mothers and daughters. I actually had a very difficult mother whom I didn’t get on with, and my father was such a huge influence on me. He was my link to the outside world. My mother didn’t work outside the home. He came home and brought into the house all this knowledge of the outside world. I think the second wave did slightly overlook the significance of fathers.”

I ask about her Loretta Lawson crime series. While writing, was she thinking ‘I want to draw attention to misogyny, I want to help people to see what I can see, and I want to do it thorough this medium’?

“I think there’s a difference between what you think on the larger scale and when you’re writing fiction, which I absolutely love. I’m not consciously thinking ‘this is feminist and I want to draw attention to issues’, but in terms of what I try to do in fiction, overall, and certainly when I came up with Loretta, I wanted her to feel at odds with the world in a lot of the ways I did. That’s there. I wrote a couple of the novels before I wrote Misogynies, and I think they’re in a way companion pieces. I love writing fiction, non-fiction and journalism, and I think they all feed into each other.”

We talk about sex denialism.

“What worries me about the trans debate is the reinforcing of gender stereotypes. I was a tomboy as a child. I would be, with the kind of father I had. In some ways I was always thinking ‘why can’t I do that, just because I’m a girl?’ I had a treehouse in the back garden and I wanted to be a cowgirl, but I also loved dressing in my mum’s clothes and clattering about the house in her heels. Teenage girls seem to think that if they reject what it takes to ‘be a girl’, they must be a boy. We spent such a long time trying to expand what you could be, now it seems to be narrowing down again.”

Also problematic is the “redefinition of disagreement as hate. I disagree with lots of people, it doesn’t mean I hate them. I wrote an essay for The Radical Notion and one of the things I say is that I’m an atheist but it doesn’t mean I hate Christians, it means I disagree with them. Similarly with the trans debate, I don’t think that humans can change sex, but that doesn’t mean I hate people who are trans or don’t think they should have the same rights as the rest of us. It’s fine to disagree with them.”

We end on a hopeful note: there are signs that trans extremism will not prevail.

“It’s important to keep that in mind, because this is very wearing. I’ll be first person to say that it’s exhausting and dispiriting. I’m lucky, having spent so much time reading Greek and Roman literature: it does encourage you to take a long view. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath and step back. You marshal your resources and come back into the fight. Take a long view—we are right about this and, in the end, it will be OK, but it’ll be difficult on the way.”

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