Q&A: Rosie Boycott

Baroness Boycott of Whitefield, the first woman to edit a UK broadsheet newspaper

Photo: UK Parliament – CC by 3.0

You co-founded legendary feminist magazine Spare Rib with Marsha Rowe in 1972, but didn’t stay long. Why?

I was there for two years exactly. It was during the miners’ strike and power cuts, so we wrote early editorials by candlelight. By the time I left the magazine a decision had been taken to run it as a collective, not the most comfortable place for me. But what finally decided me was falling in love. We went to India – it was the prelude to many adventures.

What were second-wave feminism’s greatest gains?

It’s hard to remember now but you couldn’t get a mortgage if you were a woman unless you had your father’s or husband’s signature. You couldn’t even rent a TV, or a car. I had an unmarried friend who was a director at the BBC and she needed to rent a car, but her father lived in New Zealand. In the end, she had to ask her cameraman to co-sign the document. In Spare Rib’s early years the equal pay act came through, women’s access to education massively improved, abortion availability expanded, and it was generally accepted women were going to be more than wives and mothers.

And the worst defeats?

Not so much defeats, as gradual realisations. The first, of course, is childcare. Neither Marsha or I had children back then. It’s shocking to me that women still struggle today to go to work and bring up children, with so little help from society. For true equality childcare should be as much a part of life as healthcare. 

Another area we failed to address properly concerned men. In the 50 years since the magazine started the role of women has expanded extraordinarily – but so many old masculine traits still apply. The failure to understand how narrow the definition of being a male is has led us down the road to Incels and other hate crimes

I’m also distressed by women’s poor body image. A friend who runs a charity told me the other day that vagina surgery is now the most popular cosmetic surgery in this country, because young women are watching porn and finding themselves wanting. I’m outraged that the long hand of consumerism has reached the most intimate part of our bodies. 

How have your campaigning goals evolved over the past 50 years?

It’s scary to see how abortion rights are going backwards in America. Most of what happens there comes to us, eventually. Afghanistan makes me want to weep.

How would you describe your current approach to feminism?

All of the above, plus I think it’s vital women work together. One of the most inspiring things about the early days of Spare Rib was the idea of sisterhood. We’d never have had the courage to do what we did if we had not had each other.

Who are your top three heroines?

Martha Gellhorn, Marie Colvin, and Helena Kennedy

Which female leader has fallen short of your esteem?

Mrs Thatcher, for political reasons, but also because she didn’t promote women. There’s no point reaching the top if you don’t chuck the ladder down behind you.

In 2002, as part of a BBC programme, you campaigned for Princess Diana to be acclaimed as “Greatest Briton”. What was your rationale?

Andy Marr bagged my original choice, Darwin. But Diana was immensely interesting. We did it as a fairy story, about expectation, aristocracy and the failure of knights in shining armour.

You were the first woman to edit a UK broadsheet newspaper. What was your proudest achievement in that role?

Undoubtedly, the last period of editing the Daily Express. We had a female news editor, comment editor, features editor, foreign editor, and night editor (the first on Fleet St). I was very proud of that.

You led a newspaper campaign to legalise cannabis. What do you make of our current drugs policies?

I’ve always believed that you should approach drugs from the point of view of public health. For least harm you would legalise. The war on drugs has completely failed and it cost lives everywhere. I go to Columbia a lot, as we have a Hay festival there and I’m a director, so I have seen first-hand how cocaine has trashed an entire country. I always wish that all the people who think they’re cool when they snort a line could follow it back to the death and environmental destruction it causes.

Why are there still so few women editing broadsheet newspapers?

It’s not a great job for a woman. The hours are impossible, editions have to go, at 6, 7 or 8pm And the last one’s at about 11pm. So if you have children aged under ten you really can’t do the job. 

What should fourth-wave feminism crusade for?

We must try and clear up what we’re doing in terms of the trans debate. There seems to be so much hatred and I find that very depressing.

You’ve variously supported Labour, the Lib Dems and the Women’s Equality Party, and you were Boris Johnson’s “food tsar” when he was mayor of London. Do you have a political home now?

No. I am crossbench Peer and it’s a wonderful place to be. No party does everything I think should be done and I don’t envisage a time I’d ever want to be affiliated in that way. I work a lot with the Labour Party and the Lib Dems, but right now I’m co-sponsoring an amendment with a member of the Tory party. One of the strengths of the Lords is there are good people everywhere – it really does work as a check on the government.

How do you rate the current government?

Very, very poorly

How would you reform the Lords – if reform is needed?

I would follow the Burns report. The aim was to get to one lord out and one in. It was working fine until Boris Johnson got to Downing Street. He put in a huge number of peers, some of whom are pretty disgraceful

You’ve spoken about your past battles with alcoholism, what helped you overcome the addiction?

I’ve been sober now for almost eighteen years, following a relapse after I left the Daily Express. Before that, I’d been sober for about 20. I do it a day at a time. I know that sounds slightly ridiculous, but it works for me.

What one measure would you take to improve the environment?

I’d cease all oil and gas production at midnight tonight.

You used to own a smallholding, leading to you becoming Chair of London Food. How can the UK move towards more sustainable food policies?

The national food strategy, published six months ago, sets out how to move the country towards a sustainable food future, which will be good for our health and good for the planet. The government are due to respond in March, and we hope that this will lead to a white paper, then in due course a food bill. It’s impossible for us to reach our net zero goals without a radical reform of how we eat. But there are many vested interests that want to keep us eating cheap junk food. 

What legacy would you like to leave to your grandchildren?

A planet that’s as good as it was in 1951, when I was born. I don’t think we’ll manage it, but I plan to devote the rest of my life to making sure that it degrades as little as possible. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I realise what an extraordinary world we live on. That everything is linked and that treating the natural world like a commodity we can exploit has taken us to the brink of disaster.


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