Scarcely a week passes without a white man with a private education, a healthy salary and a newspaper column expressing his outrage at the idea that he has in benefited in any way, socially or economically, from being privileged. What nonsense, they say, it’s all down to elbow grease and determination. It’s nothing more than mere coincidence that everyone with a newspaper column manages to look and sound a little like me, and to share my alma mater. How dare you use that coincidence to discredit my work!

The media watchers among you will notice that I am parodying the opening paragraphs of a book review by right-wing columnist Toby Young, published by The Spectator this week. In taking aim at Caroline Criado Perez’s new book Invisible Women, which sets out the many ways the world was built by men, for men and therefore silently excludes women, Young highlights the educational backgrounds of a string of current feminist writers. Laurie Penny, Zoe Williams, Afua Hirsch, Laura Bates all come under his roving spotlight. To write a book about “how oppressed women are … and present yourself as a victim of ‘systemic inequality’,” he says, “you need to be a member of the ruling class”.

Well, no. To write a book about anything at all, and to see it published, to see it reviewed in publications as esteemed as The Spectator, you need a number of things.

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First you need time, and the money to grant you that time, in which to write. Like Virginia Woolf a century ago, women still need the chance to be alone even if a coffee shop table or library sofa could now substitute for the private parlour. Second, you need either a literary agent or a relationship with an editor at a major publishing house willing to consider your book for publication. Third, you need the support of a PR team willing to secure reviews for you.

Finally, and crucially, you need the public profile to be considered worth investing in at all, at a time when every penny made from each book title commissioned is bean-counted by the accounts departments that exert huge (some would say undue) control over the editorial decisions made by publishers. 

(For full disclosure, I attended a state school in Didcot and Manchester University. I haven’t, however, managed to secure a book deal. Yet.)

Social mobility has ground to a halt in modern Britain. A 2017 report commissioned by the government condemned the “postcode lottery” of opportunity across the country, with the most affluent areas actually achieving the very least for their poorest human beings. So it should not be a surprise to Young or to any book reviewer that the authors of most new books critiquing politics and society are written by those who have benefited from their privilege. And they would admit that. They are the only voices we are hearing – but that is not their fault. 

Young holds the privilege of these women (a privilege he shares) in contempt – he describes them as “ripe for satire” – and uses it as an excuse to ignore the fact that a private education and a book deal is not all these writers have in common: they also agree with one another. They are, together, in profound agreement that in Britain today women are not equal – and that our society is still designed in a way that puts women second and stymies their attempts to flourish, socially, economically and emotionally.

The women he cites may all be relatively wealthy, and may have an audience for their writing, but they are not all the same. Laurie Penny is a young alt-left activist barely into her 30s; Afua Hirsch is a Norwegian-born mixed-race former barrister whose grandfather was a political exile; Zoe Williams is a mother of two children in her forties who has written extensively on almost every subject from lifestyle journalism to satire to political analysis – even a parenting column. They may all have attended private schools, but these are not identikit writers with identikit life experiences, and yet, within their own particular styles, they are observing the different parts of the same whole: an unequal society that damages women’s life chances and can snuff out female aspiration.

Remarkably, Young has, in the past, written openly about his views on the limitations of the liberal case for meritocracy, claiming that the suggestion that opportunities are equal denies the reality that the pie is not carved up equally from the off, with dangerous and damaging results. He can’t have it both ways. Privilege is not a reason to ignore the gathering voices of this group of writers who are able – thankfully – to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard.


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