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04 March 2020

A Podcast of One's Own: Deborah Frances-White on women and guilt

The Guilty Feminist Deborah Frances-White is Julia Gillard’s latest podcast guest

Julia and Deborah

Host and co-founder of the Guilty Feminist, one of Britain’s most popular podcasts, Deborah Frances-White appears on the latest episode of A Podcast of One’s Own. She talks to Julia about the power of podcasting in making women’s voices heard and why women need to rid themselves of unnecessary guilt that often holds them back.

She also discusses her feminist awakening and how it led her to mobilise a movement for inclusive and open feminism via the medium of podcasting.

Adopted into a family in Brisbane, Australia, as a baby, Frances-White was brought up in a “regular, Australian household” until her parents decided to become Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was a teenager. Her life changed dramatically:

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are a high control group…everything you think is thought out for you, your actions are monitored quite carefully. And the punishment for leaving…is shunning…so if you leave, you’re going to be isolated.”

It was during this period that her feminism was ignited:

“There has never been in the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses a decision made by a woman…women are not treated very well in the Bible…so I used to say: ‘But why is this woman being treated like this?’ I secretly used to have these feminist rants to my friends.”

She left the faith after living with a family in America and experiencing life outside the religion. On moving to London, the first thing she did was apply for university, having been barred from going by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

She studied at Oxford (“I just blagged my way through the interview”) and on graduation decided to forge a career in comedy. She started off in improvisation, which was more gender-equal, but once she got into stand-up it was “really, really male – and you felt it.”

She describes how even these days audiences can be hugely dismissive of female comedians:

“I will see people in the front row of the audience look at each other and in front of my face say: ‘I don’t find women funny.’”

The Guilty Feminist project is partly about rectifying this imbalance in comedy, as it’s become a space for women comedians to excel:

“[It’s] a micro-climate of success for women…That performer comes out to this projection of success…and they rise to that, and now they’re even better than they were going to be, and then the audience project more magnificence on them.”

The other powerful outcome of the podcast, which has had 70 million downloads since it first launched in 2015, is the way it encourages women to rid themselves of unhelpful feelings of guilt. With the catch phrase “I’m a feminist but…” Frances-White and her guests remind listeners that you don’t have to be a perfect feminist to be part of the club:

“We are holding onto things that don’t matter. And that turns into guilt. And guilt turns into shame, and shame is luggage…you’re carrying all this stuff that men are not invited to carry in such quantities…so it’s worth exfoliating, and laughing, putting it on the table and going ‘It doesn’t matter’…and when it does matter, and if it does matter…let’s work on it. ”

The “intimate…confessional medium” of podcasting is also instrumental in building the movement, Frances-White explains:

“The big secret of our show…is partly the audience…[Listeners] hear hundreds and thousands of people laughing and yessing and cheering…and they feel they’re part of an army…and there must be lots of other women and people who feel this.”

Riding this wave of feminist optimism, Frances-White is hopeful about what could be achieved in 20 years’ time:

“As more space is rightly taken up by people who represent over 50 per cent of the population…it’s going to start to feel fairer and more normal…and if climate change doesn’t kill us and if the Far Right doesn’t take hold and the patriarchy strike back…we’re gonna have a wonderful, wonderful world.”

You can find this and previous episodes of  A Podcast of One’s Own, on all the main podcast platforms.