For Toksvig, a feminist for as long as she can remember, the fight against sexism began at a very young age: “At school I led a strike when I was six because I thought the boys had been allowed out to play in the rain and the girls hadn’t”.
She also recalls how her the difference in her parents’ roles made an early impression on her:
“I remember watching my father going off to work and watching what my mother did, and thinking, ‘There she is in the house – that looks really rubbish; I don’t want to do what she’s doing.’”
On graduating from Cambridge University, where she performed in amateur dramatics alongside Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, she embarked on a career in children’s television before hitting the comedy scene in the 1980s. She met with a world of deep-seated and routine sexism and misogyny:
“In the first major comedy club in London, there wasn’t even a toilet just a sink in the corner of the dressing room. It had never occurred to them that a woman might turn up … I had to queue with the public.”
She describes the sexist jeers and lewd remarks to which she was subjected from audiences, as well as male colleagues, and the sexual harassment her peers had to put up with or see their careers sink:
“I witnessed enough young women whose careers were either going to be promoted or not promoted because they would or would not put up with certain behaviours … we lost a lot of great early talent.”
Toksvig acknowledges that progress has been made since then, but questions whether the #MeToo campaign has had enough impact in a world where consternation at sexual harassment is often met with “Can’t you take a joke?”.
Toksvig goes on to discuss the slow progress of women’s representation on panel shows, where she feels decisions by those in power held women back from the spotlight:
“Nobody even tried to hide it, they just weren’t having it that a woman could do this kind of show.”
On the upside she comments on the warmth and support she’s received from audiences throughout her career, sometimes in contrast to the programme decision-makers, and is hopeful that the precedent she has set as host of QI is resulting in more balanced line-ups.
A lifelong campaigner for LGBT+ rights including gay marriage, Toksvig talks to Julia about the challenges she faced as a result of her sexuality. She was almost thrown out of her university college – “This year they’re giving me a fellowship to say sorry” and was dropped as a presenter. She talks about how scary it was when she first came out: “I was unaware of another lesbian in British public life…people wanted to kill me, I had to have police protection.”
Yet on LGBT+ rights she believes great progress has been made: “It’s happened so dramatically and so thrillingly and that is why I continue to believe in great change.”
She hopes the women’s equality movement can use some of the successful strategies used in the campaign for gay marriage.