Are You a Guilty Feminist?

— Deborah Frances-White, comedian and host of “The Guilty Feminist” podcast

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In 2015, Deborah Frances-White, a London-based stand-up comedian, decided she wanted to be a better feminist.

At the time, Frances-White felt like she was living a life of double standards: She didn’t want to be seen as a “decorative” object but would also obsess over her weight; she would advise women on powerful leadership techniques, then apologize profusely for “bothering” a man when she called him for work.

“A lot of the feminists in the public eye were wonderful,” she said in an interview with In Her Words. “They were inspiring. They were so sure of what they knew. And I would look at my hypocrisy and insecurities and think, ‘Am I good enough?’”

She started sharing her secrets over lunch with the comedian Sofie Hagen, and shortly thereafter their podcast, “The Guilty Feminist,” was born.

The concept of feminism has, of course, evolved over the past few decades, with each new wave defining it slightly differently. For Frances-White, feminism is a fight for equality and inclusion for the entire gender spectrum and for minority groups.

Each podcast starts with the trope, “I’m a feminist, but …” and she and a rotating roster of co-hosts go down their list of laugh-out-loud feminist fails.

One opens with: “I’m a feminist, but … one time when I was in a women’s rights march and popped into a department store to use the loo, I got distracted trying on face creams and when I came out, the march was gone.”

The point and the appeal of highlighting these contradictions is to laugh at them and then discuss ways to get better, Frances-White explained. “Get it out, look at it, put it on the table and deal with it.”

She added: “We’re trained to feel guilty about everything as women. For some women, feminism has become another thing to feel inadequate about.”

I caught up with Frances-White during her book tour around the U.S. to discuss imperfect feminism and white privilege. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You mention in your book that you were part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia and you’ve also said that it’s a system where women rarely have decision-making roles. What was that like, and is that why you decided to leave?

The most senior position for a woman is ‘elder’s wife,’ which has a “Handmaid’s Tale” ring to it. Even the Kingdom Hall cleaning roster and the most basic admin work are done by men.

I had a slow awakening that this wasn’t for me. I needed to create a more feminist space in the real world for myself after that experience.

So you left and moved to London at 19. Why did you decide to become a comedian?

I always loved making people laugh at school and was funny on the debate team. When I became a Jehovah’s Witness, I had to quit all the extracurricular stuff, so I always made the congregation laugh. I used to joke with people when door-knocking and get invited in. I even snuck off with some other young Jehovah’s Witnesses and formed a comedy improvisation group.

When I left, the first place I went was a comedy improv class. Being in the moment is the opposite of a high control group mentality. It opens you right up.

Do you think that making jokes and laughing about something as big and meaty as feminism ends up trivializing it?

No, I think it’s the opposite. The power of the joke is so underestimated. A joke is one of the most powerful ways to reinforce or even form a worldview. Jokes are weapons. Comedy can be used as structural violence, you have to remember that — it’s a way of isolating. It can also be used to include.

So, to build on your metaphor, you’re using comedy as a weapon to bring down the patriarchy? Is that the aim?

A man wrote to me a year or so ago and he said: ‘I just want to say I started listening to your podcast because I hate feminists and wanted to know what the enemy was up to. But 18 months later, you’ve worn me down. Sometimes what you say still annoys me, but keep saying it because it’s working.’

I was so blown away by this and I wrote back and I said, ‘What kept you listening for 18 months?’ And he said it was funny.

I have had some men say, ‘No, you shouldn’t joke about men, you should make your show less feminist, more egalitarian.’ But this is unapologetically a space for women and people of minority genders. And if men listen in and sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable, that’s OK.

You mention that comedy can be used to include. How do you make sure that your comedy is as inclusive as possible?

When I first moved to London from Australia, I was told I’d have to be a very assertive driver because Londoners will not let you in. I was a nanny so I was like, I have to get good at driving before I drive any of these kids around. So I got in the car and drove around London and found that this was just a stereotype and an urban myth.

Six months later, I drove my boyfriend’s car for the first time and I couldn’t get into traffic and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And my boyfriend said, ‘You can’t drive my car the way you drive the Land Rover, like a tank down the middle of the road. In a VW Golf, no one is going to get out of your way.’

I had thought everyone else was polite. Turns out I’m an [expletive]. If you’re driving a Land Rover, you have to be very authoritative about how you let other people in. You have to say, ‘It’s your turn, you’re going.’

And people who are driving white bodies, male bodies, bodies that aren’t in wheelchairs, gender-conforming bodies, straight bodies sometimes need to say ‘Hey, Jennifer, do you have anything to say on this? Because I think you’ve done some interesting research and we want to hear it.’

I have to say I started this podcast to really, I suppose, find space for my own oppression, and what I’ve learned more than anything is about my own privilege.

So “The Guilty Feminist” podcast has had about 75 million downloads in the last four years, won several awards and you recently also released a book by the same name. Did you ever imagine this would be so successful?

God, no! I was worried that I’d get kicked out of the feminist club. But I think it’s just because women are thirsty, and there is not much content made for us and by us that’s completely unfettered.

Readers: What are some of your “I’m a feminist, but …” moments? Write to us at We’re listening.

Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.

  • “The students are ahead of the school.” After students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government started writing their pronouns on name placards, the school followed their lead, providing voluntary stickers with four pronoun options. [Read the story]

  • “If any of them want to be released from their N.D.A. so that they can talk about those allegations, they should contact the company.” Michael Bloomberg said Friday he was willing to release three women from nondisclosure agreements with his company so they could discuss their complaints about him publicly — reversing himself after he resisted during the Democratic presidential debate. [Read the story]

  • “Women are demanding a shift of paradigm and nothing less.” The brutal murders of a 25-year-old woman and a 7-year-old girl in Mexico set off near-daily street protests and are forcing a reckoning in a country that has long wrestled with violence against women. [Read the story]

  • “$67 million.” The amount in back pay and damages that the U.S. women’s soccer team is seeking from the United States Soccer Federation to drop a gender discrimination lawsuit. [Read the story]

  • “This is a pattern we’ve seen with many viral infections of the respiratory tract — men can have worse outcomes.” The coronavirus that originated in China seems to hit men harder than women, possibly because women produce stronger immune responses after vaccinations. [Read the story]

In Her Words is written by Alisha Haridasani Gupta and edited by Francesca Donner. Our art director is Catherine Gilmore-Barnes, and our photo editor is Sandra Stevenson.

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