'Young people are often being offered these very very narrow options'Anna Menin

“I definitely think that there’s a value and a place for anger. I hate the idea that we should have to temper our anger in order to be taken seriously because there are valid and massive problems to be angry about.”

We sat down with Laura Bates after her talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival. Laura, who read English at St John’s, was chatty and warm, yet unapologetically assertive. As the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, she was returning to the city to promote her new book, Girl Up, a guide to navigating the modern world aimed at young women.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a book about feminism,” she explains, “it’s a book about all the different things that young women particularly are encountering. Everything from career to mental health to self-confidence, and there is a chapter about feminism.”

Laura is keen to emphasise that the book isn’t about telling people what to do, but about widening their options. “I hope that it offers alternatives, because I felt like young people are often being offered these very very narrow options and stereotypical boxes”, she explains. “Often they were two extremes with nothing in between, for example you’re a slut and a slag or you’re frigid and you’re a prude, and I wanted to examine ways of breaking out of those boundaries.”

A large part of this issue, Laura feels, is rooted in the online world, which she describes as often “hostile and unwelcoming” to young women. “We have a whole generation of young women who are denied access to those spaces because they’re being told to, you know, ‘show their tits or get the fuck out’ as the horrible common expression goes, or being given rape threats because they voice a political opinion.”

“We have this generation of young people who are growing up online, and we have an adult generation who often dismiss them as politically apathetic or disengaged”

She is concerned about the implication this might have for the future. “I’m worried that we might suddenly have this dropping out, a generation of young people where we see girls missing from the political arena,” she tells us.

Laura explains that this is a problem that the older generations often don’t understand, or are separated from. “We have this generation of young people who are growing up online, and we have an adult generation who often dismiss them as politically apathetic or disengaged.” She elaborates, “where they’re engaging is online, is on social media. That’s where they’re learning how to form an argument, how to cut their teeth in debate.” This, for Bates, is why is it’s so vital that we don’t just advise young women to simply withdraw from online spaces that can be hostile to them.

Bates’ new book, girl upSimon and Schuster

Her own activism is heavily reliant on social media, with the Everyday Sexism Twitter account reaching 259,000 followers. The real power, she tells us, lies in the re-tweeting which enables new audiences to be reached. “There’ll be say 100 people on their timelines who won’t be following everyday sexism, or been aware of the problem, who will suddenly be confronted, in their day, with this snapshot of what it means to experience sexual harassment or sexual violence in 2016 on a daily basis.”

We asked her if she was nonetheless worried about the capacity for social media to act as an echo chamber. “I think it’s limited, definitely, and there is an echo chamber risk, but it can also be useful, to a point”. The key, she says, is translating this into the real world. “We supplement it by saying ‘right, let’s get out and away from social media, let’s go into schools, let’s go into universities and communities, and let’s work with young people, and let’s talk about this with everybody, not just the people following us on Twitter.”

“You have things like relatively archaic set-ups in terms of formals and societies and swaps”

Bringing feminism out into the real world, Laura worries, comes with complications. We asked her to speak a little about the brands using feminism as part of their advertising strategies. She highlighted the issue of “brands kind of jumping on the bandwagon and wanting to pay lip service to [feminism] in order to essentially kind of exploit something that’s having a media moment and to sell products to women off the back of something without necessarily putting their money where their mouth is.

“On the other hand, of course you also want to encourage advertisers into kind of more feminist ways of thinking, so I think it’s a really complex thing.” Laura, however, remains characteristically optimistic. “What I am hopeful about, though, is that the fact that it’s being talked about so much more hopefully means that we are seeing more and more young people aware of feminism.”

As part of her work, Laura visits lots of schools and universities to talk to young people. She speaks of how, recently, she has been seeing lots of newly created feminist societies, and hearing people say “‘we’ve set this up in the last year’, ‘there was never a women’s officer at this university before and now there is’.”

This change, she feels, has been visible in Cambridge itself. “I’m also really encouraged to see that there’s been an explosion in feminism and feminist activism in the past few years at Cambridge, mirrored very much in other universities as well.” She highlights the particular challenges faced here: “you have things like relatively archaic set-ups in terms of formals and societies and swaps, and things that can lend themselves to women being ranked and judged by their appearance.”

“I think we still stigmatise feminism so much”

In tandem with the rise in feminism, she is encouraged by the greater interest she is seeing in intersectionality. “It seems that intersectionality is high on the agenda at the moment so very often at feminist events that you go to – at talks and particularly when I talk to girls at school – they want to know about intersectionality, or intersectionality is a key part of the discussion.”

In explaining this focus, she draws attention to NUS. “For student groups in particular I think that the NUS has been leading the way on [intersectionality], it’s a starting point rather than an afterthought.

“It’s interesting because social media in some senses is a democratising force because it means that we are definitely hearing a much more diverse range of voices but it also means that people can point to it and kind of say it’s fine, anyone can get involved, and that doesn’t mean that everybody has a say or voice in terms of where those voices go next.”

Laura, of course, does have a say. As part of her Everyday Sexism Project, she’s been influencing British Transport Policy, talking to Cabinet ministers, and helping develop workplace policy. We wondered, then, if she ever feels it is reductive to be defined simply as a feminist.

“No, because I think it’s actually the broadest of the categories,” she explains. “It’s probably the most important thing that I have to contribute, and to share and to talk about. Within the current climate, where I think we still stigmatise feminism so much, where there are still so many myths and misconceptions about it are being spread, and where young women in particular are being made to feel that they should be ashamed and embarrassed to call themselves feminists, I feel really proud to take that with me and hopefully push it out wherever I go”