The Daily Mail branded her a ‘Feminazi’josh andrus

Last September, Charlotte Proudman was catapulted into the public eye when her tweet accusing a male lawyer of sexism went viral. Sent over LinkedIn, Alexander Carter-Silk’s message prefaced comments on her “stunning” profile picture with the acknowledgement that “this is probably horrendously politically incorrect”. Proudman’s response picked apart his remarks with surgical precision. She wrote, “I find your message offensive. I am on LinkedIn... not to be approached about my physical appearance or objectified by sexist men.” She then tweeted a screenshot of the entire exchange.

Swinging on a deskchair in Varsity's offices, Proudman still seems genuinely surprised by the public reaction. It wasn’t, she tells me, a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rather, it was part of an ongoing attempt to resist everyday instances of sexism in an industry which, according to Proudman, is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. “I would be surprised if any woman lawyer has not experienced sexism personally against them. I certainly had, but I always make a point of attempting to challenge sexism wherever I see it or experience it.

“That was no different, really, to any other attempts of challenging sexism I had encountered. I never expected it to go as viral as it did.”

At the time, Proudman’s tweet attracted a mixed response from the media and judicial establishments. The Daily Mail branded her a ‘Feminazi’, the inevitable social media trolls informed her that she “didn’t look that great”, and several prominent members of the legal community questioned her professionalism. She dealt with the backlash, she tells me, by placing her experiences within the wider perspective of the feminist movement. “What I tended to do was focus on the real struggle here... speaking out against sexism within the workplace, and listening to other women who shared their own stories with me.” I ask her if, in retrospect, she would go back and change her decisions to send the message, to share the photo. “No,” she says flatly. It seems it’s a question she’s used to.

A Sociology PhD candidate at Cambridge, she has also spoken out against the upper-class ‘lad culture’ fostered by exclusive societies such as the male-only Pitt Club, and the Wyverns, whose notorious jelly-wrestling spectacle was banned last year. Proudman, who studied for her undergraduate degree at Keele University, says the culture is significantly more endemic at the so-called ‘elite’ universities, where a privileged few form ties to the exclusion of women, the lower classes, and racial and religious minorities. It’s a theme that resurfaces in Proudman’s discussion of the legal profession. “Men feel more comfortable interviewing other men who mirror their own background,” Proudman insists. “They go to the same gentleman’s club, they went to the same public school, they went to the same university, they have the same hobbies - and women are constantly seen as ‘different’.”

Why, then, are female students complicit in such activities? And if these institutions are sexist, does that make them victims or perpetrators? “I can understand,” she says, hesitantly, “why women accept those invitations. It’s much easier to side with power, through patriarchy, than it is to side with the powerless minority, which is women who are not invited along to those events. But ultimately, I think it has to be recognised that the power that they do have in going along is nowhere near comparable to the status that the men have in these societies.

“They still remain second class citizens... all they’re doing is perpetuating and reiterating the idea that a woman’s role is [to be] there for objectification.”

It is inconvenient for Proudman’s critics that very little about her fulfills the stereotype of the shrieky, haranguing man-hater that they seem so keen to perpetuate. She has a low, gentle voice, and the urgency of the message she is trying to convey is matched by the articulacy with which she manages it. She’s never heard of Cuntry Living, and is cautiously enthusiastic about the participation of men in feminist discourses.  At the same time, she does not wish to shy away from the image of the ‘angry feminist’. “In a society where you’re constantly facing sexism on an everyday basis, to get angry about that - to be strident in your feminism - is completely justifiable.

“We shouldn’t accept those types of criticisms that are levelled against us - or if we do, we should embrace them.”       

But she is unequivocal in her wholesale rejection of the term ‘Feminazi’. “I think it really shows the hatred towards women as a whole... to even attempt to associate women who support equality with the horrific things that happened to millions of Jews during World War Two.”

Proudman tells me she went into the law to change women’s lives, but disenchantment with what she terms the “institutional sexism” of the legal profession itself set in quickly. “I thought that law could be used as a tool to actually change women’s realities and the position they find themselves in.... In actual fact, I realised, how could you possibly advance women’s position in society through the law, when the law itself is discriminatory and sexist?”

She criticises the recent suggestion of Supreme Court Justice Sumption that a rush for gender equality would destablise the judicial system. “Women have been told this, continually, for 50 years, 100 years, 150 years - just be patient and wait. Well, if women continue to wait, in a system infused by sexism, where men have the power to promote women, they will be waiting in biblical proportion.

“They will not be promoted, and they are not being promoted - not because they’re not the best at the job, because of structural disadvantages. This is more important in law, as well perhaps as politics, than any other areas. When it comes to law, women are presumed to consent to the law’s rule and yet they’re not equally represented.”

She gives the example of prostitution laws. “Who are the ones who are sexually exploiting women? Men. Who are the ones who go to prison? Prostituted women.”

It’s a sobering thought that Proudman’s logic is effectively a recalibrated version of that put forward over 100 years ago by Emmeline Pankhurst in her auto-biographical polemic, My Own Story. The suffragettes’ mantra, too, centred on the denial of the legal jurisdiction of a government which refused to allow women to participate in the formation of the law. Now Proudman, whose own grandmother was a suffragette, is determined to transform the system from the inside.

“I think I’ll go back to law. There’s nothing more rewarding than representing women in particular in court, in providing an outcome which can have a dramatic change on their life...

“So I think, ultimately, I’ll go back and I’ll continue the fight, most notably in trying to overturn discrimination, and to introduce feminist laws, such as quotas for women.”

Proudman uses words like “fight” and “sisterhood” without a hint of self-consciousness or affectation. Listening to her, one is immediately struck by just how real this “struggle” is. If the vision of feminism she presents seems at times pessimistic, it is heartening to know that there is someone out there who is unashamedly devoting her life to combating the issues she highlights.

And she’s willing to take any opportunity to further her cause.  “Keep the bit about quotas?” she asks me, as she leaves. “I want people to see that.”