“I write material about stuff I care about. And that’s what everybody should do,” says comedian, activist and broadcaster Kate Smurthwaite.
Known for her forthright opinions, feminist campaigning and direct attitude, Kate has been a strong presence on the comedy circuit for well over a decade. And her comedy career grew out of her political site Cruellablog, which she started in 2004 while working as a hedge-fund manager in the City. “I’d read the paper on the way to work, be outraged by something I’d read and then blog about it,” she explains.
“Cruellablog was quite successful and was often in lists of the top 100 political blogs. It was only after a few years that I put my blog material and comedy material together. People found things I wrote amusing so I thought maybe I could put material from my blog into my comedy set,” Kate says.
In 2006, she performed her first solo show Adrenaline about dangerous sports. And in 2008, this morphed into a show about evolution called Apes Like Me, that, she says with genuine pleasure, “upset some bishops”… although it still only hinted at the political content we now know and love Kate for. Between 2009 and 2013, her topical show News At Kate became an annual institution at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and she still uses the News At Kate brand for her political comedy videos on YouTube.
“I’m always described as an ‘atheist, left wing political stand-up comedian’,” says Kate, “but I think everyone should write about something they care about.”
Putting it succinctly, Kate says: “You need to make sure you produce something that is accessible. You don’t want to have to have to hand out study notes at the start of your set, you need to explain things as you go along. There’s definitely a value to saying something silly that catches people by surprise. But once you’ve got the art form down, why not make people stop and think?”
One of the growing problems for women with a public presence is the increasing ways for misogynists to launch threatening verbal attack. Kate has experienced this on a huge scale as a result of speaking out on all manner of women’s rights issues, ranging from abortion access to the fact there is a museum in London celebrating a man who brutally murdered multiple women. With the growth of social media platforms such as Twitter, there is now a choice of unmoderated streams for people to threaten women with public voices.
“About 30 years ago, Germaine Greer wrote that women have no idea how much men hate them,” says Kate, with a note of resignation in her voice. “But thanks to the internet, we now do know exactly how much men hate us. Twitter didn’t invent abuse, it just gave people a platform. But I’d still rather it was all out in the open and we knew what was going on.”
When asked which of her comments has made generated the worst responses, Kate says: “Apparently the most controversial thing I did was tell a man on The Big Questions in January 2015 not to call a woman ‘darling’ during a debate on gender equality. So I had 165 pages of Twitter abuse in 48 hours, including 14 death or rape threats. I think if you need to buy a new printer cartridge to print out your own abuse then you’re an enabler and should stop! I wanted to print it and laminate it and unroll it dramatically during my set to say how appalling this stuff is. But I ultimately wasn’t prepared to spend £15 on a new printer cartridge.”
On the afternoon that we spoke, Kate had been a guest on Sky News talking about sexist language in schools following a report about the rise of sexism among school pupils. So Kate was asked by Sky for her thoughts on how we could address this. Her answer, as always, is straightforward: “We need to stop the class, we need to ask boys why they make sexist comments, and we need to make it clear from a young age we won’t stand for it,” she says. “But the media tolerates sexism and says it’s a joke. We have to jump on sexism and stamp it out. The media says feminists make a fuss about the tiniest little thing, but if the tiniest little thing is OK then sexism is a slippery slope. There’s no minimum size of sexism that is OK.”
Like all campaigners, Kate is frequently accused of focussing on the wrong issues. She says: “If you raise money for a women’s rights charity, people ask about men’s rights charities. Or they say, ‘It’s much worse in Saudi Arabia’. But if you campaign for that, they say, ‘Shouldn’t you sort out what’s at home?’ People need to campaign about what’s important to them. What we need is more people challenging sexism, not more people discussing how we should prioritise the small amount of energy we have to challenge sexism.”
And with that, Kate picks up the phone to another BBC radio show to talk good common sense to the general public about women’s reproductive health – before heading off to headline a London stand-up show in the evening. There she goes, a tireless firebrand for women’s equality. And definitive proof that feminists do have a sense of humour after all.