Sexism and misogynist violence are all over the news, from the challenges faced by mothers and other caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, to the recent abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in London, allegedly by a police officer. Yet the urgency of Western middle-class feminism faces doubt, both from the right and, perhaps more surprisingly, from the left—where there are ongoing concerns that wealthy women are using claims of sexism to maintain a racist and economically unjust status quo. A hybrid of old-school misogyny and an ostensibly progressive new agenda has combined to make certain women—maybe white, maybe middle-class, definitely middle-aged—figures of broad ridicule. Do Western middle-class women need feminism?

The British feminist writer Victoria Smith addresses this constellation of issues in her newsletter, The OK Karen. Smith looks at how middle-aged women’s concerns tend not just to be overlooked within the feminist movement but can at times be treated as inherently conservative, even bigoted—and why factional disputes within feminism can inhibit the pursuit of shared goals, such as countering the chronic problem of violence from men.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Your newsletter is called, “The OK Karen.” Why?

Victoria Smith: It harks back to the fact that, basically, I am a complaining middle-aged white woman. You can either deny that or own it.

Obviously, there’s a bit of me that thinks, Oh, but is that ignoring the criticism [of racism] aspect that’s quite explicit in discussions of the current term? But it is very much a newsletter about being middle aged, white, and feminist—and middle class as well. I know that in many ways my perspective is limited, but at the same time, middle-aged women’s voices are being discredited to a large degree.

I also wondered about having a name to do with [British mothering forum] Mumsnet, because that’s how I started writing, about 10 years ago: It was a mummy blog, and then it got picked up by Mumsnet. It’s a derided identity, because it’s considered conservative, stuffy.

The Karen thing has really picked up on that—this moaning mummy, who doesn’t have any real problems. But actually, I think this age group is connected to many of the big issues with feminism, [which have] to do with violence and economics.

Bovy: A theme in your writing is the way in which many people don't just ignore but look down on middle-aged women, older women, and mothers. You’ve written about Mumsnet’s progressive male detractors, a phenomenon that apparently lives on. But something strange seems to be happening right now, where on the one hand, there’s been lots of English-language media coverage of the impact of the pandemic on women with caring responsibilities, and on the other, there’s been a ramping up of rhetoric deriding the very same women: “Karen”—but also, at least in North America, “suburban wine moms.”

What’s going on?

Smith: It’s a convenient way to make individual women in that position into these villainous, moaning hags who don’t have any real problems.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in