Women in Journalism chair Eleanor Mills pays tribute to a pioneering female journalist – and family friend
I first met Katharine Whitehorn at family parties – she was a great friend of my aunt Barbara Mills’s sister, Sheila. She’d be clad in a silk shirt, drinking gin and had the most fantastic gravelly voice, posher than the Queen, think Celia Johnson from Brief Encounter after three packets of fags. I remember she always asked interesting questions. And when I popped up on the Observer in the early 1990s as a rookie hack she was smiley and concerned and always keen to know what any of us youngsters were working on.
Whitehorn was a true Fleet Street Grande Dame, the first woman to have a column on The Observer, which she joined in 1960. Her mix of the domestic and the profound has been much copied but rarely bettered. Reading back through her columns, they still ring true today – why should anyone, ever feel good about getting round to doing the cleaning? Her conclusion was forget it and go to the pub. Or here she is on birthday parties: “The main purpose of children’s parties is to remind you that there are children more awful than your own.” Quite.
Whitehorn was a pioneer, a trailblazer the voice of a new, modern kind of woman – educated but not a blue stocking. Married but not defined by her husband. A mother, but one who had a job and a life outside the family. It is amazing to think that when she went to Cambridge (Newnham) to study English after the second world war, the men she studied with had all fought in it and women had to be out of mens’ colleges by 10pm. I loved her story of being lowered out of Trinity on a rope by a “chap who is currently a high court judge”.
She chronicled a huge shift in womens’ lives, which her most famous book, Cooking in a Bedsitter, epitomised. It described how to make spaghetti on one gas ring, and what to do with an avocado pear. Her writing evokes a generation of women living independently, away from family and without a husband, for the first time. The outpouring of affection for her and her book on Twitter today shows how loved she was.
In her writing she wrestles with the innate entitlement of ‘chaps’ without raging about it – showing up the double standards and sexism of the time with humour not a sledgehammer. “It might be marvellous to be a man – then I could stop worrying about what is fair to women and just cheerfully assume I am superior and they will iron my shirts.”
Her great legacy was to pull back the curtain on ‘having it all’ – she didn’t pretend that she could manage kids, career and husband effortlessly. Often it involved changing her tights in a taxi, not clearing up, or fishing a dirty dress out of the laundry basket because it was less rank than any of the alternatives. Her lack of embarrassment about the corners that had to be cut in order to juggle everything was the opposite of the cult of perfection that many women still struggle with today. Her columns give women permission to be themselves, to dislike domesticity, to find their own paths.
At the end of her session on Desert Island Discs, her luxury item was a distiller, so she could make booze out of whatever fruit or vegetables were to be found. Not for Whitehorn a dry January!
If you haven’t read her, or didn’t get the chance to chat to her at one of our Women in Journalism Christmas or summer parties where she was a regular attendee, get online and have a scout. For those of us who did, she is one of the reasons we became journalists, though few can rival her knack for a fantastic turn of phrase.
Most of all, Whitehorn’s tales from the sexual equality frontline remind us how far women have come in the century since her birth.
Katherine, I hope you are sitting up in heaven on a fluffy cloud enjoying a stiff gin. Wherever you are, Women In Journalism salutes you.