Everything about Dr Victoria Bateman is neat and carefully curated (well, almost everything, but we will get to that).
The 43-year-old Cambridge don, an expert in economics, is a thoughtfully-presented woman who loves a good accessory — a silk scarf, gloves with buttons, a structured handbag ‘that can be held strategically’.
She took a characteristically meticulous approach with the content of her latest book, Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty.
Ditto the all-important cover. There were meetings to nail the right image for an academic book about how, despite the promises of feminism, women still aren’t ‘allowed’ to flaunt their brains and their bodies.
Of course, the obvious choice would be a cover featuring a woman’s body. And why not Dr Bateman’s own?
The 43-year-old Cambridge don, an expert in economics, has previously tripped off to protest the lack of consideration of feminism in her field and Brexit
Of course, the obvious choice would be a cover featuring a woman’s body. And why not Dr Bateman’s own?
‘I had this idea of the body being on the front cover and the brain being represented by the words inside,’ she explains.
‘Together you would have this package of womanhood. I posed naked for some images and we looked at options — a full body shot, with parts blacked out maybe.
‘In the end, everyone agreed we should crop the image so you could see just a torso, the curve of my breasts and a belly button. Really, it’s mostly an image of a belly button. You can’t tell it’s my body either, which was perfect — it’s Everywoman.’
Amazon, the biggest and arguably most influential bookseller in the world, took issue however, allowing Dr Bateman’s book to be on sale on its site, but refusing to promote it as a recommended read, on account of the ‘sexually suggestive content’ of the cover image.
Dr Bateman laughs.
‘I couldn’t believe it. It’s not remotely suggestive. There is nothing you see here that you wouldn’t see in a bikini on a beach. There isn’t even the hint of a nipple. It’s certainly not sexualised in any way.’
The irony, though. One of the main arguments in this book is that women’s bodies are still at the mercy of state, society or church.
Overnight, the author needed to add internet retail giants to the list of oppressors.
‘Madness,’ says Dr Bateman. ‘What Amazon was doing was policing women’s bodies — over a book which delves into the 4,000-year history of women’s bodies being policed! It did rather prove my point that there is something we need to discuss here.’
As soon as the controversy hit the headlines, Amazon backtracked, permitting adverts for Dr Bateman’s book, yet here we are, discussing the wider issues.
The surreal thing is that we are doing so while Dr Bateman is entirely naked, save for a scarf knotted jauntily around her neck.
Her breasts are uncovered (nipples ahoy this time). Actually, everything is uncovered. Every time she lifts her book to reference something, it comes off her lap and I get an eyeful.
To be fair, she did ask before our interview if I’d mind her being starkers. She has form.
In 2014, Dr Bateman — a tiny figure, just 4ft 11in tall — wrote to her Cambridge colleagues (including the late Professor Stephen Hawking) warning them a nude portrait of her, which she’d commissioned as a reaction against the stuffy traditional oil paintings gracing the university’s rooms, was about to go on public display.
In 2014, Dr Bateman wrote to her Cambridge colleagues (including the late Professor Stephen Hawking) warning them a nude portrait of her, which she’d commissioned
It’s safe to say everyone was stunned, herself included.
‘Oh, ten years ago I was the sort of person who would have died rather than strip off,’ she says, adding: ‘I’m still a very modest dresser.’
She pauses and looks down. Oops.
‘When I am dressed, I am a modest dresser. Maybe best to say I am a woman of contrasts?’
The point is she saw the power in the portrait (by the artist Anthony Connolly, who is now President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters), but was amazed at the reaction of gallery visitors.
‘There was a little box giving my name and title — Dr Victoria Bateman, fellow of economics at Gonville & Caius — and I could see people physically jump back. This was an intellectual woman showing her body like a Page 3 girl?’
She was cross — first for herself (‘to my shame, I argued that I was nothing like a Page 3 girl. I thought I was better than that, which was wrong. No woman is better or worse than another’), then, the more she considered it, she was angry for all women, glamour models included.
She started to protest — arguing women should not be judged by their attire — by stripping off, first turning up naked to a meeting in her own college (‘I work in a very liberal environment. Everyone took it in their stride’), then to an event at the Office for National Statistics (‘I wore bank notes’).
Dr Victoria Bateman, (pictured) of Cambridge University, appeared naked on GMB and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to debate Brexit
In 2018 she attended a black tie function at the Royal Economic Society and, after dinner, walked into the Champagne reception starkers, ‘apart from my necklace and long evening gloves, for that sense of occasion’.
That protest was partly about the lack of focus on women’s issues by economists — ‘because the fact is that women’s interests, globally, are neglected,’ she says.
What was the reaction? ‘Someone came running with a dressing gown. I refused to put it on, and they ushered me into a side room where a senior woman came to give me a talking to.
‘She told me that she, and other female economists, had spent their lives trying to take women’s bodies off the table, and I was putting them back on there. She said I was an embarrassment to the profession.’
Once Dr Bateman started naked protesting, she discovered there was a lot to protest about.
In 2019, she went on Radio 4 — farewell again, knickers! — to talk about how Brexit would be an economic disaster for women.
She gamely invited Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to disrobe, too. Mercifully for all of us, he declined, saying he didn’t have a ‘double-breasted birthday suit’.
She has been stripping off since — all the while researching this book, in which she points out that, across the world, the issue of what women wear, or fail to wear, is masking much more dangerous issues.
She calls it the ‘modesty cult’, and her arguments are myriad.
In her book, she rages against a culture ‘which insists women must be either whores or good girls’ and a society ‘where a woman can have a brain or a body — but not both’.
She points out that the reason people are so shocked when she takes her clothes off is that we are simply not used to seeing women’s bodies —ordinary bodies — presented in a non-sexual way.
Other people’s reactions to her protests have proved interesting.
She says her husband James, a fellow economist who works for an asset management company (they met as undergraduates and have been married for 17 years) isn’t remotely bothered.
‘I am lucky enough to be married to a man who doesn’t consider my body to be something he owns,’ she says.
‘I know a lot of women have different experiences. And a lot of men have contacted me saying, “I wouldn’t want my wife doing this”. My husband respects my choices. He respects me.’
Her mother has been trickier, ‘because there is a sense of protectiveness there’.
She probably wants to run after you with a dressing gown too?
‘I think she has done, yes, but I have done my best to explain.’
Strangers have been hostile. She has been accused of being unhelpful to the feminist cause, of pandering to the male gaze and reckons 50 per cent of her detractors are other women.
‘I’ve been called a slut, a slag, a whore, common, trashy, stupid, an idiot, crazy, fat, a silly tart. People online have told me that I must have slept my way to all of my degrees because there is no way a woman who takes her clothes off could be intelligent enough to get degrees on her own merit.
Dr Victoria Bateman: ‘I’ve been called a slut, a slag, a whore, common, trashy, stupid, an idiot, crazy, fat, a silly tart’
‘People have written to my employers and tried to get me fired. It’s extraordinary. I have a rule that I will never be naked when teaching. All I am doing is saying: “No. I won’t be judged. I won’t conform to society’s idea of how a woman like me should present herself in order to be deserving of respect.” ’
What is ‘a woman like me’, though? Dr Bateman may have degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, but she is from a very working class background in Oldham. There is nothing ivory tower about her early lessons in feminism.
Her parents split up when she was 14 — a traumatic experience for her; she was collected by her mother one day after school and ‘we simply never went home’. She and her two sisters were plunged into a life of poverty.
‘So we were four women. My mother worked all the hours God sent, and it was still a struggle to pay the rent, to put those coins in the energy meter. I remember going hungry. I still have this huge sense of gratitude when I have a meal, even today.’
Her intellect provided her way out. ‘I saw peers having babies in their teens, single mothers, struggling. I didn’t want it.’
Those girls were judged, incessantly, she says, angry now, including over what they wore (and including by her, at the time).
‘If you were scantily clad, if you slept around, you were a whore and so the teachers didn’t want to know. They wrote whores off. That’s what they do to teenage girls in low-income communities. It’s what leads to abuses like Rotherham and Rochdale, girls falling on the wrong side, girls being written off.’
She — one of the ‘good girls’ — kept her skirts long and her head in books.
She still doesn’t have children, by choice. ‘Not having children was a defence mechanism, trying to protect myself from the stresses my mother faced. I know that if everyone thought like that the human race would stop, but . . .’
While her book (and life story) covers quite dark ground, Dr Bateman herself can be a hoot, describing how she had to grapple with all sorts of body confidence issues before she could stride across an important room naked.
She jokes about her skills with handbag placement, and the perils of showing your pubic hair to the world — especially (oh the horror!) when the world turns round and tells you that it’s the least neat thing about you.
‘One of the most surprising things was having people commenting, in a humorous way, about lawn mowers and hedges. I was slightly flummoxed, then mesmerised really at the idea that other women do all this waxing. It had never occurred to me. I’d bought a kit for my legs once, but I had never considered using it on anywhere more intimate. Maybe I was quite naïve.’
Still, she’ll accept the sniggers without feeling she needs to reach for a razor.
Back in the real world, though, there are public decency laws — for both sexes. She has never been arrested (‘my protests are always on private property. It’s not as if I go dancing down the street naked’), but doesn’t she accept that if a man stripped off, as she has, we women would be calling 999?
‘That is true, but I think there is a difference between women and men here. I have no penis.
Dr Bateman, pictured, said Brexit was Britain’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment while protesting naked
‘I am not, sexually, a threat to anyone, clothed or unclothed. Unless you think breasts are a threat, obviously.’
I still struggle to understand what she wants, ultimately. Is her Utopia really a world in which women can go to Sainsbury’s in the buff?
‘What I would love would be a world where we can all wear what we like without being judged, so for some of us that might be shopping in Sainsbury’s naked, while for others it might mean going fully-covered, with a headscarf.’
It would be a cold world, though, particularly in the freezer section, your bits protected only by a bag-for-life.
Naked Feminism: Breaking The Cult Of Female Modesty by Victoria Bateman, published by Polity Press. Hardback £25 (e-book £17.99)
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