Deborah Frances-White on The Guilty Feminist podcast and making a hip hop musical about the suffragettes

Radhika Sanghani
Anna Gordon

Deborah Frances-White has seen Hamilton four times.

The sellout musical has won over both sides of the Atlantic with its use of rap to tell the story of America’s founding fathers and Frances-White — comedian and founder of hit podcast The Guilty Feminist — cannot stop raving about it.

“It made me feel the positive power of diversity and equality,” says the 37-year-old.

It was also a source of inspiration, because this month Frances-White announced she’ll be making her own hip-hop musical: Suffrageddon.

It will tell the story of the women who helped win the vote for their peers in the UK in 1918, and will be launched later this year to celebrate the centenary. But in a move away from historical accuracy the entire cast will be people of colour (Emmeline Pankhurst is played by queer black rapper RoxXxan).

“Hip hop is the voice of the revolution,” says Frances-White. “Watching RoxXxan rap you feel the pain of the suffragettes. It wouldn’t translate if you had, say, Nigella Lawson coming and saying, ‘Life is terrible for us.’ It wouldn’t work as a museum-piece period drama with posh people talking about being chained to railings.”

She thinks the Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda would be “thrilled” . “He’s inspired women of colour to tell a different story that’s uniquely female.

Frances-White has a cameo in Suffrageddon. She plays the patriarchy, laughing: “It is, rightly, the whitest part in the show.” Can she sing? “I’m in a rap battle so there’s not much singing. My friend told me: ‘The others were doing hip-hop, but what you were doing was speaking clearly’.”

It is this self-deprecating humour that has made Frances-White and her podcast so popular. The Guilty Feminist has had 25 million downloads. “Women are hungry for it,” she says. “Traditionally they’ve been offered shoes, cocktails, kittens, ‘girl stuff’, or earnest, quite serious, cross stuff. Now they have something that’s entertaining but still about topics they care about.”

The podcast suggests anyone not doing feminism in a certain way is ‘guilty’. Frances-White defends this: “I’m saying: ‘I’m not sure I’m doing it right’. I’m not 100 per cent focused on feminism all the time. I also want to look good sitting down naked.”

“I’m a feminist but once I went to a women’s march, popped into a store to use the loo and got distracted trying out face cream. When I came back the march was gone. People relate to trying to do something good but flaking out at the last moment”.

Much of Frances-White’s perspective comes from her background. She was raised in Australia by adoptive parents and became a Jehovah’s Witness as a teenager. She stayed in the religion until she came to the UK on a gap year, later studying at Oxford.

Guilty feminist: Deborah Frances-White is bringing hip hop to women's suffrage (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)

“Weirdly, I was a feminist Jehovah’s Witness. I was always saying things about inequality in the Bible, which caused trouble because you’re not allowed theological debate. I always felt the inequality keenly.”

She believes she was “brainwashed”. “I thought what they said was the truth. It’s entirely run by men. I lived in a mini-patriarchy that was extremely stifling, where men would tell you what to do the entire time. It’s hard to leave because you have to un-brainwash yourself by spending time apart from it.”

She is still in contact with some family who followed her in leaving but now lives in Camden with her Jewish husband Tom Salinsky — a “massive feminist” who works as a producer on her podcast, and a Syrian refugee, Steve Ali. She explains casually that she met him while doing her podcast, he cat-sat for her and never left, and they are now working on a Radio 4 podcast together.

Her life is full of projects, not least Suffrageddon, which she’s currently crowdfunding. But none of it would have happened if she hadn’t faced up to her Jehovah’s Witness past in 2015, when she spontaneously flew to Canada to rescue a fan who told her he was struggling to leave.

“I had to go back into a Kingdom Hall to help him. Two male elders locked me in a room alone with them. It was frightening, but I demanded: ‘Let me go’. They eventually did, and it was so freeing. I realised I’d never said ‘let me go’ before.”

She doesn’t think it is a coincidence that, months later, The Guilty Feminist happened and her journey to Suffrageddon began. “It was severing ties with the patriarchy that did it.” The suffragettes would be proud.