Talking about a revolution: the female heroes history forgot

Joy Lo Dico
Author and journalist Zing Tsjeng at the London Rascals restaurant in Shoreditch: Matt Writtle

"Harvey Weinstein, fashion photographers accused of sexual assault and harassment — those things aren’t a scandal,” says Zing Tsjeng, editor of Broadly, Vice’s women channel.

“It’s not like the Profumo affair. It’s something different. It should be looked at as a crime. It should be reported like a crime story.”

We have met at a bar called Rascals in Shoreditch, down the road from Tsjeng’s office. The bar is a confection of neon pink signs, a cocktail bar and a ball pit. Its self-consciously ironic pinkness makes it perhaps an unusual place to get stuck into the harder side of the current debate around female power, but the conversation is now happening everywhere.

Tsjeng, Singaporean by birth and now an east Londoner, is poised, and clearly very smart, and as we order tea she explains her theme of telling female stories.

She thinks the journalism around women has changed, and for the better. The 29-year-old is about to publish two books, both collections of biographies of historical figures, under the series title Forgotten Women.

“My feeling is that about four or five years ago a lot of feminist journalism, or women’s journalism, was talking about our vaginas, and the time and attention paid towards accepting yourself,” says Tsjeng. “‘Look at your vagina. Have you held a hand mirror near your crotch yet? Take a look.’

“Now it’s like, ‘well, we’ve done that. I’m fine with my body. I’m fine with having an ‘A’ cup. What I’m not fine with is the way I’m treated by everyone else, because I can change things I don’t like about myself — now I need to change the way the world treats me’.”

Broadly is part of this movement. Tsjeng moved there from Dazed and Confused three years ago. One of the articles she’s most proud of commissioning was about sexual assaults at music festivals, by the journalist Kate Lloyd.

It wasn’t quite The Presidents Club in terms of coverage but it went big enough that Lloyd was invited to address big music festival organisers such as Lovebox and Bestival.

But while Tsjeng can control the output on Broadly, she sees a problem in how the media has covered the recent cases of crimes against women. When allegations of fashion photographers’ conduct broke she was irritated by the presentation.

“One of the papers in the UK ran a story about one of the photographers who’d been outed as — I want to say ‘sex case’ but that’s just a nickname that me and my friends have given these men — and the photo they used was of him shooting a naked woman with his back to the camera. He doesn’t exist. He doesn’t get a mugshot.”

In other words, the woman is still objectified. Tsjeng twitches with irritation.

Tsjeng at the London Rascals restaurant in Shoreditch:

She thinks there’s an important dialogue about modern feminism taking place, even though it sometimes means being critical of other women.

Indeed, for Tsjeng challenging other women is part of the solution. “Lena Dunham is now criticised for the things that she’s done, whereas a couple of years ago she was fêted as being like the golden girl of feminism.”

Dunham was called out for coming to the defence of Girls writer Murray Miller after he was accused of sexual assault.

“If we sit down and we play nice and we say things such as, ‘oh, you know, let’s not be too harsh’, then I think it’ll take years. I want change to happen in my lifetime. I don’t want to wait for my daughters to achieve it.”

Her books, Forgotten Women, The Scientists and The Leaders, are about trying to shift the emphasis of history. The former covers female scientists, many of whom never found their way onto the Nobel Prize lists despite having been instrumental in winning projects, and the second title is about the military and political leaders whom history erased.

Among Tsjeng’s favourites is Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run as a nominee for the Democratic presidential candidacy.

But why were they all forgotten? Why are the Mirabal sisters, who stood up to the petty dictator running the Dominican Republic only to have their car hijacked and be bludgeoned to death, not held up as international heroes?

Or Zenobia, the warrior queen who dealt the Romans heavy defeats? Legend has it that Zenobia was so well-respected that her enemy, Emperor Aurelian, rewarded her with an opulent villa near Rome.

“When kids learn about people in history books, they learn about men,” observes Tsjeng. One of her theories about why women get forgotten is down to legacy. “For some of them the fact that they never had children was part of it.”

Tsjeng’s own hero is a Chinese pirate, Ching Shih, who re-emerges in popular culture in Pirates of the Caribbean. “She commandeered several thousand ships, inherited after her husband died.”

Tsjeng’s mission ultimately is to be able to stop someone in the street, ask them to name five female activists, politicians or scientists and the names “would roll off the tongue. Right now that isn’t happening.”

Her stories are part of a broader narrative: Stories for Rebel Girls was on the Christmas bestseller list, with a sequel coming soon, and podcasts such as the Badass Women’s Hour top the charts.

Among her friends, Tsjeng is known as the cheerleader, encouraging her friends to have the confidence to negotiate the salaries they deserve.

Back to Broadly, a magazine that sits in the stable of Vice Media — which last year was accused of having a macho culture and had to settle four sexual harassment claims.

Tsjeng declines to talk directly about allegations of harassment, saying she’s only been at Vice for three years, and adding that the company has committed to pay parity by the end of 2018. That was announced via email to the UK office.

Do you think that’s going to mean men having their salaries lowered, like at the BBC? “I would be interested to find out.”

And as for the gender wars being waged at Vice? “This is probably the optimist in me saying this — but I think there’s a real chance for a company to show moral leadership in a time like this.”

Here’s to no more forgotten women.

Forgotten Women is published by Cassell, £15