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Dawn Foster: a voice from the sharp end

A tribute to our friend Dawn Foster, who died earlier this year, from her friends Gary Younge, Helen Zaltzman, Sam Tarry, Sarah Woolley and everyone at Red Pepper

4 to 5 minute read

Two photos side by side. Dawn Foster sitting at a dinner smiling. A tribute writting on a white wall reads Dawn Foster Forever

Dawn Foster, who died suddenly at home in July, was so much more than a talented journalist. Raised in Newport, Wales, she was the rarest of public figures – a high-profile, working-class voice in Britain’s media landscape. On television and in print, Dawn was one of a tiny number of mainstream commentators to consistently support the Labour opposition under Jeremy Corbyn, yet able to cut through party political point-scoring and speak for those at the sharp end of the government’s austerity policies.

Her book Lean Out (Repeater, 2016) fast became an iconic feminist text, powerfully rejecting the corporate capture of women’s empowerment and stressing the socialist essence of radical feminism. Her reporting of the 2017 Grenfell tragedy is unsurpassed, beginning on the day of the fire, when she went to aid residents on the ground, listen to their experiences and reflect them to a worldwide audience.

As deft at penning first-person narratives as discussing high politics and popular culture, Dawn became a great friend and supporter of Red Pepper, and was due to contribute an essay for our Autumn 2021 issue. She played a key role in the movement, always advocating for a more just society while living with the chronic health conditions that resulted in her untimely death. She will be missed by us all. Dawn Foster forever.

– The Red Pepper team

Tributes from friends

Dawn was a fighter, a laugher and a compulsive troublemaker. That is what made her so unique and brilliant, both on and off the page. She wrote stridently and unapologetically and bravely about, to and in the interests of the most marginalised. Politically her voice provides an essential, articulate and sadly rare counterpoint to mainstream orthodoxy. Her death is a huge loss.

Gary Younge, former Guardian columnist and sociology professor at the University of Manchester

I first heard of Dawn when my husband came home from an evening playing Monopoly with a new friend, who had seized all his property and renationalised the railways. Dawn took such glee in things. She never appeared bored or indifferent; she either liked or hated what she was doing, and the same went for you. Being friends with her was like emotional whitewater rafting: you might emerge bruised, or chaotically adrenalised. Maybe because her work was so gruelling, her childhood an ordeal, her health could turn catastrophic at any instant, she lived in the moment, and sometimes you got to live in it with her.

Helen Zaltzman, podcaster

Dawn Foster stuck two fingers up to the establishment. She was scathing, witty and pointed out the absurdity of modern politics, as well as the gross inequalities in society. Yet Dawn was a rare thing: a working-class woman who made a successful career as a progressive writer. She was a friend, a raconteur, a socialist. She gave a damn – about the world around her, people being exploited, the rank hypocrisy of legacy media and the dangerous political buffoonery that we witness every single day.

Sam Tarry, Labour MP for Ilford South

If you get very, very lucky, life brings you someone who makes a better world seem possible. Get even luckier and they’ll be a Fleetwood Mac fan. I know this because eight years ago life brought me Dawn. We were both in our mid-20s and she felt like home. It feels impossible to do her justice, so I’ve been scrolling through everything we texted one another. So many messages from Dawn remind me that she loved to see her friends doing well. A new job, a baby. Dawn lit up when someone else was happy. Whenever I feel lost, Dawn’s writing will be a guiding star. I will miss her spirit and I am deeply grateful that she was in the world.

Sarah Woolley, writer

Dawn vs the Mainstream Media

In her own words: an extract from Lean Out

Criticism of any woman isn’t anti-feminist purely because she is a woman: women occupy all sections of society now. The queen being the queen isn’t an emancipatory feminist fact. Margaret Thatcher harmed more than helped women by becoming prime minister, drastically harming thousands of women’s lives and communities because her class interests mattered far more to her than any modicum of gender solidarity.

Sheryl Sandberg has worked for companies that are entrenching and worsening equality but is able to cast herself as a feminist prophet because she has the money, power and platform to do so, all the while refusing to engage with the structural and external forces perpetuating women’s inequality, instead urging women to look inward. Why does this matter? Because feminism has become watered down, treated as a whitewashing badge of honour rather than a radical emancipatory politics.

Feminism now means you don’t always do the dishes, or that you look down your nose at women’s magazines, rather than meaning you fight capitalist systems that enable continued attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable. It also enables you, in the same breath, to continue an imperialist worldview that condemns countries purely on the basis of how they treat women, without stopping to consider whether the corporations you laud for hiring women in one country are causing mass hardship for women in sweatshops in another.

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