Mac McClelland is the human rights reporter for Mother Jones magazine and the author of the book For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War. Mac has reported from all over the world, most recently from Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico – she is currently reporting on the impact of budget cuts in her home state of Ohio. Her book, which came out last year, was the result of the time she spent among Burmese anti-government rebels, people who risked their lives to combat ethnic cleansing under a military dictatorship.
Mac has also written about the place of women within journalism, as issue that was on many people’s minds earlier this year, when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted while reporting from Egypt. At the time, Mac wrote about the failure by the Committee to Protect Journalists to include sexual assault in its safety handbook. Mac questioned why this was so when the book “contains, for example, tips for other important but probably less common problems, like keeping your spirits up while you’re hiding in a basement from Sierra Leonean rebels who want to kill you.” She also wrote about her experience of taking self defense classes so that she could feel safer reporting from dangerous areas.
You can – and I highly recommend you do – follow Mac on Twitter.
It was a pleasure to talk to McClelland about her work, about sexism within the progressive movement, and about being a daddy’s girl, in the non-creepy way.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Mac McClelland.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to be a reporter, and a human rights reporter specifically?
Mac McClelland: I got into reporting a little bit accidentally, actually. I went to Thailand to live with refugees from Burma right after I finished grad school, and was just going to check out the situation and see what it was all about, and when I came back, I was like, “I have to write a book about that.” And so, I got a job as an intern at a magazine, at Mother Jones, because I figured it would be easier for me to get the contacts that I needed for my book if I worked somehow in publishing, and Mother Jones was my favorite magazine. So I applied for the internship and eventually talked them into hiring me. That was how I got into the industry in general. I didn’t study journalism or anything, I just had this story and I felt that I had to figure out a way to tell it. I started as an intern, and eventually became the copy editor. I was the copy editor for years, and I was writing for the magazine and I did end up getting a contract to write the book. After the galleys came out, I asked my editors if they wanted to read it. And they said “Yeah, sure,” and then they said, “OK, you need a new job.”
So the position of was sort of a nebulous thing, it was sort of invented, and we made it what it was. When it started, we didn’t really know what I was going to be, we just knew I was going to be a human rights reporter. I was probably going to spend a lot of time out of town. So I was in the Gulf for four months reporting, then I went straight to Haiti. I just got back from a month in Congo and Uganda. That’s how I ended up in dangerous places: the stories happened to be in dangerous places (but that’s not always the case – I’m leaving tomorrow to report from Columbus, Ohio, for five weeks). We don’t let the fact that a place is dangerous stop us from doing a story.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
MM: The protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. I know that’s a weird reference, but honestly, I hardly read any fiction at all, because I don’t have a lot of time and I’m always reading things that are related to facts that I need to know. I probably read one novel last year. But that’s my favorite fictional book. It’s kind of obscure, but she is super understated and calm, and gets her shit done, and she’s very accidentally charming. It’s hard not to love her.
Can my dad be a heroine? My dad’s pretty fey, does that count? I wouldn’t have done anything that I’ve ever done in my entire life if it weren’t for my dad. He is my cheerleader and always has been. Since I was a baby, since I have been old enough to understand English, my dad has been telling me every day that there is not anything that I should be afraid of, and that I can do every single thing in the entire world better than everyone else. None of that is true, but it definitely built a confidence in a little girl that I think it way too rare. And I know that that’s where I got that, and I’m grateful for it every day.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
MM: Oh my god, this shit with the world ending on May 21st. I can’t remember if I was in Africa or Europe when that started being news in the US, but I heard about that there, and Europeans weren’t like, “the world is going to end on May 21st,” they were like, “Americans think the world is going to end on May 21st.” The reason it bothered me the most is that, it’s fine if there are crazy people who want to talk about that, but why was that a story? Nobody could explain it to me. I spent a lot of time asking other journalists: “Why was that a story? Why were people reporting on this? Why was that on the news?” There are so many other more important things that you could put on the news, and this was the only thing that people were talking about. That was the one news story that the entire world was aware was going on: a bunch of stupid Americans who thought that the world was going to end. And our media was reporting on it like it was a real thing! I just don’t understand why that was a news story.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
MM: I would say denial, actually. I think that a lot of people, both men and women, think that they’re feminists, or are purported feminists, but are not, and they can’t recognize parts of themselves that really hate women. I work in progressive media, and in a perfect world, everyone I knew would say that they were feminists, and it would be true. They would all be very progressive, but that is not the case.
I’ll give you an example: I was interviewed by a magazine that was doing a piece about women reporters who report in places where they might get shot or raped or whatever. So I had this interview with the author, and at the end of it, she said, “you’re the first woman reporter who I’ve talked to who hasn’t said something along the lines of ‘Lara Logan was the kind of woman who took unnecessary risks and was sort of asking for it.’” And I was like, “are you fucking kidding me?” The people this writer was interviewing were all foreign correspondents and writers – all these educated, ambitious, supposedly progressive women who were saying, when it came down to it, that Logan shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing and that’s what you get. Which is so horrifying! And I’ve found that kind of this is pervasive, even in places where people claim to be progressive and love women. These people are supposed to be the people that are going to make things better, and if they can’t admit to themselves that there’s a woman-hating part of them, they’ll never be able to overcome it, and they’ll keep exacerbating this totally awful belief that we hold as a culture.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
MM: Peanut butter, which I eat every day because I’m five, Templeton rye, and my trauma counselor, who saved my life when I got PTSD. Because much as I would like to think that I would take being deserted on an island forever in stride, I’m sure that at some point I would start freaking the fuck out.