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News > Alumni Spotlight > Ella Whelan, Journalist & Author

Ella Whelan, Journalist & Author

"I am forever indebted to Owens for challenging me to think about complex ideas without fear or trepidation."

Current Job Title

Journalist, author of 'What Women Want' and organiser of the Battle of Ideas festival, an annual politics, arts and science public festival held in the heart of Westminster.

Dame Alice Owen’s Class of....

2003-2010 - known as Ella May Russell at school. 

Brief description of your path after Owen’s

After leaving Dame Alice Owens, I went straight to study an English Literature BA at the University of Sussex. After graduating with a first, I continued to study a Masters at Sussex in Contemporary Literature, specialising in modernism with a dissertation on Samuel Beckett. During her final year at university, I became involved with student politics, holding a debate on campus censorship and 'no platform' policies in partnership with the online magazine spiked. It was then that I began to write a regular column with the magazine on free-speech issues and topics related to contemporary feminism.

After graduating in 2014, I moved back to London and worked in an East London secondary school as an administrator while continuing to write political articles. In 2016, I joined spiked as a staff writer and later became assistant editor at the magazine. During my time at spiked, I hosted the podcast, covered political issues ranging from Brexit and British politics to US campus wars and the international fight for women's freedom. In 2017, I published my first book, What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism. 

Becoming a regular commentator on political and cultural issues for TV and radio, I decided to go freelance in 2017, working full-time as a journalist for publications including the Telegraph, New Statesman, Sunday Times and others. I later became a regular panellist on the BBC's Moral Maze as well as a paper reviewer for the BBC, Sky News, GBNews and other broadcasters.

In 2018, Ella joined the Academy of Ideas as a member of the team who produces the Battle of Ideas festival - an annual event where thousands of members of the public join politicians, authors and philosophers to hash out the pressing political issues of the day. Frustrated with the lack of public discourse during the pandemic, I became the commissioning editor of the AOI's Letters on Liberty series, a radical pamphleteering campaign with 30+ publications on issues relating to freedom and liberty in the 21st century.

How has your career path led you to where you are now?

Having come from a political family, I have always been interested in how society works. In the first year of my A-levels, I began by taking politics - a subject I quickly dropped after finding the lessons on the EU and the House of Commons boring (something I greatly regretted in my later years!). But my interest in politics only grew. In my final year at Owens, the school ran a mock 2010 election. I decided to stand as the 'spoil your ballot' candidate, feeling frustrated with what I thought was a poor choice between political parties. To their credit, the staff at Owens took my arguments seriously, and sent me to talk to a certain economics teacher who had similar sympathies. The speech I gave at the mock election was my first introduction to political public speaking, and would set me on the path of political engagement that I continue to follow.

Did your time at Owen’s inspire any particular skills or attributes?

I think the most important thing Owens did for me was to give me the confidence to think about what I wanted from life, and to try and make it happen. The opportunities I had being involved in various groups and clubs from the choir to theatrical productions at school took me to exciting places and made me realise that in order to engage with the world, I would have to be willing to put myself out there. My experience of being taken seriously by teachers, being encouraged to go the extra mile outside of the required work in lessons and to constantly think about the world outside the school walls gave me the confidence and interest I needed to become involved in the world of politics.

How did that help you to get to where you are now?

You have to have quite a hard neck to work in the media - particularly in a world of Twitter, which didn't have the purchase on political life that it did when I was at school. Owens always encouraged its students to discuss and debate big ideas. I particularly remember discussing The Merchant of Venice in one of my A-level English classes. Not only did we read it word-for-word, aloud, in each class with different students performing the parts, we discussed how the issues of race, anti-Semitism and power that Shakespeare raises were still relevant in contemporary life. Some of the articles I write today look at the way in which censorship of these very texts I studied at school effect young people's ability to understand and engage with the world. I am forever indebted to Owens for taking me seriously as a young person, and challenging me to think about complex ideas without fear or trepidation. 

Favourite Owen’s memory?

Aside from all the serious stuff of academic rigour and politics, I made lifelong friends at Owen’s. The group of girls I met in Year 7 are still my best friends. They were there when I got married and there when I gave birth to my son last year. The atmosphere of solidarity that Owens encouraged was wonderful. Thinking back, my favourite memory is probably being taken to Llangollen to compete in the Eisteddfod with our choir and Mr Werner. It was an experience I'll never forget. But if I'm being honest, it is the lunchtimes and form times with my friends that I will cherish forever, where we talked about the kind of women we wanted to be and dreamed about the things we'd do in our future. We still hang out at lunchtimes - and we still love paninis!

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