Jane Caro in conversation with Alex Sloan

It was to the ANU’s brand new Kambri Cultural Centre that we went for this week’s ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event with Jane Caro, who is doing a book tour with her new book Accidental feminists. Kambri is not as cosy as the old venue but is bigger, more flexible, and offers a cash bar! What’s not to like? Oh, and to add to the enjoyment, there is, on the lecture theatre’s side wall, an impressive 20-metre-long Sidney Nolan mural, The Eureka Stockade, which was donated to the University by the Reserve Bank of Australia, for whom it was originally created in 1966.

Anyhow, as always MC Colin Steele started the evening off with some housekeeping and then introduced Jane Caro (who needed no introduction) and her interlocutor Alex Sloan (who needed no introduction – in Canberra, anyhow). And then we were  off …

With no beating about the bush, Sloan got stuck right in by sharing the Walkley Award judges’ comment that Caro was “an invaluable warrior for women’s rights”, and then referring to Caro’s comment on the morning’s TV show Sunrise regarding the renewed asylum-seeker/people smuggler debate. Caro said that “Australia needs to find its moral compass again” and that the scare campaigns being waged against “people who are in tragic circumstances” means we “have reached a new low in this country.” Sloan asked Caro to comment on this, particularly regarding the reactions to it.

Say what you think

It was the perfect question for Caro to explain her modus operandi. She’s not “going to play the stupid game” and hide from unpleasantness, she said. This is about morality, and she believes that “If you say what you think, and mean it genuinely, nothing bad happens.” I like this faith!

The problem, she says, is that we worry too much about what we say, and how we look. She learnt – with, she wasn’t afraid to admit, the help of therapy – that she can’t control how people respond to her, so she now just says what she wants. She’s not here, she said, to be liked or approved of. Confidence, she believes, comes from recognising this, and from realising that there is no magic formula, that risk is a reality.

Jane Caro, Accidental feministsThe conversation then moved to the main reason we were there, her book Accidental feminists. It was inspired by her discovery that women aged over 50 comprise the fastest growing group of homeless people. She was shocked because this was her age-group, a group she’d believed revolutionary because they were the first cohort to earn their own money for most of their lives. Why were they ending up in this situation?

At this point the conversation turned historical, to how things were in the 1950s to 70s:

  • many girls were discouraged from continuing their education because they’d only be working for a while and then getting married.
  • many women were suspicious of/didn’t support Women’s Libbers (Feminists today), feeling that their lives were being criticised rather than that they were being “offered new horizons.”
  • women were brought up with a sense of inferiority, of feeling lesser, something which continues today. (For example, women are still less likely to speak up in public gatherings.)

Caro quoted Hugh Mackay’s definition of feminism from his book What makes us tick?:

Feminism is the fight by one half of the human race to be taken seriously by the other half.

Sloan asked Caro, how, then, had these “accidental feminists” come about. Caro identified a few causes, which were obvious to those of us who lived through this time:

  • the Pill which “unshackled women from their reproductive system” providing them with choices never available before
  • the Whitlam government’s provision of free tertiary education, which saw more young (and in fact middle-aged middle-class) women go to university.

What about the men?

Next Sloan moved onto the role of men, quoting ACT feminist Virginia Haussegger’s suggestion that men should be seen as crucial part of the solution, not the problem. Caro agreed, suggesting that feminism, in fact, offers men, too, the opportunity to live broader, freer lives. She also said that men are starting to defend women. Hmmm, my immediate reaction was why should women need to be defended by men, but Caro second-guessed that when she went on to explain that male champions are important because they put people on notice that it’s all about being human.

A brief reference was made to the #metoo movement whose main benefit Caro suggested is that it is shattering the silence, because silence puts the vulnerable at risk.

From here the conversation covered a variety of topics. One concerned “dutiful daughters” and the fact that women tend to take on the major caring roles – for children, for parents – which interrupts their working lives. She reported Betty Friedan’s criticism of the anti-feminist group, “Women Who Want to be Woman”. Friedan pointed out that such women “are one bread-winner away from the poverty line”. Caro discussed this in some detail in the Australian context – particularly regarding women’s inability to get jobs when they are older, the gap between when they are no longer employed and are able to access the pension. She somewhat jokingly suggested that the most important financial advice for women is to “work on your marriage!” Hmmm, perhaps that’s what the “women who want to be women” think they are doing, but my, they are taking a risk.

I have just given the bare bones here. The actual conversation included several anecdotes, not to mention facts and figures, to support Caro’s arguments, but you’ll just have to take these as read I’m afraid. That sort of detail is hard to capture while trying to enjoy yourself as well!

Q & A

There was a Q&A but the session was recorded so if you are interested, do Google the event in a couple of days. Meanwhile I’ll just share a couple of the points that were made:

  • Caro hates the term “work-life” balance because she doesn’t see them as separate things. Work is part of life. Now this could lead to a whole new conversation and what “work” is and how we “value” it, and it was clear than Caro has a raft of arguments to support her view.
  • Reference was made to Julia Baird’s recent article about politicians, merit and quotas. Worth reading if you haven’t seen it.
  • Caro argue that there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the converted. If you don’t keep them on-side someone else may convert them! Further, “the converted” have a sphere of influence which they can impact if they are kept informed and on-side.
  • Caro critiqued women taking their husband’s names. Women, she said, argue they’re assertive at work but then take on a “placatory” attitude at home. Yes! I truly cannot understand why contemporary young women are regressing in this regard. It’s a small thing in one sense, but in another it feels indicative.

Finally, when asked what advice she’d give young girls, Caro said:

Look to your Super. You are not here to make someone else’s life brilliant. You do not have to perform a role. Your job is to become as fully yourself as you can.

An interesting, inspiring and, yes, entertaining conversation, that was nicely managed by Sloan who, with the professionalism she’s known for, went with the flow while also ensuring the main issues were covered.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
18 February 2019

Dymphna Clark Lecture: Clare Wright and You daughters of freedom

According to the University of Melbourne website, the Dymphna Clark Lecture “is delivered annually by a lecturer who exemplifies the deep commitment Dymphna Clark showed to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.” Strangely, I can’t find a description of the lecture series on the Manning Clark House site which, I believe, is behind the lecture series. I can, however, find a list of the Manning Clark Lectures up to and including 2019 on their About Us page. Poor form I think, particularly given it was Dymphna, I understand, “who bequeathed the family home to the intellectual and cultural community with the wish that it be used to support artists and public intellectuals and provide a safe haven for the entire community.”

On Facebook I discovered that Drusilla Modjeska gave the 2016 lecture; on the above-linked University of Melbourne site that Anna Funder gave 2013’s; and on Virginia Haussegger’s site that David Headon was 2009. Drilling down to page 3 of my Google search, I found at honestyhistory that Bill Gammage was it for 2014 and on safecom that Eva Sallis was 2007. But, why can’t I easily find a list of all the Dymphna Clark lectures, as I can of the Manning Clark lectures? We could take exception to this, seeing it as, once again, sexism in action, but I’m inclined to think the reason is more mundane, and that it’s a sin of omission, not of commission. So, I now respectfully suggest that they create a new page for the two lecture series and maintain a list, with relevant links, of both series, because they are serious lectures. Clare Wright’s 2018 talk, for example, was being recorded for ABC RN’s Big Ideas program. But now, having made my point, I’ll move on to the lecture.

You daughters of freedom

Technological troubles

It was held in a lecture theatre at the ANU. Unfortunately, despite many people trying for over half an hour to get the technology working, the lecture went ahead without Wright’s accompanying slideshow. A real shame but, luckily, Wright is an excellent, engaging speaker, and easily kept our attention for the 50 minutes or so that she spoke. The lecture was, of course, inspired by Wright’s latest book, You daughters of freedom, the second in her Democracy Trilogy, she told us. Manning Clark House’s promotion for the lecture said the book:

brings to life a time when Australian democracy was the envy of the world—and the standard bearer for progress in a shining new century. For the ten years from 1902, when Australia’s feminist activists won the vote for white women, the world looked to this trailblazing young democracy for inspiration.

This epic new history tells the story of that victory—and of Australia’s role in the subsequent international struggle—through the eyes of five remarkable players: the redoubtable Vida Goldstein, the flamboyant Nellie Martel, indomitable Dora Montefiore, daring Muriel Matters, and the artist Dora Meeson Coates, who painted the controversial Australian banner carried in the British feminist activist marches of 1908 and 1911.   

I’ve started reading the book, and while I’ve only read some 40 of its 500 or so pages, I’m finding it wonderfully readable.

Anyhow, now, really, the lecture! Wright was briefly introduced by Sebastian Clark, President of the Manning Clark House and son of Dymphna and Manning Clark, and then we were off. She started by describing that famous restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally – you all know the one – which concludes with the woman at the next table saying to the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Wright teased out some meanings and implications of that scene in terms of women’s freedom, the #metoo movement, and, of course, her lecture’s subject, the granting of the vote to women in Australia in 1902.

“In the noonday glare”

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWhen Wright stated that this legislation made Australian women the most franchised women in the world, there were mutterings in the audience about, for example, New Zealand – and was followed up in the Q&A. But, I had already read Wright’s Author’s Note that opens her book, where she explains her claim. Australia was the first nation to give (white) adult women full suffrage – meaning not only could they vote on equal par with men (that is, without property qualifications, and with the same age and residency requirements) but they could also sit in parliament. New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, but New Zealand was not a nation until 1947, and women could not sit in parliament until 1919. Finland was, in fact, the next nation to grant full suffrage to women – in 1906. I loved that she refers in this Note to something that we’d discovered on our US travels back in the 1990s, which was that women were granted the vote in Wyoming in 1869! But, Wyoming is a state, not a nation. Similarly the colony of South Australia enacted universal suffrage in 1895, including allowing women to stand for the colonial parliament, but again, it was not a nation. It was the fact that a nation had granted suffrage that apparently became a beacon for the world. Of course, proclaiming “firsts” is always risky, but Wright’s definition seems perfectly valid to me in terms of her book’s thesis.

Wright explained in her lecture that this same Act disenfranchised indigenous people. Some parliamentarians did apparently demur on this point, but those who demurred gave way to ensure that at least women got the rights. Consequently, race not gender became the dividing line. As Wright said, “white” Australia was very much the game from Federation, and, while later, some women started fighting for their “black sisters”, their first priority, after gaining suffrage for themselves, was to go to England to support the mother country’s sisters. Such were the times. Later in her lecture, Wright said that it may not be pleasing to know this about our “heroines” but it’s historically accurate!

I should confess at this point, that I’m not reporting on this lecture exactly in the order that Wright gave it but in an order suiting my main takings from it.

Anyhow, back to the granting of suffrage. Wright quoted American-born Australian suffragist Jessie Ackermann who said that this act of the new Australian nation put it/us “in the noonday glare.” Suffrage was, she said, the biggest news in the early years of the twentieth century and was simply known as “the Cause”. Australia’s actions made it/us a test site for universal suffrage and the other socially progressive laws Australia enacted in those days. Could it work? Everyone was watching – particularly of course men who feared loss of power. As Wright said near the end of the lecture:

Power never concedes anything without a fight.

Wright briefly introduced the five main women she features in her book, Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters, and Dora Meeson Coates, and characterised their approach to activism by giving them a canine archetype! Goldstein, the “born activist”, she described as a kelpie, for example, while Meeson Coates is a “reluctant activist” and a Weimaraner! (As past owners of Weimaraner, Mr Gums and I chuckled here.) Again, near the end of the lecture, Wright explained that she did this canine breakdown to show that these women were not all one type, and that difference is critical to the movement’s internal gatekeeping.

Wright also spoke about the challenge she faced in making suffrage, citizenship and federation exciting, particularly at this time when democracy is under attack. She quoted the recently reported Lowy Institute poll showing the surprising level of ambivalence in Australia about democracy. It’s hard to imagine in this environment, she said, that democracy and all that it involves was the hottest topic on the planet in the late 19th century. Why did Aussie women travel to England to fight for the rights for others?

Well, they were different times, of course, as Wright made clear. The turn of the century was a time of optimism. In Australia it was a trinity – new year, new nation, new century. People believed the past was being left behind; they had new Utopian visions. Women’s suffrage encapsulated all this – the ideas of rebellion, emancipation, restructuring society. Suffrage was seen as the key to unlocking repression. If women could vote, and if women could sit in parliament, women’s needs might be better cared for. As Jessie Ackermann said, the freest girls were in Australia.

The women’s suffrage banner

As she does in her book’s Introduction, Wright walked us through (our current) Parliament House to a narrow corridor past the Members’ Hall where, if you get there, you find a large banner. It was created by that Weimaraner Dora Meeson Coates in 1908 and was carried in the 1911 suffragette-organised Women’s Coronation Procession. Wright took us through its iconography/symbolism, through the implications of its depiction of Mother Britannia with Daughter Minerva. It shows, she said, the daughter Australia speaking to the mother England, the banner headline reading “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done.” This was, she said, “allegorical effrontery.” Why had she not known about this banner, she wondered, given she calls herself a feminist historian?

Now, I could go on, but I’ve probably lost half of you by now and will soon lose the rest, so I’m going to try to become even briefer. Wright explained that one-third of her book is about how Australian women won the vote, and two-thirds about how Australian women inspired the world, In this context, she told a wonderful story about Bulldog Dora Montefiore, another Aussie woman who went to England, and her “Siege of Hammersmith”, a 6-weeks long passive resistance protest again paying taxes without representation. (She was, says Wright, seen by a young Indian man, Mahatma Gandhi!) A wonderful story. It was part of something called the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Wright also described the passive resistance campaigns against the 1911 Census: Women argued that if they don’t count, they shouldn’t be counted.

The irony of history

And so, Australian women were leaders in the suffrage movement and yet, today, British suffragettes are icons of rebellion and bravado but our Australian activists are relegated to the footnotes of academic history. BUT, she argued, Dora Meeson Coates’ banner challenges the view that this history of women’s activism is niche. The big picture is, she said, that Federation and Feminism went hand-in-glove: the banner is about colonialism, about old and new, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, about men in Australia who championed women’s suffrage and those in England who didn’t, and more …

Why then are women not sufficiently accounted for in Australian history? Because, she said, of the First World War. Federation’s optimism, she argues, was soon overshadowed by the War, which, as we all know now, precipitated a “new narrative.” So, whilst before the War, our role in the world was being seen in terms of our achievements in terms of democratic idealism, suddenly it was being seen in military terms. It was our bravery, our contribution to the war effort, that now defined us as a nation – and the rest, as they say, is history! (Particularly given, I’d add, that, as Jane Austen said one hundred years ago, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.”) From Wright’s point of view, the War represented not the birth of a nation, but the death of the nation we were becoming. Something to think about, eh?

Clare WrightThere was still more, but even I’m running out of puff now. Wright concluded by talking about the importance of stories. The stories we choose to tell are the ones that define who (we think) we are. Why, for example, she asked, is there no statue in Melbourne memorialising that significant suffragist and social reformer, Vida Goldstein? Why, too, is Prime Minister Fisher remembered more for his statements about war (about our defending the mother country “to the last man, and the last shilling”) but not his argument about “true democracy” requiring the inclusion of “women as well as men in the electorate of the country”?

Wright said she’s wary of “learning lessons” from history, preferring to think about legacies. The legacy of the suffragists is that resistance, that grass-roots movements, can create real and lasting change. Her mantra, she said, is Dora Montefiore’s exhortion: #trustthewomen. And with that, her true colours, already advertised in the borrowed suffragette scarf she was wearing, were shown!

An intelligent Q&A lasting nearly half an hour followed, but eventually we had to finish. It was a wonderful lecture. I love that not only is Wright such an accessible, engaging historian, but that she linked the past to the present, because that is the main reason I like to read history. The past is interesting, but its true value lies in how it can enlighten the present.

And now, if you made it to the end – I thank and salute you!

Dymphna Clark Lecture
RN Robertson Theatre, ANU
17 October 2018

Six degrees of separation, FROM The beauty myth TO …

Wah, it’s now the start of autumn here down under. I love, love, love autumn (and not just because my birthday occurs during it) but it does mean that winter’s next and I hate, hate, hate that! We do, however, have fun things to entertain us when things get glum like, for example, The Six Degrees of Separation meme. It is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – and if you are not familiar with how it works, please click the link on Kate’s blog-name. She explains it all.  Meanwhile, this month’s book is one that I should have read when it came out, given my interests, but didn’t, Naomi Wolf’s The beauty myth. As always though, I’ve read all the linked books.

Naomi Wolf, The beauty mythNow, when I said I should have read The beauty myth, given my interests, but didn’t, I mean that I have been interested for a long time – since I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch back in the 1970s – in the way western culture, specifically, objectifies women. Wolf’s The beauty myth, which was praised by Greer, looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to conform to set notions of beauty, and are exploited as a result.

A more recent – and Australian – book-cum-memoir which looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to meet societal standards of beauty is Tara Moss’s The Fictional woman (my review). Her thesis is that women are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in myriad ways. Despite having some long bows, this book – written in 2014 – is spot on in terms of what is now, finally, coming to the fore. It’s distressing that so many writers (among others) have been saying the same things about this issue for SO long, but here we are, in 2018, still in a patriarchal society which thinks it’s ok to objectify and thus control women. Unbelievable.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

Another memoir by a feminist is Kate Jennings’ Trouble: Evolution of a radical (my review). It’s a different sort of memoir, a “fragmented autobiography” she calls it. It comprises a compilation of Jennings’ writings selected and ordered by her to show how she has come to be the person she is, to believe the things she does. It’s an engrossing book that includes fiction (poetry and prose) and non-fiction (including interviews) written over a couple of decades.

And, it includes excerpts from her own semi-autobiographical novella, Snake (my review), which I have also reviewed here. Snake is a coming-of-age story set in rural Australia, and tells of Girlie and Boy, and their parents Rex and Irene. It’s not a happy childhood, and in fact the book was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “domestic dystopia”. The snake title provides a clever motif encompassing such ideas as temptation, deceit and danger.

Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit, book coverThere are several books I could link from here, including Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The road from Coorain and Francesca Rendle-Short’s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, but I’d like to leave the Australian continent at least once in this journey. Consequently, I’m choosing another autobiographical novel about a difficult childhood, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit (my review). Unlike Snake though, the orange motif is far less clear but seems to relate, in part at least, to closed-mindedness. At the end of the novel, pineapples appear, which may suggest change.

Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapplePineapples bring us back to Australia and a book with pineapples in the title, Thea Astley’s Hunting the wild pineapple (my review of the short story from this collection). It is set on a pineapple farm in a place called Mango, and deals, among other things, with the power wielded by white men over others – in particular, women (reminding me of where this month’s meme started) and migrants. And now …

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

For my last book, I’m going to link on names – from author Thea Astley to character Thea in Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (my review). Coincidentally, this book returns to another thread in this meme, the coming-of-age one (though perhaps, as Diana Blackwood suggested in the comments on my review of her novel Chaconne, it’s more a “wising-up” one.) Set in 1930s Sydney, it concerns three young women, Thea, Eve and Marc, and revolves particularly around Thea’s affair with her married professor. Hmmm … I think we are back to the idea of the unbalanced power relationship between men and women. I’ll leave it there…

This month, again, we haven’t travelled far, only visiting the same countries as last month – the USA, England and Australia. We’ve stayed in the last 100 years and with women writers only. I must diversify a little more next month.

And now, have you read The beauty myth? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

Betty McLellan, Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography (#BookReview)

BettyMcLellanAnnHannahBetty McLellan’s Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography disconcerted me at first. I’d never heard of a psychological biography (which, I presume, is the same as psychobiography) so I was intrigued by McLellan’s discussion in the Introduction of her decision to use this approach. I did feel, for a chapter or two that she was drawing a long bow, but I persevered and it was worth the effort.

McLellan commences her Introduction by telling us a little about who Ann Hannah Stickley was and why she decided to write the book. As you’ll have gathered from the title, Ann Hannah was her grandmother. Born in 1881, and emigrating to Australia with four children when she was 40, Ann Hannah was, writes McLellan, “an unremarkable woman who lived an unremarkable life and died an unremarkable death” (albeit at the, I’d say, remarkable age of 97!) However, McLellan came to realise, long after Ann Hannah had died, that this grandmother, who was already living with her family when she was born and who was still there when she left home at nineteen, was worth investigating. She sensed that her grandmother had had a “remarkable resilience” and wanted to know how she’d done it. But how was she to explore this, given her grandmother had been dead for nearly 40 years?

The problem was that she knew relatively little about this quiet, practical, hardworking woman, and that there was no one left who might have known more. So what, she questioned, “would be the best literary device to use to record her story, explore my own reactions to it and analyse it in terms of its relevance for other women?” A straight biography would not work, for the reasons already given. Consequently, she turned to this new-to-me genre of psychological biography which “seeks to discover a subject through analysis of their political pronouncements, decisions, writing, behaviour or art”. Ann Hannah, being a private, “ordinary”, person had none of those, but she did have a number of sayings – didn’t all our grandmothers? It is through these that McLellan decided to analyse Ann Hannah, “with a view to uncovering the deeper meaning behind her words” and in so doing to not only understand her grandmother more, but, among other things, “to present her as a representative of many women born in her time and circumstance”. It’s a big ask …

McLellan, a psychotherapist and feminist activist who has written other books, does this by taking each saying, explaining its meaning and how her grandmother had used it, and then exploring its wider implications or connotations. What exactly she explores is largely driven by the saying. The saying in Chapter 2, for example, is “I’m a Londoner”, and so McLellan explores – through historical and sociopolitical lenses – what life was like in the parts of London where Ann Hannah had lived until her migration to Australia in 1921.  She was uneducated, and part of “the working poor”. But, this was also the time of the women’s suffrage movement, which McLellan describes in some detail. Ann Hannah, she says, had never indicated she was aware of the “political machinations” going on around her, so in one sense we could question McLellan’s inclusion of the history here. However, McLellan concludes the chapter by saying her grandmother had lived her life as a “strong, determined woman”. It could be argued that this was in part made possible by the sociopolitical environments she found herself in.

By contrast, Chapter 4’s saying is “‘e was a wickid man” [ “wickid” being spelt that way to capture Ann Hannah’s pronunciation]. It deals with Ann Hannah’s second husband’s violence and sexual abuse of his step-daughter, as well as of Ann Hannah, herself, and one of their daughters. Here, not surprisingly, McLellan looks more at psychiatry, psychology and the law, than history and politics. She describes the lack of recourse women had during the time Ann Hannah lived, and concludes that her grandmother’s only choice, really, was to “accept her lot” and get on with it, which is exactly what she did. (Not surprisingly, Ann Hannah said it was “the ‘appiest day of my life when ‘e died”!)

These are just two of the six chapters exploring Ann Hannah’s sayings. Two others deal with the experience of migration and of the loss of a child, both of which particularly engaged my interest.

Overall, the approach makes for a somewhat disjointed book, skipping as it does around different fields of human knowledge and experience. Nonetheless, it all works reasonably well because there are unifying threads to which McLellan returns, one being Ann Hannah herself, and the other McLellan’s feminist perspective. I say “reasonably” well because there were times when, due I’m sure to lack of information, Ann Hannah seemed to slip though my fingers. I wanted, I suppose, a more traditional biography! Given that McLellan explained why she couldn’t produce that, it’s unreasonable of me to criticise the book for what it’s not, so I won’t. I’ll just say that it’s what I would have liked!

The real question is, then, does McLellan’s decision to write a psychological biography of her grandmother work? Does it provide, in other words, some useful insights into women’s lived experience, as McLellan intended? I think it does – and does so in a way that not only illuminates the past, but also contributes to our understanding of the present and why things are the way they are today. A different but interesting read.

aww2017 badgeBetty McLellan
Ann Hannah, my (un)remarkable grandmother: A psychological biography
Mission Beach: Spinifex Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925581287

(Review copy courtesy Spinifex Press)

Tara Moss, The fictional woman (Review)

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

In terms of feminist argument, I’m not sure that Tara Moss told me anything I didn’t already know or believe in her first work of non-fiction, The fictional woman, but that didn’t stop me enjoying her take, her approach. Moss is an interesting woman. Her careers as a model and a crime writer meant she wasn’t really on my radar for the first twenty years of her working life, but that changed a couple of years ago when she began appearing on commentary shows I watch like Q&A (see an appearance here) and The Drum. I discovered that she’s a woman of wide interests and many talents. Here are some of them: UNICEF Ambassador for Child Survival, Goodwill Ambassador; UNICEF Australia Patron for Breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Heath Initiative; Ambassador for the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children; and a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies.

So the book. Her main thesis – born of her own experience – is that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. The book starts more like a memoir, telling us how she became a model in her early teens (“The Model”), her experience of being measured by her body (“The Body”), how she survived some early experiences, including rape (“The Survivor”), and her transition to being a writer (“The Writer”). She then moves on to discuss wider topics such as “The ‘Real’ Woman”, “The Archetypal Woman”, “The Beautiful and the Damned”, and “The Crone”, though in these too, she often uses her personal experiences. To illustrate the fictions women live under, she tells of taking a polygraph test to prove that she, a “dumb” “blonde” “model”, could actually have written a successful novel.

Moss supports her discussion of the fictions she identifies with an impressive array of statistical and other evidence. The book is extensively foot-noted (or, is that end-noted), as you would expect from a PhD student. While the points she makes aren’t necessarily new to me, much of her evidence is – and that’s worrying because her evidence is recent confirming that things haven’t changed as much as I’d have hoped since I first started thinking and reading about feminism in the 1970s.

I won’t elaborate the multiplicity of fictions she explores, the way women are simplified into virgin, whore, witch, crone, for example, because we all know them. Even the male readers here know them, I’m sure. Rather, I’d like to talk about some ideas that I found particularly interesting.

One of these ideas relates to the issue of beauty, which comes up in several chapters, but my focus here is “The ‘Real’ Woman” in which she discusses the various campaigns for/promotions of “real beauty” which encourage women to show themselves au naturel. No, I don’t mean naked, but without makeup, and other enhancing products and processes. Having lived my life this way (little or no make-up, no hair-dyeing, no waxing, etc), I was feeling comfortable in this chapter, until I reached her suggestion that these “campaigns” can be “like a beauty pageant, only with different parameters”. In other words, once again, we are asked to “judge” women on the basis of their appearance. She writes:

I see some disturbing similarities between the kinds of appraisals of women’s appearance that we commonly view as misogynistic, and appraisals that present themselves as ‘pro-woman’.

I take her point. “Using images”, she argues, “to make the claim that you are freeing women from the prison of image is a tricky thing to pull off”. I found this chapter the most confronting because, unlike the others which tended to cover more familiar ground, this one forced me to think more deeply about the complexity of how we “see” women. It’s not surprising that she loves John Berger’s excellent work, The ways of seeing.

She explores some of the underlying structural causes, particularly the way our market-driven society supported by the media contort and distort “reality” through stereotyping, simplifying and then generalising. She argues that women’s visibility in the public sphere is dominated by/limited to those “images” needed to sell products. Advertising has become “so entangled with mainstream culture … so entangled with female identity in particular”, she argues, that we do not see the real diversity of women’s engagement in society.

For many people, “gender” and “feminism” are tricky concepts. Moss unpacks them both with excellent clarity. Her definition of feminism is exactly mine. Feminists want

equal opportunity, equal rights, equality for women. (Equality = same value or status. They want to be equal to, not the same as, men).

Yes! How often do we need to repeat this? “Equal” does not mean “same”. And just because you don’t agree with some feminists doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist if you believe in equality for women. Moss understands, though, women fearing to own the term. She tells of once being asked on ABC TV whether she was a feminist, and admitted she felt

an actual ripple of fear. Part of me was afraid of the vitriol I would be subjected to for publicly identifying with the very movement that had given me the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to work and earn my own pay.

How can that be?

And this brings me, in a way, to another theme that pops up through her book: the way women undermine each other. She discusses, for example the “mummy wars” in which working mums are pitted against stay-at-home mums, and breast-feeding mums are pitted against formula-feeding mums. And yet, she also debunks the fiction “that all women hate each other” or that “women are their own worst enemies”, not only by confirming that for many women, other women provide their greatest support, but by exploring how society, and particularly the media, “read” female behaviour and interaction to put this spin. She tells how a joking comment of hers was read as “a swipe at Miley Cyrus”. Again, the main point of her argument is the social construction that supports these “fictions” about women.

In her final chapter, she discusses what she sees as the wider problem which is that the world is not “a fair and balanced place”. We do not have equality – across gender, race or class. This is what we need to address, and she calls us all to action.

Occasionally I worried that Moss was drawing a long bow or skewing her argument a little by her own experience, but in fact I found her thesis and thinking to be clear and logical, intelligently-framed, and forceful without being judgemental. It’s a good read – and provides much for us to contemplate.

awwchallenge2015Tara Moss
The fictional woman
Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9780732297893

(Signed copy received from my sister-in-law)