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