In today’s book review, I’m doing a combined review of two Australian feminist books that were published in 2008. The Great Feminist Denial, by Monica Dux and Zora Simic, and The F Word: How We Learned to Swear by Feminism, by Jane Caro and Catherine Fox. First a disclosure of my biases. I got given a copy of The Great Feminist Denial for free as a review copy. I’m an obscure enough blogger that a free copy is pretty exciting for me. And for around five years I worked with Catherine Fox’s husband, so I found it pretty interesting to read the work life balance parts of that book.
Both of these books seem to be written in a reaction to the bad name that feminism has these days. There are two parts to that bad view (fairly contradictory). First, that feminism has succeeded, so that there is no need for it any more, so anyone who calls themselves a feminist must be a whinger. Second, that feminism is to blame for pretty much everything wrong with society today (high divorce rates, juvenile deliquency, raunch culture, the oppression of women in third world countries, and the single woman who can’t get a man).
The Great Feminist Denial, by Monica Dux and Zora Simic
Most of the Australian feminist blogosphere has done a review of it – see here, here, here, here and here. It is mostly an exploration of the contradictions I described above – particularly showing the basic illogic of many of the issues that feminism gets the blame for. There’s a great chapter on straw feminism – the practice known to feminist blog-readers everywhere of first outlining a feminist stance (which doesn’t actually exist) and then triumphantly showing its stupidity. Woven throughout the thread of the book is a general criticism of feminists for spending too much time arguing with each other, and not enough on the main game:
When we looked at the issues facing women today, it was the need for feminism that we were constantly reminded of, not its irrelevance. But instead of arguing about who is to blame for women’s problems, we need to focus our efforts on finding solutions. Once we do this we can start to talk about the feminist issues again, rather than just the feminists themselves.
Although I enjoyed reading the demolition of many annoying arguments, I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this book who didn’t already describe themselves as a feminist. For myself, I read enough of the feminist blogosphere that the value of this book was to have all the controversies, and many of the various sides of the arguments in one place.
The F word – how we learned to swear by Feminism, by Jane Caro and Catherine Fox – Four stars
I’ve only found one mention of this one – bluemilk here. In some ways this covers a similar range to the Great Feminist Denial, but in a different way. It’s a combination of trying to point out the ways in which feminism is still needed to twenty somethings who haven’t really experienced much discrimination and are wondering what all the fuss is about. But also it reminds us, gently, how much has really changed in the past 30 or so years. The new graduates I employ do think its the ancient past, but in one of my first professional job interviews as a 17 (!) year old, I was asked what my plans were for having children. I had no idea, and said so. I also didn’t get the job – not sure if the two were related, but the two jobs going went to men.
Caro and Fox cover similar territory, but with a more optimistic tone. They start from the premise that their lives have been, on the whole, more interesting, with more opportunities for fulfilment in all directions than their mothers’ were. And then they spend much time exploring the unrealistic expectations that still exist for women trying to live their lives in today’s society. And wondering why they still exist in today’s economically prosperous world. This is a book for all those women who are being “effectively gagged by the overwhelming sense they are at fault for any difficulties they encounter as they pursue a career, a role in public life, or simply raise issues that are specific to them” – or say anything that sounds like you are a feminist (let along calling yourself one).
This book is the one that I would lend to someone who says “I’m not a feminist but…”. Mostly anecdote, but with statistics when they matter, it outlines the many different ways in which today’s society still has many invisible forces pushing women into boxes – that are then justified by calling them choices. There are chapters about childcare, about the world of work, and the world of money, that examine the way in which society’s expectations of women (that we should be the nurturing, caring, nice, people who don’t care about money for ourselves) have all sorts of effect on our ultimate career success.
My favourite part here was the discussion of why women are still more poorly paid than men.
…women who are assertive or act more like men [by demanding more money] are actually at risk of getting a poor performance appraisal because of a backlash effect. Those behaving more in line with female stereotypes – less aggressive and demanding – will fare little better in pay terms. So once again it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
The weakest part of this book, to me is the conclusion and call to action. The authors call for “a new, inclusive strategy…. a feminism that is beginning to concentrate on getting us all to understand what we have in common. That is not only interested in the wrongs done to women, but in the shared humanity of us all”.
Part of the problem, if there is one, with feminism, is that there are so many different specific issues that need fixing, and therefore much disagreement on the priorities and what actually needs to be done. Caro and Fox are right that the issues in Australia are increasingly more cultural than structural, and cultural change is the hardest, and the least amenable to legislative fixing. But they also end their book with some specific suggestions for their readers – and since cultural change is about changing people – that’s probably the most effective way of making change actually happen. The most important of their recommendations is to speak up about injustice – and that’s the most effective way of building on, rather than retreating from, the feminist gains of the last 100 years.