Who would want to be a high-profile feminist in the age of social media? I sometimes find myself thinking this as I scroll through the Facebook and Twitter feeds of well-known feminists that I follow or the comments sections of their columns, awed by both their output (I’m an academic – so my work is slow in comparison) and struck by the high volume of cyber-hate that comes in the wake of even the most benign opinion pieces. Earlier this year, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti went offline after a troll threatened to rape her young daughter. It’s hardly surprising that she and other ‘professional feminists’, to use Valenti’s own descriptor, sometimes take social media breaks, or that navigating misogyny online is central to the contents of several popular feminist books released in 2016. These include Valenti’s Sex Object, Shrill by Lindy West – and Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl. All of these books are memoirs (more or less), that describe (among many other things) the peculiar experience of being a feminist with a public built online, or as Ford wryly puts it, ‘a man-hating, separatist feminazi hell-bent on installing a matriarchy and imprisoning men as its slaves’.
Ford, a popular and polarising Fairfax columnist and broadcaster, made tabloid news in late 2015 when she contacted an online antagonist’s workplace to let them know what he’d been up to during working hours (posting abusive comments on her Facebook page). He lost his job, temporarily became a martyr among his kind and somewhat predictably, Ford was subject to more online bile than ever before. As Gloria Steinem would attest, the role of media-anointed feminist spokesperson has never been a comfortable one, but right now, when it’s so easy for the perpetual feminist backlash to reach its targets, it seems especially exhausting – and this is before we factor in the expectations of other feminists, in their diverse glory, and the endlessly recycled questions posed to feminist spokespeople about the f-word.
On the flip side, the high demand for feminist voices and for commentary on gender and sexuality in what has become an increasingly click-driven media landscape has meant that some writers are now able to make a living from this work and that the market for feminist books has expanded. Quality feminist writing is easy to access. (Relatedly, non-feminist identifying readers of The Guardian, The New York Times and the like have become increasingly familiar with feminist and queer issues, sometimes to the point of protesting via the comments about yet another article on intersectionality or transgender visibility, a fascinating development I hope suitably qualified scholars are currently analysing). Not that long ago, in Australia at least, Germaine Greer, Catherine Lumby and Anne Summers pretty much carried the burden of feminist commentary between them. Now, through forums such as Fairfax’s Daily Life and independent news sites New Matilda and Crikey, there are significantly more, and a greater variety of, feminist writers in the mainstream than at any point that I can remember or am aware of, including Celeste Liddle, Ruby Hamad and Shakira Hussein who each counter or at least complicate the historic whiteness of Australian feminism on an almost daily basis.
More broadly, in the last few years, and at quick glance, the authors of popular feminist books have included the wise-cracking Brit Caitlin Moran; self-described ‘bad’ feminist Roxane Gay, also currently the most high-profile black feminist writer; queer political activist Laurie Penny and the aforementioned Lindy West, known for both her incisive pop culture analysis and her fat activism. Already well-established writers have also published books about feminism, beginning in Australia with Emily Macguire’s Princesses and Pornstars (2008), the book most similar in spirit to Ford’s, and more recently two books from crime writer Tara Moss, The Fictional Woman (2014), drawing on her PhD in Gender Studies, and Speaking Out: A 21st Century Guidebook for Women and Girls (2016); the latter brimming with advice on how to counter online resistance to female voices. Internationally, non-fiction writer Rebecca Solnit added to the English-speaking lexicon, sort of, because her influential essay-cum-book Men Explain Things to Me (2014) has been misattributed as the origin of the term ‘mansplaining’ (she has a few issues with it), while award-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche turned her 2012 Ted X talk into the best-selling treatise We Should All Be Feminists (2012 and multiple editions since). In doing so, Adiche allegedly converted pop star Beyoncé to the cause, the knock on effects which are being charted and critiqued through the lens of ‘celebrity feminism’, a broad church that also includes famous men like Benedict Cumberbatch wearing ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirts.
Many of these writers quote, blurb and launch each other’s books. They share the stage at festivals, including the inaugural Feminist Writer’s Festival held in August in Melbourne, and talk fests, including those devoted to ‘dangerous ideas’, and at book launches. Ford’s book, a best-seller before it was even released, was launched in cities all over Australia and in New Zealand and her tour became a feminist event in itself, with the author sometimes breast-feeding her baby son on stage before sell-out crowds of mostly women. Pictures from the events featured the packed audience gleefully waving the book in the air, as if it were Mao’s Little Red Book. These were clearly joyous occasions, where the community Ford has built online embraced the opportunity to gather in person. In online forums such as Good Reads and feminist blogs, Fight Like a Girl has been rapturously received, mostly, apart from some relatively minor criticisms about exclusions, intended audience or what some readers have described as Ford’s ‘Facebook rant’ mode of delivery. No book can speak to everybody, but online reviews and bookseller lists suggest Fight Like a Girl resonates strongly with a large fan base. Released in late September, it looks set to be one of the best-selling books in Australian bookstores in 2016.
Writing – whether a book, a blog, a column, or all three – has become the primary platform for getting feminism ‘out there’ and the publication of Fight Like A Girl consolidates Ford’s status as Australia’s go-to feminist. However, while the public feminist is now most often a writer, she is not always taken seriously or understood as such. With a couple of exceptions (and even then the reviews were brief), the mainstream media have chosen to profile Ford as a highly visible feminist who has a book out, rather than review the book itself or engage with its arguments beyond the superficial. This approach makes sense given her profile and notoriety, feminism’s purported current popularity (what a novel story!) and within the longer history of mainstream representations of feminism, in which the tendency has been to spotlight personality over politics, or to use the language of 1970s feminism, the individual over the collective. However, Fight Like A Girl is also a zeitgeist book and it should be properly reckoned with as such, both in relation to Ford’s evolution as a public feminist and as a piece of feminist writing that sits within an identifiable tradition of feminist bestsellers, past and present. As literary and feminist scholars know, ‘feminist writing’ or ‘feminist literature’ can be difficult to define, particularly for fiction where writers may resist the explicit politicisation of their work no matter its feminist effects or readership. There is no such issue with Ford’s book: this is an unambiguously feminist book and aggressively marketed so. This invites the questions: what sort of feminism and what kind of feminist writing?
Fight Like a Girl begins as a memoir and morphs into a manifesto, ostensibly pitched to ‘feminists new, old and soon-to-be’, though the audience it speaks most directly to is younger women who may be reluctant to claim the label ‘feminist’, as Ford was when she was younger. It is on that front that the book works best: in the chapters in the first part of the book, Ford’s voice is candid and intimate, as she narrates her way through her childhood, teenage years and early adulthood. She shares experiences and challenges bound to resonate with readers who may be struggling with body image problems, an eating disorder, anxiety or depression, their sexuality, or any of combination of the above because as Ford ably shows these are not easily separated, especially when approached as gendered issues.
The chapter on what she calls her ‘madness’, the anxiety disorder that first manifested when she was twelve, is the stand out – incrementally and with stealth power, Ford demonstrates that for all the well-intentioned awareness campaigns mental health remains poorly understood and that acute episodes are not stand-alone events, but rather part of a spectrum of experience that relates very much to being a girl in the world. She is frank that addressing mental health issues is a ‘hard and often scary road’ and her advice is realistic and gentle, including ‘remembering to be kind to yourself’. Without making ground-breaking claims, it is nevertheless a chapter that demonstrates how effective experiential knowledge can be and that it can sometimes bring far more nuance and understanding to an issue than statistics and official expertise. Ford is at her strongest when she imparts how easily those close to them – not to mention the rest of society – can ignore or normalise the suffering of girls and women.
Another important chapter is on reproductive rights and pregnancy that builds on Ford’s previous writing about her two abortions. She notes elsewhere in the book that it was an early column of hers on this topic that caught the attention of conservatives and marked her out as a feminist to watch. Ford is refreshingly matter of fact, and for good political reason: ‘Refusing to justify your reproductive choices to anyone is a brazenly political act’. Ambivalent about the ongoing feminist strategy of telling one’s abortion story, she sticks to the basic outline of her own experience and instead pans out to interpret opposition to abortion as deeply rooted in, and paradigmatic of, historic sexism. This is a massive task, and the results are mixed. She does well not to quarantine anti-abortion arguments from general and persistent sexist attitudes about women’s role, but the history is both too sweeping and too condensed, oddly US-centric (apart from noting her own abortion would not have been possible had it not been for South Australia’s current legislation, itself an ongoing target of feminist agitation) and mute on women who for various reasons (including race, ethnicity, disability) have lost their reproductive rights (if they had them in the first place) through forced abortion, sterilisation and child removal. The coda of her own chosen pregnancy and her complicated experience of it cleverly takes back what it means to be ‘pro-life’ and puts pre-natal anxiety on the agenda, but the swinging back and forth between social and historical analysis and her own experience in this chapter suggests Ford is at her most persuasive as a first-person feminist, whatever her own reservations about this may be.
The autobiographical element is never abandoned entirely, but rather is reoriented as the second half of Fight Like A Girl shifts to what is often the core business of popular books on feminism in recent times (I co-wrote one myself): reclaiming feminism from the haters, the misinformation, faux-feminism and the tired yet annoyingly persistent stereotypes, including most gratingly, the oft-flung epithet ‘Man Hater’. For Ford, unpacking the motivations of the Women Against Feminism movement and various Men’s Rights Activists (or MRAs) is not so much a dialogue with worthy opponents as an opportunity to pick apart what drives anti-feminism and to clarify what feminism entails. Ford’s uniquely positioned to do this, because as she documents in firstly necessary then exhaustive detail (and that is no doubt the point), she has copped it all, the vitriol, the name-calling, the threats and the tasteless nicknames from tabloid hacks. Fighting back as she does has made Ford hero in some quarters (she is modest about this), but it’s also a strategy she has some mixed feelings about: ‘If Lewis’ Law states that the comments beneath any article about feminism justifies feminism’s existence, then Ford’s Law asserts that the abuse received after exposing abuse proves how prevalent this problem is.’
The level of abuse Ford is subject to as a high-profile feminist is bracing and revealing and understandably fuels her impatience with debates about the place of men in feminism (‘Men can either get on the boat or they can drown’), while also further radicalising her politics. She writes, ‘[E]very time a man calls me a name, I feel more justified in my belief that I’m on the right path’. In her rejection of ‘playing nice’ and her championing of justified anger about (for instance) the still alarmingly high rate of violence against women, Ford can be truly galvanising. She mentions at one point that she devised a comedy routine sourced from her hate mail (or ‘Hate Male’ as one chapter is titled) and I can imagine her commanding the room. This is powerful material, and important to have on record at a time when journalists are drawing links between ‘Gamergate’ in 2014, the online harassment campaign targeted at women linked in various ways to the gaming industry, and the rise of the ‘alt-right’ that now flanks US President Elect Donald Trump.
Yet after three chapters riffing on similar themes, the point was more than made. It was a relief (for want of a better word) to get to more focussed chapters on rape culture and the problematic White Ribbon movement, two issues Ford has helped raise awareness about in her columns. Still, her fuming about how feminist forums are too easily derailed by concern about how to accommodate men continued, creating an echo chamber effect whereby ‘feminism’ is reduced to tired, placating questions about men on the one hand and Ford’s defence of a less conciliatory feminism on the other. I sense that perhaps Ford wrote this book partially with these audiences in mind, or at least the brave or naïve few who get up and ask the question, ‘what about men?’ I have been at those forums, I understand her frustration when a feminist discussion is overwhelmed by queries about feminism’s image problem, including as man-hating. If I had been on as many panels as her, I would be angry too. Yet male feminist allies (or indeed male feminists) are not all dubious White Ribbon ambassadors and nor is feminism a single issue movement. There is little sense here of coalitional politics, of how feminism works (or can and should work) in tandem with say, queer politics, anti-racism, the union movement, and the fight for Indigenous sovereignty. What comes through more strongly is how some of the new(ish) spaces for feminist discourse – the newspaper columns, across social media, on panels with names like ‘How To Be A Feminist’ – have circumscribed how feminism is discussed in the mainstream as much as they have expanded it.
More promisingly, Ford offers glimpses into other aspects of her public feminist experience, such as the time she sat in on a training session for women’s health workers after she’d delivered a talk. She shares, ‘I learned more in those two hours than I had in years of reading newspaper articles and participating in ‘this is what I think’ conversations with similarly unenlightened people’. I yearned for more of this kind of engagement with other feminists, including their writings and criticisms. Left mostly untouched are the debates and issues that animate feminisms across every site I can think of, from the public service through to the academy, and including in parts of the media. Is feminism, or the most visible version of it, still too white and middle-class? Where does all the coverage on ‘leaning in’ or getting more women on boards leave the increasing numbers of women living in poverty? Has feminism become too consumed with ‘identity politics’ or has it not even properly begun the work of properly addressing differences between women? Ford acknowledges the lessons of intersectional feminism and makes sure to check her privilege by reminding readers of her white, cis-gendered first world position etcetera, but this work is secondary, perfunctory even, and accumulatively suggests the work of feminism is first of all to raise our voices above those horrible men who want to silence us. The feminism here is ‘you’re with us or against us’, which works as a slogan – but over the length of the book it disguises a more complicated and dynamic reality.
Feminist books pitched to a broad audience, whatever their contents, inevitably face the same criticism: okay, what are the solutions then? This charge could be levelled at Ford’s book, in which apart from the injunction to ‘fight like a girl’, hearty encouragement to masturbate as often as you desire and to find a good girl gang, does not offer much in way of a roadmap forward. Certainly, it would have been illuminating to read about feminist campaigns that need more attention and support and to introduce readers to some impressive feminist thinkers who deserve a wider audience. Yet this criticism also strikes me as a little beside the point, my gripes above notwithstanding. The authors of feminist blockbusters have always been better at diagnosis than they have at cure and such books are still necessary, including to help prompt the ‘light-bulb’ of recognition that moves feminist identification along. In the opening pages of The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer put it this way (and keep in mind this book was published in 1970 and that she had little time for the women’s movement and its methods):
The housewife who must wait for the success of world revolution for her liberty might be excused for losing hope, while conservative political methods can invent no way in which the economically necessary unit of the one man family could be diversified. But there is another dimension in which one can find motive and cause for action, although she might not find a blueprint for Utopia. She could begin by not by changing the world, but by re-assessing herself.
Greer did her bit to encourage personal transformation by writing her book, still in print today and possibly still best known for one of her proposed solutions or strategies: taste your own menstrual blood. Re-reading The Female Eunuch, I was freshly reminded that it was her friend that suggested this strategy to her and she just passed it on, Greer herself was a little reluctant. In another iconic 1970s text, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Shulamith Firestone proposed outsourcing the womb. There are no such radical proposals in Fight Like a Girl, and the notion of masturbation as a feminist act has been with us since at least Betty Dodson and should be familiar also to readers of third wave texts and magazines in which the purchase of a dildo was promoted as a feminist rite of passage. What Ford brings to this ongoing history is her own story of discovering self-pleasure and this is still an important one to share, if the statistics about male vs. female masturbation are anything to go by.
Ford’s palpable sense of anger and urgency recall earlier polemics like Greer’s and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), as do some of the ways Fight Like a Girl has been received; like Friedan and Greer, Ford has been praised for putting into words what some readers feel but have not been able to articulate. To trot out the inescapable cliché (that also happens to be one of modern feminism’s most important legacies) Ford makes the personal political in ways that are relatable to many of her readers. From this angle, Fight Like a Girl, in the spirit of the early classics, is ‘gateway’ feminism.
In other respects, the comparison is limited, historically and otherwise, and perhaps unfair. Friedan and Greer were in many ways writing into a void and were largely unknown, though Greer already had some counterculture notoriety. Their books were by necessity years in the making and monumental feats of research: whatever Greer’s criticism of the excessive readings lists of Women’s Liberationists, her own book, as befitting a scholar, demonstrates extraordinary erudition and range. The Feminine Mystique and The Female Eunuch made Freidan and Greer famous and have been credited with raising the consciousness of millions of women. Ford’s trajectory is different; she is already a public feminist and has published her book into a community well established online and in that sense is preaching to a choir she has already converted, though I am sure her readership will continue to expand, particularly among younger women. Further, rather than writing against historic silence about women and their lives, her book and others like it comes after decades of feminist writing of all kinds, which perhaps partly explains the curious absence of historical detail – apart from ambit claims in Fight Like a Girl about the history of patriarchy – that marks not only this book, but other works of contemporary feminism, including Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. They are emphatically books for now, consisting of chapters and essays that could stand alone as blog posts or newspaper columns (where most honed their craft), made coherent not so much through an abiding thesis as held together by the personality of the author and the distinctiveness of her voice.
First person feminism has been a resilient and reliably effective strategy for communicating feminist ideas since at least the 1970s – so much so that Hillary Clinton used it as part of her election campaign. Her loss and the debates that came in its wake about White Feminism expose fatigue (and worse) in some quarters with narratives of white female empowerment and its representatives (hello Lena Dunham).
Yet the latest crop of feminist books, including Fight Like a Girl, also remind us that first person feminism has become more democratised, even if white, middle class women still remain most likely to ascend to public feminist status. The internet has made writers out of women who first encountered feminism that way. The stories they tell are often different, or at least told differently. Caitlin Moran and Lindy West are genuinely funny, Roxane Gay is exceptional for the deft way she translates feminist and critical race theory to any number of topics (including Scrabble) and Clementine Ford is a great swearer. West and Gay write about their own fat embodiment so evocatively they each in their own way challenge both mainstream feminism and the body positivity movement for their respective shortcomings. Most are superb pop culture consumers and critics and indeed Moran and West got their start that way. Ford is not afraid to be angry or vulnerable, while in her memoir Sex Object, Jessica Valenti, the founder of the influential feminist blog Feministing and one of the highest profile feminists in the US, dared to share this:
When girls tell me that a book I wrote made them a feminist and they want to hug me, I let them, but I also hate myself a little bit because the feeling I am feeling most is that if they really knew me they would never say that.
Finally, taken as a corpus, the new feminist books alert us to the higher (or at least altered) stakes of telling your story and sharing your critique in the name of feminism. Cybersexism, to use Laurie Penny’s term for it, is real and it does not always stay online, as Lindy West describes in her compelling essay about getting to know an online troll who had taken on the identity of her dead father in order to attack her publicly. Penny writes in Unspeakable Things that ‘Germaine Greer once wrote that women had no idea how much men hate them. Well, now we do’. Hyperbolic perhaps, but as the public faces of feminism, Ford and her peers are to be admired for the willingness and candour with which they offer their stories and claim their feminism. In doing so, as Ford’s experience has shown, they demonstrate two things: one, how easily feminists can become lightening rods for hate and two, how personalising the political can still create feminist communities.