The truth about feminism


Rachel Eddie

Feminists we love: Annabel Crabb, Clementine Ford, Jane Caro and Celeste Liddle.

Feminists we love: Annabel Crabb, Clementine Ford, Jane Caro and Celeste Liddle.

How to be a feminist? Four of our favorite local thinkers — Celeste Liddle, Clementine Ford, Annabel Crabb and Jane Caro take a crack at the question in preparation for their at this year's All About Women Festival.

What does it mean to be a feminist? Is simply calling yourself a feminist good enough?

Celeste Liddle: Being a feminist means that you identify that certain people in this world are oppressed on the basis of their sex and you take steps to counteract these oppressions. Calling yourself a feminist is a good start, but you also need to identify these tools of oppression, call them out, and identify where your position may be privileged in comparison to other women. Feminists should be looking to change the world!

Clementine Ford: Calling yourself a feminist is the first step, but I would argue that it actually requires an ideological framework to support it. So for me, being a feminist is about being prepared to see the reality of gender inequality and making the commitment to challenge it.


Annabel Crabb: I think this whole question is routinely over-complicated by argument. If it bothers you that women are: given fewer opportunities, more likely to be abused, paid less for the same work, or made to jump through extra hoops, and you would like to do something about it, then you are a feminist in my books.

Jane Caro: It can best be summed up as the desire by half the human race to be taken seriously by the other half. I believe that feminism is a broad church (sometimes I joke it is a broad's church) and accepts all sorts of world views.

Has your perspective on what it means to be a feminist changed as you've aged?

Celeste Liddle: I think I have become more hard-core, to be honest. When I was younger, the discussion of personal and individual choice seemed more prominent. As time went on, I gained more life experience and I also became more versed in the politics of race, gender, sexuality and class. Due to this, my focus shifted to the systems of oppression, where they intersect and overlap, and what effects these have on women's ability to participate in the world.

Clementine Ford: I used to be much more dogmatic when I was younger. I had very strict ideas about what did and didn't constitute 'real' feminism. These days, I'm much less rigid about the particularities (although I suspect many people would find that hard to believe). On the other hand, I'm also far less interested in placating men's feelings or making space in feminism for them to dominate. Too much modern feminism seeks to 'engage' men in a way that actually absolves them of having to own their complicity in patriarchy. I'm not afraid of hurting men's feelings anymore, or assuaging their discomfort.

Annabel Crabb: I was much more didactic when I was younger; also much more sympathetic to the view that the differences between men and women are solely the product of distorting elements in our culture. I don't really think that anymore; part of ageing, I guess, is disappointing your younger self by becoming more moderate!

Jane Caro: I have become more tolerant of young women who don't want to identify as feminists. I understand that they do not want to believe that they will be paid and judged differently from their male peers. They want to believe they will be judged fairly and on their merits. It makes sense to enter the workplace and adult life full of hope. I get that, I think it is why young women feel that feminism might have applied to their mothers and grandmothers but is no longer necessary for them. They are wrong, but I understand why so many don't want to believe that yet.

What brought you to feminism?

Celeste Liddle: I can't think of a time where I have not been a feminist. I experienced the issues of racism and gender oppression concurrently and from a very young age and so I have always conflated the two issues. That I needed to fight for respect and recognition was not something I seemed to have a lot of choice in.

Clementine Ford: I was always a feminist, I just didn't know it yet. I have always had a strong sense of justice and fairness, but it wasn't until I began a Gender Studies major at university that I really embraced the term. 

Annabel Crabb: I read a lot when I was a kid, but I particularly remember — as a teenager — reading A Room Of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. It made me think a lot about how subjective some barriers are; a person who has a quiet room to write in might never count that room as an important factor in their ability to be a writer, but to someone who doesn't have such a thing, it is a terminal barrier.

Do you fight different gender wars as you grow older? Do you require different feminisms? Experience different sexism?

Clementine Ford: Of course. Different generations will be affected by different things. Many women become feminists when they have their first child. Others become feminists when they first encounter the workforce. Still others find feminism after trauma. But although the expression of sexism might differ according to its target, it still emerges from the same beast. We're all fighting the same fight, we're just doing it in different corners of the castle. 

Jane Caro: It seems to have become easier to be a feminist as I have aged. I don't know if that is because feminism is more acceptable now than it was a few decades ago, or if it is a result of being older and calmer myself. I have found the loss of the male gaze to be completely liberating. I never wanted men to stare at my tits when I was young — I wanted them to listen to what I have to say. Now they do.

The abuse from those threatened by feminism changes, of course. I am not called silly anymore and no-one threatens to fuck me to death. Instead I am bitter, sour, dried-up, old and ugly. Apparently the worst insult trolls can think of for an older woman like me is that they are not attracted to me. They appear to have no idea what a relief that is.

What gives you hope? 

Annabel Crabb: Women have undergone such extraordinary change in the past half-century. We've adjusted, juggled, coped… what really gives me hope these days is signs that men are starting to think about how their lives could change; how flexible work could give them better lives, how balancing work and family – just like women do as a matter of course now – could give them so much more.

Jane Caro: The way social media, and the unmediated access to the public conversation it has given women, has brought feminism roaring back onto the agenda. Social media seems to be rocket fuel for feminism and the world and attitudes are moving faster than I ever dreamed possible.

How can feminists go further?

Celeste Liddle: I would like it to become more intersectional in focus. People wonder why black women, or poor women don't always buy in, and I feel this is partially that these women don't always have the privilege to be able to "fight" but also that feminism doesn't always engage in dialogues. If you cannot support those most seriously disadvantaged within a particular group by unpacking how other forms of oppression contribute to their disenfranchisement, then the movement is not going far enough.

Clementine Ford: Women need to stand in solidarity with one another. When we realise that we can be each other's allies and armour, we become strong. 

Jane Caro: Feminism isn't perfect but it's been incredibly resilient over 300 years and that is due to its diversity. I love the vigour and dynamism of feminism and the room it makes for all sorts of women. I resist all attempts to create a doctrinaire feminist dogma. I love the arguments between feminists and the differences between us. That is the sure sign of a healthy movement.

Feminism is flexible and will continue to grow and change as women and their place in the world grows and changes. Far be it from me to try and set its direction.

See Celeste Liddle, Clementine Ford, Annabel Crabb and Jane Caro at the  All About Women Festival at The Sydney Opera House on March 8th.