Joan Smith’s ‘The Public Woman’

A review by Lotte Scheel

lotte

I’m sure I’d be preaching to the converted if my only comment is that feminism is still very much needed. In a sense, Joan Smith is also preaching to the converted. When I started reading her most recent work, The Public Woman (2013), I had long since been branded as the raging feminist in most of my social circles. I didn’t expect anything she wrote to change my opinion on anything: on the contrary, I expected the entire book to consolidate my already existing views. And in a way, yes, it did. It confirmed what I already knew: that society treats women like shit, despite maintaining an illusion that women are equal.

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of déjà-vu. The points Smith makes and the case studies she uses echo a truth that I, as a woman, am eternally confronted with. Smith picks up on a myriad of issues, using case studies and statistics to make her point. She discusses the way women are treated by society, the way they are turned into a commodity, the barriers they face in politics, in the public sphere, social circles and in the home. The whole book carries a trigger warning for general misogyny and violence against women, but the chapters describing in-depth about torture and murder of women (Possession and The Witches of Perugia) carry massive trigger warnings – I managed to slowly work through Possession, but I started and could not finish The Witches of Perugia, because it was just too distressing, due to extremely high levels of sexual and physical violence.

She explains the problem is that our patriarchal society trains both men and women to accept and in some cases even relish a perverse simultaneous infantilising and hypersexualisation of women, using the glamour model Jordan and the description of a particular strip club as examples.

The title of her chapter on women in politics, Calm Down, Dear, actual words spoken by the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to a female Labour politician, perfectly embody the blatant condescension and disdain most male politicians have for women. While this chapter deals with British politics, one could easily switch David Cameron’s name for Tony Abbott’s.

While I said previously that in a way this book confirmed my already existing views, Smith actually managed to change my mind on an issue I had been sure of my stance on. It was in the chapter Buying Power, which discusses sex work and the shocking commonplace of child prostitution in supposedly developed countries.  I already knew that sex workers had very dangerous working conditions, and because of this, I was convinced that legalisation of prostitution was a good attempt at lessening the danger for women in the industry. However, Smith explains that where prostitution has been legalised, both legal and illegal brothels multiply (for example, when Victoria, Australia, legalised brothels, illegal brothels ended up outnumbering legal ones four to one).  I was also horrified to learn that in areas where prostitution has been legalised, the number of trafficked women to the area skyrockets, and the number of underage girls who are groomed for prostitution increases. Since finding out that while it provides security to some sex workers, the legalisation of prostitution actually increases the number of women who are exploited and trafficked, I have changed my stance on the issue and support the Swedish model, where pimps and those who buy sex are punished while women who are selling sex are not and are provided with safe exit strategies.

While I was impressed with the majority of Smith’s book, I did have a problem with Queen Wag, her chapter on Kate Middleton. Here Smith argues that Middleton has always played a traditionally feminine role, first literally being a lady in waiting for her prince, and then taking on the role of princess, dutifully becoming pregnant with the future monarch soon after her wedding. Smith points out that while the princes would serve in the armed forces, Middleton “stuck to the most traditional of female roles, visiting projects to do with children” (p92). While I agree that limiting women to traditional roles is problematic, and there is no doubt that the royal family’s traditions are certainly patriarchal, it seems that Smith is almost attacking Middleton herself for her adoption of these roles. On the last page of this chapter, Smith writes that Middleton has “done little since leaving university except play a supporting role to her boyfriend, marry him with great pomp and ceremony and get pregnant for the first time…unambitious, uncontroversial and bland, Kate Middleton was Queen Wag in everything but name.” This seems inappropriate considering that the main sources we have on Middleton’s life are tabloid newspapers, which offer a sensationalistic representation of everything:  there are many aspects of Middleton’s life of which we are not aware. And regardless, while I am aware it can be frustrating to watch women accept traditional societal gender roles, it is more beneficial to critique the system that constrains women, than to condemn the women who are trapped in its snares.

As Smith concludes her book with the slogan Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, I conclude with my wholehearted agreement with the dominant message of the book. Women’s rights are human rights, and as the book has demonstrated, they are sorely lacking.  Patriarchy is entrenched in our society, and it is up to the younger generation to grow up and enter the world with a new attitude. The Public Woman on the whole gives a wonderful overview of the state of women in the world today, and as such it deserves a place on mandatory reading lists for Year Twelve English in all schools, to educate young men and women: to make them cognisant of the terrible state of women’s rights – human rights, and gift them with an awareness that will ready them to make the world a better place.

~ Lotte Scheel

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