Destroy The Joint: A Review

By Molly Eliza

Personally, I was a huge fan of Julia Gillard, and I thought the media and the general public were unfair and at times sexist towards her. Prominent shock-jocks such as Alan Jones would dedicate all their airspace to attacking her and misogyny was rife. One afternoon, as things were really bubbling to the surface, Jones infamously claimed that female leaders are “destroying the joint”. Jane Caro then started the twitter hashtag #destroythejoint which went viral within a matter of hours. From this was born a large online collective action movement, and eventually a collection of essays curated by Jane Caro was published.

Destroy the Joint is well worth reading, especially as a fledgling feminist. Although most of it is very Australia-specific there are some great essays that represent a variety of viewpoints. In the age of the web, tumblr and blogging it is good to have a breath of fresh, local air. Lily Edelstein’s discussion of her experiences as a teenage girl is especially poignant; Rookie magazine gets a name-check along with prolific teen girl blogger Sarah Grrrlfever, whose manifesto has thousands of notes on Tumblr. Continue reading

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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

Themes and Characters in Charlotte Brontë’s Novels

By Kita Marie Williams

Spoilers for Brontë’s The Professor, Jane Eyre, Vilette and Shirley.

“The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and asserting a right to predominate: to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last; yes,—and to speak. (Jane Eyre: 331).”

The above quote comes from Jane Eyre, a book I’ve loved ever since I first read it in my late teens and felt stirred by its zealous and daring heroine. From then on I was fascinated by the Brontë sisters and their incredible literary work, and with the social conditions of the Victorian era. So here is a brief discussion of the themes and characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novels – and a salute to her as a brilliant woman and an outstanding author. 

The four novels of Charlotte Brontë are regarded as masterpieces of English literature. The characters she created are powerful, heartfelt, fiery and clever – and their stories are compelling, exciting and profoundly original. Brontë also wrote beautiful and poetic descriptions of nature, deeply explored human experiences, and developed her own strong ideas on religion. Through her novels Charlotte Brontë firmly challenged and criticised the conditions surrounding women, marriage, social class and employment in the 1800s. Writing under the masculine-sounding pseudonym Currer Bell, she received acclaim for her work in spite of criticism for characters and language that were thought to be violent, passionate, coarse, immoral, and depraved.

Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 in Yorkshire, and lived until 1855. Alongside her surviving brother and sisters – Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë – she wrote poems and short stories for much of her life, and became a successful author after Jane Eyre was published in 1847.

Charlotte’s heroines each search for their own place in society, struggle to gain control over their own lives, and grapple with reason and passion, religion, moral dilemmas and the power to have both meaningful relationships and professional autonomy.

Her first novel The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) related the story of William Crimsworth, a working man who becomes a teacher in Brussels, where he meets and eventually marries Frances Henri, an Anglo-Swiss student and (later) teacher. Their marriage is highly unusual, as Frances accepts on the condition that she can continue to work as a teacher; allowing her to have professional independence and a satisfying life:

“Well monsieur, I wished merely to say that I should like, of course, to retain my employment of teaching [….] Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; how dull my days would be!  [….] I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better. I must act in some way, and act with you.” (The Professor: 167-168.)

Crimsworth’s thoughts on her request are almost revolutionary for the time, as Davis notes in her 2008 work on autonomy in Brontë’s novels; despite some initial misgivings about her role as a wife, he decides to support and assist her plans.

“I knew she was not one who could live quiescent and inactive, or even comparatively inactive. Duties she must have to fulfil, and important duties; work to do, and exciting, absorbing, profitable work. Strong faculties stirred in her frame, and they demanded full nourishment, free exercise. Mine was not the hand to starve or cramp them; no. I delighted in offering them sustenance, and in clearing them wider space for action. ‘You have conceived a plan, Frances,’ said I, ‘and a good plan; execute it. You have my free consent, and wherever and whenever my assistance is wanted, ask and you shall have.’” (The Professor: 185)

This theme was one Brontë returned to again and again in her novels; the struggle for women to lead active, purposeful lives while exploring love, relationships and their own natures. Her second novel Jane Eyre (1847) is a powerful, moving novel detailing the life and development of the protagonist as she fights to find her voice and freely express herself. Jane’s empowerment through achieving an authoritative voice of her own and breaking from various oppressors forms the heart of the novel; though she painfully tries to subdue herself and forcibly keep her low place in society. After confronting her cruel aunt as a child, she feels guilty and remorseful, and tries to silence herself:

“Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned […] I would fain exercise some better faculty than that of fierce speaking.” (Jane Eyre: 52)

However, she overcomes her own dependent place and submission continuously later in her life, as shown through her daring and passionate address to Rochester:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!” (Jane Eyre: 332)

The novel Shirley (1849) concerns a number of prominent characters, including Shirley Keeldar – an independent woman who has inherited an estate and a business, and Caroline Helstone – a relatively poor young woman who is raised by her uncle. Together these women discuss many topics from business, religion, to gender inequality and misperceptions of women:

“Caroline,” demanded Miss Keeldar abruptly, “don’t you wish you had a profession – a trade?”

    “I wish it fifty times a day. As it is, I often wonder what I came into the world for. I long to have something absorbing and compulsory to fill my head and hands and occupy my thoughts.”

    [….] “But hard labour and learned professions, they say, make women masculine, coarse, unwomanly.” (Shirley: 171)

Shirley later discusses the nature of women and how they are perceived:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend […] If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.” (Shirley: 264)

One of the principal themes of Shirley is the limited opportunities available to genteel women – which primarily amounted to marriage, becoming ‘old maids’; who were despised and ridiculed in society, or to be governesses; a position of tiresome work where they were likely to be treated poorly by their employers and live isolated, joyless lives.

Caroline Helstone thinks deeply on the subject of her own prospects:

“I feel there is something wrong somewhere. I believe single women should have more to do – better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now [….] Look at the numerous families of the girls in this neighbourhood […] the brothers of these girls are every one in business or in professions; they have something to do. Their sisters have no earthly employment but household work and sewing, no earthly pleasure but an unprofitable visiting, and no hope, in all their life to come, of anything better. This stagnant state of things makes them decline in health. They are never well, and their minds and view shrink to wondrous narrowness.” (Shirley: 293)

She thinks further about marriage, which is the only means to gain a respectable position for women – they are left to use methods such as “coquetry and debasing artifice” to ‘catch a husband’, which Caroline believes to be degrading to them, and for which they will also be ridiculed by men and other women:

 “The great wish, the sole aim of every one of them is to be married, but the majority will never marry; they will die as they now live. They scheme, they plot, they dress to ensnare husbands. The gentlemen turn them into ridicule; they don’t want them; they hold them very cheap. They say – I have heard them say it with sneering laughs many a time – the matrimonial market is overstocked. Fathers say so likewise, and they are angry with their daughters when they observe their manoeuvres – they order them to stay at home. What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly, all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else – a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have no faculties but for eating what their daughters cook and for wearing what they sew.” (Shirley: 293-294)

Through this and similar speeches made throughout her novel, Charlotte Brontë encouraged female professionalization and independence, and criticised social norms, attitudes, opinions and restrictions of women during the 1800s. Davis explains the views of women working of the time – “while most women of the classes below the aristocracy worked hard within the home, managing the household and raising children, work for pay was generally condemned as making a woman less feminine, distracting her from her more important domestic duties, and demonstrating the failure of her father or husband as a provider.” Many of Brontë’s heroines challenge these ideas by successfully holding professional positions while also marrying and raising children.

Charlotte Brontë’s final completed novel Villette (1853) details the life of Lucy Snowe, a young woman without living family who takes a teaching position in a foreign school and suffers through solitude and anguish in her isolation, before gradually falling in love with Paul Emanuel, a professor of literature. Lucy is a secretive, enigmatic but ambitious character, who actively seeks her own position, furthers her own education, and with the help of others finally achieves and expands her own independence as the director of a pensionnat school. Lucy’s narrative is of an unusual and difficult life as she seeks fulfilling relationships and religious understanding. Villette is considered Charlotte Brontë’s most poignant novel, as it draws deeply from the author’s own experiences in Brussels (experiences which are also explored in The Professor), and contains achingly powerful descriptions of human loneliness. The story ends with ambiguous events as Lucy anticipates Paul Emanuel’s return after three years in the West Indies. Here Brontë describes a storm and Lucy’s fears for his voyage:

“That storm roared frenzied for seven days. It did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks: it did not lull till the deeps had gorged their full sustenance. Not till the destroying angel of tempest had achieved his perfect work, would he fold the wings whose waft was thunder – the tremor of whose plumes was storm.

   Peace, be still! Oh, a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores, listened for that voice, but it was not uttered – not uttered till, when the hush came, some could not feel it: till, when the sun returned, his light was night to some!

   Here pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.” (Villette: 657) 

This segment of the novel depicts Lucy’s sorrow and love, and allows us as readers to see her final position as an independent woman who has experienced many hardships but endured, and lived a long full life in spite of pain and misery. Lucy Snowe’s endurance in the face of tragedy is particularly moving as it echoes Charlotte Brontë’s own life following the deaths of her brother and sisters, and her struggle for the strength to overcome her grief.

Charlotte Brontë’s work continues to be celebrated for its originality, beautiful language, complex and compelling protagonists, and its exploration of love, religion, nature and society. In a paper on Charlotte Brontë’s female characters, Abboud explains that Brontë’s heroines disrupted the social norm and were an examination of the author’s own experiences and psyche, as she sought to prove that (in regards to women) “society’s expectations had to be rethought and reworked”.

A painting of the three Brontë sisters by Branwell Brontë; from left to right,  Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. In the centre of portrait is the shadowy image of  Branwell Brontë, who painted himself out of the picture.

A painting of the three Brontë sisters by Branwell Brontë; from left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. In the centre of portrait is the shadowy image of Branwell Brontë, who painted himself out of the picture.

References

Continue reading

Female Book Characters: Breaking Sexual Ground

By Joanna Horton
Mild spoiler alert.

Books! Women! Sex! These are some things that I like. You probably like at least one thing on that list as well, am I right? If so, you’ll enjoy this piece on women in literature, and how they made readers (re)consider sex. Here are three luscious, lascivious literary ladies, for your pleasure.

Celie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)

Celie is one of the more complex and stoic characters you’re likely to come across. Repeatedly raped by her father as a teenager, she is forced into an unhappy marriage with a man she fears so much that she cannot even write his name out in full, referring to him as Mr ——–. She writes:

He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.
(p. 23)

Celie’s sexual awakening begins when she meets Shug Avery, a singer. Shug awakens Celie to the nuances and complexities of female sexuality, with the two eventually developing a sexual relationship. Celie recalls:

First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man.
(p. 47)

The Color Purple is told very much in Celie’s voice, with words and sentences written exactly as she would speak them. It’s a novel that almost literally gives voice to a black woman – scary, right?! There’s also a very strong sexual relationship between two women of colour which is largely based on – wait for it! – emotional connection. Shug and Celie provide love and emotional support to each other throughout the book, and aside from being a generally awesome, positive portrayal of lesbianism, I found their friendship very endearing.

Of course, mainstream portrayals of sexy lesbian ladies tend to focus on women performing for a heterosexual male audience. Shug and Celie do not ‘perform’ for anyone  – there is no voyeuristic male gaze present. They are two strong, complex women of colour who have a relationship based on mutual love, respect and genuine desire. And that, my friends, is how you challenge a norm!

Isadora in Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Oh, Isadora. Where do I start? While this groundbreaking novel had its heyday in the 1970s, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life when I read it at fourteen. Isadora Wing is the sex-positive heroine – funny, honest, sensual, adventurous, sexually uninhibited. She’s married to sombre psychoanalyst Bennett, but daydreams compulsively about what she terms the ‘zipless fuck’:

The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion … For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well.
(p. 11 – 12)

Isadora uses her obsession with the zipless fuck partly to make the (revolutionary at that time) point that women are not always happy in their marriages; that they have sexual desires that extend past monogamy. In doing so, she provided millions of 1970s women with proof that their feelings (of being trapped, lonely, unhappy, unfulfilled) were not abnormal. (Jong has said that she was astounded by the number of women readers who felt that they were just like Isadora.) At one point, Isadora wonders:

Would most women get married if they knew what it meant? I think of young women following their husbands wherever their husbands follow their jobs. I think of them suddenly finding themselves miles away from friends and family. I think of them living in places where they can’t work, where they can’t speak the language. I think of them making babies out of their loneliness and boredom and not knowing why … Not: when did it all go wrong? But: when was it ever right?
(p. 87)

Between her frank and funny honesty about women’s sexual desires and the trials of marriage, Isadora ruminates on the female body (the word ‘cunt’ is used throughout the book to refer to the vagina, with a refreshing blitheness), her intense, artistic family, her past relationships, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be female, and what it means to be a writer (Isadora, like Jong, is a poet and novelist).

Not only is the book revolutionary, but after the first few pages you want to be Isadora’s best friend. While at points in the book she’s depressed, neurotic and self-hating, her unflinching honesty about this only makes her more endearing. She’s also funny, energetic, charming and bawdy. And unashamedly a feminist – one of my favourite scenes falls near the end of the book, when a young married couple on a train asks Isadora if she’s married:

It took all my willpower to say quite simply: “No!”

“Why isn’t a nice girl like you married?”

… “I don’t know,” I said, smiling hard enough to crack my face.

They were off to London for a vacation. The husband talked and the wife fed the baby. The husband issued policy statements and the wife kept her mouth shut. “Why isn’t a nice girl like you single?” I thought.
(p. 332)

Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

When one thinks of Esther, sex isn’t the first thing that comes to mind – the crux of the book is her mental breakdown, suicide attempt and treatment. But somewhere in all of that, Esther makes a few choice points about women and sex. (This is particularly interesting as the book was set in the 1950s and published in the 1960s, when chastity and virginity were still in vogue.) Early in the book, she recounts with hilarious honesty her sexual experiences with a college boyfriend who got naked in front of her:

The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.
(p. 72)

Later, during a near-seduction with a UN interpreter, she recalls an article (‘In Defence of Chastity’) that her mother sent her.

This [author] said that the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other man and they would end up by making her life miserable. 
… Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to consider was how a girl felt.
(p. 85 – 86)

Esther goes on to conclude that ‘pureness’ is not all it’s cracked up to be. She knows that most men will sleep with someone before they marry, thus condemning a woman to purity while leading something of a double life themselves. Towards the end of her treatment, she decides to seduce Irwin, a mathematics professor.

Ever since I’d learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard [the college boyfriend, who’d slept with someone else] my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it.
(p. 240)

Esther is not the funny, uninhibited Isadora – she’s much more serious and cautious. But a book about a 1950s teenage girl who rejects the double standard around virginity and eventually acknowledges her own sexual desire is groundbreaking in its own way.

~ Joanna Horton

References
Walker, Alice. (1983). The Color Purple. London: The Women’s Press
Jong, Erica. (1974). Fear of Flying. London: Vintage
Plath, Sylvia. (1963). The Bell Jar. London: William Heinemann Limited.

I Need A Heroine

Looking for a heroine to save you from the man-worshipping, no-personality girls that seem to permeate popular literature? Want to find a fab book written by a woman? Here’s a couple of novels, series and authors to start becoming serious fangrrrrls of, as suggested by collective members (in the first issue of wom*news!):

  1. The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander doesn’t give as good as she gets – she does better.)
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Scariest book for feminists e.v.e.r!)
  3. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (Katniss’s determination to survive is welcomingly refreshing in a world that is even more superficial than our own.)
  4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman (Don’t watch the Golden Compass movie. Lyra actually rocks.)
  5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Melinda doesn’t need a gun or a sword; her experience of rape makes her one the strongest characters ever.)
  6. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Sure, Harry saves the world from Lord Voldemort – but Hermione saves Harry first. See also: Bellatrix Lestrange, Molly Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Lily Potter, McGonagall…)
  7. He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know by Jessica Valenti (A fabulous third-wave feminist author!)
  8. Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce (This author is known for having her most powerful characters being female and generally awesome.)

Let everyone know your fave authors and heroines in the comments!

Remember – you don’t have to submit stuff only to the hard-and-pdf copy of our collective zine! Go to our submission info’ page to see your fab feministic work featured here :)