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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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

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Classy And Fabulous

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous” – Coco

Thanks, Coco, for that inspiring bit of wisdom. I want to have a chat about femininity and its place in my life and the struggles it has invited and the joys it has delivered.

The thought about femininity struck me as I was painting my nails a beautiful shade of turquoise and mulling over the concept of myths in relation to feminism. No doubt, these ideologies have stumped many a woman the world over, but indulge me for just a bit while I have a rant about how “femininity” (because scare quotes are actually really needed here, and I’ll explain why in just a sec) has impacted my life (how very out-of-the-ordinary of me, I know!).

So basically, “femininity” is a social construct, put in place yonks ago by someone random (I’m sure I could research this and find plenty of fun facts that probably relate back to religion, but whatever) and since then, it has bewildered, frustrated, and delighted the masses. The ideology goes something like this:

Girls/femininity = PINK!!!, sugar, dresses, make-up, softness, silence, grace, beauty, infantilisation, shallowness et cetera

Boys/masculinity = BLUE!!!, getting dirty, trucks and soldiers, boldness, loudness, action, effortlessness et cetera

Obviously these ideologies are way more complex, but I’ve just simplified that because it’s almost 11 PM on a Monday night and I couldn’t be arsed to write anything eloquently. Heaps more have just popped into my mind, but I’m sure you get the drift. The whole thing is bullshit. Now, let me get reflective here. I am the first-born girl in my family; I have two younger sisters. Being the typical “first girl”, I got dressed entirely in pink and ribbons and adornments, essentially rendering me a glorified marshmallow for the first five years of my life. This isn’t really anyone’s fault in particular. This is just how ideologies work in our society (see: Girls/femininity = PINK!!!). I’m sure I wore shorts from time to time, and obviously must have worn different colours, but the majority of photos show me dressed in something classy and fabulous and behaving very well indeed. A lot of that has to do with my mother raising me with civility and manners (something that every child should be raised with, just FYI), but I wonder if I would have been allowed to go outside and get dirty more often had I been born a male? If screaming fits and temper tantrums would have been received with obvious frustration, but also an underlying sense of pride at baby boy’s strong voice and rambunctiousness, instead of the scorn at wee little girl’s spoilt brat antics?

My sisters did not receive such stark femininity thrust upon them. My middle sister was paraded in purple, always mischievous and up to no good, which was a delight to many (and still is). The boxes were slowly being ticked off: my parents had the proper, bookworm, princess, as well as the witty, adorable, mischief-maker. And then along comes my youngest sister. Who was, for some unknown reason, dressed in blue and given relatively gender-neutral toys to play with. Was this because my parents understood that Girls/femininity = PINK!!! was utter bullshit? Or was it just because they had exhausted all of their preconceived notions of what being a girl was all about on the first two? Regardless, my youngest sister was always more action-packed, dirty, unruly, and just plain boy-ish as a child — the complete opposite of what I was like.

Some may argue that that is just our personalities. That’s just who we are. And I guess to some extent that is true, because we still are different to this day, and that’s beautiful because we’re unique, adult women who have forged our own identities separate from what was dumped on us as infants. But what if the way we were dressed and presented to the world as children deeply impacted our personalities and how we see ourselves? Maybe I am more insecure and shy than my youngest sister because I was brought up to be more quiet, more sensible, more bookish, more ‘feminine’, as opposed to loud, and dirty, and active, and confident.

I went through a huge identity crisis around the age of 12. For a few years, I refused to wear skirts or dresses. I refused to wear pink, and totally abhorred any colour close to it in the spectrum as well. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to defy my boundaries. I wanted to change.

In actual fact, I love pink. I love dresses. I love make-up. I love accessorising. I love making myself feel good with external additions and adornments. This is not vapid. Or shallow. Or vain. People (women) have been led to think this about “girly-girls” in order to discredit what it means to be “feminine” in today’s society. Ariel Levy says it best in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly stuff’ and rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever — these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.” 

Basically, for years I rejected what I genuinely liked in order to break free from an image that I was forced to grow up with. Somewhere along the line, I learnt that femininity = bad and I wanted out. It took me a long time to accept that being “feminine” and being not-so-“feminine” is okay. We are all just people (oooh profound!). If I want to wear something ridiculously frilly and curl my hair and wear tonnes of make-up because it makes me feel good, that is fucking spectacular. If I want to not wash my hair for a week, rock a pair of track pants and a clean (but slightly blemished) face because it makes me feel good, that is also fucking spectacular. And it isn’t my place to judge anyone on the way they look, or how they dress. Jafeel?

So, in summary, Coco, girls should be whatever the fuck they want to be because they are all beautiful, fantastic creatures who deserve love and the freedom to discover their own unique femininity or femaleness or masculinity or maleness or whatever. And for the record, I am classy and fabulous, just the way I am.

~ Sarah Groundwater

Feminist Musicians: Grimes

Avid readers may remember that 15 months ago I talked about tUnE-yArDs, whose music deals with a lot of social justice issues. This time, I’m talking about Grimes, or Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Unlike tUnE-yArDs, it’s hard to say exactly what Grimes’ music is about. Particularly when you have lyrics such as “I lean on walls until I stand/I touch my face with my hand”. What is particularly awesome about her, though, is that she’s outspoken about feminism in the electronic music industry (not known for its egalitarianism) and in general. In addition to this, she has enjoyed critical acclaim in both indie circles (the revered Pitchfork giving her a Best New Music label) and in more mainstream circles (being played on triple J, selling out all Australian shows), despite the very experimental nature of her act. Continue reading

Flashback to 1981: UQU Bans Sale of Magazines Exploiting Women

This fabulous piece of herstory will be featured in the upcoming issue of Wom*news: #8 Flashback!

Anna Bligh and Kerry Boman explain why magazines which exploit women's bodies were banned from sale by the UQU.

Anna Bligh and Kerry Boman explain in Semper why magazines which exploit women’s bodies were banned from sale by the UQU.

This article from a 1981 edition of the UQ Union students’ magazine, Semper, showcases ex-Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and fellow UQ Women’s Collective member Kerry Boman explaining why magazines that exploited women were removed from sale on campus. Anna Bligh went on to become the students’ women’s officer during her time at UQ. There are also some interesting related women’s and queer issues raised in the other replies on this page.

~ Emma Di Bernardo

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Awesome Feminist Musicians #1

tUnE-yArDs is the moniker of American multi-instrumentalist and generally awesome Merrill Garbus. The first thing you notice about Garbus is her voice, whose capacity to be brash and soothing in equal parts is, put simply, mesmerising. Garbus creates songs by layering melodies over drum loops, combined with ukulele, tambourine, and more recently, electric bass and saxophone.

The most interesting thing about tUnE-yArDs for me however, is the subject-matter of her songs. Her songs cover topics as diverse as body image (Es-so), white privilege in the USA (yep, really – My Country) and police violence (Doorstep, Bizness). These often deep topics are delivered through frenzied combinations of Garbus’s voice, saxophone sections and innovative use of a distortion pedal to deliver a near-cacophony of voice, instruments and frank lyrics. Garbus’s chilled moments are equally compelling, particularly the gorgeous Wolly Wolly Gong, a folksy lullaby. Who Kill, Garbus’s second album has seen a more polished approach to recording than self-recorded debut Bird Brains (fun fact: Bird Brains was entirely recorded on a handheld voice recorder and was initially released only on recycled cassettes!).

So there you have it, tUnE-yArDs, with its bizarre spelling is one awesome feminist musician to check out. As an aside, Garbus plays the Powerhouse on January 22. Check out her Youtube clip of Doorstep performed on the streets of Paris back in April for a teaser. She literally keeps the beat by hitting drum sticks on a nearby concrete pole.

~ Rosie Cuppaidge