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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Gender $tudies – Can We Afford the Cost?

By Laura Howden

*Trigger Warnings: this article contains a brief mention of rape and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised if sensitive to content of this nature.*

Two undergraduate students at the April 18 rally on UQ’s St Lucia campus, preparing to lead the march. (Photo captured by Laura Howden.)

Two undergraduate students at the April 18 rally on UQ’s St Lucia campus, preparing to lead the march. (Photo captured by Laura Howden.)

“When Gender Studies is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” The chant ripples through the crowd as we march across the St Lucia campus of The University of Queensland (UQ); a formidable assembly of staff and students armed with megaphones, banners and copies of an online petition that amassed some 836 signatures of support. Our final destination is the UQ senate meeting, at which representatives from UQ’s Gender Studies Teaching Committee hope to present evidence against the institution’s decision to abolish the major. Close to a dozen police officers await our arrival at the foot of the building. Requests to allow a delegation from our ranks to enter the senate are refused but, at the last, they allow a copy of the petition and two other documents to be handed through the line of officers and tabled by the board. When we finally disperse the protestors’ anger and frustration is palpable, and it is clear that this issue is a long way away from reaching any kind of resolution.

The April 18 rally was organised in response to an announcement by the university’s Executive Arts Dean, Fred D’Agostino, that as of 2014 Gender Studies would no longer be offered as a choice of major for undergraduate students (with existing students given the option to continue on until 2018). One week prior to the protest event, Mr D’Agostino was quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying he “was not aware” of any complaints from undergraduate students – this in spite of the vocal ‘Save Gender Studies’ student collective on campus, which held its first meeting of the year on March 11.

But it has not just been local students standing up and speaking out against the cuts. Director of Gender Studies at Melbourne University, Professor Jeanette Hoorn, spoke both at the rally and at an earlier forum alongside members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). She noted in each of her talks that UQ would now be the only GO8 university in Australia not to offer a gender or women’s studies program, and urged UQ administrators to recognise its significance beyond the classroom. “I believe you cannot do any gender studies in Iran these days,” Professor Hoorn said at the rally. “It’s a shame you can’t do much in Queensland either.”

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Casual Sexism: Myths, Debunked

Trigger warning for misogynist, homophobic language, discussion of sexual assault.

“Grow some balls!”/”That takes balls.” 

Having balls is a compliment or an insult, depending on how it’s used, but it comes back to the idea that being courageous/brave/forward is a male thing. I’m sure no one doubts that these traits are certainly present in women as well, however the problem here is linking such traits with cis-male genitalia. There’s also a bit of an irony to this saying. Testicles seem to be the most sensitive part on a male body. And yet, ironically, they’ve come to represent toughness.

So far, there’s no problem, really. Where’s the sexism?

The problem is when it’s used to describe a woman. And there are two issues with this. First, cis-women don’t have balls. So substitute balls for ovaries? It doesn’t quite have the same ring. We don’t even have a colloquial word for ovaries in english (in common usage, anyway, Urban Dictionary informs me that the kids are calling them “Os” these days), and yet I can think of numerous slang words for testicles off the top of my head. Balls, nuts, bollocks, crown jewels.

The second problem with this saying is when someone says to a woman “grow some balls”. Meaning get some nerve/drive/courage. It’s reductive because, in light of the fact that women don’t have them, it implies that courage/nerve/the go-getting attitude is A Male Thing. This insult’s close relative, calling someone a “pussy”, perfectly compliments this idea by saying that if you don’t have these things, you are female genitalia.

Finally, this is pretty trans* phobic language. The expression totally adheres to the gender binary, and in doing so, defines internal gender characteristics by reference to physical (external) gender. In this way, gender is represented as a dichotomy rather than a spectrum, and physical and mental manifestations of gender are wrongly conflated.

“You’re such a girl!”

Being a girl in this context is synonymous with being weak, submissive, and crying easily. Of course these traits are feminine, and therefore negative (according to this insult’s logic). The female gender is reduced to an insult. Like it’s the last thing anyone would want to be.

I’ve also noticed people employing this gender essentialist language to describe themselves or others in a positive way. Well in a retro-sexist positive way. Take this for example. “I just love crocheting and baking sponge cakes, I’m such a girl” or this, “my boyfriend eats soo much, he’s such a boy”. In other words “I do [insert gender-essential trait here], therefore I’m such a [insert gender here]“.

Like the “you’re such a girl” line, these expressions reek of gender essentialism. In the world of these expressions all girls wear pink dresses with little bows and like to knit or flower-arrange in their spare time. Likewise, the “boys” don’t show any sort of complex emotion, like “big” things like cars and trucks, and of course have enormous appetites.

“Take it as a compliment!”/”Have a sense of humour”/”Don’t be so serious.”

You know that person who says you look cute when you get angry, or that person who says they’re a feminist and then proceeds to completely objectify you (by being overtly sexual, asking you for naked photos – true story!)? This is one of their favourites.

People like to pull this one out when someone makes a sexist/homophobic joke and you don’t let it slide. If only you’d just stop being such a humourless feminist and appreciate some good old humour! Go on, take those sleazy construction worker catcalls as a compliment! You should like receiving that attention; it means you’re attractive, right?

Just no.

The idea of someone who “wears the pants” in a relationship.

This saying manages to be astoundingly heteronormative, with a generous helping of tired gender roles and gender essentialism.

Re: gender essentialism, first. It’s underscored by the idea that the person who wears the pants is a man (even though women wear pants. Indeed, I’m wearing pants right now). And that this pants-wearing man is the one who wields the power and authority in a relationship. It’s premised on the idea that it’s not fathomable that two people in a relationship, irrespective of their gender, could simply be equal, and that there may actually not be either particular person calling the shots. To think that someone has to be “the one in charge” is just really…weird and paternalistic.

Moving on to the heteronormativity of this. Just…wow. If the saying is based on the idea that one person in a relationship must either be or resemble a man, then what of a relationship where there are no men, more than one party is a man, neither party is a cis-gendered man?

It also assumes that everyone is in a monogamous relationship between two people.

The thing about this saying is that it’s usually aimed at relationships that don’t, or appear not to conform to narrow conceptions of how gender roles should be. Lesbian relationships are frequently targeted by absolutely hilar observers with these sorts of sayings. But even heterosexual relationships, where the female party might be noticeably forward or self-assured, can be targeted. Observers will wryly note, “well she really wears the pants in that relationship”.

“That sucks dick”/”Go suck a dick”.

This saying seems to be underpinned by the conception that fellatio is fundamentally degrading/debasing. Like “sucking a dick” is a really crappy thing to do and should only be reserved for crappy people. Which confuses me because receiving fellatio is like proof that someone’s A Real Man, or just generally awesome. So…it’s a shit thing to do, but if you get it you’re awesome?

Raping/being raped by things.

I’m going to keep writing about this until rape stops being funny to people. But first, let’s go back to a definition of rape, shall we? So (my non-dictionary) definition of rape is non-consensual sexual activity with someone. But it’s more than that. It’s an expression of power over someone, enacted by sexual means.

Rape isn’t just having sex with someone when they weren’t really into it. It goes far deeper than that. So, again, that really difficult exam? That long day at work? That nauseating hangover? That person hacking into your facebook and changing your status? Not rape. Next time you think about using ‘rape’ to describe any of those things, (or basically anything that isn’t non-consensual sexual activity with someone) think about all those sexual assault survivors whose experiences you’re dismissing.

Amen.

~ Rosie Cuppaidge

News Roundup – April 2013

Spiffing Sports

Over 100 of Australia’s best and brightest sportswomen have converged on the nation’s capital for a one day conference, to celebrate Canberra’s centenary and recognise The Canberra Times’s award for ”Best Coverage of Women in Sport in 2012” by the Australian Sporting Commission. The conference will wrap up with a list of Australia’s top 100 female athletes: among those to be honoured, star swimmer Dawn Fraser and sprinter, Cathy Freeman.

A five-stage Tour of Britain for female cyclists is in the final stages of planning, to take place in the spring of 2014. Race director, Mick Bennett, confirmed the decision to European media and outlined the need for an increase in publicity within the arena of women’s competitive cycling. “It seems an obvious and logical step forward given the strength of women’s cycling in this country and the enthusiasm for the sport generally… It’s a great sport and all that is needed is more opportunity for the women to race.”

The first ever round of the Tasmanian Women’s Motocross Championship was held on March 23rd, and saw 14 women compete in this typically male-dominated sport for the first place title. Sarah Knee, a local racer from Launceston, currently competes in both co-ed and women’s only races and was delighted with the opening of the women’s championship to support the increase in female participants. …

They Said What?!

Alex Bilmes, editor of British Esquire magazine, has defended his publication’s “honest” portrayal of women with a few particularly unenlightened statements at a 2013 London panel discussion on ‘Feminism in the Media.’ Sifting through his quotes was an ordeal unto itself; the following comments are perhaps the most cringe worthy offerings. “I could lie to you and say we’re interested in their brains as well, but on the whole, we’re not. They’re there to be beautiful objects. They’re objectified.”

We’re at least, or possibly more, ethnically diverse [than other magazines]. More shape-diverse. We also have older women. Not really old, but in their 40s… Cameron Diaz was on the cover three issues ago. She’s in her 40s.

Brazil’s human rights boss has warned that gender equality could undermine the classic maternal roles of women and turn society, quote unquote, ‘gay’. The following comments are excerpts from Marco Feliciano’s recently published book. ‘When you stimulate a woman to have the same rights as men…. her part of being mother starts getting diminished… I see a subtle way how this affects the family, when you stimulate people to release and liberate their instincts.’ Feliciano has been slammed by Brazilian Feminists for his views. Economics professor Hildete Pereira de Melo, from the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, has labeled the statements as ‘delusional, misogynistic and homophobic.’ Which just about sums it up, really!

Women of Words

(Trigger Warning: this news segment contains a brief mention of sexual assault and rape.)

Melbourne writer and Herald Sun contributor, Alice Clarke, has responded to the recent trend of celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry rejecting Feminist labels. “It’s OK, I guess, not to be a feminist,” she writes in a recent column. “We all get to have our own opinions and that’s great (though if you don’t believe in equality, you have some issues to work out).” Her article tackles the current problems of gender stereotypes and victim blaming in cases of sexual assault – the message to women being, don’t invite rape, instead of a much needed educational standard that teaches people not to commit rape. She ends by imploring men and women to embrace Feminism, to understand that the fight for gender equality in Western society is not null and void but an absolute necessity.

Jackie C. Horne, a writer, independent scholar and author of the site Romance Novels for Feminists, has come out in celebration of a modern wave of romantic literature that moves beyond the “bodice ripper” genre popular during the 1970s. She recognizes these authors as taking ideas that were once novel or provocative – the idea of powerful, self possessed heroines – to be givens. Houston author Delphine Dryden is very much aligned with Horne’s views but still sees problems for women in the world of erotic literature, noting that some writers are too quick to fall back on tropes of slut-shaming and female helplessness. She posits the presence of heroines who can make choices as a critical starting point for Feminist authors – a woman who acts, rather than being “acted upon.”

SAVE Gender Studies at UQ!

The proposed eradication of the Gender Studies major at UQ – part of a wider scaling back of humanities subjects across the country – has sparked fierce opposition from UQ students and members of the UQ Women’s Collective. The first meeting of the counter campaign, ‘Save Gender Studies at UQ,’ attracted over 30 students and staff on the Great Court at St Lucia. An educational forum is planned for Thursday, April 11th, to precede a larger rally in opposition of the university’s cutback. Members of the Women’s Collective will be handling a social media campaign through the creation of a video, informing viewers on the importance of gender studies at a tertiary level.

If you consider yourself a bit of a tech head/actor extraordinaire/directorial genius and like to get involved in the video (or in any other aspect of the campaign) check out the Facebook page online or express your interest within the UQWC Facebook group!

http://www.facebook.com/pages/SAVE-Gender-Studies-at-UQ/498494313540373?fref=t

~ Laura Howden

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A Lighthearted Look At Sex Myths And Women

Myth #1: “Girls? No, girls don’t do that…”

“Yeah, I’ve been away for two weeks. She must be dying without sex.”

“Um, dude? She’d probably just have a go at herself.”

“Nah, chicks don’t do that.”

*footnote: adaptation of a conversation I overheard.

Excuse me, sir, but you’re a tad misinformed. Your misogynistic approach is really fucking wrong. Excuse me while I set the record straight, because mate, honestly? Women MASTURBATE.

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Slut: A Myth

This article will be featured in Wom*news 9: Myths

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault.

You are fifteen and dislike your crush’s girlfriend. You call her a slut. You are eighteen and about to go out clubbing for the first time. Your mother looks you up and down and says she didn’t raise a slut. You are twenty and the boy you are fucking calls you a slut the one night you refuse to have sex.

Everyone knows that the word “slut” has power, whether we agree with it or not.
It is used to shame and degrade women and, more importantly, to put them in a box with a label that says “you’re not human here” and to make sure they stay there. Whilst there are many different variables in the slut-shaming game, the objective remains the same: to ensure women’s behaviour is deemed “acceptable” by societal terms, and to make sex a source of shame and not power. In a culture that is so concerned with labels and definitions, one has to pose the question: what is a slut? After years of being called a slut, of hearing my friends being called sluts I can only assume that a slut is a woman who doesn’t adhere to every societal expectation heaped upon her. Continue reading