Joan Smith’s ‘The Public Woman’

A review by Lotte Scheel


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.


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Call for Submissions #10: Cliterature!

Gasp! We’re double digits! Wom*news, the UQ Women’s Collective’s magazine, is calling for submissions for our 10th issue, with the theme of “women in literature”!

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We accept short stories, opinion pieces, research articles, lists, interviews, poems, photographs, song lyrics, illustrations, paintings, collages, cover art…and anything else creative you can think of…
on the subject of women in literature, ergo; female authors, authors of other genders, characterisation, sexism, feminism, gender and queer representation in literature, female-only novel prizes, chick lit, erotica, females in novel to film/tv adaptations, literary stereotypes and tropes, females and feminism in the publishing industry, the history of female authors, best and worst female role models of the literary world, etc
from members and allies of the UQ Women’s Collective.
Submissions are open on June 8
and close July 8, 5pm.

Your work will be featured both in the hard copy of our zine, the pdf version and as a post here at the wom*news website.


Emma, Rosie, Lorelei, Emily and Laura
The Wom*news Team

PS. You can find full pdf versions of our past zine issues here.

Feminism and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Trilogy’

***Warning, as this piece contains discussion of emotional, mental, physical and sexual violence against women.

Stieg Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy, and its punk, edgy, ruthless, cyber-hacker female protagonist – Lisabeth Salander, the ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ – have undoubtedly made their mark in the global literary scene. Swedish author Larsson died before his manuscripts for his trilogy could be published. They were subsequently given to the family he by all accounts hadn’t spoken with in years, and they then published the trilogy, reaping the monetary rewards while Stieg’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson received no credit in the wake of her lover’s death. Death has rendered this author’s inability to confirm his intent with the trilogy and its either feministic or misogynistic portrayal of women. Although Stieg’s friends have been outspoken about his active participation in feminism and his experiences that grounded the events chronicled in his novels, much of the interpretation of Lisbeth Salander and other female characters as they become victims of abuse and violence has been left up to Stieg’s audience – and in the wide world of feminism, this interpretation has been – in quite an encapsulating manner – conflicting.

The main argument amongst feminists seems to stem from two dominant conclusions: 1) Stieg Larsson presents a story where readers witness graphic sexual, emotional and mental abuse against women to the point where it can be seen as a type of rape-fantasy. (These conclusions have undoubtedly been reinforced by the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo film’s graphic rape scene – but it must be stressed that I’m trying to present the feminist views that are entrenched solely in the novels) and 2) Stieg Larsson presents a revenge-feminist character who literally beats the crap out of the patriarchy and eventually rises above them all, both morally and legally, to become the most powerful character in the series.

I believe that both of these points are quite well founded and easy to believe; the story of the first book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (in Sweden it is published as ‘Men Who Hate Women’) centres around a man, Blomkvist, who is quite lucky with the ladies and ends up investigating the brutal rape and murders of women – and the explicit descriptions of these murders, as well as a scene where Lisbeth Salander is raped, certainly cement the idea of a ‘rape-fantasy’ narrative. The Rejectionist, a contributor to Tiger Beatdown, sums up the alleged misogynistic representation of Lisbeth perfectly. “[She’s] the super hot (“with the right make-up her face could have put her on any billboard in the world”) damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos (“in spite of the tattoos and the pierced nose and eyebrows she was…well…attractive. It was inexplicable”) who kicks ass. Boy is that a new one in the universe: the super hot damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos who kicks ass (1).” The Rejectionist’s further notion about Lisbeth repeatedly labelling herself as a victim also proves for a compelling argument. In Stenport’s academic reading of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which argues both positive and negative gender portrayals of the novel, she argues in terms of the resolution to the plot, “All bestial crimes actually committed against women in the novel are suppressed and never brought to public awareness or trial, whereas corporate crimes get exposed and corporate inefficiencies rectified (2).” Once again in literature, violence against women is swept under the rug. There are undeniably aspects of the trilogy that undermine a feministic approach.

The notion that Stieg Larsson presents a story world and set of characters that reflect current society is one that is the predominant view of fans of the trilogy. As writer Megan Kearns blogged, “Larsson also provides an interesting commentary on gender roles with his two protagonists.  Despite Blomkvist’s social nature and Salander’s private behavior, they both stubbornly follow their own moral code.  Both also possess overt sexualities. Yet society views Blomkvist as socially acceptable and perceives Salander as an outcast (3).”

I myself took a favourable, feministic approach as I first read the series. The second dominant interpretation, as aforementioned, is that The Millennium Trilogy is a piece of feminist literature with a feminist heroine. I would argue that this positive conclusion about Larsson’s writing seems to be more compelling in terms of contextual evidence – but no more compelling in terms of feminism interpretation. I had the chance to hear Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson speak about his writing at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival this year while she was promoting her memoirs – and honestly, Gabrielsson, Steig’s partner of over twenty years, makes a great case for Larsson’s feminist attitudes in Stieg and Me and his plot concerning depictions of violence against females. “Stieg saw no excuse for male violence and has Lisbeth say so in no uncertain terms. Martin Vanger was raped by his father, true, but he had ‘exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to strike back. He killed and raped because he liked doing it.’ Later Lisbeth adds: ‘I think that it’s pathetic that creeps always have to have someone else to blame (4).”

Feminist reviews of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo praise the whole set of female characters, not only Lisbeth and her portrayal. “Blomkivist is the traditional male action-hero in that he sleeps with no less than three very desirable women in this novel. However, unlike a lot of stereotypical male leads, all of these women pursue him and express their sexual desire without being described as desperate or unwanted. In fact, all of the women we meet in Larsson’s story are active characters. Even Harriet, who disappeared as a teenager and we do not know is alive until the end of the book, is a strong female (5),” writes Victoria over at Feministing.

There are many other integral facets of the succeeding novels in the trilogy that give weight to the conclusion that this trilogy is feminist literature. This is seen particularly in the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth wins against all of the men who had emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually abused and victimised her: (warning: spoilers) for example, she leaves the half-brother intent on killing her left for dead in a warehouse, and legally wins against her abuser Teleborian thanks to chilling evidence that she helped hack from his computer. In the resolution of the novel, Lisbeth is finally given legal status – she becomes a person in society rather than a ward of the state. She is liberated thanks to her own actions, morality and intelligence. A stylistic aspect of the third novel also entrenches the supposed feministic intent of the author, and therefore underlying morality, of the trilogy. Preceding the two sections of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a part on female warriors, lending a strong heroine allusion to the protagonist Lisbeth:

“It is estimated that some six hundred women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men. Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here – or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled to deal with women who do not respect gender constrictions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat (6).”

The trilogy therefore can be seen to be filled with often blatant feminist references, ideas and characters purposely constructed and portrayed by Larsson for this intent.

This all leaves me pondering many questions. Would less emphasis on looks and less graphic detail of violence change interpretations? If Stieg Larsson was alive to tell of his intent, would you believe him? The intent and impact of The Millennium Trilogy will undoubtedly still be debated as time goes on by feminists. It seems to me that it’s about how a reader reads the novel: do they focus on the negative undertones, or take to heart the positive overtones? Ultimately, no matter what the author says, or how or what they write, it seems that as with all literature, the legacy will be determined by reception.

~ Emma Di

(1) The Rejectionist. The Girl With Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson.

(2) Stenport, Anna Westerståhl. Corporations, Crime, and Gender Construction in Stieg Larsson’s: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Exploring Twenty-first Century Neoliberalism in Swedish Culture.

(3) Kearnes, Megan. Rebel With A Cause: A Feminist Hero Emerges in film ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’.

(4) Gabrielsson, Eva. Stieg and Me. Allen and Unwin, Sydney. 2011. Page 78.

(5) Victoria. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Yet Another Feminist Review.

(6) Larsson, Stieg. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Maclehose Press, London. 2009. Page 3.