Clementine Ford: Uncompromising

UQ Journalism student Sophie Meixner’s recap of the “Are Women Invisible?” seminar by Clementine Ford and the UQ Women’s Collective.


It’s the attitude Clementine Ford has always taken in her approach to feminism. But with the recent resurgence of the ‘feminist’ tag in popular culture – from Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N. to the shocked reaction to Germaine Greer’s comments on the Duchess of Cambridge – it was a good time to hear the young writer’s insights firsthand.

On Friday October 3 Ms Ford joined members of the UQ Women’s Collective for an informal but passionate discussion entitled “The Invisibility of Women in the Media.”

Warm, engaging and prone to an off-the-cuff tangent or two, Ford began her speech by quoting the first paragraph of Susan Faludi’s iconic feminist treatise Backlash, which warned in 1991 of a growing feeling of hostility toward the feminist movement.

It was an infuriating reality, Ford noted, that many concerns of the now-23-year-old book (older than some students in the room) still applied so seamlessly to young women today.

Though young women continue to live in a society where powerful male politicians see fit to legislate to curb their reproductive rights, where domestic and sexual violence against women are real and continuing threats, and where not even our own Prime Minister is immune to sexism, Ford argued women are rendered invisible by a pervasive “yay, equality!” mindset in which we’re told “the fight for equality’s been won” and so to “shut up” because “feminism’s over.”

This is a problem for young women today, Ford said, because feminist progress is not seen as an urgent, or even necessary, priority. The complacency may lie in segments of society who believe feminism has gone too far the other way, viewing men as the “abused chattel” pitted against educated, go-getting women who are “not just equal now but superior.”

The outcome is a flurry among young feminists to avoid seeming too hostile to male recruits – a mistake that Ford says British actress Emma Watson succumbed to in her much-praised speech to the U.N. last month, in which she urged feminists to strive for men’s issues as well as women’s.

While Ford commended Watson for her bravery in using such a global platform to speak about gender inequality – and noted there’s certainly no “right” way to “do” feminism – she warned against “bending and scraping” merely to render feminism more “male-accessible.” Men don’t need “hand-engraved invitations to participate” and then a “cookie” when they do: indeed, the least we should expect is for men to be allies to the feminist cause already without expecting something in return.

While it’s true gender equality continues to hit massive milestones, it is a simple fact that feminism is not finished, and the gains the movement achieves should not be used as an excuse to “shut us up.” This is where Ford’s “uncompromising” attitude comes into play.

“Radicalise,” was her advice. “If they think you’re a man-hater because it’s the only way to minimise you, then let them. Women have been invisible for far too long – it’s time to demand our place now. If a man chooses to be an ally, great, but there are so many people who need to be given space in feminism before we need to worry about giving men space.

This is because in Ford’s version of feminism, nobody is be a feminist merely to serve to their own interests. White, educated feminists may have the privilege of fighting for seats on boards and equal pay, but there are still groups of women further marginalised by society.

For instance, just as able-bodied women may be unnecessarily sexualised by the media, Ford observed that some disabled women are fighting for the right to be viewed in a sexual way. The same perspective is needed if we look overseas to the countless atrocities still committed against women, from sex slavery to genital mutilation to the simple denial of an education. “Statistics are your friend,” Ford noted, and with circumstances like these still existing all across the world, any argument that feminism is “over” starts to seem awfully dangerous.

“Women have been invisible for too long,” were her final words for the audience. “It’s time to demand our place now. It’s not up to feminists to make space for men, it’s up to men to use the space they already have in society for feminism.”

Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt dismissed her in 2012 as “just some feminist with bared tattoos” (a moniker she seems a little too happy to adopt). And it’s true that someone like Clementine Ford, who writes so articulately, who holds her opinions so resolutely, can seem like an intimidating figure to some. But the woman we encountered at UQ on Friday was warm, funny, open to ideas, and, above all, relatable.

The UQ Women’s Collective is to be congratulated for bringing Clementine’s insight onto our campus. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a vibrant campus culture in which feminist issues, which affect all of us, are heard, debated, and encouraged.

~ Sophie Meixner

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

Joan Smith’s ‘Misogynies’: Twenty-Four Years On

Review by Joanna Horton
To be featured in the upcoming “Cliterature” issue of Wom*news!

UntitledA feminist classic, Misogynies was first released in 1989 and created controversy with its cutting analyses of everyday woman-hating sentiments and behaviours. In 2013, it has been re-released by The Westbourne Press in conjunction with Joan Smith’s newest book, The Public Woman.

Let me start by saying straight up that I LOVE the idea of a book that sets out to explore and prove the deep-seated societal hatred towards women that increasingly shows up the in the cracks of modern ‘equality’. While I’m being honest, I will also tell you that I am a bit tired of hearing things like equal pay or affirmative action being touted as self-contained ‘feminist issues’. Are these problems important? Yes. Are they definitive? No. Rather, they’re symptomatic of a wider problem, and fit into a wider system. I call this system patriarchy, but Smith seeks to explore it from the angle of misogyny – or, in a nod to Roland Barthes, misogynies. The scope is too broad for one book, and so Smith chooses examples from current events, history, literature, and pop culture to demonstrate how anti-woman sentiments are surviving – nay, thriving – even in ostensibly ‘equal’ societies.

All Smith’s chapters take the same theme – that is, misogyny – read through different lenses. The everyday language and subject matter make it easy reading, and Smith nails the idiom that every English Literature student will be familiar with: complex ideas, simple language. Her analysis is sound and easy to follow, making Misogynies ideal both as a ‘starting-out’ feminist text and as a refresher for those of us who no longer need convincing. (One chapter, instantly familiar to most women, simply takes the form of a transcribed conversation between a man, a woman, and a plumber engaged to do work on their house.)

By exploring the nuances of misogyny, Smith also touches on several intersecting themes. The most salient of these is class (which I believe contemporary feminism doesn’t explore nearly enough – but that’s a rant for another day), examined through the iconic figure of Margaret Thatcher. This was particularly interesting to read in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death, during which countless conservatives named her as a glass-ceiling shatterer and elected to ignore the brutality she exercised against Britain’s working class, the worst of which was borne (as it always is) by women. Cuttingly, Smith exposes the hypocrisy behind Thatcher’s insistence that women can ‘have it all’, and reveals the Iron Lady as anything but a feminist icon.

In other chapters, however, this intersectionality falters. Examinations of misogyny and race, or misogyny and sexuality, are sadly absent. When recounting the experience of a Page Three woman mobbed by fans at a promotional event, Smith veers away from the rich analysis that seems obvious. Rather than thoughtfully and critically exploring how Page Three women’s bodies are exploited to line the pockets of so many men – from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun newspaper where Page Three women appear, right down to the women’s mostly-male managerial teams – Smith actually blames the women themselves for unwanted (and sometimes dangerous) attention from male fans, claiming that they are extending a sexual invitation that they have no intention of fulfilling. Despite explicitly noting that the women in question usually embark on Page Three-esque careers due to financial hardship, Smith hopes that the fans who mobbed Page Three woman Samantha Fox at her event got their money back. (The same theme is picked up again in a chapter on Marilyn Monroe, where Smith’s claim that “no woman squeezes herself into a tight dress, appears on stage before thousands of soldiers who have been isolated from female company for months, and presents them with a suggestive song without knowing exactly what she’s doing” smacks strongly of victim-blaming rhetoric warning women to watch their behaviour.)

These bizarre sentiments are doubly strange considering that Smith spends the second chapter of Misogynies reminding us that a woman can engage in whatever behaviour she likes and still say ‘no’ at the end of the night. Does this statement only stand true for some women? Does posing naked in a newspaper remove your right not to be physically assaulted by fans? Are some women in fact asking for it? Smith’s sudden turns of victim-blaming appear as failures of analysis – she blames women for fulfilling roles (Page Three ‘girl’, seductive femme fatale) that society has set out for them. She hopes the fans get their money back; I hope the Page Three women do.

This conclusion, perhaps, is one effect of reading Misogynies twenty-four years after its release, during which time continuous debate has brought up new questions and perspectives for feminism. However, another effect of this retrospective reading is the haunting sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Three or four times a year,” Smith writes, “we in Britain go through a ritual known as Outcry Over Judge’s Remarks In Rape Case”. These days, as the Internet allows for information to be shared further and faster than ever, this ritual takes place more like three or four times a month. (At the time of writing, I can think of at least one news story along these lines that occurred in the past week.) The sentiments of the judges quoted by Smith could easily have been expressed today. This, I think, is one reason why it’s so crucially important to read and re-read classic feminist texts – the realization that some things don’t change points to the conclusion that they are culturally ingrained; always present, in one form or another, in a culture that is essentially misogynistic. This, after all, is Smith’s ultimate argument.

One final note: to paraphrase Lenin, what is to be done? Smith delivers a stern critique of misogynistic culture, but offers little in the way of suggested remedies. Finishing the book, I wished that she’d included just one final chapter on the power (and the complex difficulties) of women organizing together against misogynies. Leaving this out amounts not only to a lack of ‘solution’, but it also has the unfortunate effect of casting women only as the victims of misogyny, rather than three-dimensional people who have the ability to fight back. Perhaps, with much of the groundwork laid by feminist forerunners such as Smith, this is the task for today’s feminism.

~ Joanna Horton

Wom*news was asked to review Joan Smith’s new release books ‘Misogynies’ and ‘The Public Woman’ by her publishing house’s distributor, Inbooks. You’ll also be able to read Lotte’s review of ‘The Public Woman’ in Issue #10 Wom*news: Cliterature. If you’d like us to review your feministy book, please email us at 

“The Wizard of Auslan” by Vulcana Women’s Circus – Review

Last Saturday I went to a showing of “Wizard of Auslan”, a new in-progress production by Vulcana Women’s Circus, at the Stores Studio in the Powerhouse Museum. It had two once-off showings; one at 3pm and one at 6pm. As a current student of Auslan (Australian sign language), I was really excited to see Auslan used in drama, as it is a beautiful, expressive language when signed in everyday conversation.


Vulcana Women’s Circus is a group that encourages positive physical experiences and creative power through circus movements and acts. It’s a women-only performance group that also holds the Vulcademy – or, circus classes – at the Powerhouse. Vulcana has been working with the Deaf community for some time, and The Wizard of Auslan is a work in-progress. “It was some of our best scenes put together!” said one performer at the end.


I enjoyed every moment of “The Wizard of Auslan”! Although there was music in the background, the performance was told primarily in sign language. The performance was totally accessible to those who don’t know sign language, however. The performers were members from the Deaf community – one woman has been one of my Auslan teachers this year! As emphasised in their show booklet, “this project explores the possibilities around creating a unique signed performance that examines the physical languages of circus and Auslan.”


It was an original and very clever take on The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (complete with a puppet Toto), the Tin Man (holding a biscuit tin, unable to open it), the Cowardly Lion (a woman wearing a fur coat), and the Scarecrow who kept dropping straw everywhere all came together on a park bench in the middle of the stage. All the characters knew how to solve each other’s problems, but couldn’t communicate with each other. Through learning sign language (featuring a humourous moment where Dorothy pulled the Auslan dictionary out of her basket!), the four were able to help each other out: the Tin Man got their biscuit tin open, the Cowardly Lion took their coat off and fanned themselves cool.


The staging was absolutely fantastic it’s minimalism; it drew the focus on the performers’ language. The scene changes were simple and almost Brechtian. By far some of the best parts of “The Wizard of Auslan”, however, were the circus performers. Women climbed, twisted and turned high above the floor. It was professional and awe-inspiring to watch. It really added to what was a very physical production. At the end, all the women got up and signed ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, which was really cool to see.


“The Wizard of Auslan” was a clever, touching, beautiful and funny production.


You can find out more info about Vulcana Women’s Circus, their productions and workshops at and

~ Emma Di

Dear Girlfriend magazine: you are awesome.

By Emma Di

Feminists over 18 who, like me, like a bit of fashion advice and actress interviews from oh so popular magazines every once in a while – I would like to take your Cosmo, Vogue, Cleo and Frankie and raise it to a Girlfriend.

Yesterday, I was chilling out in Southbank before a class for a good hour and decided to buy a mag to spend the time away. I walked into a newsagent and went for my usual choice: Cosmopolitan. But reading the headlines, I realised that nope, I really didn’t feel like reading about “what he feels about my make up” or how to have the best orgasm of my life. Cleo had much of the same stuff – and while the free nail polish that came with the mag was tempting – I turned my eyes to the neon pink cover of Girlfriend, complete with Emma Stone.

It wasn’t love at first sight. At 19 (oh yes! How mature am I at this age!), I usually think of Girlfriend as being Total Girl’s big sister. I felt as though I’d “upgraded” to the “adult girl” magazines of Cosmo and Cleo years ago.(I will have to excuse myself for not talking about Dolly: I was never a fan of Dolly and it wasn’t at this newsagent.) But having loads of free time, I decided to investigate the headlines on the cover.

And Ohmygawd. I swear Girlfriend wasn’t this girl-power, positive and utterly unconcerned with fashion and sexiness when I read it at 14. Maybe it was, and I just don’t remember. But that doesn’t really matter – because I am so happy that girls from in their tweens and into their twenties have a cheap ($8), mainstream magazine that tells them things that older feminists would probably like to tell their younger selves. You don’t to write those Dear Sixteen Year Old Me letters anymore – GF covers it all.

I’ll give you the current (August) cover’s most awesome highlights to show you what I mean. On the cover is a picture of Emma Stone laughing, from head to chest. At the bottom of the picture, there’s a little icon that says “self-respect reality check: this image was supplied to us already retouched, however we did change the colour of her top”. Girlfriend has a pretty good policy for body image: they use their own readers often as models in the fashion list parts, and even as evident in this issue, they are all of different body shapes, sizes and ethnicities. Other headlines include: “The Future Called…It Said “Don’t Stress”: The GR Career Spesh Is Here” (which is at least five pages of advice for school leavers), “The Sexy Myth and why you shouldn’t ACCEPT it”, and “Shy High: We Quiet Girls Can Come First.”

Isn’t this what we want to be reading in mainstream magazines?! Inside the magazine, there are two ads about pads and tampons (one: the carefree “discharge” ad is behind the cover! Two: Libra with facts like “yeah, menstrual bleeding doesn’t smell.”), and a couple of pages dedicated to asking successful women how they got their jobs. There’s also articles on how to deal when you know someone with ASD or when you lose someone to cancer. But my favourite piece in this issue of GF is an AWESOME article about how there is “no such thing as natural beauty” and this idea we get when guys says “I like girls who are naturally beautiful” is just making us even more self-conscious and insecure about our looks. The final line from GF on the article is:

“Here at GF, we think dressing up and wearing make up is fun – not mandatory, or something we do because we want to please others; it’s something we do because we want to. There’s nothing wrong with playing with your hair, make up and style if you want to, but do it for you, and not to please someone else or live up to someone else’s standards.”

Thank you, Girlfriend! Where has this article been on my life? (Probably on Jezebel where no teen can find it…)

And yeah, disbelievers, don’t worry. I’ll address your concerns. Girlfriend still has a focus on being “girly”: there’s heaps of pages to do with make up and fashion, and this issue came with a poster book with posters of One Direction and Justin Bieber (I’m keeping the poster of Josh Hutcherson, just to let you know.) The GF advice sealed section (their version of Dolly doctor) is still there, but the “how embarrassing!” section is only one page long. And yah. It’s still hetero-centric with a focus on “cute” boys (who apparently are almost as good as girls). There’s stuff that girls want to read: about what boys think cheating constitutes as, and how to do their hair, and what Emma Stone thinks of Andrew Garfield. Girlfriend isn’t the perfect feministy magazine.

But it’s so much more pro-woman/girl, positive and disinterested in beauty and sexual appeal than the other mainstream Australian magazines out there that I can’t help but tip my hat off to it.

Dear Girlfriend Magazine,
You are awesome.

~ Emma Di

Spoiler Alert! Catwoman, feminism and the alleged exploitation of ‘female’ traits

by Madeline Price


The Dark Knight Rises, in terms of the movie itself, was just as good – perhaps better – than I expected. The twists, the turns, the very, very, VERY loud action, the crazy-wheels-going-the-wrong-way motorcycle, the female leads – absolutely mind blowingly good. Wait, wait, wait, hold up there – female leads?

Catwoman (the versatile Anne Hathaway) is mostly what I’m talking about here. When I first heard that she was going to portray Catwoman, I was a bit sceptical. As an actress, she


seemed too dainty, too feminine (traits that are to be admired, not seen as an hindrance) to play the jewel-thieving cat burglar. I was more than happy, however, to be proven wrong.

However, there were two things that really annoyed me about her character and how she was portrayed; her relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman and her exploitation of alleged ‘female’ traits. Up until the last half hour of the movie, I was so elated, so proud, to see Catwoman as a female lead character who was notin the movie as any romantic interest for the main male lead. And then Melinda Bates (Bruce’s romantic attachment for the film) turned out to be a baddy (mind blowing twist by the way!) and Catwoman was back on the table. That disappointed me a little – she was a much stronger lead when she wasn’t attached to Christian Bale’s/Batman’s/Bruce Wayne’s face (in a lip-lock fashion, not in a surgically attached fashion).

Now don’t get me wrong, she didn’t exactly become a submissive housewife when becoming the romantic attachment, but she did become the ‘Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?’ overly emotive romantic interest type – worried for the hero’s life as opposed to the lives of 12 million of Gotham City’s residents. Ah well, what can you do?

The second thing that disappointed me a little was her exploitation of supposed ‘female’ traits – hysterical screaming/crying in gunfights, seductive swanning around, and so forth. Granted, these traits were used to perform some crazy badass-ery, but still – it was massive exploitation of female stereotypes, stereotypes that should have died a long time ago (for more female stereotypes, I recommend the wonderful Leslie Knope. Now, granted, she probably wouldn’t have been as good at getting away with things as she was if she didn’t use these stereotypes to fool people into thinking she was, for lack of a better word, just an ordinary woman, but by having these traits she did portray one MAJOR female stereotype: manipulation. All too often you hear the phrase ‘manipulative woman’, and I honestly think this was the worst alleged trait that Catwoman could have portrayed, but, as said before, these manipulative tactics allowed her to get away with thieving, killing and tomfoolery. Worth it in the long run? Well, I don’t really know.

And that brings me to Melinda Bates, the other female lead. The twist that she was actually the one trying to destroy Gotham City under the disguise of a wealthy, educated, yet self-made woman (and Wayne’s love interest), was, I admit it, pretty mind blowing stuff there. But, you will notice that, when there is a female villain, she is never mediocre. You never get a female villain who is only ‘a little bad’ – they always go the entire ten yards, think Cruella De Ville (she killed puppies, while her male henchmen brought them to her), the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (brutally beheading how many civilians?), Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (ok, not exactly killing her interns or anything, but pretty damn brutal) and Phoenix in X-Men: the Last Stand (truly psychotic). Compare to the male villains of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (ok, I admit it, absolutely terrifying, but in the movie you didn’t see him kill that many people), Jafar from Aladdin (I don’t think he actually killed anyone at all!) and even compare the Batman Begins associate villain Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow) – he is nothing compared to Melinda Bates, he tried to cause Gotham to tear itself apart, while Bates tried to nuke it! There is no comparison in relation to the latter – she is definitely more evil. That’s just my note on female villains – they are never half-evil, and, in the case of Bates, she also exemplifies the manipulative attitudes of Catwoman.

But, other than all that, it was definitely the best movie of the trilogy and I honestly can’t wait until they start the Batman and Robin saga!

~ Madeline Price
You can find this piece, along with Madeline’s other kick-ass feminist musings, at her blog thefeministagenda.

Film Review: Made in Dagenham (2010)

By Joanna Horton

‘Equal work for equal pay’ continues to be one of the most widely discussed issues in the feminist movement. In fact, I’ve found that it is very often referenced by idiots people arguing the point that feminism is no longer needed. Technically, yes, women are paid ‘the same’ as men. However, as many feminists point out, this ignores the significant wage imbalance between male and female-dominated industries. The fight against this form of pay inequity continues today – earlier this year Fair Work Australia handed down a pay rise to the (predominantly female) community sector after the Australian Services Union’s long and forceful ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ campaign.

‘Made in Dagenham’, however, goes back to the beginnings of the fight for equal pay, re-enacting and dramatising the 1968 sewing machinists’ strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham (at the time one of the largest private employers in the United Kingdom). The film focuses on Rita O’Grady, a 1960s working woman with a husband, two children and a job assembling car upholstery for Ford. She and the other sewing machinists (all women) want a pay rise, but upon meeting with their (male) union representative, they realize that they’re being paid a fraction of men’s wages across the board, simply because their work is ‘women’s work’. They decide to strike for pay equality, and Rita is suddenly thrust into the role of strike leader.

Watching how the fight for equal pay unfolded in the public eye is, of course, always fascinating. However, another facet of the film explored how the struggle occurred in the private lives of the men and women involved. I found this particularly interesting as it gave rise to explorations of gender relationships, family responsibilities, and men’s role in women’s liberation.


For instance, the boyfriends and husbands of the women strikers in ‘Made in Dagenham’ initially support their cause. They’re all good unionists and most of them work in the automobile assembly part of the Ford plant. However, as the strike stretches on, many of the men become fed up with the lowered household income and the increased family responsibilities being placed upon them. This particular kind of man is what I like to call a ‘brogressive’ – a supposedly progressive dude except when it comes to feminism (i.e. a movement that threatens his privilege; that threatens the lifelong knowledge that his dinner will always be on the table). My favourite scene in the film is one where Rita’s husband tries to tell her what a great guy he is because he takes care of the kids sometimes and doesn’t hit her. Cool, do you want a medal? Rita lets him have it. “Rights, not privileges!” she tells him. “It’s that simple, it really bloody is.” (I may have pumped my fist at this point.)

This statement, of course, shows how the struggle for equality in public mirrors the struggle in private. As feminists are so fond of reminding everyone, the personal is political. Many opponents to equal pay tried to tell women that they were lucky to have jobs at all – why bother making trouble by demanding equal pay? Well, for the same reason that women should ‘make trouble’ when their husbands aren’t being supportive: We’re people, and deserve to be treated that way.

As you can probably tell by this point, I liked ‘Made in Dagenham’. It’s funny, moving, thought-provoking, occasionally tear-jerking AND feminist. I recommend seeing it with other feminists for a maximum-solidarity viewing experience. (I went with a friend to see it in the cinema, and we got a Couples Combo at the candy bar and made incessant jokes about being on a feminist date and accidentally touching hands in the popcorn bucket. Which was even funnier because we accidentally attended the senior citizens’ showing in the middle of the afternoon and were surrounded by octogenarians.) Not only is it a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience (worth it for the 1960s hair and outfits alone) but it’s guaranteed to get you fired up about equal pay and feminist issues in general. Maintain the rage!

Fun factoid: ‘Made in Dagenham’ was released in Germany as ‘We Want Sex’.

~ Joanna Horton

You can find this movie review in the current herstory issue of wom*news.

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

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.