Tag Archives: feminism


Just in case you haven’t been following the fabulous response to Alan Jones’s colourful pronouncement that women are destroying the joint, I recommend you have a look at the Twitter hashtags #destroythejoint and #destroyingthejoint. Oh how much better exuberant sarcasm and just plain fun and celebration is than outraged defensiveness!

There’s a great photo gallery at Daily Life. I particularly like the images of Marie Bashir, Eva Cox and Penny Wong.

Sydney Ideas: Spirited Muslim Women

We headed off before dinner last night to another well attended Sydney Ideas talk in the new Law School building: Dr Amina Wadud on ‘Spirited Voices of Muslim Women in Islamic Reform Movements’.

We hadn’t read the fine print on the web site, and didn’t realise that the talk was part of a symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World: Islam, Democracy and Gender Rights’, or that the talk was preceded by a performance by the University of Sydney Gamelan Orchestra. So we were pleasantly surprised to arrive at a very full auditorium that sounded like a Balinese night. Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, who is also the Chancellor of the University and acting Governor General, launched the Symposium before Dr Wadud took the lectern. The last time I saw her launch anything it was a book published by South Sydney Youth Services, and she brought the same respectful gravitas to that room full of pierced and tattooed young people as to this gathering of distinguished academics.

Amina Wahud is at the forefront of the ‘gender jihad’ – the struggle for gender justice within the global Islamic community. Actually, I just re-read the blurb about her on Sydney Ideas website, and realised that it gives a very adequate summary of the talk:

Dr Wadud’s writings and vision for gender equality, within an Islamic ‘tawhidic paradigm’, incorporate the wider struggle against other forms of oppression such as racism, bigotry, religious intolerance, economic exploitation and the erasure of human dignity.

She described how at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 the Muslim women met with the aim of coming up with a joint statement, but no agreement could be reached between those who talked in terms of a human rights agenda and those who talked in terms of Islam. She went away from that meeting determined to find a way of reconciling the two, of finding, as she said, epistemological, theological, and other kinds of logical grounds for a Muslim feminism. Like Professor Muhammad Abdel Hameen on the Book Show recently, she has a thoughtful, non-literalistic approach to the Qur’an and pretty much scorns the approach that would take isolated verses as prescriptions for living.  She takes the concept of ‘tahwid’, which is literally the notion that God is One, central to Islam, and argues from it that all humans are equal because each has a direct relationship to God the Transcendental.

I’m not at all engaged in Islamic theology, but it was a joy to hear this flexible alternative to the version of Islam that dominates the airwaves. Dr Wadud began her talk with an invocation of God in Arabic, and when she mentioned the Prophet she said something in Arabic, presumably the traditional ‘Upon him be peace and blessings’. It seems to me that to wage a feminist struggle from inside Islam in this way must be more fruitful in the long run than any number of feminist denunciations of Islam.

There were other, smaller joys. Dr Wadud, who was born in Maryland, USA, wore a shalwar kameez with an elaborate scarf tied over her hair, and a loose scarf over that. For the first quarter hour of the talk, this loose scarf kept trying to fall off. As we strove to follow her explanation of the background to her theoretical work, she had a struggle of her own, repeatedly hitching the back over her head. In the end, the scarf won. The other small joy only made itself known in the Q&A: Dr Wadud explained that some of her points would have been clearer if she had used her PowerPoint version of the talk, but she has moved to an iPad and wasn’t able to connect it to a projector. The joy: we had a person talking to us, instead of to a bunch of explanatory slides.

The new Bond movie

The first Bond movie directed by a woman. Starring Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, directed by Sam (‘Nowhere Boy’) Taylor Woods, written by Jane (‘Kick Ass’) Goldman, it’s only 2 and a bit minutes long. Have a watch. And my belated wishes for a happy International Women’s Day.

I saw it on tor.com

Narkiness and trouble

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: selected writings 1970–2010 (Black Inc 2010)

I was looking forward to this book. Kate Jennings and I have a lot in common. We both hail from rural Australia, had diffident but dependable fathers, were skinny when young (she still is), did Arts at Sydney University in the 1960s. We both hate alcohol culture. We’ve both had people with Alzheimer’s in our lives. We were never part of the same set, but had friends in common. We met at least once, when one of those friends had us both to dinner, possibly with ill-conceived match-making intent. (I have only the vaguest memories of that meal, not much more than being pleasantly surprised to find that the formidable Kate was a country girl.) As I’ve mentioned before, I was there for her famous speech to a Vietnam Moratorium crowd on Sydney Uni’s front lawn in 1970, I also vividly recall her tremulous presence at Balmain Poetry Readings in the 70s. Both the front lawn speech and the poem I remember most clearly, ‘Couples‘ (‘couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or worse still, lack of ambition’), are included in this volume.

Apart from one essay, perhaps in The New Yorker, I didn’t read anything more of Kate’s writing until her 2002 novel about Alzheimer’s and Wall Street, Moral Hazard, her 2008 book about her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, and her recent essays in The Monthly, all of which I enjoyed. Trouble, a selection in lieu of memoir, looked like an opportunity to fill the gaps: how did the rage-filled, nervy radical feminist of the 70s become the consummately urbane, confident New Yorker?

If you’re looking for a review, stop reading now, because I gave up just after the halfway point. Jennings describes herself as prickly and graciously acknowledges that Chris Feik of The Monthly and Quarterly Essay ‘gently moderates [her] frequent immoderation’. But it wasn’t lack of moderation or prickliness that got me down. I diagnose at least a mild case of expat syndrome: I’ve grown older and regret my youthful foolishness, you’ve grown older and have mended your immoral ways, expats have grown older and think they were once foolish and immoral because of the immutable culture of their native land. The essays and interstitial pieces pour scorn on Australian feminists (so trapped in ‘theory’ and waffle), on Australian drunks (so representative of all Australians and so unregenerate), on Australian poets (so caught up in ‘infinitely ridiculous poetry wars’, and while she’s on the subject, one side of those wars is historically ignorant and engages in ‘appallingly damaging’ games of Chinese whispers) and, with no obvious sense of the irony, on the Australian proclivity to pour scorn (her word is derision).

She complains that an essay making sweeping statements about what’s wrong with Australian feminism was ignored (‘Clever tactic to silence criticism’), but since the essay names no names, quotes no quotes, and seems to be broadly ignorant of Australian socialist feminism, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women Behind Bars and lord knows how much else, I suspect the silence was embarrassed rather than clever.  She complains that her poem about Martin Johnston led to disapprobation being heaped on her, and that unnamed persons (a weaselly passive voice implies that it was the entire corpus of Australian poets) referred to her as the ‘execrable Jennings’, but an angry response shouldn’t have surprised her given that the poem virtually accuses unnamed people of taking ghoulish delight in Martin’s slow suicide by alcohol,  and if anyone used the phrase ‘execrable Jennings’ in public they managed to keep it hidden from Google. A former lover once threatened to sue her for a portrayal of him which she claims was a caricature that no ordinary readers would give a fig about identifying with any actual person. The story in question, included in this book, seemed to me a nasty piece of work that might as well have conte à clef as a subtitle: you don’t have to be a member of any in crowd to recognise Helen Garner (incidentally one of the people who don’t exist in Jennings’s version of Australian feminism). Poor Kate, always being misunderstood.

I could multiply examples of annoying moments:

The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud  combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a song popular in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy and I don’t give a damn.’

It may be nitpicking, but the song, as I remember it and confirmed by 30 seconds of research, goes like this:

We're shameless hussies and we don't give a damn
We're loud, we're raucous and we're fighting for our rights
for our sex
and for fun
and we'll win.

Proud combativeness? I would have thought the tone was more like rowdy optimism. And KJ’s slip from plural to singular is surely indicative of something.

By the time I reached page 174 I realised the book wasn’t fun any more. On that page Jennings says a friend ‘complained that he had to keep backtracking to figure out what was going on’ in a detective novel she  is enthusiastic about, and I caught myself reading that as a sneer at her friend’s philistinism. Almost certainly it was nothing of the sort, but my cumulative annoyance had reached a level where I was reading with half my mind on the lookout for the next annoying thing. I even started cavilling at an occasional turn of phrase, and that had to be me not Kate, because she writes beautiful, concise prose. This book and I needed some space from each other. I may go back to it, but for now I’m going to read Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Sorry.

Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.

How women should live their lives

This piece from yesterday’s Herald includes a fairly shocking glimpse of Kevin Rudd unplugged: ‘Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that [completing a PhD] is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families.’

Penny had a strikingly similar encounter yesterday.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but after 37 or so years in the workforce – as an activist for women’s health, childcare, community health, and a consultant on those and similar fields – Penny is taking a year off to do a Graduate Diploma in Fine Art. Yesterday she ran into an older woman, a feminist public intellectual, whom I will call Lilith. When Penny told Lilith what she was doing, Lilith said (in a striking verbal echo of the Prime Minister): ‘In these gloomy times it’s not surprising that so many people are withdrawing from activism.’ She went on, ‘I’ll keep plugging away.’

Usually I’d follow an anecdote like that with a number of one-line comebacks thought of too late. In this case, though, Penny opened her mouth to talk about the work she’s still doing for asylum seekers etc, but Lilith had actually moved away, her assumptions about the role of art untroubled by the evidence.

‘I am an emotional creature’

Yet another video link, this time to a fabulous TED talk by Eve (‘Vagina Monologues’) Ensler, ‘Embrace Your Inner Girl’. You may find the beginning bits about the girl cell a bit oogie boogie, but do persevere: it’s a metaphor. I couldn’t find a way to embed it, sorry!

Eve Ensler: Embrace your inner girl | Video on TED.com.

Melancholy derangement

Kate Jennings, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby (Outback Press 1975)

jennings coverI’ve mentioned Kate Jennings once or twice in my blogs, mainly because her New York based writing has given me much pleasure. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that she won a place in my heart nearly (gasp!) forty years ago with a speech she gave at a Vietnam Moratorium meeting on the Front Lawn at Sydney University. On that day, after a number of rousing speeches from various anti-war organisations, a number of women, perhaps there were ten of them, came to the front of the speaking area and fanned out across its full width, standing with legs apart and arms folded. I was off at one side near the front of the thousand-strong crowd, and was impressed by the deliberate drama of the moment. I noticed that the woman closest to me was trembling, and realised that they were doing something that terrified them. Kate stepped to the microphone – the painfully thin designated speaker – and delivered her speech in a voice that shook but didn’t break. The speech was intemperate, overblown, bitter, profane and inelegant. It changed my life.

The speech was printed five years later as ‘Moratorium: Front Lawn: 1970’ in Kate’s first book, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby. It’s a slim vol of poetry, plus the speech and one other short prose piece. I lost my copy decades ago, and was delighted when a slightly battered arrived in the mail last week from a friend who was culling her bookshelves. The poems, it turns out,  haven’t generally aged well, though the pain in some of them fairly leaps off the page. When Kate was interviewed on the ABC by Julie McCrossin a couple of years ago (published in Hecate Vol 14 Nº 1), Julie asked her about this book, and in particular about that speech. Here’s a relevant bit:

KJ: I think you’d call that speech ‘in your face’. They were wild, rackety outrageous days and we were not getting the attention of the men at that point. We were a very small group that started meeting and that was the speech I gave. I’m not sure that we can actually say it out loud on radio. It was that outrageous.
: But what was the core content, the cry from the heart?
: The cry from the heart was that we were all Vietnam activists and the men were all gung-ho about fighting that cause, and nobody cared about women, and at that stage women could not have legal abortions.
: And when you look back are you amazed at the courage you had, that was a new voice then, the voice of women saying: ‘Look out over here, something’s happening, or not happening?’
: When I look back at all my life I am amazed, I do keep walking a plank. I thought those days were terrific.
: Why?
: We were very inventive. We weren’t as earnest as people are making us out to be now. I don’t think of course those tactics are necessary now.

The bit of the speech that made me sit up and listen wasn’t the vile man-hating rhetoric. What made it possible to listen to that and hear what was being said was the opening lines, printed in the book as an epigraph:

you’ll say I’m a manhating braburning
lesbian member of the castration
penisenvy brigade, which I am

I’d remembered the last three words as ‘Well, I am.’ The thing that so affected me was that Kate and the women who flanked her were proclaiming that they would no longer be silenced or kept in their places by even the most vicious putdowns anyone could throw at them. If need be they would claim the putdowns as badges of honour. It made my young, impressionable, male heart sing.

The poems that precede and follow the speech recount some of the personal cost behind that stand:

If it’s not booze, it’s drugs
if it’s not drugs, it’s poetry,
if it’s not poetry, it’s feminism,
if it’s not feminism, it’s love
if it’s not love,
well, you’re just plain crazy.
When you are crying like that
how long before you stop?
I’ve stopped.

Part of the pleasure of her more recent books is in their sheer urbane poise, a great relief to the reader who followed her through the derangement, rage and ‘racketiness’ of this book.

Posthumous Tiptree Jr

James Tiptree Jr, Meet Me at Infinity (Tor Books, 2000)

I got hold of this book as part of my Science Fiction/Fantasy self-education project. In years long gone, I’d read two Tiptree novels and a collection of short stories, so already had a healthy respect for her. (Yes,  James Tiptree Jr was a woman. However, in this book she’s identified primarily by her male pseudonym rather than as Alice Bradley Sheldon or Raccoona Sheldon. And that’s as it should be: she kept writing as James for roughly ten years after she was outed, and the pieces by Raccoona collected here are pretty forgettable. There are precedents: I’ll bet you struggle, as I do, to remember the real life name of Henry Handel Richardson or George Eliot.) This is a posthumous gathering of previously uncollected stories and essays, so might have turned out to be a grab bag of offcuts of interest only to completologists. I’m glad to report that it’s not so, not by a long shot.

In the fiction section, roughly the first half of the book, most of the pieces do turn out to be of mainly completological* interest. But two of the stories, specifically ‘Trey of Hearts’ and ‘The Color of Neanderthal Eyes’, are vivid reminders of Tiptree’s ability to portray intimate sensuality (including, as in the first of these stories, graphically described sexual encounters) between beings from different planets. If only I’d read the former story before my Book Group’s evening on erotica!

At the start of the non-fiction section, in which Tiptree is maintaining, sometimes strenuously, her male persona, I was reminded of Jennifer Maiden’s reference (in her poem in the current Heat) to

Wilde’s old aphorism that a man
is least himself in first person: give
him a mask and he’ll tell the truth.

These pieces were mostly written for fanzines – some of which were produced by the book’s editor, Jeffrey D Smith, whose notes explain for us visitors from the mainstream the nature of fandom and fanzines. The pieces are appropriately informal, ‘Uncle Tip’ telling traveller’s tales, dispensing advice to his younger co-fans and generally shooting the breeze in playfully overwrought language. You get the impression the writer was having so much fun creating, or being inhabited by, this male character that she allowed herself to say all sorts of things about creativity, science fiction, ageing, the environment (including, more than 20 years ago, a lament about carbon dioxide and climate change) and anything else that crossed her mind, things she might not have said in her own person. Some of it is embarrassing, as when ‘Tip’ writes with self-deprecating comedy of his lustful admiration for a young Mayan woman. But there’s a lot that’s eminently quotable. Like this, on the Doomsday theme in science fiction, in 1973:

Ever since things got serious, ever since we realised that we really are in danger of killing ourselves, of bombing or poisoning or gutting or choking the planet to death or – perhaps worst of all – of killing our own humanity by fascist tyranny or simple over-breeding, science fiction has been the only place we could talk about it. The mainstream took one look at it in Orwell’s 1984 and promptly caponised itself. It’s too terrible. Don’t look. Tell me Jesus saves.

Or this, which must surely be quoted in any discussion of women in science fiction (the emphasis is in the original):

I know now why women have always attracted me, you see: They are the real aliens we’ve always looked for.

A year or so later, edging closer to emergence from behind the male mask, she wrote, ‘I have changed my mind, by the way: Of course it is not women who are aliens. Men are.’ In that same piece, a compilation of contributions to a symposium on women in science fiction, ‘he’ responded sweetly when invited by the famously pugnacious Joanna Russ to bow out of the discussion on the grounds of his gender.

The book gets really interesting with his/her unmasking, in a number of ways. First, the real Alice Sheldon steps out onto the stage, and although she talks in a number of pieces of how disappointed her readers must be when the writer they’d suspected of having lived a daring life (a spy, or something worse?) turns out to be a nice elderly lady (‘At least I hope I’m nice’), she did have a very interesting life – starting with accompanying her parents on major journeys of exploration as a very young child. Second, her writing changes, becomes more straightforward, less florid, if perhaps also slightly less adventurous. And third, she reports on what she has learned about gender in science fiction, about sexism in general, from her masquerade and unmasking: all too often what can be heard with respect if said by a man, if said by a woman is understood to be whining. As ‘Tip’ she could suggest to a male anthologist (pen-)friend that he ought to include some women in his collection; the same suggestion from Alice would probably be heard as pure self-interested.  And so on. Without the male persona, she writes passionately about the situation of women, and about the importance of male allies in the struggle against sexism. But always with style, oddness, modesty, spark and a weird kind of grace.

* I didn’t make that word up. I just googled it, and got one hit.

Mars & Venus, Shmars & Shmenus

0199214476 Everybody loves a good smackdown, especially when it’s delivered judiciously, with careful marshalling of evidence and argument. The Myth of Mars and Venus is such a smackdown to the noxious theses of John (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) Gray and his ilk.

Deborah Cameron, currently visiting Australia and speaking at the Uni of NSW tomorrow afternoon, is a linguistics scholar (according to the jacket flap she is actually Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, a title that might itself spawn a learned paper or two). And she casts an unfriendly eye on the agenda-driven cherrypicking, or worse inventing, of research results that lead to all those fabulous scenarios about women and men being hard-wired to use language differently, coming from different cultures, etc.

I recommend the book to anyone who has been made to feel not quite man enough, not quite woman enough, ot trapped in a role because of intransigent and immutable biological inheritance, to anyone who has run some of their writing through the gender genie and wondered what was wrong with them (rather than what was wrong with the GG, as Deborah Cameron points out would be a more sensible response). I also recommend it to anyone who wants to read fabulous snippets of research into the language of adolescents in US cities, in a traditional New Guinea village, in 19th century Japan.

That is to say, this is a debunking book of the best kind: it puts sound research in the place of shonky, restores one’s faith inhuman beings, and has fun on the way.

The book in brief:

The genius of the myth of Mars and Venus is to acknowledge eth problems and conflicts many people are now experiencing as a result of social change, while explaining those problems and conflicts in a way that implies they have nothing to do with social change. They are as old as humanity (quite literally in some versions of the myth) and their root cause is the irreducible natural difference between the sexes.  … The belief that [these problems] are timeless, natural and inevitable stops us thinking about what social arrangements might work better than our present ones in a society that can no longer be run on the old assumptions about what men and women can do.