Reclaim the F Word with Radical Women!

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The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism by Jane Caro and Catherine Fox

is a lovingly crafted testimonial about the benefits of feminism. Caro and Fox are both

working women, both married and both mothers of teenage daughters. Plus the two

women are proud to call themselves feminists and eager to convince younger women to

embrace the label and make it their own.

The F Word: How we learned to swear
by feminism, by Jane Caro and Catherine

Fox, University of Sydney Press (2008),
250 pages. ISBN 9-780868-408231.

Jane Caro is an advertising copywriter, who featured on The Gruen Transfer, the ABC’s

panel program that demystifies the tricks of the trade. Catherine Fox is an editor, writer

and financial marketing consultant, who writes the weekly “Corporate Woman” column

for the Australian Financial Review.

The book is semi-autobiographical. Caro and Fox reflect on growing up in Sydney nearly

50 years ago. “We watched our mothers, our older sisters and our teachers change in

front of our eyes. And the message they kept sending us was that the world was our

oyster and that we had a right — even a duty — to do things differently, to develop our

own potential, to refuse to put ourselves last. Essentially, they were asking us to do what

only young men had been asked to do in the past: to go out into the world and make

something of ourselves. We were to be pioneers.”

The two women draw on the myriad of examples from their life experiences to highlight

what feminism has achieved and promote the urgent need to “reclaim the F word” and

continue the struggle. I appreciated this balanced perspective.

They remind us that “just four decades ago women had to resign from the public service

when they got married, or that up until the early 1970s they couldn’t get a home loan

without a male guarantor.” But they also point to the huge and worsening pay gap that

exists in Australia today. After just one year in the workforce, women graduates earn 6%

less than men. “Australian Bureau of Statistics Figures released in February 2007 show

that the average full-time working woman currently earns 83.6 cents in the male dollar

compared to 85 cents in February 2005.” Pay inequality exists right across the workforce

from low-paid jobs right up to high-end positions. Senior executive women earn 58% of

the salary of their male peers.

A key message that the pair think should be “imprinted in women’s brains” is take action,

because “no one is coming to rescue you.”

Marketing the “product.” At the heart of the book is the authors’ belief that the public

image of feminism has unfairly been getting a raw deal. They point to the “barrage of

criticism” that women face for the decisions they make about work or motherhood.

Although Caro and Fox seem to believe it is possible to make over the current system,

what they actually describe is the way feminism has been copping the blame for the

problems capitalism can’t solve. There’s been “an outpouring of angst in books and

articles from aggrieved childless women; the statistics on the risks of childcare for the

under-twos; the phenomenon of well-educated young women ‘opting-out’ of their careers

to become full-time mums, plus the endless bland corporate rhetoric about diversity and

work/life balance.”

There’s certainly no consensus about the achievements of “the great feminist

revolution.” Views range from it must be women’s fault if they can’t succeed to

feminism has “failed spectacularly because women were happier and more suited being at

home and minding the kids all along.”

Caro and Fox aim to present “another view.” They set out to speak as women with

“reasonably satisfying jobs, more or less normal children” — well, they are teenagers

they quip — “and apparently durable marriages.” They openly proclaim their desire to

“explore the experience of women like us.”

The “tragic” life of others. Caro and Fox do a brilliant job of examining the daily

struggle of heterosexual women — even those with sympathetic partners — to juggle

absurdly demanding jobs and the pressures of being a parent. They are also at pains to

stress that they are “not superwomen,” pointing out how this label has itself become part

of the anti-feminist backlash.

In some chapters, they also analyse how the experiences of women whose lives are

different from their own, confirm their thesis that feminism needs a damn good kick-start

on a massive scale. I appreciated the chapter titled “Money Matters.” In it they discuss

the economics of divorce. While both men and women experience an initial economic

setback, men generally recover their position in under 10 years, while women generally

never recover. In the section titled “Poor Old Women,” they discuss the shocking poverty

of women retirees. Among this group, 56% rely on the woefully inadequate pension as

their primary source of income. In contrast, the figure for men is 38%.

They are also sharply critical of public policy, pushed by the Howard government, which

forced sole parents to take unsuitable jobs, while providing incentives for partnered

women with children to leave the workforce.

But other groups of women are almost invisible: immigrant women, Aboriginal women

and lesbians barely get a mention.

The authors attempt to put their experience of feminism into a global perspective.

They say that it is “not enough nor is it fair that women like us have pretty good lives,

when others live and die in such anguish. We want all women to have the rights and

opportunities that we enjoy.” Titled “Women of the World,” this chapter is superficial,

presenting women in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia as victims needing

help rather than sisters demanding solidarity. Where were the voices of prominent

feminists such as Nawal El Saadawi, Rigoberta Menchu or Arundhuti Roy? Or grassroots

voices such as Indonesian lesbian activist, Gayatri, Thai socialist feminist, Parat

Narnakorn, or Palestinian feminist writer, Sahar Khalifa? Feminism is already a global

movement, and strong partnerships based on mutual respect will not be built through

feminist missionary zeal!

A new feminism. Caro and Fox paint a vivid image of a juggling working mum who,

with the help of concessions won by feminism, manages to keep most of the balls in

the air most of the time. But, it’s tough! The source of the problem, they explain, is that

women “still carry the burden of traditional women’s work at home.”

They are eager for a re-energised mass feminist movement to emerge and advocate a

“new feminism.” But what exactly is “new feminism?” They argue that anti-feminist

forces have managed to do a hatchet job on feminism when they say, “we believe the

feminism younger women are rejecting is one that was constructed, not by feminists, but

by those opposed to them.”

I particularly appreciate their historical perspective as they sum up what’s been achieved

since 18th century feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote Vindication of the Rights of

Women. Reforms can always be eroded. Caro and Fox urge vigilance: “it is essential the

forward momentum of this great human rights tradition continues.”

They also stress that being feminist in not being anti-male — hardly new, but a

reasonable response to radical feminism.

They present a six-point plan: speak up, give yourself a break, value what you do, don’t

blame yourself, there’s no silver bullet, have a laugh! I’ll add a seventh point — join a

grassroots feminist organisation!

The F Word is at times funny, highly readable and makes me glad that I too swear by

feminism. Its ultimate message is that — even in the busiest woman’s life — making

room to advance the cause of feminism is a survival question.

The book’s feminism is a fuzzy general kind — sometimes Caro and Fox see the problem

as biology, at other times it’s patriarchal religion, then it’s poor management practices

and at other times they implicitly take the view, shared by Radical Women, that women

will continue to carry the load as long as society fails women by privatising domestic

labour and child rearing. Read The F Word for a motivational boost about the power of

feminism. Then read the Radical Women Manifesto, join up and work as part of a team to

reclaim the F word!

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