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
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!