The phrase “the personal is political” has been entwined with the feminist movement since the 1970s. The idea that every individual woman’s experience speaks to broader social and political structures that affect women has encouraged feminist writers to disclose something of themselves as they have agitated for gender equality.
In the past decade, the internet has buoyed the visibility of feminist debate in the popular media. Feminist writers including Clementine Ford, Laurie Penny, Lindy West and Jessica Valenti, are well known for their contributions to major newspapers, dedicated women’s sites such as Daily Life, Jezebel and Feministing, and radio and television interviews.
The renewed visibility of feminists in the popular media has supported a recent wave of memoirs. This year’s releases by Ford, West, and Valenti, as well as Penny’s 2014 book, are representative of the direction of popular feminism, which is far more intimately tied to the celebrity feminist’s personal life and even her own body, than earlier touchstones such as The Feminine Mystique and The Beauty Myth.
Most of all, they express the challenges of being a woman in a world where it only takes a mere scratch of the surface to reveal hostility and deep discomfort about women’s ever-strengthening public voice.
Silencing and Harassment
A consistent theme across feminist memoirs is the need to focus on the act of speaking up and overcoming the cultural forces that silence women. West’s book is entitled Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Penny’s is called Unspeakable Things, and crime writer Tara Moss’s handbook for women and girls is called Speaking Out.
Indeed Moss’s book is a literal how-to guide, encouraging women to speak and write their opinions. It contains practical advice on topics such as how to physically use your voice to best effect, researching a subject, and writing well. Tellingly, half of the book is devoted to coping with the repercussions of speaking out, including handling diversions, criticism, and “cyberhate”.
Penny writes about the liberating force of the internet, which — at least initially— allowed women to talk online with each other “without oversight or policing” and its contribution “to the feminist revival of the mid-2000s”. Yet as the ability to communicate online has connected communities of women and helped to integrate feminist debate in the popular media, it has also brought with it intense anonymous harassment, usually from men.
Almost all of the writers describe receiving unrelenting abuse. The universality of online attacks against high-profile feminist writers indicates a concerted effort to shut down the opinions of vocal women. At times the attacks are deeply personal, in terms of criticising a feminist’s appearance or lack of femininity, a strategy that has been practised in print since the targetting of the suffragettes.
The possibilities for harassment enabled by social media can now support some particularly cruel punishments. West endured a troll who created a fake Twitter account purporting to be her late father. As she points out, this kind of online attack does take on a physical dimension and is intended to stop feminists having a mainstream presence:
It puts me on the phone with the FBI, it gives me tension headaches and anxiety attacks; it alters my day-to-day behaviour (Am I safe? Is that guy staring at me? Is he a troll?); it alienates my friends; it steals time from my family. The goal is to traumatize me, erode my mental health, force me to quit my job.
Operating in tandem with outright abuse is the ceaseless force of men’s attempts to sidetrack feminist discussion. Feminist writers watch as article comments and their social media pages are flooded with advice about how they can better perform feminism, clarifications that “not all men” are rapists or oppressors of women, and pointed reminders about the ways in which men suffer.
Contemporary feminists have become adept at handling the barrage of pressure to make feminist debate somehow about men. As Penny notes:
Interestingly, for many men, the only time they do feel able to talk about their own suffering is when they are trying to stop women talking about theirs.
Contemporary feminists acknowledge that the expectations placed upon men can be harmful, but as Ford observes in her new book Fight Like a Girl,
none of that negates the reality that women are victimised in different and more sustained ways, and the constant interruption to and attempts to derail that dialogue is just another form of violence.
As perhaps the most influential feminist writer in the Australian media, Ford’s memoir has been eagerly anticipated. Ford undertook gender studies at the University of Adelaide, where she also began writing for the student newspaper. In the past several years, her columns for Fairfax have attracted a huge social media following and prompted innumerable hateful comments and rape threats. Ford has bravely confronted her attackers publicly, including a man who was fired from his job for calling her a “slut” and three Adelaide schoolboys who sent her offensive comments.
While feminist public figures are the most visible targets for online abuse, women writers of any persuasion are targeted for attack far more often than male writers. The Guardian recently conducted research into the 70 million comments published on the site since 2006. Of the 10 most abused writers, 8 were women and 2 were black men.
Penny observes that “how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion” is “a sure test of social privilege”.
A key question, then, for contemporary feminism is what role men should play within it. Campaigns such Emma Watson’s UN-endorsed He for She encourage boys and men to be “agents of change” for gender equality. And White Ribbon is a male-lead organisation that seeks to end violence again women. In a climate where feminists are routinely pilloried, shouldn’t women be thankful for the involvement of men?
Ford is critical of White Ribbon, in which, she suggests, women perform much of the thankless work, while men are lauded for being “good guys”. Her overarching belief is that men cannot change the world on behalf of women
because men have no concept of what it’s like to live in the world AS women. They don’t know what it feels like to have their specifically gendered experiences either immediately discounted or assessed (unconsciously or deliberately) as exaggerated.
Ultimately, women need to advance themselves, and contemporary feminists are largely in agreement that they do not need to be pleasant or accommodating of men’s feelings as they do so. West’s path to building a better world involves dismantling expectations for women to “be compliant, be a caregiver, be quiet” and establishing her own boundaries:
You believe in my subjugation; I don’t have to be nice to you.
Bodies that matter
Modern feminism is attuned to the concept of intersectionality, or, essentially, the ways in which women can experience oppression in differing configurations depending on their race, class, ability or sexuality. Second-wave feminism has often been critiqued for being too explicitly concerned with the advancement of white middle-class women (as Penny suggests of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique) and preoccupation with middle-class concerns such as beauty.
Nevertheless, despite this awareness, all of these memoirs are intensely focused on the authors’ bodies and the political significance of how women’s bodies are policed.
West describes a process of self-awareness as she came to recognise, in part through Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project, that fat bodies like her own could be
honoured instead of lampooned, presented with dignity instead of scorn, displayed as objects of beauty instead of as punch lines.
Her personal realisation that she could opt out of social judgements of a woman’s worth based on her body were extended to the social effects of fat shaming more broadly.
Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.
These cultural forces that keep women quiet and small are evident in both Penny and Ford’s memoirs, which document the authors’ experiences as sufferers of eating disorders.
As Penny points out, fat is very much a feminist issue because “[m]en’s physicality is not assumed to be everything they have to contribute”. She describes her own malaise about being subject to the male gaze and “found wanting”.
Ford similarly highlights the power of the “omnipresent male gaze” to determine who can be seen and heard. While she acknowledges that men are subject “to a lot of toxic bullshit” under patriarchy, she clarifies that,
it will never teach them as a rule from an early age that having a modicum of fat on their bellies means they are less than a piece of shit on the bottom of some guy’s shoe.
As a girl growing up in a family that lived in Oman and then Sheringham, England, Ford tried to control her body in an attempt to have some control over her environment. Yet her account is also testament to the intergenerational sway of beauty ideals, as she describes
copying my mother when she ate nothing but cabbage soup for days on end or grimaced her way through sour grapefruit halves.
As she explains, even “sensible” weight loss methods such as portion control and regular exercise can ramp up into obsessive behaviours when supported by the cultural hatred of women who take up too much space.
Ford’s book is anchored by the idea of figuring out “a way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt”, particularly with respect to women’s bodies. Within her personal recollections, she offers strategies for overcoming the overwhelming sense that girls and women are inferior.
One of the most damaging ideas promoted by patriarchy, she suggests, is the sense that other women “are not your friends”. Part of Ford’s battleplan for “fighting like a girl” is to embrace the friendship and support of other women whose own stories validate women’s unique experiences.
Humour and a call to arms
In her book, Penny argues that the feminist ideal “the personal is political” has been undermined by a male-dominated media industry that has reduced women’s politics “to the purely personal”. She takes issue with the sense that any one woman can speak
to and for every other person on the planet in possession of a vagina.
It is true that the bulk of these memoirs speak to the experience of white middle-class feminists, who have had the education and privileges that enable to speak. While these books may collectively expose a need for a more diverse range of feminist women to occupy the space of popular media, they also speak to some commonalities of female experience that cut across a range of social categories.
Both West and Penny are exceedingly funny as they recount horrifying and demoralising incidents. Readers will never forget West’s call for greater education about abortion after her own discovery on a photocopied flyer in a clinic that chunks of blood “the size of lemons” might fall from her vagina after the procedure.
Ford’s memoir is also spliced with humour and recollections of cultural touchstones of 1980s girlhood. However she issues a much more explicit rallying cry to girls and women to band together, act, and courageously demonstrate that to do something “like a girl” is to be formidable.
Read as a corpus of contemporary feminism, these books show there is still a concerted effort to silence women who have something to say. And the bigger a woman’s platform, the larger and more hostile is the response from men. In addition, there is still an insidious undermining of women’s worth based on their appearance, which often works to deprive them of a sense of enough value in order to be able to speak at all.