I attended Adelaide Uni at the same time as Clementine Ford and I was both fascinated and terrified by her. So much of what she had to say matched the intuitions I had about feminism, but which I did not yet have the tools to own. And I was convinced that she would have no time for me, coming from the socially and theologically conservative Evangelical Union (though this was pure assumption on my part – I never actually had an interaction with her!)
Reading her book Fight Like a Girl gives me a peek behind that public face to see someone a lot like I was: trying to work out my place in a world which is by and large hostile to women in a kind of bolshy (her word) way that isn’t generally approved of in women. I suspect these days we’d have a nice chat if we were ever to cross paths.
The great strength of this book for me was the first half where Clementine writes, memoir style, about her childhood and teenage years. These chart “the dull throb of learning what it means to be a girl in the world”, “a slow and steady sense that something isn’t quite right… to feel subjugated and alone, to know that the words you say, the ideas you have and the gifts you can contribute are all considered null and void unless you offer them in a way that maintains the status quo.” Clementine regards this lesson as “blessedly normal; that there were legions of girls out there just like me”. Blokes ought to read these chapters as an exercise in empathy, to learn how it feels to grow up female. Women ought to read them because they will be achingly familiar, or at least they were to me.
Much in these chapters made me feel a bit uncomfortable actually, because they left me feeling a bit exposed. They talked about experiences I recognised but which are too awkward to shameful to admit to others. If I were to ask Clementine one question about the book it would be whether she feels vulnerable with so much of her ’out there’ for all to read. For example, she’s someone who is regularly accused of being mentally unstable, and yet she opens up about her struggles with mental health. Doesn’t this revelation just add fuel to that fire? Of course vulnerability is only a problem in a hostile environment; in a safe environment, it’s a beautiful thing. So the question itself would highlight how dangerous the world is for women. I suspect she would reply that women are demeaned or diminished whether or not they allow themselves to be silenced, so while hiding yourself away may feel protective it actually isn’t.
If you’ve previously read Clementine’s articles on Daily Life or similar and felt turned off, there are some explanations and background in this book that may help you to listen to her. The chapter on abortion functioned that way for me, giving context to some of her initially startling claims about having two guilt-free abortions. Like her writing about her girlhood, her writing about her experience of pregnancy resonated with me, especially her discussion of how pregnancy is not “an external process that just happens to be attached to a woman’s body.”
The book gives the reader an appreciation of how hard she has had to fight to see her days of making herself smaller “long gone”. She says, now “my voice is strong and imposing, and my legs are powerful enough to hold up its weight.” With that, she unleashes that voice in the second half of the book, with the indomitable style for which she is so well known, liberally sprinkled with f-words and hyperbole. These chapters are much less memoir, more call to arms.
This second half covers material more familiar to those who have seen her work on Daily Life. There’s nothing like a Clementine rant, and here she takes aim at feminism’s detractors and their hypocrisy, as well as demonstrating with case studies, examples and evidence the injustices that women face in Australian society. I confess I skimmed through some of this, in part because the material was familiar to me, but also because some of it made me sad or angry or tired.
The final thing to say about this book is that it’s funny. I had several laugh out loud moments, so for all the serious themes of this book, I found it tremendously enjoyable!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.