Fight like a girl: A conversation with Clementine Ford

Australian feminist author Clementine Ford is in town this week for Shifting Points Of View at WORD Christchurch. Leonie Hayden talked to her about feminist parenting, the power of the Twitter thread and how to start a revolution on your own.

Golden Girl Betty White once questioned why people say ‘grow some balls’. “Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”

In this spirit, Clementine Ford’s 2016 book Fight Like a Girl looks at the ways those who identify as women can combat the deep conditioning of patriarchal social systems – not as ‘men with a defect’, as women are often framed, but with the tenacity, compassion and collectivism that makes women uniquely powerful.

Part manifesto, part memoir, Ford is most vulnerable when she is talking about her childhood, her experiences with bullying, mental health and an eating disorder. And she is most potent in her rage while exposing the injustices for women that hide in plain sight. To my eternal appreciation, her commentary recognises the spectrum of experiences that also takes in LGBTQI+ issues, racism, the union movement, and indigenous sovereignty.

The ‘a-ha’ moments in Fight Like a Girl are numerous and life altering.

The book doesn’t have all the answers (although ‘get yourself a girl gang’ is as good a piece of advice as any I’ve heard) but instead offers questions and ideas to help us grow in feminism and activism “like a tree”, as she puts it. It’s also a handy metaphor for how it gets easier to leave the trolls and abusers behind on the forest floor as you grow too tall to hear their sad whimpering below.

I spoke to Clementine at a Melbourne cafe where she was hanging out with her one-year-old son. We chatted about feminist parenting and making it up as you go along, the power of the Twitter thread and how to start a revolution on your own.

How does one feminist alone? How do women who identify as feminists but don’t have feminist networks start conversations with their partners, for instance, around things like the division of childcare and domestic labour?

I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. I do speaking events and people always ask me “how do you endure the abuse?” and it’s become a very repetitive question. I think it’s the least interesting thing about what I do. To me it’s just background noise I wish I didn’t have to deal with. I’ve started answering that it’s actually a lot easier for me to deal with it because, apart from all the other privileges I have, I have the privilege that my job is feminism. I don’t have to go to a workplace and deal with any kind of underhanded comments. People expect feminist commentary from me so I’m not shocking people. I’ve got a network of feminist friends and other writers who understand what it’s like to do this job, and there’s no one I have to prove this life to.

The people who perhaps don’t have those support systems in place, who’re married to people who have very traditional ideas on what men and women should do… what do they do when they go through their feminist awakening? I’m not sure I have a helpful answer even, because that situation is so different from mine and I would hate to be flippant. What I do think about is that it’s really sad. I have people come up to me and say, “I try to bring it up with my boyfriend and he thinks it’s all a joke and that feminism is in the past and we’re all equal now.” I feel so sad for them. A lot of them are young and I just think, ‘you shouldn’t be with someone who is making this so hard for you.’ But it’s a lot easier to say that to a 21 year old who’s dating than a 55 year old woman who’s been married to the same man for 30 years. That idea of people looking back at their lives and feeling spiritually unfulfilled, and recognising that all of these years they may have been stagnant. At what point do they get to take their opportunity and say, “I’m not doing this anymore”?

Money is a big factor. That’s a power dynamic I see a lot, “oh I couldn’t afford the mortgage if he left so I’ll just live with it.” We have our freedom limited in so many ways.

I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom lately and what freedom means to individual people. I was thinking specifically about abortion as a liberator in many respects. To force a 20 year old woman to have a baby – to experience what I’m experiencing now as a much more prepared, older mother who still finds it terrifying and difficult – you rob someone of their freedom just because of this social idea of morality. Every marginalised group has had their freedom taken away from them. You think think once we get marriage equality that all of the issues that face the LGBTQI community disappear, and they don’t. It mostly liberates white, middle class gay people.

I’m seeing all this commentary about The Handmaids Tale from women who look a lot like me, saying “it’s terrifying, this could be our future, it’s the path we’re going down”, and I felt unsettled by that. Then I read this amazing post by a black writer in America who was like, “This is not a dystopian future. This is our past. You care about this now because you’re white women and you’ve never had to care about this. This is what was done to black women and women of colour all over the world – either forcing babies on them or taking babies or their right to have babies away from them.”

Freedom means being able to make your own choices whether you do or don’t have a baby. To take that freedom away from someone is a spiritual death.

How do we create situations where it’s possible for women who don’t have the means, who don’t have the finances, who don’t have the emotional means… how do we make it possible for them to be liberated? Again, I don’t have the answers to all this.

But it so important to keep, I guess, following the bread crumbs. Like, most of the feminist media I’ve consumed doesn’t have ‘the answers’ but I still feel like I’m moving forward. Each thing I read, each thing I listen to is leading me somewhere.

I feel the same way. It’s an incredible feeling when you read something and you feel this door in your brain unlocking, and there’s more room for ideas all of a sudden. It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s such a privilege that people put that work out there and we’re able to engage with ideas in that way. I say this about having no answers because I’m so used to people saying, “you write about all these problems but you have no solutions.” I agree with you, it’s about asking the questions and prompting thought… stimulating an idea in people. I’m really good at asking questions, and maybe someone else is a good solutions person.

One of the most amazing things about having written this book is having women of all kinds of backgrounds write to me saying they picked up my book thinking ‘everything’s done, we’re equal now’ and then they had all these little synapses fire off in their heads, and they fit together a lot of pieces of a puzzle. Stuff that was simmering underneath came to the surface and they could stare at it head on. It’s so cool, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. I wanted women to have that experience, I wanted them to look more critically at the things that are sometimes to difficult to look at, because once you look at it you can’t unsee it.

Author Clementine Ford told Channel 7’s Sunrise to ‘get f**cked’ after it asked ‘when would women learn’ in a piece about nude selfies.

Inevitably, though, when you share this awakening you’ll be put in your place by a man.

One of the things that makes me laugh about male backlash to feminism is this idea that somehow we need to be nice to men for us to change anything. I’m not saying we should be horrible to men… also, I don’t usually use that disclaimer, it’s such a derailment – who cares what men think about feminism? A lot of women have ample reason to be horrible to men… but I think it’s funny that there’s no space in some men’s understanding that women might not need them. They can’t wrap their head around women being autonomous, independent creatures that still exist when men aren’t looking at them. I still get called fat and ugly, and even if I cared about that at some point, there’s no way I care about it now, I’ve heard it so many times. Kind of like you said, it’s like following the bread crumbs except I imagine it as you grow taller and taller the more empowered you get. The more in control of your own autonomy and sense of self you become, the taller you grow and you leave them behind. They’re like tiny little weeds. Someone yelling “you’re fat” is just this tinny sound off in the distance. I don’t think they get it.

I got my first private message calling me a fat, ugly troll the other week and genuinely, my first thought was ‘I’ve made it! I’m just like Clementine!’

I’m glad of that because there has to be a reason why I do it. If that’s one of the consequences then that’s amazing. It sounds weird to say “this thing I’m doing is empowering women all over the world.” Whatever, you’re just yelling at trolls on the internet.

But I also know women take comments about themselves to heart and it can be so destructive. When they see someone, whether it’s me or someone else, doing that, and calling people out and not giving a fuck about their stupid comments about weight, they think ‘I can do that too! I can just laugh at them.’

In the book you use the metaphor of the boggart from Harry Potter.

Yes! It takes the shape of the thing you fear most, and the only way to kill it is to laugh at it and make it ridiculous. It’s such an amazing metaphor for abusive people online. Don’t engage them in a genuine, earnest way because they feed off it, they love seeing you get angry. But if you laugh at them, they can’t understand it, they don’t know what to do. They usually call you fat again because they can’t think of anything else. I like to say to guys that call me fat that I’m going to sit on them and suffocate them and eat them.

And why is “you’re fat” an insult anyway?

Exactly. It’s important for us to question why we take those things as insults. Like, so what? I’m fat, big deal. If that’s frightening to you, that’s your problem. Beth Ditto said something interesting recently about the contrast between the body positivity movement and the fat positivity movement. To be fat positive is to say I have the right to be in this world and have autonomy and independence. I have the right to be respected and I have the right to be considered a sexual being. The body positivity movement is about how we’re all beautiful and we all have the right to be objectified, no matter what our shape or size. I get that it makes women feel good to be included in this idea of what beautiful means but I’m also more interested in the long run of smashing the idea that women should be beautiful at all. Why is it so important that we be nice to look at?

One of the parts of the book I appreciate is your frank discussion of your eating disorder and the way it manifested when you were young. How did you get to your place of acceptance? It’s a different road for all women, and some people stay mad at themselves their whole lives.

I am disappointingly going to say that I don’t think I’ve got to that point. I’ve ideologically got to that point and I theoretically understand it. But it’s so hard to change your formative learning. This is going to sound controversial because I do understand some children suffer very real, terrible abuse, but I think… to make girls feel from such a young age when they’re really engaged with formative learning like they’re inherently not good enough, like they’re disgusting and they’ll always take up too much space and the only way they can count is if they’re pretty enough for people to accept their presence, I think that is a form of abuse. It’s a widespread form of abuse that is being inflicted on all sorts of people. The idea we’re all not good enough. Like a lot of forms of abuse, it’s hard to undo the learning of it.

I had a boyfriend that just didn’t understand why… if I knew I was cool, and smart enough and OK looking, why couldn’t I just decide to stop having low self-esteem? I told him unlearning low self-esteem would be like trying to unlearn English.

That’s a really good way of looking at it! One thing I’ve been doing lately – it’ll sound a bit weird – when you look at a photo of yourself, you don’t look at yourself the way others look at you. All you see are your “failings”, your double chin or whatever. What I’ve started doing is when I look at photographs of other people, and if my immediate thought is, ‘that’s my friend and they look happy and beautiful’, I stop and then go, ‘OK, now look at this photo as if it were you’. And it’s like a magic eye. All of a sudden all of the ‘problems’ I would see in a photo of me, I can suddenly see. The big hands, the crooked nose, you know. But it’s a horrible way to look at someone you love and so your mind just goes back to seeing them how they are.

It’s a way of reminding yourself that we’re actually forced to see ourselves as ugly, it’s ingrained in us, but it can be changed. We need to flip it the other way so that our instinct when we look at ourselves is to go ‘oh that’s my friend, she looks great.’

My co-host Michele introduced us to complimenting ourselves in the third person on the podcast recently. ‘Oh Leonie’s done some great work this week, and she’s looking healthy’.

[Laughs] Yeah I think all of the self-care stuff is really important. A friend of mine, if someone’s talking badly about themselves, she’s say to them, “hey that’s my friend you’re talking about, don’t talk about my friend like that.”

Aw that’s nice.

I think men do it as well, rag on themselves, but I don’t think they do it in the same way as women, they haven’t been instructed to do it in the same way. Men are instructed to feel shitty about themselves if they’re not manly enough, they’re not instructed to feel shitty about themselves if they take up too much room.

That leads to quite an interesting point. You have a son. How do you raise boys to question their privilege?

I’ve got, ostensibly, unless something changes, a boy. He’s white, he’s middle-class, he has access to intellectual circles, he’s going to grow up with a certain degree of privilege. How do I raise him to constantly be engaged with and questioning that privilege? How do I raise him to not be entitled? And how do I raise him not to be entitled in his masculinity? You can only do so much, but everyone around you is enforcing the idea of ‘you deserve this’.

Do you have techniques you think you might use to address this?

Ongoing dialogue is important, while also being careful not to make it this repetitive thing your parents your tell you. Raising him open minded, raising him to recognise other people have rights as well and that other people are entitled to space and time. I guess one of the first challenges will be trying to teach him consent around his body.

He’s quite often mistaken for a girl and I just won’t correct them, even if they say “what’s her name?” I’ll just say “Franko”. It doesn’t matter to me if they think he’s a boy or a girl. People consciously and unconsciously treat boys and girls differently. I want him while he’s a baby to experience different approaches from people. And when he does start understanding, I don’t want him to hear me correct them and say “oh he’s a boy” and start associating that it’s embarrassing to be called a girl.

The other thing I’m trying to do really consciously is, we travel a lot and at the airport you always have to take them out of the baby carrier when you go through security, and you have to take the carrier off, then you‘ve got to figure out where to put him when you’re putting the carrier back on again. I’ll always find a man nearby and say “can you just hold my baby for a second while I put the carrier back on” because I want to disrupt the idea that childcare is a labour we put on women. We feel more comfortable asking a woman because we feel more comfortable intruding on a women’s time. Men in suits, well they’re far too important to hold a baby. In whatever small way I can, I want to seed that village childcare is the responsibility of everyone, not just women. And also then he’ll get used to being taken care of by lots of men and doesn’t just think that it’s the job of women. They’re just little things, and everyone’s just making it up as they go along.

You just have to try and do things differently to the way they’ve always been done and hope that something changes.

Again something that seems so instinctive is an ‘a-ha’ moments for us, well for me anyway. Is there a parenting book in the works?

I wrote a thing yesterday about my baby turning one. When I finished I was bummed because I felt like it was really rushed and there was so much more to say but how do you fit it all into a 900 word article? So I thought I might just start a side project of just writing things down and when I release my next book maybe I’ll send it to my publisher and say, you know, maybe in a years time we can just quietly release this out into the world. Parenting advice from someone who’s not an expert.

Who are some of your favourite writers? Who is making you taller?

I read a lot of stuff on the internet as opposed to books. I really love Black Girl Dangerous, Mia McKenzie. She’s opened my mind up a lot on issues around race. I love Lindy West’s writing about fat positivity and politics in America. One of the things I find interesting is that we still frame feminist poitics in Australia through the lens of American politics. I don’t know if that’s the same in New Zealand.

Maybe when I come to New Zealand I can pick your and podcast hosts’ brains for new people to read, I feel like I get stuck in these holes of reading the same people. I love Laurie Penny, I think they’ve done a lot of interesting stuff about challenging how you can live more of a socialist lifestyle. It makes me want to become more political than I am. I’m a political person but I’m not a political activist. I feel like I could be stronger in that. Emily Maguire who’s an Australian writer is really interesting as well. When her feminist book came out years ago I read and I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ all the way through. I read a really amazing thread on Twitter the other day and it made me really appreciate how micro-essays can really prompt amazing conversation. To link this last question back to the first one, it’s so powerful in terms of reaching and connecting with people that don’t engage with it on a daily basis, people who don’t have access to feminist networks or texts or political text. The language around these things can be very intimidating, but you don’t need to know it to start a conversation.

Clementine’s Fight Like A Girl events are both sold out but you can see her on the Fail Safe/Fail Better panel on Friday night, and at the Auckland Women’s Centre on September 13—RSVP for tickets to info@womenz.org.nz

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books

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