An Invitation to Inquiry: Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman

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By Melissa Cranenburgh

I think about this a lot. How, as we get older, the things we choose to read (hear, see) push us about like someone floating on a backyard pool, in just the right season, at a warm – but not too warm – time of day. Encouraged – gently, this way and that – by self-generated currents. We might kick out a leg, to propel us harder in a different direction, but we will soon hit the sides. Sometimes, someone jumps in the pool and fucks things up. Or it starts to rain. Or we get cold and just have to get out. But we know this place, calm consensus. We built it. And here we will stay.

It becomes more and more necessary for those of us coasting to invite discomfort in like an honest friend: to remember what it was like to try to reach those floating in their own safe presumptions, and just hating them for it. (It’s hard to recognise exactly when you became the smug person in the pool. Or just turned around and built your own version of whatever a pool is to you. Just know that you did. We always do. I’m sorry.)

“What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?”

So it’s heartening to read a book that encourages us to challenge our assumptions. To think expansively, and to look at those who do, and how that may be relevant to our everyday. An invitation to a thoughtful life. Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman is that kind of book.

Loosely based on Alain de Botton’s pop-philosophy conceit, the author uses personal anecdotes to guide us through six themes: love, play, work, fear, wonder, friendship. Using these universal themes as an invitation to inquiry, she introduces  readers to a cast of influential thinkers. Philosophers. Thinking women.

It’s a primer, of sorts, but much more rigorous than de Botton’s reductive fare.  Arriving not at a simple conclusion, but at a place of openness. To new ideas and questions, somewhere off the page. In another book, perhaps. To be picked up by someone else.

As van Loon explains in her introduction, it began as a journey to profile “leading female philosophers”, but as she reads more deeply,  increasingly, she asks, “What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?” Particularly because, as Anne Summers observes in the foreword, only one of the women ultimately profiled (socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom) “can be labelled a capital ‘P’ philosopher”.

Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes is a bell I just can’t un-ring.

In exploring ideas set out by prominent “thinking women”, it’s no accident van Loon’s structure takes on an idea central to second-wave feminism: The personal is political. So, while she has not explicitly set out to write a book about feminism, its necessary intersections and our need to leave room for questions, in so many ways she has.

The question not asked here, but begging to be, is also What is a female? Or, for that matter, a woman, especially a thinking woman: we – a hugely different lot – who have been defined as a group more by shared oppression, than by a genuinely shared specificity. To be a thinking woman, don’t we need to ask that question? When weighted against other binaries of oppression?

Another thing: the uncritical use of gendered language itself here, when challenging language has long been a tenet of feminism. The thinking woman’s domain. The choice to uncritically use the terms ‘woman’, ‘sex’ and female, in a book about those who think critically, is an interesting one. The language we use changes us, our neural pathways, our modalities of thought. Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes it a bell I just can’t un-ring. So, it becomes impossible not to ask these things. And these are questions van Loon would no doubt welcome us to ask. Her book’s generosity of thought encourages it; she leaves room.

In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity.

The far-reaching profiles – love: Laura Kipnis, work: Nancy Holstrom, wonder: Marina Warner, play: Siri Hustvedt, fear: Rosie Batty, Helen Caldicott and Julia Kristeva, and friendship: Rosi Braidotti – are in some senses admiring, but far from uncritical.

They wind in small slices of van Loon’s life. She recalls playing with her child, and finding it both bonding and revelatory. Leaving her long-term partnership, and questioning why she had washed up on the shores of monogamy in the first place. Getting her first job at a carnival at 13, and the nostalgia with which she reflects upon it – even as she questions the nature of work itself.

She introduces each of the ‘thinking women’ in terms of their critical ideas on a given topic. In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity. In each, too, she offers contemporary counterpoints. Encouraging discomfort. Kindly leading us through variegated territory. The author doesn’t offer answers. In many ways, the book feels guided by ideas gleaned from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013). That “relations between oneself and another – as between friends – have been understood as a binary: difference versus sameness. She argues for difference as positivity.” In each, the challenge to ideas raised feels like an act of respectful difference that is essential to the whole. It begs for its own flaws to be interrogated, too. (And that is a refreshing take.)

It’s interesting then, that I found myself adding a layer to everything I read. I read this book at the same time as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s excellent 2017 polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I found myself trapped between the two, considering a deconstruction around race. Wondering why that was missing, and how it created a sense of irritating self-indulgence that I was perhaps languishing in more comfortable territory with van Loon’s book, when there were thinkers out there ready to pierce the skin.

The Thinking Woman is a great example of a thoughtful approach to philosophical enquiry. I think it isn’t really likely to attract the kind of pop-philosophical audience of de Botton or other (worse, much worse) philosophical pretenders. But I do think its flaw (complexity) is also its strength. Julienne van Loon is that rare writer: one that invites us to join her, without judgement, and find our own way.

The Thinking Woman is out now through NewSouth Books.

Melissa Cranenburgh is a writer, broadcaster, editor and educator. She spent more than a decade in senior editing roles, including associate editor and acting editor of The Big Issue, and co-editor of the magazine’s annual fiction edition. She now teaches in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma, and hosts Triple R’s flagship weekly book show, Backstory.

FWF Q&A: Monica Tan


Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to former Guardian journalist, Greens politician and author of Stranger Country, Monica Tan.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me means being conscious that my womanhood is a frame through which I have both experienced the world, and been regarded by the world.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

A feminist friend of mine recently reminded me that while in our early twenties I told her, somewhat haughtily, that I wasn’t interested in my female identity and women’s rights. I had said I was more interested in ‘human rights’. Back then I was sceptical of the writing sphere’s ‘pink space’ and in particular disinterested by its preoccupation with body issues and self-esteem problems.

I’m grateful this friend was patient with me and helped expand my understanding of the female experience, far beyond my own. Now I understand better how power, control and privilege plays out through gender. That said, I’m still learning. I’m better versed in race theory.

How did the idea for Stranger Country come about, and how much of an idea of the book’s narrative did you have before you set off on your journey?

At 30 I had travelled the world but barely seen Australia. I had complicated feelings towards my home country: I’m Chinese-Australian, and a city-slicker, hipster type; what did I have anything to do with salt-of-the-earth, Akubra-wearing Drover’s Wives and suntanned, beer-swilling, BBQ-manning larrikins? And how could I ever truly belong to a land that was the spiritual domain of Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years? With these questions in mind, I chucked in my dream job as a journalist at The Guardian, threw a sleeping bag and tent in my Toyota RAV4, and hit the long, dusty road. It was always trip first, book second. I had no idea what kind of book I would write and it was always a secondary concern to the experience itself.

In the book, you fuse travel writing with history and sociology. What was the research like for this project, and did your work as a journalist inform it?

My work as a journalist gave me a beginners-level understanding of Australia, Indigenous Australia and colonialism; I wasn’t starting from scratch. The trip took that knowledge up several notches. The reading and research I did after the trip helped me place my experiences in a historical context and reveal myself as a mere line of an unfolding and fascinating national story.

You write about realising that, as a non-white, non-Indigenous person in Australia, you too are complicit in colonialism and Aboriginal erasure. What do you think is the role of non-Indigenous people of colour in the fight for Indigenous rights?

I think it would be unhelpful to define that role in a very concrete way. But suffice to say that being a Chinese-Australian means I find myself outside of the conventional whitefella v blackfella dynamic through which we typically regard Australian colonialism. My skin colour is confusing: I am neither oppressor, nor the oppressed, or am I both? For now, anyway, I think people find it novel and refreshing to view the Australian story from that perspective and perhaps some clarity is gained from a viewing not so heavily burdened with partisan feeling.

A solo trip like this is often seen as a white male adventure. What was your experience of traveling alone as a woman, and woman of colour, for this book?

I’ll use that word again, people found me ‘novel’. A Chinese-Australian woman in her thirties alone in the Outback? I was perpetually a strange and unexpected sight. But Australians are highly versatile people and beyond an arched eyebrow, they would give me a little extra hospitality and perhaps I was hit on more than your average grey nomad Outback wanderer. I found single women in their thirties a rare commodity in the Outback (the surplus of which live in the cities).

How did you get into politics, and what has the experience been of being a young woman of colour candidate?

I was never interested in politics, but I cared about environmental and social justice. I joined the Greens because they were working on issues I cared about: marriage equality, climate change and asylum seekers, and I wanted to make a difference to my community. As for running in the recent election, as a Chinese Australian women in her thirties, once again, I was just as strange a sight on the ballot as I was in the Outback!

Throughout my professional and political life I have had to endure many small humiliations, because I am a woman, because I am Chinese, because I am young-ish, because I am a progressive candidate in a conservative seat. I swallow them; grind my teeth; smile and carry on. Because on the other hand, I also had an upper-middle class upbringing and am well-educated. I am frequently given respect, great jobs, a platform from which to express myself and access to power. I am always reminding myself that I’m a person with more influence than your average Australian. For that I am constantly grateful and committed to using it for good.

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

I don’t think I could ever recommend a single writer to ‘everyone’, but in an effort to restore some of the female writers who have been somewhat marginalised by Australian history, I implore others to read the works of ecofeminist Val Plumwood and pioneering suffragette Louisa Lawson. I do what I can to ensure their impact on our world is not forgotten.

What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?

No advice. I’m too afraid of the butterfly effect to mess with time travel!