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

Features, News

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

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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!

A Precarious Home: Older Women, Housing Insecurity and Homelessness

Features, News

By Ruth Quibell

Photo: Pixabay

For many women, home is a provisional place. This has long been true. Violence, dispossession and poverty are not new. What is recent is the increase in the number of women over the age of 55 experiencing housing stress, insecurity and homelessness. On the 2016 Census night, for instance, there were an estimated 6,866 homeless older women in Australia. This was an increase of over 1600 women, or 31 per cent, since 2011.

Towards a Fairer Game: The fight for maternity rights in women’s sport

Features, News

By Kylie Maslen

Photo: Instagram

Angela Pippos writes in her book on sexism in sport, Breaking the Mould, that ‘sport is an important part of the feminist movement.’ However:

Gender inequalities in sport – which are just as (if not more) sweeping as those faced by women in other industries – are sometimes given short shrift by feminists. Women’s sport rarely gets a place on feminist news sites, and it has historically been considered too frivolous or (ironically) too masculine to be worth fighting for.

Since 2015, women’s sport in Australia has increasingly grown from amateur to professional. Leagues across sporting codes have commercialised, and as a result renegotiated salaries and conditions with their athletes. Maternity leave and childcare have been high-profile elements to the negotiation of these deals, and have highlighted the gaps between lawful obligations and the realities women face in the workplace both on and off the field.

Two commonalities appear across women’s sport and the fight for better maternity leave policies. The first is the power of collective bargaining. In 2015 the Australian women’s soccer team, The Matildas, fought for, and won, better conditions by their entire national squad going on strike. This established a key precedent and greatly informed the deal for players of the W-League in 2017. According to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984, an employer cannot treat an employee ‘less favourably’ than others because of family responsibilities or breastfeeding. While the players pushed for childcare support, the Football Federation of Australia argued that ‘childcare is an employee’s responsibility’, ignoring the reality that the Matildas’ jobs require them to travel regularly, and that covering these costs out of their own pockets would be extremely prohibitive to players who were earning base salaries of $21,000 per year.

For the first time in history, less than half of all working Australians have a permanent full-time job.

The second trend in negotiations is the pull of big names. Netball, despite being a “woman’s sport”, had previously failed to care for pregnant players or those wishing to return to the court as mothers. Elise Kent was playing for the Melbourne Vixens when it was announced two weeks before the start of the 2014 tournament that she was pregnant. She was replaced with another player for the season, but came out of contract before the birth of her daughter and was not re-signed. Sadly in the case of fixed-term contracts such as Kent’s, there is no right to return to the same or a similar job as per permanent employees. In the broader workforce, for the first time in history, less than half of all working Australians have a permanent full-time job. This means that millions of Australians are facing potentially similar fates to Kent. So while the Fair Work Act of 2009 legislates the right of permanent employees to return to the same or a similar job to that of which they left, that leaves more than half of the workforce unprotected.

Since Kent, big-name netball players such as Bec Bulley, Renee Ingles and Laura Geitz have all had children, and all successfully returned to elite competition, setting new examples that could not be ignored. When the new Super Netball competition was announced in May 2016, a landmark deal was struck for athletes. In a groundbreaking parental care policy that included travel arrangements for both infant and support person, players were also entitled to private health contributions of up to $1500 (since increased to $1635 to offset price increases) as well as ‘100% income protection on all earnings for up to two years in the event of injury or pregnancy.’

According to a national review of pregnancy-related discrimination by the Australian Human Rights Commission, one-third of Australian mothers report having experienced discrimination on their return to work. A pattern we are currently seeing in international tennis mirrors the discrimination regularly seen in the Australian workforce of demotion or women being assigned ‘light duties’ rather than being re-assigned the same role at the same level that they held prior to leave.

One-third of Australian mothers report having experienced discrimination on their return to work.

While players such as Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport had successfully come back to the sport after having children, despite being highly-ranked at the time, it has taken the star-power of Serena Williams to really break open the discussion of what it means to return to tennis after maternity leave. Williams left the WTA tour for maternity leave ranked number one worldwide, but due to not playing during this time returned at number 453. While tennis players are able to access a ‘special ranking rule’ to guarantee that they can qualify for tournaments for two years, because their ranking number is not protected they effectively do not return to the same job.

As The Gist explains, ‘[r]ankings are incredibly important in tennis, as it’s the best vs the worst ranked players facing off at the start of the tournament.’ Before Williams went on leave she would have only encountered other top-ranked players towards the tail end of a tournament. But when she plays at a low ranking she must play them in the opening rounds and therefore has a far less likely chance of succeeding. This ruling is an effective demotion, affecting the ability to earn income not just through the sport itself but also through endorsements and sponsorships.

When the AFLW competition began in February 2017, it challenged many clubs who had previously only held male teams. A lack of appropriate facilities is an issue across Australian workplaces: employers are legally obligated to ‘take reasonable measures’ to accommodate breastfeeding including the need to express milk, however one in five (22 per cent) of women in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s findings reported discrimination related to breastfeeding or expressing milk.

Arguably the AFLW’s most recognisable star, Daisy Pearce, gave birth to twins earlier this month. While Pearce is the first active AFLW player to take maternity leave, there are existing players who had given birth to children before playing AFLW who are able to access the AFL’s pregnancy and parental management travel policy – announced in November 2017 – to allow players who are breastfeeding to travel to interstate games with their baby and a partner or support person at the club’s cost. With Pearce set to test the league’s return-to-work abilities for the 2020 season, pressure is on the AFL to provide one of its biggest names – and at times outspoken opponents – with an accommodating and supportive workplace that sets a precedent for younger players.

A lack of appropriate facilities is an issue across Australian workplaces.

In the last five years we have seen an extraordinary movement by Australian athletes to forge better working conditions for sportswomen both with and without children. In doing so they are giving voice to the fight for better maternity leave and parental care policies in all Australian workplaces, where reports show that many employees are failing to meet lawful obligations.

We need childcare to be more equitable, we need job stability for women wanting to have children while in casual or non-permanent jobs, and we need to acknowledge the pressures that adversely affect mothers such as travel and working out-of-hours.

In a competitive job market, let’s look to the examples set by women athletes to hold employers accountable and push for better conditions for women returning to work. Through collective bargaining and high-profile figures campaigning to enact much-needed change for women across Australia, from its superstars and CEOs to its grassroots and casual workers, equitable maternity leave conditions and parental care policies are a team sport.


Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide. Her writing is focused on sense of place and feminism, covering topics including cultural criticism, reproductive health, and her love of Australian Rules football. kyliemaslen.com

Searching for Mary Lee

Features

By Denise George

Often, only disparate and fragmented traces that remain of women’s lives in Australian history, and this makes telling their stories difficult. Some stories are minimal accounts, others neglected, many erased completely because of a lack of sufficient sources. In some instances a lack of women’s records and their subsequent stories have been misinterpreted as an absence of women’s contribution to the development of Australian society and culture.

FWF Q&A: Lee Kofman

Features, Q&A

Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Lee Kofman, whose new book, Imperfect, explores the concept of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm.


What does feminism mean to you?

This is such a big question… I’ve already written about this a lot in my creative works, particularly because I often feel I practise my own version of feminism which differs from current dominant feminist discourses. But I can’t possibly unpack this version in a short interview, so here I chose to answer this question intuitively. The first thing that springs to my mind is the word ‘sisterhood’. Not in the ideological, camaraderie sense of this word, but in the intimate sense. I’ve always felt much closer to women than to men; my most important friendships have been with women, and the truth is I’m more likely to enjoy a conversation with a woman than a man. On this primal level, then, feminism for me is simply about being around other women, relishing their company, plus collaborating with them creatively.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

I don’t have a ‘fixed’ perspective on feminism; it is always a work-in-progress, so I can’t pinpoint a particular moment in this sense. But I can easily trace the beginnings of my identification as a feminist. I became an ardent feminist as early as the first years of primary school (these unfolded in the former Soviet Union). I was a weird child who loved adult literature above all else – my first attempt at reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace was at the age of eight… By that time, I’d already read many other Russian, and also French and English, classics – by Chekhov, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, and so on. So, my head was full of fainting ladies and gallant gentlemen rescuing them continuously. It was also full of various common wisdoms about gender that those books were filled with, such as the old Russian proverb that roughly translates as: ‘If the hair is long, the wisdom is short.’ The more I read, the angrier I became. The last straw was The Three Musketeers. At first, reading this novel excited me, as I’d finally come across a proactive and non-fainting, heroine, Milady. But once I got to the point where Dumas had her beheaded (by men, of course), my conversion to feminism was complete…

In Imperfect, you combine memoir and cultural criticism to explore the concept of physical perfection, and this pressure. Did you learn anything surprising in your research?

My book is, actually, more of an exploration of physical imperfection – my term for appearance that deviates from what western and westernised societies currently consider to be ‘normal’. I wanted to see if appearance can shape our lives, including our psychological makeup, especially when we have imperfections. Based on my own experience, I have always suspected that our looks are more than skin-deep. My body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars resulting from multiple surgeries I underwent as a child, and I know that this fact has significantly impacted my life. For example, I haven’t experimented with my sexuality as much as I’d have liked to, out of shame, and for the same reason I’ve avoided most outdoor activities, and generally become secretive. In the course of 10 years of interviewing other imperfect people, I found that my experience wasn’t unique, that our selves are often more entangled with our flesh than we might want to believe. But I also found many things that surprised me. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I was astonished, for example, by the extent of the mockery and other abuse that is the lot of many imperfect people. Meeting people with various imperfections which are (unlike mine) impossible to hide – people with dwarfism, albinism and Marfan Syndrome, larger people and people with facial disfigurements – made me realise that dehumanisation is far more prevalent than I assumed. I also learned a lot about the world of extreme body modification. Before writing this book I knew nothing about it and I wanted to find out why someone would intentionally ‘un-perfect’ themselves. Initially, my mind was full of the usual prejudices. I assumed that these people were criminals or suffered from serious mental illnesses. What I found was that sometimes this holds true. But I also found, to my great surprise, that for some other extreme body modifiers, changing their bodies was a way to empower themselves, find contentment and sometimes even succeed vocationally. In short, I realised that occasionally extreme body modification can be actually a sensible choice.

What considerations do feminists need to make when talking about body image; what is the current conversation missing, and how can we be more inclusive?

One of the main reasons I wanted to write Imperfect was because I feel that the current conversation about appearance – and by all means it’s not only a feminist conversation – is missing a lot. I think it’s time we began talking honestly about the impact of appearance on people’s, and particularly women’s, lives. As much as there is sky-high pressure on women to be beautiful, paradoxically, at the same time, as a society we have gone too far in trying to pretend that looks don’t matter. At least in the more so-called progressive circles, we like to say that beauty is skin deep and that all bodies are beautiful. We like urging women to accept themselves as they are. I know these messages are meant to counter the pressures of beauty and I’ve known women for whom hearing this is liberating. But I know even more women, many of whom I’ve interviewed for Imperfect, who – like me – feel burdened not only by the imperative to be beautiful but also by these additional expectations for unconditional self-acceptance. To say that everyone is beautiful glosses over the very real feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, sometimes caused by the hostile reactions of others, that many women, particularly those with imperfections, experience. As a result, appearance-related grief becomes disenfranchised grief – a psychological term for socially invalidated sorrow. Moreover, women who like beautifying themselves, or choose to undergo cosmetic treatments for other reasons, often experience ambivalence and guilt and keep their procedures secret.

So, I don’t think we can truly promote bodily diversity before we acknowledge that what we look like does matter, and before we stop minimising the difficulties women, particularly women with imperfections, often experience. I’d like us to stop holding women accountable for how they present their bodies or feel about them. To do so, we need to shift the conversation about appearance away from a body image discourse, which is currently the most common way of speaking about looks. When we talk about body image, we talk about our perceptions of, and feelings about, our own appearance, which is just another way of blaming the victims. Instead, I’d like us to focus more on interventions at the social level. For example, how to make imperfect bodies more visible – in the media, in our cultural narratives and even in the fashion world. I believe that high, and positive, visibility will help to expand social norms around appearance, make our society more inclusive.

What are the challenges for you in writing memoir, and how do you ‘shift modes’ between your memoir and fiction writing?

By nature I’m a confessional writer; even my fiction is usually based either on my life or on the lives of people I know. Whereas when I write memoir, I employ many fictional techniques – dialogue, scene setting, descriptive details etc. So, I actually don’t so much shift as blur modes between memoir and fiction.

In memoir, however, I feel my responsibilities to be far heavier than when I write fiction. This genre is a minefield of ethical challenges. I often become daunted at the necessity of relying on an unreliable memory, feel shame about exposing my various shortcomings and, worse, about violating other people’s privacy while telling my own story. Sometimes the weight of this responsibility has paralysed me so that I’ve stopped writing altogether. However, no paralysis has lasted longer than several months. I’ve come to realise that these struggles, as gruesome as they have been, actually invigorate me artistically, because they keep me on my toes. So, what I try is to deepen my writing by pouring all this blood and tears I spill in my ethical struggles into my narratives. Instead of allowing them to become narrative stoppers, I write them into the work itself. One of the themes running throughout Imperfect, for example, is the shame I’ve felt while admitting in my writing my desire to look beautiful.

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

At the moment I’m particularly infatuated with several American and English creative nonfiction writers (some of them write fiction too): Katie Roiphe, Elif Batuman, Meghan Daum, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith, Emily Gould, Jan Morris and Maggie Nelson.


Lee Kofman is the author and editor of seven books, including Imperfect, a work of creative nonfiction (2019, Affirm Press), and Split (2019, Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir featuring prominent Australian authors. Her blog The Writing Lifewas a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. leekofman.com.au