One of 80: A reflection on domestic violence and media reporting

Features, News

By Nour Haydar

The author with her mother

In 2015, I was shocked by the news of 17- year-old Masa Vukotic’s murder at the hands of serial sex offender Sean Price in Doncaster. A fortnight later, my mother’s picture hit the front page. 

My mum, Salwa Haydar, was murdered a month before my university graduation. I remember swearing off becoming a journalist because I resented reporters prodding for interviews with my sisters and me only hours after our dad had stabbed our mum to death. 

As I lay awake in the days after my mum’s burial, the disappearance of Leeton teacher Stephanie Scott filled the headlines. Julie Hutchinson. Daniela D’Addario. Melita Hart. Linda Locke. Seker Yildiz. Leila Alavi. Rose Maries Sheehy. Brittany Harvie. Rebecca Webb. Norma Ludlum. Tiffany Taylor. Anna Hay. Tara Brown. Karina Lock. A total of 80 women across Australia died violent deaths that year. Counting Dead Women estimates 80 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of a partner or former partner.

My siblings’  Facebook inboxes were flooded with messages from journalists, and these requests made me angry and anxious. The media intrigue in our trauma felt insensitive, and responding to journalists’ questions trivial when our mother’s body still lay in the morgue. I also feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

I questioned the role and value of the news media in our lives when incomprehensible and seemingly unpreventable acts of violence could happen without warning. But my mum was one of few people who encouraged me to pursue journalism, so after her death I reluctantly went ahead with a news producing internship I had previously lined up. At first, the job was a welcome distraction, but working in a newsroom soon proved to be anything but.

I feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

Countless police media releases about the violent deaths of women in our neighbourhoods have continued to drop into my email inbox with a faint ping. They punctuate my weekly routine and remind me of the trauma and heartache I share with an ever-growing group of Australians who have lost their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends to men’s violence. 

As I scan the emails, I am not surprised to learn that in most cases police have charged a man known to the victim. A-fucking-nother-one. I can’t help but imagine how a similar statement would have been sent out to my peers in the early hours of March 31 2015:

Police were called to a property in Bexley after reports of a stabbing. A 46-year-old woman was found with lacerations to her arms, neck and torso. She was pronounced dead at the scene. A 60-year-old man, believed to be known to the woman, has been arrested and charged after attending Kogarah police station. 

I take a deep whiff of air through my nose and exhale to ease the building tremor in my chest.

After Adrian Bailey raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2013, her husband Tom Meagher wrote about the “danger of the monster myth”. He describes his visceral reaction to hearing Bailey speak in coherent and intelligible sentences in court as he was committed to trial. Meagher states that he had previously sought self-comfort by dismissing violent men as “psychotic or sociopathic aberrations” to avoid “the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions”. 

Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help.

As I struggled to make sense of my father’s brutal crime, I naively insisted to a constable taking my initial police statement that my dad’s actions were unforeseeable and unimaginable because I had a “normal family”. With a voice full of pity she replied, ‘That’s what most people who sit in that chair tell me’. 

The way I understood my parents’ relationship began to unravel. I was forced to confront that what I had accepted to be a “normal” marriage was a grossly unequal and abusive one. Like Meagher, I also had a distorted perception of the type of man capable of committing physical violence and murder. It was a flawed image that had allowed me to dismiss my mother’s fears and overlook the subtle controlling, belittling and manipulative behaviours exhibited by my father. I had thought men capable of such brutal crimes were inherently unlikeable and aggressive. They certainly were not personable, law abiding and university educated like my father had been. I know now that they can be both. 

The media can use its influence to inform victims of domestic and family violence to recognise the many ways in which abuse can manifest – and that it doesn’t have to be physical before it becomes fatal. Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help. Good reporting can teach others to identify what I learnt before it is too late. 

In fact, it can go a step further. As Rosie Batty observed, “media are uniquely placed to help stop violence before it starts.” Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step that can help encourage victims to tell and own their stories and experiences – and you cannot underestimate the liberation that comes with that. But curbing the staggering number of women being assaulted and murdered in Australia, and indeed around the world, won’t happen solely because victim blaming headlines and sensational and distasteful teases have been eradicated. 

Violence against women in all its forms is pervasive, but it’s preventable. Perpetrators of domestic violence are amongst our readers, listeners and viewers. Responsible media reporting challenges men to reconsider toxic behaviours, encourages younger readers to adopt respectful attitudes towards women, and recognises that the driving force behind violence against women is gender inequality. 

Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step.

For generations the media has been complicit in condoning domestic violence by remaining silent. There has been a significant shift in recent years that has seen bouts of coverage about this epidemic, but it’s often limited to individual cases, in particular those perceived to be more vicious. Given the scale and prevalence of violence against women, it deserves greater and sustained scrutiny. Flawed policies that contradict expert advice, like the Morrison government’s recent decision to fund couples counselling, should be interrogated. The government must rectify the systemic failures and underfunding that keep women, particularly those from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, in danger. 

Positive change in the industry is being made — overwhelmingly by my female peers. Our Watch and the Walkley Foundation last year established the inaugural Our Watch Fellowship. I was fortunate enough to participate in the program alongside 13 insightful and fierce journalists committed to gender equality and safe, respectful reporting on violence against women. Our Watch has also created media reporting guidelines that are designed to uphold the dignity of dead women. If followed, they can limit the retraumatisation of victims and grieving families. They are there to ensure journalists contextualise domestic violence, which is insidious and remains largely invisible.

We need to talk more about domestic violence, but when we do, we must make sure our words and actions are doing more good than harm.   

Nour Haydar is a multiplatform journalist with ABC News covering politics. She is an advocate against gender based violence and in 2019 she was awarded the inaugural Our Watch fellowship. 

FWF Q&A: Nicola Redhouse

Features, Q&A, Uncategorized

Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Nicola Redhouse, the author of Unlike the Heart.

What does feminism mean to you?

For me feminism means a constant awareness and push against structures and systems, attitudes, biases (often unconscious) and cultures that deny women the ability to make choices for themselves, or place them in an invidious position of physical, emotional or material deprivation because of their identity. My own understanding of the ways these structures and systems are entwined with other social factors – like race and socio-economic and class status – expands constantly as I reckon with the specificity of experience.

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?

Maternity brought my feminism into sharp relief. I very quickly became aware of the social structures and unconscious biases in place that set women (even women who aren’t mothers or have no intention of being mothers) on a different track, socially and economically, to their male counterparts. I watched my husband leave for work after two weeks of paternity leave and I felt the singularity of the maternal experience, and the ways I was, as Rachel Cusk once put it, cut off from civic life.

Then, when my (unpaid) maternity leave was over, I saw it in the way my male former boss dealt with my new status as a mother. He reluctantly offered me a long-overdue promotion in a part-time capacity (I had been working below the award rate for my role for years, trying many times to negotiate appropriate pay) and then rescinded the offer and offered me my previous under-paid role full-time. I began to cry, thinking about how I would afford childcare, and how I would leave my son every day, thinking about how badly I wanted to keep working as a book editor. He implored me to stop crying because it was making him feel bad. He makes a living publishing books that are very often by women, often by outspoken feminists. I now understood that my back-foot position in the office was always somehow connected to my female body, and to conscious and unconscious attitudes to what it was capable of, what it deserved, and how it could be treated.

And I saw from that experience that many men do not want to know about maternity. They do not want to know about what women feel or experience having a body that has the potential to house a baby, or a body that represents that capacity, or of actually raising babies. The maternal experience must be kept away from them. I find something similar in my work as a writer. My book brings maternity into contact with a number of fascinating topics: neuroscience, psychoanalysis, genetics. But it is as though the maternity infects it. I am rarely asked to talk about those topics. I am asked to talk about motherhood, and while I want to talk about motherhood, I don’t see motherhood as cordoned off from the big themes of life, such as war and science and technological progress, and I am disappointed that my audience is almost always all women. I sense that maternity is tainted by the domestic and the mundane. Many men struggle to recognise the immense richness and complexity and crossover with science and industry and history and pretty much the whole entire existence of everything that living is bound up with. I hope to continue to bring that complexity to the fore in my work.

In Unlike the Heart, you combine extensive research on neuroscience and psychology with your personal experiences of motherhood and anxiety. How did you approach the writing process, and where did the idea come from?

I approached the writing process like a freefalling coconut, like a terrified porcupine, like a deranged and absolutely wired starved person who has finally found food. On some days. On other days I sat, grave and frozen, with no sense of where to go with the thing. I just wrote. I have some kind of amnesia about the process now, actually. I know there were times I felt really stuck, but mostly I felt like I was running, pushed by the wind, and it was totally thrilling. But my boys are still young, and then even younger, and childcare needed to be paid for. I was only able to write like this, with abandon, when I had the time, and that came when I was able to put aside paid work as a freelance book editor, because I was fortunate enough to receive first a grant from Creative Victoria and then one from the Australia Council. 

The kernel of the book came  when I had a robust conversation with my sister about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Our father is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I had been very excited by his work and interested in it from a young age, and in analysis myself for years. I felt very defensive about what she was saying. I went looking in to it and discovered the work of a group of people who were looking at the brain science behind Freud’s theories (the neuro-psychoanalysts). I thought I would write a book about my own slow reckoning with scientific parameters, and the science of the mind. But quickly I realised that theoretical matter was bound up with all the questions I had been asking myself about what had happened to me postnatally, which was that I had experienced severe anxiety, a kind of dissolution. I had found myself caught up in the medical and psychological approaches to my anxiety, and that connected directly with this question of whether the talking cure had any scientific validity in the knowledge we have about the brain.

My process then was a mixture of constant reading and research (including a trip to Holland to attend a neuro-psychoanalytic congress and interview the founder, Prof. Mark Solms), and then writing, writing, writing. The real struggle for me was structure. How would I bring these strands together and move the narrative forward? I had some astute readers, and some logical input from my non-writing husband, and eventually it came together.

Writing about motherhood has often been confined by social expectations and perceptions of women, but in recent years the genre has expanded and your book is a great example – where do you see the future of this kind of writing going?

Going back to what I said earlier about motherhood being connected to big themes, I think that the genre of writing in which the maternal experience is central is opening up to those connections; perhaps taking a leap of faith in a readership that will begin to recognise motherhood as a significant human experience bound up to the biggest experiences we can know: death, war, love, survival. Eula Biss’s On Immunity brings motherhood to life in connection to disease and the history of immunisation; Jessie Greengrass’s Sight engages deeply with the capacity to investigate our internal experience in the history of medicine; Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: essays on love and cruelty brings maternal representations right up against social fear, politics and race.

And then we also have a move toward exploring the banal, the repetitive and the ordinary terrain of motherhood as important, as worth knowing about; acknowledgment that what goes on in the house, and in the mother’s mind, is as formative of human experience as what goes on in the boardroom, so to speak. Sarah Moss’s Night Waking is a great example. Lauren Elkin, in a great piece in the Paris Review, puts it well in saying the new books on motherhood are a ‘countercanon. They read against the literary canon with its lack of interest in the interior lives of mothers.’ And perhaps what they do is what academic Petra Bueskens writes about in her essay ‘From Containing to Creating’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers: they subvert the idea of mothers as containers (drawn from the psychoanalytic theory of people like Melanie Klein) and recognise mothers’ ‘material subjectivity’. The messiness, brokenness, interruption of the maternal experience becomes interesting material; material that offers exciting ideas for writing forms, like what we see in the writing of Jenny Offill or Sarah Manguso.

How has your work as an editor impacted your work as a writer, and vice versa? Did it affect the way you wrote the book, knowing how you might edit it yourself if it came across your desk?

I don’t think a writer can ever be their own editor: to be effective, an editor must take the role of the interested outsider. A deliberate misunderstander. But my knowledge of the ecology of publishing affected the approach I took, in that I am implicitly aware of how an acquiring editor thinks (which is not terribly different to how a discerning reader reads): I know that a book needs a point of difference or a serious level of expertise or an unpassable quality of writing. As for how my work as a writer has impacted my work as an editor, writing has sort of ebbed away at my editing energies. I can’t do the two at the same time; not substantive editing, anyway, where I need to think creatively about the structure and story of a work. So my main paid work these days is as a writer, teaching writing, or proofreading.

You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction – how do you approach these two very different kinds of writing? Do they require different skills or mindsets?

Fiction has a certain freedom, but also can be more daunting because I feel less sure that I am writing anything with meaning. Often the meaning of my fiction only comes to me after I have written and reworked it and I begin to understand the symbolism of what I have put down on paper. This comes in to my nonfiction writing too (this desire to be working at a level of narrative and meaning) but at the start I feel less like I am free-falling with nonfiction, because I have research to undertake or real-life events to hang on to. I am in the same mindset for both kinds of writing: trying to loosen my mind, to get down on paper a feeling I have about what I am saying. But I think with fiction a part of my mind is engaged with thinking ‘where can I take the reader now?’, while with nonfiction a part of my mind is thinking ‘how do I bring that material in meaningfully?’

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

I’ll limit it to three but could list thousands: 

Sarah Knott’s Mother: an unconventional history has recently been seminal for me. It has reminded me of the richness of interruption, of broken forms, of connections in research; it has reminded me of the incredible silence and absence around the maternal experience and some of the social history to why that is so; it has drilled into me the value of knowing the vast differences of experience between mothers culturally and historically; it has reminded me of the importance of specificity. 

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was similarly transformative in its form and lyrical quality, and in the transformative boundary-breaking motherhood it offers. 

The poet Rita Dove, whose collection Mother Love re-imagines wryly and startlingly the mother-daughter relationship via a modernised version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. 

Ruby Hamad’s Legacy Books


This piece was performed at Legacy Books, Feminist Writers Festival Sydney on Saturday 3 November 2018.

When I was seven years old, my second grade teacher made a ‘book’ out of the first short story I ever wrote, called Tilly the Witch. After typing the manuscript on a manual typewriter (hey, it was the 80s), she bound it in laminated red cardboard and illustrated it with black and white photos she took of myself and my classmates dressed up as the characters, with myself as Tilly. 

Though that book is lost to me now, a victim lost to many long-haul moves; out of home, interstate, overseas, and back again, I haven’t forgotten her enthusiasm or how she told me to never stop writing. I did, of course. One of the unintended consequences of her interest in me and my writing was the perception in some of the other children that I was getting special treatment. This marked me as different. The bullying and taunts started soon after and would continue in some form or another right up until the start of Year 12. 

During that time, I became an increasingly inward-looking child. Feeling alienated both within my family’s cultural community and from my school peers, I escaped not into writing but into reading whatever happened to be lying around the house. The newspaper, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. My older sister’s Sweet Valley High books. All of which is to say, I read stories that I never saw myself in. Despite my love and talent for writing, I stopped doing it, as the reality of being a daughter from a recently arrived Lebanese-Syrian immigrant family made that prospect seem laughable. It’s not that my parents were against it, it’s that creative pursuits were just not things that even existed in the realm of possible futures for their children. 

At the age of 22, I was in the midst of my first big overseas backpacking trick. On the bedside table near my dorm bunk in an ultra-budget hostel in downtown Vancouver, a previous traveller had a left a copy of a fairly hefty novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the debut of English writer Kate Atkinson. I picked up that book many times in the space of about a fortnight, contemplating whether I could be bothered starting it given it seemed not as fun a prospect as the underground Vancouver nightlife I was getting into at the time (hey, it was the the 90s). 

As someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me.

The main character’s name is Ruby Lennox, and this fact was certainly a factor in my decision to eventually begin reading it. But it wasn’t until couple of chapters in that I knew I was hooked. Ruby, you see, is our narrator, beginning the story from the moment of her conception, and this is how she describes her naming, shortly after her birth: 

“My name is Ruby. I am a precious jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox.”

This sort of affirmation is not something I was used to. The fictional Ruby, who like me, would grow up to be a chronic loner, an adolescent who spent more time in her head than in the real world, was stating her worth. It would be repeated several times throughout the book, sometimes sarcastically, other times plaintively. But as someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me. Was me. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but what connected me so much to a character called Ruby Lennox, a white girl born in the north of England in the 1950s, was that I felt represented at last. By the sheer fluke of our names, I was able to transcend all the obvious differences and imagine a Ruby much like myself. This is the power and importance of representation. This is why it is so important that young people – all people really – can see something of themselves in some of the stories they read or films they watch; just to know there are people out there with problems and joys not unlike their own. 

Had Atkinson given her heroine a different name, it is more than likely, I would never have read the book. Which is to say, representation must be more encompassing than the coincidence of names.  

This book has meant so much to me, I’ve owned various editions over the years, and for many years would pick it up at random pages and start reading. Spanning many generations, criss-crossing centuries and continents, Ruby and the women in her family hold centre-stage through the Victorian era, the two world wars, the Great Depression; it’s not often you come across a book that can include all the momentous events without shifting the focus from the women. 

Despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.

So profound was its impact on me that Behind the Scenes at the Museum reconnected me to my long forgotten dream of writing for a living and reminded me that being a writer is something that it is possible to be. For those of you who are fans of my writing, you have this book to thank for its existence; for those who are not fans, well you have this book to blame. 

Fast forward a number of years, and I am now in the midst of researching my first book, a non-fiction account of the racial stereotyping of women of colour and how this undermines relationships between them and white women. I’m still searching for authentic representation, still wondering why the arts and media are so overwhelmingly white. I’m still appealing to white feminists to read and comprehend my work and the work of other brown and black women. How do I know they aren’t doing this? Because despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.

But rereading Audre Lorde’s essay collection Sister, Outsider has been a lesson in how so often the answers we’re looking for have been with us all along. Why do white women still struggle to read and apply the words of women of colour? Lorde answered this question more than 30 years ago when she writes, ‘For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt.’ For white feminists to acknowledge that there are differences in the needs and experiences of women and that they cannot represent all of us would necessitate an acceptance of the limitations of their own feminism and an admission that their progress comes at the expense of other women. 

It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future.

People are fond of describing forward-thinking people as ‘ahead of their time’. As much as her words still seem prescient today, it would do a disservice to describe Lorde as ahead of her time. If anything, such thinkers are exactly of their time because they have the capacity to diagnose the maladies of their era and prescribe the remedy. Nothing is inevitable and no progress is ever assured. It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future. The problem is just how stubbornly resistant to this medicine the rest of us are. 

Despite everything, I am still hopeful we can bridge the gap. I have to believe in a common humanity that can work with and praise difference rather than deny and punish it. And I have to believe that writing is one of the ways we can get there. Like Ruby Lennox who shares my perpetual outsiderdom as well as my first name, ‘it is my belief that words are the only thing that can construct a world that makes sense.’

Ruby Hamad’s book White Tears, Brown Scars will be published by Melbourne University Press in September.

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.

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.

Searching for Mary Lee


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.