FWF QUARANTINE Q&A: Pip Williams

Pip Williams is a social scientist and writer. Her debut novel The Dictionary of Lost Words is a tale of missing words and the lives of women lived between the lines.

What does feminism mean to you?

If you’d asked ‘what does feminism mean?’ I would not be able to answer – feminist scholars and commentators have been grappling with that question for more than a century. It is a perfect example of how the meaning of a word bends and shifts in response to the context in which it is used. But you asked what feminism means to me, and that is a simpler question.

Feminism, for me, is equity in opportunities to thrive. It is the absence of barriers based on gender, class, cultural background or perceived ‘disability’. While the term may have originated to apply to woman in particular, for me, it has evolved. The principles of equity, fairness and equal opportunity extend beyond the female body, and I think that feminism, as a concept, is most useful when it is employed in a way that considers the whole community.

I have two sons. I have brought them up to be feminists, not just because I want them to champion the rights of women, but because I think their experience of being men will be far more positive in a society that values diversity and equity for all.   

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

When I was at university in the late 1980s, feminism seemed to wear a uniform and have an agenda that I wasn’t wholly comfortable with. It puzzled me that the most strident feminists on campus, while rejecting the dominance of men, chose to dress just like them: dungarees or suits that hid breasts and hips, no makeup, practical hair and practical shoes.

I was 19, I was not doing gender studies. I had to figure it out without the insights of critical theorists. Despite not wanting to wear the uniform, I still thought of myself as a feminist. I had to understand what it was that made me feel uncomfortable.  I figured there was more to feminism than getting what men had, after all, what men had was not always desirable. For me, it was about having the right and the opportunity to attain it (to become an engineer or a plumber or the CEO of bank), but also the right and the opportunity to reject it without scorn. The right to say I choose to be a full-time carer, a teacher or a nurse and be valued as highly as those who choose a traditionally male occupation. Average wages are a good indication of value, so it would seem we still have a way to go. 

How do you think feminism has informed our understanding of who has the right to arbitrate language?

Even before the word ‘feminism’ was coined, women were questioning the authority of men to speak on their behalf. The women’s suffrage movement has a long history, it is an extension of the universal suffrage movement, which, back in the 1800s, referred to the right of all adults to vote, regardless of wealth, education, property or race. But it did not apply to women. The word universal was misused by the men who spoke it in parliament, and wrote it in the papers. The exclusion of women was occasionally noted and easily ignored.

Where they could, women lobbied to be heard – they wrote eloquently of their potential value to political decision making. They began to march. They began to shout. They were silenced whenever they got too loud or destructive.

Those with the means to be heard will always claim the right to arbitrate language. Politicians and the media claim this right today, just as they did more than two hundred years ago. That is why representation is so important. And not just of women, but of first peoples, people from non-dominant cultures, people with diverse sexualities and genders, and people with diverse abilities.

How do you think that has translated into real world application?

Language can be used to incite or unite, to abuse or console, to demonstrate understanding or communicate rejection. There are so many examples of how politicians and the media manipulate language to suit their agendas. Just as it was during the time of the suffragettes, denigrating a particular group of people is often part of the formula. For me, the most pressing example today is around the issue of climate change.

When Greta Thunberg started speaking up for her generation and calling on governments around the world to act on climate change, she was subjected to a barrage of words designed to undermine her right to speak. According to those with the means to be heard, she was young, fragile, hysterical, mentally ill. She was poorly advised, supervised and controlled by those who should know better. I was struck by the familiarity of these verbal assaults. I had been researching the women’s suffrage movement in England and had access to newspaper articles of the time. The words used to describe women calling on governments to give them the vote were depressingly similar. The word suffragette was, in fact, an insult. Coined by newspaper men in 1906, it was designed to diminish the importance of women who chose a more militant approach to the fight for women’s suffrage. The suffix – ette, is a diminutive. It indicates something is smaller than the original (kitchenette) or merely an imitation (leatherette). These women were out of line. They were behaving badly, they were hysterical, unhinged, dangerous to themselves and others. They needed to be reigned in, and indeed, many of them were imprisoned for their civil disobedience.

In the course of your research, what was a key lesson you learned about the ways in which assigned legitimacy of language influences cultural perceptions of value?

Words are more than a means of communication. Words carry meaning through time. They connect us to our ancestors, to place and to culture. This is true for all of us. When our language is taken from us, when we are required to use words that are foreign to our tongue, we lose the means to communicate what is important to us.

I live in Adelaide, and one of the first languages spoken in this place was Kaurna. The Kaurna people have a continuing relationship with the land that we now know as the Adelaide Plains, but their language was colonised, and for 150 years it has lain dormant. 

I suspect that English is an inadequate vehicle for expressing the meaning of connection to ancestors, place and culture for the Kaurna people, and yet they have been required to use it in order to communicate what matters to them. In recent years, there has been an effort to reclaim and revive the Kaurna language. Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (creating Kaurna Language) is a group established by Kaurna elders to study, teach and share language. They are giving voice to words and concepts long silenced, but still relevant. It is an act of reconciliation that we are all invited to participate in. If I was to summarise what I learned during the course of my research I would say this: ‘If the words I am familiar with do not do your experience justice, then I must listen to the words you use and ask you to help me make sense of them.’ 

Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?

I don’t know. I was tempted to google ‘important feminist writers of the 21st century’ so that I could provide a half decent answer, but the truth is, I’m drawn to writing that tells a good story with beautiful sentences. The story can be fiction or non-fiction, but for me it is ‘good’ if it chimes with the truth of lived experience. I was an academic for a long time and I have lost my appetite for theory.  These days, I am moved by writers who can weave a narrative that allows me to understand what it means to be a person in the margins of historical or contemporary life. Over the past few years I have developed insight from reading stories by the following authors (to name but a few): Tara June Winch, Charlotte Wood, Hannah Kent, Jenny Offill, Elizabeth Strout, Zadie Smith, Geraldine Brooks, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Elizabeth Gilbert, Vera Brittain, Virginia Woolf.

photo credit: Andre Goosen

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