Part memoir and part manifesto, Clementine Ford’s debut book Fight Like a Girl is a feminist call to arms. Returning to Adelaide to speak about the book in October, the Fairfax columnist discusses the book, online abuse and why transformation is better than integration.
“I’m dealing with a very cranky baby,” Clementine Ford apologises over the muffled screams of a newborn somewhere in the background. She’s busy promoting her much-anticipated book, Fight Like a Girl, while also attending to the responsibilities of new motherhood.
“It’s my first time for both experiences, so I guess I have nothing to compare them to. Maybe I should have planned things better but I have no control over it now!” she laughs.
Fight Like a Girl is part-memoir and part-manifesto, where the personal is intimately bound to the political. Ford writes of her early childhood and confusing adolescence, defined by a gnawing but unarticulated sense of injustice.
“As a teenager, I didn’t have the language to articulate my feminist thoughts. I was also afraid of the word. Afraid of what men would think of me if I used that word,” she admits.
Feminism finally arrived to her via a Gender Studies class at Adelaide University.
“At that point, it all kind of crystalised. I found this wonderful community of women and teachers, and everything I’d been thinking in my head for so long was finally given a voice.”
Feminist discourse – once exiled to academia or obscurity – has now re-entered popular culture.
“Something changed within the media landscape. The early 2000s were like a political wasteland. Then the internet arrived and enabled communities to grow and become much more politicised,” she says.
But this decentralised form of dialogue has also brought with it a deluge of toxic abuse. Online forums can quickly descend into echo chambers of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Ford is no stranger to online trolling.
Type her name in any search bar, and you might be shocked at the results that are produced. On YouTube, her widely-shared TED Talk on rape culture is sandwiched between amateur videos entitled, ‘The Deranged Mind of Clementine Ford’ and ‘Clementine Ford: The Face of Modern Evil’.
“I think that kind of abuse starts the moment anyone who’s supposed to keep their place speaks out. The sentiment behind the abuse always existed, but the internet has just provided a discreet mechanism for people to organise and say what they want.”
In November 2015, Ford screencapped the employment details of a man who’d abused her over Facebook. His employment contract was terminated and, as a result, Ford received criticisms of bullying.
“I don’t take any responsibility for what happened to him other than that I stood up for myself and provided an example to other women that they don’t need to tolerate this kind of behaviour,” she says.
“What the critics really mean is that I should have sucked it up and brushed it off as a joke. I should’ve let men behave exactly as they like towards me, I shouldn’t have stooped to their level, which really just lets them get away with it.
“For women of colour, the oppression is compounded and the racist and sexist abuse they receive is terrifying. I think the great fear is that women will organise, we will start fighting back, and men will have to start wearing the consequences of their words or changing their behaviour. To some, that’s frightening.” Feminism has been churned into a powerful brand by pop culture. It seems that any choice, if made by a woman, can now be marketed as empowering. “Capitalism has realised that feminism is profitable,” Ford says.
“You try to critique the system and structures of power, and you end up arguing ludicrously and pointlessly with someone who will say: ‘Well it’s her choice and isn’t feminism about choice?’ No, feminism is not about choice. Feminism is about liberation, as far as I’m concerned.
“I find this idea of choice such an illusion because nothing is made in a vacuum. A woman waxing all of her body hair off might not be the most oppressive thing in the world, but it’s a choice she’s made as a result of social conditioning.”
The roots of feminism have a radical, collective history full of theatre and symbolism. Take members of WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) as an example, who dressed up in costume on the Halloween of 1968 and threw ‘hexes’ on Wall Street. The next day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined sharply. It’s a wide chasm between this sort of feminism and the feminism embraced by Hollywood and consumer culture. “Feminism is already being whitewashed,” Ford warns.
“We need to be aware of this danger and resist it, because if everything can be feminist, then feminism itself is meaningless.”
It is this dichotomy between illusion and meaning that Fight Like a Girl helps elucidate. The text perfectly summarises the hypocrisy of the W.A. Police Force tweeting their support for White Ribbon, when their own record of treatment of Aboriginal women in custody is worryingly chequered. Ford also draws connections between casual sexism and the more violent misogyny.
“People will say that sexist jokes are just jokes, but it’s so much more than that. We live in a culture where women are murdered by their partners due to a sense of entitlement. We live in a culture where women are, overwhelmingly, the victims of rape and sexual assault, while 95 percent of the offenders are men. I think it’s the casual sexism and the casual jokes that are the underlying foundations of this kind of environment.”
Liberation feminists argue that equality is not enough – women cannot seek freedom by living the lives of men. It’s a line of thought that Ford also favours.
“It’s kind of why I don’t give a shit about women on boards. That corporate-type of outlook favours a middle-class movement, of usually white women seeking liberation with white men. To me, it’s a negotiated kind of equality under a structure that has never been disposed to us and that we’ve had no part in creating.”
Rather, Ford argues that transformation is better than integration. Feminism helped her discover the redemptive power of female friendship and gave her liberation through community. In Fight Like a Girl, Ford calls on women to throw off all of the unnecessary distractions.
“One of the easiest ways to control women has been to render them deficient under the omnipresent male gaze. One of the best ways to control any group or stop them from overcoming their oppressors is to distract them with bullshit. It’s like I say in the book, all of these beauty aspirations are meaningless, because once we achieve them, the goalposts shift again. If we’re worrying about how we look like or if we’re the right kind of woman, we’re not out there transforming the system. And in the end, that’s our ultimate goal.”
Clementine Ford, Fight Like a Girl (Allen & Unwin), 304pp, paperback
Meet the Author: Clementine Ford Tuesday, October 18, 6:15pm (booked out) Allan Scott Auditorium, UniSA West Campus unisa.edu.au In Conversation: Clementine Ford Wednesday, October 19, 7pm (booked out) Wheatsheaf Hotel