For those of us who identify as feminists, it is a constant frustration that so many people consider feminism a dirty word. I’m not talking about those who disagree with feminist ideas and values, but of people who agree with those ideas and values – that is, people who believe that women and men should have the same economic, social and political opportunities – disparaging the name and identity of the movement that stands for exactly that.
In The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism, newmatilda.com writer Jane Caro and AFR Boss magazine deputy editor Catherine Fox attempt to reclaim the word and reignite the movement. The book is a love letter to feminism, a history lesson, a self-help manual and a plea for engagement presented as a chat over coffee with your favourite aunties.
Caro and Fox argue convincingly that while women today have opportunities undreamt of by their grandmothers, the revolution is not over by a long shot. Until we overhaul social attitudes towards gender roles and reform the way in which caring work is distributed within families, the context in which women make choices about work and family remains unacceptably limited.
Between them, the authors have a good 50 years experience juggling marriage, children and careers – and it shows. They use concrete examples to demonstrate how sexism operates in the workplace and within families and give practical, non-judgemental advice on how to deal with it.
It’s essential, if depressing, information for women raised to believe that sexism was history. When they discover, a few years into their careers, that they’re earning less than their male counterparts despite equal pay legislation, many young women assume the problem is their own lack of talent or ability. Caro and Fox come to the rescue, explaining that there remains a systemic pay gap with women in general earning only 84 per cent and women in executive positions earning a shocking 58 per cent of the equivalent male salary.
The authors discuss the difficulty of combating "the small, niggling, corrosive attitudes and remarks [women]encounter on the job", and call for managers to take such behaviour seriously instead of lecturing women "on techniques to counteract the constant and often unconscious belittling".
Attitudes towards mothers who work are also thoroughly examined. Pointing out that nobody questions a man’s need to continue to earn a living while being a parent, Caro and Fox protest that "society still expects women to justify their participation in paid work on financial grounds". It’s "almost ‘illicit’ for women to express enjoyment of market work," they say. They also note that while "successful men and women will both claim family comes first" it’s usually "only the women who are expected to do anything about it".
Having raised five children (all girls) Caro and Fox write about motherhood with empathy and hard-earned knowledge. They’re concerned about the unrealistic expectations many young women have of parenthood and they’re angry about the way mothers are harshly judged for every decision they make, from feeding to childcare to TV-watching habits to school choice.
Unfortunately, the authority and insight leant by the authors’ experiences as working mothers is lacking when it comes to other challenges young women face. In their discussion of raunch culture, for example, they refer to "the fashion among teenage girls to give boys head" without explanation, as though this "fashion" is something everybody is aware of and accepts as true. There are no young women’s voices here to make up for the authors’ lack of direct experience, only quotes from older critics of raunch like Maureen Dowd and Ariel Levy.
The experience gap is also evident in the book’s discussion on body image, which focuses on ageing and the accompanying loss of perceived sexuality. Now, ageing is something with which we will all, if we’re lucky, have to cope, but it’s a long way off for the just-starting-out-in-life women to whom the work and motherhood chapters are directed.
Prospective readers should note, too, that life choices which don’t involve marriage and children don’t get a look in (except for a brief reminder that we can make such choices if we really want to), and that non-straight women are entirely absent.
Caro and Fox say in the introduction that they’re writing from the perspective of "women with reasonably satisfying jobs, more or less normal children … and apparently durable marriages." They’re upfront about wanting "to explore the experience of women like us". In this, they have succeeded.
While not a book to relight the feminist fire in every young woman’s life, this is a smart feminist guide to life for women caught in the cycle of self-blame and guilt that often comes with juggling a career and kids.