Clem Ford: How to Fight Like A Girl
In conversation with the ABC’s Julia Baird, the author of new book Fight Like A Girl, Clementine Ford, discusses whether feminism should make room for men, why women need to silence their inner critics, and how we can all stand up against online abuse.
After feminist writer Clementine Ford slammed the Channel Seven breakfast program Sunrise for victim-blaming last year, she watched on in shock as her online fanbase quickly ballooned.
In response to an article in which Sunrise asked, “when will women learn” not to post nude photos of themselves online, Ford snapped a picture of her bare chest emblazoned with the words, “Hey #Sunrise Get F–cked” and shared it on Facebook.
“By the end of the night, my fan page had jumped from 18,000 to 45,000,” Ford recalled in conversation with the ABC’s Julia Baird on Tuesday evening.
“And then some people obviously saw it and they were like, ‘Well, what a fat slut. We’d better go and put her in her place.’ Well, they tried to anyway.”
And with that, the thousand bodies crammed into Melbourne’s Athenaeum for the launch of Ford’s book, Fight Like A Girl, doubled over laughing.
“I have fought the odds to get here,” Ford said.
“Empowered by the knowledge that every single woman who has come before me has fought her own battle to survive. We fight like girls. This is how we prevail. And this is why we’re still standing.”
Ford spoke with Baird about whether feminism should make room for men, why women need to silence their inner critics, and how we can all stand up for ourselves online.
The following is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.
Baird: What does it mean to “fight like a girl”? Do girls fight differently, is that what you’re saying?
Ford: Traditionally, to do anything like a girl … is to be rubbish at it. Because girls are rubbish, and girls are pointless, and unless girls are servicing some other kind of patriarchal ideal, then what’s the point of us at all?
It’s that old quote — I’m paraphrasing it, but — “the rent we need to pay in order to have any kind of voice”. And when I started to think more about that, I heard it instead as, “well, if I [a man] have to listen to you, then you [a woman] have to give me something to at least look at”.
So the idea that “to fight like a girl” is a play, not just on the fact that people think that girls are rubbish but … is testament to how strong women are and how vigorously we fight just to exist day to day, with all of the violence that is enacted against us, with all of the hostility, the brutality. And we are still here and still standing.
Just listening to you, I was thinking about the song during the depression about “don’t be polite, girls, show a little fight”. The women of the Second Wave (of feminism) used to sing it, and their grandmothers had sung it to them. Every generation, it seems, needs to be told this message again. What is it that needs to be said now?
There are multiple things that need to be said. But one of the primary things we all need to absorb is that liberation, for [women], won’t happen by being polite.
It took me a long time to realise that being nice to men — and when I say men I mean individual men, but also the structural dominance of patriarchy — being nice to the system isn’t going to get anything for women. Why would the system collapse itself just because women asked nicely?
So the analogy I often use is of a pond. If you are looking at a pond and you want to change the surface area of the pond, you’re not going to do it by asking the pond nicely — you do it by throwing a rock into the middle of the pond. And that’s why I feel what, very simply, we have to do.
I often have men wagging their fingers in my face and saying, “Well, you’ll never get men onside if you’re not nice to them. How can you change men’s minds if you’re not nice to them?”
But I don’t give a f*** about men. I’m not trying to change men’s minds, I’m trying to talk to women. I write for women. and I think that’s a beautiful thing to be proud of. I don’t f***ing care what men think about it.
A lot of this book, it feels like, has been shaped in combat. What was the first point at which you thought, “I’m in a fight and I’m going to take this on”?
It’s almost four years to the day that Jill Meagher was killed in Brunswick. And not just for me, but I think for Melbourne, that was a huge turning point.
When [Jill] was found, it suddenly brought a sense of reality that this thing had happened to this woman, but then came the week of victim-blaming — you know, articles about “Why did she walk home that way?” or “Why did she walk home through Brunswick, through those derelict streets of dingy warehouses?”
Adrian Bayley made the choice to rape and murder a woman. And if it hadn’t been her, then it would have been someone else that night.
And that’s fundamentally what it comes down to: realising that, when you say things to women like, “Well, why did you walk down there, why did you dress this way?”, that’s taking the emphasis off the men who are choosing to do these things to women.
We need to be able to name those things and I think, for me, Jill Meagher’s murder was really the turning point. I was so angry that women were still being told that these things were fundamentally our fault.
Was another turning point your Sunrise moment? That was a point of acceleration for you — taking on the public shaming of women.
I received so many cracker comments like, “I’ve seen better tits on a pit-bull”. Someone told me that they hoped I would sit on a butcher’s knife so I’d never reproduce.
But I feel like I’ve got such a thick skin about that stuff [online abuse] now that I just really don’t care. I feel it keenly when I see men saying those things to other women — it really upsets me and hurts me and I want to go in there and protect them — but when they say it to me, I just know how to deal with it.
I know that it is not going to silence me or shut me up and if anything just makes me laugh at them.
What do you think the huge response to that post was about? What is it about you publicly calling sexism out that women are responding to?
Firstly, that someone is legitimising my own thoughts, that have always been framed to me as irrelevant or irrational or non-existent, that they might just be in my own head. But then here’s this person saying the same things I think, and maybe I’m not crazy.
But also, just a sense of, “Well, why do we have to put up with this bullshit all the time? Why do we have to sit there while men degrade and laugh at us, while we just sit there and laugh along?”
Because if we don’t laugh at the massive joke that is us, then we are being a buzz-kill, or a downer or a “feminazi bitch” or whatever.
I’ve sat there and laughed so many times when men have told sexist jokes in front of me because I know that I’m not supposed to say, “hey, I don’t think that it’s funny”.
I feel like it’s gotten to the point where the more women we see saying, “shut up” or “no, I’m not going to tolerate that”, the easier it is for us all to do. Seeing someone else say “I don’t like it” helps make us feel big again.
One question you get asked a lot by men is about what their role is [in feminism], and why don’t you allow them a space.
Once upon a time, I would have sat in a room full of people like this and said: “Thank you to all of the men who came tonight, all five of you. It’s so great to have you here, you’re such great guys.”
That is something that feminists are inclined towards doing. Because if we’re not nice to men, if we don’t create space for men in feminism, then they’ll leave.
Men are not doing anything for feminism now in terms of dismantling the patriarchy, so I don’t think it’s going to be a huge loss.
What about in history? With suffrage, you had to persuade some men to vote it through. You had to have some blokes on side.
That may be true, but I don’t think we should make a big song and dance about it. Feminism still has to make room for so many different kinds of women before it concerns itself with making room for men.
If men want to be on board with feminism, that’s great. But don’t sit there and put your hands out for your medals and your cookies.
It’s an impulse that we all have as humans to want to be rewarded for our generosity and kindness. But when we feel that, we need to engage with that feeling and stamp it down.
We need to resist that urge to want to be rewarded for doing the basic right thing. Because if we have to keep acknowledging and thanking men for giving us respect, if we have to keep thanking them and saying, “it’s so great that you’re here, you’re such a good guy” … at what point are we allowed to stop doing that?
There does seem to be a preoccupation with how feminism makes men feel …
We are too preoccupied as a society with wondering what men think about everything.
What do men think about feminism? What do men think about Ghostbusters? What do men think about my dress? What do men think about the fact that women paint their nails? What do men think about Hillary Clinton?
Who cares?! I don’t care what men think, I really don’t, and I feel like we all need to get to that point where we say: “I will choose to care about this person’s feelings, but I am not going to care about what men think generally about something.”
Women and women’s interests don’t become legitimate when a man is suddenly paying attention to them.
Anne Summers says in the forward to her book Damned Whores and God’s Police that women have real internal battles to fight, that we need to reinvent new selves other than mother and wife. What do you think when you hear her say that we still haven’t unknotted our own thinking?
Women have been told for so long by other people what we are supposed to be.
We learn very early on to look at ourselves through the male gaze. And it’s impossible to separate ourselves from that. I don’t care if someone calls me fat, because firstly, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being fat.
But I do still suffer from that conditioned idea of what my body is supposed to look like, to the point that I do feel self-conscious when I walk down the street. I do think, “are people looking at me thinking that I’m too fat to wear this?” or whatever it might be.
The other day I emailed a very prominent woman who has got several degrees — she just smashes it out of the park professionally. And I said: “Can you come on my show?” And she said: “I’ve put on too much weight.” These things are so powerful in preventing women from speaking.
The better question, for me, is, “How do we learn to see ourselves with our own eyes? How do we use our own eyes to look at the world?”, which is a process I’m still figuring out because those messages are so deeply engrained.
You can know it intellectually, but it’s really hard to divorce yourself from that little 10-year-old girl who learns that she’s fat for the first time, or learns that other people think that she’s fat and what that word [fat] means.
Women turn down opportunities for all kinds of reasons. And so we need to learn how to look at ourselves through different eyes and quiet those inner voices. We might not be able to get rid of them completely, but we need to figure out how to become stronger than it.
You are a technological warrior, which I think is a new frontier. How do you think women should fight online?
Don’t give a f***. Just be brazen. Really, more than anything, understand that it’s your space as well, and you’re entitled to be there. We are all entitled to take up space.
Women are trained from early on to figuratively and literally avoid taking up too much room, but we need to do the opposite of that now, and to figure out how to take up as much room as possible.
One of the great things that I see happening on the internet now is that it’s enabled women to globally connect with each other. So that not only can they support one another, they can actually see each other.
The problem that we are facing now, though, is that feminism is becoming exploitable by capitalism. We now look at feminism as something that can be sold, and we need to be very conscious of that.
Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull and Alan Jones can all sit there and say that they’re feminists because they know that, as men — in a capitalist world where feminism now has currency amongst women — when they say they’re a feminist, they do it because it gives them more space and entitlement to speak.
And when women say that they’re still feminists, it decreases the right that we have to speak, because it positions us as only one thing.
So we need to be really conscious about who’s using feminism and how they’re using it and be really radical. We need a re-imagined radical feminism for the modern world.