Feminist and media personality Clementine Ford’s first book Fight Like a Girl has gained enormous attention since its publication in October.
Ford’s frank discussion of sexism clearly speaks to the experiences of the thousands of women who have bought her book or follow her work, particularly at a time when blatant misogyny is rampant in the media, sports and politics.
This is likely to worsen with the election of a proud chauvinist to the White House.
Anecdotes about Ford’s own life—the first time she was called “fat”, developing an eating disorder as a teenager, and the barrage of abuse she has received online as an outspoken feminist—provide valuable insight into the sexism that pervades the most intimate aspects of the lives of girls and women everywhere.
Her reflections on the often-crippling effects of internalised misogyny and constant self-criticism, particularly amongst younger women, are also very relatable.
Despite the catchy title, however, it was disappointing to find that Ford provides no strategy for actually fighting sexism.
Each chapter tackles different aspects of sexism that the author has experienced first hand, and rightly encourages us to feel angry about these daily injustices. But rather than suggest ways of collectively fighting to end that oppression, each chapter ends with an entreaty to, essentially, ignore the sexism and love yourself.
Forming a “girl gang” and masturbating regularly, as Ford suggests, may be good ways to feel healthier and more supported, but they don’t cut it as a strategies for social change.
Indeed, throughout the book, Ford treats women almost exclusively as victims, but rarely as potential agents of resistance. Though she expresses admiration for women putting up with sexism and encourages individual acts of defiance, she has little to say about the very real achievements made around women’s rights in the past.
Rights like access to abortion and divorce, and legislated equal pay, were won through collective struggles fought by women and men in workplaces, on campuses and on the streets.
These rights are being slowly taken away from us again, but this book provides nothing in the way of strategies to fight to defend them.
Sexism and system
Ford also provides no explanation as to where sexism comes from. Her claim that women have been subjugated “since the dawn of time” is simply untrue, as well as being deeply disempowering.
It was only with the advent of class societies that oppression became systemic. The system of capitalism requires that reproductive labour, like child rearing and care for workers’ material needs, be done privately in the home, at no cost to the ruling class or the state. It is this unequal burden that keeps women bound to the home and gives rise to the stereotype of women as “natural” caregivers.
But instead of examining the material roots of sexism, Ford falls back on a nebulous concept of “patriarchy”, whereby all men are naturally inclined to dominate women—itself a form of biological determinism.
Ford’s approach is grounded in identity-based politics. She suggests that all men, whether working class or ruling class, have an interest in maintaining sexism, and therefore cannot play more than a supportive role in fighting against it.
This precludes the possibility of building united, collective struggles against oppression, in which sexist ideas amongst working class men and women alike can be seriously challenged and broken down.
This also leads us to the conclusion that all women, regardless of class, are ultimately on the same side. But it was Liberal MP Pru Goward that oversaw the closure of domestic violence services in NSW. Her party is also responsible for the torture of refugee women. And female CEOs like Gail Kelly do not think twice about cutting pay or benefits for their female employees.
Any gains in women’s rights and economic independence will have to be made by fighting against ruling class women like Goward and Kelly.
Institutions of sexism
Instead of looking to challenge the institutions that uphold and encourage sexist ideas, like the media, advertising companies and the halls of parliament, Ford focuses instead on nasty comments made by individuals—as though these are the cause, rather than a symptom of a sexist society. And in focusing on interpersonal relationships, Ford leaves the structures that underpin sexism, such as the nuclear family and the gender pay gap, now around 18 per cent, virtually untouched in her criticism.
For example, Ford does not mention the need for free, accessible child care—which is fundamental to alleviating the burden of unpaid reproductive labour.
The limited socialised childcare that existed in Australia has slowly been made unaffordable over the past three decades. Combined with constant attacks on welfare and maternity leave entitlements, many women have no choice but to simply leave work to care for young children, and are often dependent on their partner’s wage to survive, even if that partner is abusive. No amount of “self-love” will solve this problem, which faces thousands of working class women in Australia.
We should all be furious about sexism in all its guises. But anger cannot be the starting and end point—we need to organise ourselves to fight against the sexism that is built into capitalism.
Fight like a girl
By Clementine Ford
Allen & Unwin $29.99