Clementine Ford is one of the boldest and most influential voices in fourth-wave feminism. Samantha Trenoweth meets a woman who wants to incite schoolgirls to revolution and create a world that will not destroy her son.
the Australian feminist on a mission to change the world
Meet Clementine Ford: public enemy number one. There are men who believe she is building a rocket launcher in the desert with which to catapult them into the sun. There are men who believe she is raising an army of shrews in Melbourne to murder a man a day. She is the most prominent Australian voice among the young-guns of this new hashtag-driven incarnation of the women’s movement. At 37, she is an author, a columnist, a mother, a rollerskater and a woman on a mission to change the world. If you want to understand 21st century feminism, you need to get to know Clementine Ford.
She has a devoted following among women under 30. On reading her rst book, Fight Like A Girl, a 15-year-old wrote to her: “Now I am ready to stand up and create havoc and unapologetically disrupt the system”. When she read that, Clementine decided that her mission would be, “to tell 15-year-old girls that they have the right to lead their own revolution”. Older feminists are also fans. Tracey Spicer says that her writing, “makes me want to chain myself to a barricade”.
Unsurprisingly, however, Clementine really upsets conservative men, young and old. She has made an enemy of right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt, who criticises her for “hypocrisy” and for “making a career” out of being a “victim-martyr”. When she released Fight Like A Girl, bookstores’ social media pages were inundated with obscene taunts. Her new book, Boys Will Be Boys, was vilified online before she’d even written it. There are men who spend a great deal of time tracking her whereabouts, threatening her with physical violence and even recommending that the authorities remove her child (he’s two, she adores him and refers to him as F.J.).
Clementine may not be building a rocket launcher in the desert but she does believe in verbal combat, and that disturbs people. “So much about the way society controls women relies on our being silent and afraid to stand up for ourselves,” she says, and she isn’t having a bar of that.
In person, however, Clementine is anything but shouty. Sitting in a cosy corner of a wood-panelled cafe, she sports a stripy jumper to match her soft, pink, ingénue haircut. A dusting of pale freckles on her nose wrinkles just slightly with her wide smile. She answers questions thoughtfully and not just with ideology, but with heart.
“People who are familiar with me have a sense of me now as being very forthright and combative. I stand up for what I believe in and I get a hefty level of abuse. But as a young girl, and as a teenager, I was not that strong or con dent. I felt very alone a lot of the time, and I didn’t understand that other girls felt exactly the same way I did.”
Growing up in Adelaide, she was, she says, “that classic girl who was like: ‘Well of course I believe in
equality,’ but I wouldn’t say I was a feminist because I didn’t want boys to hate me. In my later years in high school, I used to say, ‘Oh I’m better friends with boys. There’s so much less drama’. I felt like I didn’t fulfil my obligations as a girl – I didn’t feel sexy, I didn’t feel pretty, I never felt thin – all these stupid things that mean nothing but that we’re taught to strive for. I felt like I didn’t have those things, so the next best thing was be to be friends with the boys.”
Speaking out, Clementine thought, would make her appear “gross and unruly” and she was already selfconscious about her appearance. “Adolescence is such a traumatising time for so many of us,” she admits. “I was chubby and my family moved around a lot, so I was constantly renegotiating the hostile terrain of high school. I just really tried to t in. I think a lot of girlhood is about not making yourself conspicuous, not putting your head above the parapet, learning your place.”
Like so many girls, Clementine developed an eating disorder. “I thought I was alone and I also thought I was pretty clever at hiding it,” she says.
“It was a huge shock to me when I grew up and realised that actually my experience was pretty common and there were lots of girls purging their food and skipping meals.”
That sense of isolation remained with her until university. There, she gained the courage to be more conspicuous and realised that many of her experiences as a girl, and now a young woman, were universal.
“The biggest thing that changed,” she says, “was that I made friends with really great women and we all started taking Gender Studies classes and became beautifully, idealistically passionate about what we were learning. We would sit together in circles on the lawns at Adelaide University and discuss ideas. I was with other girls who said, ‘Yes, I am a feminist,’ and I wanted to be that, too. It was one of the most liberating things of my life. Being free to speak without fear of upsetting a man is ... it’s something I want for all girls.”
Clementine became a prolific presence on social media and began writing for the Adelaide Sunday Mail, The Drum and the Fairfax newspapers. Her columns could be hard-hitting polemics or they could be deeply moving and confessional – often they were both – and they drew a vast and interactive readership.
In May last year, she wrote poignantly about the link between the birth of her son and her mother, who died 10 years ago from cancer. Although they never met, she realised with awe that, because we are born with all the eggs we will ever carry already inside us, her mother once held both Clementine and the egg that would become half of F.J. in her womb. Clementine often thinks about her mother, Luciana, and the generations of trauma that made her. “It’s quite an intense story,” she says, and pauses ... “I’m just guring out how to get the words out...
“My Mum’s mother was Lithuanian. She was interned in a Russian concentration camp during the war and between the ages of 12 and 17, she was horrifically abused. She emerged an extremely damaged person. She went to England as a refugee and met my grandfather, who was Guyanese. She gave birth to my mother at 17 and then had three more children. My grandfather, who my mother loved, disappeared when she was a small girl and she was told that he’d died. He was an alcoholic. Later, my grandmother met a British man who married her and took her back to England, but he would only allow her to take her two girls. She had to leave her sons behind.” The family has searched for Clementine’s uncles but they’ve never been found.
“I know that everyone says, ‘Oh, my mother is one of the smartest people I know,’ but my mother really was one of the smartest people I have ever met,” Clementine insists. “At 13, she was accepted into the smart stream but my grandmother said, no, she wouldn’t be doing that – she would leave school and go out to work. So my mother worked as a domestic and a nanny from the age of 13 and never had a formal education. But she was a total autodidact – read voraciously about politics and history, and could have done a PhD in English literature.”
In her adult life, Luciana also struggled with depression and perhaps also with PTSD. “She had no stabilising force loving her or looking after her when she was growing up,” Clementine reflects. “When she met my father, she was already a single mother. Then she came to Australia and had two more children ... I think about her a lot – about what she could have achieved if she’d had the support she needed.”
Clementine’s mother imparted a lifelong love of literature and learning to her daughter.
“My mum would read to us every night before we went to bed,” she remembers, “and then she would put the books underneath our pillows and tell us that the stories would go into our heads while we dreamed. I thought, for years, that was where everyone put their books ... I just loved her. She was a complicated woman in lots of ways, but what woman is not complicated?
“Now, as an adult, I look back and I wish that I’d understood more about what was going on in her emotional self, so that I could have been there for her more. I remember walking into the pantry once, when I was nine or 10 years old, and my mum was hiding in the corner, sitting on a chair, and she was crying. I asked if she needed help and it scared me to see her crying because your parents are supposed to be strong. She didn’t stop crying and she didn’t pull herself together and come out and make sure that I knew she was okay. I can see it happening but I can’t remember the words ... I think she said something like, ‘Yes, just leave me alone.’
“I also learnt about empathy from my mother. I think that empathy is one of the key things that is missing in
“I didn’t feel sexy, I didn’t feel pretty, or thin - all these stupid things we’re taught to strive for.”
the world today and it’s certainly one of the key things that is missing from the way that we raise boys.”
Now a mother herself, this notion of bringing up boys very often plays on her mind. Clementine had been pregnant twice before she conceived F.J. and has spoken publicly about terminating those pregnancies. Then, a little over two years ago, she and her partner, Jesse, began thinking about consciously beginning a family. When she learned she was pregnant, she was thrilled but she was also convinced that she was having a girl.
“We got the sonographer to write down the sex of the baby because my partner wanted to nd out. I wasn’t so keen either way but he needs to know what’s happening. When we found out it was a boy, I was shocked – for 30 minutes I was pretty shocked. I didn’t know how to feel about it, not because I was opposed to boys, not because I hate men as people, but because I didn’t know how to raise a boy. I still don’t really know how to raise a boy – I’m just doing my best.
“Also, to be honest, adolescent boys have been the source of a lot of abuse for me, so I was kind of scared of the prospect. It was a bit like inviting someone into your home that has often felt like an enemy to
you. But then I really quickly adapted to it and now obviously I just think there is no other child that I could possibly have.”
Being a very contemporary parent, Clementine acknowledges that “we never truly know [their gender] until they can tell us themselves,” but admits that she “uses it as a guide ... I say things like, till we know otherwise, we are raising a boy and that will probably be what the outcome is but we are open to other possibilities.”
Clementine says that F.J. has all kinds of clothes and toys in every colour of the rainbow, from trucks and trousers to owers and unicorns, because “inflicting gender stereotypes on babies is one of the worst things we can do for their natural development ... There are all these different things that I want to shield my son from for as long as I can – the messages that other people want to inflict on him about what boys should be and what girls should be. For as long as I can do that, I will, but I dread the day that he comes home and says, ‘Oh I can’t do that, that’s for girls.’”
Raising a boy, Clementine says, has made her a more committed feminist.
“It makes me more committed because I want his view of the world to be maintained and I don’t want the world to crush him the way it crushes so many men. Girls are crushed by patriarchy but boys are crushed by it, too. They are hindered and their emotional souls are cut off. In Boys Will Be Boys, I quote [American author and activist] bell hooks, who says that the rst act that patriarchy demands of men is, not harm towards other people, but harm towards themselves.
I am paraphrasing, but it teaches them to exorcise the emotional parts of themselves, and if they won’t do that, then they can rely on other men around them to enforce it. I want to protect him from that.
And not just protect him
– I want to raise him with a con dence that allows him to protect himself from it. I don’t want him to be harmed by a world that tells him all the things that I nd so beautiful in him now – his care and love and kindness and excitement and passion and empathy and sweetness – are things that he needs to get rid of if he wants to be considered a real man.”
While the men who troll her in life and online insist that she is incapable of fairly raising a boy, it sounds like she’s doing a pretty ne job. And Clementine admits that, every day, her son is teaching her more about parenting and life.
“I am not very patient and I am not a very open person,” she concedes. “You can say that I am loud and uncompromising and all those things, but I nd it very difficult to share my emotions ... So I think he’s been really good for that because he doesn’t judge me in any way. He just loves me and there’s something really powerful about letting yourself be loved by someone so purely. He teaches me patience, even though I don’t always exhibit it, and he reminds me of how important empathy is. Parenthood has softened me, too, which might not be important to other people, but it’s a nice feeling.
“Also, the work I do can be really full-on and intense and draining, and it’s nice to have this little reminder there of what’s actually important ... It’s really hard to care about something that’s blowing up on social media when you’ve got a two-year-old who wants to dance.”
Boys Will Be Boys is published by Allen & Unwin in October.