CLEMENTINE FORD:

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 Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by ALANA LANDSBERRY • STYLING by RE­BECCA RAC

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.

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