“There’s been a tremendous change in terms of people refusing to accept the shame that belongs to the powerful person who exploited them.” WOW Speaker, Jane Caro, on shame, outspoken women, and the impact of the internet on feminism

“For the first time in conjunction with the 2018 Commonwealth Games and its statewide cultural program, Festival 2018, WOW is bringing together women and girls from over 20 countries in the Commonwealth of Nations. This is your exclusive chance to join thought leaders, artists and women from around the world, including many First Nations women, at Brisbane Powerhouse over three incredible days as we celebrate our passion, cultures and diversity and talk about the real issues affecting women and girls at this landmark event.”

Emma Kate Lewis: You started your career in marketing, but today you’re a novelist, lecturer, and social commentator among many other things.

Jane Caro: [Laughing] Yeah, I’m a sort of jack-of-all-trades!

EKL: How has your career grown to encompass all that you do today? Did you foresee it?

JC: Not really, no! I only ever had one talent, and that was really clear. That talent was ability with words. I could write them and speak them, but I was never very good at anything else. I’m not one of those people who are good at everything—I’m extremely specialised. So after a few missteps in the very early days, I managed to get a job at an ad agency as a copywriter, and that enabled me to use my skill with words. Also, as it turns out—not that I realised it at the time—it’s wonderful training because you’ve got to get to the point, you’ve got to be incredibly succinct, and you’ve got to be lively about dull things. You’ve also got to think about what it is that the audience wants to hear more than what it is you want to tell them. So all of that turned out to be, almost accidentally, really good preparation for what I’ve ended up doing. But, like a lot of women—particularly now at my age because I’m sixty—I couldn’t get into a management position.

Eventually I felt like I had muscles I wasn’t using. I was treading water, and I was getting very frustrated with the number of very ordinary blokes who were getting promoted above me. I got sick of working for people who I felt weren’t as good at their job as I was at mine.

 I looked around for other opportunities and thought, “Well, I’ll use what I’ve got.” so I followed my passion for words and public education. My sister was working as a deputy principal in public education, and she was telling me things that made me go, “Y’know, more people should know about this.” Her response was, “Yeah, but we’re all gagged.” Under their conditions of employment they couldn’t talk, but I thought, “I can talk.” So I started writing articles and opinion pieces and submitting them. The first eight in a row that I wrote I got published, so that gave me some encouragement!

[Laughter]

EKL: I can imagine. That’s incredible for any writer.

JC: Exactly! And then it kind of grew from there really. Alan Boland offered me a job on Sunrise, and that only lasted for three months or so but it was enough to get me out of advertising agencies and take a leap into the dark. That was more than ten years ago now, and I haven’t looked back. It’s been fantastic.

EKL: You’ve mentioned the career challenge of competing against mediocre men—that definitely resonates with me. I can’t count the number of times my friends and I have exclaimed, “Give me the confidence of mediocre white men!”

JC: [Laughter] I love it! There’s another really good saying by an American feminist, Laura Liswood, who says something like, “There’s no such thing as the glass ceiling, there’s just a thick layer of men!”

[Laughter]

JC: I just think, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I felt like.”

I felt like I was constantly coming up against this absolutely impenetrable layer of blokes who were not going to let any of us women in.

EKL: What are some of the challenge you’ve faced since leaving advertising?

JC: Oh look, nothing in comparison to that! [Laughing] I’m my own boss, so I work long hours but that’s because I’m a terrible boss.

[Laughter]

JC: There isn’t really much difference between my work and my life, but I kind of like that. It basically means that I’ll be working straight through until about two or three this afternoon, but then I’ve promised myself that I can sit down and watch the Academy Awards, which I’ve taped. What I like is that I’m in charge of my own time. But a challenge is that I have to do everything.

Somebody said to me on Facebook the other day, quite pompously, “Oh no, I’m surprised that your media advisors haven’t informed you of that,” and I went, “What media advisors?! I do everything myself, I don’t even have a PA!”

I do have a manager and I do have agents, and they deal with the logistics, but everything else? It’s me. And so the challenge is getting it all done, and I’m not brilliant at organisation and administration, so my diary’s very important. I always say to people, “If it’s not in the diary, it’s not gonna happen.” So yeah, remembering phone interviews, briefing calls, and just staying on top of all of that. But those are minor challenges, I suppose. Everyone running their own business has to deal with that.

I do think that, if you’re an outspoken woman, people are disproportionately afraid of you. They think that you will be difficult. I’m outspoken, I’ve got strong opinions, but I’m not difficult.

I’m the easiest person in the world, but people, particularly in the corporate world, just don’t see being those two things at once as possible. If you’re an outspoken woman, you must therefore be a loose canon and difficult. I’m aware that that’s an impression some people have, and indeed I’ve had people say to me, “You could tone it down a bit,” and I think, “Well, no, I’ve gotten this far by being myself. The day I start trying to be something else to please other people is the day I lose the very thing that’s got me where I am.” And yes, it doesn’t work for everybody. Some people won’t like it, but so what? That’s the way life is.

EKL: I think it’s bizarre that women with strong opinions are so often seen as unapproachable, when in reality they stand by their arguments in a debate rather than rolling over because they know their arguments are well founded.

JC: That’s right. Difficult, we’re labelled difficult.

EKL: Difficult, that’s it. I think it’s almost a positive thing now, if that’s the behaviour it’s supposed to describe.

JC: It is on one level, but it does have an economic and career affect. You kind of have to shrug your shoulders and think, “Oh well, being compliant and catering has a personal effect.” You have to weigh those two things up.

My strong view is that there’s no right way to be a woman in a male dominated world. You may as well just be yourself, and ‘wrong’ in your own way.

So yes, there are challenges. I don’t get as much corporate work as I like, and I’ve never been able to pull a permanent gig in the media—I get a lot of guest stuff, but nothing permanent, and I’m quite convinced that’s because some people think, “Ooh, she might be a bit difficult!” But I’m almost positive that if you ask anybody I’ve worked with, nobody would say I was difficult. It’s another challenge that there’s this stereotypical idea of what a woman ‘ought’ to be like, and if you’re not like that then there’s a level of—not fear, exactly—but wariness.

EKL: I follow you on Twitter and saw that recently you spoke about trolling on a panel for All About Women.

JC: Yes, it did come up.

EKL: You mentioned something about how it makes the private harassment women have experienced for years suddenly public.

JC: Yes. I’ve noticed that—and I understand this, I’ve watched and had it happen to myself—you get called into an office by a male superior who bullies and humiliates you, and speaks to you in a way that is completely inappropriate, and when you come out from behind the closed door and you say, “He said, ‘X, Y, Z’,” the response is often “Oh no, you must be exaggerating, he can’t have said it quite like that.” And I’m sure it doesn’t just happen in the office. I’m sure that there are husbands and lovers and boyfriends and brothers and fathers who’ve been like this towards women, because it’s safer to give us a hard time than it is the dominant culture. This has always gone on, but it’s gone on in private, behind closed doors. So men who would never behave in this way have been able to live in a world where they didn’t believe that it happened. Or they thought it was being exaggerated when women said it had happened.

But one of the good things about trolling—and there isn’t a lot that’s good about it—is that because it’s all out there, people can see the way female journalists are spoken to in comparison to male journalists. They can see how outspoken women on Twitter and Facebook and all the different social media platforms are abused, and the way that they’re abused.

And so men of good will have gone, “Oh my god, this is dreadful.” In a way, that’s been a really important change, because suddenly these men have to say, “Ok, well, women weren’t making this shit up! There are some really, really unpleasant blokes about the place, and maybe I need to start doing something.” I think that perhaps we haven’t noticed that that’s something that has happened.

EKL: With that all in mind, how have you managed to sustain the fight for equality for this long, and how different a fight is it from the day you began?

JC: Oh, so much better now! It’s so much easier now. When I began, there was denial that there was a problem, and it was perfectly acceptable for people to say things like, “Well women are just generally less intelligent than men.” And some women would even say it! So you really did feel at times like a lone voice. There were, fortunately, some women in the media—feminism had been around for a very long time, so there’s always been some—but you still really felt like an outlier, and people would roll their eyes. It was hard, really hard. You thought, “How are we ever going to get people to recognise what they’re doing to others, and to themselves?”

Even though I think that behaviour has not changed as much as we’d like, at least we have established that the problem exists. We have established, with most people, that there is sexism, and that men are disproportionately privileged by their gender, and that makes everything easier.

The Internet has absolutely accelerated the success of feminism, and also the Gay Rights Movement. I just don’t believe that we would have seen marriage equality throughout the developed world, including in places like Ireland, as quickly as we did if LGBTQIA people weren’t able to get their voices out to the general public through social media. What I’ve always argued about social media is that yes, it’s terrible in some ways, but it has given unmediated access to the public conversation to women, LGBTQIA identifiers, People of Colour, and others for the first time in history. Prior to that, if they wanted to contribute to the public conversation, some man somewhere had to give them permission. That has all changed. When I was first trying to pitch pieces about feminism, I’d receive responses along the lines of, “Oh, we did women last month. Women have been done.” This kind of rubbish!

But as soon as women got access to the internet and started writing about their views and their beliefs, it exploded. Exploded! So there was absolutely no doubt that a lid was being held on.

EKL: Because they no longer had to push through that thick—

JC: —layer of men, exactly! They went around it. So yes, it’s changed faster and in more profound ways than I ever thought possible. I think it’s incredibly exciting. I’m delighted to see what’s happening. I don’t think that in any way what’s going on is perfect, or always 100% fair and reasonable, but that’s fine. That’s what human progress is like. And I am very strongly of the view that women don’t have to be any better, nicer, or more considerate than men before they’re allowed to have equal rights.

Feminism is a movement that is a product of human beings. Human beings are flawed, and sometimes they will get things wrong. That does not challenge its legitimacy.

EKL: Can you tell me about your involvement with WOW Festival this year?

JC: Yes! I’m really looking forward to coming up there, and I really do want to talk about shame, which is what the discussion I’m involved in is about. I do think that shame was a tremendously powerful silencer of women for such a long time. We were ashamed, when I was young, of everything. We were ashamed of our bodily functions, we were ashamed of how we looked, we were ashamed of how smelt and where our hair grew or didn’t grow, we were ashamed when our flesh was seen as too much or too little, we were ashamed when we spoke too much or too little.

Women are constantly criticised for their behaviour, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a silent woman or an outspoken woman—you’ll get criticised for it.

And if there was any kind of sexual harassment, the shame landed on us. I edited a book of essays called Unbreakable—which came out just before the #MeToo movement, funnily enough—in which women were asked to tell stories they’d never told before, and almost all were about sexual assault or humiliation or molestation. I told my own story about a GP, and I always felt horridly ashamed about what had happened, but I had done nothing wrong. I behaved as a patient does in a doctor’s surgery, and yet felt the shame. So I’m very, very interested in how, almost just being female was shameful.

EKL: It’s such a powerful means of control.

JC: Yeah, because it silences them. They’re ashamed of what has happened, and they fear judgement. It’s like the silence around abortion. A lot of it’s to do with the stigma, and therefore women are ashamed. But actually abortion is normal. One out of every three women have had to have an abortion, and I’d say the majority of women, when their periods have been late, have worried about whether they’d have to make the decision or not. And yet women are very silent about this. Why? Because they’re made to feel ashamed.

Women are made to feel ashamed about how they parent, whether they do too much or too little. Fathers get congratulated for any bloody thing they do and never blamed for all the things they don’t. Women are ashamed of having an untidy house! They spend their lives fearing the negative judgement of other people and beating themselves up for doing the ‘wrong thing’ like being exhausted at the end of a long day spent working and looking after the children so ordering in a takeaway when they don’t have the energy to cook. They’ll do it, but the price they pay is guilt and shame. I’d like to see them just fucking do it! Chuck the guilt and shame or, better yet, put it on the father who’s not there helping, taking responsibility and being an equal parent. Women are ashamed of how much they eat, and drink, and how long they spend watching television…

EKL: I had a conversation with a friend the other day about how women still feel the need to take on discomfort in social situations while men don’t. I think that definitely applies here, because in a scenario like the one you’ve mentioned, I imagine the woman takes on the man’s shame.

JC: Absolutely! I’ve often said the problem isand I do take this back to patriarchal religion, to a large extentthat religion makes women over responsible and men under responsible. Women need to back off, we need to let men stew in their own juice. “You fuck up mate? That’s your problem, and you’re going to have to deal with it, because I’m not coming in to rescue you.” Every time you rescue a man from the consequences of his actions, he fails to learn and he fails to mature and he fails to grow.

Obviously we all need to take responsibility for our own mistakes and failures, first of all, but we shouldn’t be taking responsibility for other people’s mistakes and failures because we’re getting in their way of growing up.

EKL: I couldn’t agree more. Particularly about patriarchal religion, because even the most supposedly…

JC: Divine and enlightened?

EKL: Yeah! Even they have appalling views of women and women’s bodies. I’ve travelled to certain countries where I’ve been told I’m not allowed in certain buildings if I’m menstruating. It’s so engrained. Even in a country like Australia where religion’s not that prominent, it still seems to dictate so much.

JC: Well, it’s two thousand years of people being disappointed when you were born a woman, and that’s not overcome in a decade.

[Laughter]

JC: But no, it’s not even a joke! Until relatively recently, when people had a girl, it was still common to hear, “Oh well, I’m sure you’ll have a boy next time.”

EKL: And that’s still prevalent in some countries.

JC: Oh, it is. It’s very prevalent still in some countries. It’s sticky stuff. But what amazes me is how quickly, thanks to social media, things are moving. The sort of things like Amy Schumer talks about: getting home and being pleased when she finds that for once her knickers don’t look like she’s blown her nose in them. I was shocked when I heard that joke! And then I thought, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” She’s normalising the fact that discharge is a sign of healthy vagina. She’s normalising all that kind of stuff. There are now entertainers who refuse to accept the shame that is associated with being female. And of course, gay people have thrown off shame that they once had to absorb, and children who were molested and have had to carry that shame with them as they’ve grown have thrown off the shame.

There’s been a tremendous change in terms of people refusing to accept the shame that belongs to the powerful person who exploited them.

Which is really revolutionary, and I’m quite delighted but also astonished, at how fast that change has occurred. And the only thing I can put it down to is the solidarity that is able to be built through social media.

EKL: What’s one change that you hope to see in the near future that you believe will benefit gender equality?

JC: I’d really like to see two things that are related. I want to see women being paid equal money for equal work. Everything depends on that. We indicate the value we place on something by what we pay for it. The fact that we routinely pay women less than we pay men indicates the value that we put on women’s contribution, and that is very, very disrespectful. It also has a longterm effect on women’s trajectory as they age, so one of the things I think that we have to do urgently is to totally reassess our superannuation system. We need to pay women super while they’re pregnant and not working. We need to contribute constantly throughout their lives to their super, because what we’re seeing now is absolutely unacceptable.

We have a generation of poor, old women. People who have cared for others and therefore not earned the kind of salaries that their male peers were able to own, and now they’ve ended up eking out an existence because they put other people’s needs ahead of their own.

We know that the fastest growing group of the homeless are women over 55. This is an urgent need.

EKL: Who are some of the women you admire most and why?

JC: Oh, there are so many. I admire Hillary Clinton. I think she’s extraordinary and that she’s been treated abominably. In a historical senseI write novels about herI admire Elizabeth the First. And I admire, in Australia, Penny Wong. I admire my mother and my daughters and many, if not all, of my friends. I admire women by and large. I admire the way they’ve dealt with male dominance in society, and have maintained their humour, and their humanity, and their ability to love the very people who often don’t act in a particularly loving way towards them. And I admire their guts; their practical, “roll up your sleeves and get things done” way of living. Generally, I admire women and the work they do and the lives they lead. I think they do more good and less harm in general.

The global phenomenon WOW (Women of the World) Festival is in Brisbane 6 – 8 April. Follow WOW on Facebook for updates and grab your tickets to the festival here!


Images provided with permission by Agency North

Compiled and Edited by Emma Kate Lewis

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