Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Book Review - Wonder Woman

By Virginia Haussegger, Allen & Unwin, $26.95

It’s hard to read Virginia Haussegger, or to listen to her on radio – as she has been in the last week, plugging Wonder Woman – and not find yourself liking her. In particular, I admire her honesty. Since 2002, when she threw open the doors on her reproductive journey and its unwanted destination, Haussegger has never been anything less than forthright about the pain she feels over finding herself unintentionally childless.

Haussegger’s ongoing personal journey both structures and animates Wonder Woman. In it, Haussegger tries to make sense of the “creeping non-choices” that led to the moment in the doctor’s surgery where she was briskly told she’d left her run to motherhood too late. The book also represents the author’s working through of her grief about missing out on motherhood, and her efforts to reconstruct a new imagined future, and identity, for herself as a woman without children.

Haussegger writes movingly of the events leading up to the opinion piece that shook the world (then-Opinion editor Paul Austin nominated it as the piece published in recent years that generated the most response), and about the distress that can be found in unexpected places when life-long habits, like the carting of carefully labelled boxes full of journals and photos from city to city, are recognised as having been geared towards children who aren’t to be. Writes Haussegger:

“When I was very young I was entranced by the few old photos we had of my mother and father when they were young…I desperately wanted to know what my mother was like when she was little…The fading photos gave some clues, as did the precious jewellery box my mother kept hidden away…Every piece held a story, every story I would demand to hear over and over again…Now at forty years old, I’ve built up a box of treasures of my own. I just don’t know who to show them to”.

I cried at this line, which comes near the book’s end. The cleanness of the emotion a welcome relief from the turbulent confusion engendered by the preceding (and subsequent, as it turned out) text. Because while Haussegger it a wonderful raconteur, and demonstrates a clear gift for exploring emotions – her own and, through interview, those of others – she desperately lacks any capacity to think her way out of the complex problems she explores in Wonder Woman. Despite having read most seminal and popular feminist texts – from the Second Sex to the Female Eunich to Backlash – she clearly failed to absorb their central and most important message: that the personal is political. And without this understanding, or some structural framework to make sense of her experience and those of other women in terms other than those proffered by liberal individualism, Haussegger lacks the tools to extricate herself from the circular path of self-blame and DIY solutions that have characterised her journey, and to cut a clear path forward for her female readers.

This is not to say that she does not, on rare occasions, allude to such politics and their potential for women’s liberation. Having begun the book with her familiar refrain that it’s “high time to re-think feminism’s messages and the `have it all’ mantra that’s been thumped into the brains and parlance of post-feminist women”, Haussegger then tentatively contradicts the implications of this claim – that feminism needs a less ambitious message – with a one-line assertion that “encourag[ing] young women to lessen their expectations, rather than raise them by demanding more equity and support, is doomed”.

But this theme quickly drops away, only to be briefly and somewhat incoherently resurrected in the book’s last few pages (I’m afraid I have no idea what the approvingly quoted Nicola Roxon means when she asserts that contemporary feminists must fight “to be ourselves”).

And so we are left with the bizarre hypothesis that the real problem facing contemporary women is that feminists didn’t tell them they couldn’t have it all, rather than the fact that even in post-feminist times, they still can’t.

The job of articulating this obvious truth was left to Shadow Health Minister Julia Gillard who launched the book at the National Press Club early this month. Gillard spoke eloquently of the need to move “beyond the lament” and to “go forward, to carve out more change and to do what we need to do now so [that the life of girls] is more full of real choice than that of today’s woman.”

You said it, sister. The question is: why didn’t Haussegger?

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