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Book Review – The Fictional Woman

Book cover: Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

Book cover: Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

After reading a review of the book The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss I decided to break out of my Arab reading theme and request a copy from the library. I only had the book for 2 weeks so I reluctantly put down the excellent account that I have been reading about a British man travelling across Saudi Arabia in the 1860’s (I suspect that it’s a banned book so I won’t be reviewing it here but I would dearly love to!). But I digress; back to Moss…

Moss shares many personal stories in the book, so many that the book is definitely part memoir and likely to have been cathartic because she takes several opportunities to document abuse that she suffered, to hit back at cruel reviewers, and give her own side to stories that were carried by the media. Moss peppers the text with interesting statistics, findings from studies and quotes from other writers. I feel that the book would not suffer from some harsh editing to cut down the text to about 3/4 of the current length but that’s because I can’t bear verbosity or repetition and Moss labours several points. However, the book is well written, interesting, provides some fun quotes and captivated me despite the 10-15 hour days that I’m working while trying to spend as many hours as possible with my family, renovate our house, do a bit of exercise and reacquaint myself with my friends (having just returned from 5 weeks in the Middle East).

Moss breaks the book into chapters that each have a separate theme. The book is well-balanced and never runs out of energy or drive right up to the end of the final chapter. I’ve included here some of the points that I found most poignant.

Violence against Women

Violence against women is a global problem… In Europe it is a bigger danger to women than cancer, with 45% of European women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. Rates are similar in North America, Australia and New Zealand and studies in Asia, Latin America and Africa show that violence towards women there is ubiquitous.

Moss relates being raped by an acquaintance, and a few disquieting attempted attacks, including a chilling episode in Italy with 4 (presumably) American Marines who try to abduct her and a separate attempt by a strange German man. It made me worry for all of the young and vulnerable young women who become models and what cruel deprivations that are subjected to.

So far I have avoided physical and sexual violence, however I’ve had a couple of encounters that probably could have led to sexual violence. When in Nepal in 2012 with Room to Read, I missed my flight home and was helped by a young Nepali man from an airline to find another flight and a hotel to stay in until the flight. After he finished work we had a quick dinner together while waiting for a particular travel agent to open. He then helped me to book a flight through that travel agent. After booking the flight he walked me back to the hotel then asked to see my room. I wasn’t sure of why he would ask that but figured that he was curious to see a hotel in his own city. I was cautious and walked slowly upstairs, making sure that the hotel desk clerk noticed where we were going. He walked boldly into my room and sat on my bed while I stood in the open doorway with my back against the door and arms crossed in a defensive gesture. He tried to make conversation and was clearly frustrated that I stood tensely in the doorway rather than be enticed into the room and after some time took my hints that he should leave. I believe that by standing in the doorway I saved myself from being attacked.

More recently, in Oman, I had an awful encounter with a taxi driver who refused to accept my repeated rebuttals and plainly said that he could do whatever he wanted to me.

The Invisible Woman

In 2011, an iconic photograph of US President Barack Obama with his national security team, showing 13 faces was widely published. However in the Jewish newspaper Hamodia, two people had been airbrushed out of the photograph, and these were the only 2 women in the group. It is an editorial policy of Hamodia not to show photographs of women because the female body is immodest. In 2012 Swedish company Ikea removed women from its catalogue for Saudi Arabia.

    • In the Tony Abbott-led Australian government, women occupy only 5% of Cabinet positions.
    • The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in December 2013 that women earn only 64% of the average male’s wage and salary income. These figures have not improved since 2005-06.
    • A 2009 study from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, showed that a 25 year old woman with a post-graduate degree would in her working life earn less than a man with only a high school certificate.
    • According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the average superannuation payout for women is 1/3 of the payout for men and many Australian women live their final years in poverty.

In my own working life I know that I have been paid considerably less than male colleagues with less experience and qualifications than me (including in my current role). I’ve also repeatedly been ignored when promotions and placements have been offered (including in my current role). Memorably, when I gave notice that I was leaving the research organisation that had granted me (unpaid) maternity leave for both of my children and allowed me to return to work part time (even providing me with access to a cluttered storage room to express breast milk at work), the Nobel-prize winning CEO said that I was being disloyal for leaving when they had allowed me those generous provisions. He was nearing retirement age and obviously felt that I owed the organisation a debt of indentured servitude as payment for the duress they had suffered. I felt dreadful after that encounter but also felt that I was making the right decision to leave the organisation.

The Gender Wars

There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Charlotte Perkins Gilman

According to the American Psychological Association:

Psychologists have gathered solid evidence that boys and girls or men and women differ in very few significant ways.

Conversely, Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau believed that men and women are so fundamentally different that the severe disciplining of girls should begin at birth, to prevent the chaos their unfettered exposure to the world would cause:

Do not permit them an instant of their lives free from bondage… always justify the burdens you impose upon girls but impose them anyway… They must be thwarted from an early age… They must be exercised to constraint, so that it costs them nothing to stifle all their fantasies to submit them to the will of others.

Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott claimed that it would be:

folly to expect that women will ever dominate, or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas. Simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons

In 1837 the president of Harvard, Edward Clarke argued against women’s education saying that the blood demanded by the brain would prevent the female reproductive system from developing properly and in 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed:

When a woman becomes a scholar there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs

Why didn’t anyone warn me about this before I embarked on a PhD?! I distinctly recall that when I completed my bachelors degree with First Class Honours with a prize for the best thesis in the state, my mother told me that my options were now to complete a Diploma of Education to become a teacher or to marry a rich man. Perhaps she had read Nietzsche and new the dangers of me becoming a scholar?! Fortunately, I was able to have two perfect children, so I’m hoping that, at least in my case, Nietzsche and Clarke were wrong.

  • A 2013 report by Australian Institute of Family Studies showed that mothers of children under five years of age working full time paid jobs, were spending an additional 3.6 hours on childcare and 2.4 hours on housework each day on average.
  • Academic psychologist Cordelia Fine reports that when both parents work full time women do about twice as much childcare and housework as men but when the mother starts to earn more than the father, the mother may perform even more than twice the childcare and housework than the father. The theory is that the mother feels pressure to prove to society that she is still a good wife and mother.
  • Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (who is not a mother) said:

… women can’t have it all. They can have plenty of choices, but at the end of the day, they choose something which means they can’t have something else.

  • Personally I am incredibly fortunate because my husband chooses to work less paid hours than I do (although both of us work part-time) and he is the primary carer for our children due to the strenuous demands of my job with long hours (unpaid) and international travel. In the past 3 months I have averaged working well over 40 hours per week, even though I am only paid for 30 hours. My company is certainly getting a good deal out of that!

The Mother

Moss discusses the trend in Australia that only distressing birth stories are shared and that women who choose natural births without medical intervention are dismissed as hippies and those women who make birth plans are dismissed as Birthzillas. This has prompted me to share my own birth stories, which are not particularly interesting but perhaps may be of help to someone, although according to those definitions I must be a hippie Birthzilla.

Two and a half weeks before my daughter was due, I started to experience contractions every 40-60 minutes, day and night. I wasn’t particularly worried because it didn’t really hurt but it hardened my belly like a drum and kept me awake continuously, so when real labour started 2 days later I was already very tired. My husband and I had made a birth plan and everything went as smoothly as can be expected for a first birth, without medical intervention. My daughter was small but healthy and it’s fortunate that the labour occurred a little bit early because the placenta was no longer feeding her, hence her small size. After the birth I had a light hemorrhage caused by the placenta refusing to release from the uterus. The obstetrician attempted to pull it out with his hand but the pain was so intense that I kicked him and passed in and out of consciousness while screaming for him to stop. So the bleeding continued unabated for a quite some time and as I listened to the gentle patter of blood constantly hitting the floor I turned to my husband and asked him to take good care of our daughter. Finally an anesthetist was located (it was a small private hospital) and the placenta could be manually removed. I didn’t quite lose enough blood to require a blood transfusion but certainly enough to make me afraid and anemic.

With my 2nd pregnancy, I was given low dose aspirin throughout to assist in blood transfer to the placenta. I was emotionally scarred by the hemorrhage and filled with fear that my son would be affected by a dodgy placenta. My husband and I decided to engage the assistance of a doula. We met with her once briefly before I spontaneously entered into labour at about 36 weeks. I was scared for the baby but the labour was faster and easier than the first time and it was comforting having the doula and my husband with me for the birth.

Children’s Toys

Many commercially available toys are aimed specifically at boys or girls in design, packaging, colours and imagery. Disturbingly, the functionality of the toys also differs, for example a grey electronic toy marketed as a ‘Boy’s Laptop’ had 50 functions, while the bright pink version for girls had only 25 functions. A 2009 Toys “R” Us catalogue featured telescopes and microscopes for boys and girls. In both cases the girls versions were of lower magnification than the boys. Toys marketed at girls rarely have building components, a focus on maths or even primary colours, instead toys for girls are typically aimed at enhancing physical beauty or encouraging caring. Conversely, toys marketed to boys promote maths, science, building, problem-solving and being physically active. In our house we are fighting against that trend but while our daughter loves to play with Lego and physical toys like footballs, she is otherwise constantly focussed on nurturing soft toys.


Feminism is about equality and the right to vote, to bodily autonomy, to work, and to demand equal pay and own property.

Feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

I’m appalled when I listen to women say that they are not feminists, these are women who enjoy all of the equality and rights that feminism have brought. I particularly liked this quote:

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or prostitute. Rebecca West

US media mogul Pat Robertson believes:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

Steve Kates who teaches economics as RMIT in Melbourne, Australia in a conservative academic journal lamented:

… the feminism of the 1960s which unmoored women from their traditional roles’

Overall I enjoyed reading the book and found it edifying. I did at times think that Moss was being condescending because, she as a beautiful woman who made her living from her looks can’t know what it’s like to be a woman with average looks. She also can’t know what amount of her success in life is aided by her looks. The cover of the book features photos of her beautiful face with labels written on it. Isn’t that an attempt to sell more copies of the book using her beauty?

Other Reviews


One comment on “Book Review – The Fictional Woman

  1. Pingback: Book Review – Journey to the Stone Country | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on December 17, 2014 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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