Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2019

Accidental Feminists (2019), by Jane Caro

To afficionados of the ABC current affairs program The Drum, Jane Caro’s Accidental Feminists is exactly what you might expect of the author: forthright, amusing, full of pithy anecdotes to illustrate a point, and witheringly authentic.

This is the blurb:

Women over fifty-five are of the generation that changed everything. We didn’t expect to. Or intend to. We weren’t brought up much differently from the women who came before us, and we rarely identified as feminists, although almost all of us do now.
Accidental Feminists is our story. It explores how the world we lived in-with the pill and a regular pay cheque-transformed us and how, almost in spite of ourselves, we revolutionised the world. It is a celebration of grit, adaptability, energy and persistence. It is also a plea for future generations to keep agitating for a better, fairer world.

This was our anthem, (and it explains the cover art):


(BTW, in my search for this video, I came across another more recently-made clip which featured women in all kinds of swirling sexualised imagery accompanied by backgrounds proclaiming harmony, which to me shows me just how far our younger sisters have to go.)

What was revolutionary about our generation was that the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s is the first in history where most of the women worked for wages for most of their lives. And because money is power, this has changed everything.

While (of course) not everyone accessed higher education, Caro acknowledges that the Whitlam government’s abolition of university fees was pivotal:

If tertiary education was free, it was harder to rationalise preventing girls from accompanying their brothers, especially as so many of us had higher marks. More than that, however, our mothers also began to grasp the chance that was offered to them.  It was female mature-age students who radically swelled the ranks at universities during that tiny window of opportunity…(p.71)


[women]  tend to be concentrated in lower-status industries and at the lower end of the pay scale.  Even more depressing is the fact that previously high-status, well-paid occupations tend to fall in both status and pay when they become female dominated.  General medical practice, marketing and human resources (the latter of which once meant a board position) spring to mind. (p.72)

Caro attributes this to ‘flexibility’ — because (again backed up by her statistics) most women still do the ‘second shift’ i.e. the housework, the cooking, the childcare.  Again there are also structural reasons like expensive child-care and high effective marginal tax-rates when moving from three to four days a week to full-time work due to the loss of family and child benefits. (p.75)

The take-home message of Accidental Feminists is this: there is a cohort of older women in dire financial straits because of structural and social impediments to financial independence that have affected their entire lives.

All of these hurdles and impediments combined with a stubborn unconscious bias against women and their abilities—despite how well they do in education—is the reason women lose that much-quoted $1 million of potential earnings over their lifetime in comparison to men.  This situation is grossly unfair and limiting if you are a women who has managed to earn a relatively high income, but it is devastating if you have earned a low one.  The cumulative effects of this loss as they age and become less able to get paid work are why so many of this generation are living on the edge of poverty.  They are directly responsible for the fact that women retire with half the [superannuation] of men and a major contributor to the fact that one in three women retire with no super at all. (p.75)

The chapter about elder abuse (not just financial) which is most often female elder abuse, is shocking. But the raw facts about female retirement are also confronting.

The average age of ‘retirement’ whether voluntary or not is currently 58.8 years for men and 52.3 years for women.  Yet if you [like Caro] were born after 1 January 1957, you are not eligible for the old age pension until you are sixty-seven.  If you have superannuation (and remember, one-third of women currently retire with no superannuation at all) you can access it between the ages of fifty-five and sixty, depending on when you were born.  Nonetheless, given so few of us have much put aside for our old age, if so many women leave the workforce—either voluntarily or not—a good fifteen years before they can access the pension, what on earth are they living on? (p.156)

The answer is, for some of them, the Newstart allowance which pays them a pittance to apply for jobs they are deemed too old to get.

(I knew some of my teaching friends who’d been pushed into early retirement were doing it tough, but I hadn’t realised that there was this gulf between how their fractured work history had led to financial insecurity and how my unbroken full-time work history had led to a comfortable and secure retirement).

For some too many women, this financial insecurity leads to homelessness…

By unpacking the mixed messages that women absorb about work, money, caring and assertiveness, Caro shows that there is not just still a need for change, but also for women to wise up.  Using the example of Lisa Wilkinson, a television co-host who asked to be paid the same as her male counterpart Karl Stefanovic, and was subjected to a TV station damage control story that her pay rise would cost ten producers their jobs — Caro comments wryly:

Odd, isn’t it, that it is only the large salaries paid to women that impact on the jobs of the more lowly paid in an organisation?  Apparently Stefanovis’s $2 million annual whack had no effect on Channel 9’s ability to hire people. (p.57)

This is the 21st century, and we have had equal pay since 1969, but still (as Caro shows with statistics) women are paid less…

Our hesitation to put a value on ourselves, I believe, is partly because of all the messages we have unquestioningly absorbed, but it is also self-protective.  We know how the world reacts to women who ask for what they want.  Sensibly enough, we try to minimise the fallout.  When women act like women and put other people’s needs ahead of their own and when they are modest, self-effacing and submissive, they may win approval but they don’t get what they want.  When they act like men—put their own needs first, promote their desires, amplify their achievements and ask directly and forcefully for what they want—not only are they criticised, but they also don’t get what they want.  I had an epiphany a while ago when I realised there is no right way to be a woman.  (p.68)

Occasionally Caro weakens her argument with examples that IMO don’t apply.  In discussing the case of Hillary Clinton whose popularity waxed and waned depending on whether she was supporting a man in power (good Hillary) or seeking it for herself (bad Hillary), there is no recognition that the policies of Bernie Saunders represented widespread disaffection with the economy.  Clinton, (as Jeff Sparrow points out in Trigger Warnings) was singing the same old economic song that had led to mass unemployment and the rise of the working poor… when voters were looking for an economic alternative.  (Well, they chose Trump instead.  We’ll see how that works out, eh?)

Caro then goes on to apply the same dubious logic to Julia Gillard:

As long as she was deputy PM to Kevin Rudd, she was enormously popular; when she took the leadership of the ALP and so became first female prime minister, she was hated. How dare she do what so many men had done before her and ‘stab her leader in the back’? (p. 58)

This is nonsense.  Yes, there was a scurrilous misogynistic campaign against Gillard, but it was dog-whistle opportunism.  We know now from research that those shock-jocks influence politics a lot less than was thought. Feminists like me, who were initially delighted to have a female PM, were uneasy about how it was achieved, because there is a world of difference between ambitious disloyalty to a Leader of the Opposition, and replacing a popular Prime Minister in office for no apparent reason.  Since then, men who have done the same thing for more obvious reasons in the Liberal Party (Turnbull and Morrison) have suffered the same public opprobrium.  Electors just don’t like it when they have voted for a certain type of leader who then gets unceremoniously dumped while in office.  While it is true that in our system of government, we vote for a local representative, not the leader of the party in the house, it is the leader who represents the values of that party.  It is he or she whose authority within cabinet influences the directions of the government.  In a party system like ours, the values embodied in that person is part of what people vote for, and they don’t expect it to change on someone’s ambitious whim, whatever their gender.

This quibble aside, Accidental Feminists is a thoroughly engaging book that offers much to think about… and, yes, to act on.  For as Caro says:

Feminism, although it may as yet be incomplete, is a whole-of-society—indeed, whole-of-world project.  (p.170)

Feminism may be an incomplete project, but it has never been as influential or as powerful as it is today.  And things are beginning to change rapidly.  Enough women, including older women, now have an independence that few of us have ever had previously, and we are using that independence to make sure that the plight of older women, and all women, remains invisible no longer. (p.180)

Author: Jane Caro
Title: Accidental Feminists
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 233 pages
ISBN: 9780522872835
Source: purchased from Beaumaris Books

Available from Fishpond: Accidental Feminists



  1. I am going to her book launch in Hobart next week. Looking forward to it.


    • LOL we can compare notes – I’m going this week in Melbourne and so is Sue from Whispering Gums in Canberra!


  2. Interesting post. In the UK it’s commonplace for a woman who speaks or acts assertively to be described in the media as ‘strident’, or some other pejorative term. Men who do this go uncommented on, or are just authoritative. Similarly Teresa May, not my favourite Brit politician, is often called ‘stubborn’. Language people use can be sexist, insidiously or overtly


    • That’s true, and it can be very wearying, always having to negotiate how what we say will be judged. Still, both Thatcher and May prove that there are ways to break through, hard-won thought they may be.


  3. I’ve been, bought the book, and enjoyed the conversation. I’ll try to publish my report tomorrow night. Ive been glued to screens nearly all day today and I need a break – need to read a book for a while in fact! But, it was an interesting session. It would be interesting to compare what difference the different interviewers make.


    • Yes, and Pam from Travellin’ Penguin is going to hear soon too, so we will all be able to compare notes. I am really looking forward to it, she is such fun and I love her passion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am in my 80’s so am of the Depression-born generation. Many women of my age were much influenced by the second (or third?) wave feminism of the 1970’s. In my own case it awakened me to my own value and made it psychologically possible for me to leave a very bad marriage. My then-husband’s reaction: she is psychotic. No indeed, I was sane.


    • I’m glad you had the courage to do that. Amongst the older women I know, some were emboldened to do all kinds of things, get an education, start a belated career while also being supportive of their daughters, while others resisted it, often to the detriment of their daughters. It was an amazing great wave of change.


  5. Reading some of the stats here for retirees is alarming too. I don’t know what society will look like going forward: patchwork households of three generations or homeowners taking in lodgers as in the past?.


    • All the ideals that we used to have about having a safety net for vulnerable people seem to have dissipated…


  6. Very interesting post. Somehow, the issues seemed simpler back in the day and I find it frustrating trying to work out if a young woman throwing herself about in a sexualised fashion but claiming to be free and in control really is so, or is just kidding herself and still pandering to sexist stereotypes… I know what my gut reaction says!


  7. A wonderful review, Lisa. Alarming statistics, and an incomplete project indeed.


    • Thanks, Julie:)
      It makes quite a change from my usual reading about current affairs!

      Liked by 1 person

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