In Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, Elizabeth Renzetti covers everything from the personal to the political, discussing her relationship to her mother, her career as a feminist columnist for the Globe and Mail, women in politics, and harassment online and on the streets. She spoke with TVO.org about her approach to writing, the importance of ambition, and the future of feminism.
How important is it for you to make your writing humourous, even when you’re covering serious topics?
I think you can get across a point using humour in a way that you can’t by being hectoring. I think people get tired of being lectured to; they get tired of being told what to think. I actually never want to tell people what to think. You can think whatever you want, but if you are trying to get a point across, an opinion across, you’ll lose people if you don’t entertain them, for one thing. And, also, humour is a way of sometimes shedding light on places that seem quite picked over already — to cast a new eye, a fresh eye on a topic. So it’s integral.
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In your book, you talk about journalism and advocacy. Do you see a difference between the two?
When you’re a columnist, it’s different than being a news reporter in that you’re supposed to have an opinion, you’re supposed to carry forth an agenda and to convince people of a particular point of view — so that carries with it advocacy. I feel like the one thing I want to be an advocate for is women’s issues and feminism, and that’s my kind of ideology, for lack of a better word. So in that way I do feel like I’m an advocate, and other columnists will feel like they’re advocates for other things, obviously. But being an advocate doesn’t mean being blind or narrow-minded or shutting your eyes to other facts or uncomfortable truths. To me, that’s where the really interesting grey area lies. If you’re going to be an advocate, you can only be effective if you understand the shortcomings of that which you’re advocating for. If you seem like a kind of a shill, readers will see through it immediately. But if you can be an advocate who understands the limitations of the thing you’re fighting for and understand the complexities and nuances, then I think you can still be a strong journalistic voice and advocate at the same time.
You say you have a nagging “inner asshole,” or critic. Some women talk about imposter syndrome. Are they related?
I think they are related. Imposter syndrome is so fascinating to me. I had a whole essay in the book — we took it out in the end because it seemed to overlap with another chapter. It was about essentially owning your opinion and putting it out. I interview Sherry Graydon of Informed Opinions about why women don’t feel like they have the right or the space, why they don’t own their expertise, why they don’t own their opinions in the public realm. And what she’s found is women really do think they don’t have the credentials, no matter if they have PhD on the topic and eight published papers, etc. It’s a thing we need to learn from men, that you don’t need to be perfect at everything you do. You don’t need to be completely authoritative at everything you do. You can just add your opinion. You’re not an imposter just because you’re not the most qualified person — you’re still qualified.
You also write about the surging and waning of your ambition. How have they affected your career?
I’ve felt extremely ambitious at times and not at all ambitious at other times. But I think you have to ask yourself, what does ambition mean for you? I think we have a very constricted idea of what ambition is. We tend to talk about work, and we talk about life. And by life, I mean family life — we talk about raising children. So, if you are ambitious beyond either one of those things, there’s no place in the world to recognize those ambitions and how important they are to you, and they could be the most important things in your life. To be a cook. To be a member of a community. To be a good friend. To be in a choir.
There would always be a trade-off in my life when I would want to be more ambitious creatively. And that meant that what would suffer would be my work life. So, for example, I went down to three days a week working for the Globe while I wrote my novel because I needed that ambition satisfied. And I did suffer professionally, for sure.
Society rewards effort, accumulation of wealth, climbing the ladder. It’s very difficult if you’re not getting outside affirmation of your efforts to know that they are internally still worthwhile.
How has the feminist movement changed in the many years you’ve been reporting on it?
I think a huge change is the move to inclusivity, and that is a product of younger feminists pushing, sometimes uncomfortably, to older feminists that the movement has been homogenous in a lot of ways up until now — and that it has pushed to the margins the voices of people who are not like “us,” as in middle-class feminists. I think that’s been something the movement is only now coming to terms with.
It’s hugely important if young women especially are going to be integral to the movement. They won’t be a part of a movement without that, and that’s awesome. It’s great. And I think they’re absolutely right to criticize the movement for the way it’s operated up until now in terms of diversity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.