When it comes to pulling down the patriarchy, there aren’t too many in the sisterhood willing to go in as hard, or as often, as Leslie Cannold.
It’s what makes her one of the most prominent feminists in the country. Her voice — often acerbic, always articulate — consistently cuts through the debate, like secateurs through seedlings.
Though many feminists laud Cannold’s fierce nature — particularly on abortion reform — they also say she can polarise; that her passionate rhetoric splinters the movement when solidarity is what’s needed.
“Leslie is divisive and a lot of people switch off to the actual points she makes because of the often heavy-handed way she makes them,” explains one prominent feminist writer. “In my opinion that limits her influence among many who would ordinarily be receptive to her messages, and therefore her influence … she can sometimes be domineering toward people who question her views.”
It’s an argument echoed by a number of her peers. In short: Cannold has power, but she could be more effective if she just stopped taking on her own team all the time.
The brown-haired bioethicist’s most recent public stoush has been with anti-p-rnography campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist. Cannold, along with others, took umbrage with Tankard Reist over her supposedly contradictory pro-life feminist outlook, with one salvo via Twitter reading: “feminist is as feminist does, not cuz she says she’s a feminist”.
Last year, Cannold also went toe-to-toe with another anti-p-rn feminist, Gail Dines, on Q&A. Before that, she deployed her newspaper column against TV host Kerri-Anne Kennerley for calling women who mix with footballers “strays”.
(On that award-winning column, Cannold, a victim of s-xual assault, is strident: “Kerri-Anne was in my head and I thought, ‘f-ck you Kerri-Anne, I’m just going to play that back to you’.”)
Still, many are ready to extol Cannold’s work when contacted by The Power Index, even if the praise comes with a caveat or at least an acknowledgement of how she operates.
“I’d regard her as one of Australia’s leading feminist commentators and activists, with a reach that extends far beyond the feminist community,” Monica Dux, co-author of The Great Feminist Denial, tells The Power Index, before adding: “Her ideas can sometimes be divisive within the wider feminist community, but I think this is typically a good thing, as she provokes useful debate.”
Others are a little more circumspect. As long-time feminist warrior Eva Cox puts it: “Leslie has been a clear voice on the need for abortion change, particularly in Victoria. We share many views but disagree often on tactics.”
Sitting in a Melbourne bar over a drink (she has a Campari and orange), The Power Index gets the sense Cannold’s style consists of just as much carrot as stick. She’s pleasant, relatively softly-spoken and very interested in talking about powerful intellectuals. Still, her blue-grey eyes begin to sharpen when the conversation turns to women’s rights.
“Feminism and gender equity is one of the lenses that I look at the world in,” she says in an accent still rich with New Yawk twang, despite her having lived in Australia for nearly half her life.
She says it’s this lens through which she watches shows like Q&A and becomes infuriated by the constant gender imbalance “week after week after week”.
Cannold is a prodigious writer. As well as contributing an avalanche of newspaper op-eds (including a regular Fairfax column), she’s authored two non-fiction books (The Abortion Myth and What, No Baby?) and a recent novel (The Book of Rachel).
She’s also a master at appearing in the broadcast media, which benefits her indefatigable crusade for abortion rights — a path she has trodden since her early teenage years.
These days, as president of Reproductive Choice Australia (a job she says she took because then-health minister Tony Abbott was “terrifying the shit out of me”), Cannold is on the front line of abortion reform.
Cait Calcutt, advocacy director at Children by Choice, commends Cannold as “fearless”. The pair have worked together for more than a decade on campaigns such as the successful bid to overturn the ban on abortion drug RU486. Calcutt believes Cannold’s outspokenness has influenced MPs to take action.