Bioethicist, commentator and author
Born in: Port Chester, NY, USA
Friends: Inga Clendinnen | Monica Dux
Foes: Melinda Tankard Reist | Gail Dines
Home Town: Melbourne
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-pornography 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-porn 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 sexual assault, is strident: "Kerri-Anne was in my head and I thought, 'fuck 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 acknowledgment 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 that 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," Cannold tells The Power Index 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.
She may sound fiercely partisan, but it's Cannold's academic rigour which gives her authority (as well as masters and bachelor degrees, she's got a PhD in education from University of Melbourne):
"She is intelligent, a meticulous researcher, and uncommonly good with words: a formidable combination," philosopher and author Damon Young tells The Power Index.
But the one-time protégé to Peter Singer admits she hasn't always been this persuasive. Back in the USA, Cannold recalls a time when she was giving a talk on sexual assault at a "WASPy, preppy" frat house. No one paid any attention to her speech, except for a couple of black waitstaff.
"They came up to me and said 'I really got that' and I thought you know why they get it, because they get oppression," she says. "The white boys had no idea...and I wasn't good enough at what I did yet."
Cannold is no stranger to sexual violence: "I've been raped. Twice. The first time was my first time – I was 17 – but I didn't think of it as rape. Not even when the nightmares began and, following that, the depression." But until the Kerri-Anne episode, she says these incidents weren't a driving factor in her activism.
So what does she think of the future of feminism? On SlutWalk, last year's much-hyped feminism movement protesting the objectification of women, Cannold is full of pride:
"I thought it did everything a movement like that had to do, which is morph and change and be relevant to a new generation of women," she says.
Cannold grew up as part of a secular Jewish family in leafy Scarsdale, in the northern suburbs of New York City. Her activist training came from her mother, who took her along to stuff envelopes protesting the Reagan presidential campaign.
After a liberal-arts college education at Wesleyan University she moved to Melbourne in her twenties, where she attained a masters in bioethics and worked under Peter Singer at Monash University's Centre for Human Bioethics. Singer says Cannold always had something to say:
"She was always a livewire, fired up with ideas of her own, and prepared to work hard to write something that would have an impact," the influential philosopher and ethicist tells The Power Index.
So does she think she's made her mark?
"I'm really bad at feeling that," Cannold muses uncomfortably when asked about the concept of power, before pointing out that she's always wanted to have an influence in helping people.
"I always wanted to be a positive voice. I never wanted to have a big influence, just for the little things I can do. I've had so much luck, it's an enormous privilege."