What is a feminist?

By Eva Cox

The recent debate in the media about who should call themselves a feminist blew up recently in discussions of whether Melinda Tankard Reist and her anti-abortion views. Obviously anyone can claim to be feminist but is it always appropriate?

Check out the debate here on New Matilda and on twitter at #MTRsues

Interestingly, there is a clue in the final line in the Sunday Life article that started this interchange. It stated ‘For Melinda Tankard Reist’s part, she says “Call me whatever the hell you want, I don’t care… I believe my work is pro-woman, pro-girl. Just let me get on with it.”’

Is being pro-women the same as being a feminist? I do not see being pro-women as about equality or other particular issues. Does pro-women involve supporting uncritically the right of women to do anything they want, whether good, bad or indifferent without criticism?

Pro-woman can mean protecting women as an apparent weaker vessel. Tankard Reist’s views on porn and sexual images suggest that she sees women as needing formal protection from depictions that may result in wrong assumptions or choices. This moralism echoes her earlier anti-abortion stance (while she advised Brian Harradine) but taps into current anxieties about the status of women in an increasingly commodified world.

Her collection of public priorities are not new but reflect older puritanical views that were part of early suffrage history. Women members of the Christian Temperance Union fought for women to get the vote in the hope that they would vote to ban alcohol. However, just as social attitudes have changed over the past hundred years, I hoped we had moved on from the limited view of women’s role, as God’s police, to keep evil masculinity on the straight and narrow.

In current politics, there is a retro groundswell against the dominance of markets over ethics in the public sphere and the loss of traditional community values. This conservative push shows up in the numbers of new women in politics, pushing traditional gender roles. These are not the Maggie Thatchers or Angela Merkels; hard-headed members of political parties who play it very like men. They are younger women, playing populist politics with anti-choice views on family issues. The USA’s Tea Party attracts many of these.

While they do increase the number of women bidding for power, they undermine feminist gains by promoting traditionally differentiated gender roles. Is this really a conservative form of feminism, or retrograde steps for a new form of dependency?

Great article on conservative ‘feminist figures’ here.

Feminism, in my view at least, is about real gender equality, which means both redressing gender biases in what is seen as important and valuable, and redistributing power. This means women and men must all take on our fair shares of both responsibilities as well as rights. True equality is not making women behave like men, nor is it making us ‘behave like women,’ but is about our capacity to choose who we are without social and institutional gendered prejudices.  

It is not feminist to infantilise women by using state power for censorship and bans of particular manifestations to protect women from their ‘wrong’ choices. Portraying women as primarily victims in need of protection allows too many policy areas to be defined as ‘women’s issues’ and trivialised into deviance not mainstream problems.

Concerns about politics valuing economics over community are real. Feminist progress requires a political rethinking that values being socially connected, cooperative, and caring. We don’t need moves against tasteless porn and crappy t-shirts to address the broader gender biases in market forces, but a feminism that values equality, responsibility and addresses power imbalances. This is the area we should be debating.

What do you think? What makes a feminist?

4 Responses to “What is a feminist?”
  1. Christine Says Hi says:

    Oh this is such an important issue for the future of feminism, please keep talking about it!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] some women claim it is possible to be a feminist and to be anti-abortion, bell hooks, feminist, anti-racist […]

  2. […] some women claim it is possible to be a feminist and to be anti-abortion, bell hooks, feminist, anti-racist […]

  3. […] example, hooks makes the case that you can’t be anti-choice and a feminist (ahem Melinda Tankard Reist. ‘If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive […]

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