Elle Hardy: Popular feminism is an orthodoxy that despises challenge
Popular feminism is an orthodoxy that despises challenge. “You’re not a feminist?”, I’m asked, as though it means I’m threatening my own independence or advocating domestic violence.
It may sound trite, but I choose to identify with humanism, which is a values system, rather than feminism, which is a political system. The fight for compassion, legal rights, and justice are not unique to feminism. There are no values that I can espouse as a humanist that are anti-female, but there are a number of values of feminism that are alien to me – such as the notion that equality is more important than opportunity and choice, and that it can be legislated.
In her speech on Friday to the Jessie Street Trust, Penny Wong was absolutely correct in her assertion that “rejecting the term ‘feminist’ is a political decision” – because modern popular feminism is an entirely political movement.
It is discriminatory in and of itself; little more than a sub-branch of Marxism that sees women as a class. Its manifestation in public discourse is via the broad brush of identity politics – the insidious notion of reducing individuals to groups. Feminism was a movement of profound importance, securing the extension of natural rights to women, but its modern incarnation is a concoction of socialist values.
Senator Michaelia Cash, assisting the prime minister as minister for women, was also right when she noted in March that “in terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now.” We can celebrate the victories of the past without having to subscribe to the ideology of the present.
In a strange way, despite its obvious political meaning, feminism has become a safety cloak for those engaged in public life. Everyone from Tony Abbott to Beyonce must publicly declare their allegiance to women out of fear of being labelled a misogynist, or heaven forbid, causing offence. By virtue of its platitudes, this prevailing air of pan-feminism stifles debate and removes the agency it purports to provide us.
• Elle Hardy is a freelance writer. She describes her politics as a hybrid of libertarianism and neoconservatism
Claire Lehmann: Feminism is often a hostile enterprise
Objections to the label “feminist” are becoming less rare. Susan Sarandon, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Madonna and Marissa Meyer have all distanced themselves from the label, to name just a few.
This reflects badly on how feminism is perceived today. Partly due to its successes, feminism now battles over values and lifestyles instead of legal rights. Because of this, many women feel if they fail to make the “correct” lifestyle choices, they are being judged.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists fought for equity. Women (and men) came together, celebrating women’s dignity and individuality. Women’s right to have intellectual fulfilment and social respect through work was enshrined. The movement promised women they could live their lives with authenticity and pride.
Fast forward four decades, and our lives today are unrecognisable to our grandmothers. Yet commercially driven online websites, marketed to a youthful female readership, portray women as miserable victims. Activists with a radical bent condemn western liberal democracies as places of widespread, ritual oppression.
The catchment of indiscretion that is Twitter also exposes just how frequently gender warriors belittle other women. Last year, during the federal election, those who had publicly deplored the “ditch the witch” placard, which made reference to Julia Gillard, reveled in calling outgoing Sophie Mirabella the same. More recently, the response to Natalie Barr’s admission of a sexism-free professional life has been to shut it down, and fast. Many dismissed her experience as a once-off aberration.
To imply that Susan Sarandon, who has dedicated much of her life to human-rights activism, objects to the feminist label because she is “right-wing” is disingenuous. The simple fact is that feminism is often a hostile enterprise. The term has come to have a certain stigma, and activists will have to work hard if they want to reverse that.
My own politics have changed over time; the older I get the more I count conservative and libertarian women as friends. But I still have friends from childhood who are unflinchingly progressive. And while we have our disagreements, we respect each other. We each have different approaches to feminism, but recognise an underlying desire for female self-determination.
While I cherish the original conception of feminism, I understand those who object to the label today. But I also know that one does not need badges or labels, to truly live out feminism’s philosophy.
• Claire Lehmann is a politically centrist Sydney-based freelance writer
Trisha Jha: Feminism is not the exclusive preserve of the left
Penny Wong is correct: feminism is not the exclusive preserve of the left. This is something those on the left who embrace feminism and those who reject it on the right should understand. Classical liberals fought the earliest battles for gender equality (though not exclusively): the right to vote, to own property, and to own oneself in a marriage.
This kind of oppression of women has largely been overcome in the west, but social norms still discriminate against women. It’s a battle that everyone with feminist values, not just those who are comfortable with the feminist label, needs to fight.
I identify as a feminist not only because I believe in gender equality, but also because I believe in the fundamental liberal principles of individual rights, equality before the law, autonomy and self-ownership.
Central to this is that sexism and misogyny are inherently collectivist – they reduce the diversity of our societies into two amorphous groups, where men are a certain way and women are another. Sexism robs people of their individuality.
Sexist stereotypes can only effectively be dealt with through free speech, free thought and exchange, and civil activism. These acts are not merely compatible with liberalism – they are a necessary condition for any society that is free in its culture as well as in its laws and institutions. That is why I participated in the Women’s Collective at university, presented at feminist conferences, got involved with campaigns, marched in Reclaim the Night rallies, and organised and attended SlutWalk marches. My approach to feminism is encapsulated by this appropriation of John Stuart Mill: Over herself, the individual is sovereign.
Unfortunately, aspects of government policy are disenfranchising women economically. The ability to participate in work is the best safeguard against poverty, especially that which can accompany divorce and domestic or sexual violence. The design of our family payments system can create a perverse incentive in the form of a “low income” or “low participation” trap for women with young children, which child care costs only exacerbate. We know that women often bear the brunt of the inequities that arise, and liberal principles can play a role in amending them.
Until all women can enjoy the rights and social freedoms of a truly liberal society, there is still work for feminists of all stripes to do.
• Trisha Jha is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies. She has a strong interest in classical liberal ideas
Paula Matthewson: Conservative women think of individual responsibility
At a superficial level, I agree with Penny Wong: Liberal and other conservative women should embrace feminism. But if the acting leader of the opposition truly wanted to recruit women “of the right” to the cause, she went the wrong way about it.
It’s counterproductive for Wong to insist that it isn’t enough for conservative women to merely support the principles of gender equality. By demanding that they can only do so if they adopt the feminist mantle, Wong is essentially telling these women that to support their daughters and granddaughters, they must take on a political persona that is totally foreign to them.
Activism is the antithesis of what it means to be conservative. Women “of the right” support the status quo, and when change is needed then it must be incremental. They see activists, and the revolutionary change they espouse, as anarchistic and alien. Wong is telling these women that they must do an impossible thing: that they must be something that goes against their deepest grain. And I suspect she actually knows this.
It’s true that some conservatives like Michaelia Cash think the fight for women’s equality is over and the concept of feminism is anachronistic. But Cash stands at the extreme end of conservatism and does not represent the majority. The rest of us know that as our daughters become women they will face an increasingly uneven playing field. So we give them the best chance that we can, teaching them to stand up for themselves, to demand treatment as an equal, and when that is not forthcoming, to do something about it.
It’s important to remember that as liberals, conservative women think of individual responsibility. That’s why we tackle gender equality at the individual and not the societal level.
Like Wong, I think it would help the cause if Liberal and other conservative women embraced feminism. I don’t however believe the recruitment of members from other parts of the political spectrum was really the senator’s intent. Wong used her speech for a more base political purpose, to emphasise the contrasting positions of Labor and Liberal on gender equality and other women’s issues.
In reality, she doesn’t want Liberal and conservative women to embrace feminism – if they did, Labor would lose a political edge.
• Paula Matthewson became involved in conservative politics at the age of 17 in the NT’s Country Liberal party. She worked as a media adviser for John Howard from 1989-1993. Since having a daughter in 1992, Paula considers herself a feminist but still feels uncomfortable with the label