Sunday, January 22, 2012

No True Feminist

Disbelieving Tankard Reist is disbelieving not my favorite game. I really dislike playing it, and not just because it's a variation on an informal fallacy. I'm fully aware that groups need labels, and for the purposes of distinction we need some labels to fit some groups, and other labels to fit other groups. I just don't like arguing about who fits in the Feminist group, because it's not like it's going to stop anyone from calling themselves feminists if they want to.

What am I talking about? The question of whether someone who is pro-life can legitimately be called a feminist. That's what Anne Summers asks in The Age-- or rather what she answers, since she comes down firmly on the side of "No":
Maybe this is a strange question to be asking when we are supposedly living in a post-feminist era, when feminism is still mocked and trivialised by the media and (no coincidence) when young women famously assert, ''I'm not a feminist, but …'', meaning: I want the equality but not the label. 
But the question has come up recently in two very different examples. Meryl Streep said on 7.30 recently that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who she plays so brilliantly in The Iron Lady, ''was a feminist whether she likes it or not''.

You could almost hear the shrieks of disavowal around the Western world: No! No! she's not one of us. 
Then last week we had the brouhaha around Melinda Tankard Reist, the Canberra-based campaigner against porn and the sexualisation of girls, who has threatened to sue for defamation a blogger who commented on Tankard Reist's failure to disclose her Christian beliefs in a recent magazine profile. The same article described Tankard Reist as one of several high-profile women who are ''redefining feminism - and making enemies in the process''. Sarah Palin was named as another. What these women have in common is their self-identification as ''pro-life feminists''. They are against abortion.
What makes Summers' argument not actually fallacious in the discussion which follows is that she articulates exactly what constitutes feminism, in her mind: supporting women's ability to be independent. There are two fundamental preconditions of this, she continues, and those are financial security and control over one's fertility. Therefore, women should have the ability to regulate both for themselves:
Some women might choose periods of dependence on a husband or someone else while they raise children or write a book or whatever, but the key is that this is a voluntary state. Some women may abhor abortion and never choose that option themselves but they cannot deny the choice to other women. 
On these criteria, Thatcher is a feminist while Tankard Reist is not. 
Thatcher supported abortion rights (including, according to Streep, attacking president Ronald Reagan for using abortion as a political tool) and while she never identified with the women's movement, nor it with her, she championed women's economic independence, scorning the idea of women as mere washers of teacups. 
Tankard Reist, on the other hand, rails against the abuse of women and girls' bodies through pornography but then sanctions the ultimate assault on a woman's body: requiring her to carry a child she has decided she cannot have.
This is an individualist position based entirely on autonomy, and therefore one I support wholeheartedly. You will not get an argument from me that anything can be more feminist than supporting women's individual freedoms.

The thing is, feminism is also about how women are viewed in society, including how women view themselves.  Someone who is passionate about eliminating racism is not just concerned about things like overtly racist laws and disproportionate numbers of minority races being imprisoned, but also whether minorities appear in media and how they are presented when they do. How advertising catering to them depicts and treats them. What people are saying about them, and their role in society. The same is true of people who are passionate about eliminating sexism-- they want to convince the world, either by argument or by ordinance or both, not to be sexist. Tankard Reist no doubt believes that pornography makes the world more sexist, and therefore she is opposed to it. I don't, and even if I did I wouldn't want to fight such a thing using law because that would limit the autonomy of women as well as men. Like Summers, I believe that individual freedom is foundational to feminism. I think that the freedom to both be in and consume porn are part of a woman's autonomy, her ability to be financially secure and retain control over her fertility. Summers may not agree, so I don't want to put words in her mouth. But the point is that individual freedom trumps social perception, a position that Tankard Reist, anti-porn advocate, does not share.

Tankard Reist also does not share the position that abortion is an individual freedom. Or does she? According to another recent article in The Age,

Tankard believes that abortion is a form of "violence against women", one that many find traumatic and laden with regret. 
"Abortion is often an excuse not to deal with the structural conditions that compel women to have abortions," she told One Plus One. She draws the line at government regulation, she says, preferring to focus "on those women who would rather not choose abortion. What can we do to make it easier for women who would prefer to make another choice?" (In the '90s, she co-founded Karinya House, an organisation providing support for pregnant women "in crisis".)
But Melbourne-based ethicist and regular sparring partner Leslie Cannold is sceptical. "To get the wide reach she does, she is absolutely dependent on us not knowing the full extent of what she's done in the past," says Cannold. 
Tankard Reist worked as a media and bioethics adviser for former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine for 12 years, during which time he successfully blocked and continued to campaign against the abortion drug RU486. She also personally opposed changes to legislation that would have required pro-life pregnancy-counselling services to disclose their affiliations in their advertising. 
For others, the discomfort is more philosophical. As high-profile second-waver Eva Cox puts it, it's about the difference between "a view of feminism in which choices and opportunities are not determined by gender" (a group in which Cox includes herself) and "one that wants to protect women, whether it be from men, from sexuality or something else" – the world view Cox suspects Tankard Reist subscribes to.
Tankard Reist's political activity is the practical manifestation of this difference in philosophy. It takes a paternal, protective disposition to work to ban a product or practice because you don't trust people to choose it for themselves and use it responsibly.  I would say the notion that abortion is always foisted on women against their will rather than having been chosen of their own volition is delusional, but then people say the same thing about being in porn. No doubt Tankard Reist is one of them.

But it doesn't seem that she opposes abortion on the grounds that a fetus is a person, which is what pro-life women generally bring up first when they want to claim both the label "pro-life" and "feminist," or what anyone who is pro-life tends to bring up first when charged with sexism. This might be a cultural difference-- Americans are powerfully swayed by the idea of people having rights, dammit, and if a fetus is a person then it stands to reason that it has rights. On the other hand, the idea that abortion (or pornography) is somehow an offense against women which subordinates them seems more likely to carry in Australia, forcing women who want abortions (or porn) to assert that they are capable of handling it.

There is a certain amount of "poor women aren't able to make the decision to have an abortion; they're pressured into it" mentality in American pro-lifers, but their paternalism is firmly right-wing. I doubt Sarah Palin cares a great deal about being considered a feminist, because here it seems like right-wingers of any kind are extremely reluctant to claim that label-- that it belongs to the left. I don't know for certain, but am guessing that in Australia the term "feminist" is rarely used as an epithet. In America, feminists of Tankard Reist's brand and conservatives have banded together in fighting pornography, as noted in Pornography Makes For Strange Bedfellows:

But in the late 70's, some radical feminists, lead by writer Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catherine MacKinnon, began to see pornography not as obscene or immoral but as a means of subordinating women and keeping gender inequality intact. This shall be referred to as the second wave of feminist critiques or the "radical feminist" critique. Moreover, they view pornography as a form of sexual violence, not just the cause of it. They do not make a distinction between erotica and pornography or even art for that matter. They accordingly support the suppression of these works as a way of dissolving gender inequality in society. 
The third wave of feminist critiques are a defense of pornography on free speech grounds in response to the preceding two waves of criticism. This diverse group of women contains every one from pioneering feminist Betty Friedan to ACLU president Nadine Strossen to syndicated columnist Molly Ivins to former porn star Annie Sprinkle. What they have in common is their support of pornography as protected speech. These "free expression" feminists don't all agree on the value or harm of pornography to society but they do agree on the harm to free expression that the suppression of pornography would cause. . .
Do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? Or are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? The answer to both of these questions is "yes." 
First, let us examine the first question: do the feminist anti-pornography critiques offer something new to the discussion of pornography as protected speech? The advent of the feminist voice to all discussion has been very healthy to the exchange of ideas in this country. The first and second wave anti-pornography feminists have brought a fresh critical eye to the examination of pornography as a social phenomenon. They ask who does the First Amendment protect? Pornographers? But what about the climate pornography fosters for women in our country? Isn't pornography a form of group defamation towards women? Does it not teach men that women are sexual objects who enjoy being the object through which men get their sexual satisfaction. 
Second, let us examine the other question: are their arguments a reworking of previous arguments but with feminist terminology? Their criticism of pornography is interesting and healthy for the exchange of ideas but their remedies for it in the case of the second wave, suppression of it, presents more harms than the ones they are seeking to just. 
It seems contradictory that the same structures the radical feminists are trying to tear down are the same ones they are seeking to use to attack pornography. The Indianapolis Ordinance for example, a collaboration between conservatives and anti- pornography feminists, would have allowed people who are harmed by pornography to seek civil damages from the distributors and makers of it. But the American Booksellers Association filed a suit against it because its members feared that since they could not review every book they ordered they would have to not sell any books that relate to sexual matters for fee of violating the ordinance. The ordinance was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a summary statement that agreed with lower court decisions.
I'm conflicted in applying this same sort of thinking to Tankard Reist's stance on abortion. On the one hand, it seems that in saying she doesn't deserve to call herself a feminist, Summers is saying that only (what in America would be called) leftists can be feminists, and Tankard Reist's reasoning for being pro-life conforms very much to Dworkin/MacKinnon-style feminism which was leftist. On the other hand, Tankard Reist's reasoning in opposing both pornography and abortion is clearly protection-focused over autonomy-focused, and that undermines what Summers and many other third-wave "sex positive" feminists see as foundational to feminism itself.

So I guess my conclusion is...Tankard Reist is a feminist, as much as Dworkin and MacKinnon were. Protective, paternal (maternal, I suppose), and ultimately so concerned with the representation of women in society that protecting women from themselves seems/seemed like the responsible, pro-woman thing to do.  That doesn't mean that autonomy-focused third-wave feminists like Summers (and myself) need to approve of her thinking or what she stands for. We're free to continue pointing out that treating women like children doesn't amount to supporting them, and that the most important thing is to allow them to make their own choices even if they are wrong-headed, self-damaging, or even influenced by nefarious outside sources. In other words, that feminism might just be more about intentions than outcomes.  And that's okay.

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