‘Many women are reasserting that feminism is a necessary social movement for the equality and liberation of all women, not just platitudes about choices for some’
Editor, writer and law tutor Miranda Kiraly and writer and RMIT research fellow Meagan Tyler, have a new and timely book out. It’s called Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism (Connor Court publishing) which brings together 20 authors discussing the limits to the ‘pop feminist’ approach to freedom for women and its failure to change the status quo. The contributors, state the book’s back cover blurb, “confront the dangers of reducing feminism to a debate about personal choice, and offer the possibility of change through collective action”.
I was delighted to be asked by Miranda and Meagan (who wrote the excellent chapter ‘Pornography as Sexual Authority: How Sex Therapy Promotes the Pornification of Sexuality’ for Big Porn Inc – edited by me and Dr. Abigail Bray and published by Spinifex Press ) to emcee the May 20 launch and Q and A event at Readings Carlton (Vic). In the lead up, here’s an extract from the book’s introduction. I’ll also publish an extract from Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy’s chapter ‘I do what I want, fuck yeah!: moving beyond “a woman’s choice”’, in the next few days.
Miranda Kiraly and Meagan Tyler
Something is happening. For all the talk of a ‘postfeminist’ era over the last decade, there are now ever-increasing signs of a feminist resurgence. The visibility of feminist activism has led everyone from female singers and celebrities, to male political leaders, to start talking about the f-word, and even to start claiming the label ‘feminist’ for themselves. Something is definitely happening but what, exactly, is it?
With the rising tide of interest in all things feminist, there has been a rush to promote a popular brand of ‘feminism-lite’ or ‘fun feminism’ that does not offend or overtly threaten existing power structures. The mainstreaming of the feminist brand has left ‘feminism’ as little more than a sticker that anyone and everyone can now apply, largely because it has lost all sense of intellectual rigour or political challenge. This version of populist feminism embodies notions of empowerment, choice, and the individual above all else. It has been shaped, primarily, by liberal feminism, and the contributors in this volume also refer to it as third wave feminism, popular feminism, or choice feminism.
Individualism lies at the heart of liberal feminism, championing the benefits of ‘choice’ and the possibility that freedom is within reach, or occasionally, that it already exists should women choose to claim it. It also pushes – sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly – the fallacy that substantive equality has already been achieved and that the pursuit of opportunity lies solely in women’s hands. Liberal feminism has helped recast women’s liberation as an individual and private struggle, rather than one which acknowledges the systemic shortcomings of existing systems of power and privilege that continue to hold women back, as a class. Women’s liberation has been reduced to a series of personal statements about whether women like or dislike particular aspects of themselves or their lives.
This problem is not new. In 1990, contributors to The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism bemoaned essentially the same thing: that ‘feminism’ had moved from a critique of – and collective resistance to – patriarchal oppression, towards an individualised, liberal model of ‘choice’. Indeed, Catharine MacKinnon, in a piece titled ‘Liberalism and the Death of Feminism’, for that collection, posited that liberalism is the very antithesis of a movement for women’s liberation. As she put it:
Where feminism was collective, liberalism is individualist … Where feminism is socially based and critical, liberalism is naturalistic, attributing the product of women’s oppression to women’s natural sexuality, making it ‘ours’. Where feminism criticises the ways in which women have been socially determined in an attempt to change that determination, liberalism is voluntaristic, meaning it acts like we have choices that we do not have. Where feminism is based on material reality, liberalism is based on some ideal realm in the head. And where feminism is relentlessly political, about power and powerlessness, the best that can be mustered by this nouveau movement is a watered down form of moralism: this is good, this is bad, no analysis of power of powerlessness at all.
These comparisons seem just as relevant and compelling as when they were first published, some 25 years ago. Many of our contributors pick up these issues again and consider them in the current context; a context in which the kinds of liberal feminism that MacKinnon was critical of have taken centre stage and seem to have become, in the coverage of much of the mainstream media, the be all and end all of feminist thought.
As Natalie Jovanovski notes in her chapter, it should not be surprising that liberal feminism has risen to prominence. It is generally seen to be less threatening to the status quo and reassures mainstream audiences that feminists are not a scary ‘other’. But far from occupying some middle ground of inoffensiveness, the emphasis on ‘choice’ in much liberal feminist writing is actually rather extreme. It strips women’s lives of context and makes it sound as though our ‘choices’ are made in a political and cultural vacuum. Each of our contributors, therefore, seeks to talk about the importance of power, context and culture, rather than individual choice and agency alone. Understanding and acknowledging the environment of women’s inequality goes to the heart of what is meant by the ‘freedom fallacy’ of this collection’s title. That is, there can be no freedom, no liberation, when the available choices are only constructed on the basis of gross inequity. More ‘choice’, or even a greater ability to choose, does not necessarily mean greater freedom.
Amid this dominance of liberal feminist orthodoxy, resistance is forming among a wide range of women. There is even talk of an emerging ‘fourth wave’ of feminism breaking in the United Kingdom and the United States; a movement that seeks to engage collective action and to address structural inequality, subjugation, and exploitation of women and girls, often at a grassroots level. Media outlets are struggling to conceptualise this emerging wave of feminism, and continue to attempt to simplistically slot it into a left–right, or generational, divide. Like many feminist movements before it, this new wave does not comfortably fit the mould of traditional politics, because it recognises that women’s interests have been neglected across the political spectrum. As a result, there is a wide variety of criticism that we have been able to draw on for this collection. What unites our contributors in this book is not a single perspective – there is a range of different feminist positions included – but rather, a unified belief that liberation cannot be found at a purely individual level, nor can it be forged from adapting to, or simply accepting, existing conditions of oppression.
Hopefully, if you have picked up this book, you already recognise the systemic conditions of women’s inequality… women still face unbearably high levels of sexual violence and millions of women around the world do not even have the limited protection that marital rape law affords. Activists are still fighting all around the world for the rights of girls and women not to be mutilated and exploited. Pornography and the trafficking of women and girls are booming global businesses trading primarily in sexual exploitation. Our contributors write about these injustices as existing on a continuum … each shap[ing] women’s social, cultural, political and material subordination.
…[A]ctivities which were once held up as the archetypes of women’s subordinate status are now held up as liberating personal ‘choices’. Sexual harassment becomes reframed as harmless banter that women can enjoy too. … Labiaplasty becomes a useful cosmetic enhancement. Pornography becomes sexual liberation. Sexual objectification becomes a barometer of self-worth.
…This collection aims to challenge the limits of key liberal feminist concepts and to critique the idea that it is possible to find freedom simply by exercising ‘choice’ in a world in which women, as a class, are still not considered to be of fully equal human worth to men.
While Time magazine may be questioning whether or not feminism is still needed in 2015, prominent figures from previous waves of the women’s liberation movement are certain it is desperately needed now, perhaps even more than in previous decades. As Germaine Greer recently declared: ‘Liberation hasn’t happened …Things have got a lot worse for women since I wrote The Female Eunuch.’ It is in recognition of the deep-seated problems that we still face, that several of our contributors emphasise the need for collective action to again be at the heart of feminist activism. This is crucially important and has been sidelined in popular discussions about whether or not certain women are ‘bad feminists’, or make acceptably feminist ‘choices’. This simply operates to blame individual women for their circumstances instead of casting light on the issues of structural and material inequality that affect women as a class.
…We wanted to include new voices to sit alongside contributions from those with longstanding experience and more established platforms. The inclusion of a number of women, relatively new to the movement, represents, in part, the fact that there is indeed something happening, and that there is a need for us to challenge the prevailing liberal feminist standard. It also illustrates the point made by Finn Mackay, in her chapter on the supposed generational division between second wave and third wave feminists, that chronology and age have little to contribute to enhancing our understandings of feminist theory and action. Instead, it is a question of ideology that distinguishes the different branches of feminist thought and action.
…This book is best understood as a radical challenge to the dominance of liberal feminist discourse in the public sphere. For some of our contributors this is imperative because, as they understand it, the liberal feminist model does not represent small steps in the right direction, but rather actively inhibits real change. For others, liberal feminism can still be seen to have made some contribution to the women’s liberation movement. As Andrea Dworkin once quipped: ‘I do think liberal feminists bear responsibility for a lot of what’s gone wrong,’ but she also added, ‘I have a really strong belief that any movement needs both radicals and liberals. You always need women who can walk into the room in the right way, talk in the right tone of voice, who have access to power. But you also need a bottom line.’ We hope that this book demonstrates the limits of the liberal feminist approach and the importance of reinforcing that bottom line.
Miranda Kiraly is an editor, writer and law tutor from Melbourne, Australia. She has authored publications on law and politics, including ‘Bittersweet Charity’ in Really Dangerous Ideas (Connor Court, 2013) and ‘Where Does the Private Domain Start and the Public End’ in Turning Left and Right: Values in Modern Politics (Connor Court, 2013). Miranda previously worked in federal politics as a speechwriter and researcher. From 2009–2013, she was a leading discussant for the Liberal Book Club.
Meagan Tyler is a vice-chancellor’s research fellow at RMIT University, Australia. Her research focuses on the social construction of gender and sexuality. Her work has been published in Rural Studies, Women’s Studies International Forum and Women and Therapy as well as several edited collections, including Everyday Pornography (Routledge, 2010) and Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality (Ashgate, 2012). Meagan is also the author of Selling Sex Short: The Pornographic and Sexological Construction of Women’s Sexuality in the West (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011).
See also: ‘No, feminism is not about choice’, Meagan Tyler, The Conversation.