Feminism, not religion, is at the heart of controversy about Melinda Tankard Reist. Who decides who gets to use the f-word, asks Eva Cox in New Matilda
Melinda Tankard Reist last week threatened legal action against a blogger who alleged that she downplayed her religious affiliations in an interview for Sunday Life magazine. This has prompted an almighty discussion about free speech, religion and feminism.
The issue of Tankard Reist’s religious beliefs and whether they are acknowledged is not the real issue here. It is a surrogate argument about who can call themselves a feminist. Tankard Reist’s critics are mostly opposed to her claims to be a new-style feminist. They it hard to frame such an argument — so they look for other hooks to hang her on, such as suspect affiliations.
Interesting, the final line in the article that started this interchange stated, “For Tankard Reist’s part, she says she’s not interested in labels — she just wants people to engage with the substance of what she has to say. ‘Call me whatever the hell you want, I don’t care,” she says. “I believe my work is pro-woman, pro-girl. Just let me get on with it.’”
Why therefore has she taken this action? Since the blog in question isn’t heavily trafficked, Reist’s lawyer’s letter may be part of a strategy to gain publicity rather than suppress comment. Threatening legal action against a blogger who has strong free speech views is likely to attract wider media attention to the blog posting and its subject. As Tankard Reist is herself a blogger, writer, speaker and so on, media coverage is very desirable to raise her profile further.
I’m not inclined to use people’s religious affiliations as a basis for judgement but there is an argument for publicising religious beliefs. While adherents of each religion may have many different ways of using their faith, their stated beliefs can connect up dots to create a wider picture. As far as Tankard Reist’s public views are concerned, it may allow critics to try to identify underlying sources. It may be that her beliefs do mean that her views fail to meet what I would see as basic feminist criteria
Tankard Reist’s views on porn and sexual images suggest that she sees women as needing protection from depictions that may result in wrong assumptions or choices. She taps into anxieties about the status of women in an increasingly commodified world. Her earlier political involvement was anti-abortion and presumably anti-contraception, and her role while working for Brian Harradine ties in with this approach.
Her collection of public priorities can be seen to reflect some puritanical views that are part of feminist history. Women members of the Christian Temperance Union fought for women to get the vote in the hope that women would vote to ban alcohol. However, politics has changed over the past hundred years — and I hoped we had overcome the particularly limited view that the role of women, as God’s police, was to keep evil masculinity on the straight and narrow.
The new prominence of Melinda Tankard Reist forms part of a current retro groundswell which derives from current anxieties about the dominance of markets over ethics in the public sphere and the loss of what are seen as community values. This is in evidence in the numbers of women in politics who are pushing conservative social views. These are not Maggie Thatchers or Angela Merkels, hard-headed members of political parties who play it very like men. Rather they are younger, populist women with conservative, anti-choice views on family issues. The Tea Party in the US seems to attract many of these. They do increase the number of women bidding for power; but can also undermine feminist gains by promoting traditionally differentiated gender roles. Is this the feminism we want to encourage?
Feminism, in my view at least, should not use the power of institutions, including the state, to protect women from the right to make up their own minds. Equality must both redress gender biases and redistribute power so we all take on our share of responsibilities as well as rights. Setting up women as needing protection from male-driven sins means denying the role of Eve as the tempting source of knowledge. As an unbeliever, I quote these archetypes to illustrate my objections to some forms of so-called conservative feminism. It is not feminist to infantilise women by removing our right to make the wrong choices.
We need to recognise that all genders have similar capacities to make good and bad choices and need similar conditions in which to make them. While I am no fan of sexploitation, of objectifying and commodifying human beings, I do not see tactics of censorship and banning of particular manifestations as useful. Emphasising women as victims also contributes to gender-based biases in political thinking.
We need to address the current policy machismo in the priorities of our political parties, which emerges as encouraging individual self-interest as against social sharing. Good societies require political culture changes to encourage us all to be socially connected, more cooperative, ethical and caring. This is my feminist push. Campaigns against tasteless porn and crappy T-shirts may seek to protect women, but they fail to address the broader gender biases of market forces. This is the argument we should be having — not nit-picking about perceived religious ties.
First published in New Matilda here
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