The increasing tendency of people who self-identify as women’s rights activists and feminists to take on a patronising, moralising and judgmental stance which denies other women choice and freedom has started to seriously destroy my pride in calling myself a feminist. This issue is one which has reared it’s ugly head in the guise of many different social issues lately. I dub these women patriarchial feminists, or patronising feminists, creating a feminarchy to replace the patriarchy they supposedly want to rid the world of. Equally though, people who don’t identify as feminists are using these arguments against women’s rights and freedoms.
The first and most obvious example of this issue is exemplified by those who argue against a woman’s right to choose when and how to be a mother, if at all. Abortion is a fundamental right and I am outraged that other women claim to speak for all women on this issue. Melinda Tankard Reist is a classic example of a woman who uses the term feminist to identify herself, however she argues against a woman’s right to choose. She claims abortions are violence against all women. As someone who has personal experience of abortion, I can say that this is patently false, and that if I had been forced to carry a baby I didn’t want to full-term, that would certainly have constituted violence against me, a woman. While I have no doubt that some women who have had an abortion experience regret, many studies have shown that mental health outcomes for women post-abortion are much more positive than those of women post-birth. The point is that women, all women, have the right to determine what is best for them, and feminists should hold women as experts of their own lives and experience. Ms Tankard Reist is violating that principle fundamentally when she argues against women’s right to choose.
Recent vocal opposition to all sex workers is another area where patronising feminists excel. The fact that some women may actually choose, of their own free-will to engage in sexual activity for money seems to be completely unfathomable for women such as Sheila Jeffreys (no website but see this). This is to say nothing of the complete absence of men who work within the sex industry from this debate. Certainly, sex trafficking is an enormous issue and one which I am passionately in favour of serious legal and socal action to stop, and prosecution of those who profit and benefit from this. However, sex work and sex trafficking are two separate things, and it is high time that they were separated from each other, both in public discourse as well as legislatively. People who are legitimately engaged in sex work deserve not to be treated as second class citizens, often as criminals. Removing prohibitive legislative requirements, and making it easier for people to obtain working visas to work within the sex industry in Australia will remove the profitability and demand for sex trafficking in Australia and go a long way to addressing the current discrimination faced by legitimate sex workers. Who do we let speak on behalf of sex workers, women who want to ‘save women’, or professional peak bodies, such as Scarlet Alliance?
The area where patronising feminists really flourish though, is the supposed sexualisation of young girls, and the link they make between this and the way women really only have access to sexual power within our society. To make it clear, I do acknowledge that there are many pressures on women of all ages to conform to an ideal appearance. I myself have and continue to experience these kinds of pressures in many different ways, and certainly since I have left school there have been many changes which have, it seems, increased these pressures and multiplied the ways in which they can be applied. I accept that this is a problem and it would be fantastic to be able to properly tackle this, along with things that are closely related to it, such as rape culture, sexual assault, and violence against women. All of these things are hugely troubling issues which I am yet to feel are taken seriously by the majority of society. However, banning certain kinds of advertising, ensuring sex shops don’t sell school uniform costumes, along with general censorship is only going to reinforce ideas about what women who may dress or act a certain way deserve when they engage in those behaviours. This is a very dangerous slippery slope which does not go anywhere near addressing the causes of these social issues, and rather just acts to cover them up. It forces things underground and ensures that people are not able to talk about rape culture, or sexual violence and what causes them. It patronises women and young people into a situation where others decide what is best for them, and denies us freedom of expression. It casts women only as victims who need protection from all kinds of ‘evil’ in society. It removes all the hard work of the second wave of feminism, which has brought us to a point where we are able to dream about what true equality might look like, might feel like. But equality is not achieved through censoring and shaming.
The common thread which runs though all of these arguments is that women cannot possibly know what is best for them, and that the world is inherently damaging to women. These arguments say to young women – you need protection, you are fragile, weak and should be scared of the world. It does not empower women, or anyone for that matter. It contributes to the culture of fear and reinforces the idea that the more we intervene into other’s lives, the better off everyone shall be. It contributes to the culture that says to women, you have to ask for equality, not expect it. Our women should be brought up to believe they are equal, that they should not have to beg and hope to be treated the same as they men they grew up alongside.
I challenge these women to justify their speaking for all women, their generalisations across culture, class, race and sexuality among many other factors. I challenge them to explain how they seem to be the only women, in their world who are able to make decisions for themselves. I challenge them to justify their complete ignorance of the concept of subjectivity which the second wave feminists worked so hard to bring to the fore of the movement, in an attempt to widen the understanding of what feminists issues are. Why are they the only women who are not victims of being brainwashed by patriarchy? Why are they the only women who are allowed to know what is best for them, why are they so special compared to the rest of us, supposed faceless victims?
Working for the improvement of the conditions of all people, including women, should not be about prescribing one lifestyle, one ‘option’ for all people. Improvement should focus on removing barriers to freedom and choice, and if one identifies with the idea of radical feminism and challenging patriarchy, then this can include questioning and challenging patriarchy. It should not include challenging patriarchy and replacing it with feminarchy, akin to toppling one dictator and installing another.