With some publishers, you know what you’re going to get. If you pick up a book published by Verso, for example, you know that you’re going to get a particular kind of radical text, unabashedly political and ideological, challenging some part of the status quo.
Australia’s Connor Court is a similar publisher, but with a different ideological bent. When it was announced that Gary Johns was releasing a book, No Contraception, No Dole, it was not difficult to guess who would be the publisher. It’s carried books from people like Cardinel George Pell, to Ian Plimer, to Chris Berg, to Hal Colebatch. It published The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences, a collection of essays ‘critiquing’ the Australian Greens without progressing much beyond pointing and giggling.
So when I saw that they had published Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, I expected a certain kind of critique: one that would want to show that liberal feminism was really about policing university campuses, censoring free speech, and affirmative action. The range of authors — including people like Margaret Thornton, Helen Pringle, and Meghan Murphy — suggested that this might instead be something different. And it is. It is so good.
The anthology brings together a range of feminist views that are anti- or counter-liberal to show — quite cleverly, really — the breadth of views that can be accommodated within feminism. Through the different positions, a few different issues get explored, but there’s a particular focus on pornography, prostitution, and sexuality.
At the outset, I should note the absurdity of a conservative white guy reviewing Freedom Fallacy. I’ve argued in the past that men can’t be feminists:
There’s no way for a guy to not think like a guy. We’ve been socialised to do it. Feminism requires non-guy thinking. It’s the external critique to show us that the things we think are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ or ‘default rational’ aren’t. That critique, that discourse, can’t happen if we’re on both sides of the fence.
I still stand by this view. Over the past few months, I had become increasingly skeptical of the idea of ‘liberal feminism’, and my criticisms concentrated more upon the ‘liberal’ part than the ‘feminism’. Liberalism was developed to protect the property interests of white slave owners. It continues to support the normalisation of dominant (white male) intuitions. It seemed absurd for ‘liberal feminism’ to even exist, regardless of how feminism was understood.
Freedom Fallacy provides the alternative view. From an informed perspective engaged with feminism, the critique of ‘liberal feminism’ explores the impact of liberal ideas on feminism. To what extent can feminism ‘compromise’ to accommodate liberalism, and should it?
Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the book is that no intellectually serious version of liberal feminism is advanced. Instead, the collected essays assume that the author knows what is meant, or assumes that the reader can get a general idea for what is meant. There is a risk that this results in an attack upon a straw man — and this is probably the most likely response from disparaging readers. The ‘liberal feminist’ is a stooge who thinks they are advancing the cause of women while really they are pawns of the capitalist enterprise. There was also a sense that the essays concentrated on the extremes of liberal feminism, rather than the core. For example, some liberal feminists have apparently argued that the mail order bride industry is empowering for women: women are using market forces to escape poverty and are consenting to this use of their sexuality. But it is difficult to imagine that mainstream liberal feminists hold this rather extreme view.
Despite this lack, several of the essays manage to avoid the ‘straw man’ charge by explicitly stating the consequence of their argument: liberal feminists aren’t bad people, or should have their rights curtailed, they’re just not feminists. One essay notes the jarring impact of this assessment to liberals: ‘feminism’ has a meaning almost synonymous with ‘good’. In liberal discourse, to accuse somebody of not being a feminist is to accuse them of not being good. This is identified as a problem arising from the capitalist hijacking of the ‘liberal’ brand, such that it does not seem absurd to refer to somebody’s feminism as ‘booty popping’. The liberal feminist’s ‘feminism’ is about succeeding within the confines of a patriarchal, capitalist system rather than challenging it. Within this context, the word ‘choice’ is used to shut down critique, demarcating a ‘private’ space where every choice a female makes is feminist simply by virtue of her gender.
At times, the book was repetitive, often treading the same argument about the failure of ‘choice feminism’. Upon second reading of the book, it occurred to me that the genius of the book was its demonstration of this being a common point of contact from several different iterations of feminist thought. Even those writers who had liberal leanings shared this point with the radfem lesbian feminist; regardless of where they began their feminist critique of liberal feminism, they still couldn’t accommodate the compromises demanded of liberal feminism.
The authors are at their best when they crystalise their attack on particular aspects of liberal feminism which reveals something deeper about how structurally flawed it is. One very excellent critique on how the media presents feminism to the broader public describes it as ‘an exercise in insulting superficiality’: magazine articles that pitch modern feminism as ‘young’, ‘flirtatious’, ‘fun’, and ‘non-threatening’ and focus on ‘inclusivity’ in such a way that makes it acceptable to a broader male audience and in such a way that promotes a particular kind of (market-acceptable) ‘feminisation’. As another writer put it: what kind of feminism have we got where women are encouraged to do and say what capitalism wants?
But what really struck me was the frustration of the authors. Each one of them genuinely seemed to want to engage the public at large — to translate their ‘academic’ perspectives on feminism into something that engaged ordinary women to think about the ways liberalism oppresses women — but faced an overwhelming oppressor who encouraged women to think of feminism in terms of ‘grrl power’, ‘sexiness’, and ‘choice’. It’s a frustration with a society that discourages critique, encourages the embrace of ‘commonsense’ intuition, and which brands feminism as something friendly to capitalist trends. One author even notes that the
Freedom Fallacy is a thoroughly rewarding — but challenging — book. It presents an intellectually serious rebuttal to the common view that second-wave feminists are little better than ‘fun-police’ who cater to (what is disparagingly referred to as) ‘white feminists’.