Another take on Germaine Greer

As folks around here know, I work hard to be kind and civil to everyone even vaguely feminist or possibly sympathetic to feminism. But I’m going to make an exception for Germaine Greer. Stoat’s criticisms are spot-on, but, well, too polite for my taste.

The Feminist Blogosphere has been filled with discussions of whether Amanda Marcotte’s and SEAL Press’s apologies and promises to change are an adequate response to criticisms. Greer, as Stoat notes, belittled the injustices faced by Muslims and racial minorities while at the same time demonstrating her view that the only women (who count) are white and secular. AND SHE IS COMPLETELY UNREPENTANT. As far as I know, she has never in her life apologised for anything, or conceded that she has anything to learn from those who are not her. As Laura Miller from Salon said 9 years ago, Greer’s method is “inflating her own personal trials into theories about the condition of women”. Sounds almost precisely like what Elizabeth Spelman calls the method of White Solipsism. She is totally uninterested in women’s health, as shown by her opposition to PAP smears and the HPV vaccine, and her support for FGM; and she has a long history of transphobia.* Why the hell are we are all being so tolerant of her? Because she wrote an important book a long time ago? Well, a lot has happened since then and she should have made an effort to keep up.

For a much funnier, better-written take on Greer from roughly the same perspective, check out Natalia Antonova. And for another excellent post by someone just as annoyed as me by the FEM 08 talk, go here.

*In general, I think that feminism is enriched by a diversity of views, when these views are backed up by well-reasoned arguments. But Greer’s are not. Instead, they’re based on ignoring the perspectives of those who are unlike her. This does not enrich feminism.

FEM 08, IV: Germaine Greer

Finally, the day was closed with a talk from Germaine Greer. It was wide-ranging, covering topics from the immunisation of young girls against sexually transmitted diseases and the message she believed this gave (that it’s ok to be having sex with 12 yr olds); the devaluing of motherhood and childcare; she highlighted the inadequacy of rape laws and argued for a single category of sexual assault; she talked of the double shift (work, housework) that many women do; and she wondered about the prospects (emancipating? Alienating?) of the medicalisation of childbirth. Laura at the fword has already written that the high point was her call for female solidarity.

As a philosopher, critical as ever, I’ll focus on the concerns instead (sorry again!):
Again, – and despite the call for solidarity – I was concerned about the exclusionary tendencies of much of what she said. I’ve already mentioned some points related to this, and I’ll replicate (sorry – timesaver!)the first from comments:

1. She at one point claimed that women, as a group, need to stand up and complain, protest, and (her words) ‘make them scared of us’; she worried that women, as a group, got – and allowed themselves to be – trampled on in (again her words) a way that no one dares to with the black and muslim communities, for instance.

There’s lots to worry about in her claim here (e.g. that making ‘them’ scared is a good way to proceed), but here’s a main concern: only last week I’d been reading bell hooks’ concern that setting up ‘women’ as a group in opposition to ‘black people’ as a group makes invisible the fact that *some black people are women*. That was over 20 years ago, yet Greer’s speech seemed to be doing just that.

2. She criticised the family structure; it’s not clear exactly what she was proposing, but she suggested at one point ‘blowing it out of the water’, which sounds pretty revisionary to me. Of course, the family *has* been the locus of abuse and oppression and exclusion for many women, and its important to address that. But as Amos and Parmar write (in Challenging Imperial Feminism, Feminist Review No. 17 Autumn 1984), many non-white women have in the past been denied a family – though forced sterilisation, forced abortion. We heard in the session on women refugees that some women are forced apart from their families (including young children) in detention centres, or in the process of fleeing. The prospect of ‘doing away’ with the family, then, does not sound like an agenda that would appeal to women who have had such experiences.

3. Greer also criticised women for asking for more work – suggesting that the art of work was to avoid doign it, that there was no value in work. Once again, this seems to be a claim that could only be made from a fairly privileged perspective. Such a claim ignores the fact that many women are forced to ask for more work in order to avoid poverty. It ignores the fact that for many women, education and employment is a route to empowerment. It ignores the fact that women who give up work to look after children may well feel they have *given something valuable up*.

FEM 08, III: Objectification

In the afternoon we had a panel session with a representive from Object, and a young woman, Lucy Brown, speaking about her experience of working in a lapdance club. I was surprised to learn that the club she worked in (and apparently many others) works on a ‘pay back’ basis – whereby you start out having to purchase a dress, and pay to perform – so for a while, you’re working to pay back your employres for these per-requisites. Lucy also noted that the ‘no contact’ with customer rule that the clubs operate is frequently violated simply because the competition amongst the strippers (they need the money to pay back for the table and the dress, remember) is so high that they’ll go that bit further to make sure they get the work.

There is a lot that is deeply troubling about all this, and Lucy made a powerful case for concern. The representative from Object then told us about their campaign to get lap-dancing clubs licensed as sex establishments rather than on the same sort of license as coffee shops. (It is clearly absurd to categorise them in with coffee shops!) The ultimate goal of this is to make it easier for citizens to object to lap-dancing clubs in their cities.

However (and again, I feel bad for being critical about what was in general a really really good day!) a couple of points of concern:

i. There was the presumption (not just in this session, but throughout the day) that *all* feminists are against objectification (and likewise with pornography and prostitution). Whilst many feminists *do* object to the coercive and abusive settings in which stripping, prostitution, and porn-making generally occur, some feminists nonetheless maintain that there is nothing intrinsically problematic with these practices. For example, Martha Nussbaum, in her paper ‘objectification’ (from her book Sex and Social Justice) explores the possibility that objectification – being treated as a sex object, a mere body – when chosen, and in certain contexts, can be quite benign and even welcome. And indeed, there are many pro-pornography feminists out there (see the recent post on the feminist porn awards). Also, there was only one brief dismissive comment made about sex worker unionisation efforts. (Roughly: unions protect you against harassment, but these women’s job IS harassment so there’s no point. A claim rather undermined by the observation that the regulations under which these clubs are supposed to operate– which would e.g. disallow contact– are not being enforced. Enforcing regulations is just the sort of thing unions can do.) There’s been a lot of serious work done by sex worker activists, who strongly disagree with the strategies being pursued by organisations like Object, and it would have been good to hear from them.

ii. I’ve already suggested that insufficient attention was at times paid to fundamental problems of women’s economic vulnerability. Again, this session continued without addressing the wider context in which lapdancing seems like a viable option to many women (I don’t know, but i’m supposing its better paid than cleaning). (An aside: I gather that the session on prostitution did look in more detail at the connection between women’s poverty and options, and the context in which women choose (sometimes ‘choose’) prostitution).

iii. I was also concerned that the focus on objectification and pornography at the plenary sessions, rather than education and economic vulnerability, has somewhat exclusionary tendencies. The conference attendees were a fairly homogenous bunch (white females, many students), and I wondered whether a particular perspective was dictating the agenda. Of course, I’m not suggesting that, if objectification is a problem for women, then it is not a problem for all women. Rather I’m (tentatively) suggesting that:

a) How objectification is experienced as a problem won’t be the same for all women

b) For some women, objectification may not be their top priority priority concern – rather financial survival, access to education, avoidance of violence (and not just sexual violence) dictate the agenda. (There was, of course, an excellent panel on rape conviction rates, but much of the discussion there was also about objectification.)

Of course, objectification is an important issue. But it would have been good to see a schedule that reflected some of the other fundamental issues that set the agenda for many women. Being in the plenary session is an indication of importance, and the timetable carried the very clear implication that objectification should be our primary concern.

FEM 08, II: refugee women

The first parallel session, I attended a session on problems facing women refugees, Jender a session on ethnic minority women in politics. (That’s where she heard about Fawcett’s new Femocracy campaign to get more ethnic minority women involved in politics.) The session, from folks at the NRC, raised the following important issues that face women refugees in the UK:

  • Gender based persecution is not one of the reasons accepted as a reason for fleeing one’s country of origin.
  • Reports of rape are rarely believed at the initial asylum interview. And this is true even if women are coming from places where rape is an extremely widespread weapon of war.
  • At the initial interview, lack of childcare means women often have to bring their children with them, thus making it more difficult to report on horrific experiences that caused them to flee.
  • Lack of childcare makes it difficult for women, who are predominantly primary caregivers, to attend language classes that would empower them to engage in their new country.
  • Language barriers mean that women who suffer domestic violence are often unable to access the resources that could help them.
  • Women who have asylum applications as dependents upon their partners are often disinclined to report domestic violence, fearing this will threaten their application for refugee status.
  • In the cases in which women do leave abusive relationships, women whose applications have been rejected (and hence are on section 4 support – see here for more details for the process) have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and hence cannot take places at domestic violence refuges in the UK. (For more on the campaign to change this, see here.)

Shatali is campaining on this latter issue, and Helen, Catherine and Fatima from the NRC continue to do great work, with REACT around the city of Sheffield promoting awareness of the problems that face women refugees. For those interested in getting involved, see here for opportunities!

FEM 08, I: rape and men’s activism

Last weekend Jender and I went to FEM08, an activism conference for women and men. It was generally excellent – interesting and inspiring, and great to be in the same place as so many other people interested in feminst issues!


We’ve had time to reflect on all we saw and heard and discussed, so now its time to join the blogging about it (plenty already going on see here for fword blogging and links to more, including here)! As Laura over at the fword writes, one thing the conference could have involved more of is *discussion time* – the hectic schedule meant there was little time for dwelling on the issues and sorting through problems and potential solution.

So perhaps some of that can happen in the comments here! It would be great to hear from those in attendance what they thought, or from those who couldn’t make it, what they make of the issues raised in the de-brief!

There was much to offer – more sessions that we could attend – so this is necessarily a partial review of the parts that we experienced – we’ve enjoyed reading about others’ experience of the day and hearing about the other sessions! There are parts where we no doubt fail to do justice to the complexity of what was said – but we hope to add to some of the parts as well. This will be a series of posts, because there’s so much to say!

Panel on rape

The conference was opened by Kat Banyard, from Fawcett. She introduced the first session of the day, Julie Bindel and Kira Cochrane, who spoke on the appalling statistics for rape conviction.

One of the key points from Kira Cochrane was the way that rape was treated as anomalous, an uncommon atrocity; she called for an attitudinal shift to acknowledge that rape was an EVERYDAY atrocity for women. Julie Bindel likewise criticised the media focus on the very small number of false rape allegations, contributing to the deficit in women’s perceived credibility when reporting rape. She called on men to play a key role in challenging sexist attitudes.

Such criticism is, of course, absolutely justified, and the low conviction rate was rightly criticised by panelists as ‘an absolute fucking disgrace’. However, the failure to locate the discussion in a broader context was somewhat disappointing. For example, insufficient attention (in my view) was paid to the connection between women’s material inequality and rape rates. That women cannot leave abusive relationships because in doing so they would face poverty; that women are predominantly primary caregivers and are hence excluded from the workforce, financially dependent upon their partners; that extreme poverty often drives women into vulnerable roles such as prositution; addressing such issues seems of fundamental importance to addressing the high rape rate.

Panel on men’s activism

Following Julie Bindel’s call for men to do their bit in challenging sexism, the next session was from two men involved in feminist activism. Chris White introduced us to the white ribbon campaign, which works with men to end ‘destructive masculinities’, and Damian Carnel (from NFDV) who talked about his work with men, and in particular, the strategy of ensuring that when men were referred to men’s groups, his work to ensure that those groups were *constructive* and concerned for gender equality (rather than those which encourage resentment against women, making ‘feminism’ a scapegoat.)

This leads me to another critical point about the day; there was a lot of focus on individual men, and what they should be doing. Now I absolutely agree that men should be feminist. But to be honest, if I were a man, I would have felt a bit sheepish (at one point, Julie Bindel directly addressed the men there: ‘what are you doing to help feminism?’). [Jender adds: It was clear they did feel sheepish. In fact, they were very apologetic about how little they were doing. And these were men who were running organisations doing incredibly important outreach work trying to change men’s attitudes. I’m really not sure why they should be feeling sheepish. Many of the women present, myself included, do far less and nobody was trying to make us feel sheepish. Our sex/gender should neither get us a free pass nor make us instantly blameworthy!] Three concerns:

i. the men there are already on board! We need to keep them on board, and encourage more men to do so – i’m not saying there shoudl be any pandering to men, but I don’t think the most constructive atmosphere is created by personal challenges. This is not least because…

ii. there’s some really interesting work, by Paul Benson amongst others (see his paper ‘Blame, Oppression and Diminished Moral Competence’ in Moral Psychology: Feminist ethics and social theory, Peggy DesAutels and Margaret Urban Walker, eds), about the degree to which agents can be held fully blameworthy in contexts in which oppressive social norms and structures pervade. Roughyl speaking, the claim is that insofar as men, like women, may have their ‘moral competence’ distorted by gender oppression, full blame may not be fully justified. [Jender adds: This is an important point, and a very tricky one to implement. But I think my main concern was that blame/suspicion seemed to be getting apportioned based not on what we do, but on our sex or gender. And that just seems wrong.]

iii. whilst we need individuals on board, we also need *structural* change; with all the well intentioned men and women in the world, unless issues such as the pay gap, the structure of the workplace, the expectations with respect to domestic roles etc are addressed, inequality will persist. [Jender adds: Of course, individuals can work toward those structural changes. But there was very little discussion of the need for such changes in these sessions.]

More to come…


Feminists destroy the earth!

No, we feminists don’t hate men. We just hate the stupid arguments that are sometimes wheeled out by anti-feminist men. Such as that provided by Angry Harry. Witness:

Argument for conclusion that feminists encourage traffic problems (this is a reconstruction. His far less well formulated argument can be seen in full here):

1.there is a very powerful group of dysfunctional people – feminists – whose main aim is to encourage family breakdown.

2. By living together – e.g. getting married – people can save on transport … Traffic congestion and pollution would be reduced enormously and time spent travelling would be cut.

C. By encouraging family break down, feminists are encouraging greater traffic congestion.

Introduced to this argument (at the excellent Fem08) by Damian Carnell from NDVF, as an example of the problematic men’s movements out there, Jender and I scoffed heartily. Ha ha! Why stick at that, why not add:

4. Greater traffic congestion means greater carbon emissions.

5. Greater carbon emissions contribute to global warming

6. Feminists encourage global warming.

Ha ha, reductio reductio! What a ridiculous argument.

But we underestimated Angry Harry – you’ve got to give it to him, he follows the premises through to their conclusion, and thus his bold conclusion:

Feminists Destroy the Planet!

 At least he has provided us with an excellent example to use in critical thinking classes (there’s lots more at his site). But perhaps Harry has indeed been too angered by the all those traffic jams. On yer bike Harry!

Feminist Zines

Stoat and I have spent the day at the wonderful FEM 08 Conference, the main UK feminist event of the year. Among other things, we got the chance to actually meet some of our favourite bloggers, from The F-Word and Philobiblon/Carnival of Feminists. This is the first in a series of posts we’ll be doing on all the great (and not so great) things we learned about at this conference. I’ve chosen to kick off with the London Zine Symposium because concerns something that’s happening tomorrow. Red Chidgey, of the Feminist Activist Forum, gave a fascinating talk on the world of feminist zines, which I had no idea still existed– and I’m pleased to say they’re clearly not just existing, but thriving. If you’re in London, go to the zine symposium and look for them!