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Why don't anti-feminist commentators appreciate the irony of their position?

By Darlene Taylor - posted Wednesday, 24 December 2003

Anyone who has picked up one of this country's major newspapers would be acquainted with the opinions of Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman and P P McGuiness. Although Australia's most prominent conservative columnists are men; the right-wing views of a few women can be found in papers such as The Australian and The Sun Herald. Regardless of their gender, some of these women share their ideological brothers' antagonism towards feminists and feminism as my brief analysis of articles by Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and Angela Shanahan shows.

The Sun Herald's Miranda Devine described opponents of 2002's strife-torn Miss World pageant as "wrinkly old feminists". In Devine's opinion, opposition by women's rights activists to Miss World came from the "fear of the power of female beauty". Devine does not say what "female beauty's" power is but she maintains feminists, in common with northern Nigeria's religious zealots, want to enfeeble it by covering up those who possess it. "Are beautiful women", she questions, "to wear sackcloth and ashes - or burquas - to keep feminists happy?"

Although critiques of Miss World allow us to explore concepts of "beauty" beyond rigid and narrow understandings, Devine represented opponents as totalitarian, condemnatory and sufficiently "unsisterly" to deride contestants as "simpering", "guileless", "bovine" and "vacuous". In contrast, Australia's Miss World entrant comes across in Devine's article as patriotic, self-motivated, and self-sacrificing ("she paid her own way to London" we are told). Miss Australia's biracial background also makes her the epitome of multiculturalism. Devine seems here to be contrasting Miss Australia's image of "diversity" with what she sees as the uniform (and unthreatening) "plainness" preferred by feminists in London.


When The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen joined the debate about fertility levels, she presented second-wave feminism as an egocentric movement that was responsible for (female) permissiveness, high divorce rates and a consequent fear of commitment on the part of men. Albrechtsen used phrases like "60s swingers" and "excessive individualism" as if they are unquestionably linked with feminism and never in conflict with its aims. "Why is sex so freely available?" she asked before responding: "women make it so." "Why is the divorce rate so high?" Albrechtsen believes "60s excessive individualism, fuelled by feminism's love of self ..." is to blame.

Paradoxically, Albrechtsen accuses women's liberationists of the 1960s of being "anti-baby" and "individualistic" while maintaining "feminists still cling to that special attachment between mother and child whenever it suits". According to Albrechtsen, it is feminism that makes men "losers" in the Family Court and not women's ongoing role as the primary care-givers of children.

Albrechtsen has taken a favourable tone towards second-wave and anti-censorship feminists, it is only to reproach so-called "latter-day feminists" for supporting "Orwellian" and "nebulous" sexual harassment laws. In Albrechtsen's view, nearly every male gesture in workplaces and universities has become suspect, while women who make vexatious complaints or passes at superiors are unaccountable because of a pervasive "rights-above-all-else mentality". Albrechtsen thus pictures some feminists as sexual "Auntie Scrooges" who take the "frivolous … fun" out of office Christmas parties and the "sexual discussion" out of places of work.

The Australian's Angela Shanahan believes feminists desire a "new paradigm" of motherhood, in which looking after baby full-time thanks to paid maternity leave provisions is quickly abandoned to waged employment. To these activists, says Shanahan; it is "only … work and the working mother as an individual economic unit" that gives women "self-worth". Shahanan stereotypes feminists of "old" as "rakish" and "free-bosomed" with a "vociferous ferocity" we know put them in conflict with "mainstream" Australia.

Shanahan understands, however, that the pretensions of "new feminists" to majority appeal can't hide the reality that their "elite" ambitions are at variance with the practices and wishes of most mothers in this country who want to stay at home when their children are young.

It is curious that Shanahan thinks it noteworthy that liberal feminists like Pru Goward and the "Human Rights and Equal Opportunity coterie" believe in the importance of the individual. Perhaps even stranger is why Shanahan writes about feminism as if it is a homogenous movement rather a multifaceted one.


Her contribution to International Women's Day celebrations was to caricature "post-pill feminists" as sad, selfish, "sexually anxious" and suffering from a disorder known as "suburban insecurity". She claims the last two conditions contain the root of second-wave feminists' commitment to the cause. While Shanahan thinks "old-style" activists want recognition from young women, she maintains they (rightly) receive "wariness" and irritation from them for their "patronising assumptions" and "excesses".

When declaring "after all, look what happened to her" to suggest the attitude of young women to Germaine Greer, Shanahan conjures the spectre of a childless "spinster" rather than the academic's body of work. For Shanahan, "marriage and motherhood (remain) the objectives of most women", not the "set of shallow, cliche-ridden slogans that has encouraged a culture of imploding self-absorption". This "set" of "slogans" is apparently feminism and the culture Shanahan believes it has promoted is manifested in problems such as domestic violence and divorce.

Given feminism demanded men cede some of their power and privilege, it was disappointingly predictable that some of them would vent their hostility in print. There have always been a few women willing to distort and deride feminism's aims and influence as well. Indeed, anti-feminist women often find it is easier to get published in the mass media then those trying to promote the cause. Fortunately, diverse and interesting supporters including Emma Tom, Catharine Lumby and Anne Summers continue to positively discuss feminism in the Australian press.

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Darlene Taylor writes for the popular group blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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