Talk is cheap
A focus on words and symbolism keeps feminism ineffective

Domestic and sexual violence against women is gaining increased attention in the media and public policy, and that’s an entirely good thing. But all too often, significant events are hijacked by outpourings of offendedness. You don’t need to know much to be offended, you just need an unshakeable belief that words reign supreme in shaping society. We now expect every major news story to have a controversy over representation attached, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the women’s movement.

Last night, for example, after reports that a 17-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted on her way home from work, the mayor of Albury warned women not to walk alone, as it was “an invitation to take advantage of you”. Predictable outrage ensued.

This came in the wake of the comments of homicide squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes last month, who, in response to the highly publicised murder of Victorian schoolgirl Masa Vukotic, said on radio: “I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks – I’m sorry to say that, that is the case. We just need to be a little bit more careful, a little bit more security-conscious and we as a public need to look after each other.”

It was an innocuous statement of fact: a brazen killer was at large; violent offenders tend to have a consistent modus operandi; it was therefore wise to exercise prudence.

Before the day was out, a protest movement was mobilised. Women posted photos of themselves on social media wearing headphones in parks. In the following days, opinions flew into print, with the Guardian, Fairfax, Women’s Agenda and The Hoopla all publishing pieces on the right to walk alone in parks, as though this was under threat.

The disappearance and murder of young schoolteacher Stephanie Scott in April saw a similar mobilisation. Scott was reported missing on a Monday, six days before her planned wedding. She was still missing three days later, when the Courier-Mail ran a headline reading ‘Bride and Seek’. Later that morning, a man was charged with Scott’s murder. Although the headline was published well before this news broke, more than 40,000 people signed a petition saying that the paper had trivialised violence against women. In the absence of information on the accused, people had found someone to blame for something.

Like many of the trends in our culture, the resurgent prizing of representations above all else has probably come to us from the United States. There, it received a boost back in 2012, when Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe confirmed to the movement that the conspiracy indeed went all the way to the top.

It’s not just limited to politics. When the European Space Agency landed the Philae spacecraft on a comet last year, one of the lead scientists, Matt Taylor, was interviewed on television wearing a shirt that featured some scantily clad cartoon figures. The outrage was swift. One commentator described it as “casual misogyny”. The movement of course saw that it was much more than just the shirt (and never mind that it was designed by a female friend of Taylor’s): it symbolised why women are underrepresented in scientific and technical fields.

Symbolism is the fundamental issue here: if only we use the correct language, the argument runs, abuse of women will end and their material conditions will improve. Using the time-honoured tactic of reversing historical injustice by employing the methods of the oppressor, the women's movement talks at people. Shouting down and calling out are the primary tools of response.

Words are given undue weight; every “wrong” public utterance is seen as confirmation of a conspiratorial patriarchy operating to oppress women. Detective Inspector Hughes did not propose to prohibit women from entering parks; he called for caution in response to a specific event. The editors at the Courier-Mail wrote a crass headline, but it does not mean they think violence against women is funny. Matt Taylor does not dress in the morning to keep women out of science jobs.

Our current feminism provides its adherents with a way to read the world but not the tools to respond to it. What are the policy ideas to help close the oft-misunderstood gender pay gap of 18% (due to the amount of time we take off work in the course of our careers)? How do we manage childcare expenses, accreditation, and shortages? The movement’s response is the inevitable “call for more funding” – which is a reaction, not a policy position.

The lack of policy advocacy may stem from the fact that there is no political wing of the women’s movement. It skews toward the radical feminist idea that the sweeping generalisation of “society” is the problem. There is no organisation such as the Refugee Action Coalition as a central point for organisation. There is no feminist party, like there is in Sweden, to engage in day-to-day politics.

We have a movement is active without being organised or engaged; a battle of words and not ideas. In a 1972 critique of the women’s movement in the New York Times, Joan Didion noted that the movement had invented the concept of women as a class. It has produced a bunker mentality that reduces complex issues to questions of identity: purity of thought is paramount, Marxist style, and dissent from orthodox positions is viewed as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

In 2013, feminist academic Eva Cox asked why many feminists didn’t support Tony Abbott’s proposed paid parental leave scheme, which was exactly the kind of generous, government-funded entitlement program the movement had been seeking for decades. She concluded that they opposed the policy on personality grounds, because it was put forward by Tony Abbott.

The truth is that feminism is exclusively politically left-wing, and its activists won’t countenance ideas outside that mindset, even if they are good for women. The reason we don’t see activism for tougher, individualised law-and-order responses to domestic and sexual violence, is that it wouldn’t fit the narrative that women are oppressed by a patriarchal society; that the revolution is coming and that change itself is an answer. Ultimately, the lack of policy and hard political activism from the movement plays to the insulting anachronistic stereotype that women aren’t hard-headed, that we can’t get our heads around the tough stuff.

The women’s movement has a huge problem, and it’s not alone on the left in moving away from hard politics to soft critiques. For as long as it promulgates the idea that social relations are primarily a series of speech acts, it will remain ineffective.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at


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