Can a feminist be pro-life?

Can a feminist be pro-life? Can a feminist be a Christian?

Here’s another. Can an atheist be pro-life. Or, is the pro-life movement merely a stalking horse for the Christian right?

While some of this field has been plowed by Christopher Hitchens –  a professed atheist, Hitchens answered the question of whether an atheist can be pro-life in an article he wrote for Vanity Fair (The answer is yes. He was an atheist and opposed abortion.) — it is new to Australia. And the debate over who is a feminist is a live one.

These questions were at the heart of a media furore in Australia last month following the publication in the Sydney Morning Herald of a profile of pro-life activist, Melinda Tankard Reist.  MTR — as she has come to be called on twitter and other social media sites — is the author of Big Porn Inc, a study warning of the pernicious cultural and social effects of pornography.

The SMH‘s ‘Who’s Afraid of Melinda Tankard Reist’ was a mostly positive appraisal of MTR, written in the breathy People magazine style seen in the early stories about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a woman of strong opinions. She is also a woman about whom people have strong feelings. If you’ve seen her proselytise on pornography on TV, read her opinions on the sexualisation of girls in the newspapers, or watched her go after do-badding companies on Twitter or through her activist group Collective Shout, chances are you have a few opinions about her of your own.

She’s a wowser. A no-nonsense political crusader beloved by both teenage girls and their mothers. A religious conservative in feminist clothing. A brazen careerist. A gifted networker and generous mentor.

The Canberra-based activist, mother of four and author of four books is difficult to pigeonhole and impossible to ignore. (and so on and so forth)

The article prompted a sharp response in an opinion piece entitled “There is no such thing as a pro-life feminist” published in the SMH by Anne Summers which challenged MTR’s right to call herself a feminist. The original story also prompted a torrent of abuse.

Writing in the Herald Sun in an article entitled “Pro-lifer sparks charge of the spite brigade”, Mirando Devine stated:

The cyber bullies who piled on to anti-porn activist Melinda Tankard Reist last week are behaving like 17th-century witch hunters, not the enlightened tolerance queens they claim to be.

Tankard Reist’s crime was to be profiled not unfavourably in a Sunday magazine, which described her as one of Australia’s best-known feminist voices.

This infuriated the miserable Orcs who lurk in the dark recesses of Twitter and the blogosphere.

Up they sprang to pour calumny on Tankard Reist, a pro-life feminist and 48-year-old mother of four from Mildura.

She was nothing but a fundamentalist Christian trying to hide her religious beliefs. Therefore, her views on the sexualisation of children, the objectification of women, the corrosive effect of internet pornography, were suspect.

Oh, and she should be abused with a coffee cup.

One blogger attacked MTR for speaking out on abortion and offered this put down.

She’s a Baptist and attends Belconnen Baptist Church. … She is anti-abortion. She is deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs. … What does does she have to hide?

Well that’s another one to add to my list: Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, the Illuminati, Bilderburgers, Bonesmen and now Baptists — agents of Satan all. But I digress.

Writing in The Age in an article entitled “Another day, another fresh wave of e.hate”, MTR objected to the the standards of debate being exhibited in the social media culture, where physical and verbal threats had crowded out rational discourse in battle of ideas. Other feminists soon entered the fray.

The directors of a feminist publishing house defended MTR in a story entitled “The Authentic Feminism of Melinda Tankard Reist”, posted  the ABC’s Religion and Ethics site which argued that being a feminist did not mean checking one’s mind at the door or conforming to a single party line on any issue. Other opinion pieces soon appeared in the Age, “Feminism’s clique does not help the cause”, in the SMH, “Plenty of room under the feminism umbrella” and “Tankard Reist explain yourself”, and on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics site, “Media must do better on porn debate” that adopted differing views on the controversy.

The story took a further twist when MTR engaged an attorney to ask the blogger who said she was a Christian fundamentalist to retract her statement. MTR is not a Baptist and does not attend Belconnen Baptist Church. She is a Christian, however, and has not hidden her faith.

The Herald Sun reported that this attempt to set the record straight prompted a new attack.

The Twitter hate exploded. Leslie Cannold, a so-called “ethicist”, was among the more energetic defenders of Wilson, averaging two tweets every hour every day, indicating a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Tankard Reist.

“She wouldn’t be considered newsworthy if correctly described as fundie Christian. They’re all anti-porn raunch & choice.”

There is more than a little envy among Christophobes at Tankard Reist’s growing influence and good standing with young women.

In a summary of the debate printed in the opinion section of The Drum on the ABC entitled “Tankard Reist furore: feminists on the attack”, Claire Bongiorno questioned the anti-Christian sentiments of some of MTR’s critics.

Eva Cox has suggested that Tankard Reist’s views may be incompatible with “basic feminist criteria” because of her ‘religious’ views.

… Cox argues that people claiming to be feminists should declare their ‘religious’ beliefs. Such declarations would allow those assessing their feminist views to identify any presuppositions with which a feminist writer may be working. Cox stated in a recent article in The New Matilda that, if we knew Ms Tankard Reist’s “religious” views, then it may be that her feminist views “fail to meet what I would see as basic feminist criteria”.  However, knowing the “religious” views of a feminist writer may not be useful and it may result in misunderstandings and incorrect inferences being drawn.

The suggestion that one needs to scrutinise Tankard Reist further because of what she has identified as a “struggling spirituality”, also suggests a suspicion and intolerance for faith.

Women who ascribe to some kind of faith can and do still have agency to think and form views about feminism. There is also no reason to assume that women can’t critique aspects of their particular faith with which they disagree. For example, some Catholic women may criticise the patriarchal structures that limit female participation and leadership in their church. It is patronising to women of faith that they should be treated differently in intellectual debates.

This is all great stuff. A wonderfully spirited debate is taking place in the op-ed pages of Australia’s leading newspapers that is seeking to flesh out a pressing social and ethical issue — can a women be a feminist and a religious believer? Can she be pro-life and and feminist?

The place you will not see this issue mentioned is in the other parts of the Australian press. Apart from a few articles in the technology section about the perils of abuse on social media sites and the legal liability of libeling someone via twitter or Facebook, I’ve seen nothing.

I hold up this debate in Australia’s op-ed pages for the approbation of GetReligion readers because of its high quality — and because I do not believe we will ever see this sort of thing in the American press. On blogs yes. In newspapers or on the website of television networks, no.

This is my way of making a plea for American newspapers to make space for feuilletons. What in the world is that, you may ask. In the U.S., the most read feuilleton is the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker — a collection of light news, art and literary observations. The German press takes the concept somewhat more seriously and its fueilleton section is the field of  battle in the war of ideas and provides solid reporting on intellectual, literary, philosophical and religious news.

There are specialty websites that meet this high culture niche, but in the race to be the most mediocre, the most vanilla newspaper in the land — offensive to none, advertisers for all — the press is abandoning one of its key duties. The duty to educate and inform the life of the mind.

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About geoconger
  • Mark Baddeley

    I’ve been really proud of how Australian media outlets have handled this. It is not unusual for something like this to be like the Komen debacle – a groupthink descends and everywhere produces more or less the one point of view.

    My own suspicion is that “the media” internalised a lesson from a decade or more ago with the rise of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party. This far right and highly populist group arose after the Hawke-Keating labor government and the media had combined to give the sense that Australia was centre-left in the public square. The media tried to squash the movement through sneers and attacks. It backfired *badly* and possibly helped gave One Nation more credibility than it deserved (ie. any, it was no Tea Party). I think ever since, Australian media has been just a bit more concerned about not forcing on the populace a single perspective.

    I am particularly proud of the ABC. They are historically aspirationally the BBC – so to print a strong defense of MTR’s feminist credentials, when she can easily be classified with the venerable and negative Aussie put-down “wowser”, was really going against historical type for them.

    MTR’s own career is an indication of how powerful the social medias can be. She advances her cases on fairly standard feminist rhetoric – that the things she opposes degrade and harm women. She’s been especially effective at getting companies to withdraw overly sexualised merchandise aimed at girls, and to withdraw overly sexualised advertising. And it’s in large part done through Twitter where her tweets are picked up by many other women and men of various faith commitments.

    Behind this paper discussion, however, was a *very* nastry sustained attempt to neutralise her through cyber-bullying. I think the combination of her hitting companies’ bottom lines, and her ability to gain support from a lot of younger Aussies, and her attacking pornography (I remember one person saying that they only ever get death threats when they spoke on radio against pornography) combined to make this really nasty. That campaign *was* news, and should have been reported on.

  • Dan

    Scary stuff. If one is religious the reasoning underlying one’s argument does not matter; the argument is deemed debunked merely by pointing out that the person making the argument is religious. This brings to mind Joseph Ratzinger’s observations about how relativism undermines reasoning:

    “Giving up the idea of man’s capacity for truth leads first to pure formalism in the use of words and concepts. Again, the loss of content, then and now, leads to a pure formalism of judgment. In many places today, for example, no on bothers any longer to ask what a person thinks. The verdict on someone’s thinking is ready at hand as long as you can assign it to its corresponding, formal category: conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary. Assignment to a formal scheme suffices to render unnecessary coming to terms with the content.”

  • James

    To flip the question, if the child in the womb is a girl, how could you claim to be a feminist and not be pro-life?

    It is truly baffling (or at least I wish I didn’t really understand it) that anyone would look at the exploitation of young women in the sex trade–especially pertinent to the Australians and the countries of the South China Sea–and not be an ardent defender of young women. Equally baffling is how anyone would see the devastating effects of gender-selective abortion and then think that it’s somehow anti-feminist to be pro-life. In India, China, and too many other locales, to be pro-choice is decidedly to be anti-female, because the overwhelming number of abortions are of females, for the sheer reason that they are female.

    So yes, not only would I say that one can be a feminist and pro-life, I question your ability to be a feminist and not be pro-life. I agree with you that it is a great opportunity for those still wrestling with the question to see what both sides are really about. And I’m heartened that many young women in Australia are giving Melinda Tankard Reist a fair hearing and seeing the validity of her arguments, even if they do not share her faith.

    @Mark Baddely: I think you are right about the anger over the effects on the bottom line. I’m reminded of the riot in Ephesus against Paul over the hit to the sales of idols and trinkets at the temple of Artemis. In the end, it wasn’t about principle or spirituality, just bucks.

  • Ann Rodgers

    An organization called Feminists for Life of America has been around since the 1970s. Its major work is on college campuses, where one of its projects is to mobilize both pro-life and pro-choice students to support campus-based students for pregnant women and young parents.

    Groups such as “Atheists for Life” have also been around for decades, though not as active or well organized as Feminists for Life. A current incarnation is Secular Pro-life:

  • Randy

    It comes down to definitions. What does feminist mean? If it means pro-woman then pretty much everyone is going to claim that. If it means a particular set of policies that have become associated with the word “feminism” then it implies a certain view on abortion.

    The question of “Who is Christian?” is another can of worms. The Catholic answer to it is anyone who is validly baptized. So they would take it as a sacramental statement rather than a creed. Many protestants use the word Christian to refer to someone’s faith and not his sacramental status.

  • michael henry

    In reality yes and yes, without question. In a culture that now values self-identification regardless whether the one self-identifying actually lives or espouses the character of their identification, you would think no brainer.

    But in this intolerant culture of fake tolerance, we know it won’t be allowed. One simply must tow the line, period. If not, they will be Palin-ized.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I think you’re right, Randy. My personal experience of the Oz context is that feminists have historically opted for the former definition (the one more easily read out of most online dictionary definitions I could see) as it made their job easier. Any person who was pro-women was a feminist, so therefore their policies should be accepted by all right thinking people.

    But as we moved from first wave feminism through second wave and then third wave a lot of different policies (some of them opposed to each other) came to be associated with the term ‘feminism’. So, like most large bodies with no formal membership, the debate over who is a ‘real’ feminist can be a big internal debate.

    Along with your two possible definitions, I’d add a third:

    A feminist is someone who is recognised to be a feminist by people who are recognised to be feminists by people who are recognised to be feminists.

    Melinda Reist is both rejected as a feminist by some feminists and strongly endorsed by others (like her publishers who head up a recognised feminist publishing house who put their own feminist credentials on the line by publicly endorsing her credentials on the ABC site that geoconger linked).

    If this was ever the subject of a journalism report then that would be one element in the story that would need to be covered – the mixed views on her feminism credentials.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: Dan

    Scary stuff. If one is religious the reasoning underlying one’s argument does not matter; the argument is deemed debunked merely by pointing out that the person making the argument is religious.

    I’m not an expert on my own country, but there is a history behind this issue in Australia. Australia, as a whole, came to be opposed to ‘wowserism’ – a term that functions a bit like ‘puritanical’ does today, to categorise someone opposed to ‘harmless blokey fun’ (like getting drunk, womanising, gambling and the like) out of religious conviction.

    Religious people are certainly able to continue to argue against such things on religious grounds in Australia. Sometimes it might even have an effect.

    But Melinda’s effectiveness is because she comes across as a genuine feminist, recognised as such by some feminist gatekeepers, who opposes many traditional targets of wowserism on feminist, not wowser, grounds. It’s a “man bites dog” situation where her opponents don’t know how to respond to her arguments and are getting caught flat footed.

    In that situation, some people genuinely, and others for tactical reasons, are questioning whether her feminism is just a flag of convenience for a more traditional wowserism (that would likely be much less attractive to many of her supporters whether it was argued for well or not).

    Hence the debate that geoconger has highlighted that encompasses the question of ‘what is a real feminist’ that Randy has raised. It’s not quite the bypassing of the substance of her arguments that it might seem. It’s like asking whether someone in the U.S.A. is a conservative or a RINO or whether Obama is a genuine progressive.

  • Bill

    Mark Baddely #7 wrote

    A feminist is someone who is recognised to be a feminist by people who are recognised to be feminists by people who are recognised to be feminists.

    Beautiful! That goes in my quote file. Thanks!

  • Karl Winterling

    Is there a journalistic standard for what a “feminist” is? Maybe self-identification, though it’s still best to just describe someone’s beliefs.

  • Will

    Does it occur to any of these people that the “reveal your religion!” test could cut both ways? How many of the public regard Wiccans and neo-pagans, or even Buddhists, as “religious nuts” whose endorsement automatically discredits everything they espouse?

  • Will

    Randy: and then, as Lewis notes, there are those who think that “Christian” means “a decent chap who’s unselfish, etc.”, and think that if you say someone is not a Christian you are attacking his CHARACTER.

  • Will

    In response to a past post I already gave the URLs for Pagans for Life and Libertarians for Life.

  • Rachel K

    I think I’m missing something in the Hitchens article. He seems to be saying that abortion is a big, complicated issue without an easy answer, not that he’s full-bore opposed to abortion. Is there some other article or source where he more clearly expresses opposition to it?

  • Jeff

    Kudos to the Australian press for acknowledging a fact of public discourse that is almost never acknowledged by the media here, though it’s plain for all to see — namely the ugly, psychopathic misogyny that women are subjected to when they dare to depart from the left-liberal, secularist party-line.

  • Tyson K

    I was going to make the same point as Rachel about the Hitchens article. George, I think it’s a little dishonest to say that article shows he “opposed abortion.” All he says about his own views is basically hint that they are complex. The article is more an analysis of why abortion is such a hot-button and culturally fraught issue in the USA (as opposed to other places), with the requisite swipes at religion (and Catholicism in particular and Mother Teresa in particular) that came with the territory for Hitchens.

  • Bern

    Maybe off topic but Christian leaders are as likely as pro-abortion feminists to equate feminism with a pro-abortion stance. The RC church regularly decries feminism as something that undermines institutions like the family.
    See 2004 On the collaboration of men and women in the Church and the World.

  • MJBubba

    It seems that the “feminist agenda” has evolved in our lifetimes. A lot of people who are wholeheartedly in favor of the things that were on the feminist agenda 50 years ago are entirely opposed to the major thrust of the current feminist agenda.