Melinda Tankard Reist: Right-Wing Fundamentalist Feminist or Just Plain Feminist?

Readers in Australia (and no doubt a few overseas) may be aware of an ongoing story concerning anti-sexploitation campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist, known also as MTR. Tankard Reist has engaged in a public awareness campaign, through her community group Collective Shout, about the encroachments of the sex industry into various elements of popular culture, with a special focus on its impact on the formation of the thought and behavioural patterns of adolescents. Whilst receiving a lot of grassroots support, Tankard Reist has recently been subject to two types of responses (another post is needed on the significance of the fact that these responses were delivered in an online format), neither of which have any bearing whatsoever on the arguments she puts forward on the issue of sexploitation.

The first was a series of personal attacks via social media, which included threats against her own person (including sexual assault), or a series of slurs of a sexual nature. As an example of this, a post on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation website mentions a children's scriptwriter who requested naked pictures of Tankard Reist as she was "rootable in that religious feminist way". The nature of this comment segues into the second type of response, refuting her claim as a feminist because she is pro-life, christian and is therefore only a conservative and fundamentalist (Tankard Reist has claimed that at least 10 online articles on her have deployed this line of argument). 

Interestingly, in recent days, a number of feminist writers have publicly come out in defense of Tankard Reist, none of whom are christian and some of whom even reject her pro-life stance. Exemplars include Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne of the feminist publishing house, Spinifex Press, and legal academic Cathy Sherry. A small but significant rift appears to be emerging within contemporary feminism with Tankard Reist being the point of departure. The question to ask is: what can account for this convergence between some elements of feminism and Tankard Reist? Two preliminary answers would be put forward in this post.

One answer is that many of the feminists who reject the "pro-life feminist" label are, with varying degrees of acknowledgement, First-Wave Feminists. These are usually feminists who apply the principles of political Liberalism, emphasising the absolute primacy of individual autonomy and independence of women from any institutional restraint. In contrast to this, feminists who would be sympathetic to Tankard Reist, such as Klein and Hawthorne, evince tendencies of Second-Wave Feminists. Appearing in the 20th century, Second-Wave Feminists argue, as do Klein and Hawthorne, that the winning by women of individual autonomy masks other collective and structural concerns that further entrench the subordination of women. Primarily, as the implicit legitimacy given to the attacks-via-sexual-innuendo against Tankard Reist suggests, Second Wave Feminists are concerned that winning individual autonomy ignores the fact that the social structures within which an individual woman operates are shaped and determined by men (or a brutalised version of them) and that emancipation of women thus requires having a role in reshaping these structures. Secondarily, Second-Wave Feminists also operate on an epistemology that critiques the atomism of Liberal thought. For such feminists everyone, and woman in particular come to the knowledge of things by their relations with one another, and not merely by isolated, hermetically sealed cognitive calculation.

Another possible reason stems from the assertions of a minority position within feminism known as Standpoint Feminism. For the purposes of this post, this mode of Feminism presumes experience, rather than all-encompassing political programs, to be the primary source of knowledge. Because of the inevitable plurality of experiences, it is possible to conceive of multiple, equally valid forms of knowledge that may otherwise be obscured by what is mainstream. This would include multiple forms of feminism. Authors like Sherry evince tendencies of this mode of feminism when she criticises the club mentality of supposed feminist commentators, who demand submission to a fixed set of principles, deviation from which leads to arbitrary expulsion from the feminist club. 

As part of their discipleship, Christians arguably need to discern the overlaps that can exist within these threads of Feminism, rather than resort to the same kind of blanket-lambasting to which Tankard Reist is subject. For even in circumstances where fundamental positions are at odds, it is possible at a philosophical and strategic level to form alliances with such feminists in a manner that still extends Christ's reign. Admittedly, such feminists are hard to find, but as the episode over Melinda Tankard Reist evinces, such alliances are not impossible.

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