Campus feminism faces radical rethink of priorities

When women’s issues are played out via Clubs & Societies, how do we know progress when we see it, asks Connie Ye.

Welcome to big school. Image: Christopher Neugebauer

The university community was subjected to both merited and morally panicked scrutiny regarding ‘women’s issues’ at the end of last semester. Three student societies that cropped up in quick succession – the Feminist Society, LifeChoice and the short-lived proposal for the Men’s Society – are worthy of comment. Partly so for their contributions to colourfully honest debate that rarely goes amiss in our age of diplomacy, and partly for signalling to the rest of the university the increasingly polarised views embedded in our student clubs and societies.

Questions of administration and ‘right’ to existence aside, these clubs have emerged in a flurry of wavering ideals on the horizon regarding choices tied to women’s welfare, and whether the concept of such choice has been a mirage this whole time. It is less troubling to hear of people speaking about conservative or even retrogressive sentiment rearing its head in our generation than to see evidence of such sentiment and fail to link it to greater logical causes.

There is a real probelm in the overlap between social issues. Take the recent US national legislative debate over ‘conscience clause exceptions’ in health care. Passing these exceptions would have mandated the provision of contraception by religious educational and charity services, overriding any patent opposition to such provision on the basis of their beliefs.

Among those speaking in favour of the measures was Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, who was especially vocal on the crippling costs of contraception for female students. Her comments that birth control could cost over US$3,000 during the course of a law degree attracted the ever-welcome attention of right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh, who said:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Limbaugh’s comments made nil contribution to the overall debate but the media storm was not unwarranted: for the past decade or so there has been rising conservatism across the Pacific. US vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood, Leola Reis, who spoke here last semester, listed at least six currently proposed bills – state and national – which threaten to restrict access and/or negatively reinvent the already arduous process of abortion or ‘preventing natal development’.

All this begs the question of what it means to be progressive in the face of conservatism. The progressive label has been dulled by misuse, being bandied around with such liberal application. If the point is to take a continuously forward-thinking critical view on policies regarding women’s sexual health and social welfare, then the campus feminists would do better to pick the appropriate battles to fight.

The creators of Facebook advocacy group ‘Stop the LifeChoice (anti-abortion) Society at USYD’ are on their way to amassing the two hundred signatures of Union members required to call a Special General Meeting.

But even once this does happen, it will be difficult to imagine what substantial changes will be made if any. Given the Union’s constitution allows for little more scope than mere comment on Board actions and giving advice as to future oard policy, it is probable that recommendations for alterations of a procedural nature will be the most radical thing to eventuate from the SGM. The prognosis sounds grim for LifeChoice opposers, but as they say, red tape is red tape is red tape.

Many will also say Ann-Marie Slaughter’s dismissal of lofty have-it-all ambitions for working women in The Atlantic came at a good time when the feminist movement in whatever form it exists today needed a straight talking stock-take on the progress it has made. The creation of the Feminist Society will hopefully be a move to distance and broaden the brand of feminism from the Women’s Collective, whose existence provided good ammunition for the likes of Men’s Society founder Jack Mason.

While rigorous opposition and lack of support shut that idea down rather quickly, it’s questionable whether such an immediate denouncement was helpful to the cause. If the feminist movement is robust enough, complementary discussion for men should not be discounted so quickly.

Furthermore, talk of starting an anti-pro-life society has not gone unsubstantiated. It would be interesting to see a Heglian dialectic played out via C&S. But whether or not we achieve any enlightening debate at the end of it is another matter altogether.

As for those thinking to follow in the footsteps of Ann-Marie Slaughter, consider the possibility that having one’s cake and eating it too is not an impossibility in itself. So long as we understand that we will most likely be the ones baking the thing and sharing it around before we sit down to a slice of idealism ourselves.