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Is there an ex­piry date on a point of view? Sarah Ay­oub analy­ses why it stings so much when we feel our fem­i­nist poster girls have let us down

When Ger­maine Greer com­pared the trauma of rape to a fear of spi­ders, women did a dou­ble-take. Here was a fem­i­nist icon who told us aim­ing for equal­ity was a “con­ser­va­tive” goal and she was say­ing what? “Trauma is some­thing that is dic­tated re­ally by the suf­ferer,” Greer said. “I can’t bear hunts­man spi­ders. It is not their fault. It’s my fault… I de­cided to be fright­ened of them.” Greer has also crit­i­cised Ju­lia Gil­lard’s “big arse” and said Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses speak­ing out about their #Metoo ex­pe­ri­ences were “whinge­ing”. It begs the ques­tion, can we still put her on a fem­i­nist pedestal or is crit­i­cis­ing her also against the spirit of the sis­ter­hood?

“Ger­maine Greer has irked Aus­tralians by align­ing her­self with a kind of fem­i­nism that seems not merely old-fash­ioned but con­ser­va­tive,” says Dr Lau­ren Rose­warne, se­nior lec­turer in the School of So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Sciences at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. “Com­ments she’s made limit her con­tin­ued use­ful­ness as a fem­i­nist icon.”

Greer isn’t the only hero who re­fuses to toe the line. Hil­lary Clin­ton drew crit­i­cism for say­ing you can be pro-life and call your­self a fem­i­nist. And ear­lier this year The Handmaid’s Tale au­thor Mar­garet At­wood penned a piece ti­tled “Am I A Bad Fem­i­nist?” af­ter de­fend­ing a professor who was fired from the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia af­ter an al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual as­sault (which a court later said was false). Glo­ria Steinem, long crit­i­cised for her trans-ex­clu­sion­ary views, ad­mit­ted in 2013 that she was wrong. “What I wrote decades ago [about trans­gen­der women] does not re­flect what we know to­day as we move away from only the bi­nary boxes of ‘mas­cu­line’ or ‘fem­i­nine’,” she wrote for The Ad­vo­cate.

These women had been icons of the fem­i­nist move­ment, but has mil­len­nial fem­i­nism out­grown its poster girls? Not nec­es­sar­ily, says Emily Maguire, au­thor of forth­com­ing book, This Is What A Fem­i­nist Looks Like. “Pin­ning an enor­mous move­ment to any one or hand­ful of ‘poster girls’ is a mis­take,” she says. “It’s been the non-fa­mous and un­cel­e­brated fem­i­nists who get laws changed, al­ter cur­ricu­lums and set up refuges and health cen­tres, step by painstak­ing step.”

Maguire points out that no one per­son speaks for every­one, that fem­i­nism by its very na­ture is fluid. “There’s no such thing as a fem­i­nist pope,” she says. “None of those women are ca­pa­ble of hold­ing the move­ment back; the move­ment goes on, with or with­out them.”

Yes, there can be a sense of dis­ap­point­ment in hear­ing your fem­i­nist icon has dropped an anti-pc bomb, for sure, but per­haps the les­son we need to take away is that we feel the dis­ap­point­ment so keenly be­cause fem­i­nism is a lot more in­clu­sive and woke to­day, em­pow­ered by an aware­ness that other women’s races, re­li­gions, abil­i­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences must also play a role in how it’s de­fined.

While it’s im­por­tant to note that the in­put of our fem­i­nist fore­bears was ex­tra­or­di­nary, they also need to adapt to the times. And it’s okay to be dis­ap­pointed with them. E

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