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Unspeakable: A Feminist Ethic of Speech, by Betty McLellan.

February 8, 2013

Unspeakable: A Feminist Ethic of Speech, by Betty McLellan.  Australia: Spinifex Press, 2010.


An excellent overview of feminist debates that proclaims feminism is about speaking out in dissent to the status quo—despite the efforts to silence us.

Betty McLellan has written a much-needed book about feminism’s fundamental beliefs.  Her writing is very accessible and solid; neither densely theoretical nor flashy.  Always sensitive to differences of race, class and sexual orientation, she asks us to think about what it means to call ourselves feminists.  She summarizes the writings of some of my favorite feminists and introduces me to others that I did not know.

Tracing different strands of feminism, McLellan expresses the need for us to speak out against the power structures which seeks to silence women and other dissidents.   While Carol Gilligan’s work is significant in pointing out how men and women think differently about caring and justice, rights and responsibility, it does not address needed structural change.  Liberal feminists are too often seeking a seat at the table, rather than trying to upset its hierarchy.  Too many of those who espouse postmodernism seek to remain neutral or apolitical rather than naming oppression.  McLellan goes on to explore the ways in which free speech is as meaningless as free trade for those, like women, who are ignored and excluded from power.  I agree with much that she says, but she leaves me pondering just how radical I am.  I’d like to discuss some of this.

Would anyone like to read and discuss this book with me over the next three and a half months?  I am suggesting that we read and discuss McLellan’s introduction this month and then take a month to read and discuss each of her three sections Introduction–February

I.  Free Speech versus Fair Speech—March

II. Silencing of Women—April

III.Speaking through the Silence—May

The book is published by Spinifex Press and available as an ebook.  The sections are each range from 20 to 90 pages.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2013 5:38 pm

    I am going up to my local bookshop to buy/order a copy this morning! I have been waiting for something like this to come along.

    • February 10, 2013 8:45 am

      Great. I hope you got a copy and will join in discussing the introduction this month.

    • February 13, 2013 9:46 am

      If you have trouble finding a copy, you can order an ebook of Unspeakable online directly from Spinifex Press. They can send it immediately and you can avoid shipping costs. Good luck.

      • February 13, 2013 2:58 pm

        I had hoped to find a hard copy as I like to ‘befriend’ my books by making marks in them, but the bookseller tells me it is only available as an e-book. Even Amason has it only as digital, so looks like that’s how I’ll have to go. ‘ll try again once more today at out 2 secondhand sellers in town, then give in!

      • February 13, 2013 3:11 pm

        You can buy a copy direct from the author. I am the same – I like to ‘mark’ my books and highlight favourite phrases! Here is the link:

      • February 17, 2013 10:03 pm

        My copy has arrived today, direct from the author. Ready to start reading!

  2. February 8, 2013 11:22 pm

    Just bought a copy last week – would love to chat about it!

    • February 10, 2013 8:48 am

      Great. Have you started reading the first chapter yet? Do you fit into McLellan’s types of feminism? Do you agree with her on the importance of speech and opposition? Any other responses?

      • February 13, 2013 3:11 pm

        Haven’t had a chance to open it yet! Hoping I get some time this weekend.

      • angelwings76 permalink
        February 18, 2013 6:27 pm

        Well – just read the intro to Unspeakable. I do definatley agree with the comment: “speech is free only to those who enjoy the privilege and safety of economic power” and Betty provided a great example in the events following 9-11, asking where were the female voices? I also watched a youtube video this week by a man talking about the fact that men don’t listen to women and how it takes a man’s voice to get through to other men. Looking at the types of feminism, I definately fit into the radical/political feminist mould – it is ok to talk about how women are unequal but I think actions speak louder than words!

  3. February 22, 2013 11:00 am

    Glad to get your response. My WordPress has been acting up and I am not sure if you got the note I sent earlier. Sorry to be slow working it out.

    Yes, I think she is onto an important point about women not being heard, and that is something we need to change. I am closest to the radical/political type of feminism,too, but I am not sure politics is where we need to act most. Words and being heard are important in a variety of ways outside the formal political arena. But if not that arena, where and how?

  4. July 17, 2013 11:26 pm

    Do you believe this is a topic that may be
    published to a manual? If you expand it to extra subjects
    into different segments, maybe you can produce it into a compact e book to
    distribute online and then eventually release it on Amazon?

    • July 22, 2013 10:13 am

      Good question. I am not sure, but I don’t feminism would translate into a manual. It is too open. There are too many divisions among feminists to reduce it to a compact set of rules.


  1. “Free Speech and Fair Speech.” Part 1 of Unspeakable, by Betty McLellan. | Me, you, and books

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