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“Silencing of Women’s Voices,” in Unspeakable, by Betty McLellan.

April 29, 2013

“Silencing of Women’s Voices,” chapters 3, 4, and 5, in Unspeakable: Feminist Ethic of Speech,, by Betty McLellan.  Australia: Spinifex Press, 2010.

I apologize for the month being almost over before I am posting my comments on the section on “Silencing” in Unspeakable: Feminist Ethic of Speech by Betty McLellan.  As readers may remember, I am reviewing this book a section a month in order to address and discuss all its major issues.  I hope I haven’t lost those of you who were reading along with me.

In previous chapters, McLellan has identified herself as a radical feminist, interested in full lives for all woman, rather than  a liberal feminist who is more interested in gaining equality as an individual within existing structures.  She advocates for a feminism that challenges such structures.  Next she establishes her point that “free speech” cannot exist unless it is also “fair speech” with all of those speaking having a equal chance of being heard and of their views  influencing others.

In chapters 3, 4 and 5, McLellan addresses the issue of “The Silencing of Women’s Voices.”  First she addresses problems and abuses that women face and points out how they negatively affect women’s ability to speak.  For example, she shows that violence against women creates real barriers to women’s ability to speak out in their own defense.    While the material is well presented there was less new material introduced here than in previous sections.  In chapter 4, “The Silencing of Dissent,” she discusses the larger question of how governments manage to silence all who try to oppose what those in power are doing.  Here McLellan examines recent history in Australia and the United States where the governments have systematically lied to citizens in order to gain support for unsupportable actions such as the attack on Iraq.  I found it interesting to see how a story I know all too well in the USA played out in Australia.  Again the chapter was good but not innovative.

Chapter 5 focuses on “Women Silencing Women” and here McLellan moves into issues less often discussed.  First she chides journalists who seem to delight in accusing feminists of silencing other women.  Pointing out the simple factual errors in their reporting, she calls such attacks as unjustified.  Then she moves on to how feminists have failed and been unfair to other women and even to each other both intentionally and unintentionally.  The basic differences between radical and liberal feminism are again established, and McLellan makes the point that disagreement need not cause silencing.  Yet feminists need to take special pains to show respect for others and to listen to their positions.

One of the biggest conflicts in the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was over the acceptance of lesbians.  Attempts to exclude them from the movement was one of the movement’s  early failures.  Although lesbians had provided energy and insight for the movement, the feminist leaders felt threatened by the presence of lesbians and sought to exclude and deny them participation.  They believed that to accept lesbians would hamper their attempts to gain mainstream success.  Although I chose marriage and life with a man in those years, I knew lesbians who experienced anger and pain at the hands of heterosexual feminists.  Today lesbians are much more accepted and continue their important critiques of traditional family structures.

In the rest of this chapter McLellan moves away from direct engagement with questions of speech and silencing to addresses ongoing conflicts within feminism.  Here I am not sure whom she is accusing of silencing other women.  Although I tend to agree with most of the positions she takes, I recognize that these issues are contentious and, I believe, less clear-cut than she describes.

Recalling her earlier definition of radical feminism, McLellan reiterates her belief that liberal feminists do not adequately challenge the oppression of women by men.  Personal advancement by a few women as individuals does little to help the vast majority of women, a position with which I strongly agree.  In her view prostitution, pornography, and violence against women are acts of oppression against women that harm and silence women generally, even those who are not directed involved in such acts.  To this list she also adds in vitro fertilization as medical experimentation that has the potential for causing damage.

In addition, McLellan writes forcefully against the shift in feminist language to post-modernism and analysis of gender.  She sees this as a major move away from naming the oppression by men of women.  While I know that not all postmodernists back away from political stances, I agree with the dangers of assuming that gender roles are morally neutral.   McLellan also rejects Gay, Queer, and Transgendered movements as not taking seriously the experiences and needs of all women and the concrete oppressions they face.  I also see here point here.  While I enjoyed and learned much from Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano, reviewed here, I was struck by how irrelevant her words were for the majority of women who daily face racial and class hardships that multiply the oppression they face as women.

In my view, radical feminism moves away from liberal feminism in two different directions, one focusing on sexuality as McLellan does, and one on economic and racial difficulties compounding women’s oppression.    Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity,  by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, reviewed here, takes this approach.  So do recent articles that have begun to appear again such as those by Zillah Eisenstein to which I have linked.

While supporting McLellan’s positions generally, I am not as concerned as she is with the particular issues that she names as oppressive.  I less willing than she is to take part in intra-feminism conflicts.  I wish she had paid more attention to the strand of feminism which examines the confluences of oppressions that include race and class. gender

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