“Speaking through the Silence,” in Unspeakable: Feminist Ethic of Speech, by Betty McLellan
“Speaking through the Silence,” chapters 6 and 7, in Unspeakable: Feminist Ethic of Speech, by Betty McLellan. Australia: Spinifex Press, 2010.
Rather than review this book in its entirety, I decided to write about it section by section so that I could discuss its points in more detail. This is my comments on the last section. Earlier remarks can be found here, here, and here.
In the closing section of Unspeakable, Betty McLellan returns to some of her earlier themes of differences among feminists and the ways in which feminists are silenced. As an ethicist, she also discusses points we need to consider before speaking and acting and assesses where feminism is today. Although speaking out may feel liberating, she points out that we may hurt ourselves and our cause. Mainstreaming issues may result in their dilution and distortion. Yet women have made gains because of those who have spoken out in the past. We must face the fact that the struggle for better lives for women is a long one, and we must not become discouraged over the backlash that occurs after each set of gains.
With the rise of conservatism, in recent years, feminism has continued to be attacked. Yet as McLellan points out gains continued to be made, especially by non-western feminists. She offers examples from places as diverse as Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the islands of the Pacific. She also describes the state of feminism in the western world which is often said to be in decline after the attacks of conservatives in various countries. Agreeing that feminism in these countries is not as optimistic and visible as it was in late twentieth century, she identifies how feminists must continue their tasks of analysis and challenge. As in other parts of her book, she affirms the need for a radical feminism that does not water down its message in order to be more acceptable to powerful men.
As I finished reading Unspeakable, I was again grateful to her for laying out issues that those of us who claim to be feminist need to consider. She does a fine job of explaining issues and making distinctions clear. I agree with much of what she says, although I would not make the lines between feminists as sharp as she does. While I agree that feminism must be an oppositional force, naming men as oppressors especially in their violence against women, my feminism extends more tolerance for others who share my goals. I am also unsure if the solutions she seems to support would be effective. Yes, men should be held accountable for pornography and prostitution, but I doubt that legislation or other specific acts will have any impact without larger societal changes to insure that no people are treated as objects.
Some of my disagreement with McLellan may have to do with the changes I have witnessed since her book was published just two years ago. My own opinion about the future of feminism has altered dramatically as I have witnessed the strength of the “war against women” being waged by ultraconservatives, many of whom hold leadership positions in the Republican Party. These are men in positions where they can make or break policies within the USA. In states where they hold power, they have been able to prohibit legal abortions or make the procedure so dreadful that women will not seek to have them. They also openly oppose birth control. Across the board women’s access to health care is under attack, while austerity measures have disproportionally lessened women’s ability to be financially secure whether or not they are married.
I see the current backlash against what women have gained in the past 40 years as having reaching a dangerous extreme. At the same time, I see women who have been silent speaking out again in angry protest to the actions of conservative leaders. Their response encourages me to hope that we are reentering a time when feminism can be a rallying point against those who restrict and devalue women. This is not a time to argue over difference among ourselves. In such an atmosphere, our task as feminists is to providing leadership and analysis to a broad range of women who oppose attempts to return us to “our place.”