Good girls gone bad?

Article by Sarah Ayoub /
Elle /
October, 2018 /
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Is there an expiry date on a point of view? Sarah Ayoub analyses why it stings to 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 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 painful 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.