Yesterday Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was quizzed on whether she identified as a feminist, I’m sure it must have been done many times before but this time her answer is getting saturation media coverage. The answer was about as equivocal as they get, she hedged and qualified and ducked and weaved and eventually settled upon a very tentative, no.
As is sadly too often the case when a prominent woman chooses not to identify as a feminist, Bishop’s answer ignited a new round of analysis in which choosing not to identify with the word feminism is blithely equated to being anti-women. Some commentators like Mamamia’s Jamila Rizvi have countered that Bishop is not anti-women and therefore her choosing not to identify as a feminist was a simple case of mistaken identity. Others have been even kinder, explaining that Bishop is simply anti-women.
If there was a detailed and authoritative definition of feminism in circulation then perhaps this argument could hold a little more water but there simply isn’t. At this very moment, in a university lecture theatre somewhere in the world there will be a debate unfurling between those who believe the end goal of feminism is establishing equality with men, and those who believe it is about women’s liberation. Doubtless there are those who will argue the two are not mutually exclusive but there is no shortage of academics –academics who identify as feminists –who will argue they are.
Given this broad range of definitions for feminism, and the preparedness of many to vigorously assert that theirs is the one true incarnation of feminism and that the others are pretenders, it should not come as a shock when an individual hesitates before voluntarily accepting the branding. Add into the equation the seemingly institutionalized hostility between those who identify as a feminist and the conservative side of politics and it becomes even more understandable for Julie Bishop to decline the label.
Do I identify as a feminist? Yes I probably do, the bulk of what I’ve read which has claimed to be presenting a feminist perspective has been agreeable to me, but it was the substance of said literature that drew me in, not the use of the specific word. By the same token whether Bishop’s values, attitudes and policy positions enhance or undermine the status of women should be of infinitely more interest and concern to observers than whether or not she affiliates herself with a word.
Conflating a decision not to identify with feminism with harbouring hostility towards women is intellectually weak and counterproductive for individuals hoping to adopt what I might tentatively refer to as a feminist approach to political thought.