Betty McLellan is a radical feminist from Australia - feminist ethicist, psychotherapist, author and committed activist of long standing. She is Adjunct Associate Professor at James Cook University in Townsville (Australia), and Chair of the Management Committee of the Queensland Women’s Health Network. With a focus on both the personal and political, Betty successfully combines her work as a psychotherapist with a broader emphasis on feminist ethical analysis and activism. Betty is also the author of four books, including Help! I’m Living with a [Man] Boy (1999, 2006) which has been published in 16 languages.
We are incredibly excited to welcome Betty as a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at our RadFems Resist Conference, taking place this September in central London. The conference will aim to bring together radical feminists from all walks of life to share experiences and organise radical feminist resistance/resurgence.
In the interview below, we caught up with Betty, and asked for her opinion on some of the issues she has previously spoken and written about. These issues will also be explored in her talk at the conference, as well as her workshop, which is entitled "Radical Feminism: Rebellion or Revolution?" According to Betty: "Historically, radical feminism was the vanguard of the Movement for Women's Liberation - out in front, courageously speaking out, taking risks, copping criticism from all sides. Where are we now? Still out front? Or lagging behind a more mainstream feminism?"
You have talked about the need for radical feminists to stay hopeful and resist becoming insular. What other thoughts have you got in relation to the radical feminist resurgence?
I do feel very hopeful about the future of feminism when I witness and read about groups of younger and older radical feminists speaking out against prostitution, pornography and men’s violence against women. Groups like Abolish Prostitution Now, Stop Porn Culture and Collective Shout. I think of movements of women in countries around the world, including India, Brazil, Bolivia, Rwanda and Syria, all campaigning against rape and domestic violence.
All of this fills me with hope but witnessing the anger and determination of women on Facebook and other media has caused me to ponder on the journey radical feminism has taken since the beginning of Second Wave feminism. It does seem to me that we have become, or are in danger of becoming, so convinced that our beliefs and attitudes are the right ones, that we cut ourselves off from other women/feminists who are doing their best to find a way forward in their fight for justice for women.
In my Workshop at the conference, I will encourage participants to consider how we might engage with other feminists – even work together with other feminists – while holding fast to our own radical ethical stance.
How important is law in the pursuit of women’s liberation?
Of all of patriarchy’s institutions, the Law is one of the most conservative. We are reminded every day, by decisions handed down in court, that the Law was invented by men with men’s needs and privileges in mind. It is extremely difficult for women who are victims of rape and other forms of men’s violence to get anything like justice in court.
Given that the Law plays such a powerful role in society, however, feminists must engage with it in our pursuit of women’s liberation. As a Movement, we are indebted to those feminist lawyers who have fought long and hard to change the entrenched attitudes of Judges, Lawyers and Law students, and continue to do so today. Catharine MacKinnon who, with Andrea Dworkin, attempted to have the law changed in relation to pornography, while initially unsuccessful, nevertheless signalled to the legal fraternity that justice for women had to be included in legal considerations on the issue.
Feminist lawyers have been responsible for convincing legislators that certain behaviours that were previously accepted because “a man’s home is his castle” are, in fact, crimes. For example: rape in marriage, the sexual abuse of children by their fathers, a man’s violence against his partner and children.
There’s still a long way to go, but we’re getting there. All of us (not just feminist lawyers) have a role to play in forcing the law to be more equitable.
Can you talk about what you would consider to be the basic tenets of a radical feminist ethic?
A few of the basic tenets of a radical feminist ethic, as I understand them, are:
. Radical feminism focuses on the root causes of women’s oppression. Our analysis of everyday oppressions must never be superficial and our actions must not be those of putting bandaids on women’s pain. Superficial, bandaid solutions only serve to cover up and prolong the pain and injustice caused to women. Uncovering the root causes is what we’re about.
. Radical feminism puts women’s perspective at the centre. It is not uncommon to read academic work, media articles and other mainstream opinion pieces written entirely from the perspective of men and the male experience. The implication is that women’s experiences mirror those of men, which we know not to be the case. The fact is that women and women’s experiences are ignored. Radical feminism, however, places women’s life stories and women’s analysis at the centre of our work.
. Radical feminism insists that the personal (and individual) is political. To focus exclusively on individual women’s situations is to ignore the need for the system itself to be changed. Individual experiences are seen by radical feminists as examples of the effects of an unfair, biased and destructive system.
. Radical feminism is revolutionary in nature. Our aim is to have people (not just radical feminists) see the need for a total re-think of how society is structured, commit to dismantling the present system and building a new one that is fairer, more inclusive and more constructive.
. Radical feminism and radical feminists do not dance to anyone else’s tune. We don’t spend all our time reacting to other people’s criticisms. We note them, but are not directed by them.
. Radical feminists never lose sight of our history. We use it as a guide and inspiration as we push on into the future.
I could go on and on!!!
How does the above link to the idea of personal action?
All of the above tenets call for action on the part of individual radical feminists. If we are serious about our desire to create a better world for women, then each of us will be committed to:
. knowing our history,
. familiarising ourselves with radical feminist analysis and writing,
. developing our own thinking and analysis,
. communicating with and supporting each other in pursuit of the common good, and
. exploring the variety of avenues available for our activism today: Facebook, Twitter, Online Opinions, writing, speaking, demonstrating, involvement in rallies and marches, lobbying politicians, etc.
And we will never give up!
You talk about radical feminism working from the margins. What does this mean? Can you expand?
Mary Daly wrote about this in Beyond God the Father (1973). She called it “living on the boundary”. Radical feminists must acknowledge the fact that we are pushed to the margins of society, evidenced by the fact that politicians and the media usually ignore us. It is very rare that a radical feminist is sought out for her opinion on anything. Even when governments announce that they are consulting community groups and individuals about domestic violence, it is often the case that radical feminists and feminists who work on the front line in the field of violence in the home are left out of the consultations. Governments don’t actually want input from the experts in the area because they know that radical feminists will not say the things politicians want to hear.
We are pushed to the margins and, because we are left with no option, we take up our position on the margins with pride and determination still to have an impact. In many ways, it is an ideal position. To protest and make demands from the margins is much easier than having to battle with the day-to-day annoyances that feminists who work from within the system have to endure.
What does dismantling patriarchy look like?
To dismantle patriarchy, we need a mass movement. In 1989, Social Movement theorist Verta Taylor described the Women’s Movement as being in abeyance – not dead but, in a sense, waiting for the next uprising of women. While we don’t have a mass movement right now, I believe that we are witnessing the beginnings of the next uprising. Our task, in this time of abeyance, is to work toward the dismantling of patriarchy by naming and challenging power and privilege as we see it, and holding up a view of how the world would be if men were not automatically placed front and centre of society’s institutions, cultural practices and interpersonal relationships.
How important is it to free ourselves from the layers of constraints of femininity and masculinity?
I would actually just like everyone to relax and be who they are but I realise that our socialisation makes that difficult. We are products of our individual histories, cultures, prejudices, economic advantage or disadvantage, etc.
To break away from our socialisation is a very difficult thing to do but I’m pleased to say that many women and men are in the process of achieving it. I think it’s always a process. There never does come a time when one can say “I am now totally free of my socialisation”. The important thing, though, is that radical feminists need always to bequestioning and challenging notions of culturally acquired, and required, behaviour. And, by the way, we ought not be too hard on ourselves or others when we, or they, don’t succeed...
You have talked about how liberal feminism is used by patriarchal forces to side step radical feminist challenges. Do you make a distinction between radical feminist analyses and tactics? Is reform part of the journey to liberation?
I think we have to be clear about our radical feminist position and keep our end goal of structural change always in our minds, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate small victories along the way and support those who are fighting for them. “Reform” could be said to be a liberal feminist aim but an important one. We radical feminists need to make sure, however, that we don’t mistake such incremental gains for our overall aim of complete societal change.
You have spoken about radical feminists not wasting time on those whose minds have been made up against radical feminist ideas. Do you, however, think it’s important we continue to engage with more liberal women around ideas and radical feminist analyses – given many of us have been, and are, on a journey toward radical analysis.
It’s so true that most women who identify as feminists are on a journey toward a more radical analysis of issues. I remember a time when I, myself, thought that I had to be accepting of prostitution, because most prostitutes are women. Sheila Jeffreys’ Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution, and other books by radical feminists are tremendously helpful in enabling the raising of consciousness.
The fact that we are all on a journey toward a more radical analysis convinces me that we need to stop being so quick to judge and dismiss liberal feminists who may be moving more slowly than some of us. [I’m not referring to libertarian feminists who are committed to supporting industries that oppress women. I’m referring to the many liberal feminists who are open to growing in their understanding of the ways in which women are exploited by patriarchy.]
In Australia, since our first and only woman Prime Minister gave a speech in Parliament calling out misogyny, we have witnessed a rather remarkable advancement in women of more liberal persuasion speaking out against misogyny and against men’s violence against women in all its forms. These are the kinds of women we need to engage with in the hope that we can build bridges in the interests of maximising our impact on society.