Melinda Tankard Who?
If you’ve been reading the Fairfax press (or surfing social media) recently, you’re probably familiar with the debate about writer and activist Melinda Tankard Reist – and whether she has the right to call herself a feminist.
Tankard Reist is the author of two books by Melbourne feminist publisher Spinifex Press, Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls and Big Porn Inc. (edited with Abigail Bray). She runs an activist group, Collective Shout, that works against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls for commercial profit.
She’s also a conservative Christian who is anti-abortion (or ‘pro-life’) and spent twelve years working for Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine.
Tankard Reist has long been a controversial figure – particularly in feminist circles – but the current furore began with a front-cover profile in Sunday Life magazine on 8 January, nearly two weeks ago. The profile writer, left-wing feminist Rachel Hills, says she interviewed Melinda because she ‘thought it would be interesting’. She wrote on her website, ‘Like many journalists, I spend too much time thinking about what goes on in other people’s heads, and Melinda was a public figure I found particularly perplexing … I still didn’t “get” her. And I wanted to.’
This weekend, iconic Australian feminist Anne Summers argued that you need to sign onto certain principles in order to be a feminist – and abortion rights is one of them. ‘As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent. There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility … To guarantee the second, women need safe and effective contraception and the back-up of safe and affordable abortion.’
She concluded of Tankard Reist, ‘Just because she says she is a feminist does not mean she is.’
In a past Wheeler Centre debate, Summers' contemporary Wendy McCarthy recalled abortion in the 1960s – before social pressure from feminists and others made it legal – as potentially fatal. ‘In my own experience, to get an abortion required furtive phone calls, 63 guineas (a large amount of money), cops patrolling up and down the road, hoping someone would give you advice when you left…’
Yesterday, Kate Gleeson said the most significant argument against Tankard Reist’s identification as a feminist is her involvement – through her work as Harradine’s adviser – in restricting the approval of the abortion drug RU486 and ushering in Australia’s adoption of the ‘global gag rule’ that dictates AusAID’s overseas family planning guidelines.
Gleeson said this had ‘profound implications for women’s access to contraception in our donor destination countries’, contributing to ‘the two-tier system in which Western women have mostly unfettered control over their reproduction, while those in the developing world are at the mercy of dangerous abortions’.
Today, Cathy Sherry takes issue with all those who’ve questioned Tankard Reist’s right to call herself a feminist. She says ‘I have long considered myself a feminist and been disturbed by the parts of the sisterhood who operate like the nasty in-group in primary school … I do not know Melinda Tankard Reist and I am not pro-life, but I defend her right to express her opinions, call herself a feminist and prosecute her own beliefs … The real test of tolerance is tolerating those with whom we strongly disagree. We will never have a right to express our own contested ideas if we do not defend others' rights to do the same.’
A somewhat baffled Rachel Hills (who says that the huge response to her profile – including five separate opinion pieces last weekend – has been both ‘a bit of a dream’ and ‘challenging’) reflected this week on what she’s learned from the experience. She concluded, ‘if you want people to listen to what you’re saying – whether you have a big platform or small one – you also have an obligation to engage in good faith’.
Hills’ approach to the profile was to avoid a hatchet job, but ‘to write something critical (in the sense of making analytic judgments) but still human’.
While perhaps not all the arguments being traded are useful (or indeed respectful), the broad debate is teasing out some big questions.