Sunday, April 11, 2010

F is funny, F is sad, F is scary, F is mad

On the weekend I attended the conference F:A Festival. A Conference. A Future. It was organised by a Sydney group calling themselves The F Collective.

The conference was a big gathering of different types of feminists with different agendas. There were 500 people there. It was good to be reminded that feminism is a broad spectrum movement. The groups that were most visual were the right to abortion groups, the vegans and animal rights group, transgendered and queers, and the one I learnt the most about were sex workers' rights.

Now, it is almost impossible, perhaps actually impossible, to organise, and satisfy, such different people.

There were strong feminist women on the panels: Anne Summers, Eva Cox, Elizabeth Broderick. The issues we agreed we need to focus on are pay equity, abortion rights, and the intervention in NT. There was a panel on what we can learn from Aboriginal women. All good.

The members of the panels told their own stories and presented their own concerns. When it was open to questions, no-one actually asked the panel a question - all made comments and statements, and presented their point of view. A woman from the Congo was on a panel, and spoke about the troubles of integrating into Australian life, and mentioned the daily attacks on women in the Congo. No one asked how we can help the women of the Congo. This was the only presentation about women in a global context. There were, however, women of colour on other panels.

I guess we needed stronger facilitation, stronger chairs, but I understand the organisers wanted to be respectful of everyone's point of view, and that's a problem with grassroots gatherings. We can't cover everything well in two days, and the attempt was ambitious.

Then towards the end things got messy. An older woman stood up to tell us she felt that her generation of feminists was being disrespected (because we said we weren't there yet), even though we had applauded the last wave of feminists in the room in appreciation of the work they had done. At the end we had small group sessions discussing their particular concerns and how to keep the movement going, that reported back to the larger group. The people of colour felt they had been marginalised and the conference had been racist. The abortion rights people presented a motion that we support their aims (even though there was no meeting, no constitution, no agenda, no minute-taker, no forum in which to present or pass motions). Then the vegans presented a motion that the next conference be vegan. They presented the case that we respect all types of feminists, that we don't talk about whether or not we are homophobic, so we shouldn't be anti-species. The chair decided that because we hadn't organised a next conference we couldn't pass a motion. Then someone came to microphone and declared that there is a group that calls itself feminist but it actually has an anti-abortion agenda. Women's Forum Australia, which was established by Melinda Tankard Reist, who is Christian. She held up the Faking It publication, which is a resource created by WFA to critique the messages to girls in glossy magazines. No debate. No right of reply. No examining any evidence. A motion was passed that our group of feminists don't endorse or approve of them. I don't know the exact wording, but I found the action quite shocking.

Now, I've been watching Womens Forum Australia, and interested in the work of Melinda Tankard Reist regarding her campaign to protect children from a sex saturated media. She is the leading campaigner on this issue. She has a blog, and a website, Collective Shout. I've read the book she edited. I have spoken to a representative from Womens Forum Australia and asked about their stand on abortion and if they are religious. I was informed that they are a research group with no affiliations.

At the feminist conference there was little about parenting. There was a workshop on birth rape presented by a home birther. I presented my workshop on feminist mothering and maternal activism. The only parenting issue that was raised by others was the sexualisation of girls. I attended the Growing up Fast and Furious conference and know that the issue is a real and serious concern. It is a concern I deal with in my daily life; yesterday I spoke to my daughter's teacher as she went to a singing workshop. Last week I sent a letter about a kids karaoke event we had attended at which the children's songbook was the one with adult themes and the adults book contained thousands of more appropriate songs. The week before I sent resources about this to the Principal of my children's dance school. There were no feminists at the conference who were addressing that concern as well as Melinda Tankard Reist and Womens Forum Australia.

So, my takeaway message was not that we work together where we can and that we be respectful of our differences within all types of feminism. The take away message was that if you call yourself a feminist and have an opposing view on abortion, or on religion, or on politics, that's a deal breaker.

I wrote to the F Collective expressing my concerns with what happened. The reply stated that they should have informed us they intended to pass motions. But the organiser believes that Melinda Tankard Reist is not a feminist. They'll consider my letter in their debrief.

This raises questions.

1. Does anyone have the right to declare another women who identifies as feminist, as not feminist? I doubt anyone says 'You call yourself queer, but you aren't queer. I'm queer.'

2. Does this collective of feminists believe that anyone who is Christian or anti-abortion or right-wing are not feminists. I live in a strongly Christian community and some of the women in my circle identify as feminist. I might add that these women are very active in my community, including assisting girls at our local high school who have escaped the Congo after being raped and watching their parents being killed. These women are helping these girls learn to read and integrate and make sure they are safe. These women know I am atheist and a member of the Greens, but we work together, emphasising our similarities and respecting our differences.

3. I don't know Melinda Tankard Reist, but I do know that her work helps me in my parenting. Does it matter if she is feminist or not? Does it matter what else she does? If it does matter then we have a new opportunity to join forces with representatives from the adult industry (who told me that the industry wants more regulation and enforcement of regulation and that they equally want to keep their material away from children) and asking an established feminist group, such as WEL (highly unlikely), to start a campaign to address the concerns about sexualisation of children. Otherwise we need to start another group to address the issue.

4. Why do I care anyway? Because feminists could declare me non-feminist. I am a woman who is currently financially dependent on a man. I am a breeder. I understand that there may be women at the feminist conference who do not understand how I can be a feminist despite the work I do in my community, the questions I ask more broadly and the fact that I identify as feminist. If they come for her, they could come for me.

5. Does the question of feminism matter? So long as women's voices are heard, and women are doing what they think is right, is the label important? Should I not bother about feminism and /or the collective, and just keep calm and carry on?

Any thoughts that might help me make sense of all this are welcome.


Jenny said...

Really interesting summary Catherine - wow. What a weekend!

Brooke B said...

Hi Catherine,
This is Brooke, we met at the "Growing Up Fast and Furious" symposium. Thank you for this article! Women's Forum Australia wasn't invited to the conference on the weekend and, given what you've written, it doesn't seem that we'd have been welcome, which is sad. As you and I previously discussed, Women's Forum is an evidence-based independent women's think tank that is not aligned to any particular political or religious group. It is true that Melinda Tankard Reist was one of our founding directors, but as you wrote she has gone on to initiate another organisation, Collective Shout. Whatever her personal faith views, our organisation represents diverse women who are aligned with our values (evidence-based, collaborative, catalysing to name a few). Given your desire, which we share, to promote feminist mothering and protect children from undue harm that early sexualisation causes, I hope that we feminists can work together, even if there are some areas where we disagree – whether that be on vegan food choices or whatever. We have much so much common ground, so much need for unity, and so much to lose from splintering into factions. Thank you for your report and your desire to see women working together on the important issues at hand.

brown trousers said...

Re your first comment number 1. it seems that queer folk do consider some queer identified folk as not queer. It seems to me that unless you dress in a certain way, eat or not eat certain foods (veganism seems to be the way to go) and sleep with/want to sleep with certain other queer folk, then its welcome to Coventry for you (by and large being ignored at queer events).
I was under the impression that being queer was about rejecting the restrictive rules of straight and even gay or lesbian society, but it seems that the queer folk by and large have even greater expectations and unwritten rules when it comes to being queer. What we do about this.. I dont know? Perhaps accepting people for how they present themseves to us?

Motherhugger said...

Ok, so queer was a bad example. My point is, if you identify as feminist, who is to say you are not?

brown trousers said...

it wasnt a bad example in fact it was a great example as many feminists are queer also and there are feminists who would also argue that others are not feminists.. based on similar criteria. Seems to me that some out there arent willing to take people as they are. No one is to say you are not.

Katrina Fox said...

For info on why veganism was brought up:

Motherhugger said...

Thanks Katrina. I get veganism and ecofeminism. I have no problem with feminist conferences being vegan.

My problems are mainly:
- that motions were passed, even though there was no clear reason why, no structure in which to regulate the procedure and no distribution and discussion of issues beforehand.
- that one group declared another group not feminist. By what authority? Why? And that the woman and group the motion was against had no right of reply. That is a big problem.
It has also occurred to me that the invited guest speakers, who left before this happened, may want to distance themselves from the F Collective. I certainly hope this would not have happened had Elizabeth Broderick been in the room.
In one way I wish I had left before the end and could report that the conference was fantastic. People can think what they want about each other, but to move a motion against someone is just not on. If the organisers had an agenda other than getting feminists together, they should have told us. What a disappointment.

Katrina Fox said...

Yep I agree re motions. This was highly problematic. As you said there was no debate or discussion, not to mention that three quarters of the participants had left for the day and at no time were we told there would be motions raised.

And to pass some motions and not others (the vegan vote was clearly a yes by show of hand but organisers obviously didn't like this so it turned into a drama) was disturbing. They are having a debrief so hopefully these issues will be raised/acknowledged.

blue milk said...

Fascinating feedack. Thanks for posting this.

Pete Brookshaw said...

I wonder whether, on the controversial topic of abortion, pro-life supporters are more concerned with the rights of the unborn baby. Heard a story recently of a 24 week old baby being born. Hate to see that that baby could've been killed just because of the so-called rights of women. (btw, my wife would hold to the same view)

Thanks for the posts though - clicked off it from the story from the Age website.

BTW, I have many friends who are Christian and feminist.