Can a feminist be pro-life? Can a feminist be a Christian? Here's another. Can an atheist be pro-life. Or, is the pro-life movement merely a stalking horse for the Christian right?
While some of this field has been plowed by Christopher Hitchens -- a professed atheist, Hitchens answered the question of whether an atheist can be pro-life in an article he wrote for Vanity Fair (The answer is yes. He was an atheist and opposed abortion.) -- it is new to Australia. And the debate over who is a feminist is a live one.
These questions were at the heart of a media furore in Australia last month following the publication in the Sydney Morning Herald of a profile of pro-life activist, Melinda Tankard Reist. MTR -- as she has come to be called on twitter and other social media sites -- is the author of Big Porn Inc, a study warning of the pernicious cultural and social effects of pornography.
The SMH's 'Who's Afraid of Melinda Tankard Reist' was a mostly positive appraisal of MTR, written in the breathy People magazine style seen in the early stories about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a woman of strong opinions. She is also a woman about whom people have strong feelings. If you've seen her proselytise on pornography on TV, read her opinions on the sexualisation of girls in the newspapers, or watched her go after do-badding companies on Twitter or through her activist group Collective Shout, chances are you have a few opinions about her of your own.
She's a wowser. A no-nonsense political crusader beloved by both teenage girls and their mothers. A religious conservative in feminist clothing. A brazen careerist. A gifted networker and generous mentor.
The Canberra-based activist, mother of four and author of four books is difficult to pigeonhole and impossible to ignore. (and so on and so forth)
The article prompted a sharp response in an opinion piece entitled "There is no such thing as a pro-life feminist" published in the SMH by Anne Summers which challenged MTR's right to call herself a feminist. The original story also prompted a torrent of abuse.
Writing in the Herald Sun in an article entitled "Pro-lifer sparks charge of the spite brigade", Mirando Devine stated:
The cyber bullies who piled on to anti-porn activist Melinda Tankard Reist last week are behaving like 17th-century witch hunters, not the enlightened tolerance queens they claim to be.
Tankard Reist's crime was to be profiled not unfavourably in a Sunday magazine, which described her as one of Australia's best-known feminist voices.
This infuriated the miserable Orcs who lurk in the dark recesses of Twitter and the blogosphere.
Up they sprang to pour calumny on Tankard Reist, a pro-life feminist and 48-year-old mother of four from Mildura.
She was nothing but a fundamentalist Christian trying to hide her religious beliefs. Therefore, her views on the sexualisation of children, the objectification of women, the corrosive effect of internet pornography, were suspect.
Oh, and she should be abused with a coffee cup.
One blogger attacked MTR for speaking out on abortion and offered this put down.
She's a Baptist and attends Belconnen Baptist Church. ... She is anti-abortion. She is deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs. ... What does does she have to hide?
Well that's another one to add to my list: Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, the Illuminati, Bilderburgers, Bonesmen and now Baptists -- agents of Satan all. But I digress.
Writing in The Age in an article entitled "Another day, another fresh wave of e.hate", MTR objected to the the standards of debate being exhibited in the social media culture, where physical and verbal threats had crowded out rational discourse in battle of ideas. Other feminists soon entered the fray.
The directors of a feminist publishing house defended MTR in a story entitled "The Authentic Feminism of Melinda Tankard Reist", posted the ABC's Religion and Ethics site which argued that being a feminist did not mean checking one's mind at the door or conforming to a single party line on any issue. Other opinion pieces soon appeared in the Age, "Feminism's clique does not help the cause", in the SMH, "Plenty of room under the feminism umbrella" and "Tankard Reist explain yourself", and on the ABC's Religion and Ethics site, "Media must do better on porn debate" that adopted differing views on the controversy.
The story took a further twist when MTR engaged an attorney to ask the blogger who said she was a Christian fundamentalist to retract her statement. MTR is not a Baptist and does not attend Belconnen Baptist Church. She is a Christian, however, and has not hidden her faith.
The Herald Sun reported that this attempt to set the record straight prompted a new attack.
The Twitter hate exploded. Leslie Cannold, a so-called "ethicist", was among the more energetic defenders of Wilson, averaging two tweets every hour every day, indicating a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Tankard Reist.
"She wouldn't be considered newsworthy if correctly described as fundie Christian. They're all anti-porn raunch & choice."
There is more than a little envy among Christophobes at Tankard Reist's growing influence and good standing with young women.
In a summary of the debate printed in the opinion section of The Drum on the ABC entitled "Tankard Reist furore: feminists on the attack", Claire Bongiorno questioned the anti-Christian sentiments of some of MTR's critics.
Eva Cox has suggested that Tankard Reist's views may be incompatible with "basic feminist criteria" because of her ‘religious' views.
... Cox argues that people claiming to be feminists should declare their ‘religious' beliefs. Such declarations would allow those assessing their feminist views to identify any presuppositions with which a feminist writer may be working. Cox stated in a recent article in The New Matilda that, if we knew Ms Tankard Reist's "religious" views, then it may be that her feminist views "fail to meet what I would see as basic feminist criteria". However, knowing the "religious" views of a feminist writer may not be useful and it may result in misunderstandings and incorrect inferences being drawn.
The suggestion that one needs to scrutinise Tankard Reist further because of what she has identified as a "struggling spirituality", also suggests a suspicion and intolerance for faith.
Women who ascribe to some kind of faith can and do still have agency to think and form views about feminism. There is also no reason to assume that women can't critique aspects of their particular faith with which they disagree. For example, some Catholic women may criticise the patriarchal structures that limit female participation and leadership in their church. It is patronising to women of faith that they should be treated differently in intellectual debates.
This is all great stuff. A wonderfully spirited debate is taking place in the op-ed pages of Australia's leading newspapers that is seeking to flesh out a pressing social and ethical issue -- can a women be a feminist and a religious believer? Can she be pro-life and and feminist?
The place you will not see this issue mentioned is in the other parts of the Australian press. Apart from a few articles in the technology section about the perils of abuse on social media sites and the legal liability of libeling someone via twitter or Facebook, I've seen nothing.
I hold up this debate in Australia's op-ed pages for the approbation of GetReligion readers because of its high quality -- and because I do not believe we will ever see this sort of thing in the American press. On blogs yes. In newspapers or on the website of television networks, no.
This is my way of making a plea for American newspapers to make space for feuilletons. What in the world is that, you may ask. In the U.S., the most read feuilleton is the "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker -- a collection of light news, art and literary observations. The German press takes the concept somewhat more seriously and its fueilleton section is the field of battle in the war of ideas and provides solid reporting on intellectual, literary, philosophical and religious news.
There are specialty websites that meet this high culture niche, but in the race to be the most mediocre, the most vanilla newspaper in the land -- offensive to none, advertisers for all -- the press is abandoning one of its key duties. The duty to educate and inform the life of the mind.