Feminism is everyone’s punchbag

Jeanne de Montbaston sets the record straight on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragette movement.

When Pankhurst made her speech, slavery labelled as such was illegal in the UK, but, within that relative (very relative!) legal freedom, women’s bodies had been commodified within Pankhurst’s lifetime. Indeed, when she married in 1879, the legal act that would make it possible for married women to own property – that is, to be financially enfranchised – was still three years in the future. The famous campaigner Caroline Norton, who died just a couple of years before Pankhurst’s marriage, had managed to stir up public sympathy when her husband refused to divorce her and also claimed her earnings as his property, leaving her unable to earn a living and banning her from seeing her sons (which was also his legal right). Lower-profile women, naturally, lacked both the influential friends and the wealthy context of Norton, and faced stark choices between starvation, prostitution, or resigning themselves to the ownership of their husbands (with legalised marital rape). Slowly, women like Norton and Pankhurst were beginning to challenge the structural violence that treated them as non-persons, as individuals whose earning power and legal rights were controlled entirely by men.

In other words women were literally enslaved in several senses, even though many such women were highly privileged in other ways.

There are two things that bother me about the way I’ve seen this controversy play out in the media and in discussions. One problem – which is common to an awful lot of feminist issues – is that we’re being encouraged to treat feminist foremothers as if they must be discredited, as if we should expect them to act as if they’re perfect citizens of 2015, not ordinary women living in their own times. Feminism, in other words, is everyone’s punchbag.


What is that? Why is it that so many “progressives” are so ready and willing to attack feminism every chance they get? Why is it that it’s almost always women who are singled out for attack and demonization and ostracism? Why is “TERF” a thing when “TEMRA” is not? Why is “cis privilege” so seldom applied to men? Why are so many people who would call themselves feminists so hostile to feminism and feminists?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. I do know that I find the whole thing very disturbing and depressing…not personally, because my recent ostracism has actually ended up being a net benefit, but politically. In political terms, I think all this rabid hair-trigger hostility to feminism is a tragedy.

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