PODCAST: Sheila Jeffreys on neoliberalism, identity politics, and the women’s liberation movement

Image: The Age/Simon Schluter
Image: The Age/Simon Schluter

Feminism has suffered a significant loss in recent decades. The impact of “queer studies,” neoliberalism, and identity politics was substantial. Renowned radical feminist, Sheila Jeffreys, witnessed the move from “Women’s Studies” to “Gender Studies” in academia and saw feminist discourse and women’s culture built during the second wave eroded.

Jeffreys joined the women’s movement in the early 1970s and was a professor in the political science department at the University of Melbourne for 24 years. She is the author of numerous books, including: Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective On the Sexual Revolution, The Spinster and Her EnemiesUnpacking Queer Politics, Beauty and Misogyny, The Industrial Vagina, and Gender Hurts.

I spoke with her about the past and future of the women’s liberation movement, as well as her experiences working as a radical feminist in academia, over the phone from her home in the UK.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Karla Gjini

    this was a fantastic conversation! thanks Meghan and Sheila
    I’m angry! And I want to open a feminist bookstore!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Right???

  • cocopop133

    Brilliant but infuriating. I’ve been along for the full ride as Shelia described starting in the 70s, and appreciated the clarifying of socialist feminism and it’s role in dismantling of radical feminism. Basically, the trip that women are responsible for caring for and comforting the world, and how dare we be concerned only for our survival? Recently, a friend’s daughter moaned she was ‘so over white feminism.’ I thought for awhile and responded : WTF is white feminism? Oh, right, the thing that fought for the ass you’re walking around with now. Indeed. Thanks for the great interview, and many thanks to Shelia, warrior.

  • fxduffy

    Jeffrey’s point about the guilt-tripping of feminists as being far more effective than when used similarly against other social justice activists is so true. I can recall how little disturbed the 1970s male left was over critiques of class, sex, or race. And of course these charges were more rare and leveled with less severity, even though they were more critical.

    Interesting too is the “exclusion” charge against feminists which intensifies in this age of transgender. The Left does nothing for and undermines women, and the Trans movement forces women to do battle not only over the few private spaces left to them, but over the integrity of their own identities as women. And yet, given these points, is there any political entity more INCLUSIVE than radical feminism?

    PS Jeffrey’s noting the rising fury over the designation “she” for the trans men is inspiring news.

    • Cassandra

      “The Left does nothing for and undermines women, and the Trans movement forces women to do battle not only over the few private spaces left to them, but over the integrity of their own identities as women.”

      It seems that it’s more like “Hey, “cis” women, you aren’t even allowed to define what what you are. It’s for males to decide what a woman is. Now sit down and shut up.” The repulsive male dominance of it is so obvious that I CAN’T BELIEVE more women don’t see it. (I do think more women are though!)

    • Astrid

      The fundraising for female erasure went really well too. They collected their target sum and the book will be out in November.

  • rosearan

    Thank you for this interview. I’ve been continually exasperated over the years with viewpoints that frame feminism as just one of many minority movements or just another form of ‘identity’. The oppression of women crosses all boundaries – nationalities, classes, religions, races, sexualities, political ideologies – in fact, all minorities and majorities. Even the laws of monarchical succession – the most privileged class on the planet – discriminate against women. The women’s struggle crosses all boundaries. Suffragists 100 years ago fighting for the right of women to vote, or African women campaigning against FGM, or Western women campaigning against pushing single mothers onto unemployment benefits, or indigenous women raising awareness of domestic violence and missing women, or privileged women fighting for female bums on corporate boardroom seats, they are all fighting for the same cause.

  • cocopop133

    Here’s the invigorating Mumsnet blog which Shelia references: http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/site_stuff/2716595-TransAgenda-BullShit-The-I-am-Spartacus-Thread

  • Cassandra

    This was great. I was riveted. Thanks to both of you, Sheila and Meghan, for doing it. We must keep real feminism alive.

    • Meghan Murphy

      It is SO important we hear from movement women, who can contextualize the movement for us. It’s exactly where the third wave fucked up — they tried to reinvent ‘feminism,’ instead of working with the women already doing feminism and on the foundation already built.

      • rosearan

        The second-wavers primarily attacked marriage as the number one weapon of women’s oppression. A truth that remains today, but it has been hijacked by all kinds of gender binaries that dilute this message. Marriage has remained the primary oppressor of women. At least 95% of women marry, and thus enter into all the patriarchal compromises that marriage entails. Reduced financial independence, the uncompromising rule that women assume the overall burden of child-bearing and child-raising, the need to please one’s husband or he’ll go elsewhere, the punitive threat of poverty if the marriage ends, the unwritten code to absorb domestic violence as merely a ‘women’s issue’ – this affects all women globally. While other gender binaries are important, I would really like to see feminism return to its second-wave roots and prioritise the gender power imbalance of marriage.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I’m with you, sister.

        • lagattamontral

          Rosearan, while I agree with everything you say, my experience was not that we waged a particularly strong “fight” against marriage, although it was certainly recognised as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. The major “radical” feminist fight here in Québec at least, and across Canada, was the fight for abortion and contraceptive rights (as well as the corrolary right to freedom from forced sterilisation, abortion and other patriarchal interference – the latter oppressive measures affected particularly racialised, especially Indigenous, women and other marginalised women).

          There were various other fights involving employment equity, against sexual assault, organising women in unions and in women’s groups, and the struggle against conjugal violence, including setting up refuges for battered women, in the 1970s. I’m certainly forgetting many.

          In terms of marriage, the marriage rate here simply dropped precipitously, and we are among the societies in the world with the higest rates of non-married couples, heterosexual and gay or lesbian, including many families with children. This could create other problems though, which are still being addressed.

          Québec had one of the highest birthrates in the world when society was in thrall to a particularly retrograde Catholic hierarchy (think Ireland) and this birthrate fell precipitously to a very low one starting in the 1960s. It is a bit higher now, but nothing like before.

          • northernTNT

            Being from Quebec during those years, I quite disagree with this assessment regarding marriage. Marriage was a massive attack point of feminism in Quebec, the marriage rates did not “drop precipitously” by themselves! Women did this!
            And women in Quebec were so adamant about this because it coincided with fighting not just simple patriarchy, but religious patriarchy, which is even more radical. As a early gen-Xer, feminist values were so real to me that marriage was INCONCEIVABLE to the teen me, and the adult me.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yes, I agree that the violence transwomen in particular face comes from homophobic men …

  • Meghan Murphy

    You got it, Kris.

  • cocopop133

    Agreed. Within the past week Austin police shot and killed a disturbed woman, called in by her boyfriend. She had a gun, and as the cops approached, shouted for them to kill her. So they did. Turned out she brandished a bb gun, and the call was a welfare check. I expected protests, articles, outrage. Nada. Then her picture was published. White woman, under 30. Who cares?

  • Oswald

    Great
    work you’re doing on the issues of relevance to women, particularly within the
    feminist rationale. I believe, if more & more people could be informed of the meanings
    & objectives of “feminism” in these changing modern times, a lot could be achieved
    & accomplished in our social discourses and lives in general, especially on
    interpersonal levels of relationships and MARRIAGES, which seem to be dwindling,
    while divorces are skyrocketing; not to suggest that it is a must in peoples’
    lives, i.e. “to be married,” but rather as a rite of passage still esteemed by many. In
    other words, feminism is still a misconceived concept by many, and in these modern times, the clash between feminism & patriarchy is proving to be toxic for marriages…hence the
    confusion within the social circles. Feminism isn’t bad. Read more: http://amzn.to/2bkhMeJ

  • Oswald
  • Oswald

    …in the past ‘Marriage’ as an institution used to be unequal, with patriarchal system in the raw reducing women to mere housewives – supporting their husbands. Thanks to legal and social changes during the 20th century, much of that inequality has gone. Today women could do lots of things in marriage which they couldn’t do before. That’s the fact. As more and more people continue to shun marriages, resorting instead to raising children on their own, it’s the children who bear the heaviest brunt in terms of mental/psychological growth, their concentrations in schools, and self-esteem. One can be a lesbian, or decides not to have children altogether, but that doesn’t reduce the esteem of marriage, not does it mean that the institution is filled with oppressive roles…in this modern world.

    • marv

      “That’s the fact.” Here are some more:

      Women are privatized in marriage which obscures their sex class status and systemic violence against them . Women’s own lower economic rank is shrouded when they marry men because men generally have more wealth. Women also mediate economic class relations between men and women when they marry across (and within) class lines. Women even serve to ease antagonism among men by allowing men of different classes to bond across women’s bodies providing political stability and legitimacy to the economic class system.

      Gender roles are also very ingrained in marriage with women doing the bulk of childcare and housework.

      PIV is commonly expected by men even though women frequently don’t want it.

      Just because we cherish an institution doesn’t mean it has transcended patriarchy.

      http://www.feministcurrent.com/2012/09/03/can-marriage-ever-be-feminist-an-interview-with-nicola-barker/

      • Oswald

        Wonderful inputs. But here’s the most powerful question of our time: can patriarchy be completely eliminated? and would that be a solution to the problems that we face in interpersonal terms…the so-called “battle-of-the-sexes?’

  • varyas99

    @MeghanMurphy How do I become a radical feminist? (I’m a guy)

    • Meghan Murphy

      You can be an ally, as a man. I would start by reading second wave texts, like Janice Raymond, Catharine MacKinnon, Sheila Jeffreys, Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde. You can also support feminist groups like Vancouver Rape Relief, Af3irm, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, etc.

      • varyas99

        Thanks for replying 🙂
        I’ve read all the books of Shelia Jefferys and Catherine mackinnon as well as the Transsexual Empire. Those books seem a bit out of date, many new developments have taken place since they were written.I hoping for something more modern, one that takes new technologies to account.

        Also, do you know any good radfem websites? This is the only one I know. Any chat sites?

        Where do radfems hang out?

        Is Reddit r/feminism a good place?

        • marv

          There are myriads of works and comments to read on the FC to keep you busy for months. For men donating is an essential act of solidarity if you have the funds. No amount is too small or too large.

          http://www.feministcurrent.com/about/donate/

      • varyas99

        Oh and by the way, I forgot to mention that I am a person of colour, and of a minority religion. Does that have any bearing on my approach to radfem.

  • skilletblonde

    Sheila Jeffreys is so very brilliant. She has been on the battlefield for a long time. Here she is in 1990 on a panel where she is debating a total of 4 people.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNOF8z6O5i0

    • Liz

      it was thoroughly enjoyable to watch that video, and thank you for posting it. Those nincompoops are flummoxed…and Jeffries is so excellent at explaining what she means, so patient. Their faces look strained, like her points are so elegantly and clearly made that they have to TRY to misunderstand. Sheila Jeffries must be one hell of a good professor.