Why won’t Feminists defend themselves?

Campus pro-choice advocates silencing their opponents is a threat to freedom of expression and a betrayal of the Suffragettes’ legacy.

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The University of Aberdeen saw a row emerge between students belonging to two of its union societies earlier this week. Members of the Feminist Society at Aberdeen entered the Catholic Chaplaincy demanding that posters advertising ‘40 Days for Life’ be taken down. 40 Days for Life, which takes place during lent, invites Christian students to fast and pray for an end to abortion. Needless to say, the Chaplaincy building was under no obligation to comply, as it is a private residence not owned by the university. In response, the members affiliated with the Feminist Society have penned an open letter which has gathered over 250 signatures. The letter explained its previous actions stating:

“We feel these [posters] are harmful and make our campus a distressing place.”

The authors go on to explain that although they ‘understood’ the Church’s teaching on life matters, they did not think it appropriate to encourage people to take action by visiting maternity clinics, as such an action seems ‘intimidating and feels judgemental’. Carol Buydos, a visiting student in Cellular Biology and member of the Catholic Society explained:

“This of course is not true. The campaign is almost entirely silent, and takes place on the side of the road opposite the hospital.”

When asked what this row says about the current climate for university debate, Buydos responded:

“There is a culture arising that fears engagement with anyone that has a different view of the world. That we are increasingly taught not to learn from the differences of others, but to forcibly discredit their views, and if all else fails, to force the opposition into silence.”

Buydos’ words ring true if we examine the activity of pro-life societies springing up in Scottish Universities. This row is the most recent of several. Strathclyde University students last December were actively banned by the union from forming and affiliating a pro-life society, meaning they could not obtain university funding for promotional events or to attend conferences.

Only two months prior to this students of the University of St Andrews who did manage to affiliate a pro-life society to their union were criticised by the student newspaper The Saint for inviting guest speakers who expressed opposition to abortion in talks last October.

These events follow an infamous standoff between pro-life and pro-choice advocates at the University of Oxford, which saw the cancellation of a debate at Christ Church back in 2014, which made national and international headlines.

A pattern of systematic silencing has become ubiquitous in British Universities, particularly when it comes to students questioning the status quo in life matters. As such, a debate concerning free speech has begun to run parallel to the traditional debate concerning abortion.

The Times has even reported that there are talks of government intervention to ensure that universities defend free speech. Students will soon be faced with the question: what are the criteria for a free discussion to take place, and who gets to decide on them?

This is the most urgent question that faces this current generation of students, since their answer will have monumental consequences for academia, politics, journalism – in fact all areas of public life. Attempts to halt or prevent pro-life advocacy represent a direct challenge to the manner in which we have defended and valued public debate since the Enlightenment. In modern politically correct culture it appears that the liberty of free expression is secondary to ensuring that one’s own view remains dominant, whatever the cost.

It is sadly ironic that a direct challenge to the occurrence of open debate should come from soidisant feminist groups, as it shows a blatant disregard for their own history. Early feminists such as Emmeline Pankhurst sacrificed much for expressing views that represented a challenge to the established order and continually stood up to attempts by the government to silence them.

First wave feminism would not have been able to get off the ground without the freedom to attack and criticise the status quo and to use this platform to draw attention to what the suffragettes knew to be a great evil. The support of modern feminists for authoritarianism betrays this legacy.

Both pro-choice and pro-life supporters would benefit from a free and open debate on the subject, because everyone benefits from debate; underdogs have a chance to have their view heard, and those representing the more popular view are called upon to defend why exactly it is that they deserve their dominant position.

It might also reveal that feminism today is as split and broad as in its earliest expression. Alongside freedom of expression, the feminist cause in its early years was fairly unanimous in its opposition to abortion. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female in America to be awarded a medical degree, and a symbol of the feminist movement, wrote to Lady Byron:

“The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism.”

Opinion among suffragettes in Britain was comparatively divergent by the time of Edith How-Martyn, who campaigned for birth control measures. Yet even then, this was still a world away from the culture that has emerged since the 1967 Abortion Act. Today’s successors to the feminist banner qualitatively lack a value shared by Pankhurst, Blackwell, and How-Martyn. Freedom of expression has become anathema to modern campus feminists, who favour silencing and censorship of anyone who disagrees with their ideology – the same querulous tactic that the early feminists would have encountered.

Quad - Chilson photo for main body

Emmeline Pankhurst spent her public life being silenced by the powerful. Now her would-be successors silence others. (Adam Cuerden, Library of Congress)

Furthermore, those who hold some sympathies with the feminist message but continue to have grave concerns over the morality of abortion are excluded and alienated, even being labelled misogynists by third wave radical feminists who regard any deviation from the pro-choice cause as heresy.

Student feminists today would do well to take heed of the mantra so often misattributed to Voltaire, but actually penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, the woman of letters and biographer of Voltaire, who wrote:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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Gregory Chilson is a Master of Theology graduate from the University of St Andrews. Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to The Quad. Our featured artwork is George Cruikshank’s A New Court of Queen’s Bench.

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