... and ain't i a woman?: Censorship

August 6, 1998

and ain't i a woman?


At the Network Of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) national conference last month, the decades-long debate about what position feminists should take on censorship was raised, this time centring on the increasing amount of sexist material appearing in campus newspapers.

In arguing for censorship (that is, banning all material deemed to be sexist from student newspapers), some women missed the main point: that while censorship removes a little of the widely available sexist material from student view for a time, it also removes the possibility of confronting that sexism and thereby educating readers about its causes and the need to campaign against it.

Images and articles which demean women are products of a sexist society, not the causes of it. Sexism, like racism and homophobia, exists because the tiny minority of powerful people who rule and profit from this society need to keep the majority divided — whether on the basis of gender, race or sexuality. Demeaning portrayals of women as passive, brainless sex objects help perpetuate sexist ideas that justify gender inequality.

To challenge sexist images successfully requires challenging the system that produces them — removing their reason for being, which is to shore up women's exploitation in the private and public spheres of social and economic life.

Of course, all feminists want non-sexist student newspapers. But trying to achieve that through censorship stifles discussion about the reality of sexism. In student papers, this discussion has the potential to reach and convince many men and women on campus to join anti-sexist campaigns and achieve non-sexist papers as a result of students' informed choice.

Censorship also raises the question of who decides what material is banned. In general, censorship has been advocated by conservative forces intent on "saving people from themselves". In the current context of backlash against feminism and choice for women, and a return to the 1950s-style woman-as-mother-and-domestic-slave ideology, it is misguided for feminists to align themselves with such advocates.

Censorship has generally been used to silence voices of dissent. By instituting mechanisms to censor material submitted by right-wing, anti-women sources to student newspapers, pro-censorship feminists are laying the foundations for conservatives who may win control of the newspaper to use those mechanisms against feminists and other progressive activists.

Rather than trying to ban sexist material, feminists need to consciously use student papers to challenge sexist ideas (which exist among the student population regardless of whether they appear in print), as well as making calls to action to campaign against sexist policies and practices on campus and more widely.

This includes fighting for the "right of reply" to sexist material. Student papers which refuse to print criticisms of offensive material must be made accountable to feminist students. Editorial positions are usually elected from the student population and should be subject to recall if they deny a voice to any section of students.

More important even than consistently claiming their right of reply, feminists on campus need to be pro-active and initiate discussion amongst the student body about women's rights. That means maintaining a high level of organisation and activity around all relevant issues and using student papers at all times to raise students' consciousness about sexism.

Student publications which are "sexism free" by decree won't bring about an end to discrimination against women — on or off campus. Campaigning openly — without recourse to censorship — for non-sexist student publications is to insist that students recognise that gender inequality still exists, as does the need to organise against it.

By Amanda Lawrence

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