I have long been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitane, a truly remarkable woman who was at the centre of power in both France and England, who helped her second husband to forge an extensive empire, imprisoned for aiding her sons in rebellion, only to emerge and re-enter politics in her sixties. All this in the twelfth century, hardly a time in which women were known for being equally able to wield power. I knew only a small amount about her, so when I found a biography by Alison Weir, I seized it with delight.
What a disappointment. Although it recounted the events of Eleanor’s life, and described the people around her, it did so with strings of adjectives. For example, Weir describes King John, Eleanor’s youngest son, as being nasty, vicious, and treacherous* but she provides no evidence to support this claim, does not record his actions, merely recites the received view of John with no new insight. The effect is like describing someone as being brave, courageous, and not afraid of anything.**
The term ‘rabid feminist’ seems to me to work in the same way. I was alerted to its use in an article about Felicity Goodyear-Smith, by Donna Chisholm in North and South Magazine. Goodyear-Smith seems to raise strong emotions, because she often provides expert testimony for defendants in sexual abuse cases, and she seems to have started to do so only after she formed a partnership with a man who was involved in the Centrepoint community in Auckland. The leader of the Centrepoint community was notorious for advocating sex with children: he and other community members were jailed for their crimes against children. Goodyear-Smith’s connections are dubious, to say the least. However, she is also a professor at the University of Auckland, and the process by which she was appointed to her chair seems to have been as rigorous as any. I simply do not know enough to be able to form an opinion about her and her work.
But I do know that when she was described as a ‘rabid feminist’, my understanding of her increased not a whit. What did that mean? Did she froth at the mouth? Did she bark and howl? Or did she have the temerity to advocate for women? What evidence was there to back up the description?
I was particularly surprised by the person who made the comment. Goodyear-Smith was thus described by Dr Carol Shand, whom I admire a great deal. Carol Shand has long been an advocate for women’s autonomy. In the 1960s, she was one of the first doctors in New Zealand who would prescribe the pill for single women, and she has worked in sexual health and women’s health. Carol Shand is a feminist herself, in actions if not in words.
I wondered why the journalist didn’t ask more questions about Goodyear-Smith’s feminism, trying to work out why she should be described as ‘rabid’. All the journalist managed to show was that people have strong opinions about Goodyear-Smith, but that gives us no insight whatsover about her. It struck me as a throwaway comment, and for it to be included in the article without further analysis, or even included at all, did no service at all to the subject, the speaker, or the quality of the magazine. Adjectives without evidence are simply vacuous. I have no more insight into Goodyear-Smith’s character and actions because the term ‘rabid feminist’ was reported without investigation. It could just as easily have been used by Alison Weir to describe Eleanor of Aquitane.
If anyone could direct me towards a good history of Eleanor, I would be very grateful.
* Or something to that effect: my copy is still sitting on the docks in Wellington.
** Shamelessly stolen from Raybon Kan many years ago, when he described Daniel Day Lewis’ character in the film of The Last of the Mohicans as being “three dimensional: brave, courageous and not afraid of anything.”