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Book review: Scutt, J. The Incredible Woman: Power and Sexual Politics Vol.s 1 & 2 Artemis Publishing: (1997)


Title: The Incredible Woman: POWER & SEXUAL POLITICS Vols 1 & 2.

Author: Jocelynne Scutt

Published by: Artemis Publishing (1997)

ISBN: 1 875658 28 9

pp: Vol 1, 325 (xiv) Vol 2, 341 (xvii).


This two-volume set is divided into four parts across the two books. The titles to the parts are respectively, ‘ "Judicial Wisdom", Patriarchal power’ covering chapters 1 to 9; ‘Medicine, Power and the Politics of Health’ from chapter 10 to chapter 17; ‘The Economic Politics of "A Woman’s Place"’ from chapter 18 to chapter 27 and ‘Power and the Woman’ from chapter 28 to chapter 41.

The author is widely known in Australia as an outspoken feminist lawyer. The pieces in these books are drawn from essays, articles and speeches published and presented over a period of more than 20 years. Dr Scutt explains the reason for the title in her introduction to the first volume and it is this concept that constitutes the unifying thread in the polemics that follow. She notes that ‘credible’ means ‘believable, worthy of belief; convincing’ and ‘incredible’ means the opposite (ix). These books address both the issue of the ‘credibility’ of the existing legal and medical systems and focus on the way those systems regard women generally as incredible.

The essays in The Incredible Woman – Power and Sexual Politics highlight the many ways in which women lack credibility in the legal system, and the ways that this lack of credibility is infused into many areas of law and society. In medicine, economics, human rights and the regulation of power, the law plays a decisive role.(xiii)

The tone throughout is scathing of what is, but optimistic about what will be as women increasingly empower themselves. The treatise here is not in the form of the usual more familiar ‘objective’ message about things legal but is a carefully argued and constructed polemic about women’s current abuse at the hands of systems that pretend to be gender neutral.

These books do not address the development of theories of feminist jurisprudence as such but the author’s personal perspective would seem to have, not surprisingly, shifted somewhat during the long period covered by the writing.

The law’s treatment of women is examined in relation to rape and other sex crimes, child abuse, gun control (or lack thereof) prisons, health care, abortion and a range of other issues generally regarded as of particular interest to women.

One of the major strengths of these writings is the extensive use of concrete examples to illustrate points. The arguments are generally raised in the context of real cases or occurrences. Many are shocking and unbelievable, incredible in fact.

In Chapter two, dealing with ‘rape, prostitution and the ‘chaste woman’ the author analyses the 1991 case of R v Hakopian to show, among other things how ‘the judicial mind is capable of uttering contradictory statements, all the while maintaining an illusion that it is operating judicially’ (41) In this case Mary Paul had been raped at knife-point by a client. The controversy it aroused related to the approach to sentencing and the proposition that rape is less traumatic for a sex-worker.

The author questions:

If a man raping a prostitute of four months is appropriately to be released after (probably) four and a half months, should a man go scot free if the woman has a one or two year pedigree as a sexworker? Should an armed robber holding up a service station attendant be let off on a warning because the victim has worked nightshift for ten years at the same garage? Should a lout who robs a taxidriver at knifepoint escape punishment because the driver has had twenty years in the trade? Are the courts to ‘go easy’ on a bankrobber because the teller handles money every day?(55)

Chapter ten ‘going sane’ (215) touches on a number of interlocking issues for women, from the mad/bad dichotomy to the issue of premenstrual tension as an ‘excuse’ for murdering an abusive husband.

Chapter 17 ‘Women, Sex and Sexuality: formulating a feminist approach to a ‘brave new world’ concludes with the cautionary reminder:

We must be wary of a medical profession and scientific community that, in the guise of ‘help’ creates, recreates, condones or continues the prominence of (the male vision of) women’s sexuality in the place of women in the world, and that seeks to utilize women’s bodies as, alternatively, playgrounds and experimental sites. (325)

Volume 2, Part 3 covers issues arising in the contexts of industrial rights, equal pay, unionism, women’s economic dependency and nursing as a ‘women’s profession’.(147)

Chapters 29 to 32 inclusive, deal with race issues. The first details the events surrounding a particular case (in its broadest sense) involving matters of religious importance to certain Aboriginal women, the so-called ‘Hindmarsh Island Bridge’ controversy. The matter generated commissions of enquiry and court adjudications and an extremely high volume of media attention during the early 1990’s.

The author explores how this case highlights the fact that indigenous women’s affairs, ‘women’s business’ is blatantly devalued and ignored.

In saying that there is no indication in the notice that ‘women’s business’ is a matter in issue, the Federal Court effectively asserts that it is necessary, when dealing with women’s business, to specifically refer to it, as if it is something separate from or additional to Aboriginal tradition, culture, heritage and belief. The Federal Court’s view is that the phrase ‘significant Aboriginal areas’ does not encompass matters relating to Aboriginal women; nor do the words ‘particular significance of the areas to Aboriginals.(195)

There is a chapter examining the plight of refugees and a chapter discussing the ‘stolen generation’ of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their homes and families. These issues remain important and topical in Australian politics today.

On pornography the author declares:

When we speak against vilification of women, white, male, middleclass voices are so often raised, ostensibly in the protection of free speech. Their speech assuredly remains free. Like the pornographer and villifiers of women (in the main, white, male and middleclass), their speech is never at risk. We must be suspicious when cries of ‘censorship’ are so often heard when women express concern at the vocal and visual contempt expressed against women.(259)

The author argues that soap operas could be subverted to raise feminist issues.

‘[F]eminists must enter the field and make soap opera, rather than hanging back or ignoring it, or berating the content or simply critiquing it’(261)

The latter chapters of Volume 2 become increasingly dogmatic and polemic in style. There is a degree of repetition and sloganeering.

It is hard to read this material without getting one’s hackles up. One suspects that is precisely the intention. Dr Scutt writes with such vehemence and expresses her own views so forcefully that the reader is continually confronted. Whether this helps to inform or simply ‘turns one off’ is a matter for each reader.

As a compilation of writings which deals with virtually all current ‘practical’ issues regarded as relevant in feminist legal discourse these volumes are to be commended. There is ample food for thought. While the illustrating examples are generally drawn from an Australian context the material is sufficiently general, and globally relevant to be of interest to anyone concerned with feminist jurisprudence or political issues. For students in the South Pacific region the books would be a useful launching pad for further investigation in most of the specific areas covered.

That said, it is also true that there is no theoretical discussion. Readers seeking material about the developments in feminist legal theory, critical legal theory or postmodernism in a feminist context must look elsewhere.

The tone throughout is activist and reformist. The pieces are invariably calls to arms. In an age where feminist discourse could be said to have become unduly bogged down in theorizing and splintering, that may not be so bad a thing. ‘Let’s get in and do something’ (261) is the author’s avowed philosophy.

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