Sheila Jeffreys: Gone

19 August 2015

Professor Sheila Jeffreys, a lecturer in gender and sexual politics at the School of Social and Political Sciences, retired last semester after 24 years at the university. Jeffreys, a radical feminist, author and political activist, is returning to the UK, where she was born.

“I want to go back and become involved in a more lively radical feminist scene,” Jeffreys says of her decision.

Jeffreys has had a full career. After joining a socialist feminist group in the UK in 1973, she spent the 1970s working on issues related to rape and sexual violence, pornography, prostitution, women’s mental health, abortion and women’s and lesbian history.

Early in her career, Jeffreys showed a taste for polemics. In 1981, she was one of the authors of a booklet called Love Your Enemy, which argued that feminists should give up heterosexual sex. “We do think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians,” the booklet says. “Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men.”

Jeffreys says the absence of the internet meant women could conduct feminism more freely back then.

“When women wrote papers like that, it was for an audience internal to the meeting,” she says. “There wasn’t a problem like today when men are surveying women on the internet to harass them, limiting what they’re trying to say. It was a very different culture in those days. It was possible to take your ideas as far as they could go without being leapt on.”

In 1991, Jeffreys moved to Melbourne to take a post at the university, where she remained active on women’s issues.

During her career, she has written 10 books, on subjects such as the history of sexuality, prostitution as violence against women, beauty practices, and lesbian and gay politics.

To some, however, her latest contribution has eclipsed her previous work. Gender Hurts, published last year, is a transgender-exclusionary work of radical feminism. Jeffreys’ argument attacks gender as a concept. Unsurprisingly, the book polarised people. Her critics see the book as little more than hate speech targeted at an oppressed segment of society, while supporters say the book is thought-provoking and well researched. On Amazon, all but three reviews out of 143 rate the book either one or five stars.

When I visit Jeffreys, the atmosphere seems gloomy to me – but maybe there’s just something inherently sad about a half packed-up office. I ask how she feels about finishing 24 years of teaching at the university.

“It’s a shame,” she says. “I feel a little bit guilty. But I have to go pursue my own interests.

“I will still write. My next book will be on lesbian feminism, and then I will write an autobiography. And it will be funny. And people will like it. Because it will be funny.”


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