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Byron Shire
April 22, 2024

Hijacking feminism, harming women

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Surely the success of feminist activism is one of the most positive stories of our times. Just think of the limited options of our mothers, compared to young women today. 

Yes, there’s a long way to go, and struggles for equality continue on many fronts. From domestic violence to boardroom representation. From sharing domestic labour to equal pay in the workplace.  

But for a moment let’s remind ourselves how far feminism has brought us. From Mary Wollstonecraft to #MeToo. 

Two centuries ago Wollstonecraft’s advocacy for the empowerment of women helped bring equal access to education and the vote. 

Last century, Simone de Beauvoir’s classic The Second Sex reaffirmed the dehumanising impacts of oppression and renewed the push for genuine equality. In this century, #MeToo focused public attention on sexual harassment, empowered survivors and won some systemic change. 

Language co-option

Against this background of success, corporate co-option of the language of liberation is proving to have some sinister side effects. 

In a landmark academic paper out this month, a group of Australian health researchers argue the feminist language of ‘empowerment’ is being hijacked. The result, they say, is the misleading promotion of medical tests and treatments that may do women more harm than good. 

The piece was published in one of the world’s most influential journals, the British Medical Journal, (BMJ), and sparked global interest. 

Based at the University of Sydney, the authors cited examples showing how this marketing is increasing women’s risk of ‘inappropriate medicalisation, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment.’

One example is the ‘anti-mullerian hormone’ test, or AMH, which gives an indication of a woman’s egg numbers and can be useful if undergoing fertility treatment. 

However, the AMH test is now being widely promoted to the general population to help inform decision-making about reproduction. And this is despite evidence consistently showing the AMH test ‘cannot reliably predict likelihood of pregnancy, time to pregnancy or specific age of menopause.’

Misleading marketing 

The marketing messages being used include ‘information is power’, ‘you deserve to know’, and ‘make informed choices’. 

According to the BMJ paper, apart from being misleading, this marketing can cause harms.

These include a false sense of security about delaying pregnancy for those with high test results, and unwanted anxiety for those with low results, potentially pressuring women to freeze their eggs.  

Another example is the commercial push to inform all women about their breast density, when being screened for breast cancer. This is despite a lack of evidence showing such a strategy can bring benefits. Harms to women in this case could come through more ‘false positive’ results, more anxiety, and even unnecessary cancer diagnoses. 

A third example is the drug flibanserin, promoted to women as a treatment for a controversial ‘disorder of low desire’. A decade ago, the company hoping to sell the drug launched an aggressive marketing campaign, called ‘Even the Score’. 

The simple idea was that the US FDA had approved drugs for men’s sexual problems, including Viagra, but had not yet approved any for women. A genuine women’s health group dismissed ‘Even the Score’ as a slick PR campaign ‘masquerading as a grassroots feminist movement’, but the drug was ultimately approved by the FDA, despite being virtually useless, and carrying serious side effects. 

In an accompanying editorial in the BMJ this month, a professor from University College London, points out that corporate co-option of feminist messages is not new.  

Professor Sarah Hawkes cites the example from a century ago of a tobacco company employing Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, to help promote female smoking.

The resulting advertising shouted, ‘Women are free: an ancient prejudice has been removed’, and cigarettes were transformed into ‘torches of freedom.’  Bernays has the dubious honour of being remembered as a father of the modern PR industry, and a specialist in propaganda.   

For Professor Hawkes, the current wave of misleading medical marketing is another example of the wider problem of neoliberalism seeking to draw profits from women’s bodies. And the best way to combat this, she argues, is collective action, using examples of successful women’s movements in Nepal for access to abortion, and in Brazil for better maternal care. 

The authors of this month’s BMJ paper – with whom I’m honoured to be working – argue people need to be wary of simplistic narratives that any information means power. And governments, they say, have a responsibility to counter misleading corporate marketing and provide evidence-based information. 

The challenge for all of us living in this age of so much noise, is to discern genuine attempts to empower people, from commercial propaganda that can only ever disempower.  

♦ Honorary Assistant Professor at Bond University, Dr Ray Moynihan is currently working at the University of Sydney, researching misleading marketing on social media. 


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7 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t quite get your point about informing women about their breast density. My understanding of this issue is that it’s thought that increased breast density both increases the risk of breast cancer and reduces the effectiveness of regular mammography to detect breast cancers.

    I can see how having this knowledge might increase anxiety, and that there might be little point if no alternative screening is provided eg 3D mammography, ultrasound. However I don’t understand how the information, in isolation, can lead to your suggestion that: “Harms to women in this case could come through more ‘false positive’ results … and even unnecessary cancer diagnoses”.

    Surely the issue here is the increased possibility of false negatives or the number of mammography recalls resulting from the shortcomings of 2D mammography in the screening of dense breasts.

    Benefits of this information that I can see include encouraging greater personal vigilance for extra risk, the understanding that recall will be more likely, the opportunity to discuss with medical professionals the alternative screening tools available and their likely risks/benefits for their individual circumstances.

    I need to be convinced that I’m are not entitled to this information about MY breasts – that I’m better off without it because my feeble mind can’t grasp the implications and it’s all best left to medicos and health care policy makers.

    Perhaps women need to lobby for a review of current protocols, that apply universally despite the increasing knowledge that not all breasts are the same and not all women will be adequately screened. I’d be genuinely interested in more details about the conclusions reached by the paper you quote.

  2. “Surely the success of feminist activism is one of the most positive stories of our times” !!!!! Who says so ?
    There have been benefits for all, when equality is recognised, however, feminism has also resulted in the doubling of the cost of living, as it now requires BOTH parents to work full-time to provide for a family, and the care of children must now be industrialised and provided by sub-standard means.
    It does seem women have been duped into believing ‘freedom ‘equates to wage slavery for all.
    Industry is laughing and taxation is at an all-time high, congratulations Germaine, (who was clever enough to avoid any ‘work’ at all. )
    Cheers, G”)

    • There are many tired old statements here that would be way too tedious to discuss but “taxation is at an all-time high” is too much. My friend, taxation is at an all time low.

    • Forgot to say that it wasn’t feminism what done it! It’s mainly down to the “taxation will always be lower under us” crowd” – and they’ve had very few women in cabinet.

  3. Ken wants women back in the kitchen by the sounds of it. Ken didn’t you notice how society has changed since the 1970s or do you still live in post world war 2 Menzies 50sand 60s?

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