Why I Am Not a Feminist: Jessa Crispin steps out of the ‘big tent’

Feminism, we are often reminded in this era of its ostensible success, is for everyone. If you would like to join the struggle, there’s not that much required. To become feminist, per feminist best-seller Caitlin Moran, one need only touch one’s vagina and affirm the need for full legal ownership of it. Clementine Ford, another feminist best-seller, refers to Moran’s now famous maxim and says that it neglects to include those women who do not have vaginas.

As thoughtful, and as useful, as Ford’s embrace of transwomen remains, this is about as problematising as she gets. The message is as clear in Fight Like a Girl as it is in How To Be a Woman and as it has long been for liberal feminist writers everywhere: being feminist is as easy as an individual declaration.

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Jessa Crispin, with whom I spoke last week, has had enough of this easy declaration. So, she made one that is difficult. In her short and marvellously impatient work Why I Am Not a Feminist, the US writer seeks to distance herself from a term that no longer, in her view, conveys much beyond the individual assertion of identity.

“There are very few out-in-the-wild crazy people willing to critique any part of feminism,” says Crispin, even as she appears, to me at least, the picture of theoretical sanity.

“But, that’s part of the problem, innit. There’s no room for dissent in feminism.”

Before you get all thingy with Crispin and start invoking the memory of dead suffragettes to slay her, no, she’s not some Milo fangirl on a luxury bus ride to hell. She is a thirty-something US radical with impeccable outsider credentials. Her first labour in a religious and Republican US Midwestern county was handing out frangers to teens. I imagine this to be a bit like reading hadith out loud in Cronulla. She was too broke to attend university, but has read widely on queer theory, radical feminism, anarchism and Marxism in any case. This autodidact shows no sign of ever being palatable. If you wish to dismiss her as an enemy to all women, you may do so. But, that’s part of the problem, innit. There’s no room for dissent in feminism.

“Conflict is not abuse,” Crispin tells me, as she reminds her readers many times.

If one speaks outside the framework of liberal feminism, one is “contrarian”. If one suggests that the overwhelming tendency to first-person accounts of female oppression is of a very limited effectiveness, one is perversely held to be silencing other women. If one proposes that reading feminist philosophy might be a good idea, one is a snob. Because feminism is for everyone, and what everyone wants is a “girl gang” and endless prescriptions for “self-care”. With a side-order, of course, of “checking one’s privilege” to ease the superegos of those guilty white liberal feminists who continue to dominate the movement.

Crispin’s great strength is to describe in plain language how the checking of one’s own privilege might take second place to inspecting large complexes that guarantee real privilege only to a few. As my comrade Yasmin Nair has stated amply, there is a profound revulsion for those in marginalised identity groups who speak about the larger systems they inhabit. In feminist conversations particularly, one is permitted only the most intimate speech. The more oppressed you are, the less of the world you get to talk about. In this liberal era, we expect women to offer us an account only of their personal suffering. We hope that all these thousands of accounts will somehow add up to a totalising and revolutionary truth.

These personal stories are fine in themselves, of course. The personal acts of rebellion that accompany or reflect them—calling out one’s trolls online, baring one’s breasts, being a “Nasty Woman” etc.—are probably great fun. But to view such moments as a central, even an important, part of a grand strategy is, in Crispin’s view, a surrender to liberal mythology itself.

“Feminism used to hold itself separate from the culture it was supposed to correct. It has now taken on all of its values and all of its misdeeds.”

If the riposte to Crispin’s marginal, but growing, criticism of feminism as a collection of individual stories and #brave #sobrave photographic instants on social media is not “stop judging women!”, it is usually, “we can do two things at once”. Liberal feminists counter the claim that their celebration of individual women is done alongside true material work, such as addressing the gender pay gap and raising awareness about intimate partner violence. But Crispin points out, as others on the hard left have, that very few feminists find the time to do both, and, in any case, those who do are resolutely uncritical of late capitalism, seeming only to have a problem with it when it charges women more for disposable razors.

This work, which is indignant and (for me) fun, is of interest not only to disappointed feminists. Anyone feeling a bit cheesed with dominant liberal ideology might enjoy a book which urges all not to care about how much cultural diversity there is on TV, and learn to care more about those social policies which actively impede the existence of these very cultural groups. In short, if you think there’s something wrong with Western leaders that ask us all to be agile entrepreneurs and an entertainment industry that appeases us with better representations of ourselves even as we can’t find labour, Crispin may help you elaborate our rage.

I really do think the author has offered Millennials a good and basic account of what we old communist wankers call historical materialism. Which is to say, she describes in angry shorthand how the way we organise our resources and the way we organise our ideas are interlinked. To that end, I ask Crispin if the problem of “self-empowerment” and misinterpretation of the old “personal is political” slogan is not so much a feminist problem, as one of the dominant culture. Or, more specifically, I ask her, what can we expect of feminism in a time where politicians advise all of us to be “innovators” and keep repeating the bullshit that, “You can change your fortunes if only you try!”, while simultaneously guaranteeing in law the fortunes of a few.

It is here, both in the text and in conversation, that Crispin becomes, perhaps strategically, nostalgic.

“Feminism used to hold itself separate from the culture it was supposed to correct. It has now taken on all of its values and all of its misdeeds,” she says. Crispin expects better of feminism.

In Crispin’s view, the second-wave was a time of more genuine, if not utter, radicalism. A claim that older rad-fems of my acquaintance may dispute, as they moan that the liberal feminism of Gloria Steinem has been as tedious as it has been dominant for forty long years. Still, Crispin makes the case that there was a flourishing of feminist thought in this era, and urges her young readers to look, but not uncritically, at the work of Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, Shulamith Firestone and others, if only to reignite a radical project.

“The view that women’s equality would somehow trickle down from the imperial throne of the unpleasant Emmeline Pankhurst has long served to silence working class women.”

This is a short and urgent book full of prescriptions—as manifestos that deserve the title must be. As such, we might forgive Crispin for romanticising the past. Sure, it’s true that there were fabulously unstuck women writing in the second-wave era who would today be burned, by their own sisters, as witches—notably for suggesting, as is not permitted today, that women can be sometimes complicit in their own victimhood. It’s also true that this period was filled with radical ideas whose production was made possible by far greater wealth equality than that of today.

The lure of liberalism, or its contemporary iteration neoliberalism, is powerful. People like to believe that “it all starts with me”, and that solidarity, the thing needed to actually change women’s material lot, is not something to struggle for or argue about. It’s just going to happen if we keep telling our moving personal accounts! This great free rush of uncensored emotion—which is not, as Crispin knows well, either free or uncensored when it appears, as it does, largely on approved corporate news services—will unite us all.

The universalism of Western thought, Crispin reminds us, is something we can see as malarkey if only we use our own senses. All women are not the same, and to pretend that we all share identical interests is a paralysing falsehood. The history of Western women’s struggle, despite what you might have seen in the nicely laundered film Suffragette, has long been led by the ruling class. The view that women’s equality would somehow trickle down from the imperial throne of the unpleasant Emmeline Pankhurst has long served to silence working class women. That this assumption persists, and that even professed “Marxist” feminists can write that a vote against Hillary Clinton is a vote for sexism, is complete pants. I’m so glad that Crispin is here to do the dacking.

I suspect this may be an influential book for some young readers. The liberal horizon is hard to see past, and Crispin offers the young or emerging radical an optimistic glimpse of a world beyond non-transphobic vagina-feeling and inspiring TV.  She sees “self-empowerment” as obfuscating darkness, and reminds me that the idea of a society in which the individual is considered the only meaningful part was formed by Thatcher and Reagan.

Crispin is sick of the idea that feminism is a “big tent” that can accommodate anyone, including CEOs of the planet’s most destructive companies, who utter the incantation “feminist”. I commend her attempts to place herself outside the tent and piss in.

Why I Am Not a Feminist is published through Black Inc Books in Australia. See full details here. You can buy the book here

35 responses to “Why I Am Not a Feminist: Jessa Crispin steps out of the ‘big tent’

  1. Feminism has always been under attack from the Right, and more recently,from the Left I will read Crispin, and even agree with everything she says but will always call myself a feminist. For the sake of history. For all those women in WEL, and the struggle for abortion law reform, and for EMILY’s list which made the Labor movement more inclusive of women (bourgeois liberals though we may well have been)..

  2. Are we experiencing a renaissance of Valerie Solanas (who never worried about what feminism was)? Thank God I can now openly call myself a dissident woman, because I have been cringing for some time watching/reading discussions about what is a feminist/feminism. Being out of the tent always felt better, we called that radical separatism. Have to buy that book!

  3. Well we can always take a look at how the men handle these issues. The analog has been evoked often enought. How is that working out for them? Not so well. Men don’t care about other men of different income and class. they pretty much ignore them and get on with the assertion of their rights what ever they have decided they may be. To assume women would behave differently is to say something about women, revolution and or both. Women might naturally come together to fight paternalism or it may be that they are looking for allies strictly for leverage. The two models have different moral implications. It may also mean that groups with common enemies are always more agreeable and parties of the superior group will tend to look to their own interests without referencing thier loyalty to the superior group. For example, at the moment, Black and white men in the US have not seen a common cause yet in the threat of feminism, that would cause them to look beyond their clear differences and unite. The potency of their male identity is seen as great enough to maintain the defense indefinitely whereas women percieve some advantage in enlisting the aid of people they ordinaryly would not wish to encounter. Feminism is politics and as such is baldly pragmatic and re-al.

    Nice article btw.

    1. Reacting to John: why do we have to look at how men deal with these issues?Implied is here that it is something that can be compared/evaluated by looking at how men deal with this. I do not care one hoot how they deal with this, because there is no comparison, remember patriarchy and male power? Full stop.

      1. Im not going to disagree with that. I merely suggest the comparison and the comparison is perhaps odious. It may be that women don’t behave that way. But I think it would be unlikely.

  4. Those high achieving women who regard themselves as feminist having succeeded in the man’s world and broken through the glass ceiling – why aren’t they keeping that break in the glass open for more women to go through? Surely they have the power or is it more they did it the hard way and earned it so must every other woman?

    1. Many of these very successful women disavow feminism. Julie Bishop being one example, claims she is not a feminist.

      1. Being a feminist since say 1968 means a woman must also believe in the leftie groupthink of land-rights-for-LGBTIQ-whales. She mustalways hate men.
        For a woman not to fall in line with this agenda in entirety means expulsion from the feminist movement.

        No wonder so many women pursue their own paths alone: their experiences and wisdom fall outside the (self appointed) elitist paradigm.

    2. Who gives a diddle about how many women can get to the top, or who helped them get there? And since when have men developed a reputation for being generously non-competitive with their brothers?
      Like Crispin, I am not at all interested in talking about conditions for a handful of elites. I am interested in talking about the majority. Who will never make it to the top. Because that’s the nature of things with a top.

      1. ‘Feminism’ and now ‘political correctness’ are being well and truly eroded by our now day trends. For too long its been turned into a ‘dirty word’ . Feminism was and is a necessary vehicle too strive for and ensure equalities and fairness- and this hasn’t and isn’t always about gender.
        This seemed to cross over many areas of human rights, in an attempt to reduce all discrimination and exclusion; racism and the injustice of the treatment of our First Nations, rights and care for our elderly, childcare, access and acknowledgement of people living with disabilities etc.
        Proudly say I am a feminist! I rocked the boat and wrote on walls and I will continue too. I believe we understand ( mostly) that ‘feminism’ is a cause to help empower women and removed inequalities and exclusions- including our own elitism!
        Why re-write ourselves as a response as those who don’t get it or who feel threatened by woman having fair conditions and rights or even for those who think too much in academic terms and forget that the majority of society don’t enjoy spending a heap of time arguing about friggin words.
        Or is it that comodification has occurred and what was radical has now been consumed and absorbed, therefore removing its potency and importance. Nice way to silence the crowds. Now it’s not trendy to be a feminist and the sexist advertising returns to our screens, violence and assaults against women rise, I still feel unsafe walking at night (in fact more so) and when are we going to get equal pay??
        I must say it has been curious but wonderful that this year International Women’s Day has been well acknowledged and celebrated, more so than ever.

      2. Absolutely bang on Helen. (and I love your witty use of language: ‘Because that’s the nature of things with a top.’) BAM!!!

  5. “I commend her attempts to place herself outside the tent and piss in.”

    It’s the only place to be.

    Something about the feminist movement in its latter guises has left me wary, but can’t get past the theory to be bothered with why. I suspect that this is key –

    ““Feminism used to hold itself separate from the culture it was supposed to correct. It has now taken on all of its values and all of its misdeeds.”

    I think I might like this, a lot!

  6. I agree that ” the way we organise our resources and the way we organise our ideas are interlinked” and neoliberalism has made sure that women are still second-class citizens in so many ways with men getting preferential treatment. When the individual is the most important element in the western world, the community as a whole has to suffer and I see this bearing out in social media and reality TV. I think that is part of why so many people are depressed, we’re all isolated within ourselves and fearful of not being competitive and strong enough to make the grade. No wonder suicide figures are growing.

    As far as the working class is concerned, neoliberalism offers very little assistance to them and a lot of contempt. And I don’t think a lot of supposed “middle-class” people realise that they are working class.

    Such a shame people in the west are so fearful of socialism because neoliberalism has not served the majority well at all, nor the planet.

    1. the s word. oh dear. You’re a commie. There certainly is a whole library of options available if we don’t have to use that word. Since no philosophical discussion of the “s” is today possible without the long shadow of McCarthy, we will have to forgo all those options so handily adopted by Scandanavians and clever SE Asian countries. We will rely on magical capitalism.

    2. I think socialism has gained new currency since Bernie Sanders’ not-even-all-that-socialist ideas for a few breathless months looked like they might break through and kill neoliberalism. Till the elites burnt him down, in their quest to lose at all costs if they couldn’t keep the corpse upright.

      The good thing to come out of all that was that I think millennials realised that policies that aren’t neoliberal aren’t something sucked from the bottom of a bong, but actually have historical precedent.

  7. “calling out one’s trolls online etc”
    I’m not saying it’s a dig but it’s a really excellent dig. I haven’t quite finished WIANAF yet but am loving how diametrically opposed it is to Ford’s asinine narcissism.

    1. I’m struggling with a lot of these comments, not that they’re upsetting me but I simply don’t understand much of what is being said. That whole interchange between Razer and Anj.. what on earth are you guys even on about? Is there telepathy involved??
      ok, that aside, I’d like to thank Razer and her commenters for helping me understand my quietly simmering rage at Clementine Ford. “asinine narcissism”, thank you aerialgirl! I’d always just described her as “the Andrew Bolt of feminist writers” but this is much better, as that just confuses my Andrew Bolt fancying friends and colleagues. Not that there’s anything WRONG with that..
      Look – I had a bit of a moment on the weekend. I saw The Women play The Football. Tall, Short, Fat and Thin, ponytails, bunches and hair flowing free, grunting, kicking, wrestling and mono-maniacally chasing after that silly little egg shaped ball. It struck me as the extreme of non-feminist and feminist by dint of them just doing it, you know? I struggled with my own internal assessments of their attractiveness and used up what little reserves of mental strength I have quite quickly. And my tiny son and daughter watched them do it with none of this nonsense floating around their heads. And this is now their reality. Defying, Defining, Persisting, Resisting, Men and Women worked together to create One More Thing Girls Are Allowed To Do For Real and For Money and For Fame And For Glory. Fuck. Yeah! I’m not checking my privilege, and I’m not comparing it to women in the armed services (been there, fucking ripoff), or to anything else but what it was. There’s a saying in the corporate meetings rooms when the conversation gets too high level.. someone always draws it back by saying ‘hey we’re not trying to solve world peace here’. It’s cute, and it’s polite, and it means.. one problem at a time, or we’re gonna waste another 4o minutes on a meeting without achieving anything. So chose your problem, ladies and men, and go to it, whether it’s some dumb sport thing, or CMG, or the gender wage gap. On your marks. Get Set!

      1. Sorry, yeah guilty as charged!
        My little abbreviated rant certainly could have been more specific & less narky but don’t be fooled ol’ H knew exactly what I was ‘blathering’ on about otherwise she wouldn’t have been so defensively cruel.
        You know, I did warn her I was a novice & am just trying to learn & try shit on. Cut me a break?
        Anyways its all cool, i’ve forgiven her now as I enjoy her work too much to be angry for long & sincerely hope she’s ok too.

  8. ‘Individual assertion of identity’?
    Sure on one level.
    But lets not let cheesiness & privileged women’s phobia get in the way of validity.
    Scuse my elementary understanding of Feminism but I thought the whole point was liberation from stereotypes & self determination.
    That women en masse feel their individual choices should not define the whole & thus have no fear in enacting them is progress. Yes its often on patriachal terms, but the seed is sown in terms of widespread public perceptions. Sure, women on a level are exploited but the symbolism is worth it big picture.
    “For one to step closer to god, one must sometimes take a step away” or something like that……..

    1. I can no longer be bothered arguing with idealism.
      If you think that a change in perception is the same thing as a change in reality, good on ya.
      I happen to believe that a tree falls in the forest whether you personally heard it or not.

      1. And yet you live it yourself with the whole ‘smashing down the system’ fantasy?
        These are old recycled ineffectual impracticalities from way back somehow passing for new & ‘radical’ because feminism thinkers can’t or won’t stomach reality? Its way to ‘suburban’?
        It seems socialist & capitalist sisters have much selfishness in common.

        1. What on earth are you blathering about?
          I am certain it is your “perception” that you have presented a coherent argument.

  9. To suggest that all current feminism is neoliberal is nonsense. Not true of many academic writers for decades- why not interview Laura Shepherd, Maryam Khalid ( try telling Maryam that it’s all white women feeling guilty at their privilege) Jacqui True, Charlotte Hooper etc etc ? They may not be Marxist, is that the reason?

    1. What’s your point, A?
      If we are going to talk about dominant and popular feminism, then we need to talk about dominant and popular feminism, right?
      Of course there are others who question liberalism. But they are not the dominant and popular voices.
      And I have failed to interview the women recommended largely because there’s little call here at Daily Review for analysis of international relations.
      However, if any of these specialists have matters to discuss for this audience, please pass my details along.

  10. Helen and I agree, this is good stuff and needed! so read about it and read it. And let’s build a new radical feminist movement that challenges macho power, not pedestrian crossing signs

    1. The change in pedestrian signs has raised a lot of ire Did anyone view Cameron and Latham on the subject? However for my little grand-daughters it is good for them to see that the represented world is not all male.

      1. Jane. This presupposes that a stick-figure human pictogram is necessarily “gendered”, and not just seen as such by those people who suppose that the only “genderless” figure is a male one. It presupposes that I wear a skirt, which I do not. I am, like many women, in trousers about 364 days of the year. It also forgets that there is a need for universal safety signs. We need to recognise “Don’t Walk” in an instant. If you really believe this not to be the case, then I suggest you campaign for a wide and complex range of signals that represent people with different girth and different hair length.
        Also. I don’t think you read the article. “We can do both at once” is a lie. No one much does.
        I would like to remind any sod who reads this comment that Committee for Melbourne is a lobby group. It has many business and finance sector people on its board. How many times do I have to tell you people that these neoliberal ideas about “representation” come from somewhere? They’re not just natural.
        If we continue to believe that we can change the world by drawing nice pictures of it, the neoliberal ideas have become victorious.
        When women remain homeless in greater number, more impoverished and more vulnerable to abuse, what do you think these little moments of victory do? Make us feel better abotu a situation that has not improved.
        FFS.

        1. Please keep writing about this eleventy million times. There can never be too much analysis of the neolib waters we swim in and the ways it distorts.

  11. o dear spelling mistakes.my typing was bad.treasure in first senetence.ENTERTAINING in the 2nd sentenceviolence AND in the 5th sentenceTHESTRIVING in the last sentence

  12. Helen your critical mind is a trasure. ihave always been a fan of your pentertaining prose but writing about feminism is very important and reading people outside feminism and why they are is also important.feminism is not an all inclusive club but making it more inclusive is important.res ipsa loquitor.We hear so much about domestic violence ang generally the woman suffers.Budgie nuts Abbott defunded so many refuges that i was ashamed to be Aussie.The LNP/NATs have done little to reverse that action.Women need to be safe when they leave a bad realtionship otherwise they will not leave and may end up being murdered.Even more important when kids witness this violence.Feminism must keep stiving for better access to services in this cut services before taxing the rich economy

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