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.
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.