Spoiler alert: Jessa Crispin is a feminist. So, if you’re one of those people who insist on holding signs up on the Internet to the effect of “I’m not a feminist because I like doing the dishes…” etc, you’re not going to get any love here. As the title suggests, Why I Am Not A Feminist is in fact A Feminist Manifesto. But it’s not the feminist manifesto we need, and I’m not even sure it’s the one we deserve.
Aside from the many contradictions of the book (as hinted at in the title), Crispin’s work doesn’t really go into her arguments in any depth—she expects us to take her ideas largely at face value (e.g. everyone unfairly dismisses radical feminists!). Probably the most teeth-grinding part is that she also consistently—though perhaps inadvertently—suggests that “we” (her readers) are all white, middle class, straight women.
We have to read this work as a letter to the “mainstream” pink-pussy-hat wearing women that basically says, “god if even you are going to call yourself a feminist, then I don’t want to”.
The amazing thing is that Why I Am Not a Feminist pulls the oldest trick in the book to make a case for feminism: it claims that feminism has been lost. Similarly to Angela McRobbie’s (2008) Aftermath of Feminism, Crispin isn’t interested in looking at where feminism is currently articulating itself in new and dynamic ways that address some of the qualms she raises. Rather, she points to the failures of the present and the positives of the past, but in an a-historic way that doesn’t acknowledge why we are where we are.
In case you don’t have $19.99 to spare, here’s a really brief run down of her manifesto:
1. Feminism has become a lowest-common denominator identity
Helpful: Crispin uses the term “universal feminism” to describe how feminism has been watered down to the point of becoming politically meaningless. Crispin points out that under this arrangement you could easily hypothetically wear your Dior “We should all be feminists” t-shirt and be a CEO who cuts the wages of all of her staff. I certainly agree that feminism should give up its class-collaborative obsession, and should stop seeing “feminist” as synonymous with “woman”, because it’s not actually helping to improve the lot of women’s lives.
Less helpful: Crispin insists that historically change for women has come about due to fringe groups of radical women (she cites Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer as examples) whose ideas are too “uncomfortable” for feminists today. In particular Crispin’s target of scorn are those women “still taking pole dancing classes” and similar. Here Crispin misses: a) that we need to stop making everyday women the problem through our arguments, and instead focus on everyday sexism; b) that the critiques of radical feminism that have been made should be taken seriously, because even though Greer and co make some passionate points, they also intensely dismiss transgender existence and TBH that’s not a feminism I want to sign up to. If you’re going to make the claim that we need to return to radical feminism, at least give us some reasons why, and explain how we can do this in a way that doesn’t help to justify violence against some groups of already marginalised women and gender diverse people.
2. Change doesn’t come from above
Helpful: Crispin points out that we should stop thinking we can change the system that keeps women oppressed, from working within, and that we should look to ways to smash the system. For too long women have attempted to make change by getting involved in the corridors of power, only to find themselves pretty comfy once on the inside. So, instead of changing the entire shebang and what is good for “the whole”, there has been a focus on the individual and what is good for “me”.
Less helpful: According to Crispin, feminists have simply lost their way along the path, and have become narcissistic and inward-looking. It couldn’t possibly be, say, the material conditions under neoliberal ideology and late capitalism that have encouraged certain modes of thinking. Women have simply bought into their own oppression. Without an analysis of “why”, Crispin’s argument falls flat, because “the system” she is describing as the problem remains an amorphous monster that we can’t fight because we don’t actually know what it looks like or why it’s there.
3. We need to be smart with how we use our activist energy
Helpful: Crispin points out that sometimes when we find ourselves focusing on small instances of oppression, we can miss the bigger system of oppression that is at play. In particular, fighting people (she calls them “Twitter bros”) online can be exhausting and doesn’t achieve a whole lot. She also suggests that instead of assuming that oppression happens along a horizontal axis (where I oppress you sometimes, and other times you oppress me), we should see power as more hierarchically distributed (so, where I have for example a sexist idea, that is only because that idea has come from above).
Less helpful: Crispin adds further fuel to the fire of those who would dismiss feminists as merely being unhappy and causing unnecessary fuss. Crispin calls out “call out” culture for its misdirected outrage, but throws the baby out with the bathwater by lumping a lot of things into the “petty concerns” category. For example she briefly cites one case of calling-out a “second wave feminist who was unfamiliar with the relatively new phrase ‘intersectional'” as problematic. Since Kimberele Crenshaw came up with the idea in 1989 I’m not really buying the “relatively new” argument. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be skeptical of how intersectionality is sometimes deployed to further individualise rather than find common bonds, BUT Crispin’s dismissiveness here wreaks of disengagement with feminism outside of her immediate milieu. Where Crispin argues against “outrage culture”, she overlooks the amazing work of feminists such as Sara Ahmed who have been talking about the value of “feminist killjoy” for years.
4. Feminists don’t need to focus on men
Helpful: In parts of her book, Crispin suggests that structural oppression affects both men and women, and argues that we all need to work together to dismantle “the system”.
Less helpful: Despite her overall goal of radical social transformation, Crispin is strangely dismissive of men. In one part of the book she addresses male readers directly: “You as a man are not my problem. It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you”. While I totally get the frustration that Crispin expresses here, it undermines her point that we should work for change on the basis of core political values (i.e. needing revolution) rather than identity (i.e. identifying as a woman).
5. We can’t change the world with our haircuts
Helpful: Crispin argues that lifestyle politics—seeing the way we style our hair, the things we eat, etc, as having political effect—isn’t going to challenge the wider system that oppresses us. This is a vital argument to be had in a world where, for example, gardening is more popular than ever but there is little action on climate change. I say this even though I am vegetarian and insist on having long hair as a queer woman, so, you know.
Less helpful: Crispin isn’t generous to feminism, or women in general for that matter.
Ultimately Crispin’s book is a let down because after the whole Hilary Clinton thing, it feels like we do need another articulation of feminism, one that more explicitly engages with questions around capitalism and neoliberalism. Why I Am Not A Feminist unfortunately doesn’t go there.
Crispin makes some good points but it could have been that much better if she spent less time berating contemporary women and instead looked at how we can build on what we already have. In arguing for a narrow return to (some vague form of) radical feminism, she not only misses engaging with activism happening right now but she also overlooks over a century of interventions in mainstream feminist debates, which have come from women of colour, lesbian and bisexual women, working class women, trans women, and disabled women, not to mention *cough* Marxist revolutionary women.
Overall Crispin provides some useful food for thought, not the least of which is that when we’re articulating our manifestos we really need to look beyond ourselves.