For the past twenty years or so, I have sometimes been brave enough to mention to people that I am not a feminist. It takes a lot of courage because almost invariably, the response that I have gotten is a reflexive rejection of what I have just said. The conversation sounds like this:
Me: Actually, I’m not a feminist.
Shocked Interlocutor: Yes, you are!
Me: Well, yeah, except that really, kind-of not.
Recovering Interlocutor: What does that even mean that you’re not a feminist?
Then they’ll relay back to me key elements of my biography, asking me if I liked having the opportunities I’ve had already, or accuse me of taking advantage of the work of other feminists without paying off my debt of gratitude by donning the label. Also, I have received assurances that I don’t have be angry or hairy to call myself a feminist and what am I really afraid of, anyways?
With a sigh, I have tried to explain myself that really, truly, I’m not a feminist because what worries me is the plight of humanity and power structures, not of women in particular, and then they try to say it’s the same thing, and at some point I give up. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been especially convincing and maybe I’ve had trouble explaining it to myself, even though I have known it to be true.
But I think I have some better words about it now after reading Jessa Crispin’s amazing tome: Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. I feel seen. I feel heard. I feel inspired for the revolution.
An aside: I first came across the work of Jessa Crispin recently in an article called Americans Abroad that she wrote for The Baffler. In the essay, she was writing about some of the troubling ways that Americans navigate through expat life (and it turns out that it became part of her other book The Dead Ladies Society, which is probably what I’ll read next). I was taken by the way she complicated the picture, and noted that Americans who think they are experiencing “something” might not realize the extent to which they are creating that experience, both in their imaginations and by changing the facts on the ground with American dollars.
Here is one episode that she writes about with so much sharpness:
I lost my temper at a colleague a few years back. I had been fuming over his social media posts about the housing crisis in Berlin, a city I had once lived in and he currently did. He had been ranting frequently about his struggle to find a long-term lease in the city and about the “greedy and provincial” landlords who preferred to rent to professionals and families over freelance or creative workers. It’s a real problem, finding a stable situation in a place where rentals in the fashionable neighborhoods often get hundreds of applications. But I found something tasteless about the complaints coming out of the mouth of an American with a PhD and a high-ranking position at an artistic institution.
“But if it’s hard for me, imagine how much harder it is for a Turkish immigrant.” Americans in Berlin are always doing this, inventing the plight of an imagined Turkish immigrant to deflect any accusations of complicity in the gentrification happening in the city.
This is the part of her essay that I have thought about, over and over again, since I first read it, how much easier it is to imagine that everyone would experience your burdens in just the way you do. It is easier to imagine someone else stumbling in your shoes than to realize that your mere presence in the world is a stumbling block in someone else’s way. Does it merit saying explicitly that the Turkish immigrants would have a much easier time if they weren’t competing with American expats for a limited supply of apartments?
Her book on feminism in some way picks up in this spot— in the tension between what is in an individual’s own limited camera viewfinder, and what happens when you zoom out to actually understand the structure of institutions that create those (individual) experiences.
In particular, in her view, feminism has becomes more of a justification for the status quo than a challenge to it. Or, as she says it:
Choice feminism is a major problem with white feminism. We take our experiences of being thwarted, of being discriminated against and put down, our encounters with violence and pain, and we use these experiences to justify taking what we want, without ever examining why we want it (47).
Underneath it all (and maybe you get a hint of it here) is Crispin’s seething rage at being asked to participate in a kind of mockery, a use of the word “feminist” to scorn the systems of power, even while we perpetuate them. If only you are a feminist, then purchasing a t-shirt with a snarky feminist message, made by exploiting the labor of women in an industrialized unsafe factory is surely okay. If you swear you are a feminist, then it makes sense to vote for women regardless of their policies, and assure yourself that your own promotion is actually in the service of a larger project of women gaining “equality.” As long as you claim the word feminist, you are free to criticize men who blunder, hope for their vengeful removal from posts of power as symbols of the way that the patriarchy must crumble, never mind the way you are participating in it.
Those are my words, not hers, but I guess maybe I’m angry too.
What Crispin argues so eloquently is that feminism has become so all-encompassing as to be completely defanged. It’s now a thing which seems so obvious (Women should be able to open a bank account! Get an education! Drive!) that it is completely unthreatening to the status quo. And yet, we have a status quo that really needs to be threatened.
Lamentably, having women in powerful positions hasn’t led to the more just world we all imagined. Assuming that having women serve on corporate boards would force more empathetic and ethical actions, or that granting more women tenure would change the nature of the university has proven to be incorrect in the ways that are important. And never mind that there are a million ways wrong with asking women to adopt and assume the costumes of men, of the patriarchy, of power and success, and then telling them that their very gender apparatus would make all the difference. It doesn’t.
The purpose of fighting for women to have positions of power was never supposed to be the sought-for end, just so it could be “fair” for women to have power too. It was supposed to be the first step of creating a better world. The point was that with a different perspective, we could see more urgently and sharply where we could fix the brokenness.
I only read the book this week. It was published in 2017. It was before #metoo. It was before women’s right to control their reproductive destinies was struck down by the Supreme Court. Things that maybe she took for granted a mere six years ago perhaps haven’t held up perfectly.
Still, the main thing that she wants, the manifesto that forms the subtitle, is only ever more urgent.
One thing the patriarchal system under which we live definitely wants you to believe is that you are on your own. Independence and freedom are what you wanted, right? So independent, you swing toward fragility and loneliness. So free, you exist in a blank space with no guideposts or reference points.
Feminism can and should be an alternative to this isolation. It should be a way of creating alternatives to the way we live.
A feminism that helps humans live more rich and satisfying lives? A movement that doesn’t just try to catapult more people of all genders over the stupid fence but one that seeks to tear the fence down? One that understands power as not currency, success and resumes but meaning, justice and love?
Sign me up.
If this could be what it means to be a feminist, not to endorse reality, not to beg for the crumbs we should have had all along, but to insist on the grandness of the vision, there might be fewer sparkly feminist t-shirts, but I can’t help but feel it would do an awful lot more good.