How to Be a Feminist
Searching for the soul of a movement
If there is one thing Donald Trump can be credited with since his explosive political entrance, it is galvanizing feminists. In January, some four and a half million women around the world got out into the streets to send their own message to the new president. I work in journalism, and at my workplace the Toronto march was all anyone could talk about in the days leading up. Women would spontaneously gather to discuss where they would meet and what their signs would say. In the days afterward, likewise, it was the dominant topic of conversation. My female colleagues reflected on the march as a unifying moment for women, a call with a universal appeal that moved them to act.
But I live in two worlds. One is related to my work and is overwhelmingly white. The other is personal and overwhelmingly brown. And in my personal life, I do not know a single woman who went. Few of the women in that circle talked about the marches at all, and when they did, they seemed to view them mostly as something that appealed to white women. While conversations about the marches were largely centred on fears like losing reproductive choice, the panic of the women in my personal life was focused squarely around how a Trump administration would fan the flames of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hate in Canada. To me, the (non)conversations about the march were a tidy shorthand for the questions facing feminism itself.
Two recent books attempt to think through, in different ways, where the feminist project stands today. Both grapple with what it means to be a feminist, and with the need for incorporating intersectionality—that nexus of race and class and gender—into the debate, and where one writer sees nothing redeeming in the current system, the other sees opportunity in thinking critically about one’s everyday choices. Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto and Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life are both essay-style contemplations on each woman’s relationship with feminism and whether that relationship is satisfying. Both books use intensely personal experiences of feminism to talk—primarily, it would seem, to other women—about the common challenge of thinking critically about the work that’s left.
Crispin is the founder and editor of the American literary site BookSlut; she is a critic and essayist, whose previous books include The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats and Ex-countries, for which she retraced the steps of some of her favourite writers. She characterizes her new book as a manifesto, an argument for a complete reimagining of what feminism can be. Crispin builds her critique on a first-person engagement with a number of topic areas from feminists’ focus on individualism to the obsession with the movement’s relatability to what she sees as the adoption of patriarchal goals by high-achieving women by, for instance, pursuing political power but supporting policies that harm poor women and children.
Crispin says the project of feminism, as it exists now, has failed, that feminists, in an effort to recruit members to the cause, decided that the way to be most effective would be to universalize their message. “They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible … In other words, it has to become entirely pointless,” she writes. “The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing [the] system.”
For Crispin, what the times call for is an outright revolution. She writes that the feminism she supports does not simply “allow” women to participate in society; it actively encourages them to change the world, to come up with their own religious systems and government and economies. “My feminism is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same As Ever, But More So. It is a cleansing fire.” She has a special disdain for the notion that any act undertaken by a woman of her own free will is, by definition, a feminist act. She argues that defining a term so broadly renders it meaningless and that, anyway, a woman freely making a choice is not the same thing as a woman making a feminist choice.
Crispin’s argument against the any-choice-at-all mindset reminds me of a 2005 essay by Linda Hirshman for American Prospect magazine. In “Homeward Bound,” Hirschman looked at the continuing trend of women—especially those with elite educations who were ideally poised to benefit from feminism’s accomplishments—dropping out of the workforce. She says the key reason was that feminism failed to address the most profound struggle women faced when it came to equal participation—gender relations in the domestic sphere. Hirshman’s problem was with the failure of liberal feminists to radically reimagine the domestic relationship. “The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying ‘abortion,’ and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars,” she wrote. “A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it.” Her prescription, and the title of her next book: Get to Work … And Get a Life Before It’s Too Late!
Hirshman’s essay seems dated in its aggressive unconcern with the racial undertone of her argument. Hirshman’s prescription is not for every woman; it is for the trophy daughters of the feminist movement. Nowhere in it was there an acknowledgement of who would likely take up the toil of domestic life: not elite white men who were the partners of these high-achieving women, but lower-class racialized women with precarious employment.
Crispin is not part of this corporate feminist brigade, and she comes from a generation of feminists who have embraced intersectionality. And yet I cannot help hearing echoes. Her framing of feminist choice raises a series of questions: Is what you choose as important as the act of choosing? Is choice only important if one is choosing something deemed valuable? And valuable to whom? Reproductive choice is a feminist litmus test but, for many women, it sits far down on the list of key issues. Can a woman only make a feminist choice if there is some consensus that her choice will create space for all women? Who is part of that consensus?
Feminism is not a word I grew up around. My mother did not use it; my teachers did not talk about it. I first heard about feminism through the sitcoms of my youth when male characters would refer to angry women as “women’s libbers.”
But, although the label seemed foreign, the affinity for the idea of equality certainly felt entirely familiar. I grew up knowing extraordinary women. Both my grandmothers, born in British India, were illiterate when they married barely at the start of their teen years. They learned to read as adults, one taught by her husband, the other by her children. They confronted poverty and illness and death, in a culture that saw girls and women as extensions of the men around them. But they kept themselves intact with their own views and ideas about the world and their place in it. They refused to give in to the kind of family politics that enable women in large extended families to wield power over each other.
My mother was the first woman in her family to have formal schooling. She graduated from university. She came to Canada from Pakistan barely 20 years old with a husband she had just married, sight unseen. She left her large, close family to live an isolated life with a man she barely knew. She learned English. She got a job. Along with struggling to meet the criteria for a good immigrant, she had to meet the exacting standard of being a good Pakistani wife. My mother took her stand by carving out a financial space for herself; she always said the key to maintaining independence and having a voice was to have control over your money.
Then there were the aunties. My mom and her friends created a sisterhood, initially out of necessity, and then out of love and solidarity. They offered each other a shoulder when news of a marriage or birth or death came from back home. They advocated for one another to each other’s husbands. They told bawdy jokes in the kitchen at weekend gatherings, laughing behind their hands because loud laughter from women was impolite.
It is hard to know if most feminists would see them as feminists. And certainly, as a girl, I always wanted to sit in the basement where the boys watched television and played table hockey or in the living room where the men discussed politics and smoked. Freedom was where the men were. But, as I got older, I was better able to see the choices my mother and the aunties made, even if they were small and incremental. They were choices born out of stubborn but quiet negotiation, tradeoffs and deal making—choices that ultimately benefitted their daughters. They did not wield power but they also were not powerless, and in a sense they had the power of a movement.
By the time I was at university I was calling myself a feminist, but it was a complicated identity. One early interaction with the movement proved instructive. I was 19 or so, and had been roped into attending a meeting for a newly formed Canadian Muslim women’s organization, attended by several friends of my mother’s, and a few older white feminists, there as outside advisors. During lunch, I made a comment to one of the advice givers that I hoped the food was not too spicy for her—a 19-year-old’s rather banal conversational gambit. The woman, a professor at a Toronto university, looked at me, flint eyed. “Don’t you dare essentialize me!” she said in a tight voice. She went on to detail how making assumptions about her was limiting her and she was not going to allow me to do that.
It was an astonishing moment for my young self. In her preoccupation with her own concerns about being limited, that professor, a woman of significant power and influence, utterly failed to see me. It was not the last time I would have that feeling.
In the feminism of my youth, women of colour watched from the sidelines while white women had the big-picture conversations. We were not invited to participate, so we talked among ourselves and would occasionally turn to see what white women were saying about how they planned to move forward with this project of theirs.
The feminism of today, the feminism of my daughters, is messier, louder, more convoluted, more layered. And it demands space and recognition. Crispin advocates for parallel systems of economy, politics, religion. She is not interested in incrementalism. I would guess that my daughters relate more to her impatience with the system than I do.
There is no doubt Crispin advocates for a more inclusive feminism than the kind I grew up around and, yet, I still feel outside the conversation she is having. Earlier in my life, I sat on the periphery because of race and, often, faith. In this part of my life, it is age. The issues that were salient to me as a young woman were things white women had no interest in. Now that questions of race and privilege are part of the conversation, I am excited by the relentlessness of young women—young women of colour, especially—and by their willingness to stand on the front lines, challenging women who ignore intersectional feminism. Yet I feel far outside their louder, brasher discourse. I find myself realizing that despite my various minority identities, I am probably closer than not to a system to which I have always felt peripheral.
I approached Erin Wunker’s book curious about whether I might find more common cause with her feminism. Wunker teaches English at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. She is also a writer and chairs an organization called Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her book is more concerned with individual action: How can women intervene in the culture around them to deflate the narratives that keep patriarchy afloat. How can each woman, then, become a “feminist killjoy”?
Wunker’s line of questioning stems from the work of Sara Ahmed, an independent British-Australian feminist scholar, who has done formative work on intersectional feminism. She maintains a blog called feministkilljoys where she writes about how to live a feminist life. Ahmed writes:
Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way? The feminist subject “in the room” hence “brings others down” not only by talking about unhappy topics such as sexism but by exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along. Feminists do kill joy in a certain sense: they disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places.
Wunker thinks through the kinds of interventions feminists could make in three particular areas: rape culture, friendships and feminist mothering. The book is an intensely personal meditation on the types of actions one can take specifically in one’s own life. How does one undermine, for example, the difficulty of making academic life work as a mother when academia is, in many ways, hostile to family life? Wunker’s response is to deliberate on the need to create networks of friends—not unlike the women of my youth who pulled together with my mother and filled in the gaps. Maybe that solidarity looked different from the kind Wunker seeks on a university campus, but the goals were essentially the same: offer help so that women can do what they need to do.
Wunker devotes a significant chunk of space to talking about the various ways women can intervene in the daily experience of sexism to chip away at a male culture that sees women’s bodies as an entitlement. But even in an area that might seem as universal for feminism as rape culture, there are differences.
In the summer of 2016, a young, internet-famous Pakistani woman named Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother. He said she had brought “disrepute” on the family name because of her brazen—by Pakistani standards—YouTube videos and sultry outfits. Baloch was financially supporting her parents and the brother that killed her. He claimed he ignored her activities until the media found out her real name and linked her to him. Baloch was not just uploading videos about her daily routines or promising to do a striptease if the national cricket team won; she was also talking about her right to make her own decisions (even if that was the decision to show off her body on YouTube as she lounged in bed). Men coveted and hated her. Women were both scandalized and intrigued.
The greatest anger against her came from a culture’s investment in a woman’s unavailability—which can be just as harmful as a culture’s language about a woman’s sexual availability. When Crispin and Wunker talk about rape culture, they are concerned with the way in which society normalizes men imposing availability on women as a function of power. They are critical of an environment in which sexual assault is trivialized and women are made responsible for what is done to them.
But for anyone who grew up in a traditional culture infused with conservative religious norms, there was is an added layer that was seldom reflected in the mainstream conversation. A woman’s value is entangled in her unavailability. The best woman is the most modest and aloof. She does not speak out of turn or make a spectacle of herself. And in an inversion of the mainstream idea of rape culture, sexual assault is not trivialized. In fact, it is so serious it has to be suppressed; there is shame in it, not only for the victim, but also for her entire family. The girls I knew growing up, girls like me, had to learn to navigate both sets of social codes knowing that regardless of the environment, what happened to us was always our own fault.
Qandeel Baloch’s life also brings up questions about “choice feminism.” Did what she choose matter? Or was it sufficient that she was bold enough to make any choice at all and encouraged others to do the same? We can argue about the emptiness of celebrity, but in an age where internet fame is currency, Baloch had a good deal to trade on. Choice feminism may be bad for western feminists, but, in a different context, merely opening up space to make any choice at all can be radically feminist.
Unlike the feminists of my day, Crispin and Wunker both advocate a feminism that is conscious of that context—of how race and class and sexual orientation affect power and privilege. It is a far cry from my experience of being lectured to by a powerful woman for limiting her. But even among people calling for intersectionality, there can be blind spots. Writers who confidently navigate the personal as a way to the universal also clearly illustrate how the nature of the personal can drive two people with similar missions to vastly divergent goals.
Those divergent personal realities exist among feminists from the same community too. We may have culture in common, and that feeling, for instance, of being assailed not only by our supposed female allies outside our community but also the men from our own communities, whom we feel we have a duty to defend to the world—even while we criticize and challenge them in private. But when I hear, for instance, young Muslim women talking about the challenges of wearing hijab, they are grappling with an issue I remember wrestling with as well. And, yet, it is also different. In my day, hijab was meant to set you apart, demonstrate that a woman had made a different choice. Today, the message is that a woman wearing one is no different. A high-gloss, burgeoning hijab fashion and makeup industry is rebranding Muslim women, telling young women, especially, that they can be attractive and appealing despite their hijabs. It is a subversion of the traditional ideas underpinning hijab—not to mention what was liberating about them to many Muslim feminists of my generation, including me: the freedom not to think about being attractive at all.
Crispin’s book is focused and angry about the current predicament feminism finds itself in. And, yes, while establishment feminism—the feminism of elite white women—is concerned with achievement and “leaning in,” the conversations happening among intersectional feminists, especially young women of colour, are different ones, fierce and dynamic conversations that drill down on issues that are literally concerned with life and death. How is a movement to reconcile all these divisions, amplified by technology, those cracks that occasionally shatter into tiny slivers?
The idea that comes to mind for me is of something physicists call Brownian motion, a force exemplified vividly by the image of a piece of pollen moving around in a glass of water. The movement of the tiny particle as it is jostled about by the energetic motion of the water molecules around it is erratic and kinetic. I find myself recalling that speck of pollen in water as I observe—again I am the observer—bobbing along, bombarded by a multitude of opinions and arguments. The motion of these conversations is constant and unstopping. Like the pollen, they will never settle. Perhaps that is the point.