Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Feminists Don't Have to be Ideologically Pure to be Radical

A friend of mine has a favorite question. A local union organizer, he poses this question when he encounters people who won’t participate in the labor movement for reasons of ideological purity. They can’t go to the march, or sign the petition, or talk to their fellow workers, they will explain, because the movement doesn’t perfectly reflect all of their political beliefs, all of the time. In these instances, my friend asks: “Do you want to feel good about yourself, or do you want to win?”
I found myself wanting to put this question to Jessa Crispin many times while reading her perceptive and impassioned new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. A critique of contemporary feminism, the book began, as so many books do, one drunken night in New York City. Crispin spent an evening ranting to the publishers of Melville House about how feminism had lost its way. It was now either entirely toothless, or fixated on the wrong problems: “safe spaces,” “outrage culture,” and “lean-in culture,” as she would later tell Vulture. Self-proclaimed feminists were so worried about learning how to negotiate raises and project confidence that they weren’t willing to challenge oppression in any meaningful way. Instead, they took to Twitter to police speech and to commiserate over their so-called “wounds.” They cared more about a joke made in poor taste than they did about sweatshops or deforestation.

At its best, the resulting manifesto serves as a useful skewering of feminism’s worst tendencies. In her introduction, Crispin rejects the “feminist label” because it has become almost meaningless. In a chapter titled “Women Do Not Have to Be Feminists,” Crispin pokes holes in the ideal of female independence, correctly pointing out how often it leaves women stranded, overworked, and underpaid. Moreover, as she laments, the term “feminist” has come to be used so broadly that it can apply merely to any prominent, successful woman, rather than one who consciously questions the patriarchy. We now measure feminism’s success by the triumphs of female CEOs and self-declared feminist pop stars.

Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Crispin is denouncing a particular strain of contemporary feminism: what she alternately calls “surface-level feminism” and “universal feminism.” We might also call it “neoliberal feminism.” This is a feminism preoccupied with workplace success and equal earnings, a feminism that abets global capitalism rather than challenging it. To many feminists, neoliberal feminism is a kind of “faux feminism”: It represents the interests of the top 1 percent of women while ignoring, or even exacerbating, the challenges most women face. As the political theorist Nancy Fraser has argued, a woman working in the corporate world can “lean in” only if she can also “lean on” low-wage workers—usually women of color—who will care for her children, clean her home, and cook her food.

rispin warns, too, of the ways that feminism and capitalism can be mutually reinforcing. Early in her book, she makes clear that she will not be part of any feminist movement that is not about “the full destruction of corporate culture.” She calls her feminism a “cleansing fire.” She doesn’t want to infiltrate the halls of power; she wants to burn the very buildings to the ground. The more people pour into the movement, the more Crispin wants to retreat. “If feminism is universal,” she writes, “if it is something that all women and men can ‘get on board’ with, then it is not for me.”

Crispin has long positioned herself as an outsider. In 2002, she founded one of the first online literary reviews, Bookslut, in an effort to cover idiosyncratic and innovative writers who rarely garnered mainstream critical attention. The result was a wider range of reviews and, often, more honest reviewing. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, was a travel memoir in which she visited European cities—Berlin, Galway, Sarajevo—and mused on the work of writers such as William James and Rebecca West. Many of these figures served as foils to the author herself: Jean Rhys was needy, but Crispin is independent; West was unselfconscious, but Crispin is self-aware. She wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

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