A cleansing fire
Stephanie Bishop on Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist
The figure is old news: 53% of white female voters in the US opted for Donald Trump, many of them selfdeclared feminists, asserting that it was their choice, as feminists, to cast their vote where they wanted. This ought to be a self-cancelling scenario, a trigger for system collapse: how does a feminist vote for a misogynist? And what is the value of the term “feminist” if this is what it does?
The potential redundancy of the term, its double standards and ineffectiveness, has provoked Jessa Crispin to reject the label. In her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (Black Inc.; $24.99), the author of The Dead Ladies Project and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut and Spolia delivers a scorching polemic against the limitations of the dominant feminist attitude. Her rebuke heralds the revival of a radical position: “the feminism I support is a full-on revolution”, “a cleansing fire”.
Mainstream feminism, Crispin argues, is in crisis. It fails to address the everyday concerns of women. It has become so diluted and forgetful of its own radical history, so preoccupied with presenting a non-threatening image, that the assertion of consumer or voter choice is taken as a major feminist act, even if that choice is Trump.
Crispin’s manifesto is not a helpful guide or a howto book. Rather, through a series of declarative and often incendiary arguments, it presents a case against mainstream feminism. This is a feminism that is associated with the white middle class, and fails to speak to, or on behalf of, anyone outside that category. Her overarching argument is that mainstream feminism, in its effort to become “universal” and appeal to a broad audience, has become banal: a simplified movement without a strong political or philosophical foundation, one that belongs to the self-declared “bad feminists”, the kind that wonder whether you can “be a feminist and still have a bikini wax”. It is a feminism that belongs to the corporate woman focused on breaking through that glass ceiling. It is a feminism that despite isolated moments of outrage ensures women present themselves as “harmless … toothless”, “lovable” and “fuckable”, a feminism that seeks to deliberately distance itself from the vision of the hairy, manhating ogre of the second wave. This universal feminism is ineffective in achieving any kind of real social change. Crispin takes it by the jugular and shakes it for all it’s worth.
Her role here is that of the myth-buster, and her leading target is feminism’s misguided goal of self-empowerment. The pursuit of this goal, Crispin argues, places feminism within the anxieties of self-help culture: the drive for self-empowerment demands a focus on the individual, removes the person from their social context and sidesteps the challenge of interrogating a patriarchal system. It’s not only the goal that is the problem here but also the way in which it is attained.
Self-empowerment is closely aligned with independence: the achievement of one heralds the success of the other. But the attainment of each is relative to one’s capacity to make choices. Having a choice therefore becomes a feminist aim. The real limitation, Crispin argues, is that choice tends to be celebrated primarily in relation to consumer power. The logic underlying “choice feminism” is that not so long ago women didn’t have choices, because decisions were made by men, so to simply assert their decision-making power is a feminist act, irrespective of what they’re choosing.
Choice feminism raises the issue of women in the workforce. Employment for women meant (and can still mean) an escape from the domestic realm, “an expanded life”. It was hailed by the second wave as a guarantee of independence. Yet Crispin argues that women succeed within a patriarchal system only by adopting the role of the patriarchs themselves. For Crispin, the limitations of the mainstream feminist project are closely linked to the idea that women triumph