Feministing Reads: What Why I Am Not A Feminist Gets Wrong About Feminism

In her new book, Why I Am Not A Feminist (Melville House, 2017), Jessa Crispin lambasts the contemporary feminist movement for its supposed lack of criticality and nuance. It’s particularly disappointing, then, that Why I Am Not A Feminist provides neither.

Feminism in the 21st century, Crispin claims, is “shallow,” intellectually lazy, unradical, self-serving, and capitalist—nothing more than a “psychotic marketing campaign” that’s responsible, in part, for the ongoing subordination of women. “Contemporary feminism,” she sighs, “[is] just another thing to buy . . . For these reasons and more, I am not a feminist.”

The problem with Why I Am Not A Feminist isn’t that its analysis is all bad. Crispin has thought-provoking things to say about self-empowerment rhetoric, trauma and the traumatized, and Hillary Clinton. But the text is so overbroad, decontextualized, and unnuanced that it’s hard to know who or what Crispin thinks is at fault for the deficiencies she perceives in the current feminist moment. (The National Organization for Women? Planned Parenthood? Jezebel?) Rather than excavating the source(s) of the problem, she levies blanket blame at “feminism” as a whole, as if it were a single, knowable, personifiable entity. “Feminism has been marred by . . . patriarchal values,” she writes. “It has been warped in the name of greed and power. Feminism was seduced by all the pleasures the patriarchal world has to offer.”

Perhaps the central flaw of Crispin’s book is her failure to contextualize it within a broader ongoing dialogue—or to acknowledge, at a minimum, that her intervention is in no sense a new one. (Notably, she doesn’t include a single citation in the entire book.) Feminists of various stripes have fought for decades to define what feminism is and should be, to articulate its core principles, and to situate its critique of patriarchy within a broader understanding of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. In other words, the questions Crispin raises aren’t new; they’re sites of ongoing, intense debate. But by collapsing feminists into a monolith, Crispin obscures both the decades of heated debate within feminism—many of them spurred by women of color—and the richness of today’s deeply contested feminisms. (The swift reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is just one such recent example.)

Take Crispin’s passage on Hillary Clinton, for instance. She writes,

Worse than any of that, however, is the tendency of contemporary feminism to see women in power as an inherent good, women like Hillary Rodham Clinton (who, as a senator, dismantled social welfare programs to the severe detriment of poor women and children, as well as supported international interventions that resulted in the deaths and suffering of thousands of innocent civilians) [ . . . ]

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.38.53 AMCrispin’s analysis of HRC is spot on. Her analysis of “contemporary feminism” is not. Of course, there are women who campaigned loudly for Clinton. But there are also feminists who critiqued HRC for decades—feminists whose voices Crispin erases entirely. She gives young feminists particularly short shrift. It’s young women, after all, who were some of Clinton’s most vocal critics. They supported Bernie Sanders’s more progressive, comprehensive vision of a feminist life, even as their mothers and grandmothers chided them for it.

I’m not quibbling here; these omissions really matter. By erasing the contributions of so many feminist voices—many of them young, of color, queer, and trans—Crispin is not only descriptively inaccurate, she also cedes too much (power) to a certain segment of the population that claims the feminist mantle.

Put simply, feminism is more than what Sheryl Sandberg says it is. There are thousands of young feminist writers, thinkers, and organizers working to abolish prisons, imagine better ways of responding to rape, form new family structures, end police brutality (and the police), support the kinds of women’s work that has long been stigmatized (sex work, domestic labor, etc.), and more. They are building ways of being that exceed both the terms that patriarchy provides and the spare portrait Crispin paints. Let’s not paint them out of the picture. Erasing these young voices means surrendering the terrain of feminism to the Sheryls and Hillarys of the world to set the terms of what a feminist life is and should be.

After all, feminism has always existed in a space of contestation. It has never been a static, coherent, knowable entity. At its best, feminism is a fight over a multiplicity of competing views and understandings of what is ethical and just, a diverse set of claims on how we might build better ways of living together in the world. That’s a fight I’m not ready to concede.

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New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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