Photo: Flickr/Cajsa Lilliehook. Creative commons. Some rights reserved.
From outraged memes online to slogan-bearing t-shirts on the streets, across the world more and more women are calling themselves feminists, and demanding change. But what would this change actually consist of?
In her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, writer and activist Jessa Crispin argues that feminism has become depoliticised and ultimately unsustainable. It is a passionate call to arms for the movement to rediscover its radical, revolutionary roots. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What drove you to declare so directly, at this specific political moment, that you’re not a feminist?
There’s always been a kind of disconnect between feminist rhetoric and the lived experience of women. When I was growing up, I was coming of age during the third wave, and that conversation was about sexuality, personal presentation, individuality. But my lived experience was that I grew up in a very conservative town, my mother was a housewife, I was being raised to be a wife and a mother. A couple years later, I started working at Planned Parenthood and I became an abortion counselor at the time that abortion clinics began shutting down across the middle of the United States. And even with that going on, the feminist conversations nationally were still very shallow.
The rhetoric marches ahead, while the material situation falls apart?
Yeah, and they leave a lot of people behind. And it just seemed to just get worse and worse. The book came out of total frustration with the movement, the conversations, and what feminism was being used now to sell. Starting with the invasion of Afghanistan, and feminists getting behind that with the logic of ‘we’re going to liberate women’, and then the ‘lean in’ culture began – the feminist CEO culture, Hillary Clinton as the so-called feminist presidential candidate. The book was borne out of anger.
This brings to mind statements by global south activists who are extremely radical in their views, and in their work, but who have also rejected the term ‘feminist’.
A lot of people have felt shut out of that word, and there has not been a real, critical self-examination of why. There’s this kind of campaign within feminism to try to convince people to call themselves feminists, of trying to explain like “no, it’s fine”, rather than dig into the history and understand how feminism has supported war, how it’s been institutionally racist, homophobic, and xenophobic.
'feminism' has supported war, it’s been institutionally racist, homophobic, and xenophobic...
As soul-searching from Trump’s electoral victory continues in the US, do you think that a greater awareness of intersectionality has managed to seep from radical feminism to mainstream feminism?
I don’t think it has in a productive way. I feel like it’s a surface level awareness, that goes along with the need to always use the right words, but there isn’t a conversation about the consequences of the decisions that we make, and the lives that we lead. How do we direct that desire to do good? I feel like people spend a lot of time making excuses for why they can’t. I remember when the DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) activists asked feminists and other activist groups to remove their money from the banks that were funding the pipeline. Even if it was just a symbolic gesture, to stop giving material support to the banks, almost nobody did it.
"Native Nations Rise" march on Washington DC, against the Dakota Access Pipeline project, in March 2017. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
In your book you say it’s easier to buy the t-shirt than examine your own complicity in the structures of oppression you claim to stand against. Even though it’s necessary to have a basic awareness that not all people globally have the same problems, is it not also easy to sort of over-correct? That is, to assume everyone’s problems are completely different?
Yeah, I think it is. People criticise identity politics, because it’s an easy target, but I think it’s easy to forget that identity politics made a lot of people’s lives better, that it did tremendous work in opening up the conversation of how racism and misogyny still exist daily. But now it’s kind of used as a distraction, both on the right and the left. The right demonises it, and the left thinks that’s all that needs to be done, is to have these conversations, rather than understandimarng that the same structure that oppresses us also oppresses the trans community, also oppresses women in the Middle East, also oppresses everybody. We’re all colonised in different ways by corporate culture and capitalism, and patriarchal thinking, men included.
You write about ‘outrage culture’ in online feminism, on how by “ganging up” around a specific moment of misogyny, we falsely believe we have accomplished something by retweeting and sharing. Do you see this trend in the way we approach international feminist solidarity?
Because everything is decontextualised online, we just sort of gravitate towards things that reinforce our prejudices. One of the problems with things like international news shared through social media is that it’s easy to let it reinforce our xenophobia. An easy way to get attention in feminist media is to do these pieces about rape in India or Turkey, viewing these places as exceptionally misogynistic in some way. It reinforces our dehumanising of men of colour. American feminism has a huge xenophobic edge to it, that it doesn’t want to think about, where men of colour around the world are these scary, savage rapists. It’s weird how well this fear aligns with what the patriarchy wants us to believe, which is that the world isn’t safe and we should stay at home where we’re protected.
because everything is decontextualised online, we sort of gravitate towards things that reinforce our prejudices...
The internet is still a very useful tool for organising, it’s still great for consciousness raising, but people have to be aware of how they’re using it, and for the most part they’re not encouraged to question it. Within the feminist community there is very little self-critical conversation.
You make a powerful call for a return to second-wave radicalism, but from the perspective of some activists in the Middle East and across the global south, this wave was not radical enough.
I believe that’s part of the history, but I guess I’m more aware of it in third wave feminism, in the “unveiling” of the woman, as if the thing that’s truly going to liberate a woman is to show off her cleavage and her legs. I’m not as aware of that as a problem with the second wave, because I was, with them, focused on how there was much more engagement in creating alternate systems. There was an actual woman owned and operated bank, there were women operated abortion clinics before it was legal, all founded in the logic of “fuck it, society isn’t going to do these things, so we’re going to do them for ourselves”.
These second-wavers are blamed for how the term ‘feminist’ became loaded with imperialism and racism, a trap whereby some women who called themselves feminists, or did activist work, were accused of hating their ‘culture’ or betraying their people.
Which is why I think we should stop using the word. It’s too loaded with misinformation. Women are claiming to be feminists while exhibiting some reprehensible behavior – Christian fundamentalist feminists, anti-abortion feminists, war-mongering feminists, CEO feminists. So that to me is like the final straw. Maybe this word isn’t that useful anymore, maybe we should abandon it.
"That’s what most people mean when they say they’re a feminist, that they like Taylor Swift or something". Photo: Jan Knoff/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
In Turkey the word “feminist” is used quite politically, and hasn’t taken on the pop-star quality that it has in the US. Is that a good thing?
Certainly, I wish that hadn’t happened in America, because the lifestyle feminism thing is so distracting, and so big in the US. That’s what most people mean when they say they’re a feminist, that they like Taylor Swift or something. The use of the word is interesting, especially the evolution of it, but ultimately it doesn’t have any meaning without the agenda behind it. So, what is the agenda of using the word “feminism” in America, or in Turkey, or anywhere else? In America, I’d say it’s mostly about capitalism and neoliberalism, and about removing obstacles between women and the acquisition of power, rather than rethinking power itself.
Are you hopeful for real international solidarity amongst women? Something beyond the sort of trite, “you go, girl” Buzzfeed videos about Muslim women voting? Is this the best we can do?
Writing a manifesto is always a hopeful act. I wouldn’t have written it if I thought everything was dire. I am somewhat hopeful, but I’m also absolutely terrified. How bad does it have to get before people make real change? We now have all the information, we’re all woke. But are we doing anything with that? I don’t think that we are, in any organised way. We’re still having these women’s marches that don’t have any demands, that don’t have ideas or philosophies, they’re just sort of masses of women milling around. That energy is better spent being directed towards something. That’s the next step, we must start acting. What we had under Obama was still a disaster for most people. Defending the status quo is what people are thinking of as the resistance, but it has to be bigger than that. We’re not in a place where the status quo is satisfying, not domestically or globally.