Jessa Crispin Can’t Do It Alone in Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

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It’s an awkward time for radical women to declare themselves not feminists. In February 2016, Breitbart News published an article titled ‘Would you Rather Your Daughter Be Feminist or Have Cancer?’ Eight months later, Milo Yiannopoulis—before his fall from reactionary grace—delivered a speech at Auburn University titled “Feminism is a Cancer for Men…And Women,” in which he attacked feminism for its insistence upon a “grim, terrible world where an evil and powerful patriarchy controls a woman’s every move.”

In her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin deals contemporary feminism a series of heavy blows. “For too long,” she writes, “feminism has been moving away from being about collective action and collective imagination, and toward being a lifestyle. Lifestyles do not change the world.”

Crispin’s criticisms focus on attitudes of this lifestyle approach to feminism, attacking them from all sides: Lifestyle feminism adopts the values of a patriarchal society; it seeks safety over critical or intellectual conversations; it attempts to be universal and so becomes vacant; it celebrates self-empowerment over community; it requires women to be just as ruthless, ambitious, and career-oriented as men. This feminism rejects the radical roots of true feminism: too harsh, too uncomfortable, too inconvenient. Crispin contests the logic that as long as women can get the same jobs as men in corporations and political parties, we’re doing just fine. Making a patriarchal society work better for women is not enough; it fails to meet Crispin’s desire for feminism to be “a cleansing fire.”

In Crispin’s account, true feminism (i.e. radical, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal) has been replaced with this version constructed around convenience and winning. She writes, “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of success in patriarchal capitalism. Namely, money and power.” Lifestyle feminism is easier to swallow—it requires no sacrifice or challenge, and it turns a radical movement into a branded identity. “Contemporary feminism becomes just another thing to buy,” she writes. As Crispin sees it, all feminism has come to require is an enamel pin, baseball cap, or tote bag emblazoned with the phrase THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.

Feminist criticism and writing has highlighted many of the same points for several decades now. Writers like Nancy Fraser, Ellen Willis, and many others have delved into the co-optation of feminism by the corporate, consumerist world. Crispin makes little acknowledgment of this lineage besides scattered references to Andrea Dworkin. Nor does she engage in precise critique or analysis—neither of the roots of radical feminism or its bastardization by the neoliberal woman. “Today’s feminists accuse the actual feminists of ruining the movement’s good name and putting other women off from joining the cause” she writes, without clarifying the feminists (contemporary or historic) to which she refers. The book is startlingly absent of evidence, unlike, for example, Andi Ziesler’s We Were Feminists Once: From RiotGrrl to CoverGirl. Crispin skips over obvious targets that would strengthen her arguments by grounding them in concrete cultural material: Sheryl Sandberg, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham. She does give passing criticism to Hillary Clinton. And she describes Gloria Steinem as “that banal, CIA-funded icon for white, middle-class women.”

This is, after all, a manifesto. Crispin asks the reader to get on board without providing historical or narrative evidence. A manifesto doesn’t tend to involve nuanced cultural criticism or social history. The writing is casual, decidedly nonacademic, and involves generalizations about the subject as it is and as it ought to be. But most manifestos have two things in common that this book lacks: they speak on behalf of a group of people with a specific collective interest, and they articulate a set of values and beliefs that sketches a blueprint for specific, determined actions. Whether artistic, political, or otherwise influenced, manifestos put forth a vision of how a group of people believes something should be.

Why I Am Not a Feminist is a manifesto of one. Without basing its criticism in a community of women, its instabilities surface early on. Crispin writes:

In the name of freedom, we broke out of communities and towns and tribes and created families and blood lineage. In the name of freedom, we broke out of families and blood lineage to create a nuclear household. In the name of freedom, we broke out of nuclear households to become individuals. And yet at no point along that way did we put serious consideration into creating a social equivalent to the support system those larger groups provided to us.

Who is ‘we’? Is this the narrative of white, middle-class suburban women? When and where did each of these shifts in the structures of gender happen? Crispin delineates a series of actions disconnected from times, places, or actual people. She suggests what her cleansing fire feminism will burn—more or less everything—but skips over the how-to. With what community? With what social support? Leaving the reader to assume those answers is both unfair and dangerous.

Crispin’s writing strikes a tone that at times parallels neoconservative—even alt-right—pundits: commentary peppered with political injunctions, not criticism. “Men are not our fucking problem… Our job is to act like humans,” she writes. Later: “Safety is a short-term goal and it is unsustainable. Eventually, the unaddressed causes will find new ways of manifesting themselves as problems. Pull up the dandelions all you want, but unless you dig up that whole goddamn root it’s just going to keep showing back up.” Crispin is no Yiannopoulos, but the echoes of the far-right in tone and style are troubling. Punditry is a shaky base for and unreliable route towards the kind of humanist politics Crispin would have feminists construct.

Crispin’s impatience with lifestyle feminism is resonant. Nevertheless, Why I Am Not a Feminist is a personal exhortation written in normative statements that vacillates between the “I” and “we” voices. A specific and sound deconstruction of why women need not lean in, why radical humanism and a dedication to social politics is the only viable option when faced with autocracy and corporate demagogues, would have made for a stronger book. The counterbalance to the alt-right needs to find its strength in a collective of voices and a dedication to relentless, careful criticism. Crispin is part of the way there—but she can’t do it alone.

Nina Sparling is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. More from this author →