Feminism's radical turn

Far from being dead, the fight for equality has turned fierce—and self-critical

Ivanka Trump stands behind her father, Donald Trump, as he speaks at a campaign event in Aston, Pa., Sept. 13, 2016. Ivanka has built her brand around empowering women, but with her new role as first daughter, some critics are wondering if she will be able to uphold her beliefs during her father's term. (Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux)

Ivanka Trump stands behind her father, Donald Trump, as he speaks at a campaign event in Aston, Pa., Sept. 13, 2016. Ivanka has built her brand around empowering women, but with her new role as first daughter, some critics are wondering if she will be able to uphold her beliefs during her father’s term. (Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux)

Literary Critic Jessa Crispin clearly appreciates the value of a catchy title. Her blog was named Bookslut. Now her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, seems calculated to grab attention at a moment when feminism is portrayed as either trending or dead—or trending because it’s dead.

Feminism’s most recent and much exaggerated death spiral can be traced to the assumption, an absurd one, that the U.S. election provided a referendum on the topic. “Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election to America’s most famous sexist instantly plunged the feminist cause into crisis,” The New Republic proclaimed hours after Trump’s win, as if the “feminist cause” is a single entity run out of a central command. If anything, the reverse proved true: the political upset galvanized organized protest driven by fear that the advances made by the feminist movement over the past 50 years would be reversed. The New York Times was bleaker: “Feminism lost. Now what?” ran a headline that suggested Clinton was herself synonymous with an ideology that dates back more than a century.

It’s precisely that conflation of a powerful, high-achieving woman with modern feminism that Crispin denounces in her slim, bracing polemic. The thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating book is part of a new literary groundswell: works grappling with the complex inequities of sexual equality and the ever-shifting gender see-saw a half century after “women’s lib.” Toronto writer Stephen Marche also wades in with his trenchant new book, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, in which he recounts leaving his job to be primary caregiver to his son so his wife could fulfill her career ambition. A countervailing groundswell is simultaneously at work: this vocal contingent calls for a return to the zero-sum game of the alpha husband, beta wife just as more than a third of women out-earn their husbands. The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men and Marriage by Suzanne Venker, the niece of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, laments that “society is creating a crop of women who are unable to love” and advises “it’s liberating to be a beta!” Similar messaging underlines the North Carolina billboard that sparked outrage last month. “Real men provide,” it read. “Real women appreciate it.”

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Taking a cue from Crispin’s title, the media have described its message as more piling on the feminism-is-dead pyre: “The fall of feminism,” read the headline of a Los Angeles Times’ review. “Why this literary critic rejects modern-day feminism,” said CBC Radio.

Yet Crispin sits at an extreme rarely discussed in modern-day feminism: she’s a self-professed radical feminist, hell-bent on dismantling a patriarchy she blames 20th-century feminism for buttressing. “I am angry,” she writes. “And I do pose a threat.”

Feminism sold women a bill of goods, Crispin states, by framing work as self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Women who rose to positions of traditional male power in corporations, in politics, in the military, on boards, like Clinton or Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame, became feminist role models. Crispin doesn’t buy it, noting Clinton dismantled social welfare programs and supported international interventions that killed thousands.

Only spaces occupied by privileged men were desirable, Crispin points out; women, who’d always worked, but in menial positions, weren’t fighting for jobs held by poor men, labourers or miners, for whom the workplace and society would become increasingly hostile. The consequence, she writes, is a “kind of hyper-masculinized world, where women are participating—and absolutely expected to participate in this world by feminists—in patriarchal values.”

Crispin also takes aim at “universal feminism”—her term for a non-confrontational feminist status quo that bends over backwards to be agreeable to avoid the “man-hating” stereotype of decades earlier. This mainstream, she believes, is preoccupied with identity politics, narcissistic “self-empowerment” and whining about TV shows rather than the hard work of bridging to universal human rights. It’s a pop star battle: on one hand, Beyoncé embraces the “feminist” label; on the other, Taylor Swift, never one to rock the boat, prefers “equalism,” the belief that both sexes should be equal without highlighting feminism. “Lifestyles do not change the world,” Crispin writes.

Within this Instagram feminism, shrillness is anathema. That’s a problem, Crispin writes: “I hear the word ‘feminazi’ coming from young feminists’ mouths today way more often than I have ever heard it coming from the mouths of right-wing men.”

The reaction can also be chalked up to marketing forces that have diluted and co-opted “feminist” to sell products with an upbeat, friendly “empowerment” message for decades—from the “You’ve come a long way baby” Virginia Slims ads of the ’70s, to Acne Studios’ “Feminist Collection” featuring a $650 sweater, to the recently published picture book Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves.

The fact that anyone can self-define as feminist, or not, also can render the word meaningless. Ivanka Trump claims both she and her woman-objectifying, women-grabbing dad are feminists. Joni Mitchell—whose lyric “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” has taken on new resonance in a Trump presidency—shocked many when she said she wasn’t a feminist during a 2013 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, who identified at the time as one. Marche rejects the self-proclaimed “male feminist,” saying it’s typically used to win points or get women into bed. Just be a decent guy, he writes.

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Decades of hindsight offer perspective. For one, “trickle-down” feminism is about as effective as trickle-down economics. Equality has not touched all women equally, and there’s anger, as was evident at the Women’s March in Washington, where I saw a black woman hold up a sign at a largely white crowd: “F–k you and your white imperialistic feminism,” it read. She had a point.

Crispin echoes the sentiment in her rejection of the “condescending attitude of Western feminists toward women in Muslim countries—this idea that these women need to be rescued (itself a masculine model) from their head scarves and their traditions.”

Some of her proclamations are head-scratchers, serving as a reminder that feminists don’t always agree or get it right. She refers to child care as “an issue that never gets much support beyond lip service in the feminist world,” a contestable statement that ignores Clinton’s child care and family leave plan proposed during the campaign; the platform, directed at poor and working-class women, was eclipsed by coverage of Clinton’s emails.

Less questionable is Crispin’s call for a thorough, inclusive retelling of feminist history, one that moves away from focus on Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. She defends Andrea Dworkin, the “go-to scapegoat for younger feminists,” as someone willing to challenge assumptions. The fact that Dworkin was “obese, frizzy-haired, without even a hint of lip gloss,” Crispin writes, makes her “the physical and intellectual embodiment of those moments when feminism went too far.”

Non-feminist history also reveals that blaming 20th-century feminism for the glorification of the work and the workplace, as Crispin does, gives it too much credit. Yes, the civil rights movement stirred second-wave feminism and The Feminine Mystique raised consciousness. But other factors, namely the need for dual-income-earning families and the Pill, which let women delay child-bearing or defer it altogether, played a role.

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Now it’s evident that the very corporate workplace that women—mostly wives—flocked to in the ’70s was built on a male-breadwinner, female-homemaker model that remained unchanged. Needs of the new working wife and mother were ignored; nor was there a movement to replace or redistribute her labour in the home. The result: that famous Ms. magazine cover “I want a wife,” which also became a common working women’s half-joke.

Meanwhile, men were also left out, this time on the home front. There was no equal effort to make space for them in the so-called feminine pursuits to allow for a full life based in family, community and work. Decades later, they are still not part of this vital larger conversation, whether by choice or exclusion. Marche reports conducting dozens of media interviews about his book, which deals with men and women forging new familial bonds; not one of the interviewers was a man.

That disconnect could explain why, 60 years after the “women’s movement,” reproductive health rights and sexual violence remain barriers to women’s freedom. Female politicians receive death threats. A gender pay gap exists, even in the professions. Yet Crispin isn’t offering an olive branch to men. She slams “casual hatred of men as a gender,” yet in the next breath, tells men it’s not her job to make feminism easy or understandable to them. “Figure it out,” she writes. “I just want to be clear that I don’t give a f–k about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own s–t for once.” She offers one consolation: “Everything is more complicated than anyone wants to admit.” And that vague understatement pretty much sums up the long march ahead.