THE ULTIMATE FAILURE of Why I Am Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin’s fiery denunciation of modern American feminism, is all the more disappointing because the good parts are so good. Crispin’s book would be an important read in any case; in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, it is an essential one. Feminism, Crispin argues, betrayed its anti-capitalist roots in favor of “identity politics”: it failed when the focus shifted “from society to the individual.” “What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world,” she writes, gave way to “a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories.” Calls for women’s “empowerment” came, increasingly, at the expense of absolute demands for radical systemic change toward a fairer, more egalitarian society.
Crispin rightly calls out the rich feminists, the racist feminists, and the lazy and entitled feminists who’ve lost touch with their less advantaged sisters. Feminism “ended up doing patriarchy’s work,” she contends:
Now that we have access as women, women in positions of power are much less likely to attempt to dismantle this system of inequality. Power feels good. Capitalism feels good. It gives you things, as long as its boot is not on your neck.
In an especially strong passage, she describes the treacherous path modern American women took, and are taking, to “empowerment”:
[Y]ou will have to exhibit the characteristics of the patriarchs who built [the system]. In order to advance, you will have to mimic their behavior, take on their values […]
It’s nice in there […] If you value power, people will give you power, and with that comes money, luxury, a way out of all that oppression and misery. Little thought will be given to those left on the outside.
This is exactly right, but it’s not the whole story. Middle-class American women turned their backs on those less fortunate not only because of selfishness and I-got-mine-ism, but also because life on the materialist hamster wheel is so utterly grueling and exhausting that it leaves you neither the time nor the energy required in order to comprehend the worthier cause, let alone contribute to it meaningfully. Privilege is not all that privileged for those who have struggled to stay afloat in the middle class over the last 30 years. Everyone, man and woman, is working 50 or 60 hours a week; there are kids to somehow get through college, bills to pay, and laundry to do. The ACLU membership and the occasional volunteer work, unsurprisingly, didn’t bring about a better world. We are selfish, sure, and maybe also the Man keeps us all dog-tired for a reason. Attention is splintered, the media are imploding, and those who could make effective allies are suddenly at one another’s throats. These aren’t simple phenomena, and they’re all interconnected. And yes, as Crispin argues, compassion and empathy are needed in order to bridge all the gaps.
The funeral of the hopelessly confused, self-infatuated “movement” that is modern American feminism was already held last fall, however unwittingly, by the pantsuit brigade belting out Rachel Platten’s godawful “Fight Song” during the campaign last fall. Fight song! Swan song, more like. When you’ve lost your job or your house or both, what you need is a government that will help you, and who cares whether it is headed by a man, a woman, or a Yeti, provided it fulfills that need? But no, we were supposed to be “With Her,” whether or not she was “With Us.” Those balloon-filled rallies studded with kazillionaires pre-inaugurating Hillary Clinton were entirely … hmm … deplorable, at the time, to many on the left as well as the right, and the memory of their smug, entitled presumption now, when none other than Steve Mnuchin is Secretary of the Treasury and Jeff Sessions is Attorney General, only makes all this even more depressing.
Crispin’s criticisms of the feminist status quo, in short, are spot on. Feminists (and Clinton, and Democrats in general) failed and are failing because of their refusal to take the fight to the corpocrats and to stand openly with causes like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15. Absent a plain and absolute demand for equality, feminism has devolved into ineffectual, mealy-mouthed bullshit, all navel-gazing, “self-empowerment,” and “Leaning In.”
Because these deficiencies are so often politely ignored or glossed over, Crispin’s vitriol is bracing. In any milieu where volunteering and altruism play a key part — in education and foundation work as well as politics — pointed self-criticism like this is much, much too rare. Most people involved in the feminist movement want a better world; Crispin wants a better world. I know this. And she is right that we haven’t the ghost of a chance of getting there until we are willing to admit the truth, gnarly as it may be.
The unsuspecting reader of egalitarian convictions is in for a colossal shock, then, to learn that Crispin’s manifesto contains within its pages a chapter titled, “Men Are Not Our Problem.” Having claimed elsewhere that feminists have developed an unhealthy “unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories,” here is what Crispin has to say to men:
You as a man are not my problem. It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you […]
I just want to be clear that I don’t give a fuck about your response to this book. [Point taken!] Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.
My reading — which began with scrawled exclamation points in the margins and a generalized response of “Hell yes!” — quickly devolved into snorts of incredulity at passages like the following, which are true, and right, though Crispin doesn’t appear to have read them, let alone written them:
Whenever we feel superior to anyone else, we take away that person’s humanity in order to bolster our own sense of self and worth. We take directly from them what we need to compensate for our own lack. We see their confidence, their certainty as surplus […]
Once an oppressor’s power starts to slip, it is very easy to switch places and adopt the same behavior.
In case I have to state the obvious — in case, that is, you were wondering whether this passage basically kneecaps the author’s tired, distasteful misandry — the answer is another “Hell yes.” How grueling must it be for men to hear women on the left preening themselves on the virtues of inclusion and compassion while simultaneously telling them, “I don’t give a fuck about your response to this book”?
With any amount of power — even with the soapbox Crispin got when her publisher agreed to publish her book — comes a responsibility to consider your place as one among many. And yet, without a trace of irony: “It is a failure of empathy to identify yourself only with those who resemble you. That is as narcissistic as working exclusively in your own self-interest.”
Feminism began, necessarily, by rightfully demanding equality from men. Men, who once held all the cards rather than just most of them, were increasingly challenged to demonstrate an egalitarian spirit: to consider the claims of women, the work of women, the needs of women, as being equal in value and importance with their own. And where has this history led women like Jessa Crispin? To a haughty, point-blank refusal even to listen to any man who may have a response to her work. Some soi-disant feminists drink their tea from “Male Tears” mugs, while others wear T-shirts reading, “Kill All Men.” Is it any wonder that American feminism is dead? Good riddance to it, honestly.
Politics is a matter of community, a collectivist project. If we are hoping to establish a fair society, each of us will be the ally of all the others, with the inalienable goal of sharing our resources fairly and equally and treating one another with respect. That is what I, at various times in my life classified as a “minority,” a “woman of color,” a “POC,” a “Latina,” et cetera, am working toward. I don’t particularly care for any of those labels but will answer to any of them just fine. I’m a person! You’re a person. Women who see themselves as women first and human beings second have apparently forgotten this, to all our cost. American feminism was crushed in our time by this blindingly simple paradox: if you are putting women first, necessarily, that ain’t egalitarian. Are you trying to get everyone paid the same? That is egalitarian. Are you trying to punish men? Then no. A thousand times no.
It is no exaggeration to say that the tendency to articulate feminist politics as inimical to men played a critical part in putting Donald Trump in the White House. It was all about “Her,” when it might, instead, have been about “All of Us.” When it comes to national politics, every single person hearing a candidate’s message has to be able to think: “Yes! This could be great for me and my family, my community.” It’s absurd that this needs to be said, but egalitarian politics has to include men, include them openly, and in a welcoming spirit, with no resentment, as equals.
Or else fail, and fail deservedly.
Until equal means equal, until the last shameful vestige of misandry is eradicated from the feminist conscience, I will continue to refuse, along with Crispin — albeit for significantly different reasons — to call myself a feminist.