Why I am not Jessa Crispin’s Feminist

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Before I start, for those who are not familiar, this isn’t an anti-feminist book. It’s a feminist manifesto. The title is purposefully incendiary.

I really wanted to like this book. I guess that’s partly my fault, like why did I expect so much? I think because one of the people I admired seemed to like the book a lot, and the people the book largely pissed off were people I didn’t mind pissing off. I’m being snide but actually the book’s topic is really important and not one something that typically hits mainstream discourse. So for someone who has voice and reach, she has a unique chance to be able to articulate it, and she didn’t do it very well. I would have given it 2 stars on goodreads if I didn’t still feel that there are still things in the book that she at least still managed to say right and were important.

The book starts out relatively fine, even if we set aside how polemical it is, which I could tolerate because I was familiar with the message she was trying to put across. It is right to point out the main problems with contemporary liberal feminism today — that its aims are shallow and centred around the ‘lean in’ approach focused on the ambitions of a narrow elite of women. This is not a feminism for all women and it certainly does not question the fundamentally unjust, capitalist, neoliberal structure we are functioning in. I get it. We want better than buzzfeed, taylor swift feminism. Disney princesses are tired of being re-conceptualised. I too can’t stand the over-emphasis on female CEOs, lawyers, bankers, politicians; the power-feminism that utterly disregards the working-class. I too can’t stand how it has been co-opted by corporations once it’s fashionable. I rolled my eyes at a “feminist” sweatshirt in H&M. Sure you’re feminists now! Cause it’ll make you money! She’s right to point out that a feminism that is watered-down to be made palatable and unthreatening is not something that can serve everyone.

“This is part of the problem of creating a unified front for feminism: the median feminist is generally going to be a middle-class, educated white woman. Her desires and needs cannot stand in for the needs of all women. And yet we’ve focused on facilitating her dreams for much of recent feminist history. Our goals have been things that would make her life easier, like equal pay, removing barriers to higher education, delaying childbearing through birth control and fertility treatment developments. “

It doesn’t really get better from here on though. Setting her arguments aside for a moment, the writing itself was quite erratic and unclear. She tends to use terms that are quite general without specifying what exactly she’s referring to, so it’s confusing at times to figure out who she’s exactly addressing, or what she’s precisely talking about. At times I had to keep reminding myself that this really strong line I’m reading is probably directed at the liberal white feminists she is criticising, otherwise it’s seriously uncalled for. She simply says “feminist”, so I am not sure. There are plenty of straw-women in this book she knocks down, a lot of blanket statements. She tends to also over-simplify phenomenons when she describes them, especially when talking about the current tensions that exist in feminist circles, which to be honest is only going to make tensions worst lol. Despite being a more ‘radical’ feminist, her rhetoric sometimes sounded eeriely like conservatives who make generalising statements. Take this specimen, for example:

“This is the way dissent is handled in feminist realms: a contrary opinion or argument is actually an attack. This stems from the belief that your truth is the only truth, that your sense of trauma and oppression does not need to be examined or questioned.”

This sounds like some anti-feminist fuckboy’s 3dgy comment on a facebook meme. She goes ahead and defines for us how dissent is handled in feminist realms, she then goes on to define for us the belief underlying it. I mean… like, how did she arrive at these conclusions, or is this mere conjecture? How am I supposed to take these lines seriously? Even as a radical feminist I feel like this drastically oversimplifies the tensions present in feminists circles. It’s so inadequate, and so confident at the same time. I’m taken aback someone can just… say this.. in a published book.

She also tends to do the things that she tells people not to do, which adds to my confusion. Glaringly for me was her position re: identity politics. Her critique of it seems to be of the more radical vein instead of the rather annoying liberal one:

“What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with out concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward”

Ok writing that out I realise her critique starts out radical, then goes on to the liberal critique before returning back. It’s confusing. Yes there has been a focus on the individual, and the ‘self-empowerment’ narrative kind of isolates people instead of building community, and detracts us from seeing systemic injustice and tend to seek individual instead of systematic solutions. But how in the world!!!! is that related to people being unwilling to share space with people with different opinions/worldviews??? It’s like she was driving fine along the road of trying to critique identity pols, did a little detour to take a dump/throw some shade, and drove back. At this point I’m looking at who published this & wanting to ask them why they didn’t edit her book better.

Also despite her valid (but still shallow) critique of identity politics, she doesn’t utilise it herself a lot of times. She tends to devolve into focusing on individual errors of women, in the realm of personal choices, instead of taking the more systemic, structural understanding of why they make such decisions or were coerced into such decisions.

Another example of how she doesn’t seem to follow her own demands that she quite polemically scolds into people. These two quotes are from the same book ya’ll:

[1] “We do not like to pay attention to how the casual demonization of white straight men follows the same pattern of bias and hatred that fuels misogyny, racism, and homophobia. . . What does outrage actually accomplish? There was probably a moment when calling out the actions of some guy opened up a conversation, something along the lines of: How can we be more supportive of women in science? But that moment has passed.”

[2] “Take that shit somewhere else. I am not interested. 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. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.”

She spends quite a while bashing what she calls ‘outrage culture’ of feminists where they are apparently unable to handle any kind of criticism and are obsessed with revenge, without being able to tolerate dissent. They demonise according to identity (the first quote) and disregard context. She takes examples from actual events. Yes, some moments can spiral into vindicative outrage, but to say that these are merely product of wanting ‘revenge’ and an inability to handle criticism is incredibly simplistic! And despite the always-present group of people who might seem too ‘outrageous’ there are many others who actually use such moments as opportunities to open up a conversation!

And re: that first quote, I really could not stand it when she said that bias and hatred against white straight men follows the same pattern of hate that fuels misogyny and racism. Are you kidding me? Even if she acknowledges one has institutional power, that is still not enough to warrant such an idea! Why do people get to a point where they hate straight white men? Because they view this demographic as representative of oppression, oppression that they have faced that is actually structural, and perpetuated by individuals. But hatred that fuels misogyny and racism and sexism — that is not borne out of oppression! That is borne out of hatred for people/demographics that are not as powerful as you and most probably did you no harm! You just hate them because of your prejudice! It’s incomparable.

Later on, she also ties outrage culture to a chapter where she spends time talking about self-victimisation and how we need to move beyond that. But what I didn’t appreciate about this chapter was that she spent time talking about false rape accusations, saying that feminists should take it seriously. Are you kidding me? Why wouldn’t people know that? In a world where less than ~1% (or even less) of rape accusations are made up, why is this something that pages of a book is dedicated to, what is the net benefit of saying this? Even if she were to say yes women suffered, even if she were to acknowledge the failure of the justice system to mete out justice for rape victims, it just doesn’t make up for it. In my view.

Anyway moving on. She also really loves Andrea Dworkin, a person whom she says modern feminists hate and are ready to disavow. Unlike Jessa Crispin I won’t try to speak for all feminists so I will say that I do think Dworkin is a formidable person but that the criticisms that people had of her were more than just the fact that she was unabashed and fierce and ‘unlikeable’. It was more than just the fact that she was radical. A lot of feminists couldn’t really wholeheartedly agree with 2nd wavers because there were serious disagreements. I think it’s really glaring that Jessa Crispin never mentioned the trans-exclusionary aspect of feminism, especially in radical feminist circles. Even I as someone who leans more towards rad-fem am aware and know that it is something that is just unacceptable. I can only think that Jessa Crispin knows, but did not include this in the book, or she doesn’t. I’m sure she knows. It’s a very glaring omission.

Trying not to end on too depressing a note, here’s a nice-ish quote:

“Much of contemporary feminism uses the language of power. Girls needs to be “empowered,” women need to fight for “self-empowerment,” “girl power,” etc. There is little conversation about what that power is to be used for, because that is supposed to be obvious: whatever the girl wants.

But growing up in a system that measures success by money, that values consumerism and competition, that devalues compassion and community, these girls and women have already been indoctrinated into what to want. Without close examination, without conversation into a different way of thinking and acting, what that girl wants is going to be money, power, and possibly her continued subjugation, because a feminism that does not provide an alternative to the system will still have the system’s values.”

Anyway!! Feminists of color have said what she’s trying to say and said it much better. I appreciate what she’s trying to say though, my heart is with her. But damn..

Read bell hooks, audre lorde, and sara ahmed my friends. As for a white women who does it well, Nancy Fraser does.

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The Hidden Face of Eve. Nawal El Saadawi

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Despite the orientalist book cover of a veiled woman and the fact that the original title was “The naked face of the Arab woman” and not the submissive “hidden face of eve” I would still recommend this dense and intense read. As a doctor and psychiatrist, Nawal el-saadawi has seen and heard many women pass through her clinic doors for issues related to gendered violence. Whether it’s circumcisions and general mutilations gone wrong, or bleeding out and infected from the cultural practice of a woman puncturing through the hymen with a finger to draw blood, or men coming over to demand to know whether their new wives were really virgins, she was in direct contact with the culture and women she’s writing about. A generational epidemic where girls are sexually assaulted by older male relatives, girls who are killed for the sake of honour even if they are innocent, women who resort to dangerous home abortions so they can continue working at their exploitative jobs where they are paid less than men for more hours.She also makes the huge but important effort to point out the structural factors, fearlessly implicating religious culture and tradition as well, that continues to be used to justify horrific, systematic abuse against women. If you want to know of a struggle beyond what we usually hear about, I highly recommend this read. Nawal el-saadawi holds no punches.

This was such an intense read. It is quite canonical reading for those interested in feminism, and especially women’s oppression and issues in the Arab world (which is very diverse). But of course, this can bring issues of orientalisation or condescension from liberal feminists so in this edition Saadawi wrote a preface to counter that possibility by pointing out that feminism that isn’t what we today call ‘intersectional’ or sensitive or informed of the culture it’s addressing, will lead to further oppression of the women it’s supposedly directed at.

Criticism is fine, in this case if we want to criticise Islam/Islamic societies, that certainly can be done in a constructive way (which Saadawi does in the book fearlessly, and which she has been punished for), but done badly, it can be used to subject people to further geo-political violence (just like how Afghanistan women were bombed along with their country folk by American forces with one of the reasons justifying invasion was that they needed to be rescued from their ‘barbaric’ society that was oppressing them).

The first 60 pages of this was incredibly difficult, almost distressing to read. Nawal El-Saadawi is a doctor and psychiatrist, so she has had many people come through the doors of clinic seeking for her help and advice and she would share the horrific cases she has seen time and again, connecting it with the larger issues plaguing women in the Arab world when it comes to the obsession with virginity, controlling female sexuality, and how violent that becomes when honour is physicallly located in the hymen.

She starts out by describing how as a child she was taken from her bed by 4 adults (one of whom was her mother), and experienced her circumcision traumatically. Unlike in Singapore where it’s done as type one (and commonly known as ‘circumcision’) the FGM performed in the Arab world can be more severe with some places even subjecting girls to type 4 FGM (look it up, I don’t want to describe it). She has seen many women go through her clinic for excessive bleeding from circumcision, or infections. Some girls even die from severe circumcisions.

Apart from FGM, she described how the prevailing myths and lack of understanding of female anatomy and sexuality has horrifically painful consequences in the experiences women go through. For example, because people expect that a virgin must bleed the first time she has sex, some women are actually hired by families to stick their finger into the married woman’s/girl’s vagina to draw blood so that it can stain the sheet & then be shown as proof of the girl’s virginity. Saadawi recounted at one point how she saw one of these old women had fingers with long nails, and dirt under them. Needless to say, women can get infections from this practice. Women have also been through ‘honour-killing’ because they were accused of being promiscuous or of having sex before marriage, even if some of them were actually innocent.

She explained how such singular, downright ignorant lack of understanding render women subject to fate. Some women are born with hymens that are thin, or too thick, if the proof of virginity lies on a broken hymen, those who have broken their hymens as young girls while playing or stretching or whatever, find themselves in a difficult situation. For women who are rich enogh to afford it, they can get hymen reconstruction surgery. A poor, rural woman will not, however, get this option. I am describing this in detail because she did, and I think, for her, explaining these practices openly is really brings home the fact of how material and physical the suffering of women are.

Further on she explains how the repression of healthy sexuality in societies that have punished it have resulted in women being subjected to the lust of men in twisted ways. The vulnerable ones tend to be younger girls, who are often sexually assaulted by older male relatives since they are easy prey & the power dynamic protects the man from being punished.

I think what’s good about Saadawi is that she gets very specific, but also links these issues to larger structural problems. I think everyone tries that of course, but she does it quite well. Although admittedly I am not well-versed in the problems of Arab women beyond what I’ve read so I might miss out some issues. But for example, to point out that that rich women and poor, rural women face very different pains, is very important. Poor women can’t buy their way out of many problems, the way the rich can, and at the same time, they are subjected to harsher working conditions. They have to work out of economic necessity, and when a community is poor, it will be willing to change or overlook certain ideas about women participating in the workplace. However, these women often have to work excruciatingly long hours for very little pay, and often work through being pregnant or give themselves abortions just to keep their jobs.

Re: abortions. Saadawi shows how policies that affect reproductive rights for women can be arbitrary and contingent ultimately not on the moral debates surrounding it, but on the needs of the population. States would either allow or disallow abortion (and find religious justification later on to suit their position) based on their population problems, whether they need more people or not. It really brings home the point how women’s bodies and women’s autonomy are subject to power dynamics or people in power (mostly men) who decide the course of action.

I also enjoyed her detailing how the accumulation of wealth and property was what allowed hierarchy to develop, the split between those who own & accumulate property and those who don’t (essentially the rich-poor divide), and subsequently, the subjugation of women would follow up. In this sense, I really started to understand how feminism is very much a class issue, even though personally I have always in my rhetoric said that “women as a class suffer under patriarchy”, Saadawi’s explanations have really driven that home for me and explained it clearly. I wish I could reproduce it here! But I already returned the book to my friend Fadiah.

These were the important bits I remembered or stuck with me! I would recommend it, but just note that it is quite a heavy and dense read.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan

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“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?”

This book was pretty long-winded & dated & repetitive. It was written in the 60s so I guess it wasn’t as interesting to me as more 3rd, 4th wave feminist reading, but it is still enlightening, especially if you want to better understand the historical trajectory of feminism in the states. Honestly, it also made me really sad because Friedan was drawing from real experiences, testimonies and research throughout the book which makes you never forget that real women went through this suffering.

Friedan reveals how women were pushed by schools, the media & even corporations to fall into the role of housewife-mother, not so much out of choice but because that’s what they’ve been told they should do. Of course, today, feminism is very big on choice, and that if the woman chooses to be a housewife she should not be shamed for it and that it should not be considered a lesser vocation. But now I can understand why older feminists who lived through the 50s and 60s feel so strongly against it. The problem is that at that time, despite the progress made after the suffrage movement where women were encouraged to work & build themselves, there was an ideological regression that moved to limit women to the domestic sphere. So the choice element is taken out through coercion.

“Chosen motherhood is the real liberation. The choice to have a child makes the whole experience of motherhood different, and the choice to be generative in other ways can at last be made, and is being made by many women now, without guilt.”

 

Women’s magazines that used to have female editors were taken over by male writers and editors and the stories of accomplished women having marvellous careers or encouraging others to achieve their best were replaced with stories where women were lauded for staying at home and taking care of her family — which isn’t bad of course — except that the choice to achieve, have a career, were painted as selfish endeavours. Intelligent articles were replaced by articles that infantilised women.

In schools, even universities, Intelligent women were at every point encouraged to give up their talents & abilities to being housewife-mothers. There were even university modules that were geared towards preparing you to be a housewife. While in the 30s more women graduated and had their own careers in the 50s at least half (in fact more) would go o to be housewives and not exercise the learning they have had in university. And even if they did go out to work they faced discrimination at every level still. Men felt threatened by the presence of women in the workforce that they had to compete with and women were made to feel guilty when they achieved high stature in their work and careers. They were made to feel like they were taking up space that a man should rightfully have and that they should be at home, taking care of their families.

“In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination–tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it. A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination”

Corporations who profited from the banality of the housewife capitalised on the guilt and anxiety that these women often felt about their own femininity that seemed to so heavily depend on their identity as housewife-mothers. They often used guilting tactics to sell their products.

These housewife-mothers suffered. They often had an identity crisis because they were denied the ability to realise themselves and often did not know who they were beyond their identity as wife and mother.

“It is not possible to preserve one’s identity by adjusting for any length of time to a frame of reference that is in itself destructive to it. It is very hard indeed for a human being to sustain such an ‘inner’ split – conforming outwardly to one reality, while trying to maintain inwardly the value it denies.”

Research showed that these women suffered from profound feelings of emptiness, depression, alcoholism, physical ailments, unhappy marriages & had children who were more likely to be abused or had low self-esteem. To top it off, these women were also blamed when children had low self-esteem, had discipline problems, or were found to be too smothered that they did not know how to perform basic things themselves. But it was also at that point people seriously looked into the despair that was plaguing housewives.

“The insult, the real reflection on our culture’s definition of the role of women, is that as a nation we only noticed something was wrong with women when we saw its effects on their sons.”

In contrast, women who were able to stubbornly insist on studying even if they have to maintain the home at the same time, or work, or find some way to spend time and energy just for themselves, found that their home life improved, their relationships with their children and husband improved as their family regarded her as her own person.

This book is not perfect, Friedan’s discussion on homosexuality was a trainwreck. But in terms of revealing the reality of housewives at the time, it was a truly important expose. It really made me understand my own housewife mother’s profound dissatisfaction too.