Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto’s blunt take on contemporary feminism made me laugh out loud, and the distilled writing style is enjoyable to read. Every page has interesting aphorisms that could spark a multitude of conversations. Jessa Crispin’s words are invigorating, and they make you want to get off the couch and actually do something.
But I’m skeptical it will serve its purpose as a call-to-action. For most of the book, Crispin faults contemporary feminists for participating in society’s patriarchal structures, and for failing to stage a revolt. In what might be a fatal flaw, though, she doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative. She tells women what they would be revolting against, but she doesn’t tell women what they would be revolting for.
This reminded me of Occupy Wall Street, an anti-capitalist movement with many supporters that was ultimately limited in its ability to affect change—likely in part because it wasn’t able to successfully articulate a vision for an alternative system of society. Much of Why I Am Not a Feminist’s criticism is not of patriarchy per se, but of capitalism, and how capitalism creates a culture that overvalues greed, money, and professional status. With the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the popularity of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, Crispin’s sentiments about the failures of capitalism are clearly part of the cultural zeitgeist.
But in real life, we always have to choose between different, imperfect options. For example, a majority of Americans didn’t approve of the Affordable Care Act until the Republican Party acquired the political capital to potentially pass a replacement. Faced with an actual alternative, the majority of Americans decided, for the first time in over six years, the Affordable Care Act didn’t seem so bad after all.
Similarly, even though Crispin offers compelling criticisms about the perniciousness and callousness of capitalism, without a proposed alternative, it’s hard to imagine people being motivated to action. Indeed, it’s hard to argue people should be motivated to action. As America’s invasion of Iraq demonstrates, it doesn’t seem wise to try to destroy a system of governance before seriously contemplating the replacement.
It’s also unclear why undermining capitalism would be a feminist, as opposed to human, project. Things can be wrong without being sexist. Are women particularly harmed by capitalism, even if they come to hold equal power? Crispin criticizes feminists who believe it is enough for women to obtain economic and political parity in the capitalistic system, writing, “[Y]ou are simply joining the ranks of those included and benefiting. You are doing your own excluding and exploiting. In other words, you, a woman, are also the patriarchy.” Presumably, she is addressing high-status women, like women CEOs, bosses, senators, and judges. But if there were gender parity across the classes, these women would be exploiting people, not women.
One could imagine an argument linking patriarchy and capitalism based on the biological essentialism of gender: if women are by nature more nurturing and caring, they would be especially harmed by a system that prioritizes paid work. But this kind of biological essentialism is spurned by feminists so if Crispin intended to rely on that argument, I assume she would have said so explicitly.
The truth is women currently do most of society’s unpaid and low-paid caring work, for a myriad of reasons. They overwhelmingly take care of young children, whether as stay-at-home mothers, daycare workers, or nannies, for example. So women are currently devalued by a culture enamored with capitalism. Some feminists have argued that women have an obligation to eschew caring work in order for society to achieve gender parity with respect to caring and non-caring work. Other feminists have argued that as long as women are freely choosing to engage in caring work, that is enough; men and women do not have to choose the same pursuits in the same numbers to be equal, and it isn’t fair, for example, to ask a woman who wants to take care of her own children all day to work as a lawyer instead.
It is these “choice feminists” that Crispin particularly disdains, claiming in their attempt to be universally appealing, they have decided “that no matter what a woman chooses, from her lifestyle to her family dynamic to her pop culture consumption, she is making a feminist choice, just from the act of choosing anything.” This seems like a bit of a caricature, but it also taps into something valid, which is by focusing so much on women’s personal empowerment, it is easy to be complacent and not demand structural change.
Throughout the book, Crispin laments how contemporary feminists are all about incremental and minor modifications, how they like to imagine they are radical, but the extent of their activism is calling out misogynists on Twitter and debating which TV shows are good and which are bad. Contemporary feminists congratulate themselves on their lifestyle choices, and do little to help the oppressed. Instead, they seek “a life of wealth, comfort and firm buttocks.” Feminism has become “a bland, reworked brand of soda, focus group tested for universal palatability and inoffensiveness … with an enormous marketing budget, tagline, ‘Go ahead, be a monster. You deserve it.’”
This book was in production before the Women’s Marches, a vast turnout of women across the country protesting the election of Donald Trump. I suspect Crispin would not be particularly impressed at this feminist engagement. Or at least not until the marches coalesce around demanding something more, something bigger. But the problem for Crispin, and perhaps for the marches, is determining what exactly that something is.
It’s easy enough to get women to condemn the election of a politician who made multiple misogynistic statements. As Crispin writes, it is much harder to get women to change their lives, to make personal sacrifices, and voice unpopular opinions. Crispin’s book is an insistent call-to-action, a demand we do more and make society better. She doesn’t really tell us how, or what that would be, but perhaps its eloquent insistence will inspire someone else to fabricate an alternative. And then we can compare that alternative to what we have, and see if it’s worth upending our lives for.