Living a Feminist Life
by Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press
Published February, 2017
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus
by Laura Kipnis
Published April, 2017
Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto
by Jessa Crispin
Published February, 2017
What is a feminist book? And what are feminist books for? I pose these questions at a time when feminism is currently popular enough to yield bestsellers and when any feminist text, no matter how broadly or narrowly pitched, has to compete with a bottomless supply of high-quality feminist writing available for free on the internet. Books that can be currently found on the ‘feminist’ shelf at the local bookshop range from an office-survival guide to a comic satire taking the mickey out of women against feminism blogs to an empowering memoir from a television news reader to a coffee table book on the recent Women’s Marches around the world. It’s also interesting to me, to put it blandly, how relatively few popular feminist texts engage with the writing of other feminists, or with feminist history, preferring instead a first-person driven authorial mode. More directly, these questions crossed my mind as I was confronted by a display of the new Vintage series of ‘short versions’ of classic works of feminism, including Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) in a Sydney book shop. While I must confess that I’ve never quite managed to finish The Second Sex, I was nonetheless rather affronted to see this landmark twentieth-century text reduced to a gift-sized pamphlet. ‘What is the point of this?’, I asked my shopping companion, somewhat rhetorically.
I’ve not seen Sara Ahmed’s new book Living a Feminist Life on the feminist table at my local book shop, quite possibly because it is published by Duke University Press and if sourced locally costs double the price of your average non-fiction paperback. This is a shame because the book belongs on that table – Ahmed is a hugely influential scholar with an in-built readership and this is her most accessible book yet. To many in the fields of gender and cultural studies Sara Ahmed qualifies as a kind of ‘academic rock-star’ (a term she relays as categorically male) and given this book has been published in the wake of her resigning from a prestigious academic job in protest at endemic institutional failure to address sexual harassment, there is the additional hook of reading the book to see whether or how Ahmed writes about her bold exit from the academy. For newcomers, Living a Feminist Life can serve double duty as a primer to her previous work, which includes seven books, dating back to her first Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998) and a series of titles that justly earned her reputation as a founding figure of affect theory, as well as a highly regarded queer and critical race theorist.
Living a Feminist Life puts a name to her life’s work, while also serving as a guide of sorts for other feminist killjoys, Ahmed’s reclaimed term for feminists who (among other things) dare to be wilful by rejecting social and gender norms that demand otherwise. Ahmed circles back and around her earlier work, including her Feminist Killjoy blog, in her distinctly ruminative fashion, while also sharing more of her own experiences than she has previously – be it growing up brown in white Australia, embodying ‘diversity’ in the contemporary neo-liberal university, or being a lesbian feminist. Beyond this, Living a Feminist Life is also a very useful book with which to think about the purpose and process of feminist writing, her own included, as I discovered when I read it alongside two recent jeremiads about contemporary feminism: Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis, and the widely publicised Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin.
Why I am Not a Feminist and Unwanted Advances are each deliberate provocations, destined for the feminist table and media attention from inception. Ahmed tells us that Living a Feminist Life could have joined them had she stuck to her original idea of writing a ‘more mainstream text’, buoyed by the blog she launched in 2013. However, it was soon apparent she was not writing ‘that kind of book’. In introducing her book by what it’s not – that is, a ‘trade book’, aimed at a general readership, to be displayed on the feminist table –and then by what it is, ‘an intervention within academic feminism’, in which she makes a ‘slow argument’, goes over old ground and takes her time – Ahmed makes an implicit commentary on what the market values in a popular feminist text: novelty, speed and easily digested arguments. Her book, though partly inspired by her blogging, is she insists, emphatically different from the sort of writing she and others have done online. Still, hers is not an either/or proposition in which feminist theory is sequestered in the ivory tower from so-called ‘real life’ or from all sorts of feminist writing, including texts ‘assumed to be dated, to belong to a time that we are in no longer’. Ahmed may be an unapologetic theorist, but for her this means refusing to separate theory from lived experience and politics (‘the personal is theoretical’). It also includes spending time with old books.
More than anything, Ahmed’s book is a tribute to feminist thought, words and worlds. She inspires readers (or she did this reader) to think about the role of books in feminism generally, in the past and present, in our own lives and in those of other feminists. Ahmed thinks with and writes about a whole range of feminist thinkers and writers, paying regular tribute to two in particular, philosopher Judith Butler and the late African American writer, lesbian and feminist Audre Lorde. Now she’d hardly be the first to do so – Butler and Lorde are revered figures, especially Lorde who has been introduced to new audiences with the rise of intersectional feminism – but Ahmed’s love for their work is expressed within an explicitly feminist methodology whereby she refuses to cite ‘any white men’ (and by white men she is referring not to particular individuals but to white men as ‘an institution’). Instead, she cites those ‘who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism, including work that has been too quickly…cast aside, or left behind’. So no Freud or Foucault then. In the reading, Ahmed’s approach is not so much alienating as intellectually generous and politically consistent.
Books are item number one on Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoy Survival Kit. She writes: ‘You need to have your favourite feminist books close to hand; your feminist books need to be handy’. (Ahmed is fond of the rhetorical device of chiasmus, which may not be to every reader’s taste). She continues: ‘it is often books that name the problem that help us handle the problem’. In addition to selected works from Butler and Lorde, Ahmed holds close two key books from the prolific bell hooks, radical feminist theorist and philosopher Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality – first published in 1983 and convincingly presented by Ahmed as having enduring relevance and insight – and three works of fiction: Mill of the Floss by George Eliot (1860), Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and Rita Brown Mae’s ground-breaking best-selling lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Fans of Ahmed’s will already know how much these books mean to her, as she’s come at them from a number of angles previously, but her point seems to be less about insisting on the Ahmed-approved canon of feminist classics than encouraging readers to identify and celebrate their own and to appreciate more broadly the place of books in sparking and maintaining feminist consciousness. Further, Ahmed models a feminist reading practice and ethics that resists hierarchies and foregrounds the importance of books and writing to feminists of colour in particular, while also finding value in the work of various radical feminist thinkers whose politics do not necessarily or entirely shore up with her own.
Ahmed’s feminism has multiple origins – including a Muslim auntie on her Pakistani side – and moves in multiple directions, but she is focussed on the university as a paradigmatic example of the unfinished business of feminism. This should be no surprise. It’s what she knows. In Ahmed’s rendering, the modern university is revealed as a workplace like any other, hardly immune from the futile performance of advocating ‘diversity’ without doing very much about it, and just as likely to go soft on sexual harassment as your next fundamentally patriarchal institution. Yet it was also for her, and perhaps remains so, a profoundly enriching place, particularly teaching in the perennially endangered field of gender or women’s studies (‘The time for women’s studies is not over until universities cease to be men’s studies’).
Throughout Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed displays an admirable knack for bringing ‘real world’ relevance to academic and internet buzzwords such as ‘intersectionality’ and ‘privilege’, as well as now less fashionable terms like ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’. She also writes from experience when breaking down the dismissive logic of critics of so-called ‘identity politics’. As Ahmed puts it, ‘when you point out structure, it is as if all you are doing is projecting your own identity onto the situation such that when you are describing what is missing, you are simply concerned with being missing yourself’. Elsewhere, Ahmed can get to the heart of contemporary debates in a sentence or paragraph, as she does with her no-nonsense dismissal of transphobic feminism and her student-centred defence of trigger warnings.
For me, the freshest chapters, that are most likely to attract new readers, are the early ones focussed on ‘Becoming Feminist’, beginning with her account of the sometimes literal violence that accompanies being and becoming a girl. ‘Being a girl’, writes Ahmed, ‘is a way of being taught what it is to have a body: you are being told; you will have my advances; you are object; thing; nothing.’ A later chapter, in defence of lesbian feminism, shares a similar spirit of first-principles feminism. Here Ahmed yokes together radical lesbian manifestos of the 1970s with recent writings from transfeminists, an audacious if somewhat problematic manoeuvre given the historic transphobia of (some) radical lesbian feminists.
Not everything works. Sometimes the notion of a feminist killjoy is qualified in so many different ways it becomes difficult to remember what the point is – other than that being a feminist can be rather joyless. There’s a preachy tone here and there, and some of the strengths are also weaknesses – not all the books or movies she combs over needed so much attention. Her style, as I’ve already hinted, can be an acquired taste. Here, for example, is the kind of associational riff she’s fond of: ‘Together: grumps are a feminist lump. A lumpen proletariat: in feminist form with a feminist consciousness’. All up, these are relatively minor distractions. Living a Feminist Life can be a demanding read, but it rewards close attention. While somewhat unclassifiable – neither monograph, memoir nor manifesto, but all three at various points – it’s also her most engaging book so far, often witty and all the richer for the anecdotes Ahmed shares. I underlined many sentences that could serve as epigrams to future feminist books, or could even be turned into inspirational fridge magnets (Example: ‘Feminism needs feminists to survive’). I sense she enjoyed herself writing it, despite the pain and estrangement she documents as an inevitable part of living your life on feminist, anti-racist and queer terms.
Even if Living a Feminist Life does not make it to the feminist books table, it seems destined to be read for some time yet, a fate not likely to be shared by most popular feminist texts currently enjoying prominent display – which is not to say that they’re of poor quality, but to draw attention to the way the bulk of mainstream feminist books are feverishly pitched to the now (whether that’s the table in the bookshop or the feminist pages of The Guardian). Yet as Ahmed’s book also reminds us, manifestos and polemics – typically written in a rush of feeling, a distillation of thought, the result of what she calls a ‘feminist snap’ – have long been at the forefront of feminist writing. Ahmed dabbles with both forms in Living a Feminist Life, but her impulse is ultimately to contemplate such books rather than to write one herself. On the evidence of their recent edicts against what they respectively see as the most odious manifestations of contemporary feminism, Laura Kipnis – a seasoned polemicist – and Jessa Crispin, an aspiring one – are more inclined to let it rip. Whether they end up short-lived sensations or share the vibrant afterlife of some of Ahmed’s reclaimed feminist classics remains to be seen.
‘If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama’. This quote from Laura Kipnis is not the title of her book, but it takes up most of the cover, dwarfing the actual title, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, and inviting the reader to dive in to see what she could possibly mean. As it turns out, Kipnis does not have that much to say about about the state of feminism on US college campuses, other than she doesn’t like what she argues has become the dominant version: a molly-coddling, puritanical variant that sees female victimhood everywhere and whose approach recalls those anti-porn feminists from the 1980s who in their quest to ‘protect’ women from men ended up forging alliances with all sorts of dodgy anti-feminists masquerading as allies. It’s a now familiar argument, and one I’m sympathetic to, but in Unwanted Advances it falls short because the connections Kipnis makes between this kind of censorious feminism and the larger institutional forces and processes she’s also challenging are assumed, rather than accounted for. Occasionally Kipnis names names – including those she sees have some historical responsibility to bear such as hugely influential feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller, who in her 1975 best-seller Against Our Will: Women, Men and Rape launched (on flimsy grounds, argues Kipnis) the since widely cited statistic that one in five American women will be raped – but mostly the feminists she discusses are bit players or depicted as a coterie. More broadly, Kipnis’ use of the term carceral feminism – that is, a feminism that seeks solutions in more state intervention and regulation, sometimes at the expense of civil liberties and often blind to the negative repercussions of such interventions on minority women – needs more substance to be convincing as a specific criticism of feminism in universities rather than of a wider bureaucratic system in which feminism is bound up and sometimes co-opted.
Kipnis’ book then is only tangentially about feminism, though it concludes with her call for ‘grown up feminism’, which I shall return to. Her more specific target – even if her aim is not always precise – is what she sees as the rampant ‘sexual paranoia’ currently engulfing US college campuses. It’s a paranoia, she argues, that is enabled by discourses of fear and harm (unlike Ahmed, Kipnis is dubious about trigger warnings) and conservative and punitive campus policies ostensibly designed to ‘protect’ students from various offences and threats, including both unwanted and desired sexual advances from their teachers. The chief policy instrument here is Title IX, the federal statute originally implemented in 1972 to end gender discrimination in education. In 2011, its mandate was extended to encompass sexual misconduct, broadly defined; with vague guidelines and compliance linked to federal funding of universities, overreach was perhaps inevitable. While Kipnis is admirable for the flair with which she describes the current state of affairs, she is, as she points out, hardly alone in her criticisms of how Title IX cases are handled. Law professors across the United States, she writes, have been writing letters in protest against the ‘rampant rights-violations and kangaroo court procedures’ that typify the Title IX process. Less well-placed or qualified colleagues are more likely to share their experiences and criticisms in private than on the record. Kipnis is told, for instance, that more ‘gay and queer than straight professors are the subject of formal complaints’, a trend she notes cannot be substantiated in the absence of publicly available data, though other scholars have also written about this in the public domain.
For those familiar with Kipnis’ oeuvre, her choice of subject matter here should come as no surprise. She’s a long time and gifted provocateur, whose previous polemics have included a spirited defence of pornography as an intrinsic aspect of human sexuality, an enjoyable spray against love and an energetic, if somewhat patchy, appraisal of modern masculinity and its foibles. In that last book, a series of collected essays titled Men: Notes From An Ongoing Investigation (2014), Kipnis made short shrift of Naomi Wolf’s 2004 essay documenting an ‘unwanted sexual advance’ from her then-Professor Harold Bloom at Yale some twenty years earlier. Clearly, the sexual politics of campus life, as well as the persistence of certain kinds of masculinity and femininity post-feminism, have been on Kipnis’ radar for some time. Her sympathy for Bloom, ‘the aging ugly man’, rather than for the 20 year-old Wolf, who vomited shortly after Bloom placed his hand on her thigh, may also bring to mind for Australian readers Helen Garner’s controversial take on a sexual harassment case at an elite Australian university in the 1990s, The First Stone (1995) – indeed, in précis form, so may Unwanted Advances. However, while Garner and Kipnis share avowed commitments to interrogate what they see as grey areas of human experience, in Unwanted Advances – as with her essay on Harold Bloom – Kipnis writes from within the belly of the beast. She may cheekily describe herself as a ‘quasi-academic’, and revel in a semi-outsider rebel status, but she’s also a tenured professor of film at Northwestern University. Like Ahmed, the modern university is what Kipnis knows, even if their versions of it, from some angles, bear little resemblance (Ahmed resigned because her institution refused to take sexual harassment seriously; Kipnis rails because sex of all kinds is, by her reckoning, being fanatically policed).
There is one crucial difference, however, between Kipnis’ latest book and her earlier ones, despite the consistencies in theme and tone. This time it’s even more personal than usual. Her analysis of the havoc wrought by Title IX and broader gripes about the paranoid turn on US college campuses may have been limited to an essay defending the rights of students and teachers to hook up (consensually of course) in a higher education journal – had that essay not resulted in two students at her own university filing Title IX complaints against her, under the somewhat spurious charge of ‘retaliation’. Kipnis’ exposure to the opaque process that seems standard for Title IX cases soon inspired another essay, titled ‘My Title IX Inquisition’. After writing about her own case, Kipnis’ inbox became ‘a clearing house for depressing and infuriating tales of overblown charges, capricious verdicts, and frightening bureaucratic excesses’. Other professors got in touch to applaud her speaking out and to share their fear ‘of some classroom incident spiralling into professional disaster’. It’s not hard to see why Kipnis chose to go all the way with a full-length book. Clearly, there was a larger story to be told here, and Kipnis offers it – semi-tongue in cheek, though not entirely, given the gravity of the general situation – as an activist intervention, which is, she says, ‘entirely against my nature’.
However, despite a chapter that pans out to other dodgy Title IX cases, from a partly self-selected, partly grapevine-driven and no doubt unrepresentative sample, Unwanted Advances is not a crushing exposé. For the most part, it remains an extended and robust account of the three cases that inspired it – hers (which not surprisingly concluded in her favour, not before time) and those of her former colleague and philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, charged twice with sexual harassment. It was the first charge against Ludlow – by a nineteen year-old (recent) former student, referred to in the text as ‘Eunice Cho’, who alleged he forced her to drink, prompting a chain of events that led to a failed suicide attempt – that first piqued Kipnis’ interest (with a ‘jab of irritation’), while it was the second, by a graduate student in philosophy who had been in a relationship with Ludlow, that partly led to Kipnis’ own Title IX case (‘Nina Hartley’, as she’s named pseudonymously, was one of the two complainants against Kipnis). Under the increasing weight and expense of defending himself against the charges laid against him, Ludlow eventually left academia– freeing him up to hand over to Kipnis documents relating to both cases. These files are Kipnis’ smoking guns.
Kipnis is no Susan Faludi – whose books, even the shorter ones, impress in their forensic attention to detail and context – but in Unwanted Advances she does a pretty good job of combing through the available evidence and assembling the various accusations and counter-claims into a plausible narrative about what happened, or at least the limits of what can be known about what happened. She’s well aware Ludlow can be hard to defend – he’s the charismatic-sort-of-sleazy academic from central casting, who can’t stop hooking up or socialising with his female students – but that’s partly her point. He’s not a paragon, but nor is he a predator or criminal. She doesn’t make enough of the fact that Ludlow was eventually cleared of the Title IX charges, but her point stands: this mess is what can happen under the vague, but extensive terms of reference of Title IX. No one comes out looking good, and the only charge that really stuck was that Ludlow bought alcohol for a minor (for which he was demoted).
In her attempts to grapple with the trickier question of why Cho and Hartley chose to pursue Title IX cases against Ludlow, Kipnis is on more speculative ground and by seeking explanations in ‘melodrama’, ‘broken feminism’ and in the behaviour and personalities of the young women themselves, she falters. Cho was clearly troubled, but says Kipnis, she also had financial reasons for going after Ludlow under the banner of Title IX. As for Hartley, Kipnis directs much of her venom towards a phalanx of feminist philosophers, and particularly Hartley’s informal adviser Heidi Lockwood, described by Kipnis as a ‘self-styled carpet-bagging rape activist with a propensity for inserting herself into sexual misconduct cases’. This may be so, but here the reader reads more of Kipnis’ exasperation with Lockwood and her ilk than we do of substantive evidence of their purported persuasive powers or larger agenda.
Kipnis is adept at the pre-emptive strike. Her own feminism is vigorously asserted, while any whiff of generational superiority is quickly snuffed out. Lest she be accused of veering to the right because student protests against her briefly endeared her to their libertarian wing, Kipnis twists the accusation around to demonstrate the contemporary absurdity of campus political culture. Any suggestion she does not take real sexual abuse seriously is swiftly dismissed. She knows there are ‘plenty of cases where unequivocal sexual assaults happen and the system fails to deal with it’ – but this book is not about that. In her final chapter, a plea and program for ‘grown up feminism’, she begins knowing that what follows will leave her open to charges of victim-blaming. She wants young women to educate themselves about binge-drinking and what they want sexually. She thinks self-defence classes are a good idea. She writes:
Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness – just in case that day never comes.
Kipnis knows it’s a leap to go from hers and Ludlow’s Title IX cases to ‘the booze problem’ on US campuses, but she goes there anyway and herein lies both the appeal and limits of her cultural commentary. Rather than throw her ‘grown up feminism’ into the mix of ongoing efforts to combat ‘rape culture’ (a term she condemns as obfuscating) she dismisses other approaches as ‘useless’. Given the stakes – and note that the issue of sexual harassment and assault in universities is currently under unprecedented scrutiny in Australia following the release of a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission that revealed both the scale of the problem and historic and ongoing failure to deal with it – Kipnis’ proposed common-sense remedies at times read as tone-deaf. Already, post-Trump, Unwanted Advances has been reappraised in the United States as a relic from the bygone Obama era.
Meanwhile, Australian readers with even a passing knowledge of university responses to sexual harassment and assault cases will probably find Ahmed’s portrait of institutional inertia a more familiar one, but Kipnis is nevertheless always worth reading. For different reasons, her ‘[almost] methodology’ of ‘being drawn to what you’re not supposed to say’ makes for as stimulating reading as Ahmed’s practice of not citing white men (I certainly laughed more reading Kipnis). On the evidence of Living a Feminist Life and Unwanted Advances, I can’t imagine Ahmed and Kipnis would get along, but I’d encourage those working in book shops to prop their latest books up next to each other on the feminist table. If it means shoving Jessa Crispin’s Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto – oft-displayed in Australia since its release and Crispin’s book tour earlier this year – into a less prominent position then so be it. I’d recommend at the foot of Kipnis – a writer Crispin cites as an inspiration in her author’s note – though close to Ahmed could work too for Crispin, like Ahmed, dares to be a ‘feminist killjoy’, in her case to spite what she sees as an overly-sanitised popular feminism that has bleached politics from the feminist agenda.
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex. – Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto, 1968
In some quarters, radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas is more famous for shooting Andy Warhol than for writing what arguably remains the most incendiary of all feminist manifestos in the English language, her SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for Society for Cutting up Men). Among those that have read it, or at least know about it, there has been some debate – some of it rather silly – about whether or not Solanas really ‘meant’ what she wrote. Solanas never produced anything else of comparable note, but Ahmed gives her full credit for taking the feminist manifesto to another level, while Crispin names her approvingly as one of the second wave feminists who make contemporary go-girl feminists uncomfortable. Solanas then is an exemplarly feminist killjoy, along with a few others – including Shulamith Firestone, who in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) contentiously proposed outsourcing the womb and, to Ahmed’s delight, a smile boycott. Crispin also namechecks Intercourse, anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin’s 1987 indictment against heterosex under patriarchy, whose arguments, Crispin argues, have been reduced by later generations of feminists to: ‘All sex is rape’.
What both Ahmed and Crispin are celebrating and reclaiming then are feminists and feminist books that dared to foreground anger and to tell uncomfortable truths. The wild proposals thrown down were in proportion to the challenge presented by feminism as they saw it. These killjoy books, says Ahmed, ‘enact a collective frown’. Nor are they for everyone. ‘A manifesto’, declares Ahmed midway through her own, ‘makes an appeal by not being appealing: a manifesto is not an attractive piece of writing by existing norms or standards’. To succeed, a manifesto finds its audience, no matter how unpalatable the message may be to most. As Ahmed continues, ‘a manifesto is appealing to those who read it; a manifesto appeals for something by appealing to someone’.
At first, Crispin’s rant against what she calls ‘universal feminism’ makes for invigorating reading, if like me, you recognise some of what she’s talking about – a commoditised, complacent version of feminism that even image-conscious former anti-feminist celebrities like Taylor Swift are ready to rally behind. Crispin – founder of the now defunct literary blog BookSlut and an accomplished non-fiction writer – soars most when she offers her counterpoint. ‘My feminism’, she declares in her introduction, ‘is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same As Ever, But More So. It is a cleansing fire’. To follow up, she questions feminist investments in forms of empowerment (‘leaning in’ and the like) that ‘devalue compassion and community’ and prop up patriarchy and its key institutions, including marriage and market capitalism.
According to Crispin, and it’s a point worth making, though not as often as she does, the tiresome preoccupation with feminism’s ‘image problem’ has encouraged a vapid, individualist faux-feminism that basically starts and ends with claiming the label, or buying the t-shirt with the label on it. The extent to which this ‘image problem’, and the new ‘image-friendly’ feminism that has apparently emerged to combat it, are each products of the media is of less concern. This lacuna means that before too long Crispin’s manifesto descends into a rant against straw feminism and straw feminists, or media or celebrity feminism (which helps explain why the book has generated such media interest). Who are, I wondered, these unnamed feminists who tell women not to share the pain of their abortions? Not to mention all the unnamed feminists already doing what she claims none of us are doing, including dreaming up alternatives to heteropatriarchy and even living them? Instead, we get a bizarre digression three quarters in about Tim Hunt, the Nobel-prize winning chemist who lost his job after an internet smear campaign in response to a sexist joke he made. Here we’re back in Kipnis’ territory, using the case of one man’s downfall to tell feminism to grow up.
One of Crispin’s key arguments, and in this she has affinities with both Ahmed and Kipnis, is that radical change is not easy, comfortable or fast. For Ahmed, her race and sexuality compound and ground this insight, generating a perceptive analysis of structural barriers that reproduce themselves through the often empty performance of institutional change (such as ‘diversity’ initiatives). For Kipnis, genuine change in the sphere of sex and gender-relations is only possible when we dare to call out feminism’s own failings and offer alternatives, also in the service of feminism. Somewhat problematically, however, her ‘grown up feminism’ seems to give young women a lot of work to do and not many others. In her defence of widely disavowed aspects of second wave feminism, Crispin’s approach shares Ahmed’s revisionist spirit, while missing some of her nuance (not all ‘young feminists of today’ reject radical feminists because they wore overalls; some take issue with their transphobia or perceived sex negativity). Together, flaws and all, they demonstrate the centrality of books to what each agree is the unfinished project of feminism.