Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Why I Am Not a Feminist

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa CrispinCrispin - Feminism

Jessa Crispin is not a feminist. She’s a socialist. Or a communitarian conservative. Or at least an anti-capitalist. It’s important you know what she’s against, and how radically she is against all of it. The system is fucked you see, and therefore we should throw it out and start again.

And that’s really about it for this long essay (you’ll finish it in an hour or two). For all its rage it’s directionless. It’s a critique of both feminism and the wider society of the west, but in trying to pull down everything and everyone, it ends up saying little and is likely to affect nothing.

Crispin’s analysis takes as a starting point a view common to many on the left: That injustice does not occur in isolation, but is a result of multiple factors which intersect. That’s an important insight. Issues are related, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, geography, age and other factors are often related and analysing or fixing any one instance of injustice can require understanding others as well.

It can however be taken too far. Why I am not a Feminist displays a distinct lack of interest in the actual conditions or situation of women. The book offers almost as much complaint about unjust wars, environmental harm, and mass animal farming practices as we do about the conditions of women in the world. And no effort to justify how these issues are linked.

At heart Crispin wants you to believe that equality is impossible within capitalist, individualist societies. I disagree, but it’s an important argument to have. But the author has no interest in actually doing the work for this argument.At one point, Crispin notes that in many instances circumstances are improving for women. But rather than discuss what caused this and why it isn’t sufficient, progress itself is taken as a betrayal and thus proof the entire system needs to be overturned.

For a supposedly radical book, it doesn’t actually name anyone it disagrees with. It doesn’t quote and pull apart popular arguments, nor present any facts or evidence to demonstrate why everyone else is wrong. Indeed, it’s just sort of assumed to be so blindingly obvious that demonstrating anything at length would be beside the point.

This book deeply wants to be considered subversive. But thanks to the approach it takes it couldn’t be safer. Established systems don’t shake in fear at lone rock throwers who want to hit every target but are unwilling to carefully take aim at any specific target. This is not challenging book because it doesn’t emphasise anything beyond giving the entire system, and women in particular, the finger and calling for fresh ideas.

By contrast, Marx’ three volume Das Capital was a challenging book. So too was Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindiction of the Rights of Women and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. All of these books shook the very foundations of western society, but they did so by focusing on one specific element and analysing it in depth and detail. They worked hard for their insights. This short and scattered text doesn’t because it doesn’t talk about anything specifically.

Not only is ‘everything is connected’ often a poor form of analysis, I think it also misunderstands the nature of progressive change. To caveat, I am not a sociologist nor versed in the feminist literature or its history. But my PhD and most recent book was on how ideas spread across societies and the role government’s can play spreading ideas to other societies. So, I’ve at least thought about this at a macro level.

My conclusion? Change is hard. Like really fucking hard. Moving real mountains requires carrying away individual pebbles day after day and year after year. Thankfully, humans tend to move in packs, so ideas can cascade across a society after they reach a plurality threshold of support but change is still really hard. And achieving that change requires a very deliberate focus on how to achieve each and every specific change, not just the desirability of the change. But by saying everything is connected, the specifics of each individual change you want to make become much dimmer.

Not that Crispin really knows what kinds of change she wants to see occur. The book has dozens of calls for imagination and rethinking the system, but only a handful of proposals. None of which receive more than a paragraph or two of extremely vague allusions —lets return to tribes!, lets have communal forms of raising children!— and no real sense of how we’d judge what a better idea looks like than the ones we have now.

I get that I’m not the target audience for this book. Not only am I not well versed in the feminist debates Crispin is responding to, I’m not that good a feminist either. I try to value and practice equality regardless of gender, but I know fall short at times. And western society falls far far short of many of the indulgent stories it tells itself about progress on gender equality.

But as ripe as the targets are for Crispin’s boot, in her anger to kick everything, Why I am not a Feminist seems to miss everything and leave the hard, dirty work of achieving change to someone else. Which seems precisely the kind of virtue-signalling indulgence Crispin claims to hate most.

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