Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf Canada, 63 pages, $18
Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto
By Jessa Crispin
Melville House, 151 pages, $22
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism
By Camille Paglia
Pantheon, 315 pages, $35.95
The Mother of All Questions
By Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket Books, 175 pages, $15
Feminism is having a long Seattle moment. Folks from out of town have perked up their ears to the scene, and locals want nothing more than to annotate its origins for the less familiar. But lost in the commotion of trampling one another to tell the story the way each wants it told is the truth, or at least a version of events that is as true for someone else as it is the person telling it.
In the weeks leading up to International Women's Day, I read four new high-profile books about feminism: Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist, Rebecca Solnit's The Mother of All Questions, Camille Paglia's Free Women, Free Men and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. With the exception of the latter, none offered much practical, specific ideology that could push beyond the writer's own self-admiration and broaden the reader's understanding of feminism's potential.
Paglia, who self-refers as "cheeky" and cites her own work constantly, repeats the maddening suggestion, initially published in her infamous 1991 Newsday piece, that college women ask to be raped when they drink in the company of college men, who are at their "hormonal peak." "A girl who lets herself get dead drunk at a fraternity party is a fool," wrote Paglia back then. "Feminists call this 'blaming the victim.' I call it common sense."
In her new anthology's introduction, she writes: "I still stand by every word of my date-rape manifesto. Women infantilize themselves when they cede responsibility for sexual encounters to men or after-the-fact grievance committees, parental proxies unworthy of true feminists."
Paglia writes like a Men's Rights Activist, often employing the same principles, such as opposing the categories of hate speech and hate crimes – "The freedom to hate must be as protected as the freedom to love" – and suggesting that feminism suffers from a "plague of political correctness." Paglia fails to grasp that "political correctness" is a term used to belittle the suffering of marginalized people who've simply spoken up to say "hey, don't say that legitimately hateful thing about me." She also fails to grasp that sexual assault disproportionately affects some groups more than others.
Paglia chooses ignorance in order to remain controversial. She writes falsities from a perch with no view.
Earlier this week, when Sophie Grégoire Trudeau suggested that Canadians observe International Women's Day by celebrating male allies, many scoffed. But this is essentially Paglia, a sentient "Not All Men!" in your Twitter DMs. "Feminist theory has been grotesquely unfair to men in refusing to acknowledge the enormous care that most men have provided to women and children … Feminism has been very small-minded in the way it has treated male history," says a reprint of a lecture she gave in 1997.
While countless organizations work to eradicate sexual assault and support survivors, Paglia uses her platform to amplify what is essentially 4chan dialect masked by a more sophisticated vocabulary, her work reinforcing the reasons why survivors hesitate to discuss sexual assault. What is the usefulness of Camille Paglia in 2017? Why waste the time? Read I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse by Lori S. Robinson or At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance by Danielle L. McGuire instead.
"Every spring the finest universities graduate a new crop of unpunished rapists," writes Solnit, in her new collection of previously published essays. "They remind us that this deadness is at the heart of things, not the margins, that failure of empathy and respect are central, not marginal."
Yes. But Solnit is far more critical of sexism than she is of racism. "Whiteness is a big container with complex contents," she writes defensively, after somehow trying to exonerate her white ancestors, who she says arrived to America too late to do any "horrible things to Native Americans." Later, she writes that "paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one's own, of getting out of the boundaries of one's own experience."
There is dissonance between how Solnit thinks she seems and how she actually comes across. As with many white women (and I must note here that I am one), Solnit preaches inclusivity without actualizing it in any meaningful way. She writes riskless essays that position themselves as righteous despite being in accord with unanimity.
This is a tricky and potentially touchy thing to say, but in the spirit of giving credit where it's due: I've learned more about feminism from the tweets and online writing of black and Indigenous women and women of colour than I've learned from reading marketable (white) feminist essays of late. Where are their abundant high-profile book deals? Might we consider putting down the books of fashionable feminist writers who perpetuate the standard in lieu of work that expands one's own feminist perimeters, whatever they may be?
"Racism allows white women to construct feminist theory and praxis in such a way that it is far removed from anything resembling radical struggle," wrote bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 1984. Here is where I'll take a deep breath and get to Jessa Crispin. While Crispin does acknowledge hooks and other writers in an author's note at the back of her book, it is remarkable that she misses how much of Why I Am Not A Feminist falls under the umbrella of faux strife. (There are matters more urgent than hair removal, no?)
Among the most infuriating things about Crispin's book – which I was ready to love despite its tantrum of a title – is how infrequently she credits the women of colour whose work her own is founded upon. Crispin doesn't offer any real solutions in this polemic, and she writes with such negligible specificity that the few brave points she blows up just deflate. Crispin criticizes that the feminist movement has shifted its focus from society to individual without truly demonstrating why certain people have separated themselves from a structure that doesn't work for them. (Why would trans women and non-binary people stick around to fight for a movement that doesn't always see them as valid?)
She pontificates without citing any specific names or events. The whole book is a litany of "many women do this" and "some women do that," leaving the reader to constantly wonder who or what she's really protesting.
"It is easier to complain about the power you don't have than to think about the power you do have," she writes. It is frustrating to see Crispin lean on concepts such as this without crediting any other thinkers, polemic or not. She also calls the term "intersectional" "relatively new." It was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who Crispin could have mentioned, in 1989.
"This system is shit, and it is against us," she writes. "That is why we need to be cunning about where we put our intellectual energy. Wasting it on fighting Twitter bros and calling for the execution of harmless old men is not an efficient use of our time, energy, and resources." Despite the wordless centimetres between this sentence and the bottom of the page, Crispin offers no superior ideas. You'd be better off reading Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Paula Giddings or Roxane Gay.
It is Adichie's short, sweet, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions that leads the way in terms of functional creed. As Adichie explains, a friend of hers, an expectant mother at the time, asked Adichie how she could raise a feminist child. This book was the result of the letter she wrote in response.
Among Adichie's wisdoms:
- “Be a full person.”
- “Teach her to question language.”
- “… Don’t just label something misogynistic; tell her why it is, and tell her what would make it not be.”
- “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It is misogynistic to suggest that they are.”
- “Teach her to never universalize her own standards or experiences … This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.”
It is not too late for any of us, at any age, to strongly consider how much our own actions would benefit from this advice, and from taking cues from those with experiences different than ours.
The quintessence of feminism is undergoing a crucial rethink in terms of what it means in a practical sense, particularly who it serves. The tide is changing, and a lot of different feminist thinkers want to be there, to take credit, when it does. "With everyone focused on their own outrage, it's hard to create new patterns," Crispin bemoans.
At last, something we can agree on.
Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer and critic.