BOOK REVIEW, ‘Why I am not a feminist, a feminist manifesto.’ By Jessa Crispin. 2017

Jessa Crispin’s book is a provocative eye-opener with a lot of insights into current social conditions.  The title is of course, intentionally misleading. Crispin is a feminist who just doesn’t happen to like a lot of other feminists. But in the end, the book left me unsatisfied because of the lack of any action plan or suggested remedies for the problems she describes.

Crispin starts off with a hefty list of criticisms of current-day feminism, including claims that:

-There has been a focus on getting women into highly paid professional jobs, such as doctors and lawyers, which (she claims) does nothing for the vast bulk of women (pp. 26-30). Above a certain income level, she says, most women can solve their own problems with money, and lose interest in helping women further down the income ladder. Personally I think this a rather broad generalisation. Many people with high income and qualifications donate time to help others, such as lawyers who take pro-bono cases (i.e. do free work) for social causes.

-Western feminists are unconcerned with, or downright condescending and hostile to the things that are important to women in non-western countries, such as hijabs and other cultural traditions (p. 35).

-Some feminists have claimed that whatever a woman chooses, it’s a feminist choice, because feminism is about women having choices. To take a hypothetical example, if you choose to paint your toenails green, it’s a feminist choice, just because it’s a choice. This means (she says) that you can call yourself a feminist, and your actions feminist, with no real intellectual effort to them, and despite your actions posing no threat to the existing social order (p. 19, p. 44).

-“Self empowerment” (she says) is another word for narcissism.

-Feminists have adopted money as a measure of value, and hence applaud women getting into highly paid CEO jobs, despite this doing nothing to change the economic system as a whole. Women with good jobs can now buy their way out of the effects of patriarchy, and in effect, become part of the patriarchy (pp. 55-60). “We have replaced gender and race with money and power; you can buy your position in society rather than be born with the right genetics.” (p. 58) “Women are now active participants in this system and they are benefiting from it.” (p. 55)

-There is a campaign by many feminists to erase radicals like Andrea Dworkin from feminist history, and to make feminism “acceptable” to people who are not attracted to it. The result (she claims) is a bland mishmash of non-threatening pap (pp. 18-20).

-The demonising of other groups serves the principle purpose of protecting the in-group from having to face up to unpleasant aspects of themselves. Atheists can abuse religious people for being irrational (and thus not face up to their own emotionality in other parts of their lives). Americans can demonise Europeans for being weak and unimportant (and thus not face up to America’s lack of success in some matters), women can demonise men for being violent, so as not to have to look at those qualities, and their own capacity to do harm to others,  in themselves (pp. 73-78). I find the idea that the principle purpose of attacks on out-groups is to avoid self-reflection intriguing. I’ve always viewed attacks on out groups as a mechanism for creating in group solidarity, rather than a means to avoid self reflection. I may have been wrong on this.

-Current internet culture, she says,  in which minor disagreements are turned into “attacks” and calls for people to be dismissed from their jobs make debating ideas extraordinarily difficult. “Revenge has become an official part of feminist policy… the longer we stay trapped in this destructive dynamic, the less we are using our energy for something constructive… It’s a convenient outlet, outrage. We use it to avoid the hard work of self-examination.” (pp. 97-98). She criticises feminists who attack other people for using the “wrong vocabulary” when the “right” vocabulary keeps changing every couple of years (p.13).

– As women get into positions of power, society is not fundamentally changing, because most women (she says) are not fundamentally morally better than most men. Women judges jail innocent minority men and poor women just like male judges (p. 57), and “support institutional racism.” This is sometimes an unfair criticism. It’s juries who decide guilt in most criminal cases, and judges are required (at least in Australia) to follow certain sentencing guidelines, when setting jail terms. These guidelines exists to ensure some degree of consistency in sentencing between similar cases, and the gender of the judge should not be a factor in the sentencing.

Crispin’s attitude to men with questions is essentially “piss off”. I don’t have to explain anything to you, don’t email me or ask me questions, and don’t ask your female friends to explain feminist issues to you. Do the work yourselves. On this issue she adopts a slightly similar (but more far extreme) position as the Australian feminist Clementine Ford. (Ford at least holds panel discussions with male guests about the nature of masculinity.) Crispin’s attitude, I think, is counterproductive. Many changes that women have sought over the last 40 years have required legislation. In order to get this, male politicians had to be persuaded to change laws. Male lawyers (initially, they would have been male) in government departments had to draft the text of the proposed anti-discrimination legislation. Male heads of large companies and government departments had to agree to change institutional practices to make workplaces more friendly, (although many workplaces have a long way to go). For feminists to make progress they need to bring some proportion – not all, but some proportion – of the male population with them. In Australia, an average of one woman a week is murdered by her own partner, often just after she leaves him. The problem of domestic violence cannot be fixed without changing the attitudes of men.  Telling men to piss off and figure it out by themselves doesn’t seem like a clever tactic. I have a standing monthly bank donation to an organisation that assists women leaving domestic violence, and I and another ex-Victorian Treasury officer and I have done some statistics based reasearch for a major women’s organisation, but I avoid engaging with people online on any gender-related issue online because of attitudes like this. These are the only people of whom I can say, “I agree with your policy objectives, and I’ll donate to your causes, but I just don’t want to interact with you online.” If I need to discuss some gender related issue that’s new to me, I only do it with women I’ve known face to face for a couple of years. Gender, immigration and the links between politics and religion seem to bring out the worst in online conversations. Others have told me social media like Facebook or forums like substack just aren’t suited to nuanced discussions of contentious issues, and they may be right.

It also seems odd that the book contains no discussion of sexual harassment in the work place or male violence in the home. Given the lag between writing and publishing, the text may have been finalized in 2016.  #Metoo began in October 2017, so I can’t expect the author to deal with that specific movement. But these are  very odd omissions.  My reaction here is probably influenced by the fact that I read the book the week that there had been a case in Australia of a father murdering his three children by dousing them in petrol and setting them on fire in their car, and then killing his separated wife.

Her criticisms of other feminists remind me of a perennial problem in the left: that many people on the left hate each other more than they hate their supposed conservative enemies. (When I was in the ALP 30 years ago, it was a common jokey observation that a factionally committed person often hated the person sitting next to him or her at a branch meeting more than they hated the conservatives.)  Conservatives – especially in the US – seem to be able to band together to resist change, or push their own agendas, far more effectively than people on the left can band together to promote change.                                                                                                                                                                    Finally, Crispin’s book ends with no clear program about what needs to be done next: say the three to five most important goals that feminists should focus on over the next ten years. She talks about the need to ‘tear down the system,’ with no advice as to exactly how this is to be done or what the replacement will look like.  It’s an interesting book, but in the end, it reminds me of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto; a lot of denunciation of the existing system, with no description of what the replacement should actually look like.  

Richard Snow

18 October 2020


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