A feminist makes the case against feminism

      Comments Off on A feminist makes the case against feminism

“If women in power behave like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy.”

“Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing,” author Jessa Crispin writes, “but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement.”

Crispin has written a polemic titled Why I am Not a Feminist, in which she laments the banality of contemporary feminism. Her thesis is simple: at some point, feminism lost its political moorings; it became vapid and toothless in its quest for universality. Feminism became a catch-all term for self-empowerment, for individual achievement.

Feminists, she believes, forsook their values for the sake of assimilation, which is another way of saying they were co-opted by the system they once rejected.

“If you have women in positions of power behaving like men do,” Crispin says, “that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. … That’s just patriarchy with women in it.”

A feminist politics is, according to Crispin, necessarily anti-capitalist. Patriarchy is bound up with capitalism, and thus the two must fall together. She’s not the first person to criticize feminism in this way. Socialist feminists have long argued that feminism demands the dismantling of capitalism. Crispin’s rejection of universalism and individualism, though, feels somewhat new, or at least it’s stated in more urgent terms.

In this interview, Crispin and I discuss her contempt for consumer culture, which she says has pervaded feminist ideology and poisoned its roots. Since she considers patriarchy and capitalism as features of the same system, I ask her if feminism, rightly understood, is a revolutionary project.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

Your book reads like an indictment of our entire culture. Is that the spirit in which you wrote it?

Jessa Crispin

That’s right. I think part of it was feminism used to be outside the culture. It used to be a way of criticizing the culture. It used to be a way of imagining a different kind of culture. But somehow in the last 10 years or so, feminism became another part of the culture; it became as vapid and selfish as everything else.

Sean Illing

In many ways — and this is part of the argument you make in the book — feminism became apolitical, or divorced from its political roots.

Jessa Crispin

Yeah, and that was really frustrating as someone who became politically conscious through my engagement with feminism. It was disappointing to see feminists abandon their value system for the sake of assimilation and power. It was deeply, deeply disappointing to watch.

Sean Illing

So let’s talk about those forgotten values and what replaced them. When you object to new feminism, what are you objecting to exactly?

Jessa Crispin

I’m objecting to feminism as it currently exists in the mainstream. Certainly there is a tradition of radical feminism. There are still people working within radical feminism, but they are not the people who are being allowed to speak for feminism. When anybody is asked to write an op-ed in the New York Times or the Washington Post or whatever, it’s not coming from a radical political awareness. It’s coming from this very mainstream feminism and they’re taking up all of the space.

So the conversation has been co-opted by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s about personal essays. It’s about what’s a good television show. It has nothing to do with how do we actually improve the lives of all women, not just women in New York City, not just young, pretty, not just mediagenic women.

Sean Illing

But you go much further than that in the book, right? It’s not just that feminism has been co-opted or defanged — you say that it’s now doing the work of patriarchy.

Jessa Crispin

This idea emerged that if we just put a lot more women in positions of power, somehow that would defeat the patriarchy, not understanding that the patriarchy has nothing to do with men. If women in power behave like men do, that is not a defeat of the patriarchy. That’s just patriarchy with women in it. And patriarchy is one of those really dissatisfying words because everybody uses it and there’s not a general understanding, a shared understanding of what the word means other than anything that is keeping you down.

Sean Illing

How do you define patriarchy?

Jessa Crispin

My working definition of patriarchy is a society that’s structured by hierarchy. So unless that is reformed, unless we reform society so there are no hierarchies, because the hierarchy used to be white, property-owning men at the top of the hierarchy and everybody else in varying positions underneath that, and now it’s just money and power. So women can easily attain a high position on the hierarchy, but that’s not the end of patriarchy.

Unless we get rid of the hierarchy and stop structuring our society around it, the patriarchy is not defeated.

Sean Illing

You’re making an argument against capitalism as such, or the values that undergird capitalism. If we replace “patriarchy” with “capitalism” does your analysis change at all?

Jessa Crispin

No, but this isn’t new. Second-wave feminism, even first-wave feminism, noticed that patriarchy was intertwined with capitalism. So there isn’t a way of defeating one without the other. And also capitalism is also one of those words, like patriarchy, that everybody uses these days without a full understanding of what the word means. I’m probably guilty of that, too. Some of my philosopher friends say that I occasionally misuse the word, but I try not to.

The point is that patriarchy and capitalism are of the same system. They support one another and one cannot be removed without the other.

Sean Illing

So you see feminism as a casualty of capitalist or patriarchal culture insofar as women have internalized these values and come to define their success in these terms?

Jessa Crispin

Yes, and that’s a problem for almost any marginalized group when assimilation becomes the goal. It’s much easier to criticize corporate culture when you’re not allowed to be in the higher levels of corporate culture. As soon as you’re allowed to be a CEO of a large company, then it’s like, “Oh, we’ll just reform it from within. We don’t have to destroy it. Now that I’m running it, it’s fine.

So it is a kind of abandoning of principles because power feels really good. And as long as the system is in place, and as long as women are benefitting from that system, it’s going to be harder to have these conversations. The better women do, the less likely we are to have these conversations under the guise of feminism.

Sean Illing

You say that men are women’s responsibility but not their problem. What do you mean?

Jessa Crispin

Well, every woman who ever writes about feminism immediately get a lot of emails or tweets or Facebook messages from men saying: Teach me about feminism, tell me what you mean, explain this to me. The thing is, feminism has been around for a while, it’s in the culture, it’s in the conversation. If men still need to learn about feminism, if they still need to be introduced to it, it’s disingenuous. All they’re trying to do is be parasites or they’re just trying to cast themselves as the good guys, so they don’t have to question their own behavior or thought processes.

Men are women’s responsibility because women are roughly 100 years ahead of men in terms of questioning gender and going along with the project of androgyny and getting in touch with the masculine side of themselves, which men have not done. They’ve not explored androgyny outside of the queer communities. They haven’t developed feminine values. They’ve not done the writing, the research, or the work.

So men are our responsibility because we’re so far ahead of them on this path. We can’t drag them into becoming better humans — that’s their job. But we also can’t meddle with or get in the way of it, and I think they’re are responsibility in that sense.

Author Jessa Crispin.

Sean Illing

Let’s circle back to the political content of feminism. Your case for radicalism involves a philosophical critique of universalism. For a movement to have universal appeal, you argue, it has to become banal or toothless. So my question is: What’s the right tension between popular appeal and marginalization, between pragmatism and impurity? How do you strike that balance?

Jessa Crispin

There has always been a radical edge to feminism — that’s where all the progress originates from. It originates from women questioning the validity of marriage. It comes from women throwing bombs and starving themselves and being tortured by the police. It comes from this dedication and clarity of vision, and that has been removed from contemporary feminism. It’s not supported and it’s not taken seriously.

Now what’s taken seriously are moves toward assimilation and universality, so this idea that every woman should be a feminist, I don’t actually agree with because not every woman needs to be on the streets, not every woman needs to put her body on the line. If you look at the radical thinkers of the second wave like Dworkin and Firestone and Angela Davis and bell hooks, if you look at the relationship between that and the mainstream women’s culture, even if it’s under the name of feminists like Gloria Steinem, it’s the radicals that drag a reluctant mainstream culture into an awareness of what they’re doing.

Mainstream feminism is bland; it’s the “you go girl” self-empowerment version of feminism, which has nothing to do with progress.

Sean Illing

So is any nonradical form of feminism politically impotent?

Jessa Crispin

Not impotent. I got into this argument with a friend of mine about my book because his view on things is that progress is made through participation, that you participate in a system that you’re trying to reform. My viewpoint is you don’t participate; you abstain. Take marriage, for example. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. Historically, it’s about treating women as property and there are people who believe that the way to reform marriage or to reform heterosexual relationships or committed monogamous relationships, homosexual or heterosexual, is by being married and sort of renegotiating that on the level of the couple, rather than advocating for the abolishment of marriage.

Do I think that nobody should ever get married or nobody should ever be part of a monogamous couple? No. Do I think that I’m never going to get married because I politically believe that’s the right decision to make because of the history it has? Yes. But hopefully between those two approaches we can reform marriage so that benefits are not passed through the couple as far as health insurance, estate planning, that sort of stuff goes, that that’s allowed for people who aren’t married.

So both things are important, but if there’s not the radical person from the outside throwing bombs and rocks at the center, then it becomes unquestioned. It becomes stagnant. In feminism, there are very few people who are from the margins who are given a meaningful platform.

Sean Illing

In the book, you describe your feminism as a “cleansing fire.” What are you setting fire to and what are you replacing it with?

Jessa Crispin

I’d like to set fire to patriarchal religions, to the idea of male God. In short, everything. But what do you replace it with? On the left, there are very few theories about different ways our society can be structured, different ways we organize our lives, different value systems we can take on instead of the ones that we have absorbed from the mainstream culture.

What we’re left with is apocalyptic fears about the end of the world. All of our movies are about cataclysms — earthquakes or sentient machines coming from other planets to destroy us. There’s very little attention paid to what we can do, because everything looks like we’re crashing into the sun — economic devastation, environmental devastation, etc. Everything seems so overwhelming that we just sort of amuse ourselves by imagining the end of the world and entertaining ourselves with the thought of it.

In my other writing, one of the complaints that I’ve been getting is I didn’t tell women what they should do, that I didn’t give some sort of plan for action. One of the reasons I didn’t do that, other than just to say we need to realign our values and live a life within those values, is that there’s not one thing. Everything has to be reimagined. The world is bad. It does seem to be at one of these crisis points where so many different things are wrong that it’s impossible to try and imagine something different.

So just to live a life of integrity and try a new way of being is the important work. There’s no one topic. There’s no one area. It’s everything.

Sean Illing

Basically, you’re calling for a total revolution.

Jessa Crispin

I don’t see how we’re going to survive without one.

Sean Illing

There’s no revolution without solidarity, and that’s something you lament in the book. There should be more solidarity between feminists and other groups who feel marginalized, but our society is too atomized for that.

Jessa Crispin

A lot of the social justice movements are atomized: There’s too much competition, too much in-fighting. The goal should be the removal of the system, the total reform or destruction of the system, because we have a shared oppression by it. Then we can see what should be a shared solidarity.

I was recently talking to a feminist who was surprised to find herself agreeing with the pope, because she thought of herself as an ideological enemy of the pope. But my response was: We share some values with Catholicism, with religion. We can’t say that because someone doesn’t agree with us about abortion, we should just reject our commonalities. If we have to share all of our values before we can work together, we’ll never work together.

We have to find common ground where we can.