Thoughts on Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto  is a book where “Outspoken critic Jessa Crispin delivers a searing rejection of contemporary feminism… and a bracing manifesto for revolution.” Through the book she talks about the issues with lean in, commercial, and choice feminism and how they dilute and make meaningless the word “feminist”. She takes on the idea that all decisions are feminist decisions, that we don’t have to do the hard work of learning and of questioning our life and our choices. That women are often complicit in both our own oppression and in continuing oppressive systems, just with us as part of that system instead of outside of it.

Are you a feminist? Do you believe women are human beings and that they deserve to be treated as such? That women deserve all the same rights and liberties bestowed upon men? If so, then you are a feminist . . . or so the feminists keep insisting. But somewhere along the way, the movement for female liberation sacrificed meaning for acceptance, and left us with a banal, polite, ineffectual pose that barely challenges the status quo. In this bracing, fiercely intelligent manifesto, Jessa Crispin demands more.

Why I Am Not A Feminist is a radical, fearless call for revolution. It accuses the feminist movement of obliviousness, irrelevance, and cowardice—and demands nothing less than the total dismantling of a system of oppression.

Sounds good right? And there were some really great points. There were so many times I found myself nodding along, or where I was really agreeing – usually that happened each time she brought up a new point and lasted until about the third or fifth or seventh paragraph where it got problematic. How did it get problematic? Let me provide (some of) the my thoughts (in no particular order).

First: Let me make this as clear as it should have been in the marketing material / description / title. This is not a book for all feminists. This is a book aimed to an audience of heterosexual white middle-class feminists. Those who don’t fit this narrow stereotype are likely to feel alienated. The book begins from this premise that feminism is excluding “other” groups, and White feminism has, but that is a subset of what exists. While Crispin does acknowledge in places that she is talking about White feminism specifically, the book still was written in such a way that anyone outside of this group seemed to not exist. (For example, the statement that feminists could be, but often aren’t, building alliances with “people of colour … religious minorities and the poor.”, which assumes that you, as the reader, are not any of those. Or that if you are, you must not be a feminist.) And let’s be honest, women of colour feminists have done an incredible amount of activism and academic work – feminism would be a sorry place if they hadn’t always been a part of the movement.

Second: Crispin implies a level of indifference with micro-aggressions and believes that calling them out takes away from “real life struggles”, is hateful, et cetera. Sure, context is important in some cases, which is one of her points (and her example uses this type of scenario), but that does not excuse micro-aggressions and even outright hate speech and acts. We shouldn’t let those who perpetuate harm off the hook because ‘culture’ and because ‘we should be focusing on systemic issues not individual acts’. Systemic issues are important, but so is holding individuals accountable. And when one often isn’t the target of the comments or jokes or actions, it is easier to say that they are unimportant and should be ignored.

Third: As a real gem, the critique of using female safety as a justification for war or for expanding the criminal justice system was on point. But then, right after this, she talks about how if cases of rape are “he said / she said”, we should applaud judges throwing them out. Because we’re at a time when women’s claims are taken seriously and we should be careful about our desire for revenge. Which is… definitely some fantasy world in which I want to live, where women’s claims of rape and harassment are believed and it is our revenge fantasies causing us to seek prosecution. (While I am pro-prison abolition and am against the PIC, it is not because I am concerned about the revenge inspired victimization of men by women.) Falling back to that excuse for throwing out cases is disingenuous and part of the problem that feminists need to work to resolve – namely ending violence against women and granting equal belief to women’s testimonies.

As Leigh Gilmore says in Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives (which I am reading right now): “How “he said/she said” has come to be seen as something other than the prompt from which due process begins suggests that women lie outside the frame of justice from the beginning.” And also: “”nobody knows what really happened” is the starting point of a trial. Like the presumption of innocence, it names a suspension of judgement rather than the imposition of doubt.”

Fourth: Crispin is a staunch defender of and cheerleader for second wave radical feminists such as Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, and others. Yes, they did some great work. Yes, we shouldn’t always throw out the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes. But their lack of intersectionality and their, in some cases, trans exclusionary stances are pretty big issues. She says ” Lately, older feminist writers and activists have been vilified by the younger generations for not using the right language, for arguing points that are no longer fashionable, and for just taking a different point of view.” If the language or unfashionable points are trans exclusionary points and language then we do well to criticize. It could be that some of their ideas or works are being ignored because of reasons other than their looks.

Basically – I wanted to love this book. I agree with many of the authors points. I think feminism has to mean constantly learning and being better and pushing for change. I think that working within the system simply props up the system and slightly expands who is “in” while maintaining oppressive systems. I think that men have to do their own work to educate themselves and not rely on women to do that work for them or to excuse them. BUT I just found too many problems. Too many instances of one specific example being thrown out to justify some large assumption or stereotype.

In so many instances Crispin seems to imagine this rosy world, which is ruined by people calling themselves feminists focusing on the wrong issues. She both wants us to be more radical and on the fringes, yet also wants us to ignore micro-aggressions and not seek retribution against individuals who cause harm. She both lambastes feminism for being exclusionary while writing a book targeted to an exclusive group, within which she excuses those she admires for being  exclusionary.

This book falls into this weird space that was in some instances super radical and in others super weak, often within the same sections. I wanted it to be so much more. In too many instances it generalized or glossed over or just threw out ridiculous arguments or examples as if they were the norm. Mostly I think I’m disappointed because I expected it to be so much more than it was.

I’ll go back to more academic and intersectional texts now.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin

    1. amckiereads Post author

      Thank you Marilyn! You are way too kind. I always feel like I have so much more to learn – because I do – but sometimes I realize I’m a bit more there than I though. If that makes sense!

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End

    I read Jessa Crispin’s travel memoir, The Dead Ladies Project, and there were things about it I liked a lot; but there were also parts where I thought “wow she HATES women like [X].” After that I read an article in the New York Times she wrote that dealt in part with how stupid and weak and dependent her older sister was for marrying, then being left by, a jerk. It put me off Jessa Crispin for life, and I’m not surprised at all to learn that her ideas of feminism erase women of color and other marginalized groups.

    1. amckiereads Post author

      I read that and had similar thoughts Jenny! But… I had not heard about that article and it sounds terrible! Eecks!!

  2. Cecelia

    Hmmm, I was wondering whether or not I should pick this up (I had a bit of an allergic reaction to the title alone, but then I castigated myself for that feeling). I appreciate your thorough review. And I think I’ll be skipping this.

    1. amckiereads Post author

      It’s… yeah. I’d suggest Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life instead which I have to admit I’ve only read the first few pages of so far, but I think it’s what I had hoped this one would be!

  3. Aarti

    Wow. What an excellent analysis. I don’t think I am going to read this one.

    Also, I am annoyed that she is described as “outspoken.” Do people say that about men?

    1. amckiereads Post author

      THAT IS A VERY GOOD QUESTION AARTI! I… really don’t think I’ve heard a man called outspoken, you are right. Hmmmmmmmm.


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