A Review of Jessa Crispin’s “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”

By Olivia Inwood

When I initially heard about Jessa Crispin’s talk, “Not a Feminist”, at the All About Women conference held in March, I was skeptical – was this talk added to the conference to make sure there was a token “anti-feminist” speaker on the day? I was expecting to attend a talk that I would disagree with. Instead I found myself awakened by Crispin’s critiques of contemporary feminism.

To quickly summarise, Crispin is arguing for a new, feminist revolution, “Where women do not simply knock on the doors of churches, of governments, of capitalist market-places and politely ask for admittance, but create their own religious systems, governments, and economies.”

This excerpt from the book’s Introduction was part of what Crispin read aloud at the beginning of the talk. Her work is a critique of our current capitalist and patriarchal systems. She is arguing that it is not simply enough for feminists to aspire to join these systems, but that instead, women must create their own. Importantly, she argues against “lifestyle feminism” and “outrage culture”, particularly critiquing white upper and middle class women, who use feminism for selfish means and/or disregard the struggles of other women.

At the All About Women talk, it felt like there was resounding agreement from the crowd with Crispin’s views. Eva Cox, an Australian social commentator and fighter for equality, was in the audience, and she praised Crispin highly in a later article for bravely critiquing the failures of current feminism and our broken-down systems. During the Q&A session, however, there was a general line of questioning directed to Crispin – what does it mean practically to create a new feminist revolution? What can an individual actually do at this moment in time? The one questioner that stayed in my mind was a woman working for one of the four major banks who asked how she could stop the prominent “boys club” culture in her workplace. Crispin didn’t seem to give her any immediate advice but made the sweeping statement that she should just stop working for big capitalist organisations.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, I think this is a case of “easier said than done,” leading me to my main critique of Crispin’s book.

Just like Eva Cox, once I got a copy of Why I Am Not A Feminist, I read the book in one sitting. The book is confronting, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for my own inaction. Crispin’s own life is quite remarkable: unable to afford university, she worked at the Planned Parenthood healthcare and sex education centre in Mid-West, conservative America, and in her spare time, widely read political texts and created the popular online literary journal, BookSlut. Although her book is not autobiographical, I felt like she was drawing on this range of experiences.

In spite of Crispin’s eloquent critique of our current systems of oppression, I was still left thinking: What does “taking action” really mean? Can people so quickly abandon their current ways of living, or even their livelihoods? What group of people will first take on the responsibility to change? I thought again about the woman who worked at the bank – to actually attend the conference meant she had good intentions, even if she was still working within “the system”. I don’t think Crispin even has a present solution – the final chapter, “Where We Go from Here”, is only five pages long and reads more like a summary of the preceding arguments.

I am not dismissing the book; it is an important wakeup call. Feminism can only work as a collective of all genders, where we move beyond our own needs, our philosophies of individualism and form a system that will help everyone. And this can only begin with the honest realisation of our own current failures and how marketing companies and business often exploit “feminism” itself. Of course, this is not a straightforward path. It will take time.

Perhaps, what is most frustrating about Crispin’s work is that she seems content with not giving us any solutions. In part, she gets away with this because she is writing a “manifesto”, not an academic essay. The purpose of a manifesto is to declare an author’s own beliefs. They don’t have to argue for both sides of an argument. For this reason, you can feel inspired reading Crispin’s work, even if you find yourself still as confused as before about changing the world.

However, one important question remains. What future collective is Crispin addressing her work to? Manifestos need audiences and again, Crispin’s target audience is not so clear. As with a lot of manifestos, the true significance of these works can take time to emerge. In the meantime, we are left with a set of critiques about how today’s feminism has not been as inclusive as we need it to be.

To end with Crispin’s words: “For too long, feminism has been moving away from being about collective action and collective imagination, and toward being a lifestyle. Life-styles do not change the world.”

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