Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto- Jessa Crispin

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Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing—or at the very least a neutral thing—but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual. What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with our concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward.- Jessa Crispin, Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

There’s something that Martin Luther King said that I read a few years ago that stuck with me, which is about the importance of reading widely, including reading views that you don’t agree with. I learned that is true and that we can learn a lot from people who think differently.  In the past this isn’t the sort of book I’d have picked up, I mean so many of my readings are feminist-focused; as a black woman I’m interested in feminism, and how to make my life, and the lives of the women in my life, better, so my defenses were slightly up when I read this one.

From my perspective, this book is a critique of feminism, and in my opinion every movement should be critiqued. As Crispin says, “Feminism is—should be—a movement, not an excuse to stand still.” She makes many good points and gave me food for thought. Overall she did make me think about labels and how important it is for us to understand what we are claiming when we take on any label. Basically, this requires self-reflection, and Crispin assumes that feminists do not self-reflect.

Being confronted almost daily with pinkwashing  capitalism, I was really glad that Crispin addressed how feminism is used in advertising.  Crispin says “ It is often supposed that acceptance of the feminist label will also result in the acceptance of the meaning behind it, but the meaning has been drained away by this psychotic marketing campaign. A woman can now take up the feminist label without any true political, personal, or relational adaptations whatsoever. It’s just another button on her jacket, another sticker on her bumper. The inner contents remain unchanged.”

I do agree with this, and additionally I agree with the importance of not celebrating someone just because they are a woman. See this article: https://www.buzzfeed.com/doree/feminist-hypocrisy-is-the-new-trend-in-startup-narratives?utm_term=.ouOegWxX4#.gsZo0K4xQ

Throughout the book I found myself disagreeing with plenty, and part of that reason was Crispin seems to be focusing on white middle-class feminism, which clearly I have little to no connection with at all. Crispin also uses examples from feminism online, and that makes me think that her data is skewered towards the West, as so much else is. I find that  it’s so easy to forget that there are worlds out there outside of the West, and the citizens of those places might not have the word “feminist” in their vocabulary, may not have access to the internet and other resources, but they are still fighting to improve the lot of women, and in very diverse ways, ways that are not mentioned in this book. Crispin also made several sweeping assumptions that surprised me, such as that feminists hate men.

But still, despite Crispin’s sometimes arrogance and blanket statements, I feel this is an important read. It’s a quick one too, and you can probably skip over a few of her essays as some of the stuff is repetitive.

 

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I’ll Never Write My Memoirs- Grace Jones

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“I decided from an early age that the best form of defense was attack. and that taking on the world and living life to the fullest was how I would deal with setbacks and problems. This means you leave behind quite a trail. What you do gets noticed.”- Grace Jones, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

Grace Jones is a model, singer, actress, and many other things. She threw eggs at cabs in Paris that didn’t stop for her, hung out with Andy Warhol, lived as a nudist for a while, and is the kind of woman who will try anything once. Ms. Jones lives by her own rules, so I knew this book was going to be a fascinating read.

To me the most fascinating memoirs are those in which people have so many seemingly impossible  barriers to overcome, but somehow they do it. I’m drawn to the type of memoirs that show how the human spirit can overcome, whether the spirit is a quiet one, or a feisty one like Jones’. When I was much younger and watched documentaries on famous people’s lives with my family I never really understood why childhood was so impressed upon. I used to hear people say that you spend  your adulthood trying to reconcile and get over your childhood, and I never really understood what that meant until I was older. When I read the recount of Jones’ early life, I’m not surprised she ended up taking the unconventional route. Jones was raised in Jamaica by her sadistic step-grandfather, Mas P,  in an extremely conservative (Pentecostal) religious environment that basically sucked all the joy out of her. Reading about what she had to endure at the hands of Mas P was really disturbing and invites plenty of discussion on conservative religion and how stifling, controlling, and cruel it can be, especially to women and children. Constantly being monitored and not having the opportunity to have a real life, so it’s no wonder that when Jones left Jamaica for the US, she let loose and became a rebel of sorts:

“Jamaica is a land of growth–things grow so fast; it’s nature in spectacular, bewitching overdrive–so it is weird to be in a situation where spontaneous personal growth was frowned upon.”

The era she came up in was hard, especially as a black woman who, in her words, didn’t have a “wholesome” look. Jones worked hard! It’s amusing but also important for me to see how she demanded respect. This was such a powerful manifesto by a powerful woman who knows her worth:

“I had to be a bitch to maintain any kind of authority. Well, if I were a man, I wouldn’t have been considered a bitch. If I were a man, I would simply have been in charge, however aggressive and demanding I was. I wouldn’t have had other people running about filming things behind my back. A man putting his foot down is in control. It’s strong. A woman putting her foot down is out of control. She’s weak.”

I loved reading all the gossip and exploits. Maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking but celebrities back in the day just seemed to be more interesting than most of present day ones. And Jones met a lot of them. I laughed more than once. Jones is a funny lady and so candid at times. It’s really refreshing. She has her standards when it comes to entertainment and she strives to authenticity. She talks about the disco era and how, even then, she was picky about the songs she sang:

“Can you imagine me singing Boogie Wonderland? Preposterous. That song needs a twinkling Tinker Bell to sing it, and I’m much more of a witch with a smear of blood on my cheek.”

Reading this I got a similar feeling to when I was reading Questlove’s memoir a few years ago: Jones and Questlove are both people who have so much expertise and knowledge of their worlds, and have seen historical and technological developments taking place, so they are the perfect cultural critics. Jones’ insights on the gradual commercialization of the arts was really interesting:

“I am disco but I’m also dada. I’m a sensualist but also a surrealist. That underground spirit–from the Beats, hippies, civil rights pioneers, punks; from the experimental artists, technicians and designers–dissolved into what became known as independent, as alternative, and that’s become less and less subversive, and less resistant to a co-opting commercial pull.”

Jones names names (she called Kim K a “basic commercial product”), and at times she is quiet about which celebrities she’s talking about. Clearly so many female entertainers look up to her and try to emulate her, but unsurprisingly Jones isn’t too taken by the attention, because:

“It all backfired on me, because I set out to inspire other people, but those I inspire tend not to be inspired in that they do their own thing, but in that they do my thing, a little their way, but not too much.”

This will go down as one of my favourite memoirs ever! I for one am glad Jones did decide to write her memoirs.

Become Who You Are- Hedwig Dohm

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“I want to write a sort of necrology of myself. For I am at the end.”- Hedwig Dohm, Become Who You Are

This is a novella about a woman widowed in her mid 50s, and an exploration into her making sense of herself and her life after widowhood. This book was written in 1894 and Dohm was definitely ahead of her time. Lamentably so many of the issues she discusses in this book are still very much relevant today.

In the book, the protagonist is first admitted to a sanatorium, and through the diary she gives to her doctor, we are able to learn more about her and her quest into discovering who she is. But everyone thinks she’s lost her mind. Actually, she’s all too sane:

“Insanity– is this something different than the blocking of ideas; visions that come to us and that emanate from us, we know not where to and where from, and over which we have no power? If this is insanity, then I was insane for more than fifty years.”

While  reading this book I couldn’t help but think of how sad this story is; I believe women are still expected to prop others up (in some cultures more than others) and one of the worst things I can think of for myself is not having a sense of my own identity. I was also stunned to learn that by the time the protagonist was in her 50s, she felt she was too old and that her life was over.

Feminist themes are plenty, and there is also a lot of insight into aging from a feminist perspective, which I don’t see being talked about too often:

“So contemptuously, so reluctantly do people look at an old woman, as if her age were a fault that deserved punishment.”

Highly recommended.

“Why did I have to live as I lived? Because I am a woman and because it stands written on ancient, bronze tablets of law how a woman ought to live? But the text is erroneous, it is erroneous.”

The Woman Who Read Too Much- Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

“If one were to believe her highness, the whole country was on the verge of revolution, with women deploying an artillery of inflammatory prose, wielding books like bucklers, and taking up pens as if they were swords.” Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Woman Who Read Too Much

Most of my favourite fiction books have a strong feminist element. This is the kind of book I adore; stories of women refusing to accept traditional or patriarchal values and vowing to live the lives they wish to lead regardless of society. This account is of a woman in Iranian history, a woman who “read too much.” The title reminded me of the Stefan Bollman book, “Women Who Read Are Dangerous/ Les Femmes Qui Lisent Sont Dangereuses.” The woman who read too much was the poetess from Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who challenged the status quo so spectacularly, so much so that it made her seem dangerous to those in power, and she was eventually put on trial for heresy.

In this book reading too much was just reading, plain and simple. This is Iran in the 19th Century, and religion as well as patriarchy hid the roles and voices of women in historical events. This book presents voices of other women who were somehow involved in the poetess’ trial for heresy:

“But by the time she was arrested in the first winter of the young Shah’s reign, both her admirers and detractors were forced to agree that none of the traditional names of womankind could sum her up. She was admitted to be the calamity of the age.”

You can’t help but be reminded of how women have often been the scapegoats in history. In this time period, the Shah’s regime was experiencing famine, public executions, tortures, and treason trials. But a woman who reads and teaches other women to read will be the talk of the town instead of some of the more heinous events taking place.

In the end, reading meant more than just reading words in books; it also meant reading people, situations, and circumstances. And the more I learn about literacy being denied to certain groups over time, the more amazing it is for me to see how some people are so determined to share this gift because they know it’s a gift and can be so freeing. Literacy is seen as dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, as it always has been, but the people who withhold this knowledge are the ones who are dangerous to me:

“The prisoner in the Mayor’s house was teaching women how to read and write far more than poetry. She was showing them how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history, how to decipher motives, inscribe actions, interpret the world. She was giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.”

“They listened as she told them how languages and marriages were bridges, merely, between man and woman, tongue and ear; how they were the means by which to build, in which to house, on which to raise new meanings between human beings. When a marriage was faithful, it gave birth to poetry, she concluded. If not, it was a dead letter overnight.”

This is my second book by the author and she paints such a wonderful story of one woman who made a difference and left a lasting legacy that might not have been so obvious at the time. Highly recommended!

“If there were daughters, sisters, wives in these pages, it’s only because we cannot be read whole. We come to the last chapter split in parts, Beloved; we come scattered in fragments, torn. There is no such thing as a complete woman in this world.”

The Mixquiahuala Letters – Ana Castillo

“In the modern U.S., i married a poor man out of love. Poverty had won out and separated us. i was of the multitude and survival and perversions were ingrained. i had been instilled with cynicism and, very soon, the only door opened to me to escape the banal destiny planned from birth
exploded
into a billion splinters of sheer farce, without a sound.”

– Ana Castilo, The Mixquiahuala Letters

I read this on the heels of reading Anzaldua, another Chicana feminist. It was  good timing because I was able to recall what I learned about Chicana feminism from Anzaldua, and identify the same themes in this book.
The format of this book was a series of letters from Teresa to her friend, Alicia, two creative women who refuse to follow traditional roles. The letters  were very revealing; not only do we experience the friends’ travels around Mexico, we’re also able to read their thoughts and also understand the society they lived in, and the inner conflict they experienced.

Being a woman is evident in every letter that is written, in everything the women experience and how they experience it. Race plays a major part, as does privilege as Americans and English speakers. The letters didn’t have to directly or explicitly address a situation, for example colourism, sexism, yet the themes were very clear, and a reminder of how  Chicana feminist theory, comes from lived experiences:

“From years afterward you enjoyed telling people that I was from Mixquiahuala. It explained the exotic tinge of yellow and red in my complexion, the hint of an accent in my baroque speech, and most of all, the indiscernible origin of my being.”

“My cousin’s a very nice looking guy. He’s been trying to get into films but I’m sure it’s his dark complexion, and Huichol-like features that are standing in the way of Hollywood discovering him. Some years ago he had a small part on a TV show where he played a gang member from the barrio. He was told to speak with a heavy accent although my cousin Ignacio speaks four languages and all flawlessly.”

Throughout there was also some discussion about feminism, wifehood, and women feeling trapped in their relationships and societies. This book was written in the 1980s so I’m sure things have changed since then, but so much has also stayed the same:

“When a woman entered the threshold of intimacy with a man, she left the companions of her sex without looking back. Her needs had to be sustained by him. If not, she was to keep her emptiness to herself.”

I haven’t read many travel stories from women of colour so I found this to be an interesting account of the minority traveller experience, especially as a woman:

“…We has abruptly appeared in Mexico as two snags in its patterns. Society could do no more than snip us out. We would have hoped for respect as human beings, but the only respect granted a woman is that which a gentleman bestows upon the lady. Clearly, we were no ladies. What was our greatest transgression? We travelled alone.”

Definitely recommended.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down- Alice Walker

The more I learn about black-, especially African-American history and culture, the more I understand how great Walker’s writing is and how well she uses her fiction to impart knowledge. Sure, stories are meant to entertain but in Walker’s case they are also clearly written to educate. Every single one of these stories taught me something. For that reason I think of Walker’s short stories as essays, in a sense.

Walker discusses lots of topics, including difficult ones such as interracial relationships, abortion, and pornography. Perhaps some of those topics aren’t for everyone (and a few of the stories were quite explicit) but if there’s anyone who can handle such topics, it’s Walker. I get the feeling that Walker weaves in some of her own experiences in her stories because quite a few of them did seem to have a semi-autobiographical feel.

As the title suggests, the main topic of this book is women, in particular black women. One of the most interesting stories was “Nineteen Fifty-Five,”  which was about an older black woman who sold some of her songs to a white male singer. Walker managed to address so many things that I’ve been thinking about art and appropriation, and she also got me thinking about the disparity between group needs and what people from other groups (race, class, gender, etc.), think they want; this is something that she illustrates quite well without explicitly stating it as such.

I know a little about the history of black music in the States and of how it has often been appropriated. Yet, the whole point about art is that it’s supposed to come from within, from our experiences. But so much art has been appropriated anyway:

“Everybody still loves that song of yours. They ask me all the time what do I think it means, really. I mean, they want to know just what I want to know. Where out of your life did it come from?”

“They want what I got only it ain’t mine. That’s what makes ‘em so hungry for me when I sing. They getting the flavour of something but they ain’t getting the thing itself. They like a pack of hound dogs trying to gobble up a scent.”

The story “Coming Apart” was just a masterpiece. In it Walker uses excerpts of an essay I hadn’t heard of, by Tracey A. Gardner, about the racial aspects of pornography. I’ll let the following excerpts speak for themselves:

“For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment — at the hands of white “gentlemen” — of “beautiful”, young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable  from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this.”

“Because Tracey A. Gardner has thought about it all, not just presently but historically, and she is clear about all the abuse being done to herself as a black person and as a woman, and she is bold and she is cold—she is furious. The wife, given more to depression and self-abnegation than to fury, basks in the fire of Gardner’s high-spirited anger.”

I’m always interested by exotification being a rare minority where I live. In the story “A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring“, the female protagonist realizes that she is constantly being othered;  I could relate so much to that:

“How could they ever know her if they were not allowed to know Wright, she wondered. She was interesting, “beautiful,” only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came. And were they came from, though she glimpsed it—in themselves and in F. Scott Fitzgerald—she was never to enter. She hadn’t the inclination or the proper ticket.”

Like I always say, Walker is one of the bravest and most honest writers I’ve ever come across.And she’s adept at creating multidimensional black women characters. She illustrates black women with agency, and with a (much often denied by society) inner life. For me, a black woman who not so long ago rarely read of black women’s experiences in literature, Alice Walker’s work is so important. Her brand of feminism, womanism, is something I can feel comfortable with as encompassing of the black woman’s experience, which is very often so different from those in mainstream feminism. Additionally, black feminist heroes are included in Walker’s writing and to me that seems like not only is she paying homage, she is also encouraging us to read up on these greats and learn from them. As I learned from doing my thesis, the main way that black women learn is from each other, and from reading black women’s literature as a way to understand their complex identities. Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…I’ll be reading you all soon.

 

 

The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader

“The world knows us by our faces, the most naked, most vulnerable, exposed, and significant topography of the body. When our caras do not live up to the “image” that the family or community wants us to wear and when we rebel against the engraving of our bodies, we experience ostracism, alienation, isolation, and shame.” Hacienda caras, una entrada

Anzaldúa tells the story of my life, my experiences, my thoughts. Although I’m not a Chicana like she was, so much of what she wrote could have applied to me, in fact to any woman who belongs to a marginalized or a minority group. Whether it was her lectures, her poetry, or interviews, her work was such a wealth of knowledge. She was a poet, an artist and more, and used poetic language from which she drew from Jungian psychology, and also intertwined her Spanish language.

I rarely come across theory in academia that is so interesting, refreshing and accessible.Anzaldúa puts herself into her work: her sensitivity, her empathy, her activism. She discusses the reading of this theory as a holistic experience which really resonated with me having read so much dry theory:

From: En Rapport, In Opposition Cobrando cuentas a las nuestras

“From where I stand, queridas carnalas-in a feminist position-I see, through critical lens with variable focus, that we must not drain our energy breaking down the male/white frame (the whole of western culture) but turn to our own kind and change our terms of reference. As long as we see the world and our experiences through white eyes -in a dominant/subordinate way-we’re trapped in the tar and pitch of the old manipulative and strive-for-power ways.”

Anzaldúa also discusses the problems with being the token woman of colour in academia or in similar space, how stressful it can be, and the ways in which those of us who find ourselves in that position can protect ourselves. It’s reminiscent of the Donna Kate Rushin poem ,The Bridge, which is included in the “This Bridge Called my Back” anthology.

From: Speaking in Tongues A Letter to Third World Women Writers

“We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women theorist priority…We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.”

Regarding feminism, Anzaldúa clearly shows how mainstream feminism is not enough for women of colour; she discusses how we have different issues and although we are not encouraged to write, we really should because through our writings we can create theories that will change policies, etc:

“Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally, I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing. Why should I try to justify why I write?”

I liked how Anzaldúa injects so much of herself in her writing. She shows that her identity, which is complex, and her upbringing, are all part of who she is, and how she sees the world. She discussed her own personality and was very honest and transparent about several things:

“Being a mestiza queer person, una de las otras (“of the others”) is having and living in a lot of worlds, some of which overlap. One is immersed in all the worlds at the same time while also traversing from one to the other.”

In: Spirituality, Sexuality, and the Body: An Interview with Linda Smuckler

“At this time in my life, I need a lot of solitude. I live in my imagination, in my inner world. There has to be a balance: I need a community of people, I need to go out into the world, I need that connection. So it’s either extreme. When I find myself being too much out in the world I have to put shields around myself so that I can come home, recuperate, recharge, and reconnect. But if I’m in my little womb of a house (for me, the house is always a symbol of the self), if I’m too protective, too much of a hermit, I have to take those shields off and let people in.”

I am so glad I have a copy of this as I feel the knowledge I learned and the knowledge that was reaffirmed, will last with me for a long time.

A long quote, one of my favourites and the basis of my thesis, coming up:

“What is considered theory in the dominant academic community is not necessarily what counts as theory for women-of-color. Theory produces effects that change people and the way they perceive the world. Thus we need teorías that will enable us to interpret what happens in the world, that will explain how and why we relate to certain people in specific ways, that will reflect what goes on between inner, outer, and peripheral “I”s within a person and between the personal “I”s and the collective “we” of our ethnic communities. Necesitamos teorías that will rewrite history using race, class, gender, and ethnicity as categories of analysis, theories that cross borders, that blur boundaries-new kinds of theories with new theorizing methods. We need theories that will point out ways to maneuver between our particular experiences and the necessity of forming our own categories and theoretical models for the patterns we uncover. We need theories that examine the implications of situations and look at what’s behind them. And we need to find practical application for those theories.”