Where’s Feminism? Everywhere and Nowhere

Jed Brandt Apr 20, 2004

The Fire This Time : Young Activists and the New Feminism
Eds. Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin
Anchor Books (2004)

Review By Jed Brandt
Alternately ignored, mocked and vilified, feminism as an idea hasn’t had it any easier than women themselves. At its root, feminism is revolutionary in its demand. For women to live as full people would require a complete overturning of the how we work, negotiate family life and conceive of ourselves as people. Men and women both pay lip service to equality, but even that possibility seems in danger of being extinguished. Abortion is unavailable to many and in real danger of being lost. Women get paid less for worse jobs and get beaten more by their lovers than by their enemies. So hey, where are the feminists?

Vivian Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin answer by saying: they’re all over. They just stopped advertising it.

The anthology begins with the story of Margaret Walker, a student activist at Yale in the early 1990s. Walker shares her hopes and frustrations navigating fragmented cultural politics, seeking some synthesis to bring it all together. In Walker’s view, a once-great freedom dream seemed to be struggling for air under the weight of a thousand “issues.” Feminism was more a subculture than a movement, wrapped up in identity politics and lacking any intention of bringing a new world. The Yale Women’s Center wasn’t a center for women, it was for Feminists-with-a-capital-F to organize Take Back the Night marches and other assorted rituals. And something had to give.

Walker and the editors argue that what’s “new” in the new feminism is not that it exists so much as a women’s movement, per se, as it does in the ways that women’s participation and concerns have informed the activist and cultural left.

Instead of stories about defending abortion clinics and arguments about porn, The Fire this Time tells of Puerto Rican women fighting to kick the U.S. Navy off the island of Vieques, and how zines, urban theater and Indymedia have created space for women to speak.

The anthology almost avoids the last round of debates, particularly around pornography, representation and women’s sexual agency. The one exception is “Reclaiming Jezabel” by Ayana Bird. She takes on the state of commercial hip-hop and honestly addresses the dearth of “reclamation” in the age of Lil’ Kim. With “post-feminists” largely winning those debates in the popular culture (and among young women), criticizing misogyny is perceived as prudish, as if all there was to sex was the sex industry.

Feminism aside, this is a good read on several movements that don’t get much press, such as the work to expose and shut down the School of the Americas and Robin Templeton’s report on young women defying the “prison-industrial complex.” The anthology’s weakness is almost not its fault. The kind of radical activism discussed in the book largely avoids politics in the sense of “who has power and who’s going to get it.” While illustrating many of the fault lines in the world today, the essays, like Margaret Walker’s days at Yale, lack any cogent vision of what the world could be like if all these activist movements really got somewhere.

All this activism, struggle and sacrifice – for what? Activistism?

I went back and looked at Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Is Powerful, the defining anthology of the women’s liberation movement. It really was powerful. Sisterhood fearlessly challenged everything from the dull slavery of domestic life and women’s lot at work, to the blatant male dominance of the American left. It was on fire. Change was coming now! And it wasn’t just a matter of strident tone or a list of demands. Women were making change — from consciousness-raising to self-defense, from creating women’s action groups to providing illegal abortion services to rediscovering the clitoris.

Sisterhood was revolutionary in every sense: social, cultural, economic and philosophical. Nothing was sacred and debates about where power lay, whom to organize, what kinds of allegiances needed to be built and plenty of other nitty-gritty from a diversity of perspectives read as sharp today as 30 years ago.

Without a goal beyond “dealing” with “issues,” the activism The Fire This Time catalogues is more like a smolder with a few willful sparks. The radical, determined and hopeful energy that made women’s lib a living reality is absent. The book’s two introductions read more like foundation funding requests than a challenge to power.

Maybe it’s too much to ask from a book. This world really needs a new feminism, and the editors and contributors are right on to ground feminism in social movements dealing with real life and not just the simulacra of representational politics. But saying that all issues are women’s issues because women are involved or are leaders misses the point.

The question of how all people will become free is a practical question and one the book just doesn’t ask, let alone answer.

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