Twists and Turns in this Feminist Moment

During this fraught political season, it feels absolutely fitting to have four new excellent feminist books, each one turning on a different twist of feminism. 

Andi Zeisler, writer, editor and cofounder of Bitch Media, which publishes Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, takes her readers on a highly engaging annotated tour of recent his- tory in We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (PublicAffairs, $26.99). There’s the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, strong modern women from the big screen, to “Mad Max Fury Road,” to Spanx, to the cooptation and commodification of the language of feminism. In many ways, Zeisler does far more than connect the contextual dots; she’s issu- ing a warning call: We must remain alert while interpreting the waves and iterations of “feminism.”

For Zeisler, celebrity feminism and the use of women’s empowerment are both about brands. “Rather than strengthening feminism from the inside —reiterating core values and amplifying the multiplicity of voices past and present that have contributed to feminist movements —a rebrand is outward focused,” she writes, “a recruitment effort to make feminism appeal to as broad an audience as possible by distilling it down to an image and a few words.”

This is an essential read that hits hard and is smart, meticulously researched yet fun, with chapter titles like “Do These Underpants Make Me Look Feminist?” I hope this deep-diving feminist cultural analysis will help more change-makers understand when and how pop culture should be a force for social change and be critically astute enough to differentiate feminism from empty “feminist” facades.

For example, take the 1980s, when women’s rights were under attack during the Reagan years. Despite popular misconceptions, Zeisler writes, “feminism flowered…in places that mainstream media wasn’t inclined to look. Black and Latino women in particular…spent the decade shaping a feminism that better acknowledged how race and class identities intersect with gender to inform and impact women’s lives.

Throughout, Zeisler details the ways narratives are reshaped and public conceptions defined by a shadow reality, driven often by a profit margin and a “diluted” feminism. This distracts from the far more complicated, slow-moving movement- building and grunt work that accompany real systemic change. The Spice Girls, for example, leave a legacy that’s “as much about empowering marketplace feminism as about empowering girls.” “I can no longer be about who says they stand for feminism but about how they stand for it,” she writes (italics added).

Longtime feminist activist Ann Snitow, associate professor of literature and gender studies at the New School, and cofounder of New York Radical Feminists, No More Nice Girls, and other pioneering groups, shares 40 years of her writing and analyses in The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary (Duke, $26.95).

Snitow makes clear exactly how her own feminist thinking shifts, depend- ing on context, cause, and the changing world. This commitment to “uncertainty” is ultimately about being mindful that these shifts are —and will be —a constant, regardless of our feminist goals. Her writing lays out feminism’s “uncertainty” about women’s similarities and differences from men. Snitow finds another great uncertainty in the dichotomies between academic and activist approaches, and how she holds both, even in her self- reflection and theory.

“In this book,” Snitow writes, “I’ve explored ‘uncertainty’ as a temperament, a political aesthetic, a counterweight to various forms of rigidity, or too-perfect dreams of unity or disorder. But I want to guard here against any mapping of uncertainty onto a blithe disregard for the responsibility to shape one’s feminist projects.

“The revival of feminism in the United States was a zone of invention,” she writes. “When we started, the books we needed to read were out of print—and most had yet to be written…. Any historical record of women’s past resistance to prejudice, insult, and invisibility was absent from public memory.”

Change —big change —takes time, and it takes aligned strategies. It takes players who create new models as alternatives to existing systems (innovators), those who analyze those structures (academics), those who fight against patriarchy in the streets, in the media, in the government, and in culture (activists, journalists, artists, advocates, and so many more), particularly those who work within existing systems and fields.

Firmly planted in this last category are the contributors to Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, & Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (White Cloud Press, $17.95). Edited by Gina Messina-Dysert, Jennifer Zobair and Amy Levin, this anthology brings together personal essays from the three faiths “to provide a platform for empowered women of faith to speak,” to show that it can be an act of feminism to stay, to stand shoulder to shoulder, to reclaim sacred space.

Newly ordained Orthodox clergyperson Dasi Fruchter says she can “uncover where progress is necessary and possible within the framework of the tradition even as it pushes its boundaries.” Conservative rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes about ripple effects and the women before her who paved the way. “Part of why I stay—besides, sure, the selfishness of wanting all the beauty of this tradition, and being stubborn about not letting the haters win—is a feeling of obligation I have to people of every gender who come after me. There’s plenty of work to be done, but we’re doing it. Learning Talmud and other Jewish texts gives us the keys to the kingdom.”

For Jewish thinkers, the Talmudic prescription to “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it” extends well to feminism itself, with so many ever-changing meanings, and an analysis that can be applied to every situation.

Writer and founder Jessica Valenti, now a Guardian columnist and staff writer, deeply personalizes feminism in Sex Object: A Memoir (HarperCollins, $25.99). To understand “who would I be if I lived in a world that didn’t hate women,” Valenti takes a deeply personal look at the ways misogyny eats away at women’s lives and scars our personalities. So much of Valenti’s experiences are ones I lived through too, growing up in the same city at around the same time, like the subway gropers and flashers. I love Valenti’s honesty and humor in this portray- al of how her feminism, youth and brainpower came to converge.

Valenti—blunt, coarse and not for the faint of heart —uses the humor she is gifted with, but doesn’t gloss over her experiences: “When I joked to him about date-raping me [while unconscious], he shot back, Don’t worry, I went down on you first.” 

“Despite all these things we know to be true—despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments —we still have no name for what happens to in a culture that hates them.”

Yet by chronicling her experiences even through motherhood and postpartum depression, she shows a struggle that has made empathy and humanity a driving force of feminism.

I’ve seen several young men lately on city streets clad in close-fitting T-shirts with sparkly lettering that spells out “feminism.” I hope that for them, too, it’s not just glitter. That there’s substance and strategy to back it up. Because we need everyone. We’re lucky, for now, though, to have so many astute, wonderfully readable writers on our side.

Erica Brody is a writer, editor, and strategist.