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Feminist Book Reviews



Female machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California, 1942. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer

A couple of important book reviews for you to read on feminist texts, both of which go after the “marketplace feminism” that currently passes for mainstream feminism in many circles. First, Sarah Jaffe on Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.

In writing this book, Zeisler aims to turn our attention back to systems, not individuals. The current moment in pop culture is obsessed with the latter: with the questions of which celebrity called herself a feminist this week, whether makeup can be feminist, if Game of Thrones is too “problematic” to be watched by right-thinking feminists. All of this has shrunk feminism down to the size of a pair of trendy panties; it has made it into yet another box to check off, another set of restrictions on what women can do.

It’s a particular kind of feminism that dovetails perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism—the period of capitalism that features deregulation, privatization, and hyper-individualism. Under neoliberalism, we are all entrepreneurs with “personal brands”; we are all free to choose whatever we want, as long as we can afford to. Neoliberalism has brought us the global supply chain, where fast fashion is sewn by women in sweatshops in Cambodia and Bangladesh, out of sight and mind from the women who will ultimately wear the clothing. Despite the cheery rhetoric of freedom and choices, its icon remains “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, with her forbidding warning that “there is no alternative.”

The problem with “choice” as the key metric for feminism is that not everyone is actually free to make those choices, as Thatcher’s maxim ought to remind us. The point for feminism as a movement, then, is not to get into endless battles about whose choice is the feminist-est of them all, but to critique the ground we’re walking on, to change the rules of the game, not to hate the player.

Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world. In this moment we too often fall under the spell of this and of another kind of “feminist fallacy”: that the success of powerful women will trickle down to the rest of us. In fact, as Zeisler notes, famous and powerful women often mistake what is best for them for what is good for all women; when we put too much weight on the feelings of celebrities, we end up cringing when their uninformed opinions, divorced from solidarity with anyone who might be affected, end up making headlines and even policy, as when Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham put their own feelings ahead of actual research and organizing on the subject of the decriminalization of sex work.

And then Tressie McMillan Cottom with a negative review of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business.

Take, for example, the treatment of race in the book. Slaughter includes a set of data points about race (and class) in her discussion of wage earnings. She rightly points out that black, brown, and poor women do most of the nation’s low-paid service-sector work. She also points out that many of her proposals for narrowing the high-status gender gap might not be feasible for these women. That’s a to-be-sure. But then Slaughter returns to her theory of change, arguing that women are less likely to speak up at work and in class. This gendered deference to masculine authority plagued Slaughter early in her career until her husband taught her to “act like a man”—that is, how to speak up with authority. But there is ample data that black women don’t have the same problem of speaking up. “Acting like a man” is an unfortunate allusion. What they have is a problem of disproportionate, and racist, approbation for speaking up and the racist-sexist double standard that they should speak up on behalf of the nonblack women who are just too painfully afflicted to do so.

If the data on race and class had informed her theory of change, Slaughter might have critiqued the racist, gendered, and classed dimensions of speech and behavior. Data show these social patterns of what is considered acceptable behavior privilege well-to-do white women in mate selection but penalize them at work while also penalizing all other women across the board. Despite minimal engagement with data on race, class, and gender, Slaughter’s revised have-it-all thesis never goes so far as to interrogate the power relations of her positionality. Nor does she allow anything like empirical reality to alter her theory of tipping status competition in favor of highly educated, mostly white women.

There is no more persistent debate in feminist theory and praxis than ones about inclusion. “Big-tent feminism” has been critiqued and, to be fair, has responded, however marginally, to some of the critiques of its elitism, racism, capitalist impulses, and normative social reproduction. All versions of the have-it-all thesis are susceptible to the same critiques because the thesis is just a manifestation of capital’s creative translation of our precarious, post-work political economy. At its heart, for some women to have it all, most women cannot ever have enough. In practice this looks like extracting loyalty from poor women in the service sector while using service-sector labor to negotiate economic elite parity with men in the contracting, competitive good-jobs sector of a global knowledge economy.

The veneer of feminist talk is just that—a veneer and just talk. Even in her revision, Slaughter does not present a feminist theory of change. She presents policy prescriptions for coping with precarity and stratification, not challenges to precarity and stratification. The good news is that there are theories of feminist change for this moment. Take the intersectional politics of Black Lives Matter or the interethnic coalition of the Fight for $15 labor movement for a higher minimum wage. Those debates are happening, and we are all better for holding them to the extent that some of us are actually holding them.

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  • Grumpy

    Link’s missing for second review.

  • brad

    Off topic, can I just say how much I fucking loathe “hate the game, not the players”? That being a sociopath can be incentivized sometimes is no excuse for personal choices.
    Not that it’s relevant in context, just had to vent.

    • Murc

      That’s not at all what “hate the game, not the players” means, brad. At least not in my experience.

      Unless you’re living in a shack in the woods on stolen wi-fi posting from a stolen computer, you are a player in the game of late-stage capitalism. You probably have clothes and maybe even food in your house that only got there because of slave labor, for example, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no way to actually opt out of that system short of going to live in the aforementioned shack in the woods.

      Am I obligated to hate you? I don’t think I am. I hate the game, not the players.

      • brad

        That’s an expansive interpretation of the saying which, while coherent and in some ways enlightening, isn’t how it has been used in my experience. To my knowledge it began in hip-hop, and is most likely to be used these days by some douche in finance.
        I don’t take it as saying that society is inescapable but as a dodge for choosing to embrace and make full use of the flaws in the system.

        • McAllen

          I think its meaning has evolved, and the way Jaffe is using it seems to be closer to Murc’s interpretation.

  • I am unfortunately bound by my gender, but my experience has shown me a couple of things. First, my mother was of the ‘bra burning, anything a man can do a woman can do better’ era of feminism, which seems to me to be a good way to be. But I also know these options are indeed limited for black women in particular because of the ‘angry black woman’ meme.

    • Snuff curry

      There was never any such era. Nobody collectively burned bras, feminists weren’t female supremacists. The racism is real, though, of course.

  • Ronan

    Relatedly, Since we’re linking to stuff, I’d love to hear more knowledgable takes than mine on this


    • Origami Isopod

      A few good points about how some people on the left conflate gender identity with gender expression, buried under a lot of transphobic bullshit, including the dogwhistle phrase “women who were born women,” and this: “The transgender reversal of pronouns has a disturbing quality of insisting that the outside world conform to subjective experience.”

      Also, as tired as I am of the cries of “femmephobia” whenever a woman expresses disinterest in makeup or fashion, at least a plurality of people have enjoyed decorating themselves since time immemorial, gender regardless. Shriver claims that cis women “schlep around most of the time in jeans and trainers,” but it really depends on the cis woman and her social circle. Sure, patriarchal conditioning plays a role in what we enjoy, but that doesn’t oblige cis women who enjoy fashion and makeup to eschew them.

      • McAllen

        To add to this, part of the reason many trans women dress in a femme manner is that if they don’t they won’t be read as women at all.

        • Origami Isopod

          Yes. Or their physicians won’t take their requests to transition seriously. I understand that while that kind of gatekeeping has lessened in recent years, it still exists.

      • Ronan

        Thanks. What’s the distinction between “gender identity and gender expression”. (I’ve an idea, but not sure I’ve got it coherently ..)

        • Venerable Monk

          Here’s a two-part video entitled “Everything Gender” with explanations of various gender terms by people that identify as each of the terms explained. Rather than try to explain the nuances myself, I’ll let these folks speak for themselves. There’s a handy list of linked time stamps in the description, so you can jump right to the terms that you’re not clear on.


          • Ronan

            Thanks, I’ll check it out

    • McAllen

      Not going to write much since I’m on my phone, but Ms. Shriver seems to be making her case primarily by trafficking in stereotypes of trans women–despite her perceptions, trans women too primarily schlep around in jeans and trainers.

      • Ronan

        I didn’t know what to make of it. It was doing the rounds (on Twitter) as being “insightful”. Parts of it did read to me as insightful enough, the rest either banal or offensive. But I wasn’t sure as I’m still not completely sure what she’s trying to get at

        • wjts

          I read her point as, “My own gender identity is largely a matter of indifference to me, so everyone else’s gender identity should therefore be largely a matter of indifference to them”.

      • wjts

        Yeah, the “exaggeratedly coiffed, buffed and corseted” femininity she ascribes to Caitlyn Jenner (and by extension to trans women generally) is more along the lines of something I might call “celebrity femininity” – I can’t see a whole lot of difference between the ways Caitlyn Jenner presents herself/is presented in the media versus, say, Nicole Kidman.

  • The Temporary Name

    I ran into a critique of Jessica Valenti at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

    There’s a little squib of info here (search for Jimenez):


    But better pics of the thing here:


    The pedestal by the bunny’s head quotes some of the text of Nina Power’s attack on Valenti from, I think, One Dimensional Woman.

    It’s a fairly old blogfight (though never a finished one) and it was odd to see it pop up again.

  • BruceFromOhio

    What an exquisite photograph. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Ask Me Gently

      Agree! I was scrolling down about to say the same but you got there first.

  • Karen24

    The reviews are interesting and thorough, but the one of the Slaughter book could really have benefited by some merciless editing. Phrases like “to interrogate the power relations of her positionality” is a parody of academic jargon, as well as being ugly and conveying virtually no information. (My guess is that the reviewer is trying, badly, to say “Slaughter can’t quite manage to criticize the system that rewarded her so greatly, and can’t analyze her own position in that system.”)

    • Karen24

      I note that the writer is perfectly capable of writing sharp prose, as this demonstrates: “These are what op-ed pros call “to be sures.” It is a rhetorical device. “To-be-sures” move one’s argument forward by nominally engaging the most common criticisms. Nominal is the key. Slaughter does nod to these important criticisms, but the nods never go so far as to inform her theory of change.”

    • delazeur

      I suspect that people engaging in radical social critiques often use awkward grammatical constructs like that as a (perhaps unconscious) shield against complaints that they are attacking someone. “[Slaughter doesn’t] interrogate the power relations of her positionality” sounds less confrontational than “Slaughter needs to check her privilege.” This phenomenon also often uses passive rather than active verb tense.

      • Karen24

        That’s probably some of it. A lot of it is the fact that academics generally only talk to other academics. “Interrogate the power relations of her positionally” is the equivalent of “reverse the polarity of the oscillation over thruster in order to maximize the synergies of the thrust capacitor” for engineers. (I do, by the way, know that what I wrote there is nonsense, but it was intentionally nonsensical because I am not an engineer. Please insert half a page of calculations.) It’s a jargon that has some meaning to those in the field, but nothing to anyone else, which is fine if the words were for a specific technical meaning. Since they aren’t technical language, she should find something clearer.

        • delazeur

          Yeah, I think this becomes a big problem when people in the social sciences and humanities try to communicate with the public because they use a lot of words in a specific, technical way that can be very different from the general usage, and members of the public try to interpret the specialists’ statements using the common definitions. People in STEM are fortunate that most of their technical words do not have a meaning outside of a technical context.

          • kenjob

            “interrogate” is the tell. It is bizarrely violent.

            Is the writer interested in the confession coerced from the power relations of [Slaughter’s] positionality after Slaughter unplugs the camera and her colleague steps outside?
            If there is a bomb, is Slaughter justified in strapping the power relations of her positionality to a car battery?
            Maybe the proper venue for the power relations of [Slaughter’s] positionality is a network court drama?

  • Hells Littlest Angel

    That is a stunning photo. It looks like a Vermeer. Thanks.

    • wjts

      It does, doesn’t it?

      • Ask Me Gently

        Color photography in 1942 wasn’t a common thing. Slide or neg I wonder.

  • PJ

    Is Slaughter’s book somewhat in the vein of Lean In? Sure sounds like it.

    Also, it’s tough out there for intersectional feminism. Not only is HRC running for president, it’s gotten to the point where bell hooks is persona non grata for questioning Beyonce.

  • rjayp

    “It’s a particular kind of feminism that dovetails perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism—the period of capitalism that features deregulation, privatization, and hyper-individualism.”

    Right in the Loomis wheelhouse.

    • Jordan

      Pretty sure

      Neoliberalism has brought us the global supply chain, where fast fashion is sewn by women in sweatshops in Cambodia and Bangladesh, out of sight and mind from the women who will ultimately wear the clothing.

      Is peak loomis there. And good.

  • if Game of Thrones is too “problematic” to be watched by right-thinking feminists.

    Datapoint: a couple or three years ago, at dinner before she read her poetry, Katha Pollitt (joined by several others with no doubt equally impeccable, if less generally public, right-thinking feminist credentials) recommended GoT to us highly. Since we’re both easily terrified, we never took the recommendation.

  • shah8

    Choice theory is still largely protected in plenty of subareas, such as prostitution or surrogate pregnancy for pay. They are typically buttressed by a lot of lying by omission, and generally has to be checked by Kantian (or Rorty) moral imperative.

    Of course, these areas, as well as others, are protected because certain people can stand to make a lot of money from an actual and expanded legal industry and they keep that pot stirring as required (of course, conspirationally speaking–which you have to do, when it comes to shady industries with few knowns).

    It’s not so much specifically, that legalizing the prostitution industry or having hospitals devoted to women having other women’s babies is such a bad thing. It’s simply that the economics of prostitution, specifically, depends very much on having a large supply of labor with impaired access to the law. Or in a place like India, the very nature of the idea of surrogate pregnancies is unkosher to anyone who has any power in that society. So they depend on women without social power, and call the lump sum just compensation.

    So simple legalization is potentially a bad idea, and in any event, already is socially or legally permissable. Economic liberalization without social liberalization or social justice, then, is a farce. Legalizing drugs will not stop the social predation/lynching of black people. Those with the power and the interest will simply find another pretext. Likewise, legalizing gambling will cause many social externalities–you guys committed to paying for the consequences? Legalizing prostitution without explicitly legalizing the people who work in it, without explicit affirmation of their right to work where-ever/however they want, with explicit expectations of protection by the police, and given social and legal rights so they can prosecute all these rights at need–well, you’ll just have the same problems, and a lot more of it as people rush in to invest in corporate brothel chains. Of course, if you did all this, you’d know to expect terroristic violence from the misogynists and take measures for that, as well.

    but then, Money will have a sad. I really do think that much of the “feminism” critiqued here is cultivated. It’s not an accident that “She presents policy prescriptions for coping with precarity and stratification, not challenges to precarity and stratification.”, as Cottom puts it.

    And guys? It’s easy. If you’re talking about ways to protect people’s ability to do Plan-Ds in precarious situations, and thinking of the policy answers generated as at all positive–whether that be micro-finance, charter schools, rural power provision, sex work, etc…Well, you’re probably doing this wrong. Harm mitigation is an important policy plank, but if all you’re talking is harm mitigation, then you’ve been Overton Window’d out of making anything actually better.

  • Heron

    Why should we be pursuing a system that rewards those who “speak up”, i.e. gives positions of authority to those who pursue them most vigorously, anyway? Shouldn’t we want the best person for the job, not the biggest bully? Honestly, we ought to be thinking about and creating systems that promote ability(not cultural background, which is what all our “assessment tests” actually do) regardless of self-promotion or ambition; the system we have now, where everyone must sell themselves to employers, is needlesly inefficient, grossly wasteful of human potential, and deeply demeaning.

  • pseudalicious

    Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world.

    Huh. Zeisler’s claim to fame is being the editor (creator?) of Bitch Magazine*, “a feminist response to pop culture.” So that’s… interesting. (I mean, I get that it’s not an either/or, Backlash, etc.) Gonna have to read this.

    *Which I’ve read and subscribed to for years, despite the fact that I feel like I’ve kind of outgrown it.

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