I storm-plucked this book off the shelf, planting kisses on its earlobes, wiping its feet with my hair. Young feminists—under 30, some still teenagers—write to salvage the most transformative yet stereotyped word. We need feminism, the book says, because women are burnt alive for refusing to submit to grotesque male desire, our bodies are fetishised and assaulted, we are shot in the head for speaking out, we face discrimination in everything. Stating the obvious has ritualistic power and the essays in this book invoke that power. Though the contributors are British, this is not a white woman’s account. We hear a trans-woman, a Muslim, an actress who plays Hotspur in an all-female Henry IV, a banker. The feminism of this book is coloured, immigrant, in exile, diverse. It sets your blood racing and assures you that feminism is thriving, though a tad vulnerable and apologetic.
These youthful essays give the gooey complacence of post-feminism a nice elbow but lack the argumentative punch that has powered feminist discourse. The writers don’t invite sexism for a circular walk on the Penrose steps, riling it with question for answer for question, damning and dooming it with ‘Why so?’ and ‘Why not so?’ The writers are more concerned with self-reflection—a journey from being victims of misogyny and patriarchal constructs to self-discovery, when with an ugly pop and lots of fatigue they find their voice and inner feminist. There’s palpable energy and lukewarm outrage, but not enough of it. In My Journey to Feminism, Louise O’Neill says she didn’t understand what feminism meant, she believed what the media told her about false rape claims, expected her boyfriend to pay for meals. If these young women must start all over again, the legacy of decades of anger, the impressive treatises unspooling the inherent sexism of language and the serious work that went into establishing that Hitchcock is shit seem a waste. If attaining feminism is like attaining puberty, part of a life cycle, then change is a long way off.
Most essays in this collection touch upon self-discovery, the ugly pop with which young women locate their inner feminist.
In Typical Engineer, Naomi Mitchison bends rules. She is a woman in a man’s world—a description that goes uncontested. Hajar Wright’s youthfully incisive I Don’t Make Coffee is a slogan for women subverting the rampant sexism at work. Wright provides a feminist foil to Twitter-worthy truisms perpetuated by woman CEOs who deny any discrimination, saying it’s all in our minds and the angle of our spine. A feminist reading of these essays will rue the lack of madder and more ambitious questions like how to subvert engineering as a discipline, how to ensure that the principles of engineering and the uses to which it is put are guided by the feminine logic. It is also a bit awkward that Wright offers to decimate sexism by working and thinking like a man.
Phoebe Hamilton-Jone, age sixteen, runs FemSoc, a school group that works on viable solutions to overthrow sexism in everyday lives. What if FemSoc found a few millions and became the feminist countercurrent of Facebook? Kurdish immigrant Meltem Avcil muses on the two worlds she has seen. Equality for her is about women being free from men and their expectations. Isabel Young warns that “social expectation of strength” takes a toll on real women. She hopes the feminism of today will be more inclusive and tolerant.
Such possibilities make this collection a relish. The essays have the right tenor, the implosive rhetoric, the confessional style, the call to action. The young cohabit with the old ghosts, the femi-Lenins and femi-gods who have bent and twisted the mirror of self-reflection for us. Peppered through the book are quotes from the usual suspects—Toni Morrison, Gloria Steinem, Charlotte Perkins-Gillman and also Mindy Kaling, Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama. Like the feminism it upholds, the book too is a crucible where the timeless fight against sexual assault, stereotypes, Islamic warriors, nasty Bobs at work and the peremptory shrug as if nothing is the matter all converge and become a pulsating angry centre—the new true North.
“It (sex-change) doesn’t make them a woman,” Germaine Greer said recently, inviting widespread criticism within the feminist movement for her transphobia.