Why Jessa Crispin really isn’t a feminist

Jessa Crispin

I just finished reading Jessa Crispin’s much-talked about new book and wonder if I’m the only one who did. With several reviews characterizing Why I Am Not a Feminist as “both feminist and against feminism,” it really is only one of those things.

Considering how the book has been promoted, I’d assumed it would offer a rigorous critique of liberal feminism and a call to something more radical, but Crispin doesn’t really call for anything. Instead, it feels like she had what she thought was a cutting-edge idea for a book, but when she sat down to write it, realized she didn’t have much to say, so was forced to stretch out a few disconnected rants into something that could pass as book-length.

At only 150 pages, the book is still full of holes — literally and figuratively, as the pages feature the kinds of triple-spacing and wide margins so many of us used in college essays that were meant to be 15 pages long but were in fact only eight. But the empty spaces go far beyond the pages, revealing Crispin to be way out of her depth.

When one believes the actual work of feminism is getting neglected,” a productive response would be to get to work… Or at least to reach out to some of those who are doing that work. But Crispin does neither. Nor does she offer any historical or political context for the problems she believes exist in feminism. Crispin seems to have limited her “investigation” of feminism’s flaws to mainstream media representations and a very tiny circle of people much like herself: white, middle class women working in the New York publishing industry. Ironically, while this limited vision made for a very limited “manifesto,” as she calls it, it’s also what enabled Crispin to receive incredibly wide coverage in the mainstream media. It seems she herself benefited and took full advantage of the very privileges she complains dominate feminism today, in order to sell a baseless attack on the movement.

For a book that claims to be critical of mainstream feminism’s rejection of radical second wavers, Crispin herself seems unfamiliar with most of the work produced by these women. She name-drops a couple, hoping to get by with some vague references to Shulamith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin, but doesn’t go much further.

Because Crispin made no effort to connect with movement women, her armchair critique misses the fact that there is a vibrant movement taking place outside her tunnel vision. If she truly is angered by mainstream feminism today, I’m left wondering why she didn’t seek out the rest of us. It’s not as though she is the first one to critique liberal feminism… Had her investigation had gone beyond a quick read through her social media feed, she likely would have come across Sheila Jeffreys’ and Catharine MacKinnon’s analyses of the liberal cooptation of the women’s liberation movement in The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism. Or perhaps she would have found Robin Morgan’s critique of The National Organization for Women (NOW), back in 1970, which notes membership was comprised of middle and upper class white women (and men!) and that they (mistakenly) fought for change “within the System.” She surely would have found Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” which explains that working within the system will never bring about genuine change “and this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” Had Crispin engaged with the movement today, she would have found many more critiques of a “feminism” whose philosophy is “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

With no understanding of how we got here in the first place, Crispin is left unable to comprehend patriarchal oppression as it exists today. She covers up for her lack of political analysis by saying things like, “the whole system is corrupt,” which is the kind of thing I would have written at 17 and fancied myself quite the revolutionary, but that doesn’t get us very far in terms of addressing actual problems with The System. Crispin’s repetitive references to female CEOs and politicians end up feeling transparent, revealing that she’s trying to appeal to an audience that wants to believe all feminists talk about is Hillary Clinton and someone named Mary T. Barra who, apparently, is CEO of General Motors.

It doesn’t take long to realize the title isn’t ironic, but is completely sincere: Crispin isn’t a feminist. She doesn’t believe that women share a common source or experience of oppression, writing, “The obstacles I face are different than the obstacles you face, because most of the universal obstacles have been removed.” (Huzzah!) It is here that Crispin veers into a very Christina Hoff Sommers-esque vision of feminism, that says if only women would stop thinking of themselves of victims of misogyny, perhaps they could move forward. Indeed, she suggests we start thinking of ourselves not as women, but as “humans first.” Focusing on our “powerlessness,” as woman, allows us to “blame someone else for the unfairness of it all,” she explains.

Robin Morgan noted in her introduction to Sisterhood is Powerful that “the most vicious weapon used against women is the psychological line that tells us, ‘If you’re not satisfied with your life, if you can’t adjust to the feminine role, then something is wrong with you; you’re frigid, neurotic, castrating, hung-up, a lesbian, a bitch.” It’s hard not to read Crispin’s assertion that oppression is something we need to overcome on an individual level in a similar vein.

“When women as a whole were discriminated against due to biological facts, and that discrimination was written directly into the law books, it made sense to claim solidarity,” Crispin writes. “There were universal needs and universal obstacles that could bind us together.” But no longer! We Are All Individuals is the Thatcheresque view Crispin has adopted, in glaring contradiction to her complaints about self-interested, self-help-style modern feminism.

Her claim that it’s time to stop basing “our ideology around our biological identities” also seems to contrast with her purported support for radical second wave feminists, who Crispin clearly views as stereotypical tropes as much as any third-waver… Just tropes she could use to sell a book.

So, what does Crispin want from feminism, if not solidarity among women based on their common experience of sex-based oppression? Well, for one thing, she wants it to be nicer to men.

Her lack of understanding or belief that patriarchy as a system even exists and impacts all women shows up more clearly as she laments the “casual hatred of men as a gender.” She explains, “It’s the same thing men have done to women for centuries.”

Really? Is women’s anger at the oppressor class really “the same” as inflicting systemic violence and oppression on an entire class of people for centuries? Despite her efforts to use capitalism as a talking point, Crispin doesn’t seem to understand how class oppression works, explaining that women’s negative perceptions of men are little more than projections. We feel bad about ourselves so we demonize and “demean the value of men” and, in turn, we become the oppressors ourselves. The System was us all along.

It’s very odd to read a book that appears to hate liberal feminism but that doesn’t acknowledge that there is more to the movement than the version of “feminism” sold by mainstream media. This whitewashed, toothless, let’s-fit-ourselves-into-this-system-rather-than-disrupt-it-entirely liberal American model is worth criticizing, but Crispin offers no alternative.

She says that what’s stopping young women from getting radical is the fear that they may need to actually do something. But what is she going to do? Her answer is oddly passive. After all that pomp and circumstance about how pathetic and useless feminism has become, Crispin’s only advice to taking the patriarchal system by storm is to “listen.”

“Our job, as feminists, should not be recruitment,” she states confidently. Really? As Aboriginal feminist Samantha Grey explains, “Momentum in the women’s movement cannot be sustained without engaging new women.” In order for the movement to continue beyond our own generation and in order to enable collective action, we absolutely do need to be speaking with, working with, reaching out to, and building alliances with new women. It is once women understand that the world need not be as it is now and that their suffering is not theirs alone that we can join together to effect change. Crispin calls this “conversion,” but in the second wave, it was called consciousness-raising. (Something she would know had she done some listening, herself.)

Oddly, considering her thesis (supposedly, that feminism is not about individual wants), Crispin says our jobs as feminists should be to listen to “the wants and needs” of other women. While listening to women is important, listening to what every individual woman “wants and needs” does not a movement make. Third wave mantras like “listen to sex workers” and “any choice a woman makes is justified because she is making a choice” speak exactly to that. In demanding we listen to and accept what any individual says, we paralyze action. Women want all sorts of things, but those things are not necessarily feminist things nor do those wants necessarily work towards the collective liberation of all women. At some point, we need to take positions, regardless of whether or not some women tell us the status quo suits them.

“Our attempts at conversion are asking women to devalue what they find valuable about their existence,” she writes, “to take on our values of independence, success, and sexuality.” So, if an individual woman claims prostitution or pornography is valuable or empowering to her, we must accept that? Crispin doesn’t answer this question or any others, and so this argument becomes just one of many contradictions in a book that claims opposition to “choice feminism.”

Crispin falls into the trap many young, inexperienced feminists do (though at her age and considering the task she’s taken on in writing this book, she has no excuse), which is to avoid speaking out about the oppression of other women because, she says, “rescue and protection are masculine ideas.” But this is exactly what has silenced third wave feminists: being told over and over again that they can’t have opinions on anything except themselves. Crispin has tried to sell her “manifesto” as a call to arms and to boldness, but instead it falls back onto ineffective third wave-style fetishization of the individual and empty virtue-signalling about rich white women.

Indeed, Crispin trashes Gloria Steinem in one sentence, writing off her off as “banal,” white, and middle class. Steinem actually came from a poor family and has contributed more to feminism than Crispin could ever hope to in her lifetime, but who cares! Crispin has followed #TwitterFeminism closely enough to know that dismissing Steinem as a boring, rich, white lady will go uncontested by boring, rich, white 20-year-olds who are unwilling to contribute anything beyond radical-sounding statements that don’t extend beyond 140 characters.

Crispin complains that radical feminists have been rejected and slandered, but references Dworkin as though she is the only one, claiming that, by contrast, The Feminine Mystique is widely embraced. It’s not, in fact. No third-waver worth their salt would be caught dead referencing Betty Friedan when they could be quoting Janet Mock, but that’s beside her point, which seems to be that all feminists today are boring white capitalists except for her.

Crispin points out that older feminists have been vilified by the younger generation, “for arguing points that are no longer fashionable,” which is true, but she doesn’t name any of those women or their points. Either she is unwilling to stand in solidarity with these unfashionable older feminists, or she’s not clear herself on what they’ve said and is simply hoping no one will ask her about it.

While I agree with Crispin that internet outrage culture is purposeless and that popular efforts to have individuals fired and ostracized over bad jokes and misinterpreted tweets are deeply misguided, the fact that she seems primarily interested in defending individual men from this particular form of wrath is revealing.

“Revenge has become an official part of feminist policy,” she says, first in defense of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-prize winning chemist who was forced to resign from his university position after a bad joke went viral, then extending her hypothesis to victims of male violence who turn to the criminal justice system.

“Currently,” Crispin claims, “safety for women means strict prison sentencing for men, prioritizing revenge over rehabilitation.” Of course, this isn’t even close to true. Men who rape and abuse women very rarely get jail time, and when they do it is minimal. And if Crispin thinks women go through the criminal justice system out of “revenge,” she’s never spoken to a woman who has tried. A nightmare of epic proportions, attempting to hold men to account through the police or the courts is rarely successful and subjects women to years of humiliation, expense, and, often, even more trauma. Going to court, for women, usually means their personal lives are dissected and attacked in an effort to wear them down, trip them up, and construct them as unreliable witnesses of their own abuse. More often than not, there is no justice for victims at the end of this arduous process. Considering that, in Canada, only one out every of 20 sexual assaults are even reported to police and that, of those, one out of five reports are dismissed as “unfounded,” the notion that feminists are running around recklessly ruining good men’s lives for no good reason is ludicrous. For the first time ever, women exceed men as victims of violence — this is because, while rates of other violent crimes are way down, sexual assault remains prevalent.

What is clear is that the justice system should be doing its job, but continues to fail women badly. It is not men, by and large, who are being harmed by this process.

Nonetheless, Crispin attacks feminists who demand accountability for male violence from the criminal justice system, completely failing to understand that women continue to be victimized by men because they are so rarely held to account. She also creates a false dichotomy here, assuming that feminists who push for the police and courts to take male violence seriously don’t also address the “root causes of violence.” She couldn’t be more wrong, but it’s amazing she didn’t think to check.

“Dealing with misogyny on an individual basis” is not something radical feminists advocate for as a sole solution — we fight oppressive systems and institutions while also advocating to hold individual men accountable for their actions. But rather than acknowledge this reality, Crispin presents perpetrators as victims and victims as vengeful liars.

To prove this, she references what sounds eerily like the Jian Ghomeshi assault case (though she does not say so outright — refusing to “name names” is a technique used throughout the book, perhaps to protect her from accountability). Crispin makes clear that she doesn’t believe the complainant (only one is mentioned), because there was no physical evidence of abuse and because the woman sent emails “expressing love and desire for him” after the abuse took place. “The emails,” Crispin says, “opened up a world of doubt regarding the testimony of the accused, the huge possibility that this accusation was an act of revenge against a man who spurned her.” In the case referenced, the judge found the perpetrator not guilty, and Crispin believes feminists should have celebrated this “civil rights victory” because “the man, of Indian descent (not white), did not get railroaded into jail on nothing but one white woman’s word.”

Considering that Crispin labels dismissals of white males “reductive” and “lazy,” you’d think she would avoid doing the exact same thing to women. Instead, it seems to be her key argument, wheeling out the “white woman” trope as a means to dismiss not only victims of male violence, but the feminist movement as a whole.

“We do not like to pay attention to how the casual demonization of white straight men follows the same pattern of bias and hatred that fuels misogyny, racism, and homophobia,” Crispin says without a hint of irony, near the end of a book that has mostly tried to cover up for a lack of knowledge and analysis by simply repeating the words, “middle class white women,” over and over again.

“It follows the same lazy thinking, easy scapegoating, and pleasurable anger that all other forms of hatred have… When this white male scapegoat becomes code for boring, privileged, and mediocre, it means we are no longer thinking, we are simply repeating stereotypes.”

I guess strawmen are only bad if they’re men…

Crispin writes:

“For all the space men take up in our imaginations, most of it is space we give them… Even in feminist discourse, the male audience is always presupposed and catered to.”

This statement alone reveals her lack of experience organizing, working in, and allying with the independent women’s movement, which explicitly works with and centers women only to be attacked for doing so. We have to fight simply to meet with other women and to write about females, accused of being “exclusive” every time we do. Yet we still do it. Crispin is awkwardly preaching to a choir she doesn’t know exists, who have been doing the work she has ignored for decades.

It’s too bad, because Crispin makes a couple of points I might otherwise agree with (namely, that capitalism will never liberate us nor will female CEOs), but these points go nowhere. She just hasn’t thought through her anger at liberal feminism and doesn’t even seem know this is what she is criticizing. Instead, it feels like she did a quick scan of the internet, and and figured she could pump out something that would gain media attention. The result is an incoherent rant against “feminism” that offers no solution or way forward. Not, “Seek out movement women doing the work, on the ground;” not, “Volunteer at your local rape crisis shelter;” not, “Start a women’s group;” not “Stand up against the objectification and exploitation of women.” Nothing.

If she wants work to get done, she needs to do some work. If she wants action in the women’s movement, she needs to seek out other women who are taking action, and support them. To write a manifesto about “feminism” from within a very tiny bubble, without climbing out of her tower to look around at what other women are doing and saying is to do exactly what she complains of.

Crispin fails to engage with any of the central issues and debates feminists are focused on, like prostitution, rape, domestic abuse, “gender identity,” or the fight for women’s spaces. She complains that women’s communities don’t exist, but then says women share nothing in common and doesn’t speak out in support of women’s spaces. She criticizes women who focus only on their individual success but then suggests we are personally responsible for our own sense of empowerment or victimhood, presenting  our anger towards men as rooted in our own personal unhappiness, which should be resolved within ourselves.

Throughout the book, I tried to imagine why on earth Crispin took it upon herself to write the thing — why she felt this subject, so far beyond her grasp, should have been taken up by her. All I can imagine is that Crispin thought the proposal sounded new and refreshing, which it could have been, had it been written by someone else. While she complains that feminism has become “just another thing to buy,” Why I Am Not a Feminist is just that: a novel-sounding idea that Crispin (rightly) thought would be sellable, but is, in the end, void of substance.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.