An Activist Practice 

I admired Caitlín Doherty’s recent ‘A Feminist Style’, and I disagreed strenuously with almost every line of it. There is no conflict between these two sentiments, and one of the era’s most unfortunate tics is its insistence on interpreting every conflict as evidence of disrespect. There are certainly cases in which we politely praise a piece of writing solely as a way of genuflecting to the requisite social forms, but I want to emphasize that this is not such a case. Doherty’s argument is ambitious, her style (ironically) is exhilarating, and her willingness to question shibboleths – and hold the darlings of the literary world to account – is refreshing. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced.

Her argument runs as follows. Contemporary feminist theory is boring, so boring that a generation of would-be feminist intellectuals has turned backwards, towards the iconic thinkers of the second wave. Hence the incessant cycle of revival and rediscovery, in which the celebrity intellectuals most active in the sixties and seventies are rehabilitated and effused over. The intellectuals in question, most recently Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag, tend to emphasize the centrality of female suffering – and, as a result, feminist politics has been reduced to a thin lamentation, divorced from any material programme.

My most trivial objection is that I am less cynical about the uses and abuses of Sontag and Dworkin. The recent publication of a collection of Sontag’s essays about women, in which she is openly ambivalent about the feminism of her era and hostile to movement poster-child Adrienne Rich, hardly amounts to an attempt to canonize Sontag as an emblem of the second wave. As for Dworkin, it may be that she is extolled as a stylist not because anyone wishes to reduce feminism to gesture, but simply because she is a great stylist. To commend Dworkin’s writing is not to imply that feminism is always and only a matter of a fancy prose (although as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps it sort of ought to be).

Broadly, however, I think Doherty is right that contemporary feminism is dull and unimaginative. We might assess the movement’s prospects either in terms of the activism it inspires or the theories it produces. I am most comfortably in agreement with ‘A Feminist Style’ when it comes to the philosophical poverty of contemporary feminism’s theories. Of course, there are still feminist intellectuals worth reading (Nancy Fraser comes to mind), but it is true that, on the whole, feminist thought is less invigorating than it once was, that there is little ‘engagement with the totality of the experiences of women, qua women, by a new generation of political philosophers’ as Doherty writes. It is also true that the female intellectuals we tend to canonize are too often flattened into symbols – although it is Joan Didion, not much of a feminist by any measure, who has been most thoroughly converted into a slogan on a tote bag. Alas, by far the most visible strain of feminism in the contemporary West is the gospel of girl bossery, evangelized by sleek entrepreneurs like Sheryl Sandberg.  

But I think feminism, as an activist practice, is more robust than Doherty gives it credit for. She makes barely any mention of the #MeToo movement and is unduly dismissive of recent organizing for reproductive freedoms. ‘The closest feminism has come in recent years to a mass mobilisation is in the domain of reproductive rights – no longer the terrain of one gender, but the grounds on which a person might be feminised, a verb which in contemporary usage means to exist at the sharp edge of precarity, removed from economic productivity, overwhelmed by the burdens of reproduction’. I’m not sure what else we should be mobilizing around at a moment when abortion rights, at least in America, are so imperilled. And make no mistake: feminist efforts to equalize abortion access in the wake of Dobbs – activists distributing contraceptive pills along underground networks, by securing funding for travel to states where there is still a right to choose, and more – have been nothing short of heroic.

Perhaps more centrally, though I agree with Doherty that much of today’s feminist thinking is uninspired, I do not accept her diagnosis of what ails it. She writes that ‘a focus on the negative experiences of womanhood – however broadly and ecumenically defined ­– will yield a negative feminism: participation credentialled on the basis of suffering’. But isn’t an articulation of collective suffering the basis for any successful mass movement? There is a reason that we have abandoned some of the more maudlin products of the 70s, namely the mushy hippies claiming that our wombs put us in touch with the earth, and retained the more pessimistic Dworkin. What is femininity, at its core, but institutionalized disadvantage? And what is feminism, at its core, but the attempt to expose gender as a nightmarish farce?

Read on: Nancy Fraser, ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’, NLR 56.