Well, it’s happened. That elusive five star review I wasn’t sure I’d ever give—after all, my rating system is pretty strict—but We Were Feminists Once is more than deserving. When reading on my Kindle, I tend to highlight one or two key passages that I particularly enjoy. If I love a book, I might end up with a whopping five or six highlights. By the end of We Were Feminists Once, I had 74.
Yep, SEVENTY-FOUR times in this book I found myself nodding so vigorously that I just had to bookmark the page for later reference. Sometimes it’s because Andi Zeisler had perfectly put into words a concept I already firmly believed in; other times it’s because she stated the exact opposite of what I thought—but argued it so convincingly that I couldn’t help but change my mind.
We Were Feminists Once is about the commodification of feminism; in Zeisler’s own words, it’s about the “buying and selling of a political movement”. It confronts the “marketplace feminism” that we can buy on t-shirts, or on underwear, or that’s become a buzzword to sell films; the one everyone hoped would be a “gateway feminism”; the one that’s at least got everyone talking; the one that’s got to be a good thing, right? In other words, it confronts the feminism that I have been co-opting and wearing proudly—and shows it up as ineffectual at best, and at worst, actively damaging.
It was easy to keep nodding along happily when Zeisler criticises White Feminism, or the HeForShe-style feminism that puts appeasing male fragility at the top of the agenda (above actually getting shit done), or the absurd focus on pubic hair as the crucial feminist issue of the decade. But when Zeisler takes on “empowerment” and “choice feminism”—two catchphrases you’d have found me spouting as recently as last week—it became a little harder to read. Not because Zeisler’s writing was any less sharp and hilarious—but because it forced me to admit I have been taking the easy route to feminism.
Admittedly, I’ve been falling out of love with choice feminism lately. I recently wrote about turning back on my stance that wearing make up is a feminist choice—and I clung defensively to that knowledge to avoid sinking too deeply into a quicksand of guilt. But all the pathetically non-intersectional personal essays I had penned not too long before (and thankfully, never published) on my right to make seemingly unfeminist choices in the name of feminism became a source of shame when I read this line: “Defining ‘feminist’ as ‘a woman who lives the life she chooses’ is great if you’re a woman who already has choices.”
Despite its take-no-prisoners exposure of our own participation in diminishing feminism, We Were Feminists Once is wonderfully accessible. Andi Zeisler never goes too far in the other direction; she never slides into the habit that I so despise of blaming women for their individual choices. A woman who willingly conforms to what the patriarchy expects of her is not single-handedly responsible for setting back the feminist movement—but she is not advancing it, either. A woman’s right to make choices—and to make those choices without being sucked into a political battlefield—is certainly one thing feminism is fighting for, but it is not feminism itself. (Not convinced? Ask yourself why the biggest focus on what is “empowering” today remains perfectly in line with pre-existing patriarchal notions. It’s not particularly radical to repackage existing beauty standards as feminist choices. It’s meaningless—or, more sinisterly, it’s a way of silencing real activism.)
Zeisler’s arguments are grounded in some seriously impressive research into the history of the movement: the disturbing reasons for why it first became an unpopular word, the brief hopeful reemergence in the ’90s, and the depoliticising of it over the last few decades. Witnessing, through her excellent storytelling, feminism’s slow decline into the popular but empty buzzword that it has become today is illuminating, shocking, and enough to make us want to be Riot Grrrls once more.
This book changes everything—at least for those of us who have been too privileged to see how few women “marketplace feminism” actually benefits. For those better-versed in the movement than me, Zeisler’s revelations may come as less of a shock—but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more convincing and well-rounded explanation of exactly where and how feminism “went wrong”. And for those of you who think feminism is something we no longer need—well, Andi Zeisler is here to show you just how long you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes.
We Were Feminists Once is on sale from 3 May in the US, and 19 May in the UK.
*I received a review copy from Public Affairs Books in exchange for an honest review.