A Life’s Work

Living a Feminist Life BY Sara Ahmed. Duke University Press. 310 pages. $95.

The cover of Living a Feminist Life

When asked "What made you a feminist?," I have to search my memory to locate some story that might be easily shared, and this is the one that at times has sounded good enough: I found feminism between the first two documents I came across that seemed to take the word for granted. One was a copy of Ms. magazine, the other a sex-toy-and-porn catalogue from a store called Good Vibrations. At the time, in 1993, when I was in my teens, one could imagine a feminism that occupied the uncertain, unmapped space between the two—between, loosely speaking, a second and a third wave. That's where I've pictured myself whenever I've had occasion to tell this story, as if I'd taken up that position through some conscious effort, by placing those two stapled sets of papers on either side of me. If that space was somewhat ill-defined, what lay outside its bounds was much clearer. The first issue of Ms. I remember reading had a cover story on the wars in the Balkans that described tanks "plastered with pornography." I don't know whether these porno-tanks were real or existed only in the imagination of the article's author, and now in mine, where they are forever stuck. Certainly, the writer—Catharine A. MacKinnon—had not seen them with her own eyes, but she was nonetheless prepared to use them as propaganda. What better way to bolster her long-held conviction that porn constituted a form of misogynist violence than to present evidence that it was being actively used as a tool of wartime rape and genocide?

It happened that, while I sat alone in a public library reading her claims, the story's author was the subject of a protest vigil at a university about twenty minutes away. Harvard students wanted MacKinnon, a tenured law professor at the University of Michigan, to be offered a tenured position at Harvard Law as well. If she was refused—as she was, a few months later—it would be a sign of sexism in hiring, something for which there was already plenty of good evidence. Her Ms. story left me with questions, but that year it would never have occurred to me to contact MacKinnon and ask her anything, let alone challenge her authority. She knew exactly what the experience of women in the Balkans meant, and the rest of us knew what her experience meant, too: MacKinnon's career advancement would automatically count as an advance for women in general. When I was a teenager, feminism seemed to me already sanctified. Packaged within Ms., its own magazine, it had an air of completeness—it evidently did not need any contribution from me. Feminism was an expert's guild, issuing its statements in strong language that made clear there was no space or time for equivocation or internal disagreement. To be a feminist was to read and be convinced and made ready to read more. Consuming feminist media is perhaps what "made" me a feminist, but I did not know what I was being made into.

If MacKinnon in Ms. represents one form of overconfidence, there is also another, more recent iteration with origins in the third wave. As blogging went mainstream in the aughts, a small circle of feminist bloggers—mostly straight, thirtyish or younger, American, and living on the coasts—was elevated along with it to the status of regular columnists. This was, some guessed, mostly a symptom of a media economy in which first-person politics happened to hit a sweet spot: both affordable for publications (so much cheaper than reporting) and popular enough with readers to keep them coming back. The audiences feminist bloggers had built for themselves in the years when mainstream publications were not paying them much attention were now a major part of their value to those same publications. The result was a feminism that could fit comfortably into eight hundred words once or twice a week: intimate, quippy, and light on context. And, almost always, white. What has evolved from this is a mini-industry (one you could say I'm playing into right now), in which feminists are always telling again some personal story of what feminism is and—most of all—how to be a feminist. The likes of Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters (2007) and the memoir Sex Object (2016), and Caitlin Moran, who wrote How to Be a Woman (2011), joined by a steadfast crew of feminist contributors to the opinion pages of the Guardian and the New Statesman, are all on the beat, regularly instructing women in how to know if we're doing feminism right.

Feminism is often transmitted through personal narratives, and of course stories, by their nature, tend to leave things out, and to cover up what (or whom) they've excluded. The usual feminist origin story unfolds as a series of firsts: first feminist book read, first feminist action attended. Or a series of wounding rites of passage: first grope, first shaming, first rape. But a better and more challenging question than "What made you a feminist?" might be "What makes you a feminist?" Sara Ahmed's new book helps put the feminist origin story into the present tense. Living a Feminist Life is a work of embodied political theory that defies the conventions of feminist memoir and self-help alike (as well as the strikingly common, and problematic, tangling of the two), even as it draws from Ahmed's own experiences as an academic and a diversity worker within the university. Ahmed has no interest in packaging tales of personal achievement and the intimate costs of being a feminist in an unfeminist world in order to burnish her credentials, nor in producing a blueprint for a supposedly correct feminism. She uses everyday experience to complicate and interrogate the assumptions and certainties of feminist theory rather than to shore them up. Unconcerned with lecturing anyone on how to be a feminist—as if we could attain that state by adherence to a certain dogma or by possessing certain personal qualities—Living a Feminist Life makes visible the continuous work of feminism, whether it takes place on the streets, in the home, or in the office. Playful yet methodical, the book tries to construct a living feminism that is neither essentialist nor universalist.

Ahmed is a scholar and the author of seven previous books (including Differences That Matter, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Queer Phenomenology, and On Being Included), but I first got to know her work through her popular Feminist Killjoys blog, which she began writing alongside this new book. Feminist life, as Ahmed describes it, is defined by breakdowns and breakthroughs (those we inherit and those we continue to experience). She calls these "snaps": moments of refusal, when we cannot endure or uphold something any longer. Often, those who refuse will be accused of creating the problem they are responding to—because they have drawn attention to it. But every snap is preceded by a long history. In 2016, Ahmed used her blog to document her resignation from her post as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest at the institutional failure to adequately address sexual harassment, despite the work that she and others had been doing to bring the extent of the problem to light. (She also resigned from her job as professor of race and cultural studies.) "Sometimes," she wrote, "we have to leave a situation because we are feminists."

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We have received orders not to move), 1982, photograph in artist's frame, 69 3/4 × 47 1/2". © Barbara Kruger, Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We have received orders not to move), 1982, photograph in artist's frame, 69 3/4 × 47 1/2". © Barbara Kruger, Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Part of the book's project is to assert the generative value of words and actions that could seem merely destructive or negative—resigning, refusing, rejecting. One of Ahmed's most striking decisions in this regard is to not cite any white men at all. This explicit commitment is a gesture of refusal, but one designed to make room for what is usually ignored. Feminism is about who gets the credit and, more often, who doesn't. Or as Ahmed defines it, in more embodied terms, "Citational privilege: when you do not need to intend your own reproduction." In other words, citations breed more citations, so the lucky few whose work is already accepted as central will never need to spend time promoting it. Ahmed opens her book by quoting an axiom from Flavia Dzodan, who wrote in 2011, "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit." This was a line drawn in the sand at a time when the feminist writing of white, well-networked women was being rewarded with steady gigs and book contracts (my own book contract could be considered one of these), while Dzodan and many others whose ideas fed feminism's creative resurgence online continued to do their work largely unrecognized and for free. In August 2016, Dzodan offered an update to her cutting slogan: "My feminism will be capitalist, appropriative and bullshit merchandise." In the intervening years, while she had struggled to make a living as a writer, she had watched as her signature demand for intersectional feminism was printed and sold on tote bags, pins, and coffee mugs. "It was bizarre to see my name in pink fonts," she wrote, "when the entirety of my work has been against the commodification of feminist ideas and the misuse, appropriation and subsequent lack of credit of feminism of color."

Feminist work that takes place outside the media marketplace can be hard to see. At least since Ms. incubated in the folds of New York magazine, feminism has depended on the media to reproduce itself. Feminists are people of the book, too. Ahmed writes closely alongside "companion texts," in a nod to Donna Haraway's "companion species" (for me, this also evokes Maggie Nelson's "many-gendered mothers of my heart" in The Argonauts). The book is where the feminist goes for renewal and recognition, and that is what makes the conscious effort to excavate and protect these lineages so important. What Ahmed names "citational privilege" is one reason why I did not know, until I began to write this, the names of any Croatian feminists. From reading MacKinnon in Ms. so many years ago, I did not learn that Croatian writers had already advanced their own theories of pornography and feminism and war—in Start, a magazine MacKinnon branded pornographic in her piece—or that they had paid a significant price for doing so, denounced as traitors and "witches." I did not know that in 1994 Croatian journalist Vesna Kesic, in response to the Ms. article and its promotion by American and international news outlets, had protested MacKinnon's erasure of feminists like her in the region and charged her with "objectifying victims for political gain." MacKinnon had used the actual war those women lived through (and others lost their lives in) as a platform on which to restage her decades-old war against pornography, and their objections went mostly unheard. Here was another space between two stories that I didn't know existed, because only some feminist narratives are widely reproduced and reinforced, while others are left to be "discovered" later, if at all.

"Citations can be feminist bricks," Ahmed writes. "They are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings." She recalls that it wasn't until the second year of her Ph.D. program that she was introduced to the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. "Here was writing in which an embodied experience of power provides the basis of knowledge. . . . I began to appreciate that theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin." Feminists of color, and black feminists most critically, had been offering up much-needed truths about marginalization and how to fight it—but, because their work was itself marginalized, those truths had not been available to Ahmed. And as with Flavia Dzodan's, the ideas put forth by these writers, when they were transmitted at all, were often undermined or distorted in the process. In mainstream feminism, Lorde in particular is sometimes reduced to a kindly spirit, her words about self-care as "an act of political warfare" stripped of their context (her work of resisting anti-blackness), softened and made safe as they move through predominantly white, straight, middle-class spaces.

Sometimes we are left to cope with a feminism that feels less like politics than like part of the built environment, a structure that was set up before we got here and that we must now inhabit without question or challenge—even though many of us don't fit inside. Ahmed interviews diversity workers in universities who describe what they do as a "banging your head on the brick wall job": Your implicit role is often to make it look as if sufficient efforts are already being made; calling attention to the resistance you encounter in this work only produces yet more resistance. A feminist life, Ahmed writes, involves the exposure of these walls, of whom they exclude and how. It also means building shelters outside them, though these are always incomplete, because feminist spaces inevitably reproduce some of the same divisions and imbalances that exist elsewhere. "This is why the feminist killjoy does not disappear when we are building feminist shelters," Ahmed writes.

That idea is key to her double definition of the "feminist killjoy": She is someone who confronts head-on the obstacles she encounters within feminism, not just outside it—and so she is "a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy." The most fruitful feminist work is often done by those who are most embattled and undervalued within feminism, who are frequently considered "a sore point." This, Ahmed notes, is "encountering the problem of being the problem. And this is how many women of color experience feminist spaces." And when feminists of color point out that they are excluded by white feminists, or that their ideas are appropriated without credit, they are accused of being divisive. White feminism seeks to preserve and reproduce itself this way, by requiring those it helps marginalize to quiet their criticism. We might call this a border-enforcement policy. It puts the burden of loyalty, solidarity, unity onto those it shuts out.

Ahmed's earliest memories of her own feminism include being, at dinner in her childhood home, "a killjoy at the table." Crucially, her concept of feminism is rooted not in an attempt at consensus, but in an embrace of conflict. For Ahmed, feminism is not a single awakening—it is instead that series of "snaps," fights, breaks, and ruptures. Where some might see infighting, Ahmed sees a skill that individual feminists learn in order to survive, and that also drives further feminist thought as a whole, ensuring its survival. Far from embracing a neat narrative of so-called empowerment, she describes the sense of purpose that can only emerge from negative experience, the clarity of vision that comes when you must look at things from the outside: "Becoming feminist puts us in touch with a world through alienation from a world." Each feminism forced to create itself outside the walls that surround the mainstream can find points of connection to another: black feminisms and queer feminisms and Muslim feminisms, feminist futurists and dystopians. What's outside comes to define the interior; "from margin to center," as bell hooks wrote. "Perhaps," Ahmed offers suggestively, generously, "those who are bad for morale can join forces."

Melissa Gira Grant is a contributing writer at the Village Voice and Pacific Standard and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Verso, 2014).