Feminism FOR REAL, edited by Jessica Yee, Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, 2011
Mainstream feminist activism and academics, even in the 21st century, have continued to be overly-invested in conversations about feminist theory without making attendant connections to how race, ability, class and related identity categories affect everyday experiences in peoples’ lives, and how these categories intertwine with gender. Academic feminism in particular has long been critiqued for being exclusionary to those who do not fit the profile of the white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, and non-disabled woman that has come to represent the apparently “normal” feminist scholar. Critiques advanced by groups who have traditionally been excluded from feminism—including women of color, women with disabilities, queer women, trans women, poor women, and non-Western women—have, for the most part, held that the concept of “sisterhood” is in fact problematic, and the emphasis that mainstream feminism has placed upon supposed unity among women worldwide does not exist, and is in many ways exclusionary. Many feminists’ continued insistence that sexism is the most important issue—and one that “all women” must band together to fight first and foremost—has ignored the very differences among feminists and women that have kept feminism(s) so interesting and vital. The professionalization of feminism in the academy has often meant further exclusion and disenfranchisement for many marginalized women, as their experiences are often treated as abstract material for term papers, theses and graduate courses instead of the stuff of their everyday lives.
Feminism FOR REAL, edited by Indigenous activist and writer Jessica Yee, aims to begin carving a space for a feminist practice that places marginalized people at its center, instead of one that encourages us to “uncritically and obediently cheer when white women are praised for winning ‘women’s rights,’ and to painfully forget the Indigenous women and women of colour who were hurt in that same process,” as Yee writes in her introduction to the volume. The pieces that follow each examine how and why mainstream academic feminism has come to occupy such a place in the academy, and how a supposedly progressive ideology that aims to fight for all women has, in some cases, further shoved certain women to the margins and bestowed professional power upon others. In what direction should we go, Yee asks, “when feminism itself has become its own form of oppression?”
The contributors to the book do an admirable job of both outlining some of the problems with contemporary academic feminism and forwarding new inroads for a feminism that is less about uplift for white, middle-class, able-bodied, young women—and more dedicated to a holistic feminist practice shaped by those who have been watching from the sidelines as certain women have attained “liberation” at the expense of others’ livelihoods, struggles and lived experiences. Importantly, the contributors to Feminism FOR REAL demonstrate that the everyday experiences of marginalized people are not just theoretical fodder for the academic Women’s and Gender Studies mill, and that the embrace of a facile feminist “sisterhood” with privileged women at its center does not meet the very diverse needs of women in a variety of circumstances. The writers of Feminism FOR REAL do not just throw around the term “intersectionality” in order to sound appropriately academic; clearly, they live it.
Although this collection focuses mostly on Indigenous women’s experiences within ostensibly “feminist” spaces, many of the experiences so powerfully written about here will likely resonate with many of those who have also found feminist spaces—and the feminist academy—lacking when it comes to actual “inclusion.” Every single piece in Feminism FOR REAL is powerfully written and expertly argued; the pieces included here range from essays, to interviews, to conversations between activists, to poetry. The poems showcased in Feminism FOR REAL are especially powerful; each shows that feminist practice can come in many forms, and “feminist writing” does not have to be strictly academic, inaccessible, or reliant upon theories and concepts that are buried beneath layers of jargon. Shaunga Tagore’s slam poetry piece “A Slam on Feminism in Academia” strikingly conveys the very inaccessibility of many feminist-oriented graduate studies programs to the very people that many seemingly “progressive” programs try to include–often in the name of “diversity”–but which rarely address the actual needs of their minority students:
your ideal graduate student
IS NOT ME
so WHY did you let me through these doors in the first place
if you were just gonna turn around and shove me out?
to fill some quota for affirmative action?
to appear like a progressive program without putting in the effort of actually being one?
Feminism FOR REAL’s project of carving out a new space for a grounded, real life-based feminist practice is mostly effective, but there is a very noticeable and unfortunate absence in the collection as well: the voices of trans women are not as well-represented here as they deserve to be, particularly for an anthology whose premise is so radical. Trans women are mentioned in several essays as one of the groups that would benefit from a more holistic and less theoretical feminist practice, but no trans women writers are among the contributors to the volume itself. Given academic feminism’s extremely problematic history of not only denying the very existence (and womanhood of) trans women, but of some “radical” feminists’ use of the experiences of this group in order to make outdated and harmful claims about gender as a whole, the conspicuous absence of trans women’s voices in Feminism FOR REAL seems to reinforce the continued “outsider” status of trans women in the feminist academy. Inclusion of trans women who have found themselves at odds with academic feminism, and who want to change the “feminist academic industrial complex,” would have added much to Feminism FOR REAL; inclusion of their voices would have bolstered the collection’s overall aim to create a feminist theory and practice that is created and sustained by people traditionally marginalized within feminism itself.
At a length of only 176 pages, Feminism FOR REAL packs quite an impact for such a short volume; much as I would have enjoyed a longer collection, the diversity and topical breadth of the pieces that make up this book is amazing, given its relatively short length. Feminism FOR REAL’s main themes—those of Indigenous feminist practice, and the issues that many marginalized people face within the “progressive” feminist academy—do not cause the essays contained to sound at all one-note or repetitive. Each contributor manages to bring her or his unique perspective to the page, and the collection as a whole is made stronger from such a panoply of voices, opinions, and experiences. However, the pieces are also extremely effective as single essays. Feminism FOR REAL may be a short starting point–and one with some glaring absences–but it is a starting point nonetheless. It is an important call for progressive people unable to uncritically join the we-are-all-sisters model of feminist scholarship to create their own feminist meanings, practices, and radical strategies for change.
Note: Feminism FOR REAL editor Jessica Yee has clarified in the comments that trans women have contributed to the book, and that as 14 out of 23 contributors were not indigenous, the collection is not “mostly” indigenous focused as Anna suggested.