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Deconstructing Feminism’s Ivory Tower: A Review of Feminism FOR REAL

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

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.

10 thoughts on “Deconstructing Feminism’s Ivory Tower: A Review of Feminism FOR REAL

  1. Thank you for the review of Feminism For Real. As the editor, I’d like to offer some clarity on some troubling errors which could have also been resolved by contacting me first before making these statements in this review:

    1) The book is by no means a “check mark box” of “inclusion”. Those who created, wrote, shouted, screamed, and whispered in this book came to it of their own steam. Meaning that the book does NOT claim to speak to everyone, for everyone, and frankly no book really can. These are our truths – people make of it what they want and take from it what they want – but we aren’t here to push back from the “margins”. These are our truths.

    In fact I’d like to point you to a paragraph on this word “marginalization” that Robyn Maynard wrote about in her chapter “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!”:

    [L]et’s examine [the word] ‘marginalization.’ I’ve always felt wary about the community sector’s use of the word ‘marginalized populations’, but I didn’t always understand why I felt it was so dubious. Now I do: ‘exploitation has always been a better term that ‘marginalization’, because where marginalization just means that people are pushed into, or exist already in, the margins of society, it doesn’t explain how or why. The process of marginalization isn’t intrinsic to the meaning of the word, and ‘margins’ seem to pre-exist, as a natural location for people to inhabit in a society, It seems like something that just accidentally happens, and needs to be fixed by pulling people into some kind of imaginary ‘centre,’ which I imagine is meant to be the middle class or something to that effect. It is a watered down description of the extreme hardships and daily violence experienced by those living in extreme poverty and facing the harshest realities of racism in our society, and it also disguises the reasons for why it takes place. […]
    The ever-decreasing ability for the poor, racialized, and Indigenous to access the basic food and shelter needs that ‘marginalize’ people is not addressed and ‘marginalization’ seems to be a phenomenon that just is. The word ‘exploitation’ is clearer. The process of exploitation is inside of this word, it contains, in its definition, the fact that somebody is being exploited for the benefit of somebody else; it is describing a relationship. And this makes it easier to understand what is meant in stating that the status of racialized, Indigenous, and immigrant women today is ‘structural.’

    2) Having said number 1, it’s also important to note that of the 23 contributors in the book – 9 identify as Indigenous. I don’t know that I would agree completely that the “collection focuses mostly on Indigenous women’s experiences ” because that means that more than half the contributors talked about something else but heck if that’s what you got from it – we as Indigenous women will take up all the space we can – because tell me another book about women’s rights that does that or another publication where people actually critique it asking “where are the Indigenous voices here?”

    3) Absolutely many of the chapters talk about transphobia and in fact Louis Cruz’s chapter about being a “female-man” we jokingly went back and forth saying that we should just call this chapter “Feminism is fucking transphobic!” but ultimately Louis did a much better job of conveying what this means to him being a trans, Two Spirit, self-described “female-man”.

    However big point of error in this review that you need to know – YES THERE ARE TRANS WOMAN WHO ARE PUBLISHED IN THIS BOOK. What I find interesting is that people need to essentially “come out” to be counted and write from there to “prove themselves”. I’m not a liberty to do the naming of who because I have no right to, but I’m wondering why it didn’t occur to anyone here that people might not feel like they need to prove they are a woman in their bio and might just take it up by being themselves, whereas it’s really nobody’s fucking business otherwise. Can trans women not write about anything else but being trans women?

    Please e-mail me next time to clarify.

  2. Jessica Yee: I’m sorry, but you have the expectation that reviewers should run critiques of the book by you to solicit your blessing before publication? That is not how it works.

  3. And you know something? I have not read the book and am not inclined to do so given your ungracious response to what strikes me as quite measured analysis.

    When I review books, I discuss what I read on the page. I do not interview authors or engage in speculative discourse about how they may (or may not) identify. I base my conclusions on the content of the book, as Anna has done. And I certainly do not make sure that the editor approves before the piece runs.

  4. @Kristen Rawls

    Point of clarification for you as well – no where did I say that this reviewer had to run their review by me. Is that sentence you made in your comment even in what I wrote at all? It’s not.

    I cleared up the errors that I felt were troubling in the review itself and suggested that before making claims that “most of the book is about Indigenous women” and “there are no trans women” that an e-mail to check that – also known as fact checking which many journalists and other writers do before publishing something – was in order to avoid this all together.

    And not to worry – I’m not asking you to review the book.

  5. Hi Jessica. I’m the editor here, I will make a note at the bottom of the post about your factual corrections.

    Thanks for the comments.

  6. Look, why should any reader assume that silence equals inclusion? This is almost never the case. In any case, Anna’s more important point is that trans women’s voices “are not well-represented.” And that point stands, whether or not trans women wrote for the anthology. She’s making a point about content, not about the biography of each writer. You have missed the forest for the trees.

    And not to worry – I’m not asking you to review the book.

    I’m very sorry, but you still seem to be operating under the assumption that independent writers and reviewers constitute your PR team. Once again, that is emphatically not how it works. We review books at the discretion of our editors, not the wishes of the writer/editor.

  7. @Kristen Rawls

    I’m not dictating what readers should/shouldn’t do. I’m suggesting that a fact check could have been made which many writers and reviewers do before making conclusions that they have the liberty to check before the publish.

    Also I find it hard to see how I “missed the forrest for the trees” when the reviewer literally said “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.” So again, the reviewer said that trans women are mentioned in several essays but didn’t check with me before saying that there were no trans women who are writers and contributors.

    Which as I clarified in my comment – and again that was the point of my comment, to clarify- there are.

  8. Also – I’d appreciate if you would refute points and statements that I actually make instead of making them for me. Because again, no where in any of my comments did I say “that independent writers and reviewers constitute your PR team”. I didn’t even talk about PR at all.

  9. The editor made the correction as you asked. I am not sure what you’re still going on about then?

    My PR comment: It was sarcasm. Clearly.

  10. @Kristen Rawls

    And clearly – I’m not “going on” about anything. I am responding to your comments as you make them.

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