Magazine article Dissent

"I'm Not a Feminist, but . . ."

Magazine article Dissent

"I'm Not a Feminist, but . . ."

Article excerpt

"I'm not a feminist, but . . ." FIGHT LIKE A GIRL: How TO BE A FEARLESS FEMINIST by Megan Seely NYU Press, 2007 279 pp $18

MEGAN SEELY promises fearlessness. At twenty-eight, she was the youngest woman to have been leader of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. Before that, she was the organization's youth coordinator, a position specifically created for her. Now in her early thirties, she gives the impression of a much older author-but one in touch with the current state of the movement. She writes with a very specific purpose: to prepare the next generation of young women-with history, media guidelines, overviews of major issues, and techniques of activism-to bravely tackle the unique challenges of feminism in this generation.

Perhaps the ultimate test of a book of this sort is the reader's political reaction: did I feel ready, after reading her tips and suggestions for organizing rallies, writing press releases, and doing media interviews, to put on an event of my own? Did I feel fearless? Hardly. Going in with a basic working knowledge of feminism (and having come, like Seely, from a feminist California household), I felt that many of my vague fears about being a gender activist had been replaced with concrete examples of what could, in fact, go wrong-and what has, in fact, gone wrong. Seely writes about her own experiences-so that we can, armed with her "war stories," join the battle prepared for what might happen. But there are more pages here dedicated to problems than to solutions.

The most glaring problem has to do with feminism's public image-which has turned off many a would-be activist and seems to be the main reason that third-wave feminism has not yet come into its own. Put simply, feminism-for my generation-is not cool. Not only is it considered passé but-even worse-it is something our mothers did. Media and popular culture have narrowed the definition of "feminist" to the embodiment of what young, straight women in an image-conscious, homophobic culture are most afraid to be called. Seely is aware of the difficulties this poses, and she gives the issue a prominent place: chapter one, page one, first word (under a heading "Feminism"): Bitch. This is followed by "Fat. Ugly. Dyke. Man Hater. Bra burner. Hairy. Butch. Loud. Militant. Radical. Angry." Asked what words they associated with feminism, this is what Seely's survey respondents came up with. Because feminism has become a movement criticized for its image, not its tenets, and because the majority of Americans believe in gender equality yet criticize feminists, the result is the "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." generation-one that believes in gender equality but is embarrassed by the label.

Putting aside the question of whether it is wise to begin the book this way, this intimidating list isn't followed by responses and remedies. Explanations, yes. Analysis and paragraph-long arguments, sure. But what to say to skeptical classmates, colleagues, or even co-conspirators? Sadly, no. Phyllis Chesler wrote, in her Letters to a Young Feminist, "If you're on the right track, you can expect some pretty savage criticism. Trust it. Revel in it. It is the truest measure of your success." The criticism is brutal, but I'm not sure it means we're succeeding. Mainstream peers are armed with a plethora of knee-jerk, anti-feminist reactions-some of which Seely reprints. Many have accepted as truth Rush Limbaugh's claim that "Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream."

Especially because of her emphasis on speaking in sound bites to the media, one craves, after reading this first chapter, sound bites for everyday, semipublic relations. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future offered some concrete advice: when someone makes an absurd statement about feminism, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner suggest, ask them to cite what, specifically, they're referring to. That's what I hoped for from Seely. …

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