Book Review: I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty

Title: I Call Myself a Feminist: The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty
Edited by: Victoria Pepe, Rachel Holmes, Amy Annette, Alice Stride and Martha Mosse
Amazon links: UK, US
Genre: Feminism, Essays

My initial reaction to this book, before even buying it, was regrettable / embarrassing. More on that later. I wanted to mention it up-front to make it clear I’m not ducking it, but it’s important to get to what’s in the book before my reactions to it.

The essays

The book really is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of essays by young (relative to me!) feminist women. Between the essays there are a few quotes, but each stands alone: if there’s intended to be a path from one to the other, it was lost on me. However, there’s an introduction which acts as an extra essay in some ways – and the absence of one specific direction doesn’t feel like a lack so much as an opportunity for a very diverse set of essays. Indeed, I’d say the variety is actually a primary feature setting this book apart from some other books I’ve read. A multiplicity of authors naturally leads to a range of voices, styles and experiences – but it’s more than that. It allows each essay to be very personal about what especially matters to that particular woman.

I’m pleased to say that not all essays sat easily with me. Some included points that I plain disagreed with (usually alongside others that I did agree with) but others were simply more challenging in terms of a different experience of life. I generally feel that if a book only goes along with my existing experience, I probably don’t learn much from it. Of course, at the other extreme, if I can’t connect with an author’s viewpoint at all, that’s not much use either. A few essays within “I Call Myself A Feminist…” felt like simple common sense (which is at least reassuring) but plenty were challenging and stretched me. (Even if there’s resistance to the stretching, planting the seeds for future change can be positive.)

I’m not going to point out which essays I had mixed feelings about, but I’d like to draw particular attention to a few which stood out for me:

  • “Manifesto for feminist intersectionality” by Jinan Younis. Intersectionality and trans+ discrimination are topics where I’m particularly lacking in personal experience and meaningful understanding.
  • “What can men do to support feminism?” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Naturally something I’d want to know about, of course – and I certainly recognize some of the criticisms there. (I try hard to hold back at local Women’s Equality Party meetings, but I’ve a long way to go.)
  • “A typical engineer” by Naomi Mitchison. Again, as an engineer interested in diversity in my field, this was always going to hold particular interest for me. The author’s consideration of the Typical Engineer is a problem beyond gender diversity, and the stereotype can encourage some actively harmful traits – but that’s a topic for a different time.
  • “Staring at the ceiling – it’s not always as simple as yes or no” by Abigail Matson-Phippard. While I can see the benefits in trying to make consent “as simple as yes or no” the reality is more complex, and it’s good to see this explored. (Again, I’m only encountering this whole topic from a position of ignorance, but a lot rings true in here.) Louise O’Neill has also written about this in the Irish Independent: “Blurred lines: when it’s not rape but it’s not right”.
  • “Islam is my feminism and feminism is my Islam” by Maysa Haque. Amidst all the negativity and prejudice around Muslims of late, this is a wonderfully refreshing essay of personal growth within both feminism and Islam.

Looking through the essays again for this review – it feels like an age since I read them first, despite being less than two months in reality – I was reminded of just how much I enjoyed the glimpses into their lives that the authors shared. One of the nice things about a collection of essays is that it’s easy to dip into at any time, although I fear the impact on my ever-growing reading list if I do so…

Initial reaction

Here’s the part I’m embarrassed by. When Louise O’Neill first retweeted the launch of the book, I replied asking whether it would have been impossible to find just one man’s voice to include in the book, to explicitly include male feminists too. I’d missed the point.

Of course it would have been possible – but why should the editors feel any duty to do so? Not every book needs to be specifically for every possible reader… something I’ve already been annoyed about in the opposite direction, when reviews for C# in Depth complain that it’s not suitable for beginners (something it doesn’t try or claim to be). So why the hypocrisy here? Recognizing this felt like a giant red “check your privilege” stamp coming down from the sky onto my forehead.

I still believe it would be reasonable to have a similar collection of essays from male feminists. I do think feminism is stronger when supported by men too, and that reading about other men’s experiences, feelings and difficulties can be helpful. I believe that can be done without taking anything away from the more-obviously-crucial writing of women about feminism.

But that doesn’t mean I have any right to demand that of the editors and collators of this book. Instead, it feels natural that if I want to see such a book, I should be part of making it happen. I’m imagining a smaller collection, distributed for free. I have no plan at the moment – no list of people to ask, no covering letter, nothing. Writing down the intention feels like a good start, and we’ll see whether anything comes of it.

Conclusion

I suspect I’m going to get sick of ending my book reviews by “thoroughly recommending” the book in question, but I have no hesitation in doing so here. It’s possible that more “seasoned” feminists may have read something similar to each of these essays before, but as a relative newcomer I found plenty to chew on. Even the essays which only reinforced my existing thoughts were refreshing through their sheer vitality.

Great stuff – and I shall attempt to check my privilege next time…

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jonskeet

Mad props to @arcaderage for the "Princess Rescue" image - see https://toggl.com/programming-princess for the full original

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