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.


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…

Book review: Only Ever Yours

Title: Only Ever Yours
Author: Louise O’Neill
Amazon links: UK, US
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

I’ve noted the genre as “Young Adult”, but Only Ever Yours has nothing that feels “young” about it – not once did I feel it had been dumbed down for a youngish audience, either in the ideas expressed or the way in which they were expressed. That seems to a common theme in good YA fiction these days – they’re simply good books which also happen to be suitable for young people. I’m looking forward to my eldest son (about to be 12) finally getting round to reading Only Ever Yours, so we can talk about his own impressions…


I’m going to try to restrain myself from spoilers in this review, but it’s hard to say very much without giving some parts away.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The nature of the apocalypse isn’t made clear, although it is indicated that the population is discouraged from finding out too much about it. After the event, the population is radically smaller, and the nature of reproduction has changed: boys are born, but girls are “designed”. Almost all the action of the novel is set in the School where the girls are prepared for their adult life, which will consist of being a companion, a concubine or a chastity. The first two of these roles are pretty obvious, although “companion” sounds considerably more egalitarian than the reality; the chastities are the teachers in the School. The girls are divided into these roles by the boys in society who are of the same age: the boys choose their companions, with the boy from the most prestigious family having first pick.

The story is told from the perspective of freida, in the months leading up to the Ceremony which marks her graduation from the School, when her future is decided for her. We see her battles with peer pressure, eating and sleeping disorders, friendship, betrayal, romance and more.

That quick description doesn’t really attempt to do justice to the storyline. All I want to get across here is the premise. While the story is compelling, it’s not really what I took away from the book. Perhaps it’s the story that kept me turning the pages, but it’s the atmosphere that haunts me afterwards.

Style and themes

Beyond the initial “what’s going on?” intrigue which is a natural part of the first few pages of any book, the oppressive nature of the world of Only Ever Yours makes itself clear immediately, simply in capitalization. Every girl’s name and every woman’s name is in lower case. When I earlier referred to freida, that wasn’t a typo – that’s how she’s consistently referred to throughout the book, including within her own thoughts. Compare that with the many other aspects of the story which are capitalized – the School itself, room names, web sites, special events, and of course, all the boys’ and mens’ names.

Normally, I’m not a fan of this sort of thing. I think of the normal rules of English as a convention to help convey ideas, to reduce the friction of trying to get inside someone else’s head. Painting a pipe funk colours doesn’t make water flow through it any more easily. (This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a carefully-crafted sentence; it just means I’m not a fan of difference for the sake of difference.) I can only think of a very few times when something which could be regarded as a gimmick has been effective for me as a reader – A Clockwork Orange being the most obvious one. The difference is that while I gave up reading A Clockwork Orange the first time, the change in punctuation in Only Ever Yours is slight enough that it doesn’t make the book any harder to read. It’s not subtle – I doubt that any reader would fail to notice it – but it doesn’t get in the way. Instead, it just constantly reinforces the impression of what’s important and what’s not in this brave new world.

While the capitalization is the most easily-cited example of the way that O’Neill crafts the claustrophobic world of the School, it’s only one aspect. It’s relentless – just when you think it can’t get more depressing, it does. Of course, if it were just grim reading, it would be monotonous and unreadable, but the bursts of joy and creativity that freida experiences just make it more sickening when the system pounds everything positive out of her life. Here, the system doesn’t just consist of the rules of the School, or the strictness of the chastities – it is the competitiveness of the other girls, and even the voice inside freida’s own head telling her she’s not good enough.

O’Neill reinforces what actually happens with what she chooses to describe – the clothes the girls wear are described frequently, but the girls themselves usually only merit comparisons with each other, and even that in a sort of airbrushed, plastic way. (Admittedly the face of the plastic doll on the front cover has no doubt affected my memory of the book, but that just goes to show how it builds as a whole.)

The inner monologue of freida sometimes comes close to full-on rebellion, but I don’t think she ever steps back to question the whole system… she has internalized her fate as simply what life is like for girls. Even without that level of awareness, I got the impression that freida is perhaps unusually thoughtful and inquisitive. I’m not sure whether that was O’Neill’s intent, however – some of the other girls do have distinctive personalities, but we don’t get to see much beneath the surface. (Both isabel and agyness come over well, having said that. How much is that me liking them, and how much is it freida liking them? Hard to tell.)

Obviously the overarching theme of the book is the tyranny of misogyny, and how pervasive it can become. There’s no attempt to excuse it or lessen it – it’s just there, bleeding through every paragraph, casually malevolent. The majority of the book is “man-free” in terms of direct interactions (although clearly not in terms of context) – and although I’d like to write a little about the attitudes shown by the boys later in the book, I think that’s too close to the boundary of spoilers.

The obsession with physical beauty is the strongest manifestation of self-reinforced oppression (for which there’s no doubt a better word), but this is compounded by the absence of anything more intellectually or emotionally stimulating. Learning about nature has to be done on the sly; trying to find out about maths rings alarm bells. Exuberance is suppressed as far as possible.

Reactions and conclusion

I’m very aware that I’ve been gushing throughout this review so far. I know that unrelenting praise can be a bit cloying, so I will say one aspect which niggled: it felt like either I’d misunderstood the population size of the EuroZone (and possibly the world), or there were some inconsistencies there. The TV shows, social media and pharmaceuticals felt like they were part of a much more densely populated world than other aspects of the book led me to believe. As I say, maybe I misunderstood how the system worked somewhat, and it doesn’t impact on the book much at all, given that the vast majority of the story is firmly within the walls of the School.

So did I learn anything? I’m not sure I’d put it that way – but I’d say it’s added to my experience and beliefs around feminism. Unlike O’Neill’s other novel (Asking For It – to be reviewed shortly…) this is set in a fictional future, and doesn’t claim that this is the way the world is right now. It’s hard not to see pretty much every aspect of the misogyny in the book somewhere in our life, however. It’s as if the difference is in concentration – the poison which is pure in Only Ever Yours is diluted by not-so-sucky bits of life in our world. It still acts as a warning though, reminiscent of 1984. I read this book concurrently with Everyday Sexism, which brought everything into fairly miserable focus, but it made it a very contemporary experience. The recent story about Essena O’Neill’s experiences with Instagram – no relation to Louise O’Neill as far as I’m aware – adds more evidence that we should heed the warnings from Only Ever Yours.

To conclude, I’d strongly recommend Only Ever Yours, with the warning that it’s far from a fun read. It’s very dark – but equally gripping and beautifully told. It will stay with me for a long time.