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Popular Feminisms

by josie sparrow / August 25, 2020

Image: from a 1978 Big Flame pamphlet on antiracist solidarity and Black movements.

Bad New Times | Books  }
A review of Lola Olufemi’s 'Feminism, Interrupted' and Alison Phipps’s 'Me, Not You'. 6111 words / 25 min read

The difficulty with constructing a popular feminism is that feminism isn’t, and never has been, only one thing. How could it be? Women’s lives—their experiences, identities, challenges and desires—are multiple, and inflected by numerous different circumstances. The feminist wager is that enough of these experiences (particularly of oppression) are common across all women that bonds of solidarity become possible. The feminist problem is that what counts as an experience of oppression is, like so much else, hegemonically defined by those with the most power, to the detriment of those women whose lives and selves, for various reasons, do not fit the hegemonic mould.

The question of how to negotiate this problem is fraught; so much so that most popular feminism in the UK attempts to sidestep it altogether. And so the feminist sections in bookshops tend to overflow with “case studies” on gender bias grounded in the convenient notion that there exists a singular thing called “women’s bodies”; or with books called (apparently without irony) Everywoman, and written by a certain managerially-inclined Member of Parliament whose mother was a senior national-level NHS executive. Contemporary feminism, one might be forgiven for thinking, is an upper-middle-class woman “forcing” the Bank of England to put a woman’s picture on a £10 note, and then, in an apt (albeit unintentional) demonstration of the limits of ‘representation’, donating precisely one (1) of those notes to a woman’s refuge as a launch-day gimmick. Black and trans feminisms excepted, Global North feminist radicalism and resistance often appear to have been entirely hegemonised into a sort of tinkering around the edges of the social order; a production line for books written by members of the ruling class, and in service of their own continued supremacy. The picture looks bleak.

Two recent books attempt to challenge this hegemony, and to reclaim some of the popular feminist space for more radical—or, at least, less self-regarding —ideas. Lola Olufemi’s Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (Pluto Press) wears its intent quite literally on its sleeve: as the title implies, the author has no time for a mass market feminism that reinforces rather than dismantles the networks of power that keep so many of us in our place. Alison Phipps’s Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism (Manchester University Press) takes a different tack, offering a critical cultural analysis of the Anglo-American feminist mainstream. Both authors deal, in their own ways, with the way that many of the most visible British feminists use radicalism as a means of casting their transphobic bigotry as a ‘legitimate concern’; both Phipps and Olufemi have found themselves on the wrong side of organised TERFery. But from this shared point of experience, the books diverge from one another—even the topic of transphobia itself is treated in quite different ways. Each book points towards, I think, its own set of feminist possibilities, and, read alongside one another, the two texts reveal the fault lines running through British feminism in 2020.

The central question illuminated by the contrast between these books is this: are people capable of understanding complicated systems and big ideas, and of relating these to their lives? Or is it necessary to smuggle this content in by creating a unified, generalised concept under which everything can cohere, and then applying that concept to an endless parade of celebrity anecdotes, rolling news headlines, and bad tweets?

Alison Phipps’s Me, Not You takes the #MeToo movement as its catalyst—or, more specifically, the movement’s co-opting (in 2017) by Alyssa Milano and a cohort of Hollywood women. The book opens promisingly, with a reference to the letter of solidarity published in Time magazine by the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a US-based organisation of women farmworkers. This reference acts as a starting point from which Phipps will unfold her account of #MeToo—and the “mainstream feminism” of which she argues #MeToo is a salutary example—as necessarily partial and, in that partiality, reproductive of racialised hierarchies. So far, so good! The more books that rail against the sorts of shallow ‘feminism’ produced by the Guardian/boardroom axis, the better. As a woman who is white and British (though both designations came relatively recently for people like me),1 but also generationally poor, diasporic, and traumatised by abuse and homelessness, I was keen and excited to read a manifesto for doing and thinking differently: a pop-feminism book that didn’t assume the figure of the white, bourgeois, liberal feminist as default. This excitement, however, was not to last.

The ways in which we construct our selves are inescapably political.

The book’s organising concept is that of ‘political whiteness’—a re-conception of a term coined by Daniel Martinez HoSang in Racial Propositions, his 2010 elucidation of how the US State of California (re)produces inequality and racialised notions of identity via. the ballot box.2 This has the potential to be a really useful theoretical tool for analysing the current political conjuncture in the UK, which, as Tom Gann has noted, seems to be based on “a cross-class coalition of whiteness”. Phipps, however, “wants to use this term differently”—her gaze bores into our “inner landscapes” (p.59), and finds us wanting. This is a unifying concept so broad, so general, that it encompasses not only “all white people” (p.61), but also the Ugandan-Gujarati MP for Witham, and avowed Hindutva adherent, Priti Patel (p.60). Setting aside the issue of whether Phipps has the authority to revoke the racial identities of right-wing MPs on the basis of their objectionable views, we might ask: if ‘political whiteness’ can be stretched so far as to include Hindu nationalism, how useful can it be?

I have long argued that our affective lives, our relations with others, and the ways in which we construct our selves are inescapably political. These things not only demand and deserve attention on a par with that directed towards the structural, the geopolitical, and the economic—they are also profoundly and inextricably intertwined with these more abstract factors. I had hoped that Me, Not You might provide an analysis equal to this complexity. Instead, we get a totalising Big Concept, stretched beyond the point of all specificity, padded out with a slapdash array of barely-connected examples, barely-concealed cruelty, and ungenerous misreadings, and centred almost entirely on the US.

There’s no sense here—as in, to name just one example among many, Beyond the Pale, Vron Ware’s 1992 investigation into white femininity3—of whiteness as a state project that incorporates and interpellates subjects, and which, as such, might have local specificities that resist integration into a single, monolithic system. ’Political whiteness’, on this view, appears to be incredibly non-political. I’m unsure what Phipps’s reconfiguration of the term does (or is intended to do) that isn’t already achieved by the term ‘whiteness’, other than to sound slightly more grandiose, slightly more novel.

This academic compulsion towards conceptual innovation calls to mind Nicos Poulantzas’s critique of “the typically escapist phenomenon of large-scale systematisations”. Rather than undertake the difficult, careful, time-consuming work of examining things closely, he argued, theorists turn instead to “the vague and nebulous theorisations of an extreme generality and abstractness that claim to lay bare the great secrets of History, the Political, the State, and Power”. Crucially, they do this “by cheerfully flooding the concept market with…grandiose terroristic and mystifying Notions”. I think that ‘political whiteness’, in this instance, is one of these Notions, and I agree with Poulantzas when he observes that “the genuine problems are too serious and complex to be resolved by pompous and ultra-simplistic generalisations that have never succeeded in explaining anything whatsoever.”4

The totalising, binaristic view necessitated by the insistence on a grand central concept is the book’s main problem. It limits Phipps’s ability to think flexibly; it backs her into corners that she then has to perform all sorts of strange contortions to get out of (cf. the Priti Patel incident mentioned above). The chapter devoted to the unfolding of ‘political whiteness’ resembles less a worked-out theoretical framework than a series of barely-cohered fragments, mostly in reaction to things on Twitter. (There is a shockingly careless moment where the author comes perilously close to accusing rape survivors discussing their experiences on a Twitter hashtag of performing “imperilled white femininity”.)

Underpinning much of the argument seems to be an unquestioned, authentocratic presupposition that marginalised people simply aren’t capable of caring about, or having discerning opinions on a broad range of cultural objects: that certain things are, as the cliché goes, ‘first world problems’, detached from ‘real life’. This is not only demonstrably incorrect; it’s also dehumanising. It’s correct that interventions on the level of popular culture should never be the limits of our feminism. It’s also correct that marginalised people are, like anybody else, eminently capable of caring about more than one thing or thinking on more than one register. When I was homeless, I looked at the flowers, at the stars; I read the papers or trashy magazines in the newsagent until I was kicked out; I got silly songs stuck in my head. Life goes on, even when it’s hard.

Caring about Page 3, we’re told, is, irrevocably, a bourgeois act of political whiteness (never mind the reasons why, say, a working class Scouse woman might support anything that gets the S*n off her campus or out of her staff room; never mind the fact that my own parents opposed it based on a combination of the reactionary politics it espoused, the extreme youth (prior to the Sexual Offences Act 2003) of the models, and “kids shouldn’t be looking at women’s chests” moralism). Caring about something Helen Lewis said about a Rihanna video, on the other hand? That’s praxis. These continual contradictions are bewildering—a sense heightened by unstructured nature of the chapter, and the onslaught of spuriously-connected examples with which we’re barraged. The author lurches from point to point, desperately trying to demonstrate the universal applicability of the concept, as though the more anecdotes she can squeeze in, the more solid the analysis will be. Too often, though, it just reads like personal animus and the relitigation of grudges or irritations.

The attempt at a totalising concept that absorbs and accounts for all contradictions causes other problems, too. Things lose (or are stripped of) their specificity and particularity; everything is reducible to a set of fairly pat clichés that read as though they could have come out of Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling corporate diversity manual, White Fragility. This sort of literature—even when it makes, as Phipps often (albeit briefly) does, concessions to the idea that there might be something more going on here than manners—ends up reinforcing the entire social order from which racism emerges, and by which racism is reproduced. Small wonder, given that the ‘diversity consultant’ industry depends entirely upon the continued existence both of racism and of well-meaning bourgeois liberals looking to absolve themselves of racism whilst, ideally, continuing to benefit from a racist social order. These well-meaning, good-mannered, affluent white people are affirmed as the sole subjects of history, the only possible political actors, capable of changing the world via the one weird trick of individualist self-criticism. (There’s an essay to be written about the ways these sorts of books and processes mirror the techniques of the self-help market and are written both for and about women—that the racism of white men tends to be framed as at best an immutable force of nature, at worst something that’s the fault of women—but that requires careful handling and plenty of space, and is therefore regrettably outside my scope here.)

I know full well that Phipps doesn’t believe this—I’m familiar enough with her work in general, and even here, there are enough borrowings from the work of Black thinkers like Audre Lorde and Mariame Kaba to make clear her intentions. But the book is unfocused, often careless, and all-too-frequently slips into a register that combines the moralising, faintly Protestant tone of personal guilt and personal redemption with the therapised language of a boardroom diversity presentation.

A difficulty with writing about problems of white supremacy and colonialism within feminism is that one can end up focusing so much on the worlds that produce these problems that the part is taken for the whole, and the problem is replicated. This difficulty, in Me, Not You, persists beyond the problems discussed above. The book is (as I have gestured towards already) deeply, structurally US-centric, despite the fact that its author is British. It isn’t just that Phipps defines “mainstream feminism”, on page 5, as “Anglo-American” (which will be news to, for example, Japanese, Kenyan, and Nigerian feminist movements—all of whom had, amongst myriad others, their own #MeToo moments; it’s unclear whether Phipps holds these movements to be ‘mainstream’, by virtue of their organisation under the #MeToo banner, or ‘not mainstream’, by virtue of not being European or American).

The vast majority of the feminists referenced, be they Black or white, are from the US; likewise movements and moments of social struggle: all American. On page 67, for example, the author refers to Audre Lorde’s “account of race in the feminist movement” (emphasis mine)—a phrasing that makes perfect sense in the context of Lorde’s own writing, but that, repurposed in a grand-sweep book purporting to be about the undoing of supremacist, universalising assumptions, is jarring and frustrating. The idea that there is one, single, monolithic ‘feminist movement’—that Lorde was making a universal, globally-applicable statement, and that to decontextualise and instrumentalise her work in this way is justifiable—is precisely the problem. If we’re going to dismantle these processes of domination, we need to choose and use our language with care. Citations can indeed be, as Phipps quotes from Sara Ahmed, “feminist bricks”5—but for that to be the case, we need to attend carefully to what we’re building, and how, as well as with what.

If we’re going to dismantle these processes of domination, we need to choose and use our language with care.

Sometimes the US-centrism is just bizarre. Throughout the book, US place names with duplicates in the UK, such as Boston, are given without qualification; similarly, it is somehow necessary for the author to clarify that Jess Phillips is a member of the UK Labour Party (p.40; Phipps offers no such situating qualifier on the following page when discussing “the 15th amendment”). Thus we get another rehashing/appropriation of Anita Hill’s experience, but no mention of Diane Abbott, whose abuse at the hands of the very women Phipps seeks to criticise stretches back decades. Jess Phillips (of the UK Labour Party), for example, is both an emblematic white feminist, and Abbott’s most celebrated harasser (see here and here). But where Phillips is mentioned, it’s in relation to her receiving a rape threat (p.28), and her having written a column about Lena Dunham (p.40). She still gets more airtime than Abbott—which, one imagines, is precisely how Phillips likes it.

We get an extended analysis of Hillary Clinton, but one (1) in-passing mention of Margaret Thatcher and a brief discussion of Theresa May (of which more presently). The killing of Joy Morgan (which was religiously and racially motivated) does not appear. Everything is mediated and legitimated through US categories—which is, in itself, a deeply colonial act that risks erasing whole histories of Black resistance outside the US. It also lets white British (and other European) people off the hook, enabling us to continue in our fantasy that racism is something that happens “over there” rather than right here, on our streets, in our workplaces, our Parliament, our media, and our movements.

As Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande argue, in their introduction to their landmark collection of European Black feminism, “if racial injustice is understood on American terms and as an American export, there is no incentive to dismantle the distinct racialised European social order”.6 Throughout Emejulu and Sobande’s book, over and again, authors recount being told by their white European compatriots that there’s no need for them to struggle against racism; that Black liberation and anti-Black racism are US issues.7 Emejulu and Sobande explain:

Because the United States is the global hegemonic power, it imposes and transmits its values and culture across the world… Black American culture is a key way the United States exercises its soft power… and has a tendency to crowd out and misunderstand other histories and understandings of Blackness and resistance. For example, pretty much everyone knows the basic story of the American Civil Rights Movement and some of its key players from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. However, the same popular knowledge does not exist about liberation struggles outside (and against) the United States… These dynamics are re-enforced by the domination of the English language, which further preferences American, and, to a lesser extent, British texts.8

It’s disappointing to encounter—in a text written with the intentions of de-centring feminist thought and practice, and of destabilising the dominance of the white bourgeois Anglosphere—the continued reproduction of the same old global hierarchy; a hierarchy that seems to be actively detrimental to the causes of Black liberation in non-US contexts.

These slippages make the book feel stifling, alienating, and most of all, vague—which, frustratingly, gets in the way of the fact that Phipps’s arguments are, for the most part, broadly correct. I found myself wondering: who is the “we” to whom the book is addressed? How and where do working class, disabled, trans women figure into this framework? Is whiteness a socio-political structure? An ontological condition? Both? Neither? Something else entirely?

Phipps makes occasional concessions to class issues, but even these are not consistent: it reads as though she qualifies “white” with “bourgeois” only when she remembers—which isn’t very often. On one page, we’ll find Phipps acknowledging that working class women of all heritages suffer at the hands of this elusive ‘political whiteness’; a few pages later, she’s back to generalising the experiences of a small set of privileged women across every single woman who can be read as white. (There’s no real discussion of women of mixed heritage—another unexamined inheritance from US thought, which by virtue of its own situation has developed in response to the ‘one drop’ philosophies of the blood quantum and Jim Crow.) We learn, too, that we (those of us who are white; that is to say, the book’s entire intended audience) are without exception “narcissists” (passim) who “spend a lot of our time engaged in outrage about the misdeeds of other people” (p.81) rather than looking critically at our own behaviours. Questions of motes and beams aside, I honestly fail to see how these points were necessary to the argument—there’s no real unfolding of what a structural or collective narcissism might look like; just Alison Phipps pointing at an Alyssa Milano tweet and saying, “that’s you, that is”. What’s happening here that couldn’t have been described—as Adrienne Rich did, in 1979—as the less pathologising “solipsism”?9 (Exploring the contradictions of white feminism via a venerated figure like Rich, who was apparently capable of standing in solidarity with Black women at precisely the same moment she was advising Janice Raymond on her hateful little book The Transexual Empire, would have made for a much more interesting book.) The repeated diagnosis of narcissism feels like an attempt to ontologise and pathologise a set of very specific behavioural and political choices, and it sits very uncomfortably with me.

A particularly excruciating example of this dynamic can be found on page 62, where Phipps makes the (unreferenced) claim that “most of us live and work in predominantly white communities, which means we hardly, if ever, enter a space where we don’t belong.” There are a few problems with this statement. Firstly, this once again feels like an uncritical adaptation of US theory, where histories of segregation, redlining, and ‘white flight’ mean that many communities are, indeed, divided along racial lines. But the first part of that statement has never been true for me—nor, I suspect, for the majority of working class people living in England (many of whom are, shock horror, not white). Equally alien is the notion that I am unlikely to enter a space where I don’t belong—and I suspect trans and disabled people (again, many of whom are not white) will have similar reactions to this borderline-offensive, anti-intersectional claim.

Finally, this thoughtless deployment of ‘us’ has a double effect. Firstly, by projecting her own (one assumes) life experiences onto others, under the unscholarly presumption that those experiences are somehow neutral or generalisable, Phipps interpellates the reader into a whole regime; a regime for which they are then blamed, castigated, and burdened with the responsibility for. At the same time as this drawing-in, it pushes the reader away, excludes them, tells them that their lives and experiences are, if they do not conform to this rubric, effectively impossible. This disciplinary dynamic will impact most strongly on those of us whose lives resist the cheerful totalisation of Phipps’s universalising system.

None of this, to be clear, is to say that racism in England doesn’t exist (what a ridiculous claim that would be), or that whiteness isn’t hegemonic, or even that working class white women are somehow exempt from whiteness (we are very much not)—only that I deeply wish that Phipps could have considered and engaged with some of the geographical and economic contradictions and specificities, and the ethical impacts of her haphazard methodology, rather than taking this one-size-fits-all approach.

As might be obvious, it’s this lack of consideration which, for me, marks the book. There’s a heedless cruelty, a lack of comradeliness or even basic humanity, pervading the text. Where we could have had a thoroughgoing critique of the repressive racism of the British state and the uses it makes of whiteness, we get (on page 70) a slightly mocking description of Theresa May’s “white tears”. On the one hand, I’m not enormously keen to come to the defence of Theresa May, who is probably one of the worst people in the world. On the other, I wonder what possible advantage this sort of sneering, individualised cruelty could offer a movement that, for me, needs to be encouraging less ‘resilience’, less brutalisation. The claim, too, that May’s tears “washed away” her various crimes and misdeeds rings false to me. Those of us who have struggled for the closure of Yarl’s Wood remember what she did. Those of us who were, and are, incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood, or other detention centres—or whose friends and families have been—remember it. Those of us who lived in communities around which May sent her vile ‘Go Home’ vans, communities where austerity isn’t just a rhetorical point to be scored against perceived enemies, remember what she did. One misjudged, reviled, and swiftly-deleted tweet from Women’s Aid—and this is the whole extent of Phipps’s ‘proof’ for her contention—does not a wholesale revision of history make. We might ask, once again, exactly who the subject of history is taken to be, that an assertion like this could be made.

In a similar vein, there’s an incredibly ungenerous (and borderline dishonest) reference to Catharine MacKinnon. Phipps clearly dislikes MacKinnon’s work—something which is both fine and understandable. Her positions on sex work, for example, are patronising, stigmatising, moralistic, and harmful. What is not fine or understandable, however, is the level of misrepresentation to which Phipps subjects MacKinnon in service to her Big Concept. On page 64, Phipps writes:

in her 1991 essay ‘What is a White Woman Anyway?’, Catharine MacKinnon argued that white women’s subordination had been trivialised by the critiques of women of colour.

I want to be as clear as possible about this: that is not what MacKinnon says. While I do not agree with all of her essay (and some of it I find just plain wrong), its name— which, I should add, Phipps has (deliberately?) curtailed as a means of scoring her point—and opening pages set out its theoretical scope clearly. ‘From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?’10 argues that feminist lawyers (its intended audience) ought to be engaged not in abstract legalistic discourse, nor in extrapolating from received wisdom, clichés, or social norms, but rather in direct materialist study; in “cohering the theory of ‘women’ out of the practice of ‘women’”11—a process which, one can imagine, might require the development of a working definition of ‘white womanhood’. (Philosophy lesson #1: Define Your Terms!) It’s also important to note that this essay was written in the early 90s, at a time when Judith Butler’s recently-published Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was sparking intense discussions around precisely how useful the category of ‘woman’ was as an organising concept. MacKinnon is clearly trying to think through this conundrum, to square her life’s work, both as a second-wave feminist and a lawyer, against these new challenges. Her continuing and unwavering support of trans women is further evidence of this thoughtfulness. Taken in this context, her attitudes towards sex work and sex workers seem not only objectionable, but wilfully so.

To advance a critique of MacKinnon, then, is justifiable. But at no point during this essay does she accuse women of colour of trivialising white women’s oppression. Quite the opposite, in fact. On page 18, for example, she says this:

if a theory is not true of, and does not work for, women of colour, it is not really true of, and will not work for, any women, and… it is not really about gender at all. The theory of the practice of Mechelle Vinson and Lillian Garland, because it is about the experience of Black women, is what gender is about.12

As far as I can tell, there are three possible causes of Phipps’s regrettable mischaracterisation of MacKinnon’s argument—none of which are particularly comfortable to consider. Firstly: she has read the essay, but didn’t understand it. (This seems unlikely, given her academic accomplishments.) Secondly: she has read the essay, understood it, but chosen to misrepresent it for reasons unknown. (I would hope, given her feminist commitments, that this was not the case: again, attention to how we build is important!) Thirdly: she has not read the essay, but has read somebody else’s misreading of it and incorporated that wholesale, without attribution, into her book. (This is perhaps the most uncomfortable possibility.) Whatever the truth may be, her readers deserve far better care than this.

I admire and respect Phipps; I think her feminist praxis is excellent, and I imagine she’s a great teacher. I desperately wanted to like this book—and I do want to note that the chapters on white feminism as war machine and transphobia largely (though not entirely) avoid these sorts of slippages and are far more readable and engaging as a result. This sort of analysis at book length would be enormously welcome; so too would a collection of essays (which might liberate her from the need to devise and adhere to a grand concept). There’s definitely a brilliant Alison Phipps book to be written about white feminism, and I’m sad to write this review. I can only hope my critiques can be heard in the spirit they’re intended.

Me, Not You promised so much, but ultimately left me feeling scolded and disempowered—as though the author had attempted to work therapeutically through her own bourgeois white guilt by eviscerating those of us with significantly less power and privilege than she—and wondering, really, who this book is intended for. Reading it now, even though it’s only a few months old, it feels like a relic from another time—a time in which individual self-criticism alone, rather than revolutionary solidarity towards the dismantling of all systems of domination, was taken to be the solution to racism. Of course we should avoid reproducing racism; of course our relationships and our behaviour matter; of course we should challenge ourselves to do better, to prefigure the kind of world we want to make. But, sadly, I’m just not convinced that this is the way to make the argument—nor that individualised critique or domineering, top-down authority-mongering is sufficient to the task that lies before us. As Catharine MacKinnon writes (and, again, I fervently wish she’d take her own advice when it comes to sex work):

To write the theory of this practice is not to work through logical puzzles or entertaining conundra, not to fantasise utopias, not to moralise or tell people what to do. It is not to exercise authority; it does not lead practice. Its task is to engage life through developing mechanisms that identify and criticise rather than reproduce social practices of subordination and to make tools of women’s consciousness and resistance that further a practical struggle to end inequality. This kind of theory requires humility and it requires participation.13

Lola Olufemi’s Feminism, Interrupted offers just such a participatory approach. What’s unfolded here is a generous form of feminism—something inclusive and collective, both theoretically rigorous and engagingly written. There’s so much of Olufemi herself in the text—her own feminist coming-to-consciousness, her political praxis, her embeddedness within local struggles—that reading the book is an incredibly social experience. There’s a warmth, a compassion, and, most of all, a profound belief in the capacities and the goodness of others that is truly prefigurative. Olufemi clearly understands that marginalised people aren’t mere consumers of culture, theory, or political action: we produce these things. Cutting through the dominant discourses, the top-down fiction of a society composed entirely of atomised, antagonistic groups, she chooses instead to elevate the moments of joy, justice, creativity and everyday solidarity that are already occurring. These are offered up as inspiration, education, and invitation: look at what we’re doing, what we’re making together! Join us!

One of the strengths of Feminism, Interrupted is that it isn’t only a piece of political analysis. It’s also a document of Black British women’s organising, full of personal testimonies, interviews, and histories. These personal encounters enrich and support the theoretical arguments, as well as introducing readers to thinkers and struggles that tend, shamefully, to be overlooked on the British left—from Stella Dadzie and Olive Morris to the Grunwick Strike of 1976-8, to name but a few—as well as contemporary testimony from the struggles in Rojava and Palestine, prison abolitionists, migrant justice activists, and so much more. There’s a real sense of the ways in which the local and global, the personal and political, intertwine with one another; with the ways in which any feminism worthy of the name will always connect to other struggles—and will always be primarily located outside what Olufemi calls (on page 11) “the institutionalisation of the study of gender”. There’s also a profound understanding that the work of liberation is quite often something that we have to do against the state, even when it might seem to be ‘on our side’. This work entails a demand for justice, rather than some liberal notion of ‘rights’ bestowed from above; it also requires a critical analysis of state power. Olufemi illuminates these problematics in a way that is engaging and accessible, but never condescending, oversimplified, or clichéd.

Reclaiming Olive Morris from the apparatuses of the state feels a particularly urgent project. In 1986, the year after the 1985 Brixton uprising, Lambeth Council named their Brixton offices after her—a gesture that can be read equally as one of solidarity or placation. Until 2018, Olive Morris House served as a locus from which state repression was meted out to poor, mostly Black women, who would travel there to housing appointments only to be repeatedly denied access to decent, affordable housing. For the past two years, the building has stood empty: the site has been sold to developers (though Lambeth Council have redistributed at least £13m of public funds to those same developers), and 74 private ‘luxury’ apartments are due to be constructed, contributing to the ongoing gentrification of Brixton. It is not clear whether or not the new building will be named Olive Morris House—one can only hope not, as Lambeth Council have dispensed entirely enough violence in her name: violences Morris herself, as a militant housing activist and squatter, would have repudiated and fought against, had she lived.

Some of the best feminist organising has tended to refuse or resist categorisation alongside the Criado-Perez Industrial Complex.

Chapter 6, Art for Art’s Sake, is outstanding even in the context of this excellent book. It demonstrates both the generosity and the radical extent of her feminist vision. In a passage on page 88 that raises questions around who gets to make art, Olufemi concludes not with the usual, tedious calls for ‘greater representation’, but with a demand for a basic redefinition of what it means to create art, to be an artist. She follows this by arguing that radical resistance—the feminist imaginary—is, in its visionary construction of a better world, necessarily creative, and necessarily a form of artistic practice. It’s a truly revolutionary conception, and I look forward to Olufemi unfolding and developing it even further.

This kind of expansive definition of art is something for which I once argued, at a time when I was trying to find a way into the ‘art scene’ with a political and immaterial form of making that was, at the time, deeply unpopular and roundly rejected by fellow artists and curators alike. To see a similar argument made here, more eloquently, and directly connected to liberation struggles, is affirming, energising, and inspiring. Since finishing Feminism, Interrupted, I’ve found myself making art once again—an unblocking of certain pathways for which I am incredibly grateful.

This is what theory can do.

I can easily envision this book occupying, in 30 years, a similar space to that which is occupied by the work of New Left feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal—classic texts that make visible, legible, and accessible the hidden histories of feminist struggle—including the fact that some of the best feminist organising has tended to refuse or resist categorisation alongside the Criado-Perez Industrial Complex. Even if you’re not interested in feminism, read it. Even if you think you have nothing more to learn about feminism, read it. If you have a teenager in your life, give them a copy.

I don’t want to spoil the rest for you—you should read it yourself, let it work its unique magic with and for you. If you need more persuasion, I interviewed Olufemi earlier this year. All I can say, really, is this: we desperately need more books like this, more writers like Olufemi. We desperately need more compassionate attention to the radical possibilities of solidarity, as well as the things that might block that solidarity. Feminism, Interrupted reads like a transmission from the world-to-come, and offers us the beginnings of a map to get there. Most of it, though, we’ll have to figure out for ourselves—together, in love and solidarity. How exciting!


  1. See Chapter 2 of Satnam Virdee’s 2014 Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider (London: Palgrave, pp.9-31) for an elucidation of the ways in which poor Irish people in England were racialised as members of “an inferior Celtic race” until quite recently. This does not, as I have written elsewhere, mean that the racist defence of “the Irish were slaves too!” holds (it doesn’t; we weren’t), or that the oppression of Irish people is comparable to that meted out to Black people (it isn’t), or that Irish and Irish diasporic people haven’t benefitted from our eventual assimilation into whiteness (we have, although it’s important to note that this assimilation occurred far earlier in the US than it did in Britain). What it does mean, however, is that cultural suppression and Anglocentric imperial violence exist on a continuum, and that this understanding can help us to build deep solidarities against whiteness and towards its dismantling. 

  2. Daniel Martinez HoSang. 2010. Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California. Oakland: University of California Press 

  3. Vron Ware. 1992. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History. London: Verso. 

  4. Nicos Poulantzas. [1978] 2014. State, Power, Socialism. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso, pp.20-1 

  5. Sara Ahmed. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p.175 

  6. Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande. 2019. ‘On the Problems and Possibilities of European Black Feminism and Afrofeminism’. In Emejulu and Sobande (eds.) To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe. London: Pluto Press, p.5 

  7. For just a few examples, see Emejulu and Sobande (eds), To Exist is to Resist, pages 53, 189, and 223 

  8. Emejulu and Sobande. ‘On the Problems and Possibilities of European Black Feminism and Afrofeminism’, pp.4-5 

  9. Adrienne Rich. 1979. ‘Disloyal to Civilization’. In On Lies, Secrets and Silence. London: WW Norton, p. 306 

  10. Catharine A MacKinnon. 1991. ‘From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?’ 

  11. Mackinnon. ‘From Practice to Theory’, p.16 

  12. Mackinnon. ‘From Practice to Theory’, p.14 

  13. Mackinnon. ‘From Practice to Theory’, p.14 


Author:

josie sparrow (@ofthesparrows)

josie is a writer, an artist, and a philosopher. Her interests coalesce around the intersection of the poetic and the political, with a particular emphasis on process, relationality, socialism, ethics, ecologies, words, and flowers. Her future plans include dismantling capitalism and co-creating a more beautiful world, with and for others. She is General Editor at New Socialist. You can read more of her work at peachtreepeartree.com.