Review: Think Like a Feminist: The Philosophy Behind the Revolution by Carol Hay
A timely book that affirms the need to review where feminism is headed, Think Like a Feminist is clear-sighted about patriarchal structures that favour men but appears tokenistic towards decolonial feminists and almost entirely ignores the considerable writing being done outside the US
“Something has changed. Only a few years ago we found ourselves collectively able to live with those who would explain away the ‘locker-room talk’ of the man who would go on to become the President of the United States…”
This refreshing observation kicks off Carol Hay’s Preface to her timely book, setting its tone and affirming the need to review where feminism was headed. That catalytic “Something” was the MeToo movement which “laid bare the elephant in the room” as skeletons burst from closets and dirty laundry flapped in the breeze, jolting the complacency that had seemed to infiltrate the women’s movement despite the signals that a great deal remained undone. Hay places issues like sexual harassment and sexual violence in a larger historical and socio-political context to highlight battles feminists have been fighting for hundreds of years. Referring to an op-ed she wrote, she wryly observes that while Freud got no hate mail in classifying women as Madonnas or whores because his opinions were allegedly an “objective” treatment of the subject, her well-founded argument about the difficulties encountered by female professors in being commonly cast as saintly mothers or sexual playthings only made her “immature” and “neurotic”. “I feel sorry for her children,” readers said, “I feel sorry for her students. For her husband.”
Hay is outspoken about how men in general are not the enemy here but rather an interconnected system of sexist norms, habits, expectations and institutions for which women must also take responsibility. These include the qualifying “I’m not a feminist, but…” with which many women prefix the most explicitly feminist statements. Describing this assertion as feminism’s “PR problem” Hay promises to “turn the stereotype of the humourless feminist bitch on its head”. She ironically labels feminism “the F-word” to highlight the undeserved pejorative attributes it has acquired even though it was coined by the philosopher and utopian socialist Charles Fourier at the beginning of the19th century to put forth the view that social progress was connected to the progress of women towards liberty. Fourier had even proposed that children between one and three be dressed alike so that their true talents would have a chance to emerge above those conventionally imposed, and had criticised marriage (“prostitution more or less prettied up”) because it condemned women to conjugal servitude and denied them economic and sexual fulfilment. By the 1890s “féminisme” was commonly used to denote activism for women’s rights, and entered the English language by 1894.
While “The philosophy behind the revolution” may suggest a heavy-handed approach to a very relevant, ongoing contemporary struggle, Hay’s study is readable, illuminating for the most part, frequently wry and ironic, and should be comprehensible even to those sceptical legions who believe feminism is “just a bunch of irrationally angry bra-burning lesbians who want to castrate men and confiscate women’s makeup and high heels”. Hay is at her best when tackling the stereotypes she promises to overturn, focusing on two caricatures that are the most entrenched in the popular imagination: the “Angry Feminist” (a “feminazi”, no less) and the “Girl Power Feminist”. While the first of these in reality is no more than a woman who questions centuries of unchallenged male entitlement, she has been successfully ridiculed as “profoundly unsexy” and “a nasty woman who can’t take a joke”. Since women are by and large conditioned into believing that their primary source of power hinges on their being attractive to men, she is a warning to women who don’t want to be identified as “female harpies”. Televangelist Pat Robertson would even have us believe that angry feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Girl Power Feminism is more about crowing over individual successes rather than focusing on collective action for social change. According to Hay, Girl Power Feminism means corporate women’s leadership events or Beyoncé performing without pants in front of a giant screen emblazoned with the word “FEMINIST” (she does concede that Beyoncé in other manifestations is considerably more than this), while the Spice Girls practically invented the genre. She notes that if the “Angry Feminist” is imaged as having hairy legs, the “Girl Power Feminist” has legs with marketing power which advertising companies can exploit to augment sales. Girl Power Feminism is more readily accepted because it is non threatening. Hay aptly comments on the ways in which sexuality can as much become a form of imprisonment as it can denote the freedom of choice. Women who assert their right to dress provocatively to enhance their sex appeal or who check their hairdo and make-up several times a day often end up prisoners of their own image, subscribing to a preconditioned set of norms that decree what constitutes desirability in a woman.
Hay uses four metaphors (the Birdcage, the Invisible Knapsack, the Prison, and the Traffic Intersection) in her chapter on Oppression, elaborating on these to sum up the different but interconnected ways in which women are oppressed. While cautioning both men and women that ignoring these interconnections makes us complicit in such oppression she is clear-sighted about how patriarchal structures and parables have worked to favour men. She even uses the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to make her point, sardonically observing that while Adam was “kicked out of his parents’ basement and told he has to grow up and get a job” Eve and her descendants were simply “thrown under the bus” en masse, and have remained there since.
Hay is less convincing when she groups feminism into three waves, with each successive wave drawing on the experience of the one/s before. She stops short of any chronology that would definitively mark each phase and seems surprisingly unaware that a broader global historical perspective is sure to throw up more waves and greater complexities than are dreamed of in her philosophy. In discussing the third wave she mentions race, class, and black feminists and decolonial feminist philosophers who critique the way white feminists ignore culture-specific concerns and priorities, but doesn’t go far enough in her analysis. Her references to decolonial feminists appear tokenistic and limited to those located at the centre (in this instance the US), with no mention of the considerable writing being done at the margins, which rather weakens her arguments about racism, classism and privilege. Similarly, while Hay is entertaining throughout in a stimulating and unforced way, she is unable to sustain the thrust and stamina which give the first part of the book its rigour and appeal.
Hay’s book was first published in 2020. In her Afterword to the paperback edition which was published two years later, Hay speaks of how 2020 offered her new perspectives on her subject. Among other things, the pandemic highlighted the extent of social inequities faced by women in particular and Black Lives Matter meant inboxes and social media feeds filled with concern-trolling friends and family (“Who protests during a pandemic?”). Hays counters these concerns with a quote from the celebrated black feminist, activist and lesbian Audre Lord: “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and “Family Fables & Hidden Heresies: A Memoir of Mothers and More”, and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.