Three years ago Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune wrote Reclaiming the F Word as a way of rallying and celebrating a new generation of feminists. They were tired of being told from one side that feminism was dead and had nothing to offer the modern world, and from the other that young women today were too selfish and frivolous to carry on the feminist tradition as they ought. Since they and many of their friends were active feminists who continually found their movement ignored or belittled, they wrote a book to point out their own existence and to invite other women to think about why feminism still made urgent sense. Reclaiming the F Word drew on their research into what feminists were actually doing, and what they actually cared about, providing an alternative narrative to the clichés and sneers of the media.
The years since the first edition in 2010 have gone so far in proving them right that a book like Reclaiming the F-Word might seem redundant at first glance. The flood of press attention to modern feminism, the high profile books by writers like Caitlin Moran and the arrival of outspoken young feminists like Laurie Penny, Anita Sarkeezian and Caroline Criado-Perez in the mainstream media, mean that it would be difficult for anyone to overlook the movement’s continuing and vigorous existence. At the same time, the issues these women speak out about – rape culture, misogyny, the economic and social disempowerment of minority groups – are illustrated in events from the Steubenville case, to the abuse aimed to women wearing the hijab in public, to David Cameron’s demand for a female MP to “calm down, dear”. Feminism’s greater profile in the popular media demonstrably does not mean that it has achieved its goals. The second edition of Reclaiming the F Word is just as important, though for different reasons, as the first was.
The book borrows its structure from the manifesto drawn up by the 1971 conference on Women’s Liberation – the iconic seven demands of a particular phase of feminism. This allows Aune and Redfern to reflect on how modern feminism has developed from previous generations, continuing their ideals but reworking them in the face of new situations and insights. They stress that feminism cannot entirely discard the second wave for its essentialism, its transphobia or its extremist elements, but not can it live forever in the shadow of a 1970s, castigating itself for not looking like or living up to an imaginary “heroic era”. The seven demands of Reclaiming the F-Word are “Liberated bodies”, “Sexual freedom and choice”, “An end to violence against women”, “Equality at work and home”, “Politics and religion transformed”, “Popular culture free from sexism” and “Feminism reclaimed”. Around these points they build a series of chapters which elaborate the issues faced by women today, present opinions and quotations from modern feminists, and offer ways individual readers might take practical action.
The resulting book can be used in a number of ways. It is a stirring and enjoyable read which will surely bolster the morale of a lot of people who already see themselves as feminists, but who don’t necessarily spend a lot of their time around other people who do. It’s a useful handbook for statistics and figures, to be consulted when you want to cite the exact numbers on the wage gap over the last decade, or to point out women’s under-representation on sports media. It’s a great overview of the major issues on which feminists are campaigning, and the forms their activities take. It’s also a valuable broadening of perspective on a number of issues. Aune and Redfern points out, for example, that “reproductive rights” does not simply mean access to legal and safe abortion, but also covers the coerced sterilization of ethnic minority women in some parts of the world. Likewise the meticulously researched material on religion and culture should remind us that Protestant-derived Anglophone secularism isn’t the context in which many feminists want to live their lives and assert their rights.
Covering such a lot of ground, and doing so fairly, means that there are some inevitable issues with the vision the book can put forward. It isn’t just that putting forward so many overlapping (and conflicting) approaches to feminism means that no particular course can be sanctioned or validated. On the contrary, presenting this plural vision of many attitudes and theories existing within the one movement pushes Reclaiming the F-Word towards a definite liberal stance. Individual choice, and self-definition hover around some of the book’s chapters as the strongest principle which can be advanced. This isn’t a criticism of either Redfern or Aune – whose work elsewhere demonstrates they have very distinct visions and principles – but of the way the book presents such disparate material. The plethora of choices, ranged against the common enemy of social and cultural influences, seem to posit a strong, individual self which is only hampered in its self-expression by the presence of other people. But the book does not necessarily claim to present a coherent ideological position, only to sketch the positions which can exist within the term “feminism”.
In a similar sense, the range of theorists and writers drawn on won’t please everyone – it can’t, given the breadth of the topics. The last three years have shown up a handful of the critics they cite as charlatans, or intellectually vapid, or (in one case) a toxic abuser who should never have been regarded as a feminist. Aside from picking off editorial choices with an unfair and telescopic hindsight, I think the book leans too heavily on Naomi Wolf in places. Wolf is the kind of writer who promises to bring together a wide range of events and experiences, and prove they that are all manifestations of one force. She is a myth maker in the neutral sense: she offers over-arching stories which make sense of things. But reading her, I always get the feeling that someone like Diane Purkiss or Monica Furlong is going to turn up and present a list of evidence which shows up the myth and points out how it elevates one social group’s intuitions to the status of historical truth.
That said, Reclaiming the F Word is a terrific and necessary book. It celebrates, challenges, reminds and exemplifies a broad swathe of the modern feminist movement in Britain and the US. And it does so with good humour and generosity tempered with outrage and determination.