Book: Can We All be Feminists? edited by June Eric-Udorie
Age/Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Politics
Reading Accoutrements: Note-taking paraphernalia (writing utensils, paper, audio recording device, computer, whatever method works best for you, you’re gonna want to have notes to refer back to!)
Content Notes: Society-inflicted trauma and discrimination based on race, class, body, immigration status, etc.
I don’t remember where I saw Can We All Be Feminists? online, but I know I bought it almost immediately, and I moved it to the top of my reading list because I was so excited to dig into it. I was so excited to see a collection that challenged feminism as a way of advocating for it, all the while prioritizing the voices of marginalized women.
Can We All Be Feminists? is a collection of essays exploring why some women committed to gender equality struggle to identify as feminists. It focuses on the importance of intersectionality and gives clear examples of gaps that feminism needs to fill to truly reach its goals.
In the intro, the editor, June Eric-Udorie, talks about growing up with strict gender norms in Lagos, Nigeria, without the language to identify her feminist beliefs. At the age of 16, she began to engage in feminist discourse online and write articles for mainstream feminist publications. Editors, mostly straight white cis-women, often dismissed the concerns of women of color, LBTQ women, and women with other marginalizations. Some complained that requests for inclusion and intersectional consideration were asking too much, requiring perfection. This pushed Eric-Udorie to look for feminist literature by black women. She discovered that the feminism she wanted, one that included everyone, is out there, it just isn’t getting all the attention that white, corporate feminism does.
This collection uplifts the voices of those who have been told that their concerns aren’t widespread enough for feminists to advocate for. It explores deep flaws in the mainstream feminist movement, not to condemn feminists, but to urge them to be more thoughtful and inclusive about how they fight for justice. I often thought of the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Honestly, I recommend each and every one of these pieces. You should buy this collection immediately, read it as soon as you can, and take lots of notes. Instead of exploring a few of these essays in depth like I usually do, I’m going to give you a brief description of each one. This is hard for me, because I could probably write a whole review of each essay, but I want to be able to give you all the author names so you can look up their work and dig into the specific issues that resonate with you.
“No Wave Feminism,” by Charlotte Shane, explores the idea that feminism isn’t the most effective tool to fight certain injustices, while arguing that we still badly need feminism – we just need it to be better.
In “Unapologetic,” Nicole Dennis-Benn shares her experiences and internalized oppressions as a black lesbian, and how she came to terms with calling herself a feminist despite facing both racism and homophobia in feminist spaces.
“Fat Demands,” by Selina Thompson, discusses the history of fat activism and outlines what an intentional, fat-conscious feminism can look like. She advocates for “body chaos” which is a term I instantly fell in love with.
In “Borderlands,” Gabrielle Bellot argues the importance of admitting our ability to be wrong, using the example of prominent feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refusing to analyze her beliefs about trans women despite urging people to reject the idea of single stories when it comes to other oppressions. My favorite line was, “I am as integral to feminism as any other kind of woman in the wide, stelliferous constellation of womanhood.”
“Intersectionality and The Black Lives Matter Movement,” by Evette Dionne, outlines how police violence is a feminist issue, and how the discussion around police violence often overlooks black women. It was discouraging to read examples of feminists prioritizing their relationship with police over advocating for justice.
“No Disabled Access,” by Frances Ryan, exposes many ways that mainstream feminist discourse fails to address the injustices that disabled women face. Issues like domestic violence, the wage gap, and access to healthcare all affect disabled women in very specific ways, which are ignored in both disability advocacy and feminism.
In “A Hundred Small Rebellions,” Eishar Kaur shows us feminism in the UK Punjabi diaspora, where women are changing a culture through many small rebellions, such as when she refused to make tea for guests because her brother was never asked, or when she went to University six hours away, which was not the path girls were supposed to take.
“Ends, Means, and Subterfuge in Feminist Activism” uses the 2018 Irish referendum on abortion to discuss whether sometimes, pandering to the people who can get stuff passed is worth sacrificing some integrity. For example, advertising how the partners and parents of pregnant people benefit from abortions, particularly in life threatening situations. This argument has a lot of nuance, and I wouldn’t use it for all similar situations, but Emer O’Toole makes a strong case.
In “Afro-Diasporic Feminism and a Freedom in Fluidity,” Zoé Samudzi discusses growing up in a family that subverts Zimbabwean traditions, not for particularly progressive or political reasons, but practical personal ones. Samudzi’s recollection of Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga, finally prompted me to read the book, which has been on my shelf for a while.
“Representation as a Feminist Act,” by Aisha Gani, follows the career of British Bakeoff winner Nadiya Hussain and explores the danger of seeing representation as the end-all-be-all of success. The idea that there is only room for one prominent muslim woman in media is pervasive and harmful.
“In Search of Gender Troublemakers,” by Juliet Jacques, provides analysis of queer – specifically trans – films dating back to the sixties. It particularly highlights the 2015 film Tangerine, which I watched when it appeared on Netflix and thoroughly enjoyed.
Brit Bennet uses “Body and Blood” to explore the relationship between body and salvation, particularly for black bodies, utilizing her childhood experiences in both predominantly black and predominantly white churches. Emphasis is given on the need for black bodies to be inoffensive to white morality. It was interesting to see that this need to present as inoffensive led to a strong and sometimes violent derision of homosexuality in black communities.
“Loving Two Things at Once: On Bisexuality, Feminism, and Catholicism,” by Caitlin Cruz, follows a young woman’s struggle with her strict Catholic faith after coming out as bisexual. She does not see a hindrance to her relationship with God, but rather the earthly church. Cruz explores the weak and strong aspects of both the church and feminism, pointing out that the church addresses many societal failings that feminism does not, such as poverty.
“Imperial Feminism,” by Afua Hirsch, shows specific examples of how white appropriation of African culture perpetuates harmful effects of colonialism and how feminism fails to address this issue.
“The Machinery of Disbelief” follows author Wei Ming Kam and her partner in their frustrating journey applying for a partner visa in the U.K. Though the beginning and the end focus on their personal experience, the bulk of the essay shows how the visa system puts women at increased risk of domestic violence and other oppressions.
In “Brown on the Outside,” Mariya Kaimjee relays her lifelong struggle to see eye-to-eye with her white best friend on the issue of feminism. She shows how a pattern of conflict avoidance has resulted in the feeling that her best friend has no idea how her race affects her existence in a world shaped by racism.
“Deviant Bodies,” by Soofiya Andry, describes what it is like to live in a body that society sees as bad, whether due to size, skin color, hair growth, or other features. People live in deviant bodies both naturally and by choice, and body deviancy often results in lack of support when facing prejudice.
All of these essays are original to Can We All Be Feminists? and were written specifically for this book. While I enjoy essay collections that include reprints, I feel that those with original pieces are more cohesive, and ultimately drive stronger arguments. Like I said, I recommend checking out the entire collection, but if some of these issues resonate with you, you could search the authors and check out their other work, as well.