This write-up follows a discussion in Workers ’ Liberty’s socialist feminist reading group. Usually held in South London, the monthly reading group has been held online during the pandemic. To get involved, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feminism, Interrupted is the second book from Lola Olufemi, co-author of A FLY Girls Guide to University. A cross-between an introductory text and manifesto, the book is a collection of ten essays covering topics from trans rights and islamophobic misogyny to food and art.
The first chapter, “Know your history”, reflects on a rich history of Black British feminist organising. Emerging from the Black Power movement from the 1970s onwards, Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent umbrella group took an explicitly internationalist and intersectional approach to their work, long before the term was coined in 1989. Both groups serve as models for building power through cultural mediums such as ‘zines, alongside establishing community schools and organising in tenants campaigns. Olufemi, however, nearly throws away one of the most important points of this chapter towards its end: by 1981-86 activists and groups were subsumed into the structures of the then Greater London Council, led by Ken Livingstone. The professionalisation of their activism divorced them from the communities they were organising and ultimately neutralised them. This is not interrogated further in the chapter, or even framed as a warning against state co-option, and so the impact of this cautionary tale is mostly lost.
In three chapters in particular, Olufemi adopts an anti-state and anti-carceral perspective (“The sexist state”, “The fight for reproductive justice” and “The answer to sexual violence is not more prisons”). Liberal feminism’s reliance on state protection and the legal system to advance women’s rights is, she argues, entirely inadequate. The first of these chapters features interviews with members of the direct action group Sister’s Uncut, which uses attention-grabbing stunts to protest against police and wider state violence. Olufemi recounts their storming of the BAFTAs red carpet in 2018, to protest against Theresa May’s Domestic Violence Bill, and the time in 2015 that they turned Trafalgar Square’s fountains red to protest against the closure of women’s refuges. There is a clear message running through the chapter that feminists must look beyond the state, and that achieving real progress needs bold challenges from outside as well as within.
“The fight for reproductive justice” explores the difference between legislative “rights” and actual “justice” through the lens of Repeal the 8th, a successful but flawed campaign to repeal the ban on abortions in Ireland. The chapter begins by noting that historical campaigns in favour of birth control and abortion access often cited “population control” as a benefit, specifically referencing marginalised groups when doing so, leading to a general mistrust of the reproductive rights movement by people of colour. Further, Olufemi examines the aftermath of Repeal the 8th along with other abortion rights campaigns in the UK and US, demonstrating that changes in the law do not automatically result in equal access to abortions. People still face healthcare barriers - from anti-migrant policies and extraneous requirements for medical advice, to pro-life protests outside clinics - underlining that there is a limit to the impact changing a single law can have on the sysem. The central argument here is that the focus on “abortion rights” from mainstream feminism can lead to the sidelining of broader healthcare issues for people of colour and the difficulties that many people still have in accessing reproductive healthcare. The chapter concludes by emphasising the urgent need for reproductive justice which goes beyond campaigning for legislation, instead focusing on systemic change, an argument echoed in a later chapter “The answer to sexual violence is not more prisons”.
Olufemi is perhaps at her strongest when she discusses the struggles facing marginalised groups in “Transmisogyny: Who wins?”, “The saviour complex: Muslim women and gendered Islamophobia” and “Complicating consent: How to support sex workers”. The last of these distills most of its arguments for decriminalising sex work from Molly Smith & Juno Mac’s excellent Revolting Prostitutes (2018), but builds a more specific critique of the individualistic takes on sexual consent promoted in mainstream feminism alongside. As Olufemi aruges, focusing solely on teaching men to interpret consent as enthusiastic, verbal, and sober ignores the “grey” areas of power dynamics and material conditions that can impact on a person’s ability to say no in sexual interactions.
In “Transmisogyny” Olufemi presents a more accessible interpretation of Judith Butler’s seminal “Gender Trouble”, arguing that both sex and gender are socially constructed rather than predetermined, although non-Western perspectives on gender are only briefly mentioned. Her subsequent argument that it is the “violence that [people coded as women by society] face that defines our experience of our world” rather than biology, and that it is this umbrella that critical feminism should use, is worth more debate than it is afforded in the book. The rest of the chapter is spent refuting the moral panic generated by trans-exclusionary radical feminists in the national media and exhorting critical feminists to reject the artificial dichotomy between cis & trans women that “gender critical” activists are attempting to create. If you’re a supporter of trans rights and find liberal ponderings on whether you can be a ‘feminist in high heels’ irritating, this is the chapter for you.
Chapters looking at more abstract topics such as art and solidarity are more dense to chew through than those examining specific situations or issues. In “Art for art’s sake” Olufemi seems undecided, arguing that activist art can and should be used to reflect struggles and enhance campaigns, juxtaposed against the statement that “if we want art that reflects the true complexity of our lives and the range of human emotion then we must eradicate the harmful conditions in which we live”. She seems to suggest that art made in response to struggles and harm somehow does not reflect “the true complexity of our lives”, and comes across as utopian in outlook. Her strongest argument in this chapter is that the issue of who gets to make art is as important to feminism as the art itself, and that everyone should have access to creative outlets regardless of background or class.
Although many of the arguments Olufemi makes throughout the book will resonate with socialist feminists, she avoids using this label in Feminism, Interrupted , instead preferring the term “critical feminism”, loosely defined as “different feminisms in conversation with each other”. However, much of the book comes across as a conversation between Olufemi and liberal feminism exclusively. Adding critiques or analysis of other feminist schools of thought would have enriched the text and perhaps offered an insight into why she rejects established labels for her views.
Does it matter that she doesn’t use the term socialist to describe herself? Given her insistence in the introduction that “there are no pre-given solutions” offered by feminism it’s perhaps unsurprising she rejects most standard classifications for her viewpoint. And if we recognise and agree with her arguments where they matter most: on rejecting individualistic liberal corporate feminism, centering marginalised voices, and liberating the working class from the tyranny of the wage system, then the specific terms she uses for herself are perhaps less important.
There are two major criticisms to be levelled at the book as a whole, although different people will no doubt disagree with different arguments and specific points within its chapters. The first, is that while Olufemi invites the reader to imagine a different vision of the world remade along feminist principles, the text is light on routes to reach it. Despite the emphasis on feminism as a practical philosophy throughout the book, suggestions for practical actions are limited to those offered up as examples from direct action groups or other individuals, which are often presented with little comment on their success or how to build on them.
Secondly, it’s not entirely clear who this book is for. Feminism, Interrupted is the length of an introductory text, but the language and arguments it uses at points are too academic to be aimed at a casual audience. This makes it unexpectedly heavy going for readers who haven’t experienced this style of writing before.
Overall, Feminism, Interrupted presents an interesting and modern feminist distillation of a spectrum of topics from the familiar, to the slightly more out-there. For newer feminist readers the book offers a solid jumping off point for more in-depth explorations of the topics, with extensive resources lists at the back of the book. More experienced readers will appreciate the voices of different artists and activists from interviews that are sprinkled throughout the chapters and which add an extra dimension to arguments they will have likely heard before. For everyone, the book’s pervading sense of optimism and its rallying cry that a better, more equitable future can be imagined might be just what you need to brighten up a long, gloomy winter lockdown.
• Lola Olufemi, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (Pluto Press, 2020)