Selling Feminism: A History

For decades, writers have been publishing guides to make the movement seem appealing to young women. How convincing are they?

Seal Press, Mariner Books, Penguin Books

A glistening, lipsticked mouth graces the cover of Sexy Feminism: A Girl's Guide to Love, Success, and Style, a book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph released in March. Born out of their blog, the book aims to show girls and young women that, unlike what they may have heard, feminism can be--and often is--sexy. Tackling questions like "Is Dieting Antifeminist?" and "Plastic Surgery: Can You?", Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph break down the complex intricacies and varieties of feminist values into easily digestible chunks--perhaps too easily digestible. Sexy Feminism doesn't just want to share the word with girls and young women, it wants to make feminism cool, attractive, and simple--and it's far from the first book to try and package feminism for a young audience. There's a long history of feminist writers trying to redefine and rebrand the concept to appeal to a young audience.

Books espousing feminist values for girls were abundant in the 1970s. Books like Girls Can Be Anything and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit confronted feminist issues head-on, from sexist career expectations to body insecurity. Without labeling themselves as overtly feminist, Girls Can Be Anything depicts the many career choices for girls, and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit follows 13-year-old Marcy Lewis as she navigates the dangers of adolescence, all while fighting to keep her favorite English teacher at her school. These books showed younger readers that they could do things and be things; the books' characters were not reduced to romantic sidekicks or senseless victims.

The 1980s saw the first appearance of overtly feminist materials for girls and young women. One of the first books to do this was the 1981 collection Feminism For Girls: An Adventure Story. A variety of feminist perspectives on different topics relevant to young women and girls, the book avoided preaching. It offered no manifestos and no rules, and instead tried to offer its readers a number of ideas and starting points. As the book's editors, Angela McRobbie and Trisha McCabe, write in the introduction:

Adventure is founded on initial confusion, even fear. It demands enterprise and ingenuity. It necessitates tactics and manoeuvers. Unlike myths, adventures are open-ended, there are no foregone conclusions. We won't be offering a step-by-step guide to the feminist 'Good Life.' We prefer to deal with clues, suggestions and ideas.

The book contained perspectives on a variety of topics--what it means to work as a secretary, analysis of Jackie magazine, a case study on black girls in Britain--meant to provoke thought rather than designate official protocol. While Feminism For Girls was trying to combat stereotypes of feminism in an effort to appeal to young people, its approach was one of transparency and compassion rather than condescension and authority. The book, however, wasn't very popular. According to McRobbie, it didn't sell well, and many of its contributors "retreated into the academy." Nevertheless Feminism For Girls is notable for being among the first books to reach out to a young audience and consider youth outreach an activist issue.

In the late '80s and early '90s feminism and its derivatives moved into the mainstream, creating previously unseen amalgamations of theory and pop. The magazines Sassy, Bust, and Bitch were all founded between 1988 and 1996, and a younger generation began to define feminism for themselves. While Bitch was the only magazine to explicitly label itself feminist, all three publications helped usher in a new generation of women sympathetic to feminist values.

In 1999, Bust made a foray into girl-guide territory with The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, a collection of essays from Bust writers and contributors on Third Wave-defining topics like sex and pop culture, articles with names like "the mysterious eroticism of the mini-backpack," and an essay by Courtney Love. Unlike Feminism For Girls, The Bust Guide tackled pop culture and mainstream media from within, simultaneously critiquing and embracing it. The guide was indicative of a change in feminism: Rather than being a collective movement seeking political change, feminist and girl-affirming values were taking hold on an individual scale, in small and isolated actions.

Then came the latest generation of feminism marketers, among them Jennifer Baumgardner, Jessica Valenti, and the authors of Sexy Feminism, who have tried to steer feminism away from individualist girl power and back towards its collective, political roots. Baumgardner's 2000 book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, coauthored with Amy Richards, pointed out the difference between individualist, "girl power" feminism and political, collective feminism. Baumgardner, for one, felt that she couldn't relate to the "Jell-O-shots versions of feminism" portrayed in the magazines Bust and Bitch. As she notes in her introduction to Manifesta:

Feminists my age, Girlies with tight clothes and streaky hair, who made zines and music and Web sites, exhibited the confidence and self-worth that I craved from Ms. But part of what was free about them seemed to be that they weren't taking on anything they might have to lose. Soon I...realized that the whole movement was in a kind of crisis: the people who are creating the most inspiring feminist culture and the people who have a working knowledge of feminist political change haven't met yet.

Baumgardner and Richards's goal was to show young women (who might already consider themselves feminists), that feminism depended upon collective, political action. While some criticized the book's writing and argument, Manifesta was largely hailed as a success, praised by Gloria Steinem for "show[ing] us the building blocks for the future of this longest revolution," and was recently reprinted in a special tenth anniversary edition.

Jessica Valenti embarked on a similar venture when she launched the website Feministing in 2004. More focused on collective rather than personal feminism, the site primarily focuses on political issues, and also publishes cultural critiques and interviews with prominent feminists and role models. In 2007, Valenti published her first book, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, a how-to guide for the fully feminist life. The book begins with an explanation of why feminism is wonderful ("When you're a feminist, day-to-day life is better. You make better decisions. You have better sex.") before launching into chapters with titles like "You're a hardcore feminist. I swear." The book takes time to dispel "myths" about feminism: that feminists hated men, didn't shave, and were only chaste, middle-aged women.

Full Frontal Feminism is a big reason I became interested in feminism when I did, as a disenchanted junior in high school. Recommended to me by a friend whose older, fascinating sister had come across it in college, Full Frontal Feminism brought together a wide array of topics for an effective crash-course in why I should care about feminism. It's not that this was my introduction to feminism; it wasn't. But Full Frontal Feminism made me feel that I could appropriately call myself a "feminist."

Sexy Feminism takes cues from both Baumgarnder/Richards and Valenti, creating its own specialized protocol in the process. Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph seek to appeal to young women who feel that feminism isn't sexy, fun, or any of the other words in their subtitle. Once again, the authors claim that they're "here to detonate, once and for all, those pervasive myths about feminism." And, like Baumgardner and Richards (whom they declare to be idols), Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph's definition of a feminist includes a call to action. In contrast to the dichotomy between girl power feminism and activist feminism drawn by Manifesta, Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph try to combine the two, drawing the mainstream into their realm and calling it their own.

What these recent guides make clear is a desire to bring feminist-inspired actions, cultures, and people back into the feminist movement. As the authors of all three books make clear, the intended reader is likely already a feminist, even if they don't know it yet. What the authors are seeking, then, isn't to educate readers about the existence of double standards and the pay gap so much as to show that the reader's values and feminism's values are one and the same.

Keishin Armstrong and Wood Rudúlph explain why they think it's important for people who believe in feminist values to align themselves with the feminist movement:

But feminist is just a word, you may say--why is it so important? Given the choice between living feminist principles and calling ourselves feminists, of course we'd choose the former. But we don't think there should have to be a choice. To distance yourself from the word is to imply there's something wrong with feminism and/or feminists, an implication that leads to the continued denigration of the cause itself.

I, however, am not convinced by this argument, or any of the other recent books claiming that more people should call themselves feminists. As has been made clear by others, promoting the equality of women doesn't have to lie solely in the domain of feminism, nor can it only be accomplished within the movement's bounds. These authors seem to think political organization and action around women's issues can only happen in a feminist framework, but plenty of organizations work towards women's rights without needing to label themselves "feminist." The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, for example, was not formed out of the feminist movement and has never been officially linked to it. Planned Parenthood certainly espouses feminist values, but it has not depended upon an official relationship with outright feminist organizations--and yet has created meaningful change beneficial to women and in line with traditionally feminist values. Just as there are a multitude of ways to be a feminist or espouse feminist values, so should there be a variety of guides and books that help young people figure out feminism for themselves.