Reviews

Welcoming Contradictions in Pragmatic Activism

A review of Deborah Frances-White's new book, "The Guilty Feminist."

Deborah Frances-White is a guilty feminist, and so am I. You probably are, too. 

The comedian’s newly released book, The Guilty Feminist, is an offshoot of her podcast by the same name. Those who have listened to Frances-White’s work may recognize her humorous quips and breadth of pop culture knowledge, from Killing Eve to Eminem to Margaret Atwood. Of course, her signature “I’m a feminist but…” frequents the book’s pages, as well.  

The nearly 300-page work generally falls at the intersection of gender studies and self-help. Frances-White provides an overview of feminism’s basics—she often gestures toward the foundational feminist texts of Maya Angelou and Betty Friedan, among others—but avoids diving into semantics and the theory, making the book accessible for those just starting to wade into activism. She also intersperses comedic anecdotes and life stories throughout, including those detailing her upbringing as part of what she not-so-lovingly refers to as the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult.

Frances-White doesn’t take any radical positions, doesn’t make ideology-shifting statements, and even claims that doing so is not her goal. She’s a pragmatist, she says. This isn’t to say the writer veers into the pseudo-feminist thinking that claims that any act done by a woman or female-identifying person is an inherently feminist act. But she does accept the patriarchy’s structural roots, choosing to work toward equality inside the system rather than attempt to destroy it. 

Importantly, Frances-White acknowledges her own privilege. She provides pithy disclaimers to avoid essentializing or ignoring facets of womanhood, although she forgoes in-depth clarifications about why such statements are necessary. Her explanation of privilege might be worth tucking away, though, for future conversations with those who haven’t yet grasped the concept. 

Frances-White introduces the story of Al and Bob, two aptly named characters seemingly with the same gendered advantage. As she explains all the benefits Al receives, including a higher salary, more praise, and greater self-confidence fostered as a child, she similarly expounds on Bob’s reality, which awards him 78 cents to Al’s dollar, issues a constant warning that he’ll need to work harder if he wants to be as successful as Al, and assigns him 90 percent of the cleaning and caring for their pet hamsters. It’s simple, funny, and effective. 

The Guilty Feminist probably won’t be revelatory for readers with a solid background in feminist discourse, although that’s not to say the work won’t be useful. Certainly, many of the conversations with women and non-binary folks like Reubs Walsh, Bisha K. Ali, and Becca Bunce that appear in the second half of the book are worth visiting with a critical eye, notably because they deal explicitly with intersectionality and what it means to live in a body that simultaneously experiences multiple forms of oppression.

The work’s main goal, though, is to reduce the shame many activists harbor for not always aligning their actions perfectly with their chosen cause. “I’m a feminist but some days even my life doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test,” the comedian writes. For Frances-White, being a stellar feminist is nearly impossible within a patriarchal and capitalist system, and she calls on her readers to reject such long-held notions about perfectionism in activism.

Perhaps the book’s greatest accomplishment is that it tasks its readers with employing one of the most basic principles of feminism: to recognize the full humanity of women and of those who don’t identify as male. Feminists, Frances-White argues, must allow themselves room for missteps because that’s what leads to conversations about equality, to personal growth, and finally, to larger societal change. She closes the book on a chapter titled “I’m a feminist and…”, welcoming the contradictions activists sometimes grapple with while still granting the title associated with the cause. 

Ultimately, Frances-White poses an essential question: why should feminists spend time away from protesting and pushing their way into boardrooms in order to dwell on mistakes they intend to rectify, when the patriarchy can’t even acknowledge that it created a faulty and unequal system? 

NONFICTION
The Guilty Feminist
By Deborah Frances-White
Seal Press
Published December 31, 2019

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