September 2002

Jessa Crispin

nonfiction

Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

I knew going into Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richard’s Manifesta that I wouldn’t like it. I have read pieces by the authors before, and I tend not to like feminist writing as a whole. What I did not expect, however, was to be enraged by it.

The book mostly reads like a patronizing Feminism 101. They assume that just because it happened before you were born, you have no idea it took place. I can live with that. Maybe I do know my feminist history better than most. What enraged me, however, were the little details that added up to make Manifesta hostile and offensive.

It begins with a gimmick. They pose the question “Is feminism dead?” and then refuse to answer it. Instead, they give a very slanted glimpse of what life was like before feminism. It’s not that I doubt life was rough for women before the Second Wave, but it’s very “No Woman Could Ever Be Happy”, very “This Was Hell For Every Woman in America”. And again, there is no answer in this entire chapter. It is a valid question, “Do we still need feminism? Is it doing any good these days?” Throughout the book, they claim to answer this, but they never truly do.

Baumgardner and Richards never answer any criticism about feminism. They reply to every concern with the equivalent of “Nuh-uh.” Two critical problems people have with feminism is its historical neglect of women of color and a hostility towards men. They answer the first with “Actually, feminism has always included women of color,” and the latter with “We’re not man-haters.” Meanwhile, their book is white, white, white with small token passages about women’s involvements in civil rights, never mentioning whether these women identified as feminists. This is a critical point, as many female civil rights leaders do not see themselves as feminists. Whether Baumgardner and Richards want to admit it, feminism did shove race issues aside throughout most of its history. The women who fought for civil rights tended to do so separately from feminism because the white leaders were just not interested.

As far as their “We’re not man-haters” statement, I have a theory about Baumgardner and Richards. They have never actually talked to a man. Ever. They seem to have no idea that men don’t long to be women. They do not envy our “pussy power.” They tend to like having penises. So when the authors state in the last chapter that when feminism has solved the world’s problems, men will be allowed to cry and admit they love shopping at the mall, you really have to wonder if they exist in a testosterone-free environment. I’m not sure why they bother claiming not to hate men when the first chapter states that men are “emotionally retarded” and “sexually irresponsible.” They have a solution to the sexual irresponsibility, however, and let me share it with you. All men should have vasectomies. Because they are “easily reversible.” You heard it here first. Pay no mind to the doctor telling you that it is a permanent method of birth control that is very difficult to undo. Pay no mind to the insurance company that will laugh until they pass out when you ask them to pay for the very expensive reversal. Pay no mind to the fact that you will have to fly to Houston to see one of the very few doctors who will even bother to attempt to restore your Vas Deferens. It must be easily reversible, or else why would Baumgardner and Richards say it was three times?

Men are also wildly spreading herpes, not bothering to get tested or to notice the pustules on their sexual organs. Baumgardner and Richards claim, “Not enough people are owning up to their sexual responsibilities, and those who are tend to be female.” I wish I knew what kind of men the authors think they’re talking about. I sure as hell have never met them. In their heads, men are reckless, having sex without condoms and not a care in the world. In their world, men never do the dishes, and they evidently can only grunt to communicate. As far as sexual responsibility goes, they mention Inga Muscio as a third-wave feminist leader, but in her book Cunt she mentions she got pregnant three times because her diaphragm was hurting her and she didn’t want to use it. I think everyone, both male and female, needs to own up to the stupid things we do for sex and be more responsible as a whole.

I suppose Baumgardner and Richards can say whatever they want about men because they feel they don’t need them. According to them, to become a really good feminist, you should be having sex with women. “Loving another woman and finding out the secrets of her body is one way of learning about yourself. It’s a way to resolve sexual competition – a very painful issue for young women struggling toward solidarity – by turning our gaze toward one another rather than vying for male attention.” Now, call me crazy, but I thought that a large part of the gay rights movement was trying to relay the fact that homosexuality or bisexuality is something you are born with, not a chosen lifestyle. Baumgardner and Richards tell us we are just “socialized heterosexu[als]” who deep down would like to have sex with women and doing so will make us better feminists.

Now that they have completely ignored the reasons why women may not want to identify as feminists, they claim everyone falls into three categories: activists who are feminists, activists who are feminists and don’t know it, and the anti-feminist. If you were a feminist, but left the movement, or at least the identification, because of problems you perceived inside of feminism, you are an “amnesia feminist”. You have just forgotten all the good feminism has done and continues to do, and you just don’t know any better. But don’t worry. They still consider you a feminist. If you are an activist who works in non-feminist related fields, you will eventually come around to realizing that it’s women’s causes that need the most help and you will move into that field. “For example, many young women have organized to support the activist and journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, who is on death row for allegedly killing a police officer. The moment of feminist activism will come when the organizers make a connection between Mumia’s plight and women who are also in prison.” They dismiss humanism (the movement that states men and women should be equal and need to work together to ensure that equality) by saying humanists should realize it’s women’s groups that need all of the exclusive attention.

To prove how much attention they need, they throw out the statistic that only 5.7% of philanthropic dollars go to women’s organizations. They would like you to believe that the other 94.3% go exclusively to men. They want this statistic to make you outraged. But how many men’s organizations are there really? And how much money goes to them? Common sense would tell us that the bulk of the money goes to gender-neutral non-profits like arts programs. Big Brothers Big Sisters. American Cancer Society. In order to be a feminist, do I really have to give money to only female charities? Must I ensure that not a single man is helped by my donation? And should I only volunteer for Planned Parenthood, even if what I really care about is the death penalty?

In my opinion, it’s this exclusivity that is killing feminism. To answer their question, “Is Feminism Dead?”: no, but it is crawling in the sand, gasping for water. And I personally think we should just shoot it in its head and put it out of its misery. Until men and women do start communicating with one another to find common ground and to share our stories, nothing will be accomplished. Feminism has come as far as it can with women refusing to share the workload.

This book had the opportunity to be a bridge, to explain the importance of feminism to men, to women who aren’t involved, to lapsed feminists. Instead it starts off with New Age feminist revisionism by theorizing how the women of the Bible would have rewritten it, and then by calling men “emotionally retarded.” Immediately they put up a barrier around what they consider feminists. They will not win anyone over with this book. It’s meant to be self-congratulatory, and it is. They compare Gloria Steinem to Gandhi for God’s sake. They even throw stones at their allies. They say Salon.com has no journalistic integrity because in an opinion piece, whose author they do not name, someone called Ann Coulter a bitch and a racist and said she must inject herself with horse urine. Well, a) Ann Coulter is a bitch, a racist, and probably does inject herself with horse urine; and b) Salon.com has been one of the most consistently pro-choice media organizations of any medium. They ran articles on emergency contraception, Mifepristone, and the hoax anthrax letters sent to abortion clinics when no one else would. Criticizing Salon for an opinion piece about a horrific woman is just a bizarre move for them to make.

I keep waiting for someone to stand up and say “Enough with the bullshit. Enough with the burning bridges. We know we have had problems with this movement, and we are going to learn from them and become stronger because of them.” Instead I get books like this one that deny any problems in feminism, or I get books that outline the problems but abandon the movement with no interest in working from the inside. It doesn’t seem like it will ever get better. If Manifesta really is the voice of the Third Wave, let’s pray it’s truly the last.

Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
Published by Farrar, Straus & Girroux
ISBN: 0374526222
416 Pages