If just a few years ago the vast majority of high-profile women repudiated the feminist label, today everyone appears to claim it. Not only has identifying as feminist become a source of pride for Hollywood stars and music celebrities alike – from Emma Watson through to Beyoncé, and even Theresa May – but “feminism” was online dictionary Merriam-Webster’s 2017 word of the year.
Yet the current feminist resurgence consists of intensely contradictory trends. While feminism has been popularised and even mainstreamed in many countries, gender equality has also been championed by far-right nationalist parties in Europe in their campaign against immigrants and refugees. Simultaneously, large-scale feminist protest has re-emerged as a potentially potent political force. Particularly in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, there has been a new wave of grass-roots and mass feminist militancy. So how might we begin to make sense of this bewildering cultural landscape?
Deborah Cameron’s new book is one place to start. It is neither a historical account of feminism nor an attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the various strands of feminist thought. Rather, it focuses on a number of central themes – domination, rights, work, femininity, sex and culture – around which feminist thought and mobilisation have revolved and about which feminists continue to debate and disagree. Cameron skilfully presents the divergent ways that feminist thought and the women’s movement have approached these issues – underscoring, for example, how the seemingly uncontroversial notion of equality and women’s rights has, from the very beginning, been informed by a conundrum: does equality require that women be treated the same as men, or does advocating for women’s rights in order to achieve equality translate precisely into not treating everyone identically? Highlighting how this paradox has informed feminism and divided feminists is not new, but Cameron situates her analysis within international human rights law – United Nations conventions and treaties – and touches on how these tensions operate on a global level. This, in turn, can shed light on the “uptake” of feminist themes by unexpected actors.
Beyond offering readers an introduction to key axes around which feminism has developed since the 18th century, Cameron also makes a number of important claims – thus rendering Feminism relevant to both general readers and veteran feminist scholars and activists. First, she argues that the term “feminism” is often used to gesture at a number of different meanings: an idea, a collective political project and an intellectual framework. Thus, teasing these different senses apart enables us to better understand feminism’s history and diversity. Second, despite feminism’s diversity, Cameron insists that it is held together by the belief that women currently occupy a subordinate position, which is neither inevitable nor desirable and can be changed through political action. Her final argument is the most provocative – namely, that it is not enough to say that individual women should have choices. Rather, we need to ask why things are arranged in a way that obliges women to make certain choices and not others. In order to dismantle structural male dominance, she contends, we need to facilitate profound social, cultural and economic transformation.
Cameron’s book is part of the “small introduction to big ideas” series, and so is meant to introduce feminism to as wide an audience as possible. She has far exceeded this objective, while providing a lucid entry point into our current puzzling feminist moment.
Catherine Rottenberg is a 2016‑18 Marie Skłodowska Curie fellow in the sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London and a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. Her book The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism will be published later this year.
By Deborah Cameron
Published 14 June 2018