Fifty Shades of Feminism

17th Apr 2013

fifty shades of feminism
What is feminism - and what does it mean to you?

In Fifty Shades of Feminism, fifty leading feminists give us their answer.

Published to mark the 40th birthday of legendary women’s publisher, Virago, this collection of essays has been curated as a labour of love by three feminist activists and friends – the novelist, Lisa Appignanesi; the historian Rachel Holmes, and Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue.

Look beyond the admittedly rather naff title, and you’ll find that Fifty Shades of Feminism includes pieces that bristle with anger, others that inspire and yet more that sadden.

Reflecting the spectrum of modern feminisms, diversity is a theme that runs through many of the pieces - but also arches over them. The writers here come from different cultural backgrounds, across generation and class, though the focus remains on the UK. There are contributions from those who perhaps aren’t quite in the mainstream fold: Carlene Firmin writes about women involved with and affected by gang culture, and how she once felt that feminism wasn’t for women like her.

Sayanti DasGupta implores Western feminists, like the editors of this volume, for solidarity rather than a belief that they need to be saviours, echoing the postcolonial feminists that precede her.

The writers tackle every stage of women’s lives. Alissa Quart overturns the rhetoric of the ‘natural mother’, instead offering the crests and troughs of her own motherhood. Living that feminist adage that the personal is political, these writers aren’t afraid to pull their own lives out into the cold light of day.

Naomi Alderman contrasts a well-trodden career path for women with industries where women are still newcomers.  While breaking into new arenas means they face fresh rounds of sexism, she argues, women can draw strength from the fact that they at least don’t have a pre-written “women’s part” to play.

Then Tahmima Anam storms in to tell Alderman, that actually, she’s fortunate to be grappling with her ‘first world problems’ while women around the world suffer countless worse abuses.

Perhaps more thought in sequencing could have built a conversation between the pieces, very much of the kind which arises between Alderman and Anam. By sticking with an alphabetical structure, the editors have missed a trick.

The collected-essays format makes for an easy read whilst also providing dozens of leads for further reading via blogs, Twitter handles, books and beyond.

You’ll feel the red-hot inspiration that comes from knowing that all of these women are active right now, defiant and successful in the face of all the obstacles that they’ve left by the wayside.

I would have liked to see more from the edges, from voices that haven’t been aired before. Perhaps even a male voice? I’m not sure. But for me, he was an elephant in the room.

The spirit of the book is perhaps best illustrated in Appignanesi’s own contribution, where she controversially applauds the inspiration for her collection’s name: 2012’s ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey.

Appignanesi argues that E L James, its author, took it upon herself to seize the ‘power of description’ from her colonizers and so to add yet another women’s account to the fray.

By instigating this flurry of descriptions, the editors have worked a little further towards this aim: to ‘populate the world with our own ideas of what it means to be a woman.’

Fifty Shades of Feminism is published by Virago and is out now in hardback.