What I’m Reading: Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life

I’ve been meaning, since last summer when I read this book, to begin to post more about what I’m reading. Mainly as a strategy for documenting this for myself (since I’m the main audience of my own blog, according to my own statistics).

Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (Duke, 2017) came out at a time which, for me, was personally very difficult. I had just finished my Ph.D., I had moved back to NYC, I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever be able to teach college again or spend time ever again with the research project I’d spent nearly 10 years developing, and I was coping with the longterm effects of some deeply ignored trauma. When I read Ahmed, who openly discusses the trauma of institutionalized academic work, it felt like a balm. I continue to recommend the book to people who work in institutions—academic, religious, corporate— plagued by sexual and racial trauma.

Book cover of Sara Ahmed's Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017)
Book cover of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017)

It was on the heels of reading this book too that I finally developed confidence to teach feminist theory and history in my own courses. I started to talk about it in my high school English class, and then when I moved into the college classroom, I developed a unit on feminism for my composition course.

Something that has taken me aback: Students communicate a sense of relief during the feminism unit. They often don’t know what the term “feminist” means, they (both men and women) recognize themselves and their experiences in the theory presented, and they take ownership of feminism on their own terms. They often share the readings with family members. They look at their personal histories and at their cultural communities through a new lens. The student body at my college is 67% female, and once the discussion gets going, men express amazement at their female classmates’ experiences. Nearly every semester, a heated debate will develop over normative expectations about who should pay for a meal, for instance. This semester, a lesbian student interrupted the debate to describe the way in which paternalistic traditions can ironically impose themselves lesbian relationships too. She made the whole class crack up during a story she told about confusion ensuing about the check at the end of one of her dates.

Anyway, I thank Ahmed for giving me the confidence to go forth as an averred feminist in my career. I also appreciate that Living a Feminist Life gave me more of a background to discuss race as a primary component of feminist discourse. In fact, once again, it was a student who interrupted a discussion about unequal pay to remind us that the statistics I presented (the standard “women make 80-cents on the man’s dollar) really only apply to white women. In a classroom in which I’m the only white person, this sort of point lands heavily. Roxane Gay criticizes what she calls “Capital-F feminism” helpfully for its history of excluding women of color and the LGBTQ* community in Bad Feminist (2014), which is on my syllabus and which my students read avidly. But Ahmed’s chapters on “Diversity Work” in particular forced me to reckon with my own years of white feminist indoctrination. I’m still learning.

The experience of being a feminist is often an experience of being out of tune with others. (Ahmed 40)

My indoctrination as a feminist—a white feminist in particular—began early. In seventh-grade (age 12), in a used book store, I found Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book on sexual violence Men, Women, and Rape. It was old (probably an early edition from the late 1970s), but each moldy yellow page shocked me. On the same used-bookstore shelf, I found Marilyn French’s 1977 novel The Women’s Room. I went around school for a few days after I’d read it asking teachers (who were “alive way back then”) if what the books said was true. “Was it really like that?” I remember asking one. She took me seriously: “Yes.” I guess the only surprise left in store for me was just how little has changed since the late 1970s.

At a yard-sale that year, I bought a hippie kiln-forged handmade mug that had the words “Pro-Choice” carved into it, and you better believe I carried it around with me. Even to my piano camp, where I initiated heated lunch-room debates with the fundamentalist Christians and Catholics I’d grown up with. We debated abortion rights and evolution and the existence of god with the cheerful abandon of young sophists with little, yet, at stake.

I Shot Andy Warhol came out in 1996, and you better believe that my friend Lara and I went to see it at the local art house theater. We bought Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto, and I read it on the school bus, hoping for someone to ask me about it. This was my feminist training: flawed, undirected, and white white white. It was a start. It had an effect: it trained me to always observe gender. Even when I became shyer, less confident, depressed, and later traumatized—unable to speak up—I still noticed.

One consequence of my feminism has been that I have felt like a burden. Ahmed’s book felt like a “relief” to me was because it recognizes the loneliness of being what she calls the feminist killjoy.  (Her blog, which carries this word as its title, was how I learned about her in the first place.) This is why she concludes the book with what she calls the “killjoy survival kit” – because “becoming a killjoy can feel, sometimes, like making your life harder than it needs to be” (235).  Because when you know that things are bad, and you feel compelled to bring up the badness, you are responsible for “messing up” the meeting dynamic, or making someone realize their friend sexually harasses women, or “ruining” the simple pleasures of listening to “Beat It.” You don’t get kudos or raises or promotions from pointing this out to people. Ahmed’s reification of the feminist killjoy feels so familiar to me because it’s a role I’ve inhabited for a long time. Ahmed describes this process:

I have already noted how when diversity workers talk about walls, the walls become phantom walls, as if we bring the walls into existence by talking about their existence. (Ahmed 142)

You describe the problem and then are blamed for creating the problem. When you describe a problem, you are betraying solidarity.

A friend of mine recently gave me some advice after sitting and patiently listening to me list my woes about conflicts I have with people. She told me that I probably need to set aside more time in my week to be with feminists. She explained that there are people out there that already agree with me, to whom I don’t need to justify feminism. I realized that I’m in a defensive grip – maybe from growing up in a conservative place, maybe as a result of being a member of a misogynistic religious community for so long, and maybe as a result of my own trauma. But my friend is right. After all, as Ahmed explains in the intro, “to live a feminist life is to live in very good company” (17). Quite a relief.

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