September 22, 2021

More than anything, the social justice landscape is defined by one alchemical process. A viral essay is condensed to a catchphrase, which makes its way onto everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to embroidery samplers — until all of us see it and think we know what it means. Ten years ago, this process worked its magic on a piece written by Flavia Dzodan, giving a wave of up-and-coming feminists their new motto. “My feminism will be intersectional,” they declared, “or it will be bullshit.”

The concept of intersectionality — a shorthand for the ways that multiple minority statuses can overlap to create unique forms of oppression — is relatively easy to understand, which explains its sudden ubiquity in the sphere of extremely online activism. Twitter, after all, doesn’t generally allow for much complexity. But 10 years after its feminist incursion, the motto could use an update. “My feminism will be intersectional,” the new version might read, “and it will be the most ineffective flailing spectacle the world has ever seen.”

Turns out intersectionality is a concept that’s basic in theory but wildly divisive in application, especially when — as with feminism — you’re trying to get a coalition of activists with diverse identities to rally around a single shared goal. Whether it was getting the vote, reforming discriminatory laws, or even just pushing the so-called radical notion that women are people, feminism’s aim has always been to advocate for women because they are women. Once it was declared “bullshit” to focus on that commonality, the feminist cause fragmented with alarming swiftness. Since then, it’s had one crisis after another.

There were the toxic Twitter wars documented by Michelle Goldberg in 2014, as feminists eagerly trashed each other online over perceived political incorrectness. There was the implosion of the anti-Trump Women’s March over racial tensions, starting with complaints that the movement was too focused on pink-pussy-hatted white feminism, and ending with the diverse new leadership melting down amid allegations of anti-Semitism. There was Planned Parenthood’s astonishing apology this spring for focusing “too narrowly on women’s health,” closely followed by the schadenfreude-ridden girlboss downfalls in which powerful women, once feminist icons, were suddenly ousted from their own companies in the name of social justice.

Amid this ongoing feminist mission creep, those who attempted to bring the conversation back on the rails were accused of intersectional failure, centring white feelings, and inadequate attention (or even aggression) toward this or that marginalised group. The resulting chaos, apathy, and infighting caused the movement to basically stop moving — unless you count the numerous think pieces and half-dozen books devoted to the newfound scourge of “white feminism.”

Against this stagnant backdrop, Julie Bindel’s new book, Feminism for Women, promises to breathe life back into the movement. “As feminists,” the veteran activist writes in her introduction, “we are sick of the differences between women being rammed down our throats and used to divide us.” Her book aims to save the cause by reviving the sisterhood and giving feminists permission to re-commit themselves to fighting for the rights of women full stop. “Feminism,” she writes, “has to refocus so that women are the centre of the movement.”

In a feminist culture dominated by online flame wars, Feminism for Women says that what we need are “tangible solutions that will help women move forward to achieve our goal.” Bindel takes aim at the rifts within the movement over trans rights, racism, sex work, pornography — and the incursion of men into positions of feminist influence — with a radical call for unity. If you felt pushed out of the movement during its intersectional moment, this book’s evident goal is to coax you back in.

At its best, Feminism for Women is a righteous expression of solidarity with women, by women, for women. Bindel writes with compelling fury about issues like intimate partner violence, corrupt police who make it fraught and difficult for women to report rape, the systems set up to privilege abusers over victims.

At its worst, though, all this coaxing becomes overwhelming, and this is never truer than when Bindel turns her focus to men, and the women who love them. This is not to say that Bindel’s identity as a lesbian precludes her from talking to and about heterosexual women. Indeed, the notion of identity as a be-all-end-all litmus test for determining who does and doesn’t get to speak on a given topic is just the sort of nonsense that this book rightly pushes back against.

But having established herself as a person who finds the desirability of men incomprehensible, Bindel could perhaps approach the topic with a bit more humility — and to avoid, say, doubling down on insisting that women who enjoy kinky sex are suffering from false consciousness, or that a substantial number of straight women are simply deluded by patriarchy into imagining that they desire men. Feminism for Women delves at length into the concept of “compulsory sexuality,” with Bindel roundly asserting that if patriarchy were to be defeated, “there would be a significantly higher number of women who choose to be lesbians.”

I suspect that Bindel is probably wrong about this. Heteropessimism is already trendy among millennial-and-younger women. In 2019, Buzzfeed even suggested that straight relationships might be “a doomed project,” hopelessly passé. The new wave of feminists earnestly and publicly insist that they would choose to be lesbians — if only they could escape the siren song of their pesky, innate heterosexual orientation. But the choice, they lament, is not theirs.

The accuracy of Bindel’s hypothesis, though, is less interesting than her choice to assert it within the pages of a book that claims, in all caps, to be FOR WOMAN. In the name of solidarity, why lean so immediately and heavily into rhetoric that a substantial portion of your readership are bound to find alienating? Especially when, as the book itself notes, women are already fatigued by just this sort of identity-based shaming from the woke Left?

The answer may be that Bindel’s book, despite its best efforts, is still a product of its time. The intersectional feminist literature of the moment instructs women that they’ve been hoodwinked into false consciousness by “whiteness”; Feminism for Women similarly condescends to its readership by replacing “whiteness” with “porn” and “patriarchy.” In both cases, the point is not to find common cause. It’s to fight against a common enemy.

This need to rally against a villainous antagonist is endemic to much contemporary activism, which tends to define itself by what it’s against rather than what it’s for. (Notice how the struggle for civil rights has lately rebranded itself as “anti-racism”; notice how much activist rhetoric focuses on dismantling and tearing-down without any mention of what might be built.) Of course, so many of these movements turn into circular firing squads, as some people invariably become more interested in ejecting apostates from within than advocating for change in the wider world. Consider how many more feminists want to defenestrate J. K. Rowling for her perceived transphobia than to set aside their differences in the name of advocating for shared policy goals.

Early on in Feminism for Women, Bindel asks: are we nearly there yet? Is the work of feminism almost done? The answer, of course, is no: globally, the subjugation of women remains a problem. And even in the western world, one can point to things like the recent Texas abortion statute as evidence that the battle for women’s bodily autonomy is hardly a thing of the past.

And yet feminism may be over anyway — not because there’s no work left to do, but because the necessary coalition-building has become impossible. Of course, Bindel wants this not to be the case. She writes of getting offline, taking to the streets: “It is crucial that we demand to be heard when we speak of what bonds and unites women, not only that which fragments us”. But women, and particularly those who call themselves feminists, no longer agree about what unites us. And the fractures in the movement run so deep that not even Julie Bindel can avoid tumbling between the cracks.

Julie Bindel‘s Feminism for Women is published by Little, Brown