A Girl's Guide to Joining the Resistance: A Feminist Handbook on Fighting for Good

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Release Date: 
February 27, 2018
William Morrow Paperbacks
Reviewed by: 

Emma Gray’s A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance: A Feminist Handbook on Fighting for Good, is a short, not-quite pocket-sized book, filled with magazine style prose, anecdotes, and inspirational words from famous and not-so-famous people.

Ostensibly intended as a guide to help young women become involved in feminist activism, the book never explains why the fight for “good” is a women’s issue, as opposed to a Jewish, Irish, or black issue. The word conjures up images of old male philosophers debating the nature of goodness; hardly a concrete battle cry to inspire feminist action. “What do we want? Goodness! When do we want it? Now!”

Even stranger, some of the chapters are only tangentially about women’s issues. One is devoted to intersectionality, a trendy concept that describes how people have more than one identity, and their struggles often overlap.

Gray writes that rather than focusing on gender, feminists should see the way their issues intersect with other groups’ issues. This essentializing of women as naturally committed to others first is a pervasive and problematic cultural narrative that inhibits women’s ability to prioritize gender-specific needs and issues.

The pullout quote at the start of the chapter is jarring: “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”

Intersectionality is often criticized by those who point out that other marginalized groups are never advised to be “intersectional.” Critics question why only women should see their concerns as muddled in the social soup of everyone else’s issues. Intersectionality is one of the reasons the Women’s March in 2016 was such a flop in terms of turning the march’s massive feminist energy into productive feminist activism.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t think about how and why identities and injustices overlap, but group identity and cohesion is important to effective gender activism, and women will never succeed under an ideology where femaleness is amorphous.

Another chapter is dedicated to the author’s distress about Donald Trump being elected president, which makes clear that the book is not about women so much as left-wing politics. While one can celebrate an anti-Trump book as well as any Democrat, a partisan book should be framed as a partisan book—not a feminist book—because neither Democrats nor Republicans are particularly good for women.

Neither party supports ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment or advocates for equal justice for victims of gender-based violence. And both parties are well represented in the vast number of men who abuse and rape women.

As the Huffington Post’s women’s editor, Emma Gray knows very well that male control over and access to women’s bodies has always been a bipartisan entitlement. A Girl’s Guide nowhere mentions this important fact. Indeed, there’s almost no mention of violence against women at all, even though violence is the most prevalent, and the most severe expression of sex discrimination. Put another way, dead women don’t care about equal pay or contraception.

Gray completely ignores the epidemic of violence against women in America even though one in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. At least three women die from domestic violence every day in this country, and only 2% of rapists spend even one day behind bars.

Gray also fails to acknowledge the profoundly negative influence of pornography on women’s lives, including the way porn monetizes women’s bodies and leads to enormous suffering and public health consequences, including high risks of sexual violence.

Leaving out any meaningful discussion of violence against women in a book about feminist activism is unforgivable and makes the book seem subversive despite its attempt to appear radical by regularly (and awkwardly) using the word fuck.

Gray mentions in passing that readers should fight for legal protections for campus sexual assault victims, but it’s a passing remark that lacks explanation and context. A reader who wants to help with that problem would be motivated by the knowledge that 500,000 college women are sexually assaulted each year in the United States.

Gray could have also pointed out that because sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment, it is a civil rights offense on campus and must be treated as such. Yet Gray never uses the phrase “civil rights,” even though women’s civil rights were established by Congress and many states almost fifty years ago.

Nor does Gray point out that campus sex assault victims are entitled to, but rarely receive, the same civil rights protections on campus as victims of race and national origin-based assaults. Informing the reader of this fact alone would have given the book value, but Gray seems clueless about the existence of, much less the importance of, civil rights for women.

Civil rights laws are especially important in social justice movements because they create legal injury not only in the victim, but also in entire communities, which means everyone feels injured when a civil rights assault happens.

In turn, everyone feels motivated to get involved and support community-wide solutions. But schools too often treat violence against women as a private, individual problem, worthy of second-class disciplinary treatment, rather than civil rights treatment, even though other types of class-based assaults (race and national origin) routinely receive gold standard civil rights treatment. No surprise then that 500,000 college women are sexually assaulted every year, while only 153 racial incidents were reported on campus in 2016.

Since Gray’s intended audience is young women, and such a large number of college women suffer gender-based civil rights injustice in college, Gray cannot justify putting such little effort into such a major problem. She should have taken the time to explain that colleges under both the Obama and Trump administrations have subjected college women to unequal treatment, (second-class under Obama, third-class under Trump) or at least pointed out that women HAVE civil rights in education and the workplace.

Gray’s resources section at the back of the book reflects her lack of knowledge on women’s civil rights, because under the heading “Civil Rights,” she lists six organizations, none of which works exclusively on women’s civil rights, or advocates for the fully equal treatment of women under civil rights laws.

The organizations she recommends belie a different agenda than the book’s title suggests. For example, there’s a heading for groups that deal with “Racial Justice,” but there’s no section for groups that deal with “Gender Justice.” And the list of groups working on Immigration and Refugee Rights is longer than the list of groups working on Women’s and Girls’ Rights.

There isn’t even a section on women’s equality, much less a list of groups, such as Equal Means Equal, that have been fighting for years for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). And the list of gender-specific groups reads like a who’s who of nonprofits content to waste money pushing crumbs around on a half-empty plate by developing ineffective “education and support programs,” while women’s suffering gets worse and worse.

Gray doesn’t even seem to understand that many women’s rights organizations are government funded, which means they can’t join the resistance, or do very much in the nature of activism, because their hands are tied by funding strings that forbid protests, and limit the types of projects they can work on, etc. An author of a book on “resistance” should know better.

Like the word resistance, the word feminist seems misplaced in the Girl’s Guide. A “Feminist Handbook” should be chock full of information that helps young people understand what it means to be feminist. Though it’s hard to know exactly how often the word appears inside the book because there is no index, none of the chapter titles mentions the word, and I saw it only one or two times in the text, which makes the book a kind of literary fraud.

Young people barely encounter the word feminism in mainstream and social media, and many think it means they have to hate men and burn their bras. A basic chapter on the topic would have provided much needed enlightenment on the issue, including that being feminist is political, not biological. Gray could have simply said that Clarence Thomas is biologically black, but not politically black, and that the same could be said about femaleness and Phyllis Schlafly.

The greatest offense of all in the Girl’s Guide is the inexplicable absence of the ERA. There is no justification for not teaching young readers that women are still not equal under the United States Constitution, and that they have been fighting for equality for a hundred years.

The United States Supreme Court ruled many years ago that women are not entitled to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, so it should come as no surprise then that women consistently earn less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. Why wouldn’t they? A woman is only 8/10 of a person. No matter how many laws are passed that purport to forbid violence against women, and guarantee equal pay and abortion rights, etc., things will never change so long as the ERA is not ratified because the space between constitutional equality and inequality is where injustice occurs with impunity.

The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972, and has been ratified by 36 states; 38 are needed for the ERA to become part of the Constitution. This sentence should have been up front and center in a book about women’s rights, social justice, and activism because it is both a critically important issue, and because it is a concrete goal around which young women could organize. The Girl’s Guide could have emphasized that equality will give women louder voices when they speak up for other oppressed groups.

This book saying nothing about the ERA is like a feminist Twilight Zone episode.

There are a few redeeming features in the Girl’s Guide, such as inspirational quotes from people like actress Ashley Judd, who seems fearless in her fight for women’s equality, and who urges young people to use “necessary rowdiness” and “find the courage” to live the truth “in unfriendly spaces.”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren quips, “if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.” These bumper sticker phrases can bring people together in the spirit of the #MeToo campaign, which is essential to success.

A chapter on how to do grass roots organizing also has some valuable tips: “Don’t meet just for the sake of meeting . . . talk about your goals. Create a mission statement.” These types of basic how-tos are important in any social movement.

But a section at the end called “Feminist Mixtape,” which lists songs the author describes as inspirational, lacks depth and fails to connect today’s youth to the past. Aretha Franklin’s Respect or Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” would have been better choices than Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.”  And Lupe Fiasco’s” Bitch Bad, Woman Good” should have been there because of the way it connects racism and sexism.

Gray’s choice of what films to watch is similarly unsophisticated. Where is Iron Jawed Angels, or The Time is Now? And why is there no section on what books to read, like Unwanted Sex, The Feminist Mystique, A Doll’s House, Manifesta, The Second Sex, Backlash, and more?

Maybe one shouldn’t have expected real feminism in a book that primarily urges women to oppose Trump and embrace liberal democratic values, but in 2018 shouldn’t all books on social justice engage the reader in a critical appreciation of why it isn’t enough to be anti-Trump, or to vote Democrat? After all, Hillary Clinton’s record on the ERA and violence against women is woeful.

A worthy Girl’s Guide would have shone a light on the way the two-party system itself has contributed to women’s subjugation and invisibility as a politically relevant class of people, and it would have included important historical information about why the idea of a Women’s Party was so popular years ago, and perhaps should be resurrected.

It’s possible that Democrats will seriously fight for women’s equality in the future, but that day will never come so long as young women are misled to believe that one party is good for women and the other is bad. It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans were the key sponsors of the ERA, and Democrats were resisting calls for women’s equality. Women have been a ping-pong ball in the dichotomous, anti-feminist hell of American politics long enough.

Today’s feminism should cut the ties with left/right politics, and declare itself fiercely independent. With luck, this will force one or the other major parties to work harder to earn women’s support by prioritizing the ERA. In the meantime, young women should be skeptical about books like the Girl’s Guide that mislead them to believe they have no choice but to support one party or the other and accept subjugation as their natural state.