Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan Fraiman reviews Living a Feminist Life

Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017. 299 pp.

Review by Susan Fraiman

In a number of important books, theorist Sara Ahmed has estranged, debunked, and inverted paradigms we thought we knew, some of them prevalent in left as well as mainstream circles. She has queered phenomenology, questioned reductive views of “home,” shot down the “postracial,” and disavowed “happiness” as a trick of the sex/gender police. Living a Feminist Life revisits many of these issues for the first time since Ahmed’s departure from Goldsmiths College in 2016. After a lengthy struggle to hold the school accountable for incidents of sexual harassment, Ahmed had reached a breaking point—a case of what she calls “feminist snap”—and broke up with academia as an act of protest. Started before and completed after her resignation, Living a Feminist Life has one foot in and one foot out of the academy. While Ahmed’s work has always stressed examples from everyday life, previous books were in close dialogue with intellectual histories and debates. This time, though ever the philosopher in some of her language and concerns, she reaches out to readers beyond the university—in particular, to younger women seeking to identify and endure as feminists. The work is self-consciously accessible, personal, and practical, in keeping with its broad address as well as with Ahmed’s determination “to bring feminist theory home” (p. 10): to claim it as a praxis emerging from and speaking to our daily lives as feminists. 

While locating feminism in the everyday world, Ahmed tells us she “still wanted to make an intervention within academic feminism” (p. 11). The bold, energizing nature of this intervention is arguably the book’s most significant contribution. Its import is nothing less than a full-scale recuperation of the separatist impulses of the second-wave women’s movement. To this end, Ahmed offers an unabashed defense of woman-centered scholarship and programs fought for (and sometimes paid for) by the cohort of feminist thinkers and activists who came up through the 1970s and ’80s. Daring to value formations more often disparaged as passé and “essentialist,” she celebrates feminist centers, women’s studies, and a canon of women writers (George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and others). She likewise honors the founding generation of feminist theorists—figures such as Shulamith Firestone, bell hooks, Arlie Hochschild, Gloria Anzaldúa, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich and, above all, Audre Lorde. Intent on acknowledging these foremothers, especially those of color, Ahmed takes the further step of refusing, as a matter of policy, to cite any white men (p. 15). But Ahmed isn’t done with her challenge to academic orthodoxies. Her claiming of figures and strategies from the ’80s culminates with a call to revive lesbian feminism (p. 213). In a final chapter, the lesbian feminist is championed as a willful subject, raging against compulsory heterosexuality. Taking a wrecking ball to normative notions of “happiness,” Ahmed offers the lesbian feminist as a prime example of her favorite antihero: the abject feminist “killjoy” (p. 222). No longer queer theory’s dowdy Other, lesbian feminism is here given its due as a radical materialism: the embodiment of feminist theory and politics in everyday life.

It is true that Ahmed rallies us once again under the banner of “women.” Note, however, that hers is a category reinvented to reference “all those who travel under the sign women” (p. 14). Transwomen are now not only included but in some sense exemplary, for “it is transfeminism today that most recalls the militant spirit of lesbian feminism in part because of the insistence that crafting a life is political work” (p. 227). Needless to say, Ahmed also understands identity in emphatically intersectional terms. If the book’s middle section on “Diversity Work” seems to veer from sexism to racism, “I am not,” Ahmed reminds us, “a lesbian one moment and a person of color the next and a feminist at another. I am all of these at every moment” (p. 230).  Feminists have, of course, been theorizing identity as complex and contextual for several decades now, but it helps to have someone with Ahmed’s political and theoretical cred insist so passionately that issues of sexuality, race, class, and immigrant status can be usefully assembled under the sign of “women.” The postinaugural Women’s March on Washington—giving voice to a panoply of demands for social justice—was a similarly vivid demonstration of feminism’s ability (too often unrealized in the past) not only to mobilize huge numbers but also to sponsor a genuinely diverse resistance movement.

A word about methodology. One of the things I most admire in this and other works is Ahmed’s gift for concretizing power relations, making “norms appear as palpable things” (p. 43). Explaining that “paths are good to think with” (p. 45), Ahmed illustrates the workings of hegemony in terms of repeated impacts on the material world. Received ideas and practices carve out directionalities (toward traditional marriage, for example), and the pressure to follow these established channels, like the difficulty of deviating from them, is felt to an almost physical degree. Sometimes the impress of power is literal, as when harassing hands have a cumulative effect on female bodies, making them tense up or close off in fear. The result of being groped and catcalled, Ahmed says, is that “you learn to inhabit your body differently” (p. 24). To those conversant with Ahmed’s earlier books, many of the ideas elaborated in this volume will be familiar. We reencounter them here, however, not only as an extension of her phenomenology of oppression but also as a brazen defense of feminist identity politics. Especially compelling is Ahmed’s insistence that living as a feminist is not a sudden, euphoric escape from patriarchy and other structures of domination. Instead, it’s a lifelong project of chipping away at regimes that continue to exert considerable force. To practice feminism is therefore to encounter both frustration and widespread disapproval. It means, Ahmed warns, being seen as selfish, mean, and chronically dissatisfied—the bringer of discord to family dinners and professional meetings alike.  For those of us willing to pay the price, Living a Feminist Life assures us we’re in good company.