Why I am not a feminist: US visiting writer Jessa Crispin talks tarot cards and modern feminism

Jessa Crispin argues feminism has become banal and mainstream.
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Jessa Crispin argues feminism has become banal and mainstream.

Jessa Crispin gives a hint of a smile – the first time the American writer has warmed since we began our Skype call.

The 38-year-old shares my star sign. We are both Cancers, the crab symbol possibly apt in her own self-described "cranky" case.

We're talking about astrology because this radicalist, best-known for her long-running but now defunct literary site Bookslut, also reads tarot cards. It seems a contradiction that a woman who organises radical reading groups in Paris, Brooklyn, Washington DC and San Francisco, supplements her income with tarot card-reading sessions.

Handling her first deck at the age of 14, Crispin began reading cards professionally two years ago. She has a bi-weekly tarot newsletter, and her second book, published last year was The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life. But it took her eight years of reading cards every day – searching for insights into family, work, men she was dating – before she could come out publicly about her secret passion. "If you want to be a serious writer or intellectual you can't say you're a mystic because no-one will talk to you again," she says.

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Over an hour-long Skype call while the New York skies rain on her apartment roof, Crispin explains her reasons. When she strikes a creative block, she'll pull a card and search for inspiration. The Ace of Swords will suggest she has to dial an idea down and focus on a specific point. "It's about thinking in a sideways way," she says. "It's like the bumble bee who keeps hitting his head on the window. Sometimes you can get in those loops in your head which don't help you."

By the time this story is published Crispin will be in Wellington promoting her latest and likely to be most controversial tome, Why I am Not a Feminist. It's a radical call-to-arms for women to rally together; "a full-on revolution", where women reshape society rather than strive for equality within it. "My feminism is not one of incremental change, revealed in the end to be The Same as Ever, But More So," she writes.

"It is a cleansing fire." Crispin believes feminism has become mainstream, universal and white. It is "trending". In a bid to appeal to the mainstream, it lost its edge. "They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible," she writes​.

But this former feminist points to a more radical history. Feminists were part of the fringe, activists "who forced society to move towards them". She believes today's tame feminism is a reaction to popular perceptions of the second-wave feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s: angry women with body hair scared off today's women who in turn were afraid of alienating men. Then feminism had an image makeover and became pretty and non-threatening.

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"Now that we have removed all meaning from the word feminism, our ranks have swelled," writes Crispin. She believes that modern feminism supports a world in which women have two options. "Either you can let a man take care of the financial and outer world side of things while you spend time with your children and shop for overpriced organic blueberries, or you can work until you die to buy stuff you don't need and fight for every square inch you exist on. Either that pays off for you in the end or it doesn't."

In her view, women have moulded themselves to survive in a hyper-masculinised world, participating in patriarchal values. The old barriers of gender and race have been replaced with money and power, and women are often as bad as men. In a scathing attack on Hillary Clinton, she writes that in Clinton's previous role as a senator, she disadvantaged women and children.

"You can't overcompensate for some men's problems with women by insisting on our purity and innocence. The way we deal with other people's inhumanity is to insist on our humanity, not by insisting we are somehow a better, more honest version of human. "That requires admitting to the shitty things that some women do, the violence they commit, the lies they tell to get what they want... "

Women who are a part of the system are not necessarily any better, morally speaking, than the men who developed and maintained it. Women are now lawyers and judges who put innocent men and women in jail, who exploit the poor, who support institutionalised racism. Women are now politicians who are rewarding the mega-rich with even more money at the expense of the poor."

In the 14 years she edited and wrote for Bookslut and freelanced for publications such as the Boston Review and the New York Times, Crispin found herself loathing the feminist literature that crossed her desk. "Then someone else would give me another feminist book to review and I would hate that [too], and I was trying to figure out what I was hating. How to articulate that anger. It's the overall thinking of the feminist movement right now which is the problem, rather than any one individual writer."

BEGINNINGS

Crispin was raised in small-town Kansas by a Bible-loving patriarchal father and a stay-athome mother. For as far back as she can remember, Crispin felt out of place in the dusty town on the edge of a river. Retreating to the library – where as a teen she worked part-time until her father forced her to quit – she devoured as many books as she could, coming across a smattering of feminist literature.

She listened to Courtney Love and PJ Harvey, shaved her head and dressed in men's clothing – all the while severely depressed, and working out how to survive. "I started getting suicidal and depression when I was, like 12, up until my early 20s. I mean, I don't mean to exaggerate but it was a life-and-death thing. I [considered suicide with] some half-hearted pill taking. That was as bad as it got."

Worried about local gossip, her parents didn't allow her to see a doctor. At age 20, she was finally diagnosed with depression – there's a family history of it – however, she says, "Once I started living the life I wanted, the depression and anxiety became much more manageable." 

At 19 she finally escaped her town, leaving the US for Ireland where she studied Irish literature at Cork University. "It was crazy. It was the first time I had been out of the country and away from my family in any real way. It was terrifying and liberating. Occasionally, I went to class. I just wrote in a journal and cried a lot."

When her visa ran out, she shifted back to the US, to Dallas, and then Austin. "Dallas because of a boy, and to Austin to get away from the boy." She worked for the not-for-profit Planned Parenthood in Austin as its librarian and sex educator until the role was disbanded and she was charged with fundraising. "But I'm very cranky, so I wasn't allowed to talk to any of the donors or be physically visible in any way. "I was good at my job, and I wrote all the letters, and did the database management. But they were like, 'Don't let Jessa talk to the rich people.' "

Bookslut was born in 2002, when Crispin had some time on her hands and "was bored at my day job". With its book reviews and profiles of writers across every genre, the online magazine with 250,000 monthly readers was her world for 14 years – until she shut it down last May. It covered everything from feminist literature to comic books, cookbooks and Pulitzer Prize-winning novels and, she says, "a lot of pieces I rejected because of misogyny and men's shit".

She got to meet some of her heroes – the magic realist writer, Kelly Link, and the feminist writer Catherine Davies. "It gave me my whole adult life, right? Every writing job was because of it. Every writer that I've met, including a couple of unfortunate boyfriends, came through the work I was doing at Bookslut."

Crispin admits to a pattern, only recently halted, of dating men who were "outwardly misogynistic. I kept finding myself in relationships with male writers who just never read women, who didn't care about a woman's perspective." In her book, she devotes a whole section to what she calls the pervasion of romantic love.

"Feminists do not have to shut themselves off from the possibility of romantic love. But we should question the privileging of romantic love over all other forms of love, from familial to friendship to societal. We should also question what is required of us in order to be loved, and the way the possibility of love and sex and family is dangled in front of women as a way of keeping them in line – and the way women are all too eager to internalise this method of control."

"There are men on this planet who have gone through the difficult process of dealing with feminism which means understanding how they have treated women as objects, and weren't aware that there were unconscious things guiding their behaving, that were hurting women that they love. Then you meet men who don't hit their romantic partner and don't call her a bitch, and they think they're enlightened, but they're not."

Do men ever find her a bit scary? "Oh yeah," she laughs, clearing her throat. For several years, she didn't speak to her father. "Now there's a truce. My parents have definitely had to adapt to me. I just refuse to adapt to them. They're not exactly radicals but there is a softness that wasn't there before."

I feel uncomfortable asking if, at 38, she would like children. It seems old-fashioned and out-of-touch, but the question is out. Crispin gives the hint of a smile that has become familiar during our conversation. She'll probably stay childless.

"I don't have hugely strong feelings about it. If it had happened, then maybe I would have done it. I'm just at that age now where probably I would have to try and get medical intervention and I don't feel strongly enough to do that."

If this angry writer could design her ideal world, patriarchy, capitalism and consumerism would be bulldozed for a softer society that values love and care. Feminism would stop being just another form of middle-class aspiration and start concerning itself with those at the bottom of the system. "Feminism is – should be – a movement, not an excuse to stand still," she writes.

"We cannot create a safe world by dealing with misogyny on an individual basis. It is our entire culture, the way it runs on money, rewards inhumanity, encourages disconnection and isolation, causes great inequality and suffering, that's the enemy. That is the only enemy worth fighting." To all those safe 21st-century feminists arguing for equal pay and the right to rise to CEO, Crispin has a message: "If the conversation could shift a little. Can we stop talking about ourselves, and how feminism is about getting a good job and getting good money?

"We have to think beyond ourselves and about society. Our obligations precede our rights. "We owe something to society before we can take from society."

Jessa Crispin has two workshops in Wellington this week: Why I Am Not a Feminist, on Thursday; and The Creative Tarot, on Friday. Visit pirateandqueen.co.nz for details and tickets. 

 - Stuff

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