“How have our feminist practices, beliefs, and ideals grown and changed as we have, and what does it mean to be a feminist at this moment in our lives?” (11)
It is with this insightful question proposed by Eleanor C. Whitney, that I begin to praise her latest book Riot Woman: Using Feminist Values to Destroy the Patriarchy.
In this memoir, Whitney walks us through her experience of figuring out her feminist agenda through punk rock bands, zines, and the Riot Grrrl movement, which inspired her to become the activist and writer she always aimed to be: “From those words, sung, written and spoken, I began to see that life did not have to happen to me as a woman, but I could empower myself to chart my own course, discover and build community, and proactively make decisions to shape my life” (182). The memoir is a collection of essays that shows the importance of intersectional feminism for the LGBTQ+ community and for Black women, and practicing a feminism that is inclusive and hands-on.
The book presents Whitney’s challenges to go beyond day-to-day activism and actually take a political stand in a way that is inspiring and relatable. She was determined to find a sense of community within the movement that allowed it to grow into something off of the page. There’s so much power in being a self-proclaimed feminist, but it’s only when we think and use this power collectively that we are capable of becoming a revolution.
This is Whitney’s contribution to an ongoing dialogue of how feminism has and can continue to shape who we are and how we decide to act in the world. Whitney does much more than share her opinions., She delivers her ideas by showing us her experiences, her growth, her battle as an activist, and her path in this revolution without sugarcoating the frustrations and challenges she faced throughout the way. This is both inspiring and empowering, and it resonated with me as a reader as she transcribes many frustrations that I too experienced when becoming part of this movement.
At the start of the third section of the book, “Our Bodies Are Not Ourselves” (my personal favorite) Whitney rebels herself against any beauty standard proposed by the patriarchy and the media, by proclaiming proudly: “Riots not diets!” And, although this resistance requires constant commitment, she declares that beauty standards created for women would never apply to her and questions, “What happens when we radically accept our bodies no matter what?” (129). She encourages every woman to do the same.
As a woman, I know this journey into self-love and acceptance can be bumpy, and, in Whitney’s case, it wasn’t different. She tells us, in detail, about her own experience with dieting and battling to find acceptance: “While I told myself losing weight was about my health and I was making a conscious, feminist “choice” to do so, my attitude mirrored long held, dangerous beliefs about women’s bodies. [...] My initial enthusiasm about the restrictions imposed by Weight Watchers and my weight loss success had turned into a feeling of rage about being controlled by them. I felt exhausted and burnt out on tracking every bite, lick, and taste I ate and every step I took. [...] I stuck myself on the all-too-common cycle of weight gain, dieting, weight loss, frustration, and weight gain. After several half-hearted attempts to restart the punishing daily calculus of recording points, I finally quit Weight Watchers for good” (124).
In the same chapter, Whitney questions if “body positive” fashion is ever truly liberating if other women are oppressed to create it. By reporting the violence of women working in sweatshops in order to fabricate clothing, she forces us to look at a reality that has been erased and neglected by the mainstream media and feminism as a political movement. A reality that is hard to swallow, but fundamental for us to be aware of. By doing so, Whitney is enacting change within the movement.
And change is needed. As Whitney writes: “While many white Riot Grrrls embraced the idea of intersectionality, they did not embody it or deeply understand that challenging racism and white supremacy, both internally and externally, is a fundamental feminist issue.” (145) The basic idea that feminism stands for equal rights is completely swept under a rug if we don’t put into perspective the lives of the most marginalized communities that are often left out, even by movements and revolutions that exist in their favor. There is a privilege that is inherited in the movement, and seeing Whitney’s ability to question these structures of power and shed light onto these issues is what makes this read so compelling. For feminism to be inclusive, we need to first acknowledge it as a politics of liberation for all and not just some. That includes not only addressing racism but being anti-racist.
“It’s not just talking about it on social media or in “think pieces,” but showing up and embodying a feminist politics that advocates for liberation for all” (160).
Whitney writes her story and continues to be disruptive within the feminist movement, stating that feminism is not a fixed destination—as many hope it will be once joining the movement—but a process. Feminism is a revolution, and it requires a constant battle, awareness, and strength to keep fighting even when the world we live in seems to be stuck in circles. To create an expansive feminism, one that talks to every minority, and every marginalized community, we need to keep pushing for a movement that is inclusive, one that is available and accessible for everyone. And this, as Whitney so wisely puts in her story, is both liberation and a life’s labor. “[Feminism] did not hand me the key to a perfect, just world, but rather gave a compass or North star by which to navigate the long path to helping create that world” (183).