Over the past decade, feminism has been increasingly visible in popular culture. Key political events such as the election of Donald Trump in 2020 and the widespread protests that followed have prompted a groundswell of interest in feminism. Despite this new enthusiasm, the central argument of Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism is that mainstream feminism is still not representing the interests of all women. This accessible book is a vital critique of the dominance and weaponization of whiteness within mainstream feminism. Using high-profile news events as her starting point, Phipps argues that an intersectional approach that benefits those most marginalised by the patriarchy is needed if feminism is going to benefit all women.
Me, Not You’s critique of ‘mainstream feminism’ describes it as a feminism that wants ‘power within the existing system, rather than an end to the status quo’ (5). Phipps clearly outlines in the introduction that this is a book critiquing white feminism, written by a white woman and aimed at white women who might never have needed to examine their own privilege before; by contrast, ‘for feminists of colour, the arguments [she] make[s] here will probably be nothing new’ (3). Phipps points to white feminism’s historical precedents, such as the eugenicist attitudes of Marie Stopes, and the tendency for suffrage movements to prioritise privileged white women (155-156). Phipps draws on the critiques developed by Black feminist groups like the Combahee River Collective and criticises the centralisation of whiteness in second wave feminism, the legacy of which is still felt today, especially in discussions of sexual violence and pornography. The book is split into six chapters, including chapters on transphobia and carceral feminism. The book begins by looking at the current political context, before moving on to chapters that explore how mainstream feminism in the US and the UK privileges white women. The final two chapters argue that white women not only ignore women of colour but often use their whiteness as a weapon against them.
The historic inadequacy of mainstream feminism to represent all women is a thread that run throughout the book. To demonstrate this, Phipps highlights the contrasting ways that Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill were treated by the press and the public in the wake of their allegations against men nominated for the United States Supreme Court. Referencing Moya Bailey and Trudy’s term ‘misogynoir’, meaning the ‘blend of sexism and racism that shapes Black women’s experiences’ (15), Phipps contrasts the ‘international wave of support’ that Ford received with the ‘frostier reception’ that faced Hill. Though noting the changing social attitudes towards sexual harassment in the time elapsed between Hill’s and Ford’s highly public ordeals, Phipps argues that the differing ways in which women of colour and white women are framed as victims of sexual assault and harassment suggests Black women are still much more likely to be viewed as complicit in their own abuse. Phipps argues that Hill and Ford’s testimonies can be understood within the context of neoliberalism which ‘puts the needs of the market above all else’ (16). Drawing on the work of Silvia Federici to outline the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, Phipps shows how women’s rights throughout the world are being eroded to service capitalism, and she challenges the notion that feminism can ever succeed within the confines of the status quo. Furthermore, Phipps argues there is a risk that attempting to make changes within the existing system, rather than changing the system itself, leads to the weaponisation of white women’s concerns in service of a right-wing agenda, a line of argument she explores in detail in the final chapter.
Me, Not You cites how #MeToo, a movement organised by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, was co-opted and commodified by white feminism to demonstrate the centralisation of white women’s concerns. Phipps notes that although speaking out has often been a central tenet of feminism, it is white women who dominate this conversation: ‘#MeToo is the latest in a long list of feminist movements in which white bourgeois women have co-opted the ideas and resistance of women of colour’ (38). The desire to avoid doing this herself is reflected in Phipps’ citation practices and examples which make visible the important work of women of colour academics and activists. Taking an intersectional approach to feminism, Phipps is critical of the tendency for radical feminists to focus on women’s oppression as being purely due to their ‘sex class’, as this fails to consider the impact of race and class (42). Again, this is, of course, not a new argument, but the clarity of Phipps’ writing provides a useful explanation for those not versed in the histories of feminism.
This intersectional approach is evidenced in Me, Not You’s critique of carceral and colonial feminism. Citing Elizabeth Bernstein, Phipps defines carceral feminism as a feminism which ‘sees criminalisation and incarceration as ways to achieve gender justice’ (46). For Phipps, carceral feminism reinforces racism and white supremacy, since it utilises a criminal justice system that is so often racist and classist. As she points out, so much of the current hegemonic feminist moment is predicated on seeking carceral justice. Although not mentioned in Me, Not You, the recent social media reaction to the news of film executive Harvey Weinstein’s conviction and imprisonment for sexual assault demonstrates this. Indeed, a parallel can be drawn between the positive responses on social media to Weinstein’s imprisonment and the way people commended the judge who imprisoned US gymnastics doctor and sex offender Larry Nassar. Phipps quotes Judge Rosemarie Aquilina who told Nassar that ‘if authorised, she would have “allow[ed] some or many people to do to him what he did to others”’ and that she had just signed his ‘death warrant’ when she sentenced him to spend the rest of his life in prison (57). Phipps highlights this celebration of carceral state power ignores the extent to which the carceral state is complicit in the oppression of people of colour and working-class people.[i]
The chapter on the ‘outrage economy’ adds to existing literature on anger by scholars and writers such as Brittney Cooper (2018) and Soraya Chemaly (2018). Phipps examines how this outrage is used by white feminists to increase the visibility of feminist issues in a way that leads to very little structural change. Phipps argues that it is often the outrage of white women that is listened to; indeed, the outrage economy generally maintains the status quo since it is governed by capitalist logic. Stories about sexual harassment, for example, are used as ‘clickbait’ to increase readers and advertising revenue, but this ‘does not mean survivors will not themselves be vilified if this happens to be the better story’ (93). Worse still, according to Phipps, is the ‘pass the harasser’ problem, whereby outrage at sexual harassment might lead to a harasser losing his job, only for him to find employment in ‘lower-status sectors, where women have less support and fewer employment rights’ (94). Moreover, Me, Not You is heavily critical of ‘public expressions of feminist anger, such as the Women’s March, [which] are undeniably bourgeois and white’ (112). Although acknowledging the right of all women to be angry about sexual violence, Phipps suggests that this form of protest ends up centring white women, with the anger of women of colour undermined by calls for civility. She even argues that white feminist anger has a ‘willingness to create collateral damage’ (127). As with many of the examples used in Me, Not You, this reinforces the need to think beyond mainstream feminism if we want to ensure that it is not just white middle-class feminists who benefit, and feminists in lower status sectors are also protected.
Phipps’ book also provides a convincing argument against sex worker-exclusionary feminism and trans-exclusionary feminism, arguing that often the outrage economy is used against sex workers and trans women. Transphobia, in particular, has become increasingly prevalent within British feminism (as discussed elsewhere by Lewis, 2019) and Me, Not You outlines how the outrage of trans-exclusionary feminists is often used to police access to feminist spaces. Phipps systematically refutes transphobic arguments by providing evidence to show that trans-exclusionary feminism is essentially reactionary. Perhaps, one of Me, Not You’s greatest strengths is that Phipps makes this argument in a book written for a general audience to counter the so-called ‘common sense’ arguments of trans-exclusionary feminists that proliferate on social media.
The final chapter of Me, Not You discusses the relationship between feminism and the far right. Whilst the two may seem in opposition to each other, as Phipps argues, ‘the “fascistic habit” of white feminism can easily move from latent to overt’ (133). Phipps locates this convergence particularly in the marriage of convenience between the religious right and trans-exclusionary feminists. Thus, Phipps critiques reactionary feminism as being ‘rooted in disdain for those who think and live differently’ (145). As such, this ideology ultimately benefits white women and thus reinforces white supremacy; it cannot be used to ‘tackle the intersections of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism that produce sexual violence’ (159).
Ultimately, Me Not You challenges the assumption that mainstream British and American feminism benefits everyone. Whilst the rise in popular feminism over the past decade can appear quite cheering, for Phipps this feminism does little for the collective as it benefits white women at the expense of women of colour. A well-researched book, Me Not You is written in an accessible and persuasive style that makes it ideal for those in their first forays into feminism and acts as a rejoinder to popular feminist texts that uphold the status quo. Despite often engaging with complex academic theory, Phipps’s writing is accessible, and she explains most of the book’s concepts clearly. As a book that is full of examples from the real world, it is useful for those beginning to grapple with the complexities of feminism. For those of us more familiar with the debates within feminism, the book’s arguments about the limitation of the outrage economy and how it benefits white women to the detriment of women of colour is an important consider and helps us consider the extent to which mainstream feminism is as effective for all women as it could be.
Review by Claire Sedgwick
Claire Sedgwick is an Honorary Research Fellow in Cultural, Media and Visual Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. Claire tweets @claire_sedgwick
Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The power of women’s anger. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Cooper, B. (2018). Eloquent Rage: A Black woman discovers her superpower. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Kim, M.E. (2018). From carceral feminism to transformative justice: Women-of-color feminism and alternatives to incarceration. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 27(3), 219-233.
Lewis, S. (2019). How British feminism became anti-trans. The New York Times, 19 February. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/opinion/terf-trans-women-britain.html. (Accessed 01/08/20).
Terwiel, A. (2019). What is carceral feminism? Political Theory, 48(4), 421-442.https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0090591719889946 (Accessed 01/08/20).
[i] No alternatives to carceral feminism are outlined. Perhaps being left with more questions than answers is no bad thing, as asking difficult questions crucially allows us to envisage different possible futures. Nonetheless, it would have been valuable for Phipps to foreground some different conceptualisations of justice. For example, Mimi E. Kim discusses transformative justice solutions that could provide an alternative to carceral feminism, (2018: 227). Yet there is also the risk that the wholesale rejection of the criminal justice system ‘leaves no room for progressive feminist engagements with the law at all’ (Terwiel, 2019: 5).