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The Future Is Feminist review – two centuries of women’s wit and wisdom

Editor Mallory Farrugia’s energising collection traces the living thread from Mary Wollstonecraft to Mindy Kaling

In a way, The Future Is Feminist is aptly named, as it’s a Tardis of a book. Edited by Mallory Farrugia, the anthology zips back and forth between different time zones to offer “radical, funny and inspiring writing by women” as far back as the 18th century (an extract from Mary Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), through to modern articles, such as Naomi Alderman’s ambitious How to Build a Truly Feminist Society (the Guardian, 2017). All 21 pieces have previously appeared elsewhere, as everything from poems and essays to book excerpts, even speeches. While Jessica Valenti notes in her foreword that recent times have seen “an explosion in the cultural power and relevance of feminism”, this anthology also serves as a reminder that the wick on the feminist dynamite has long fizzed dangerously.

It fires up with Rachel Fudge’s 2005 essay Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Feminism But Were Afraid to Ask. Fudge runs through the different kinds of feminist terms – ultimately concluding that ongoing relevance matters more than labels: “Feminism isn’t something that happened to your mother or grandmother and now it’s over. It’s living, breathing, evolving.”

From there, the book takes us on a tour of eclectic meditations: Jia Tolentino on perceptions of beauty (“Beauty in the 21st century can be boiled down to a combination of technology and time”); Sofi Jawed-Wessel on sex and pregnancy (“Every time a woman simply has sex because it feels good, it is revolutionary. She is revolutionary”); Audre Lorde on how a cancer scare helped her find her voice (Death, she writes, is the “final silence”). Arlie Russell Hochschild on Gender, Status and Feeling (“The emotional arts”). Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie on how Feminism Should Not Be An Exclusive Party. Claire Vaye Watkins rebelling against the perception of the male literary voice as more valuable: “I don’t want to write like a man any more. I don’t want to be praised for being ‘unflinching’. I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.”

Elsewhere, there are flashes of social history, big and small, from Judy Brady’s laconic 1971 essay, I Want a Wife, to Jessica Bennett’s wry 2015 look at the resting bitch face phenomenon. Caitlin Moran tells male Esquire readers how it is (“Please remember that the patriarchy is bumming you as hard as it’s bumming us”). Roxane Gay uses the prism of cinema to muse on the great female crime of appearing “unlikable”, while Mindy Kaling lampoons onscreen female stereotypes. Also featured is Salma Hayek’s harrowing 2017 New York Times essay, Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too – detailing the relentless sexual intimidation she suffered at Weinstein’s hands while trying to make the film Frida. As Hayek observes: “Men sexually harassed because they could.”

While the #MeToo era is represented, so too is the distant feminist past. In Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? (1851), the former slave turned activist robustly mocks the concept of innate feminine fragility: “I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?” Wollstonecraft trains her focus on how women are venerated for the very qualities (beauty, coquettishness) that turn into societal traps: “I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority.” Go, Mary!

This is one of the key strengths of The Future Is Feminist – a full commitment to diversity, not just in terms of races and generations, but also topics, styles and approaches, resulting in a varied, energising read. At the same time, all the pieces seem connected in spirit – signifying a thread between the generations that may, at times, have become frayed, but is ultimately unbreakable. Considering the bold title, it should be noted that this collection makes precisely zilch attempt to prove that the future is destined to be any more feminist than the past or present. However, it does showcase the feminist voice as a continuum – surviving and thriving in the most unexpected and challenging of circumstances. Maybe that’s even better.

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