Book review: Fifty Shades of Feminism

When the editors dreamed up the title Fifty Shades of Feminism last year it seemed much wittier than it does today.

Fifty Shades of Feminism

Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Susie Orbach and Rachel Holmes

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Virago, 336pp, £12.99

Now that we’ve had Fifty Shades of Gay, Gravy and Louisa May, puns on EL James’s S&M novel sound like some embarrassing hangover from 2012 – like dancing Gangnam Style or enthusiasm for the Olympics.

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Fortunately, the book is much stronger than its title. Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach asked 50 female authors to explore what it means to be a woman. The result is sharp, intelligent and impressive. It’s a fitting book for a time when feminism – long proclaimed to be dead – is resurgent, with movements such as SlutWalk and One Billion Rising, and a revived campaign against topless women on the Sun’s Page 3.

There are a few voices that particularly stand out. Queen of the quip Kathy Lette is deliciously witty: “I doubt that any man would have trouble multi-tasking at, say, an orgy.” The critic and broadcaster Bidisha is brilliantly – and inspiringly – angry: “Those who react with vociferous derision when they are called on their misogyny are enraged because their cover has been blown, their presumption of superiority has been questioned and women have dared to challenge them and answer back.”

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And Lennie Goodings, the head publisher at Virago, is contemplative about the problem women have with power: “Think of the language we use almost exclusively for women in power, the word ‘bossy’ being the most interesting. Is it bad to be bossy if one is the boss?”

Some contributors could get a whole book out of their chapter. In particular, Bee Rowlatt, a journalist with the BBC World Service, should be penning a What Would Mary Do? advice guide for girls, based on the genius of Mary Wollstonecraft: “‘Yes, your bum looks big,’ Wollstonecraft would have snarled, ‘but who cares?’” And I’d happily read an extended version of Lindsey Hilsum’s account of life as a foreign correspondent, in which she makes the surprising admission: “It’s the men in the newsroom, rather than in the countries where we report, that have caused us most grief.”

My (small) complaints are with editorial decisions. The pieces appear in alphabetical order by author, probably in some kind of misguided attempt to be democratic. This means the chapters are badly ordered. Why lose Lette in the middle and have similar arguments juxtaposed? There’s also the maddening decision for Laura Dockrill’s words to appear in the faux-scrawl of a tipsy teenager.

Rather more damningly, the contributor list feels predictable – most of the usual suspects are there – and I wonder if that won’t put off potential readers. I hope not, because there’s much her that deserves a wide audience. But boy, I wish they’d picked a better title.