- Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism
In this, their second book on third-wave feminism, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards have focused on answering the question, "What Can I Do?," that has echoed since their first book, Manifesta. Flooded with inquiries about how exactly one goes about feminist activism, what precisely one does about social injustice, how one can actually effect any meaningful change at all, Baumgardner and Richards work to demystify activism in ways that help young feminists "find the activist within." What results is an upbeat, affirming, hopeful text that not only answers all of these questions, but also motivates and rejuvenates feminism-in-action.
The prologue defines and exemplifies an activist as "anyone who accesses the resources that he or she has as an individual for the benefit of the common good" (xix). Chapter 1 chronicles some of the authors' own efforts at promoting change, identifying what worked in the end, what did not, why, and what they would do differently now. Chapters 2 through 6 examine the experiences of feminist activists in different stages and modes of life focusing, respectively, on activism in high school, at college, in everyday life after the school years, at work, and through artistic creativity. Chapter 7 offers reflection and closure as well as concrete ways to perform feminism-in-action through everyday living, and the epilogue outlines one day in each of the author's lives to show what that might look like.
The strengths of the book include the same accessible style born in Manifesta, its attention to the second wave, and its effort to help readers stretch what feminism means. Through liberal use of personal narrative that has become characteristic of many third-wave writings (Findlen 1995; Johnson 2002; Walker 1995), Baumgardner and Richards boldly confront [End Page 217] their own struggles, misconceptions, and mistakes even as they analyze their successes, ingenuities, and triumphs. In response to critiques of third-wave personal narrative seemingly for its own sake (Kinser 2004; Dicker and Piepmeier 2003), they put more effort in this second book into connecting their narrative in concrete ways with political consequences and translating their stories into possibilities for political action. It doesn't have the intellectual teeth that Dicker and Piepmeier's book has, a bite I usually prefer, but this is why Grassroots will function so effectively as a "field guide for feminist activism." It is a layfeminist, everyday life, feminist-on-the-street manual.
Baumgardner and Richards make a concerted effort to address some of the tension between second- and third-wave writers through their pointed attention to the work and consequences of the second wave, grounding contemporary feminism in its recent historical context. They insist that today's feminists build on past efforts, rather than try to build from scratch, or assume they are doing so. They recommend feminists discover and utilize mechanisms that are already in place, they urge, rather than assume that none are. Another of the book's strengths is its emphasis on conceptualizing more broadly what gets to count as the subject matter of feminist activism. Reproductive choice and violence against women, as we often typify them, are not the sole concerns of feminism. Living wage, cost of contraception, contaminated water, testing for STDs, and towels at the gym that only cover small people are all important feminist issues that beg for activist involvement.
One of the most important themes throughout the book is that feminism is both more difficult and less difficult than many of us believe, that things are not always as they seem, that problems are more complex than simply "ending" them, yet workable solutions are still very possible. Baumgardner and Richards explain, for example, that "rather than aiming to 'end homelessness,' you can aim to raise your consciousness about why people are homeless and what homeless people need in terms of social services" (88). Nonprofit organizations are no more pure good than corporations are pure evil; energy spent critiquing the latter might be better spent compelling...