2018 is the right time to read Lynne Segal. While many liberals and leftists consider the nebulous notion of “resistance” in broad terms—how do we participate? What methods are most effective?—Segal gives us insight into “another set of worries”: “whether and how feminism remains relevant to any such resistance.” Before I opened the recent reissue of her memoir, Making Trouble: Life and Politics, first published in 2007, I hadn’t seen the current predicament framed so succinctly. Is there anything of value left in the feminist project? Or has it become “co-opted and tamed by, even complicit with, the forces that have brought us here?” (“Here,” as you might expect, means living in the time of Trump, Theresa May, Brexit, and other nominally democratically selected horrors.)
It’s difficult to receive this inquiry as anything other than rhetorical, since, in Segal’s view, one of those forces—the sort of aspirational individualism that our current stage of capitalism tends to promulgate—has proved to be the single most effective tool for neutering feminist language and precepts. We are now living, Segal asserts, in an era in which mainstream feminism is no longer “oppositional but presented as a firm ally of the capitalist market”; what’s important, for many current feminists, is that women have equal access to the starting line of an endurance race that ends in misery for most. It’s this strain of aspirational feminism that insists that Taylor Swift and Megyn Kelly qualify as feminists, Hillary Clinton as a political savior, and Fearless Girl, a sex-and-race-discriminatory investment firm’s cynical art-vertisement, as a rallying cry for gender equality.
To hold fast to this version of feminism in the Trump era is a bit like clinging to a pile of dynamite in the middle of a forest fire. Yet it’s the only feminism that some women have ever known, and it’s no easy feat to convince them that the individual power a woman might amass through self-involvement and self-promotion—and almost inevitably at the expense of other, less advantaged women—is not synonymous with true liberation. Now 73, and having devoted nearly her entire adult life to prioritizing collective triumph over individual, Segal confronts a devastating possibility: “Have we feminists wasted our time on politics?”
Despite a long career as one of England’s leading socialist feminists, Lynne Segal isn’t well-known in the United States. Though she’s focused on the so-called “sexy” aspects of feminism—sex itself, of course, and pornography, and masculinity—none of her eight often thick and sometimes dry books have made much headway among wonkish, academically inclined younger American feminists. In Making Trouble, Segal describes how her fellow Australian, Germaine Greer, has long viewed her as something of a rival, or at least a competitive nuisance; but Segal’s influence is much more limited, and she has yet to write anything akin to Greer’s The Female Eunuch or The Whole Woman.
Innovative theory and bombastic delivery are not Segal’s style, and she knows it. (In a typically endearing and generous moment, she writes of Greer: “I was always her junior in every sense.”) And yet there are many characteristics of Segal’s work that make it worthy of a wider audience: She’s a reflective, careful thinker who has served as a steadfast historian of the movement that she began contributing to in her early adult years. As her published work attests, the whole of her personal history is defined by her relationship to feminist politics. It has shaped her life in every conceivable dimension—familial, professional, social—and earned her measured loyalty in the process.