When is the right time to ask for what you want? One of the strange things about the feminist movement is that what women want hasn’t been that much of a mystery at all. (Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Simone de Beauvoir: century after century, girls just wanna be human, not other.) But finding the moment to speak and the words to use? Reading Breanne Fahs’s collection of feminist manifestos, Burn It Down! (Verso, £20), I sometimes felt I was walking through a graveyard, each mossy tombstone marking a movement that made its demands and then faded away. Who were the Lesbian Avengers, who wrote the GINK Manifesto (‘Green Inclinations, No Kids’), why hadn’t I heard of TRASHGiRRRRLLLZZZ? They were once so alive!
But kill feminism a thousand times, and it will rise a thousand more. The most recent manifesto in the book is two years old: a poem by Susan Stenson called ‘Occupy Menstruation’ which is for ‘Free Bleeding’ (meaning no tampons) and against ‘the Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Menstrual Pad’. The oldest is a transcript of what Sojourner Truth said when she stood up at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851: ‘I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?’ Between then and now – most of the entries are from the last fifty years or so – there are demands in the form of letters, manifestos written in bullet points, a few from the 1980s that were cut up, stuck onto flyers and photocopied, one written as a funeral oration for ‘tradtional womanhood’, as well as speeches given on marches. There are italics, shouty caps, no caps at all, Barbie-pink flyers, loopy handwriting in ink and a typist who doesn’t strike hard enough on the first word of a sentence. They are documents written in haste under pressure, in whatever genre seemed best and with whatever was closest to hand. They’re not even really written by writers, and often not by just one person. When I didn’t feel I was in a graveyard, I was being surprised by feeling: of course there would be anger – I knew that – but I didn’t count on so much pain, sadness and weariness.
The best manifestos here are also testimony, amounting to an informal history of all the things that annoyed women enough to be noted down. ‘Manifesto’ meant a ‘piece of evidence’ in the 17th century, apparently from the Latin manifestare; I also kept thinking of the French word for ‘demonstration’, manifestation. Traces of protest, traces of complaint. A ‘pajama femme’ explains in a post on Medium in 2011 that while her ‘gender identity is Dolly Parton … my gender presentation is more Roseanne’ but she objects to the idea ‘that anYONE’s gender can be summed up by their appearance’. She ends with a come-on: ‘We will be the ones at the gay bar in our sweatpants.’ ‘The People behind the Mop Buckets’ from 2015, written by a student at Arizona State who worked as a cleaner, asks the reader to consider the hospital housekeeper, required to clean a room without being warned that its last occupant had tuberculosis: ‘I can guarantee the nurses, doctors and ultrasound techs who worked with the patient were made aware of the TB diagnosis and were provided N-95 masks prior to entering the room, so where was our notification and our mask?’ In ‘A Letter to the Man Who Tried to Rape Me’ from 2016, Sara Roebuck, a 28-year-old LSE graduate who was living in Paris at the time she was attacked, details the battles she fought just to report her rape, starting with the battle against ‘the natural instinct to feel culpable’ and ending, if that sort of thing ever really ends, with the decision not to allow ‘this event to determine who I am, or alter the way I feel about myself’. These are accidental manifestos, not argued over at endless meetings, or divided into actionable demands. They are the sort of thing any of us might write, in fact do probably write at least once in our lifetimes, and perhaps not just in our heads.
But more often the manifesto instinct is sublimated by the needs of politics: there are substantial political documents in this collection, documents in the mould of Marx and Engels. (Though no document here is more haunted by The Communist Manifesto than the Fat Liberation Manifesto, which ends: ‘FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD,UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE …’) The Radical Women Manifesto, first written in 1967 and revised in 2001, covers everything from the environment to women in prison, with eminently sensible ideas. A single bullet point suggests ‘equal legal recognition of all forms of consenting relationships … No preferential tax treatment based on marital status … the unqualified right of married women to keep their own names … Divorce granted on the grounds of incompatibility … Removal of divorce and child custody issues from the adversarial court system.’ The Transfeminist Manifesto from 2001 (‘we construct our own gender identities based on what feels genuine, comfortable and sincere to us’) and the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto from 1971 (‘all people who feel attracted to a member of their own sex’ should ‘be taught that such feelings are perfectly valid’) both seem unarguable.
But more than any of these, the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 set the tone for feminism ever since. The Combahee River Collective was a group of black feminists formed in 1974 and named after one of Harriet Tubman’s emancipation campaigns. After becoming exasperated at being excluded from mainstream second-wave feminism, their consciousness-raising group focused on the ‘multilayered texture of black women’s lives’, a texture (or intersection, we might now call it) which they saw as a political strength: ‘If black women were free it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.’ This sentiment – that your feminism is only as good as the way it treats the most vulnerable – comes up again and again across the collection. Sex workers compare their struggle to that of care workers. Trans activists compare the control they want over their bodies to the control demanded by abortion activists. Single women fight for the right of women in couples to have their loneliness acknowledged. Women had long been told that they didn’t need to organise separately because when the revolution came it would sweep everything away. These manifestos say: sure, but doesn’t that make us the best people to lead it?
And what if there were a different way of doing politics altogether? Nothing here approaches the elegance and glory of The Communist Manifesto, but then it shouldn’t. Feminism can ask for the things men have, or it can ask for the world to be organised differently. Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto from 1967 – the manifesto is her anger distilled, a year before it was discharged in the form of a bullet aimed at Andy Warhol’s chest – sees men as ‘emotional cripples’ and blames them for creating a world in their image: ‘The male claim that females find fulfilment through motherhood and sexuality reflects what males think they’d find fufilling if they were female.’ Men will inevitably become obsolete, Solanas says, and then there will be a three-hour working week, lab reproduction of babies (where it will be immoral to produce emotional cripples, i.e. men, deliberately) and a world in which subway workers give out tickets for free, automobiles don’t exist, ‘great art’ is destroyed and SCUM takes over the airwaves. When you’ve stopped laughing, you think: it’s not as if she’s wrong that in a better world the subway would be free.
The W.I.T.C.H. Manifesto, from 1968, the year the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was formed in New York to hex Wall Street, redefines anyone who is a woman and dares to ‘look within’ herself as a Witch. It imagines doing politics with ‘theatre, satire, explosions, magic, herbs, music, costumes, cameras, masks, chants, stickers, stencils and paint, films, tambourines, bricks, brooms, guns, voodoo dolls, cats, candles, bells, chalk, nail clippings, hand grenades, poison rings, fuses, tape recorders, incense’. It all sounds pleasingly crazy until I remember that Sisters Uncut – a leaderless group formed in London in 2014 to highlight the way Tory austerity disproportionately affects women – gathered outside Holloway Prison to protest the death of Sarah Reed in custody with plumes of green and purple smoke. Sometimes no one listens if you ask nicely. If feminism is condemned to come in waves, with each generation having to relearn what was achieved in the last, then forgetting also brings unexpected alliances. In one of the last contributions to the book, the artist Jenny Holzer offers her Truisms: aphorisms from the late 1970s onwards that are no less earnest than they should be, but have been pressed into service for feminism after a #MeToo-adjacent campaign in the art world took one of them – ‘abuse of power comes as no surprise’ – as its slogan. Another Holzer Truism could be the answer to my question: ‘a sense of timing is the mark of genius.’ Which I guess means always. Or maybe never. Always and never is the time to ask for what you want.