Dated Feminists

In a relatively short period of time I came across a number of references to my work as “dated” and I was twice described as a “1980s feminist.” Almost all of these references were in anonymous reader reports on written work that was eventually to become part of my book The Promise of Happiness (2010), in which I explore the figure of the feminist killjoy in depth. In fact, that was her first outing in my work.

I am not at all offended by such descriptions. I love 1980s feminism! But I do find them intriguing. And I do think I am invested in concepts and vocabularies that some would describe as “dated,” as belonging to a style of feminism that some assume is now over. Think of photographs you might have in dusty drawers of you and your friends from a decade earlier; you might take them out to have a laugh at the strange and yet familiar haircuts and fashions. It can be affectionate, that laughter: did I really; did we really?!  In the present time, some of us might have the function of an old photograph. We become a reminder of a time that others are no longer in; clothes that have been discarded; old fashioned, old fashions.

I suggest in my concluding paragraph in this post that even to use words like “sexism” is to be heard as dated, as drawing on terms that are not only not in use but have lost their utility. One wonders of course: do we lose the word to keep the thing? If feminist critiques of sexism are heard as “dated,” is it because the word is too sharp, rather than too loose, as cutting and abrasive because it keeps naming something?

Later when writing On Being Included (2012) I noticed again this reference to “old-fashioned” as a way of creating an impression of being over something. For example, in a BBC interview about the police and racism, Trevor Phillips suggests that most people in Britain are not racist as they “wouldn’t have a problem” having a person with a different ethnicity as their neighbour. Thus he suggests “the blanket accusation ‘institutional racism’ no longer quite helps us to understand what is going on.” For Phillips any racism within an institution is explained as not really “going on” even when it is on going: “In many of our institutions, there are still old-fashioned attitudes that don’t really catch up with where modern Britain is at and how British people today feel. That’s the next task that we’ve got to tackle” (On Being Included, 48). Racism becomes in this description about what is “old-fashioned” as if it lingers only insofar as institutions are not expressing what is in fashion. This account of racism as an old fashioned word might also help us to understand why diversity is so fashionable. It is a word that is in tune, in time, not abrasive because it is a shiny happy word.

My book On Being Included, funnily enough, was published out of sequence; it was a much delayed book. The reason this matters is that it was speaking to diversity practitioners and listening to how they account for the fashion of diversity that led me to want to write about happiness. In other words, On Being Included, published in 2012, led me on the trail to The Promise of Happiness, published in 2010.  What a queer sequence!

When doing the research on diversity work, I kept being reminded of feminist descriptions of the appeal of the figure of the happy housewife. In A Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan noted:

In 1960, the problem that has no name burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife. In the television commercials the pretty housewives still beamed over their foaming dishpans…But the actual unhappiness of the American housewife was suddenly being reported…, although almost everybody who talked about it found some superficial reason to dismiss it.

Now listen to this account of the appeal of diversity:

diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed.  It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed. 

A boil that bursts through a beaming smile; a shiny apple with a rotten core.

Diversity becomes here a technology of happiness: a way of creating a shiny surface is a way of not addressing and thus reproducing inequalities. You can see how some of this material led me to return to some earlier feminist concepts and terms. More specifically, it led me back to questions of consciousness. Consciousness is not understood here as  residing within individuals, or as what individuals have. Consciousness can involve individuals, but they are not the starting point. Rather, if we think of the creation of shiny surfaces, we are also thinking of how we learn ways of not being conscious, ways of not seeing what is happening right in front of us. Words like “racism” and “sexism” are heard as abrasive because they name what has receded from view. Then: it as if by “bringing them up” you are bringing them into existence.

Being a feminist killjoy can involve the refusal to find such images of happy convincing.  We are not convinced by the effort to be convinced. We keep bringing up what cannot be seen when diversity becomes a viewing point. No wonder feminist history is littered with killjoys: grumpy “humourless” women who refuse to find happiness convincing.

But this is a difficult history. It can be difficult to become conscious of unhappiness. Sometimes it seems it would be an easier path not to notice what gets in the way, not to be what gets in the way.

Feminism involves political consciousness of what women are asked to give up for happiness. There can be sadness simply in the realization of what one has given up. Let me share with you my reading of Mrs Dalloway from the chapter on feminist killjoys (this is an edited version).


Feminist archives are thus full of housewives becoming conscious of unhappiness as a mood that seems to surround them: think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The feeling is certainly around, almost as a thickness in the air. We sense the unhappiness seeping through the tasks of the every day. There she is, about to get flowers, enjoying her walk in London. During that walk, she disappears: “But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (1953: 14).

Becoming Mrs. Dalloway is itself a form of disappearance: to follow the paths of life (marriage, reproduction) is to feel that what is before you is a kind of solemn progress, as if you are living somebody else’s life, simply going the same way others are going. It is as if you have left the point of life behind you, as if your life is going through motions that were already in motion before you even arrived.  As I argued in Queer Phenomenology (2006), that for a life to count as a good life, then it must take on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. If happiness is what allows us to reach certain points, it is not necessarily how you feel when you get there. For Mrs Dalloway to reach these points is to disappear.  The point of reaching these points seems to be a certain disappearance, a loss of possibility, a certain failure to make use of the body’s capacities, to find out what it is that her body can do. To become conscious of possibility can involve mourning for its loss.

For Clarissa this rather uncanny sensation of becoming Mrs. Dalloway as a loss of possibility, as an unbecoming, or becoming “nothing at all,” does not enter her consciousness in the form of sadness about something. The sadness of the book – and it is a sad book – is not one expressed as a point of view. Instead, each sentence of the book takes thoughts and feelings as if they are objects in a shared world: the streets of London, the very oddness of the occasion of passing others by, a feeling of that oddness. The coincidence of how you coincide with others. As Clarissa goes out with her task in mind (she has to buy her flowers for her party), she walks into a world with others. Each might be in their own world (with their own tasks, their own recollections) and yet they share the world of the street, if only for a moment, a fleeting moment, a moment that fleets. Things appear as modes of attention: the plane above that writes letters in the sky, the plane that is seen by those who pass each other by. The question unfolds as a shared question: what letter is that? What word is that? “‘What are they looking at?’ asks Mrs. Dalloway” (42). It is as if the mere direction of a glance is enough to create a shared world. Although each brings to the street a certain kind of moodiness, a preoccupation with this or with that, the street itself can become moody, when an object grabs attention, like the plane that creates words in the sky above, although for each person who looks up, what they see might be quite different.

If unhappiness becomes a collective impression, then it too is made up of fragments that only loosely attach to points of view.  In particular, the proximity between Mrs. Dalloway and the character of Septimus is what allows unhappiness to be shared even if it is not passed between them; two characters who do not know each other, though they pass each other by, but whose worlds are connected by the very jolt of unhappiness. We have the imminence of the shock of how one person’s suffering can have an effect on the life world of another. Septimus suffers from shell shock; and we feel his feelings with him, the panic and sadness as the horror of war intrudes as memory. His suffering brings the past into the time of the present, the long time of war, its persistence on the skin as aftermath, its refusal of an after. To those who observe him from a distance, those who share the street on this day, he appears as a mad man, at the edge of respectable sociality, a spectacle. To encounter him on the street, you would not know the story behind his suffering. To be near to suffering does not necessarily bring suffering near.

Clarissa and Septimus, as characters who do not meet, thus achieve an odd intimacy: the not-just-private suffering of the housewife and the not-quite-public suffering of the returned soldier are interwoven. Importantly their sadness is proximate but not contagious. They do not catch sadness from each other; their sadness is what keeps alive histories that are not shared, that cannot be shared, as they pass by on the street.  And yet something is shared, perhaps those very things that cannot simply be revealed.  It is Clarissa thinking of her “odd infinities” with strangers “she had never spoken to,” as she sits on the bus, who wonders whether the “unseen part of us” might provide a point of attachment to others, and might even be how we survive through others, “perhaps, perhaps” (231-2).

Much of the book is about an event that will happen. For Mrs Dalloway is planning a party. To some feminist readers, it is the preoccupation with the party that makes the book disappointing. For Simone de Beauvoir, Mrs. Dalloway’s enjoyment of parties is read as a sign that she is trying to turn her “prison into glory”, as if as a hostess she can be “the bestower of happiness and gaiety” (1997: 554). For de Beauvoir the gift of the party turns quickly into duty; such that Mrs. Dalloway “who loved these triumphs, these semblances” still “felt their hollowness.” (554) For Kate Millett, Mrs. Dalloway is a rather disappointing figure; she exposes Woolf’s failure to turn her own unhappiness into a politics: “Virginia glorified two housewives, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsey, recorded the suicidal misery of Rhoda in The Waves without ever explaining its causes” (1970: 37).

If Mrs Dalloway is distracted from the causes of unhappiness by the party (and we can have some sympathy with the necessity of distractions), the party is also the event in which unhappiness comes to life. For Mrs Dalloway, her party is life; it is how she can make things happen; it a gift, a happening (185). What happens? That this question is a question is a preservation of the gift. And something does happen. For it is in the party that Septimus’s life “touches” Mrs Dalloway most directly. It touches her through death. Lady Bradshaw says to her: ““Just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army.” Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought” (279). In the middle of the party, words accumulate as a narrative, telling the story of a death. A young man kills himself, and the death itself (and not just the narrating of the death) takes place in the middle of the party, in the middle of the life of the party.  The soul of the party is death. The reader has already read about this death; we have witnessed it. Now, we witness the ripples of this death, how it acquires a life of its own; how it takes place somewhere in the middle. For Mrs Dalloway, this death becomes something to imagine; to bring to life by thought:

What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaws talked off death. He had killed himself– but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with the thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaw’s talked of it at her party!” She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she has been thinking of Bourton, of Pete, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop everyday in corruptions, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (280-81)

His death becomes a question that takes Mrs. Dalloway away from the party; she attends to his death, wonders about it; she becomes a retrospective witness even though she was not and could not have been there. The shudder: the sounds of it; the thud, thud, thud of it; the ground that flashes; the rusty spikes. His death becomes material; becomes fleshy through her thoughts.  His death announces not only that sadness can be unbearable but that we don’t have to bear it, that you can fling it away. And in this moment, when death intervenes in the life of the party, life becomes chatter, becomes what goes on, “they went on living,” what comes and goes, “people kept on coming.” Death comes to embody the suffering that persists when life becomes chatter.

What is striking about Mrs Dalloway is how suffering has to enter her consciousness from the edges, through the arrival of another, another who is an intruder, who has not been invited to the party. It is the suffering of an intruder that exposes the emptiness of life’s chatter. Suffering enters not as self-consciousness – as a consciousness of one’s own suffering – but as a heightening of consciousness, a world-consciousness in which the suffering of those who do not belong is allowed to disturb an atmosphere.  Even when unhappiness is a familiar feeling, it can arrive like a stranger, to disturb the familiar or to reveal what is disturbing in the familiar.

The arrival of suffering from the edges of social consciousness might teach us about the difficulty of becoming conscious of suffering, or teach us about our own resistances to recognising those seemingly “little” uneasy feelings of loss or dissatisfaction as unhappiness with one’s life. The party might expose the need to keep busy; to keep going in the face of one’s disappearance. So much sadness revealed in the very need to be busy. So much grief expressed in the need not to be overwhelmed by grief.  It is hard labour just to recognise sadness and disappointment, when you are living a life that is meant to be happy but just isn’t, which is meant to be full, but feels empty.  It is difficult to give up an idea of one’s life, when one’s lives a life according to that idea.

To recognise loss can mean to be willing to experience an intensification of the sadness that hopefulness postpones. We might say that feminism is an inheritance of the sadness of becoming conscious of gender as a restriction of possibility that was not necessary.


In reading this text, I wanted to show not only how consciousness of unhappiness is achieved but also how such consciousness puts us in touch with the world; allowing a world to pierce through the happiness seal.

Killjoys: breaking the seal.

In contemporary culture, so much inequality is preserved through the appeal of happiness, the appeal to happiness. It is as if the response to power and violence is or should be simply to adjust or modify how we feel; for instance, by transforming a social relation of exploitation into a personal feeling of empowerment.

And in feminist theory, too, there has been an injunction to “get over it” that some call an “affirmative turn.” There is an assumption that we must be for joy; that joy is about the capacity to act, that sadness is simply or only diminishing (1). For me what is diminishing is the assumption that sadness is what we have to recover from, a recovery narrative that becomes too quickly a re-covering of the histories that are not behind us.

Of course I am not describing the complexity of some of this material that gathers as “the affirmative turn”.  But when I read that material I am unconvinced; more than that, I find such material to be part of the very shiny surface appeal that diversity practitioners as well as second wave feminists helped to diagnose for us.

It is not my task here to go through this material, though undoubtedly I should (but oh this should makes me weary). I am simply trying to account for how some styles of feminism are heard as dated.  And my response: we need to be dated feminists, because what we are describing is not a world that is no longer. I am not saying here that being dated is about being or feeling sad (none of my work calls for us to be sad, though I do think we should refuse the obligation to be happy). Rather: to be dated feminists might mean holding on to things (including words) that are deemed sad by others. When words like “racism” and “sexism” are heard as melancholic, it is assumed we are holding on to something that has gone. So yes: we have to hold on as these histories are not gone.

(1) I am well aware that some of these arguments “for joy” are drawing on Spinoza’s Ethics. Some readers might say, I am confusing terms here: that sadness and joy are not emotions or feelings, but refer to how bodies are affected, whether a body’s capacities for action are increased or decreased. However, I would argue that words “sadness” and “joy” retain their associations with negative and positive feeling even when used in this way, thus creating a connection between positive feeling and increased capacity, as well as negative feeling and decreased capacity. It these connections we need to challenge and that challenge (for me) requires drawing on intellectual resources that are often assumed as “dated.” Also note that for Spinoza, sadness and joy are affects precisely insofar as they are attached to ideas (and are thus confused). See my conclusion to The Promise of Happiness for further discussion; the afterword, “Emotions and Their Objects” to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion for a feminist critique of uses of the affect/emotion distinction, as well as my forthcoming book, Willful Subjects, for some questions around the distinction “increasing” and “decreasing” in contemporary uses of Spinoza.


Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage

Friedan, Betty (1965). The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Millet, Kate (1970). Sexual Politics. Doubleday Publishers.

Woolf, Virginia (1953). Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harvest Book.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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6 Responses to Dated Feminists

  1. saintweasel says:

    Reblogged this on i don`t need yoo.

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