| A pro abortion demonstration in Washington DC 13th November 1989 Credit Duke University Archives | MR Online A pro-abortion demonstration in Washington DC, 13th November 1989 (Credit: Duke University Archives)

Review – Left Feminisms: Conversations on the Personal and Political

Originally published: Red Pepper on August 11, 2023 by Marin Scarlett (more by Red Pepper)  | (Posted Aug 25, 2023)

Left Feminisms is a collection of interviews with fourteen feminist academics—including Red Pepper co-founder Hilary Wainwright—conducted over the past decade by Jo Littler, a sociology and criminology professor at City University in London.

With an already impressive list of publications to her name, Littler opens Left Feminisms with an introductory chapter explaining the origins of this, her sixth book. Having begun conducting interviews with academics in the mid-2000s, she found herself increasingly drawn to feminist academics on the left, and weaves contributions from the book’s subjects to provide readers with a taste of the topics being covered. It’s an exceptionally engaging opener, showing the book to be a passion project that resonated with a wider audience.

Mission statement

Each subsequent chapter opens with a brief biography of the interviewee before diving into their discussions with Littler. Most are based in the UK and aged between 50 and 80, and while the interviews all took place after 2014, they cover their careers in the context of developments in the feminist movement throughout the 20th century. The collection concludes with the notable exception of Race and Class SAGE Journal deputy editor Sophia Siddiqui, who is still in her late 20s.

Littler states her aims for inclusivity and accessibility, opting for the eponymous ‘left feminism’ over the more loaded ‘socialist feminism’. While happy to identify as a socialist feminist herself—and aware of socialism’s rise in popularity among younger generations—its historical baggage remains a turn-off for some and she advocates the movement being as broadly inclusive as possible.

Having said that, this is not a book aiming to convince the reader to align with leftist or feminist politics, but to present the work of various actors in this political sphere and their approach to tackling the problems that we find ourselves facing today. Littler herself presents it as a ‘resource for thinking’ that distils her interviewees’ core theories and ideas, and how these inform their practical activism.

The text is geared towards the already converted, rather than the undecided, and ideal for those who need their enthusiasm for activism reawakened. Littler’s admiration for her interviewees and passion for their work shines through in her questions, and the interviews are lively and engaging; as a reader I felt informed and even, at times, galvanised.

Collective effort

Rousing readers to the cause of the feminist left is a recurring theme in Left Feminisms, and feels particularly acute in an era plagued by despair at various crises—climate change, disinformation, Covid-19—for which apathy sometimes becomes the coping mechanism. Argentinian social sciences professor Veronica Gago laments the nihilism of the times and how to retain hope against the odds, while Lynne Segal criticises a ‘happiness industry’ that commodifies solutions and continues to promote individualism over society, failing to engage with the root causes of our ailing mental health.

Intersectionality is a prominent part of these conversations, with the growing awareness of the necessity of understanding different issues faced by the diverse audiences that Littler and her interviewees hope to reach. ‘We need people everywhere’ is a wonderfully rousing quote from Warwick University sociology professor Akwugo Emejulu, who emphasises the importance of reaching groups to engage politically and take up space across all kinds of disciplines, from parliamentary spaces to pounding pavements.

This goes hand in hand with a need for accessibility, as Littler and several interviewees explicitly state the importance of communicating their ideas and their work clearly. It can be a challenge for academics whose primary readership is their peers. Left Feminisms will be more easily read by those with some pre-existing familiarity with leftist and feminist discourse—or at the very least, be prepared with google to hand to check a few key terms. However, the appetite is there. New York-based philosophy professor Nancy Fraser mentions her surprise at the strong response she received to an article she wrote in the Guardian and, while she concedes her academic work is her primary focus, has written three more since this interview in 2014.

The elephant in the book

I’ll concede some personal bias here, but, in a book that explicitly aims to have feminist conversations firmly embedded in class awareness and critique of capitalism, the absence of in-depth discussion on sex work stood out to me. Littler does not offer insight into her own views and only briefly mentions sex work to acknowledge it as an issue over which feminism is divided.

I braced myself for the interview with Finn Mackay, who has a long history of ignoring the preferred terminology of the sex worker community in favour of labelling ‘prostitution’ as inherently abusive and misogynistic, and supporting Nordic model-style laws despite the well-established harms they cause. While I’m not sad to have missed out on reading a series of SWERF [sex worker exclusionary radical feminist] talking points—Mackay’s chapter instead focused on reclaiming a radical feminism that is trans-inclusive—its omission both here and in the wider book felt jarring.

With that said, I still enjoyed Left Feminisms very much. Littler’s passion leaps off the page and I found her interview format an engaging means of informing and educating readers on the work of some genuinely inspiring figures, as well as expanding my ‘to-read’ list. An ideal starting point for any reader keen to learn more about the recent history and present of feminism on the left.

This article first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt.

Marin Scarlett is a writer and activist

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.