Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017; 299 pages. ISBN 978-0822363194.

Reviewed by Corinne Lajoie, Université de Montreal.

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed delivers a deeply perceptive and personal account of feminism. Readers familiar with her work will find in this book a rich continuity with the author’s previous analyses of the intersection of lived and theoretical accounts of gender, sexuality, race, and emotion. (Ahmed, 2014; 2012; 2010; 2006; and 2004) Living a Feminist Life was written alongside the author’s celebrated blog, feministkilljoys, in the midst of Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest over the institution’s repeated inaction in the face of sexual harassment. The new book shares the blog’s timely and quick-witted approach to critique and delivers a clear, complex, and capacious account of the real-life impact of feminist theory. Living a Feminist Life is a benchmark contribution to the recent surge of publications on intersectional feminism and undoubtedly ranks Ahmed as one of the most important theorists in contemporary feminist thought.

Drawing on her own body of work, as well as on a rich and diverse set of writings in feminist scholarship, literary fiction, queer theory, and critical theory of race, Ahmed explores how feminist theory surfaces out of ordinary experiences and everyday struggles. By asking what living a feminist life and building a feminist world might be, Ahmed claims that she is offering feminism as both a lifeline and a dwelling. Feminism is a lifeline, in the sense that it offers a potentially different life – a life that might be a sinuous, winding, or queer alternative to “living a life by citing men.” (216) It is also a dwelling or a shelter, which “[gives] residence to bodies” (115) through the slow and painstaking efforts required to build truly inclusive spaces and accommodate different rhythms of existence. While “equality is a bumpy ride” (167), feminist solidarities build essential lifelines and shelters that allow us to “find the energy and resources to keep going.” (162) The tedious efforts required to make these lifelines and shelters possible through feminist work (or feminist homework) serve as the focus of Ahmed’s book.

Like much of the author’s previous work, Ahmed describes Living a Feminist Life as drawing on both the author’s intellectual trajectory as an academic and her experience as a queer brown woman. This connection between theoretical work and women’s embodied situation and everyday experiences, which she draws from her own experience, is a central aspect of Ahmed’s conception of feminist theory and politics. The author argues that becoming a feminist and recognizing feminism as an “affective inheritance” (20) which runs through past and present dimensions of our lives is also a call to “bring feminist theory home by generating feminist theory out of the ordinary experiences of being a feminist.” (214) Ahmed’s own feminist biography, through the first-person account of her initial encounters with feminist consciousness, run alongside more conceptual discussions of subject-formation, social change, materiality, performativity, and perception. In Ahmed’s view, the emergence of feminist theory out of ordinary experience renders conceptual complexity answerable to human diversity and corporeal difference in ways that benefit both feminist theory and feminist lives, in all that they share. This interweaving of theory and human experience in Ahmed’s writing skillfully reflects the emergence of the field of feminist theory from concrete experiences of oppression, and from the stories of resistance borne by these struggles.

In Part I, “Becoming a Feminist,” Ahmed reflects on her own road to feminism and her following of what she calls a “feminist path.” (19) The paths that lead to feminist lives, for Ahmed, are as messy and convoluted as the social worlds they run counter to. Becoming a feminist involves confronting a world which calls your being into question and refuses to make room for feminist claims to existence. Feminists learn very quickly that many ignore the very existence of the systems they will fight to resist. By learning to notice, acknowledge and name what they experience and are up against, feminists also “find out very quickly [that] what [they] aim to bring to an end some do not recognize as existing.” (5) This paradox illuminates Ahmed’s claim that feminists “pose a problem” (37) when they expose a problem; becoming a feminist means being the problem you expose, though not exposing it would lead to the problem of suffering by you and others. As Ahmed aptly points out, feminist consciousness shares this predicament with anti-racist struggles. Both involve finding words to talk about what others refuse to see and challenging claims that actively archive sexism and racism in “the past tense (back then) or an elsewhere (over there).” (6)

Ahmed’s powerful figure of the “feminist killjoy” runs through her entire book and embodies precisely this refusal to forget histories that are not over. Together with the figure of the “willful subject,” also elaborated in previous work (Wilful Subjects), the “feminist killjoy” is the epitome of woman who refuses “to be disciplined or straightened out.” (66) When feminists are accused of killing joy, it is because they refuse to pursue a certain way of life, and to direct their bodies towards a future in which others compel them to invest. The future that feminists are asked to share in requires following “the right path,” which is often conflated with “the path to happiness” (i.e., the path including heteronormative forms of intimacy and reproduction and/or compliance to sexist norms and expectations). By refusing these investments, feminists set out on a wayward path that “requires being willing to get in the way.” (66) As Ahmed writes, “power works as a mode of directionality, a way of orienting bodies in particular ways.” (43) Reclaiming willfulness can require embracing alternative orientations and refusing compulsory investments in “happy objects” and “happy futures.” Feminists are willing to get in the way of happiness, if happiness (as defined by society) means following directions that harm us.

Part II, “Diversity Work,” focusses on Ahmed’s experience as a feminist and a “diversity worker” in academia. The author articulates her nuanced understanding of the lexicon of equality and diversity, and the ways in which it is mobilized as a promise by institutions. Working as a feminist in academia “often means trying to transform the institutions that employ us.” (89) Having herself worked as an appointed “diversity worker” in higher education from 2003 to 2006, Ahmed explores the ways in which institutional discourses and committees diverge from concrete and effective practices of social transformation. The presence of official discourses and committees do not always indicate that the institutions to which they belong are actually willing to be transformed. The promise of diversity and equality can act as a diversion from the lack of actual social transformation being done.  

Diversity work, in Ahmed’s view, involves both “[attempts] to transform an institution” and “work we do when we do not quite inhabit [its] norms.” (91) Ahmed’s discussion of diversity work in this chapter ties back to the author’s account of bodily difference: while some bodies inhabit the dominant norm, others are marked by difference as diverse bodies. Unsurprisingly, “those who do not quite inhabit the norms of the institution are often those given the task of transforming these norms.” (135) The efforts required to transform these norms are considerable, as norms materialize into the “brick walls” (96) that feminists and diverse practitioners come up against. While feminism can feel like “a fragile shelter” with “looser walls, made out of lighter materials” (232), the walls of institutions often feel like they are made of the most resistant materials. The brick walls of institutions create practices of exclusion; they consolidate through the erasure of the fundamental relational asymmetries on which they are premised, until the latter become invisible. They have become so commonplace that we do not see them anymore.

Feminism constitutes one way of asking how power and exclusion have become material – how these walls were built, and what bricks they are made of. The exposure of these walls (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, sexual violence, and discrimination) ensures, however, that “those who don’t come up against walls experience those who talk about walls as wall makers.” (141) The paradox illuminated by Ahmed in Part I finds a new expression in this dynamic: by pointing to problems and walls, feminists become wall and problem makers. As we have seen, feminists are accused of being the problem when they name sexism as a problem. For similar reasons, both feminists and diversity workers might sometimes “try to avoid becoming the problem by not naming the problem.” (100) In Part III of the book, these accusations make up part of what Ahmed calls “Living the Consequences” of being a feminist. At times, becoming a feminist can feel like losing one’s grip on the world; it can feel like sensing through one’s body, all of a sudden, the fragility of connections that do not sustain us. Yet breaking points, writes Ahmed, “need not be understood only as the loss of the integrity of something, but as the acquisition of something else, whatever else that might be.” (180)

When bonds are damaging, breaking points might become something we strive for; we might need to snap to stop something harmful from happening to us through these bonds. Ahmed’s notion of the “feminist snap” speaks precisely to the breaks, splinters, and splits that feminist survival requires. However sharply they make things turn, feminist snaps are not as sudden as they may appear. Ahmed writes: “a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.” (190) By reading feminist history as “a history of snappy women” (191), Ahmed shows how the edges of feminist movements are formed by exhaustion, courage, anger, and resoluteness. Although feminist work can wear us down, it also affords us a space in which to share experiences of conflict, oppression, and adversity. In the book’s penultimate section, the author thus also describes feminism as “A Killjoy Survival Kit.” (236) Feminism becomes a kit which contains both our experiences and all that we have learned from surviving them, through building lifelines, shelters, and communities. In the book’s last section, “A Killjoy Manifesto,” Ahmed speaks to the feminist resilience nested in survival and in solidarity. Feminism is “what we need to handle the consequences of being feminist” (162), but it is also the ultimate snap, the end of something, and the beginning of something different.

For Ahmed, being a lesbian feminist has been one way of living a feminist life – the result of a collective snap through “chipping at the blocks of heteropatriarchy.” (222) Ahmed’s last chapter is a powerful and compassionate response to critiques of lesbian feminism and its “attachment to life.” (213) Against these claims, the author returns to lesbian feminism of color and its celebration of the ordinary struggle for queer forms of friendship, love, and relationality. In Ahmed’s view, this attachment to life is an attachment to connections that “create room for others to be.” (232) It is an attachment to connections that sustain us and make life possible. However fragile, the shelters and lifelines of feminism yield a different world altogether. Ahmed concludes: “we might then think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what we build.” (232)

In this book, Ahmed graces us with a deeply sensitive and powerful reflection on the true meaning of intimacy, community, and resistance. Her voice is exceptional in its capacity to bring theory home and make her readers feel at home in theory. Living a Feminist Life promises to become a pivotal reference in feminist scholarship, and an essential reading for any killjoy survival kit.

Additional Works Cited

Sara Ahmed, Wilful Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions (London: Routledge, 2004).