‘A Brief History of Feminism’ Tells It and Shows It Like It Is

"There can be no one 'feminism'," writes Antje Schrupp.

A Brief History of Feminism
Patu, Antje Schrupp
MIT Press
Oct 2017

Curiously, some of the most era-defining landmarks in the history of feminism tend to take place during times of intense political or social resistance to feminist ideals. Since 2010, for example, we witnessed Malala Yousafzai defy the Taliban’s prohibition against educating girls; we heard Chimamanda Adichie’s spine-tingling manifesto “We Should All Be Feminists”; we witnessed global superstars Beyoncé and Taylor Swift openly endorse the word “feminist”. At the same time, however, a self-confessed sexual predator presides over the White House (Trump wouldn’t be the first, lest we forget Bill Clinton or Thomas Jefferson, who maintained a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, a 16-year-old slave; Harvey Weinstein’s empire of abuse and depravity has only now begun to come crashing down; and Brock Turner has just walked out of jail after completing a pitiful three months from his six-month jail sentence for rape (and is now trying to avoid having to register as a sex offender for life). Indeed, those who follow the trajectory of feminism since its inception have become accustomed to the contradictions that both surround it and define it.

Consequently, books that purport to provide overviews of this history face the daunting task of accurately representing the movement at each of its stages without oversimplifying its complexities. Antje Schrupp’s A Brief History of Feminism (translated from German to English by Sophie Lewis) provides an energetic overview of feminist thought, from the first notion of gender differences introduced by the mythos of Adam and Eve to the modern day feminist’s obsession with pop culture critiques. Schrupp’s portrayal of feminism’s different manifestations through the ages is respectful, humorous, and mercifully unclouded by the heavy tension that tends to hound even the simplest conversation about feminism. That said, like any good historian, Schrupp never puts the movement on a pedestal. She filters her exposition through the 21st century lens of intersectionality and social critique, lending the book a contemporary aspect of self-awareness that addresses the feminist movement’s moments of hypocrisy with regards to race and class. Add Patu Tifinger’s charming illustrations to the mix, and the result is a condensed, no-fuss, unpretentious guide to one of humanity’s most misunderstood movements.

To be clear, A Brief History of Feminism is exactly what the title claims it is. You will find no academic monologues or in-depth analyses of notable figures or events. Schrupp never lingers on any subject for too long and she writes with a relaxed, colloquial tone that facilitates quick transitions from one subject to the next. The book’s introduction provides an accurate idea of what to expect regarding scope, language, and general approach:

“To understand feminist ideas, then, we must always look at them in their proper context and not boil them down to one simple definition. Individuals will inevitably have to form their own judgments and take their own positions. There can be no one ‘feminism.’ New propositions, discoveries, and findings are emerging all the time.

Some of these ideas and developments are laid out in this book. The focus here is European, Western feminism, because that’s the tradition in which the authors are knowledgeable and, thus, the discourse to which this book belongs. Feminism has long existed everywhere else in the world, but that feminism may look quite different from the feminism presented here.”

As we can see from the above passage, Schrupp possesses a laudable ability to frame complex topics (for example, the inherent relativity and mutability of feminist thought) within digestible language, clear enough for a high schooler to absorb. This readability is a welcome break from the hifalutin gibberish that pervades academic writing, and although A Brief History of Feminism doesn’t target those concerned about publishing or perishing, it might teach them a thing or two about concise and compelling prose. Schrupp isn’t the only one who should get credit for the quality of the writing, however. Sophie Lewis’ translation flows so naturally that readers forget the book was originally written in German, and she does a wonderful job at preserving the humor of the cartoons.

Regarding clarity of ideas, Schrupp owes part of her success to Patu, the illustrator, who can communicate complicated nuances with humor and immediacy through her cartoon-style ink drawings. Patu’s illustrations offer glimpses into what Schrupp did not have the space or occasion to communicate. For example, halfway through the section on abortion, Schrupp’s expositional text provides straightforward facts about the legality of abortion in different countries. Meanwhile in the cartoons that surround this text, we see a priest proclaiming “Life begins at conception! So say I!” next to a sperm and an egg in mid-eye roll saying, “Can someone please give this guy a biology textbook?” All at once Schrupp and Patu unceremoniously announce their own ideological bent without allowing it to dominate.

In the same vein, on the very next page we see a dialogue between three women whose speech bubbles once again represent a departure from Schrupp’s succinct and objective exposition. In response to her friends’ remarks about the legal system’s unwillingness to accommodate the individual needs of women who may need abortions, one of the women says: “I’m not surprised. I’m denied medical care entirely just because my legal status in this country is irregular. Pregnancy, birth, and—for that matter—abortion would all be very difficult for me.” Statements such as this can be incredibly powerful because they plant seeds of awareness almost imperceptibly, particularly when readers are young or impressionable. That Schrupp and Patu would choose to insert this reference to the struggles of undocumented immigrants (as well as references to the challenges that transgender individuals and people of color face) demonstrates their commitment to inclusivity and intersectionality.

A Brief History of Feminism would benefit from some additional proofreading, given that the copy I received exhibited more than just a few typos. The book’s conclusion — essentially a dialogue between two women remarking that no one has the energy to stay mad at sexist portrayals of women all the time — also felt abrupt and rather incomplete. Certainly a lot more has happened that’s worthy of inclusion in a feminist guidebook since the advent of the Internet and the consolidation of feminism’s Third Wave. Schrupp could have gone a little bit further in this regard. On the whole, however, this is an enjoyable, quick read that will not lead any reader astray, and might even spark a desire in her or him to delve deeper into the feminist rabbit hole.

RATING 7 / 10