Everywhere and Nowhere: The State of Contemporary Feminism in the United States
'The feminist movement is dead', cries the media, 'If not dead, then less political and more self-serving than its previous incarnations.' In Everywhere and Nowhere: The State of Contemporary Feminism in the United States, Jo Reger observes that such media obituaries of the feminist movement(s) are rife. Contemporary feminist activism may be presented as merely watching Girls and having one-night stands, implying that vacuous and self-obsessed individuals are taking for granted the liberatory efforts of their foremothers. However, such overly simplistic representations are to judge contemporary feminists against prescriptive understandings of activism and assume rather than explicate the complexities of their activities.
Jo Reger's decade-long mission to research the activities of contemporary feminists in the United States has resulted in Everywhere and Nowhere, a refreshing counter-narrative to such superficial and presumptive media accounts. A detailed exploration of three feminist communities - the conservative mid-West Woodview College; the liberal East Coast Evers College; and, the environmental, queer-friendly Green City - arguing that feminism is paradoxically situated both everywhere and nowhere. Reger explains that feminism has been 'in the water' for the most recent generation of feminists and so individuals 'surface', becoming activists, when they realise the importance or relevance of feminism to their own lives. However, feminism is not a united front with identifiable leaders and card-carrying members. Instead it is a complex array of individuals, groups, and events, from which Reger identifies several major themes: generational divisions; concepts of oppression and privilege, specifically related to race, and gender, sex, and sexuality identity; and, the difficulties some more biologically essentialist understandings of feminism have integrating trans* individuals and issues.
An 'us' against 'them' mentality is a prevalent motif in Reger's work: when feminist communities are attempting to create a collective identity, it is tempting to define oneself in opposition to others rather than on feminism's own merits or principles. For example, at Evers College the distinction between 'second- and 'third- wave' feminists, or simply between older and younger activists, is presented as a problematic division. However, Reger explains that, whilst this disunity exists, it is overstated by the media and in fact more ideological than generational.
Another major critique provided by Reger is of the extensively used 'feminist wave' metaphor: that the first wave was associated with agitation for the vote in the early twentieth century; the second wave associated with further legislative changes and consciousness raising in the 1960s and 1970s; and the third wave with cultural critique and personalised feminism from the early 1990s onwards. Reger sees this narrow interpretation as oversimplifying the history of the movement, which has resulted in misunderstandings within feminism and between feminists and the wider public. Her research demonstrates that the reality of contemporary feminism is a messy and complex disunity, but that this is not evidence of a dying movement or insurmountable dissent. It is instead an example of the dynamism and continued relevance of feminism.
Two major discussions are notably absence: a class analysis and linkages between the United States and the global context. Reger explains that this is reflective of the lack of class discussion in the feminist communities themselves, but does not sufficiently acknowledge the lack of reference to other feminist or women's movements around the world. Whilst a piece of research can never cover everything, it is vital to acknowledge that the United States is not at the forefront of, nor it is necessarily reflective of, other movements. This should be an important reminder when using Reger's revised social movement analysis outside the United States, and will hopefully spark similarly in-depth studies of other contexts.
Everywhere and Nowhere is a fantastic read for researchers who wish to explore mixed qualitative methods research - interviews, participatory ethnography, documentary analysis. It is also truly reflexive and centres respondents through extensive use of direct quotes and vivid descriptions of specific feminist communities. Reger has walked the tightrope of staying true to a feminist approach that is reflexive and intersectional without falling foul of naval-gazing or using 'buzzword' concepts that are not incorporated into the research design. For both feminist scholars and novices alike, Reger's accessible book provides an interesting contribution to discussions on social movement theory, feminist activism, and feminist-informed qualitative methods. It is well-informed by a breadth of feminist theorists and commentators while avoiding theoretical abstractions, and is an accessible yet complex summary of contemporary US feminism. If the reader is to take anything from this well-written monograph, it is to embrace the dissension and the complexity of feminism as a movement that is still enormously relevant, incredibly active, and constantly in flux.
Orla Meadhbh Murray
University of Edinburgh