The title of We Were Feminists Once promises the sort of squabble over who precisely is the best feminist that gets the mainstream press excited, but if you come to this book looking for a catfight, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Zeisler serves up a series of subtle and fascinating vignettes, from a dissection of reality makeover shows to the history of the iconic 'This Is What a Feminist Looks Like' T-shirt, teasing out the tension between liberal politics and radical activism with all the smart banter you’d expect from an article in Bitch Magazine. This is a fun, funny, deeply learned book that is too clever to come to a simple conclusion...In the time-honored feminist intellectual tradition, Zeisler can be a little too hard on her own movement.
To those well-versed in the history of feminism, much in this book will be familiar, but many of the connections she draws shed new light on that history: from suffragettes taking jobs in advertising to today’s 'empowertising,' from riot grrrl to girl power to underwear printed with the word 'feminism.' Others seem a bit more of a stretch—like the line Zeisler draws from 1970s radical feminist separatism to the high-powered women’s conference movement. But in each case, she aims to illuminate the route by which feminism arrived at its current state, to draw us all into the fight to make it better by showing us how we might have contributed to making it worse. Zeisler’s years at Bitch show themselves in her accessible tone, even when she’s explaining tenets of Marxist theory; with few exceptions, the book is free of jargon.
...artful and merciless...I wish Zeisler had tried harder to reconcile feminism and capitalism. If any cause is to transcend pure activism, it must find occasions to harness the profit motive, not just denounce it. This rapprochement may not be impossible. In her concluding pages, Zeisler argues that 'feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard.' But with this challenging book, she’s proved that it can be complex and hard and fun, too.
Much of Ms. Zeisler’s analysis, as trenchant as it is, often focuses less on ground realities than on epiphenomena — questions of how women are represented in popular culture, questions of what is and isn’t a feminist issue...I understand that We Were Feminists Once is a book of pop culture and media criticism. But if you chase after every outrage in the media micro-cycle, you’re inevitably, if unconsciously, going to get sucked into the very meta-debates that you’re railing against. Before you know it, your own commentary becomes a whistling, six-burner range of tempests in teapots. After reading Ms. Zeisler so expertly catalog all the fake issues that are diverting women away from the real ones, I personally started to pine for a more substantive discussion about those very issues — and not another analysis of Emma Watson’s feminism...Ms. Zeisler has written a funny, polished, intrepid book. But I ask that she aim for something wonkier next time. Though if she writes about the wage gap, family leave policies and all those other difficult, virtuous things, Lord knows if that book would sell as well.