Why You Should Start Your Own Feminist Fight Club

Jessica Bennett wants to show you how to start your own feminist fight club

Feminist Fight Club collage. Picture / Supplied

When Jessica Bennett was struggling against and frustrated by the microaggressions, insults and sexist slights plaguing her own office, she and her female colleagues formed their answer to the “old boys’ network”: a consciousness-raising group they half-jokingly called Feminist Fight Club, complete with a list of rules.

In her new book, Feminist Fight Club, Jessica reprints that same list of rules. The book, subtitled “an office survival manual for a sexist workplace” lays out strategies for defeating “manterrupters”, “bropropriators,” “himitators” and “menstruhaters”. It takes women through the various challenges of a still-sexist 2016 workplace, with tips for forming feminist alliances, negotiating for pay increases and more - complete with illustrations, cartoons, lists and how-to guides.

Jessica says she didn’t just want a memoir relaying her own workplace conflicts; instead, she envisioned Feminist Fight Club as a guide for women navigating the same hurdles in their own offices. In other words, the book she needed when she was just starting out. Jessica talks about the origins of the book, her own work struggles and her advice for “baby feminists”.

So I wanted to figure out how to make it digestible. I’m certainly not the first person to tackle this topic. There is a tonne of books out there about this, and most are pretty dense. There are books about gender or books about the workplace - none really combine the two. I wanted to combine the gender and the workplace manual into one, and make it fun. I basically went to Urban Outfitters and bought every guidebook that exists, including the workplace dummies’ guide, The Zombie Survival Guide. And obviously I read gender books for work.

And then I got The Art of War. And I thought: What if we turned this serious masculine war manual on its head? And we make it playful and feminist? I wanted something that you could flip through, that you could stuff in your purse, that you could hide in your cubicle if you had to, that you could read in the bathroom right before you went to negotiate your raise, that you could read like a weapon.

The ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was when I was a writer at Newsweek. I couldn’t get stories into the magazine and I was frustrated. I would see stories that I had pitched previously be repitched by men who were my age and they’d come up with it and get approved and mine would get turned down. I started talking to female friends about it, and we realised we were experiencing the same frustrations. Through that practice, we stumbled on the fact that 40 years earlier, the women of Newsweek had sued the magazine for workplace discrimination. And so much of the descriptions felt like it could have been written yesterday. We asked: “Did you know there was a lawsuit?” It was the first of its kind. It was a huge, huge deal and we’d never heard of it.

We couldn’t believe people in our own office even knew this story. They were like, “Oh yeah, maybe it went to the Supreme Court? I don’t know what happened”. So we decided we were going to report a story about those women, on the 40th anniversary, and we looked at what had changed.

We reported it in secret and tracked down those women. There was a whole cohort of women 40 years earlier who had been experiencing the same thing.

Knowing this is still a problem is huge. It took me years of working to realise that. Because women are thriving in their academic careers, it can be a shock to get to the workplace and realise things are still not equal. I was totally progressive. To suddenly be in New York working at a magazine and to think, “Sexism is still a thing? Do I need to be a feminist? Oh my God, I’m a feminist?”

The baby feminists now must know this is an issue - recognising this is still not equal is number one. Number two, I think, is treating other women as allies. I’m 34 now and I feel the college women I talk to are much more on board with this idea of girl power and girl gangs and camaraderie than I ever was and the older generations ever were. So maybe they’re ahead of where I was. They have a much more complex understanding of intersectionality than I did.

It’s really easy to be competitive with other women. I certainly have been and sometimes still am. I have to remind myself very clearly and frequently of the rule of the fight club: “Other women are my allies, not my enemies”. That was a real rule. The rules were sort of funny and jokey, but they were also serious, and it truly has changed my perspective on so much. There are so many times in my professional life where my instinct is to be competitive with another woman in the room, and I have to stop my instinct and say: “Why is that? Oh yeah, that’s the patriarchy. We need to support one another.” It totally shifted something in my brain. And often we become comrades and allies.

My experience has mostly been in office culture, so that’s what this focuses on. And the reality that male privilege and the things that cause men to interrupt you or get credit for your ideas is everywhere in the working world — whether you’re a nurse or a teacher or you work an hourly wage job or you work on a construction site. So I hope that in that sense this book has something in it for everyone.

I also had to work really hard to dig up the research about women of colour. I had a Harvard researcher to help me because I could not find a lot of it, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Much in the same way that people didn’t study women for so long because they weren’t in the workplace, now there’s not as much research looking at women of colour because they haven’t made up as large a part. That’s changing, and I think the research will ultimately reflect that, but I had to work hard to be inclusive. I’m not making these things up - they’re all rooted in real research.

Rachel Simmons, The Curse of the Good Girl (2009). I read that back when I was at Newsweek before reporting that story about the women of Newsweek. It deals a lot with the inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough and tell us we need to be “nice girls”.

Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan (1970). I had this open on my desk throughout the entire writing of my book. She has a section at the front called “verbal karate” and it’s just a list of stats women can use as fight moves, like when people say “men don’t interrupt” or “sexism doesn’t exist”. I tried to do a version of that. And Morgan says at the beginning of the book,“this book is an action”.

— The Washington Post

Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace) by Jessica Bennett is out now. Published by Penguin, $38.

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