Rigorous Feelings: The Tension at the Heart of Contemporary Feminism

Before the promise of structural change, the thorny question of emotion remains

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Zoe Hu
In Crisis

For some time now I have been at odds with myself; beset by crisis, my thinking has become pleated and folded back by doubt. The crisis has to do with feminism. Specifically, the suspicion I’ve had that, over the past few years, some loss or negligence has taken place within the movement. Perhaps it’s not even a loss, but a maladaptive respectability, a series of sheepish, brittle adjustments adopted after the humiliations of the Obama and Trump years. Whatever it is, I feel it most strongly when I talk to women who, as otherwise politically engaged and upstanding people, do not identify as feminists; I also sense it when I talk to the women who do, because of the stories of dissatisfaction we furtively tell one another.

The mainstream feminism of this millennium has been corny, childish, and lousy with feelings of self-worship. It has been sentimental, in that it frequently promised salvation through emotional identification, tending furiously to the general experience of being “put upon” by others. An incontinence between the personal and the political defined its expressions at the turn of the last century; from here stemmed the well-known lack of ideological consistency. Women began cheering on ghoulish girlbosses to office and boardrooms, excluding trans women from their ranks, and raising their own success as paramount. By now, most of us are aware of these missteps; I resent needing to repeat them, because such repetition has never actually served as a corrective — only as a signpost touting some better and more serious feminism.

That better and more serious feminism extols virtues of clear-thinking and restraint; it champions a “grown-up” stance, or what the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, speaking about her friend Mary McCarthy, identified as an “obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact.” To trim the emotional flubber from the reality of things — that is what good feminists are supposed to do. The first cruelty of this response, of course, is its elevation of virtues that have always been coded and glorified as male: invulnerability, logic, toughness. The second cruelty is the implication that other women, even in attempting to transcend their sorry lot, cannot help but act like women: meaning, emotional. Meaning, stupid. The scholar Ann Douglas, the first female professor at Princeton’s English department, once quipped that “depravity in the oppressed” was an inevitable result of oppression — women, being damaged by society, have at times exerted a “not altogether beneficial” influence on society in turn. This is perhaps the kindest excuse one can find for bad and sentimental feminists. It is also incredibly condescending.

Today, in many corners of feminism, I see signs of an evasion, a retreat from the marshes of feminist emotion into a better-lit but perhaps emptier space. By feminist emotion, I don’t necessarily mean the standard fare — rage or shame or neuroses over shaving one’s legs — though those are part of it. I mean the emotions that arrive only through a certain, totalizing type of knowledge. This is the unhappy knowledge of one’s own marginalization, as well as the unhappier knowledge that such marginalization is ancient, ongoing, and completely impersonal. A recognition like this inevitably knits the individual into history, revealing her as subject to its ongoing and often rather galling forces. If this sounds unpleasant, it often is. At times it borders on conspiratorial thinking, which is why this type of knowledge can make committed political operatives out of people, or turn them into ticking time-bombs of narcissism. Sometimes both, simultaneously.

Feminists have long struggled with the totalizing worldview onto which a feminist conversion opens; often they have ended up succumbing to its emotional vicissitudes rather than advancing any worthwhile agenda. Already, in 1969, the historian William O’Neill had sniffed out the failure of first-wave feminism, writing that the best course for the suffragettes “would have been to join the Socialist party, which alone promised to change the American social order enough.” This is echoed today, in the belief not uncommon among certain circles that, between socialism and feminism, the former is the more vigorous, less emotionally indulgent venture (socialist feminists point out that the binary is unnecessary, but the choice is all too often posed as one). And, of course, the deficiencies of the second and third waves — racist exclusions and institutionalist opportunism — are widely known.

Rigor, in my view, has been the core problem throughout — the value that feminism has historically both coveted and resented. Political emancipation requires a certain degree of doctrinal rigidity and obeisance, but you wouldn’t always know it — especially not during the recent heyday of neoliberal feminism, during which women were told they could have it all, even the unfeminist stuff. When a political orientation turns into a recitation of grievance, when ideology abuts emotions and their often childish impulses, how much rigor can one ask for? Politics can be cathartic, but catharsis itself is notoriously messy, and resistant to closure.

During the second wave, feminists found a double-edged solution to this dilemma by casting rigor and emotion as the same force; a rigorous feminist was an emotional one, a woman who had reorganized even the most intimate angles of her life into a daggered response to patriarchy. Passionate feelings, because they were so absolute, so extensive, became signs of political dedication. No men. No porn. From a distance, anger and paranoia can look similar to dogma, even as they exact their disruptive gravity on one’s mind. But emotion eventually had its day with the second wave, destroying its momentum and dissolving animus into animosity. Feminists broke away, adopted harmful and exclusive positions, declared they would never speak with one another again. We seem to have learned a grim lesson from their history: Feeling may just as soon bolster a worldview as unravel it.


I am far from the first to wrestle with this question of rigor and emotion. In a keen essay for The New Inquiry, the writer and philosophy professor Elena Comay del Junco glossed this conflict well, noting that the “brand of seriousness” espoused by famous women like Susan Sontag — that model of “cool female intellectualism” — demanded impersonality. Such an approach, wrote del Junco, necessarily weakened the “bonds” of feminist solidarity, in which the singular intellect is expected to fizz and dissolve into collective spirit. This dilemma was on display in 1975, when Sontag published an essay in the New York Review of Books about the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

The piece cataloged, through Riefenstahl’s work, the staples of a fascist aesthetics, taking care to mention Riefenstahl’s discomfiting reception by feminists in America; so eager were these women to tout a female filmmaker of caliber, alleged Sontag, that they had shown Riefenstahl’s films at festivals, despite the obvious objections. Well, Adrienne Rich had hers — in a letter to the Review, the feminist poet claimed that the real force behind Riefenshtal’s rehabilitation was “film culture,” not feminism. Yet Rich’s actual grievance seemed to lie with the pursed disloyalty she sensed in Sontag’s approach. Specifically, Sontag had failed to identify fascism’s historical overlap with patriarchy. Generally, she just kept disappointing — many women, wrote Rich, searched through Sontag’s work for a “serious reflection of feminist values.” They searched in vain. Sontag was only ever good for the “intellectual exercise” — had not yet learned, or chosen, to found her work on the “emotional grounding” and “felt reality” of a woman’s experience.

Of course, Sontag responded to the response. She quibbled with Rich’s facts on Riefenstahl, but by this point no one was talking about fascism, not anymore. The problem was that Sontag wouldn’t come into the fold — she insisted, to the end, on defending “that heavy bear, the intellect,” even if it meant truth trouncing sisterly solidarity. “Virtually everything deplorable in human history furnishes material for a restatement of the feminist plaint,” ceded Sontag, “but if the point is to have meaning some of the time, [the plaint] can’t be made all the time.”

Their differences make it easy for me to puppeteer Sontag and Rich as representatives of the cloven lobes of my own mind: Sontag, cerebral and arch, stands in the corner of prose; in poetry, there is Rich — expressive, militant, prolific to the point of leakiness, a writer whom Sontag herself described, not unkindly, as “a phenomenologist of anger.” Could it be more archetypal, more classic? Perhaps if Rich had been blonde.

Yet the argument is momentous for feminism, or at least urgent. Rich believed in “felt reality” and “emotional grounding” not just as the fortifying basis of politics, but as the premise of any true analysis of life. Sontag, though she claimed to disavow any antithesis between emotion and thought, jerked a bit too conspicuously in her reflexive distaste of Rich’s mandate. She wished her writing to be “judged as an argument and not as an ‘expression’ of anything at all, my sincere feelings included.” Critical precision, she implied, was at odds with emotion, with the “capital” moral truths that we feel but know are at base “simpleminded.”

Are emotions not the necessary signals of, the authentic response to, a lived truth of humiliation and denigration?

My recent crisis has to do with this dilemma — with the potentially crooked service that emotion tenders to intelligence, and the role both play in any politics worth its salt. Between Sontag and Rich, though Sontag comes out looking better and sharper, I cannot choose who wins. Are emotions not the necessary signals of, the authentic response to, a lived truth of humiliation and denigration? Or are the emotions of feminine anger and depression merely threats to objectivity, the specks in one’s discerning gaze?

I have experienced racism and misogyny; in some ways, my feelings about those experiences permitted me a recognition of my place in the world and its smarting distance from the universal. I have felt, equally, the plush and insidious allure that these situations of victimhood involve, the egotism that a purely infantile, emotionally triggered reading of the world might offer. Douglas once called this the “narcotic of narcissism”: the temptation a woman may have to inflate her suffering and the things that this suffering should earn in recompense. It is this view that pinions women as both the unproblematic saviors of the world and the world’s most favorite victims; it is this view, for example, that holds a female president, any female president, to be better than a male one. Hex the patriarchy. Women don’t owe you shit. And so on.


Today, in the more enlightened sphere of socialist feminism, the problem of rigor and its relation to feeling is normally bypassed. The emotional excesses of the second wave and the early third are looked at askance; instead, socialist feminists prefer to speak conspicuously of the more moderate notion of pleasure, the now-recommended extent and reigning tenor of the feminist project. The disciplined work of a committed progressive — phone banking and canvassing, attending rallies and pickets — is supposed to be pleasurable, rather than deranging. And while an understanding of female oppression might first disgorge feelings of angst, eventually emotional disorder will be straightened, like an askew picture frame, into the good-natured cheer of the diligent revolutionary. Aside from the benefit of countering outsider stereotypes of feminists as humorless or hysterical, this line also assures us, sometimes rather nervously, that politics and pleasure are congenial experiences. In between the lineaments of good political praxis, women may find resolution to the ingrown contradictions of womanhood.

The snag is that, at least to a novitiate, pleasure and rigor are generally felt to be in opposition. And, maybe more simply, a leftist-feminist analysis of society, an understanding of what it means to live as a woman, will inevitably come with certain bad feelings — suspicion, contempt, resentment and paranoia among them. Some women are better at rising above these; others feel sorrier for themselves. In either case, there is still the dilemma of how completely the feminist struggle might absorb one’s emotional and personal life. Today, these grievous topics feel risky to indulge, especially when so many political emotions have been turned, by neoliberal feminism, into commodified jokes. The choices are to either take to our quirky needlepoint, embroidering pillows about being Nasty Women, or to sublimate our bad feelings in pursuit of a higher cause: the overthrow of capitalism.

Socialist feminism has chosen the latter (and, cards on the table, I do, too), but it also seems to have shrunk away from the comprehensiveness of previous waves. Those waves maintained a fierce focus on even the most trivial aspects of women’s lives, as all aspects, once illuminated, were flushed into terrible relevance; now, socialist feminists balk at questions regarding women’s personal choices as well as the extremely emotional issue of cultural misogyny. In a 2019 feature for The New Republic, the socialist feminist Liza Featherstone asked how one might “fight” misogyny, and simply concluded that one doesn’t. Misogyny is no longer a useful concept, according to Featherstone, and the “thrill” of “denouncing the hatred of women” must be rejected in favor of the realist work of “restructur[ing] our institutions.” Here, economic empiricism is taken as more significant than emotional empiricism, though the challenges of both are not seriously compared. The piece ends with the happy dismissal of any bad feeling: “worrying about woman-hating is a privilege,” writes Featherstone, “though I must say it doesn’t look like much fun.”

It remains an open question how useful it is for women to adopt the kind of position that makes all life availble to a feminist lens; perhaps some corners should be left dark and blurry. But today, many feminists seem to have overcorrected, going mute in the face of the intangible phenomena that older feminisms used to engage even clumsily. If you browse through the pages of Lux Magazine or The Drift’s recent dossier on feminism, you will notice the absence of phrases once deployed to seize upon the mass-scale generalities and pervasive cultural trends that affect women. “Rape culture,” for example, has fallen out of fashion, perhaps because of its over-emphasis on women as victims. If rape culture is too broad, too totalizing, it would still be beneficial to replace it with a better concept; instead, there seems to be little interest in finding new language that can explain our country’s frankly insane attitudes towards women and sexual violence.

Even if specific men do not hate women, hatred of women is in the air, the water, and the Supreme Court. Patriarchal structure does not exist without misogyny; policy does not exist without ideology.

Refusing to confront the cultural and atmospheric while pointing to the “real” institutions and structures lends feminists an air of reason, but as an intellectual move, I find it slightly… unrigorous. Even if specific men do not hate women, hatred of women is in the air, the water, and the Supreme Court. Patriarchal structure does not exist without misogyny; policy does not exist without ideology. One must discuss both. One must face the very painful possibility that the people in one’s life, both men and women, have been conditioned to feel a rancid and unproductive hatred. Audre Lorde, in a speech on the conflicts between white and black feminists, had this to say about hate: “While we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not to wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets, that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change.” You must confront your anger and their hate, she warned, as well as the nefarious way both those emotions might poison your abilities and thinking.

I am not sure we’re contending with any of it. In a New Republic article about the recent Depp v. Heard trial, the writer Natalie Shure waved away, as if it were some tiresome or vaguely boring task, the need to connect the trial to larger cultural trends within society. While acknowledging that, throughout his legal crusade against his ex-wife and accuser, Johnny Depp has “become a cause celebre on men’s rights forums,” Shure decided the trial had “little social applicability.” It was mere play for the “hot-take game” and the people who, being silly enough to show interest in popular culture’s understanding of gender relations, participate in it. It did not, Shure wrote, “mean anything.” (How far we have come from Sontag, and the commitment to have meaning at least some of the time!)

Shure was correct to complain about her industry; it seems that, fickle as the game is, her own hot take had been commissioned too soon. Several days after she disputed the possibility that the trial would “silence women for speaking out,” news reports began rolling in, describing the hundreds of abuse survivors who, since the trial’s outcome, have been deciding to pull out of court cases and retract public statements. I should say, at this point, that I write all of this with an immense feeling of bitterness. Shure’s approach illustrates how fully the neoliberal feminism of the aughts was able to colonize the realm of cultural analysis, circulating phrases like “toxic masculinity” and “emotional labor” that feminists today, out of fear of contamination, refuse to touch. But we cede this ground, issuing confident proclamations that things “don’t mean anything,” at our own peril.

I see in a lot of contemporary feminism’s obligation to structure — the implication that, for example, mentalities about women’s bodies are too formless to relate to real institutions like the police force and the welfare office — something akin to “the ethical aside,” a term coined by professor Lauren Michele Jackson to describe the stock phrases that people feel compelled to include as signals of political and empirical correctness. The ethical aside sequesters a conceptual problem into grammatical limbo: “Women — especially women of color — suffer from x.” As socialist feminists, we similarly litter our personal stories with self-abnegating comments about “real structures” being the “real problem,” about the eradication of capitalism as the ultimate goal.

There are several problems with this. The first is that structural analysis is actually very difficult; one must keep, in one’s mindseye, the behemoth of social totality and the linkages between powers, alongside the minute scale of one’s own daily experience. The second problem is that structural analysis also produces emotions. Knowing via the truth of statistics that it is not the stranger on the street who wants to kill and rape me, but a police officer or my future husband, does not necessarily make me less likely to dwell in my own sense of helplessness. The third problem is that structural change is necessarily a long-term project. We can and should fight for the prospect of abolishing the police and compensating care work, but the question remains what we do and how we feel in the meantime.

Feminism has long had a reputation as a bad and bourgeois movement, but what few mention is that it has dabbled in socialism and social justice since the days of the suffragette. Critiques of capitalism have always been present, to different degrees, in mainstream feminism, probably because capitalism does so much obvious harm to women. I am not saying this to salvage feminism as a consistently righteous movement. It is, rather, to say that socialist feminism has been around for a long time, and so we should know it presents no easy shortcuts. We must ask ourselves instead, the difficult question of why so far it has failed to achieve its goals, and how our strategies should differ from those of the past. How much do we address the state? How do we advocate for reforms within present institutions while also advocating for the ultimate elimination of those institutions? What must we reclaim from our enemies?

Socialist feminism must work for unions, for healthcare, for specific alterations to the infrastructure in which we languish. But its most meaningful promise has always been the complete revision of all social relations. All. Your son, your mother, your boyfriend, your brother. The personal is indeed political, but what we forget is that the personal has never been individual — “personal” encompasses all the bonds and obligations, the many other people, that forever constitute the self. Socialist feminism will allow us to live these relations in a world where work is subordinate to care, and both are subordinate to the flourishing of human possibility. A world heralded by the defeat of what Sheila Rowbotham once called the “Dad and Mum boss in us.” We should aim for specificity in our targets and analysis, but we must also consider how we will approach the non-policy realm, its pervasive and fuzzy enactments of power, as well as that power’s hopeful, purposeful disavowal.

“Consciousness-raising has one terrible result. It makes you more conscious,” wrote the critic Ellen Willis, who, after deepening her involvement in the women’s movement of the ‘60s, suddenly found it hard to look at random men in the street. To be a conscious woman is to invite queasy paradoxes into one’s world: It is to love singular men and resent the group; to accept that the category of woman is both constructed and, for now, politically necessary; to disavow any universal definition of womanhood while knowing of the lambent desire for such a definition. Feminists in the past have succumbed to the self-pity and sentimentality that warp a life wagered amid contradictions. It makes sense that we wish to leapfrog over these, into the sure world of structure and the eventual victory it promises. But right now, we still have the lives that we have. And there can be such thing as a life lived emotionally and rigorously, a feminism made with both toughness — and feeling.

Zoe Hu is a writer and PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center.