Burn It Down!: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution Edited by Breanne Fahs

Will the days of women’s rage ever end? The selections in this voluminous collection remind us that generations have been issuing fiery demands for a more equal, post-patriarchal world long before the mass movement known as #MeToo sent Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein to jail and ousted many other powerful men from their jobs.

Breanne Fahs, author of a biography of the radical feminist Valerie Solanas, here connects us to the hive mind of resisting women and their comrades in arms. The word “manifesto” comes from the Latin manus, for hand, and festus, related to the Latin infestus, meaning hostile. Open hostility to the patriarchy simmers throughout the more than 500 pages of this collection.

Dozens of pieces are assigned to sections by style and source—“Trashy/Punk,” “Angry/Violent,” “Indigenous/Women of Color,” “Queer/Trans,” even “Hacker/Cyborg.” They span generations and genres, from Emma Goldman’s 1896 “Anarchy and the Sex Question” to Solanas’s unapologetically man-hating 1967 “SCUM Manifesto” to Sara Roebuck’s piercing 2016 “A Letter to the Man Who Tried to Rape Me.”

Shrill Power

The perennial insult to women’s speech—“shrill”—doesn’t even begin to describe the tone here. A section devoted to writings about “Sex/Body” includes a howl of rage by radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson delivered live in Philadelphia the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination, titled “Vaginal Orgasm as a Mass Hysterical Survival Response.” “The oppression of women by men is the source of all the corrupt values throughout the world,” she said. “Marriage and the family are as corrupt institutions as slavery ever was. They must be abolished as slavery was.”

From the same generation, Kathie Amatniek Sarachild’s speech “Funeral Oration for the Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” delivered in Washington, D.C., to the “main assembly of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade” in January 1968, urged the assembled to “bury Submission alongside Aggression” and inter it in Arlington Cemetery. “How many sisters failed to join our march today because they were afraid their husbands would disapprove?,” Sarachild asked.

Some of the manifestos are heartbreaking in their sense of imminent change, possibility, and hopefulness; for example, the “Redstockings Manifesto,” of 1969. Redstockings was founded by women’s liberationists who combined the “bluestocking” label used to insult feminists of earlier centuries with the “red” of revolution. Section I of their manifesto states: “After centuries of individual and preliminary political struggle, women are uniting to achieve their final liberation from male supremacy.”

Half a century later, that “final liberation” still feels a long way off.

Some of the manifestos are heartbreaking in their sense of imminent change, possibility, and hopefulness.

Marginal gains after second-wave feminism do make some other writings a bit dated. For example, the conditions that provoked Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici’s 1974 landmark essay, “Wages Against Housework,” have changed for women in universities and the workforce, but it remains provocative and relevant. “Our role as women is to be the unwaged but happy and most of all loving servants of the ‘working class,’” she wrote. “In the same way as god created Eve to give pleasure to Adam, so did capital create the housewife to service the male worker physically, emotionally and sexually … [to] patch up his ego when it is crushed by the work and the social relations … that capital has reserved for him.”

There are a few misses. The book could probably have worked fine without a piece of babbly freewriting by Elon Musk’s baby mama, pop star Grimes, who complains: “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked) as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them.” A few of the pieces are downright silly or actually bad, such as the “Ax Tampax Poem Feministo,” and another across the page from it, “Occupy Menstruation,” which opens: “It is the astro-feminist biologist calling out / the ruse of the FREE BLEED movement.”

The targets of some the manifestos have not disappeared, just shifted shape. In Queer Nation’s 1990 manifesto, published by Act Up, there are the lines: “I hate Jesse Helms. I hate Jesse Helms so much I’d rejoice if he dropped down dead. If someone killed him I’d consider it his own fault.” Homophobic North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was off the national stage before many millennials were old enough to vote. The undead agents of Gilead rise again and again, today in the person of Mike Pence.

“Reading manifestos can feel like being on fire,” Fahs writes in the introduction. “We light up aflame and then are left raw and exposed. Manifestos operate as an infectious, contagious kind of document … making little room for disagreement or rational back-and-forth discussions.” Manifestos, she reminds us, do have the power to change the course of history. The Communist Manifesto, for example, may have influenced the course of history “more directly and lastingly than almost any other text,” she notes, quoting the critic Martin Puchner.

This powerful and inspiring collection belongs on the bedside tables of women in America who feel diminished or discouraged by the profound insult of Trump’s election. In the wee hours of November 9, 2016, the American electorate delivered an unforgettable kick in the teeth to women by electing a man who had campaigned on open misogyny and recorded himself on an open mike bragging about having sexually assaulted women. The primary wound from his election was to women, a fact we tend to forget in the awful what-came-after—Islamophobic travel bans, children in cages, rising Nazis, etc.

This anthology is a well-aimed kick in return.

Nina Burleigh is an author and journalist whose latest book, The Trump Women: Part of the Deal, will be released in an updated paperback edition later this year