Living a Feminist LifeSara Ahmed

Book Reviews{ Duke University Press }
Released: February 3, 2017

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This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!

Writer, feminist theorist, and professor Sara Ahmed’s work has had a huge impact on intersectional feminism all over the globe; since the publication of her first book, Strange Encounters, in 2000, she has written academic books on topics as varied as willfulness, emotion, the problematic sides of inclusion and diversity, race, and whether “happiness” as a life goal is something for which everyone should strive. Living a Feminist Life, her eighth book, is intended for a broader, non-academic audience, and in it, she thrillingly builds connections between (at times lofty) feminist theory and everyday practice. This is an accessible book in both the way that it is written, and in how Ahmed builds her theoretical arguments.

The subjects that Ahmed covers in Living a Feminist Life tend to be broad, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; the topics that she covers include feminist “movements” as micro-events, the ways that bodies and minds are “directed” by cultural and social norms into so-called normalcy, feminist willfulness as related to a Grimm’s fairy tale, the drawbacks of institutional diversity work for marginalized populations, breaking points and “snapping,” and the continuing importance of lesbian feminism.

The chapters are organized into three sections. The book’s first section, “Becoming Feminist” is made up of deeply personal essays on the ways in which “feminism is sensational,” while the second and third sections, “Diversity Work” and “Living the Consequences,” are comprised of essays on institutional diversity work and who performs it, and some of the consequences (and surprising rewards) of living a feminist life. What is most impressive about Living a Feminist Life as a whole is how carefully and densely Ahmed builds her theoretical arguments. She utilizes literary theory, philosophy, linguistics, feminist and critical race theory, disability studies, and more to convincingly show that living a full feminist life is about more than self-determination, individual choices, and academic theory that is completely disconnected from the real world; rather, a feminist life—and feminist theory—must be grounded in our everyday experiences.

The figure of the “feminist killjoy” looms large in Living a Feminist Life; although Ahmed first introduced this figure in a 2010 article, she proves throughout Living that there is much more to explore when it comes to being a feminist killjoy. The feminist killjoy, as Ahmed wrote back then, may “kill joy by bringing up moments of sexism” as those moments happen, or by “exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along” in a setting where a group’s chemistry is of utmost importance. However, to reduce the feminist killjoy to only those sorts of actions is to sell her short; those of us who are feminists may have lots of killjoy tendencies that are not so easily reduced to simply “causing unhappiness” wherever we go. As Ahmed writes in the powerful appendices that close Living a Feminist Life—“A Killjoy Survival Kit” and “A Killjoy Manifesto,” respectively—the act of killing joy can be used to build a better, less oppressive world for marginalized people.

Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Living a Feminist Life is not just an instant classic, but an essential read for intersectional feminists.

This article was published in Family Values Issue #74 | Spring 2017
Anna, a nonbinary person with blue eyes and dark blond hair, stands in front of an off-white wall
by Anna Hamilton
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Anna Hamilton (she/they) is a nonbinary, disabled feminist writer who has contributed articles, cartoons, and more to publications such as Teen Vogue, Bitch, The Daily Dot, Rooted in Rights, and Shondaland. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner. You can visit their website at, or follow them on Twitter at @annaham360

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