What is feminism? Every feminist has a different definition of the concept. In Fight Like a Girl, Laura Barcella profiles fifty women, all of whom project a different image of feminism. There’s a lot to like about this collective biography for young adults: Barcella’s lively voice, Summer Pierce’s engaging black and white portraits of the book’s subjects, and the diverse array of individuals profiled. Barcella’s subjects include artists and scientists, athletes and politicians, activists and writers, white women and women of color, straight women and members of the GLBTQ community.
Still, despite these virtues, some of Barcella’s choices are questionable. In her introduction, she explains that she didn’t include Gloria Steinem and other well-known feminists because she “didn’t want this book to exist solely as a refresher course.” However, it seems unlikely that today’s teens would have significant knowledge of Steinem, Friedan, or other well-known feminists who do not appear in this book. Also, although Barcella profiles some early figures, including Sojourner Truth and Mary Wollstonecraft, others, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, do not appear. In fact, not one figure from the American suffrage movement made the cut. Instead, Barcella celebrates pop culture icons (Beyonce, Madonna, Queen Latifah) who have spoken about women’s rights. She also includes notable women who do not necessarily identify as feminists or have connection to the movement (Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama). Had Fight Like a Girl merely been a collective biography of influential or pioneering women, these choices would have made sense. As the book exists, however, these selections seem more like an attempt to stretch the definition of feminism than to educate readers about early participants in the movement.
Fight Like a Girl purports to give young adult readers a kaleidoscope view of feminism, and it does show the diversity of the concept and its adherents. However, by spurning early activists in favor of contemporary celebrities, the collective biography inadvertently dismisses the sacrifices women made so that others could vote, own property, work without fear of harassment, and attend school. Singing a song about women’s issues may still be controversial, even in twenty-first century America. However, early activists faced social ostracization and even imprisonment. They had to be braver than today’s boldest artists. Without their efforts, the actions of today’s feminists might not be legal or possible.
– Dorothy A. Dahm