On one end of the spectrum of stereotypes Asian American women must deal with, there’s Exotic. Subservient. Quiet. Model Minority. On the other, Manipulative. Overbearing. Dragon Lady (a reference to Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi of China). Missing from these common images are the voices of actual Asian women, who came to bear the brunt of these stereotypes through centuries of colonialism and racism.
Published in 1997, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire is a collection of essays and interviews from Asian American activists. Many express their frustrations with white feminism (the mainstream feminism most people are familiar with), and some reject the feminist label altogether. Several of the authors also express frustration at people’s reactions to the Asian American feminist movement: within their own cultures, claiming oneself as “feminist” can be seen as unfeminine and offensive. In society in general, some have trouble even wrapping their heads around the concept of “Asian American feminism;” the term just seems so incompatible with stereotypes of Asian women. However, as all of the authors prove, feminist activism has been around a long time in the Asian community, and the Asian American feminist movement continues to grow.
The book is split into four parts: Strategies and Visions; An Agenda for Change; Global Perspectives; and Awakening to Power. Regardless of the theme of each section, there is definite overlap in the essays. The Asian American feminism that all of these activists speak of has a global aspect; yes, these women are based in the U.S., but because so much of their work focuses on issues related to immigration and labor rights, an awareness of different cultures and issues is necessary.
Houston, we have a problem.
Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which was released across the pond last year with much success, was released in the United States this summer. It’s been marketed as a memoirish feminist manifesto, with Moran being billed as a British version of Tina Fey and her book being billed as a feministier version of Bossypants. Feminism, but more fun! Feminism that you can relate to! Feminism with an irreverent sense of humor! Every young woman should read it!
Yeah…no. I’ll be perfectly blunt here: the thought of this book serving as anyone’s introduction to feminism horrifies me.
The sad thing is that this book isn’t all bad. There were things I could get on board with, like real talk on abortion experiences or the distortion of media images or her experiences being harassed on the street as an overweight teen. It’s not perfect, but Moran adds a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, and it’s a useful perspective that the book’s intended audience probably doesn’t hear enough of.
But then there are the other things, things she’s just so profoundly off the mark on, that I just cannot — will not — accept.
So much of what Moran says sound like it comes from a weird twilight zone of “feminism.” It’s a lot like those celebrities who say they support gay rights or a women’s right to choose, then make a point of scoffing, “But don’t worry, it’s not like I’m a feminist or anything!” Except in Moran’s world, she’s proudly proclaiming “YES I’M A FEMINIST!” while saying a lot of stupid shit so she can keep fitting in with the guys. Because this is cool feminism. Or something.
In this collection of essays, Alix Kates Shulman gathers four decades of her writing — much of it previously published — that began with the first rumblings of second-wave feminism. Like many women of that era, Kates Shulman’s feminist awakening came through her life experiences, particularly those involving marriage and motherhood. Her essays in the book begin accordingly, and readers can see how her activism has evolved over the past forty years to where it is mostly focused now: feminist activism as it relates to aging and illness.
The book begins a section called “Marriage and Men,” which opens with one of the writings that Kates Shulman is most well known for, her controversial essay “A Marriage Agreement” (1970). Though she and her husband had verbally agreed to be equal partners and split household and childcare duties accordingly, the reality was that Kates Shulman — a writer who worked from home — constantly found herself doing most of the work at the expense of her writing; they were on the verge of divorce. Their “marriage agreement” was a more concrete effort to split things equitably, and the contract they came up with detailed the ways they’d split everything from getting the kids ready for school to doing dishes. It’s almost amusing to look at it through twenty-first century eyes, and yet the essay was revolutionary at the time (depressingly, I can see it still being controversial by today’s standards). Kates Shulman declares the agreement a success, though her follow-up essay has her reflecting on a different reality.
I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Public Affairs! Read on for more information.
Struggling to balance her identity as a feminist, a married woman, a mother, and person with her own career, Stephanie Staal could feel herself sinking. Desperately grasping for a way to come to terms with the realities of marriage and motherhood, she embodied Betty Friedan’s portrait of womanhood and “the problem that has no name.” How appropriate, then, that as she sat in a bookstore searching for books to help guide her through these roles, she came upon Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. She got an idea to retake the Feminist Texts course offered at Barnard, which she had first taken as a idealistic nineteen year old. This time, however, she would be revisiting the texts with much more life experience under her belt.
Part memoir, part feminist literary analysis, Reading Women is a refreshing read. I think it’s fascinating how our perceptions of things can change over time. This is especially true when your input is part of a larger conversation (in Staal’s case, the Fem Texts classroom). It’s always interesting to see how different people interpret texts. Almost twice the age of the other students, Staal came of age in a different feminist generation, and her reactions to the texts usually reflected that fact.
I’ve read several of the texts mentioned in the book, both as a student and as an instructor, and I’ll be reading a few of them this year as part of the Year of Feminist Classics. There were aspects of the book that I loved. Staal is a great writer whose writing is honest (sometimes unflatteringly so). She does a fantastic job of weaving her life experiences into her interpretations of the texts. While reading about Adam and Eve, for instance, she also takes note of the division of labor in her household and the way people outside the home perceived her and her husband:
Neighbors would pull be aside and tell me I was so lucky to have such a great husband who was so involved in raising our child…We worked out a schedule in which I worked took Sylvia in the mornings; John took her in the afternoons. Our shared parenting time appeared astonishingly equal to outsiders–maybe too equal. It didn’t take long to discover that they viewed my time as a duty, whereas John’s was a gift–he was saint to my sinner.
She writes, “From my perspective, however, this split was not quite as equitable as I had hoped,” then goes on write about how the child care was split equally, the division of numerous other household matters and child care tasks (such as breastfeeding) still fell to her, so she could never really go far even if she wanted to. One doesn’t have to be a thirty-something-year-old mother to empathize.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of those books that I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to. It had been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for years. Although it was written about a century before the word “feminism” entered the lexicon, it is often hailed as a feminist classic. It is, in fact, the first book to kick of the Year of Feminist Classics reading project taking place throughout 2011, which I’ll be participating in as much as possible.
Wollstonecraft’s main argument in Vindications is that women should be properly educated in order to properly fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. In laying out her arguments, she criticizes the double standards between men and women in society. She is particularly critical of the ways women of her time were infantilized at every stage in their lives and made to be entirely dependent on their husbands regarding even the simplest decisions.
I had a love-hate relationship with this book. The edition I own is extremely bare-bones, and aside from three pages of “Notes” that gave a brief history on Wollstonecraft, I had to just jump right in. It took me for-e-ver to to get through Wollstonecraft’s dry introduction. Once I got more into the first chapter, however, something in my mind just clicked, and I devoured the first four chapters in one sitting. I think I was most surprised by the humor in her writing–Wollstonecraft occasionally makes sarcastic remarks to punctuate her arguments, and I enjoyed seeing this side of her personality.
That being said, the book is far from perfect. Wollstonecraft had originally intended the book to be the first in a set of volumes, but she died before the other volumes were written. As a result, the book doesn’t have a true conclusion. She is also repetitive, prone to going off on tangents, and sometimes contradicts herself. The book, thin as it is, could have benefited from quite a bit of editing. By the time I was a couple of pages into the fifth chapter, my eyes started to glaze over, and I never regained the same interest I’d initially had because of all the repetition. (As a matter of fact, finishing the book became a painful task that I reluctantly trudged through.)