Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

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.

I did, however, have one glaring objection to the book: browsing through the table of contents, the first thing that came to mind was, “Well this is…White.” Because seriously, looking solely at the table of contents and not at the full reading list offered at the end of the book, you’d think that Barnard was completely oblivious to the existence of brown feminists. It’s not that Staal didn’t have the opportunity to feature at least one woman of color, either. In her author’s note, she writes, “Regretfully, given the sheer number of books I read during those two years, I had to omit quite a few wonderful texts in this book–not because I thought they were any less valuable, or lacked literary merit, but because they would have led me away from my central focus and into more contentious or theoretical realms.”

Thing is, that’s not entirely the case. There were a couple of places where she had ample opportunity to use a text by a woman of color in the book: namely, the chapter where she discusses domestic laborers and the chapter where she talks about Anita Hill. Instead, she just uses quotes from the class discussion, ending with a quote from the professor that I don’t agree with:

Remember, child care and housework used to unify women. It was important to second-wave feminism as a unifying force. But housework is now a divider by race, class, and immigrant culture.

Um…what? It was important to second-wave (read: white, middle class) feminism as a unifying force. Historically, housework has always been a divider by race and class. What about female slaves who were forced to serve their female mistresses? What about poor women who would have loved nothing more than to be stay-at-home moms and raise their own children rather than someone else’s? And Staal could have addressed this in more detail without derailing the book: Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class was on her reading list.

There was only one book by a woman of color that was mentioned in Reading Women, and it was the last one: Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning, a published collection of blog posts written by a young woman living in Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11. Even then, Staal doesn’t engage the book as much as she does the others, only bringing it up to pose the questions:

Although Riverbend doesn’t describe herself as a feminist, the class examined her words through a feminist lens. Was she ultimately telling a feminist story? Or was it simply the story of one individual who happened to be a woman? Could anyone’s story be labeled as “feminist”? And if so, what was the purpose of marshaling one’s story into the service of a theory, a philosophy, a movement?

After posing these questions, she simply moves on to another topic rather than trying to tease out some answers.

These frustrations aside, I still really enjoyed Reading Women because of the conversational tone of the writing and the introspections that arose from reading it (truth be told, I read pretty much all of it in one day). I’m younger than Staal, but older than the students she took the class with–hell, I currently teach college students their age! I’m also not a mother and don’t ever intend to be. But as I said before, I can still empathize with the struggles that she–and many of my friends–deal with. More importantly, I’m dying to read a lot of the books that were mentioned! I already own a few of these as-yet-unread books, but my wishlist also grew considerably as I worked my way through Reading Women.

Want a chance to read this book? Public Affairs has provided a finished copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway! To enter, fill out this form by Tuesday, March 22, 2011. Contest is open to U.S. and Canada residents only (sorry, I’m on a tight budget–although I do have a few worldwide giveaways coming up later this month).

Reading Women was released by Public Affairs on February 22, 2011.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon
I read it as a(n): paperback
Source: Advance review copy from publisher
Pages: 288

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7 comments

  1. Vasilly

    I had no idea that Reading Women didn’t have many writers of color mentioned in it. Ugh! Now I’m not as excited about reading it though I still want to.

  2. Lu

    Thanks so much for addressing that. Honestly I’m a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t in my review. I definitely wish that Staal had included more writers of color.

  3. Emily Jane

    Eep. You’re right about almost all of Staal’s selections being white. I wish now that I had included something about that in my own review. And your point about domestic work is, of course, right on.

  4. Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    Great review — very insightful — and I appreciate your critique about the whiteness of the authors she reads — disappointing. Still, I may pick this one up — I’ve been doing my own slow rereading of feminist classics.

  5. Natalie Ramm

    This looks really interesting! After reading your review, I wonder if you have a list of feminists of color or women of color that write feminist texts. I’m familiar with Bell Hooks and really love her work, but I would like to hear who you think the notable authors are. Thanks!!

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