I recently read Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life (2011) by Stephanie Staal. This is a great non-fiction read, especially if you’d like to learn more about that scary, shadowing term, Feminism. The book is intriguing from the start. Staal is conducting a bit of a social experiment. She had taken a course while attending Barnard College in the early nineties called Fem Texts. The two semester course read and discussed feminist literature throughout history. Staal, now a journalist and author, a wife and a mother, wonders what it would be like to go back to Barnard and take Fem Texts again. Nearly 20 years later, does her undying support of feminism need to be tweaked? She also compares attitudes of the younger women in her class and where they see themselves today. She writes, “As a mother…I could not ignore the difficulties of applying my feminist ideals to my life’s realities”. Thought-provoking stuff for all of us, whether married or unmarried, with children or without.
As discussion of various feminist writings progresses, Staal jots down as much of the actual classroom discussion as she can, balancing the student comments nicely with her own modified views from when she was a young, bold undergrad. Now with a little more life experience, she’s able to listen to and appreciate her younger counter-parts with a knowing good-naturedness.
Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with any of the books discussed. Staal includes quick summaries of each before classroom discussion, so you feel “up-to-speed”. Some of the books discussed (and sometimes torn apart!) are:
Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels (Analysis of the biblical story – I mean, this is where it all started, right?)
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (Written in 1792, the radical idea that if you educate women, humanity will be better off).
Dora: an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Sigmund Freud (Freud cruelly misdiagnoses a young woman suffering from Hysteria).
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Stifling marriages are nothing new).
Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (Patriarchy in literature – the aggressive male and submissive female).
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (Explores women’s conflicting desires).
To be sure the literature is intellectually stimulating. However, I really enjoyed reading about Staal, herself. Much her personal life stories are seamlessly folded into the required reading. We learn that Staal was raised by 2 research scientist parents who didn’t offer a lot of hand holding or attention and said “you can do anything you want”. Staal then marries and has a daughter. She struggles to assimilate her husband into her feminist ideology – sometimes not so successfully. In a hilarious chapter called “How Does a Feminist Do Laundry?”, Staal relates when her then boyfriend, John shared their first apartment. All was bliss until she realized that John wasn’t sharing equally in household duties. He seemed to expect her to do the laundry for the two of them. After several hints, she finally got his attention by dumping said laundry out in front of him, separating his from hers and then hurling his laundry out of their tiny Brooklyn apartment. This, in fact, does get his attention! There are many real life stories in the book that illustrate what Staal came to realize: Feminism in theory and feminism in real life can be very different things and even in the 21st century, some things have not changed.
Reading Women is an intellectual, reality-based, and brutally honest look at feminism and life. See the appendix of the book for a complete list of books discussed during the course. Happy Reading!
– Amy Hanmer, Librarian I