Stephanie Staal – Reading Women

Sometime not too long ago, Litlove wrote about a new book called Reading Women: how the great books of feminism changed my life by Stephanie Staal. I was intrigued by the title and the premise, and so ordered a copy and dove right in and am very glad that I did, as this is a book that gave me much to think about (and a nice fat future reading list, as well).

Staal is a journalist, and must be just a few years older than I am. Since much of her book has to do with her (our) generation’s negotiation of historical and modern feminist writings and theories, I felt quite at home within both her personal story (having just had a child myself not too long ago, and still trying to figure out how to juggle career and parenthood) as well as her academic reflections on reading and living feminist principles. The book is a well-combined mix of personal memoir and literary analysis, and Staal is a competent and engaging writer. Despite the intricacy of the subject, the book is a quick and interesting read.

Brief recap of the book’s premise: Staal, an instinctive feminist (I’ll get to that “instinctive” idea in a minute), finds herself adrift after the birth of her child. Unhappy with her negotiation of the equally powerful pulls of motherhood and career, she returns to her undergraduate alma mater to revisit an in-depth list of seminal feminist texts. (a bit off topic, but I think it is kind of funny to write “seminal feminist” …) The book is as much about her daily life as a mom and writer as it is a careful reading of a series of fascinating and provocative voices in debate about a woman’s place in the world.

I consider Staal an instinctive feminist (and it’s a label I’d give myself) for several reasons. The first comes from her background – she was raised by parents who both worked full time, and her mother was a successful scientist. The second is a generational reason – like myself and many other women who came of age in the eighties and nineties, we grew up hearing repeatedly that we could do whatever we wanted. For some reason (and Staal looks into it), the feminist message of my youth was wonderfully simple. It isn’t that we grew up thinking there weren’t still stumbling blocks for women, but I would say that it was implied that the bigger issues had been dealt with by an earlier generation.

In this sense, an instinctive feminist takes it for granted that as long as she works really hard and finds a suitably egalitarian spouse, she’ll be able to live her feminist ideals without compromise. And this is where Staal, and many women of my generation, including myself, find themselves unmoored when all of a sudden our world becomes split between parenthood and career. As Staal passionately explains, she was caught completely by surprise when she found herself struggling with feminist identity issues.

Being a reader myself, I loved Staal’s approach to sorting through this problem. Why not go back and read what other women have said and done when confronted with a similar quandary? She takes us through history, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Virginia Woolf, to more contemporary voices like Katie Roiphe. The journey is sufficiently in-depth, for a book of 259 pages, and she includes much of the discussions she listened in on as she audited her Feminist Texts courses. Her reactions to the texts are honest and intelligent, and she is smart enough to admit when she doesn’t understand or agree with a certain way of thinking.

This is a book of discussion, not a book of answers, and I’m very glad that Staal did not try to find some pat resolution for a problem that will require re-negotiation throughout her entire life:

The intrinsic worth in reading and rereading feminist writings is that, in doing so, we are given the precious chance to compare and contrast other women’s lives with our own, to liberate our imaginations from the predictable, the conventional, and thus gain greater insight into the various scripts assigned to us by our particular generation. Feminism gives us room to tell the unexpected story, and this, perhaps, is its greatest gift.

Staal recognizes that this issue of how to be a parent, a spouse and a feminist is not something to solve after class over a cup of coffee, and this recognition is what made Reading Women a very good book.

Having said that, I think that it is sometimes too easy to get caught up in perpetual self-examination: What is the current situation? How does it compare to history? Who’s got it worse? And instead, I wouldn’t have minded a little brainstorming. What are the useful discussions? What are the changes that would help? What kinds of ideas can our societies entertain, that might move us in the right direction? Staal does a little of this, but only a little, and the effect is to leave the reader feeling just a tidge helpless. One of Staal’s points is that some feminist theories pushed women apart, and she rightfully bemoans this. But her book contains an implicit suggestion that solving the problem is a distinctly personal and individual experience, which, by default, does the same thing. In fairness, I suspect Staal doesn’t intend to do this at all, and compared to what the book does achieve, this is quite a small hiccup.

And one final word – I’d be interested to hear what any men have to say about the book. I’ve seen only women’s responses and it strikes me that men, fathers especially, might be interested in what she brings up.

 

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

11 thoughts on “Stephanie Staal – Reading Women”

  1. I’m going to accept the challenge of your final paragraph, not only as a father, but as a father of an 11-year old daughter getting more opaque by the month. It’s on order and I’ll start later this week after my current Krasznahorkai.

    1. I’m happy to hear it and will be really interested to hear what you think about it. I’m not sure that Staal’s book is the absolute best leaping off point for a discussion on contemporary feminism, but I think she has a lot to say and I wish men and women were actively engaged in these kinds of conversations. Fathers and mothers of girls and boys…

  2. This is a beautiful review, and I’m so glad you liked the book. I very much appreciated Staal’s honesty, and was impressed by the wave she wove the intellectual sections into memoir writing. Very interesting indeed what you say about the absence of solutions – or even discussions of possible solutions. That makes me think of Simone de Beauvoir, who so often left her most feminist texts poised on the brink of an unknowable future. It makes me think about the job of writing altogether – are books the places where we solve our problems, or express them in comprehensive and intriguing ways? I’ll also be fascinated to see what Anthony thinks of the book as I’ve only seen women writing about it, too.

    1. I’ve only read de Beauvoir’s fiction, but I’ve been meaning to read the rest of her work. What you wrote (in your own review) about the split between the French and the American feminists was fascinating to me. I’m curious about how it plays out today in French culture vis American culture.. the glimpses I have from my living-in-Switzerland perspective show that the differences are still quite vast.

      You ask a marvelous question about the job of writing – I suppose it has to do with the writer and whether he/she is interested in working on a manifesto. That is a tricky type of writing to pull off.

  3. I put this on my TBR list after Litlove wrote about it and after you commented on Rereading Women I requested it from the library. I came of age in the mid 80s so understande what you mean by “instinctive” feminist but even as a teenager I started to notice that the world wasn’t necessarily as amenable to women as I was being told it was. I look forward to reading the book and I look forward to finding out what Anthony thinks of it too!

  4. Hello Michelle, I missed litlove’s review of this (how? Will read it now) and am intrigued. Feminism and literature, and my generation too by the sounds of it. I don’t have anything to say, other than that I enjoyed your review.

    1. Hi Helen, I also thought of you since we have kids who must be about the same age, and it strikes me that Staal’s book was written when her daughter was a toddler – so right after the babyhood has worn off, she is suddenly blessed with just enough extra time to take stock of the situation – and that part of the discussion appealed to me, or at least felt very familiar.

  5. This sounds like an interesting, intriguing and thought provoking read, thank you for highlighting it, I will add it to my list and now I must stop doing that and read!

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