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.