I was interested in reading Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life but had no plans for when I was going to read it until Michelle I think it was, suggested it might be interesting to read as a companion to Rereading Women. Brilliant idea! But as library book holds go, as soon as I checked out Staal’s book I got three books in quick succession that I had to read because there were no renewals on them. My ability to renew Reading Women, quickly running out, I managed to fit that in and I am glad I did.

The premise of the book is Staal, married and with a small child, feels directionless and trapped and wonders what happened to all the feminist ideals she had when she took Fem Texts at Barnard College as an undergrad. She decides to audit the classes and see if she can discover a way out of the traditional female roles her life seems to have settled into. From blogger reviews I knew I should not expect lots of analysis of the texts. This turned out to be correct. There is some analysis but the class and texts are put to the service of a personal memoir and journey of self-discovery, which, when you think about it, is what feminism is partly about anyway – consciousness raising.

Even knowing to expect memoir going in I was a bit nonplussed at first with all the “I have a baby and it’s harder than I thought it would be” stuff. Well, yeah, did you think having a baby would be like a walk in the park? It was hard for me to be sympathetic at first. My husband and I decided fairly early in our marriage to not have children. While I know there is so much cultural baggage to motherhood and it needs to be discussed, as someone who has chosen to not become a mother I sometimes feel as though the issues surrounding my choice have been overlooked by feminism. What does it mean, for example, in a culture that elevates motherhood as it does, a culture that says to be a true woman you must have children, what does it mean to consciously choose not to be a mother?

I can tell you that sometimes it is humiliating; that because I don’t have children I am often barred from having an opinion on how to care for children but I am expected to be interested when mothers talk about their children and their problems; that I have been called selfish; that I have been asked if I hate children; that I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked about my biological clock. A mother I know once implied that I didn’t truly know about love because I hadn’t born children. I received a Mother’s Day card once from a niece who felt sorry for me because I didn’t have children of my own to give me cards. I’ve been asked what I am going to do when I get old since I have no children to take care of me. But I have also been told by many mothers, who whispered to me because they were afraid to say it too loudly, that if they had it to do over again they would not have children.

So I was getting a bit grumpy with Staal, but then something clicked. It wasn’t a big revelation on her part, but a slow accumulation of her story and in my understanding. She is four years younger than I am or there about, so while college and her experience of the feminist movement is not quite the same as mine, they are close enough. I know how she felt as an undergrad, all fired up by the feminist texts she was reading and the promises feminism seemed to be making. I know what it is to be idealistic. I know what it is like to be raised in a house that didn’t talk about feminism but in which I was told always that girls can do anything boys can do. I know what it is like to get out into real life and discover that the world often thinks girls can’t do everything boys can. And I know my feminist ideals are a lot harder to stick to and defend than I ever imagined. Staal writes:

Revisiting the texts of first-wave feminism, I had discovered – or perhaps remembered is the better word – that destiny can be a creative act. But early feminists also showed me that creating one’s destiny is only the beginning; living with it, day in and day out, is quite another.

Indeed.

What made Staal’s book most interesting for me was how she revisited the feminist texts with life experience under her belt. The young women in her classes were all smart, sometimes cynical or blase or completely clueless, and sometimes idealistic. They presented a fascinating contrast to Staal who was reexamining the texts and trying to fit the ideas into a real life framework. I found her approach especially interesting when she got to feminist theory and she attempted to apply the abstract to the concrete. She loved theory when she first took the class, but found on revisiting it, it isn’t always workable in real life.

Does taking the Fem Texts classes help Staal get herself sorted? Yeah, I think it does. She found the experience worthwhile and eye-opening:

History leaves a unique pattern of kisses and bruises on each of us, but many of the fundamental issues raised by being a woman have remained the same. Regardless of gaps in years, place, and circumstance, women across the ages have all had to negotiate the borders of their identities; in this, we find a common ground. [...] 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.

I am glad Staal wrote her book and I am glad I read it. I don’t think there are enough popular feminist books written these days. We are supposed to be post-feminist, as if the patriarchy has been dismantled and we can all happily sit around the campfire as equals singing Kumbaya. But the work of feminism and feminists is not done as Staal found out when she became a mother and as most women find out at some point in their lives. And as Staal learns, it is good to revisit our feminist history, re-view the ideas and see what they have to offer us today in the time and place we currently find ourselves. As it turns out, unsurprisingly really, there is still much of relevance to be found there.

Staal kindly provides a list of books she read for the Fem Texts classes and some additional books she chose to read at the end of Reading Women. It is a fantastic list of books. Some I have read and some I haven’t. I’ve noted down quite a few and hope to venture into to my reading and rereading sometime.

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