Review: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal
Title: Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life
Author: Staal, Stephanie
Length: 266 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Women’s Studies
Publisher / Year: Public Affairs / 2011
Source: Sent to me for review by the publisher.
Why I Read It: I commented on a review of this book by Lu back in December and the publisher contacted me offering a review copy afterwards. I couldn’t but jump at the chance especially with the Year of Feminist Classics project about to start!
Date Read: 21/02/11
Today the four Year of Feminist Classics hosts, Ana, Emily, Iris and I, are all reviewing this book. Do check out their reviews as well, and hop over to our Year of Feminist Classics round-up post for your chance to win one of five copies of the book. Thank you to Public Affairs for partnering with us for this project!
I am so glad I heard about this book and had the opportunity to read it, especially as part of the ongoing Feminist Classics project. It made me both want to expand our reading list and read all of the books immediately. It also made me wish I had taken a women’s studies course in university. Imagine, I’ve taken not a one women’s studies class, I feel I missed out big time! (Of course, I’ve also taken a huge zero literature courses.)
Staal grew up in a progressive family and went to Barnard College, taking a number of women’s studies courses as a part of her original degree, before pursuing a career in literature and journalism. She was always a believer in equality and that women didn’t have to choose anymore. After marrying and having a baby she starts having doubts and questioning herself on her life goals and wants. Staal decides to go back to Barnard and retake the feminist text classes in order to see how the texts stand up to rereading and to her life now that she is in a completely different place.
I really loved what Staal said about rereading on page 10 (quote from the uncorrected proof):
The act of rereading, as I have learned over the years, is an especially revealing one; in its capacity to conjure up our previous selves, rereading contains, I think, a hint of voodoo. … In coming back to the same book like this, again, over time, I not only see how my notions of love have changed but gain insight into why; I have uncovered clues to myself.
It is these clues to herself that Staal is in essence searching for after feeling so unmoored. The class is structured as a discussion between the teacher and twenty students on a variety of texts. The students formed a group of varying ages and also included one male student. I liked how both the teachers made it clear that it wasn’t about pushing their interpretation or brand of feminism on the students but about discussing the texts and that debates and differing opinions were welcome. While Staal obviously presents her own view of the texts which were discussed she doesn’t censure the other opinions but rather discusses them herself and debates with herself the merits of them.
Besides discussing the texts and how they relate to her life both then and now Staal discusses the feminist movement as a whole. She talks about the way that feminism has been positive for men, the way radical feminism is dismissed (mentioning on page 163 “When conservatives talk about radical feminists, they usually fail to acknowledge that these women were radical for a reason.”), and what it means to be a feminist and a mother. She talks about the divisions that have cropped up in the movement causing it to splinter and why and how this happened.
Biggest ‘aha’ moment for me was when Staal was discussing Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice (which, incidentally, I now really want to read!). She mentions a study that Gilligan conducted in which she says that she saw the word selfish pop up again and again. Funny enough this was a big aha moment for Staal too. She says on page 235:
How many times had I – like any number of adult women I knew – routinely characterized my desires as “selfish”? The recognition was stunning, really. Selfish was our go-to word, yet rarely, if ever, had I heard a man utter the same accusation of himself of his desires.
A few quotes I really liked on the nature of feminism:
The feminist story, she reminded me, is a counternarrative, a narrative of disobedience, a chronicle of battle, not of surrender. Women who do not fit the mold are too often maneuvered, manipulated, and mangled into some culturally safe archetype. (page 55)
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 the 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. (page 104)
Feminism gives us room to tell the unexpected story, and this, perhaps, is its greatest gift. (page 259)
Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this book as a look at one women’s discovery through the texts. Staal is clear that it is only her interpretation and ideas and that others will of course find different things in the book. To me this highlighted the best part of feminism and these texts which is how individual it can be and how it can still speak to so many of us in different situations. By coming together and listening to (and respecting) each others stories we can keep the momentum. Basically, read this book and join in on our Year of Feminist Classics project