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Book Review of Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

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Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life is a breezy but insightful look at feminist classics a second time around.

A decade after being an actual 20-ish student in a women’s studies class at Barnard College in New York, Stephanie Staal returned as a 30-ish mother to take her Feminist Texts course again, alongside the next generation. In Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, she tells her story, examining the new ways texts of the feminist canon resonate now that she has a little more age and distance.

The Personal Is Academic

Stephanie Staal weaves her personal life throughout Reading Women, relating memories to the texts. She pairs the class’s reading of Elaine PagelsAdam, Eve, and the Serpent with the memory of her 8th-grade encounter with the Bible’s creation story in Genesis. At that adolescent point she discovered the idea that a woman’s biology may control her destiny – “one of the first principles of sexism,” she calls this realization.

It’s refreshing to read a book from a woman who came of age after the 1970s but does not run away from the biology/destiny analysis. Some postmodern feminists in the third wave and beyond eschew the word sexism, focusing all discussion on gender. Staal’s insights remind readers that feminists of the 1960s and 1970s created a movement that included important discussion about the sexes, sex differences and oppression based on sex differences.

One early moment in the revisited Fem Texts class is the response to a professor’s query: should women who don’t become mothers still be considered women?

“Of course,” answers the class. We can be grateful for that.  Stephanie Staal flips the question around to ask: if a woman does become a mother, can she still be a feminist? This question is slightly flawed, though – and it is a common logical flaw of anti-feminist thinking. The first question doesn’t properly lead to the second. The professor wasn’t referring to a time when women were “accused” of being feminist if they remained childless; they were called less than woman. “Flipping” the question in the way Staal does misses its point.

Family Feminism

Along the way, she reveals personal discomfort that undoubtedly colors her feminist study: she grapples with a toddler, a marriage that goes through rocky times and a (temporary) move from New York City to Maryland shortly after September 11, 2001. An epiphanic trip to the bookstore launches her rereading-feminist-texts project. Frustrated with life and motherhood, she tries to devour every book on womanhood she can find and – surprise! – comes across The Feminine Mystique.

She casually mentions that while she sought answers to her frustration her 2-year-old ran loose in the aisles of the store. One wonders if she means to toss in such easy symbols of not being in control as a mother. Later, the toddler is coaxed to sit beside her while she reads Betty Friedan, reawakening her college feminist self. Motherhood is a continually revisited theme of Reading Women, one of the main contrasts between Stephanie now and Stephanie then, as well as between Stephanie and the mostly 19-to-21-year-olds in the class. But is that the main difference, or is it Stephanie’s personal struggle that looms largest in her mind?

Not all of the Fem Texts discussions dwell on motherhood. From Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir to Pat Mainardi and Shulamith Firestone, key feminists are re-experienced with the benefit of a few years and a few life-altering experiences to give added perspective. Reading Women is plenty interesting to thirtysomethings, women studiers and other readers who aren’t mothers.

Reading Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique is credited with “launching” the 1960s feminist movement, and it was The Feminine Mystique that Stephanie Staal came across that fateful day in the bookstore, but the time spent rereading it takes it to task. Of course, no feminist should be expected to refrain from criticizing Betty Friedan’s work, or putting it in perspective. Staal’s ideas about it, like her ideas about other books, are thoughtful and offer interesting talking points.

However, it is frustrating when her discussion returns to the backlash theme that then women had a happy-housewife fake image of femininity forced upon them, and now women are “just” as unhappy because they are pressured to “have it all.” The debates, Staal’s or anti-feminists’, never hone in on the fact that for every lament about a wife/mother who works hard balancing work and family, there is no equal and opposite lament about a man who works hard balancing work and family.

Maybe Stephanie Staal is trying to point this out. She stumbles when she talks about a “genderwide crisis” of harried women always coming up short. Just because one woman hasn’t found “happiness” and “fulfillment” – which, she rightly points out, are practically meaningless media buzzwords – it does not mean there aren’t women who have found those things. Just because she finds common ground as a mother with some of Betty Friedan’s “housewife” subjects, it does not mean there aren’t men and women who parent together, refusing to succumb to society’s insistence that women bear more of the emotional burden of parenthood.

Life Changing Reading Projects

Stephanie Staal’s idea to reread the books of feminism is great. Her readers might actually be interested in more of the project’s logistics, but she doesn’t explain why the professors agreed to let her audit these classes. The timeline she weaves between personal life and class can get confusing at the end when a third professor is suddenly mentioned. Stephanie Staal admits that she takes some narrative and composite character liberties, so common in memoirs, but the bulk of the experience rings coherent and true.

Reading Women inspires quite a feminist to-read list, including the interesting addition of a blogger calling herself "Riverbend," a young woman in U.S.-occupied Baghdad. It’s unfortunate that Staal refers to the Iraq war as “the U.S. occupation following 9/11,” a phrasing that lends credence to the misrepresentation that Iraq was connected to September 11th. There are few such phrases in the book that repeat misguided media ideas, but they undermine the author’s depiction of herself as a critical thinker.

Still, there are great things about the book. Stephanie Staal is a feminist. Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life is a welcome reminder that feminism is important. Judging from the students encountered in this book, it is important to a generation that doesn't always think it needs to care deeply about the second wave. A reader may become wistful about college women’s studies readings and other life-changing moments. Perhaps it will inspire more feminists to go back and reread with a bit of age and distance, continuing the revolution.



Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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