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cover of Reading Women with a black and white photo of a woman on the ground reading a book, with pink text and a blue bottom with the author's name in white.

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal: I picked up this book by Staal largely because of Ana's review of the title that I found when going through her archives. However, I caused lots of problems for myself by reading it; great job, self! The beginning was rocky, as I found the opening pages of the novel almost too grandiose in its language and sweeping phrases. It felt very much like Staal was trying to paint a dramatic picture of an ordinary life to draw readers into a situation that otherwise was similar to many other situations except in the solutions Staal found to deal with it. To be blunt, she was overwriting and doing it pretty badly. It turned me off initially — it took me four weeks to get over those qualms and my initial reaction to actually read the book. However, once the beginning passes passed and we reach the true premise, I'm glad to say it levels out. I'm not the only one who felt this way; Ana did, too, which comforted me. I am glad we shared that in common, because unfortunately, we shared little else in common in our reactions.

I enjoy a well-told memoir. There's something about the insights of others that fascinates me, seeing their inner lives and thoughts, that makes them-as-humans more real and relevant. They exist in a way that other people don't most of the time when we're caught up in our minds. Unfortunately, this book had a downside, in that I've read one item on the list that Staal discusses: A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. Even then, it's been almost eight years since I read that essay. Staal touches on Pizan, who I read some of, but was derailed from by trusting class notes and lectures in order to save time to pass another class. I walked into this book unfamiliar with the majority of the writers and the texts Staal engaged with, with no clue about their ultimate meaning or how they fit into the larger structure of feminism and feminist writing.

I often feel disengaged from feminism as a movement. It doesn't seem very welcoming to me and quite often, it feels like you have to sit down and study it to make it relevant to your life, which if you're busy in the trenches of living day to day, can be a real downer. This was a frustrating problem to have, because the whole book was about reading the texts so Staal could reconnect with a part of her identity she felt was being subsumed by marriage and motherhood. It was a positive, life-affirming movement, yet I often came away from various parts of the book angry and bitter and humiliated. I hadn't read this book or that book as a teenager. I would have had no clue how to even parse some of these things at 16, 18, or even 21 — how was she doing it? I didn't have that insight about that piece when I read it! With books like this, I feel like feminism as a movement is an elite, academic club that you have to be a certain type of well-read to fit into, in order for your voice to be heard and respected, you have to read all these things, and all those critics, and understand the feminist critics of the critics, and understand why those critics are maybe not the best because they were part of whatever wave is now no good and bad because we've finally learned not to erase X group of people. What wave am I a part of? Do you have to identify? Are we supposed to be forming teams? Can I get a degree for this?

This type of academic feminism is alien and unfriendly and hard work that I don't even know that I can do or that I want to do. My relationship with academia in general is frigid at best and at worst, actively hostile. To see these classes described, with these smart people who have all these tools and resources and multiple classes and multiple libraries to pull books from is both a joy and ultimately a disappointment, because I don't have access to those things and never did (never will). The one Women's Writers course offered went from the 12th Century to the early 18th and no farther — it was enlightening, but no replacement for the history and weight of the 19th Century, of all these waves people talk about in the 20th Century, for the muted outrage and silence I see in the 21st Century, where anger just isn't cool anymore.

That's the one section I did ping to when reading was when Staal's class studied radical feminism. Staal quotes a classmate:

"I guess anger can be useful," conceded Sarah, a moment earlier one of the more vehement critics of radical feminist tactics. "But only sometimes," she added quickly.

Staal and the teacher both share a silent commiseration at this point, because something vital has been lost to cast anger as an ineffective tool. For once, I sat with Staal and understood, because although we were considering different times and different angers, this runs true to my experience. You can't be angry anymore, not if you want to be heard. Sometimes you can be, but that time isn't up to you at all — it's up to the person who you're having a discussion with, and they might decide they don't enjoy that, so why don't you just sit down.

Out of one moment in this book, that's the only part I marked and that's disappointing. This book didn't make me want to read the texts Staal pulls from. If anything, it made me realize that if I do read them, without a collaborative environment I will never get out of them what others do. I am trapped in a position of constantly needing things explained to me, put into a context that seems insurmountable on my own. I had no context for Staal's journey and her insights. It makes me feel stupid and I really, really hate when books do that. I came away from Staal's book bitterly disappointed that while most of the explanations of why a particular title renewed her belief in herself, her life, her choices or gave her guidance through a tough time they just kept reminding me I'm not knowledgeable. They reminded me that I'm not that wise, that I'm not so well-read, that I'm a woman from the South with a terrible public education who took until adulthood to realize these things had a name and I could reach out for them, only to find mountains to climb. Mountains with falling boulders representing big words I still don't know. Who wants to read a book at their computer with open? Feel free to muster a show of hands.

People who are grounded in feminist theory and the myriad of texts covered in Staal's book will get the most out of this memoir. Even though it was readable for me on a personal level with regards to Staal's life, I was a passenger that was never going to reach the destination Staal did, or be able to compare her findings to my recollections, because I had no recollections to draw from. On top of that, I'm not a mother, with no particular desire to become one right now, and so that also passed me by.

This is not a bad book, but I was not the right reader. I'm never going to be the right reader for a book about books that are common canon, because what's common for everyone else wasn't part of my young adulthood, my early education, or my life through thoughtful mentors. The books that were never urged me to go seek more. I'm angry about this book, because all it did was remind me of everything I missed out on, and how hard it would be to catch up now, on how much harder I'll have to work than everyone else to be able to speak with any kind of authority due to circumstances outside of my control based on my class. It makes me feel lazy on top of it all, for not being overjoyed by going out to pick up bunch of titles I ultimately won't understand because I don't have a teacher.

I'm not sure what Staal was going for, but it was probably not to make me angry about the lack of feminist education. That's ultimately where I ended up, though: angry, disillusioned, embarrassed and discouraged. It's been a few weeks since I finished this book and I'm still no closer to a resolution for all my thoughts. But maybe that's a point in the book's favor, regardless of my engagement with it.

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Regular Ruminations, Amy Reads, Iris on Books, yours?

Date: 2012-05-18 06:56 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
When you first drafted this post I said it made me realise our feminist education had a lot in common even though our educational experience was sort of different. Maybe it would be useful if I explained the similarities, so that this book doesn't leave you feeling like you're barred from entry to feminism? There are probably a lot of us out there who came up with a less than formal feminist education and who are still rapidly trying to patch holes in our knowledge, as we go about the business of living and sometimes it's nice to know you're not alone.

I find it really difficult to remember how I became a self-identifying feminist, because I've been one for so long, but also because it seems kind of bizare to me that it happened. Sure, I had a mother who had both a fulfilling career and a family, I went to decent, regular schools and I spent a bit of time on female heavy message boards, but I don't think any of those things directly contributed to making me a feminist. Like, I never had a big 'women are awesome' chat with my mum, or with any kind of feminist mentor. My schools weren't conservative, but neither were they feminist havens. Sometimes I look around and I wonder why I'm as liberal as I am/how feminism became such a part of me. And by the time I got to message boards at 16/17, I already identified as a feminist, despite the fact that I really had very little idea about feminist history. I can only assume that a patchwork of small moments (that one citizenship lesson that was designed to challenge gender assumptions) and seeing women I admired acting strongly and working in good positions (my mum, my teachers, my cousin)led me to self-identify as feminist, before I even really got that feminism was a huge movement with a huge, complicated history.

As for learning feminist stuff in higher education, well I went to a university that specialised in medieval history, so I took a lot of courses in medieval history. There probably were nineteenth century courses I could have taken that would have intersected with ninteenth century feminism, but I don't remember them and imagine I would have shunned them unless they were all about feminism, as the nineteenth century isn't my favourite period. I was really lucky, because I went through school at a time when it was pretty compulsory to make every course explore female history (at least for one lesson). So, in nearly every course, there would always be one lesson on women and there would always be one paper option that encouraged you to learn more about women. I took a gender in history course in my last year, which again focused on early history. I think I picked up a lot of useful stuff about women's earlier lives, but, yes I do still feel adrift when confronted with other's wealth of knowledge about the biggest time of feminist progress. And my lack of knowledge does sometimes make me feel insecure when I want to discuss feminism with people who have a more formal education.

So that's me. Like I said, our experiences aren't the same, but they have similarities that I thought it might be useful for you to know. I don't really have any solutions for you, but then you don't really need any, because this post is about expressing feelings and feelings don't need solving.

Date: 2012-05-18 12:17 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Like I told you before, I worry I’m sometimes guilty of taking the advantages my education gave me for granted and not realising that some books I breeze through are not necessarily as accessible to people with different educational backgrounds. I know you told me I haven’t made you feel this way, so this isn’t a “oh noes I’m horrible!” type comment; just a note to myself to remember to pause and consider possible barriers to accessibility before I loudly declare, “this book is super easy to read!”

And since we’re talking about the process of becoming feminists, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my own: like Jodie I can’t point to a specific “click” moment, and I don’t have any interesting anecdote to share about when I became a feminist. My family is politically liberal, but my culture is still pretty stifling when it comes to gender roles, and growing up I was told about a gazillion times I wasn’t allowed to do things my brother was allowed because I was a girl and girls needed “protecting”. Sexual double standards in particularly were a huge thing, and making sure I didn’t “act like a slut” was always a big concern of my mother’s. She’s very much NOT someone who identifies as a feminist, though at the same time she certainly HAS felt the constraints of gender roles and isn’t very traditional. I remember her telling me that when she first met my father’s family, they hated her because she a) wore pants and b) smoked, which were both still very transgressive for a woman. This might not have been the case in the rest of the world in the late 60’s, but hey, we were a fascist dictatorship.

Anyway, I reacted pretty strongly to the whole double standards thing, but I didn’t join the dots and began to realise this was all the result of sexism until I was 19 or 20. And this is where my university education comes in. I actually began by rejecting feminism in my first year at university because I was exposed to Carol Gilligan’s “difference feminism”, which is entirely based on gender essentialism, and didn’t realise this wasn’t all that there was. But then I switched majors from psychology to English, and the humanities department at my university was very, very feminist. I began to do more reading and quickly realised that yes, you COULD be a feminist and reject gender essentialism, in fact a great number of feminists did, and also that there was a direct link between sexism and a lot of the things I’d struggled with in my life. Becoming a part of online communities where there were many women who identified as feminists and made the link between the theory I was being exposed to in my lit and history classes and everyday life was also really important to me.

I can’t pretend to know what it’s like not to have the educational advantages I did have, and I certainly don’t want to appropriate that kind of experience, but I thought it might be useful to tell you that despite everything, that feeling of inferiority, that suspicion that everyone else is more secure in their knowledge and had things figured out long before you did, is still very familiar to me.

Date: 2012-05-18 12:24 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Actually, I’ve just realised that I DO remember one particular important moment, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it THE click moment: it was reading the Shakespeare’s sister section of A Room of One’s Own in class and suddenly realising with mortification that I was becoming teary-eyed, because wow, it drove the point home like nothing else I’d read to date.

Okay, enough about me now :P


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