Stephanie Staal was born in the 70s, came of age in the 80s and graduated from Barnard and its feminism 101 classes with the belief that the world was at her feet. That’s what they taught girls in those heady post-second-wave days. I know, because I was one of them, too. We all graduated knowing that we had meaningful working lives ahead of us, that our freedom had been won for us by a generation of determined, intelligent women who’d fought for equality and that we could now repay their struggles by crashing through the glass ceiling. Only nobody had taught us what to do, exactly, about marriage and motherhood, and all too often nobody had informed our husbands and partners that equality extended to the domestic front. Or at least they probably did know, but liked to pretend that it hadn’t been told them in a commercial break and so they hadn’t properly heard it. Ten years after graduation, this is the situation Stephanie Staal ended up in; oddly dissatisfied with life as a new mother, paralysed in her career and wondering who she has become now that all that ambition has dissolved into reality. And so she decided to go back to school, to resit her Barnard classes in feminist texts, and see what they could offer her, in a brave new world of emancipation that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
It’s a bit galling to come across a book you would have liked to have written yourself, or indeed, feel you should have written yourself. But I have to forgive Staal because she does it brilliantly. The book is part memoir, part literary analysis, and she manages to combine the two seamlessly, producing a continually entertaining and engaging narrative that wears its knowledge very lightly and grounds itself consistently in the reality of women’s lives. This is after all, an ideal thing to do with feminist texts that were written in response to real obstacles and problems that women have faced across the centuries. It’s a wonderful compilation of the stories of feminism, from Mary Wollstonecraft, through Kate Chopin, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Erica Jong, and Staal tells us about the lives of these women writers as well as their theories and thoughts. The perspectives gained in class are elegantly compared to the fears and frustrations Staal herself is encountering on the coal face of female experience as mother, wife and career woman, in a voice that is disarming and intelligent and extremely lucid. It’s really hard to move through all these layers of history and real time experience, theory and fiction, and keep it all clear, and yet Staal manages this with panache.
The only place she falters is towards the end of the book, when asked to confront the new generation of texts and theorists that she didn’t read the first time she took the courses at Barnard, and that represent more postmodern modes of thinking. The basic problem is that Staal doesn’t like Cixous and Butler, finds them overly abstract and hard to read. And of course this struck me as interesting. When I studied feminism, the course was separated into American feminism and French Feminism and the fact that the two couldn’t get along (not, I should add that this was the only division amongst the league of feminists, but still). Americans, we were told, criticised the French for being too intellectual and elitist in their writings, too far from real experience. The French countered that unless you could change the way people thought about things, you’d never have genuine social change, and so that inevitably meant a psychoanalytic or deconstructive approach. Stuck in the middle as a Brit, I had sympathy for both sides. Of course you need the legislation and the political recognition. But many of the problems women still face – Staal included – concern the fantasies and the expectations that stitch female experience together.
After all, becoming a wife and becoming a mother have historically been big decisions for women. A woman’s choice of husband determined her whole life subsequently for the best part of a couple of millennia. Childbirth was often a life or death situation and in the past century, since huge reductions in infant mortality have been achieved, a highly significant form of self-definition. I know that fathers have been more involved in childcare in the last twenty years or so, but this is nothing, really nothing, in the history of womanhood and let’s be realistic; the bulk of the responsibility still falls on the mother in at least 80% of households. The only way this is possible is through the peddling of massive fantasies involving the value and self-worth of women, and dominant cultural fantasies, too, about beauty, fashion, perceived power and an idealisation of domesticity. What’s alarming in many ways is how little progress we’ve made on the fantasy front – women are still linked to images of Eve and notions of temptation, we are still trying to figure out how best to educate boys and girls, although Mary Wollstonecraft began this line of inquiry in the 18th century, and we are still struggling with various forms of hysterical and psychosomatic illness because there is so much that a woman cannot say – anger and rage and resentment are considered ugly, almost moral flaws in a woman, whereas men do not face this cultural constraint at all.
So I was sorry to see Staal’s tendency to dismiss the latter stages of her course because they were more theoretically demanding, less obviously relevant to her own experience. I’ve always found them some of the most compelling parts. And come on, girls! Are we really going to wimp out here just because something is hard? Absolutely not. If feminism is going to come good on all its hopes, there is still tough work to be done deep in the hearts and minds of women, where perfectionism, compulsive compliance, guilt, responsibility and self-esteem create some pretty toxic combinations. That’s a feminism course I’d love to teach myself. But in the meantime, to catch up on the history of feminism to this point, I thoroughly recommend Stephanie Staal’s book.