Reading Women

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.

21 thoughts on “Reading Women

  1. So glad you loved this – I really did too, and I agree that Staal does a great job of combining literary analysis with personal narrative. Also, very good point about her treatment of newer theorists. The section on Butler in particular left me dissatisfied, since she’s one of the authors whose ideas resonated with me the most when I studied her. But Staal’s reaction was interesting in its own right.

  2. Sounds like a book I have to read. As always, there’s a sentence in your writing that chimes like a bell in my heart. Today’s is: ‘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.’

    Thank you, both for that, and a nod to a book I will seek out.

  3. Great post! Thanks for cluing me in a bit more. I’d read a bit here and a bit there about this book, but your review is the first to really grab me; I know now that I want to read this.

  4. I come from an earlier generation and feminism was not yet part of the courses I took. I learnt about it at the coalface, as it were, although in my case, the chalk face would be more appropriate. It sounds to me as though this might provide a way of introducing me to the theory that ought to have lain behind my enforced practice and possibly offer a blueprint for a reading course in the area. Thank you.

  5. what a great review – and very timely subject matter for me as I return to work in three weeks and have found myself struggling with that decision. Although I didn’t go to Barnard, I took very similar classes in college and love this idea of revisiting them – this is definitely going on the tbr list. Thanks for the wonderful review!!

  6. I’m reading Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion and find it so shocking. Saal chose a completely different approach and it sounds very interesting, I’ll put it on my wish list. Another one I want to read is the Delusions of Gender. Someone at work told me that she found my interest a bit outdated. The very same woman told be that she was secretly hoping her second child would also be a girl because that would save her the buying of new i.e. not pink clothes.
    Banyard shows clearly that women are penalized at work if they have children but she allows shows that this would happen much less if men would take care equally. … It’s so frustrating. It should be outdated but the problems and issues are as actual as always only it seems worse now because so many people live under the assumption we are finally treated equally. Btw I think there still is a hude difference between French and UK/Us feminism.

  7. Dear LL, This is certainly a book I might have otherwise missed! It’s never too late to read about femininism, in any of its forms. And how right you are about the split between the Americans and French on this topic. How long would de Beauvoir have stayed at the table with Steinam? (longer with Friedan, perhaps) but otherwise…? And though it’s not exactly recognized as literature on the topic, for some reason I sit here recalling reading THE WOMEN’S ROOM by Marilyn French on the subway when I was working in NYC. Everyone (all the women) were reading it. It might have been as far into the topic as any of them came (it was, after all mere fiction) but it was a good thing. And then, it fell off the reading and best seller lists.

    I look forward to finding Staal’s book. It’s time. It’s the kick/reminder I need as I continue to struggle, sometimes out loud, sometimes to myself in the car during my commute, with what I get done on a daily basis.

    Are we getting anywhere? Yes. As long as smart women continue to contribute not just via charity work and raising beautiful families but through illuminating and building the corporate, commercial, medical political academic – all! – worlds.

    As always, you’ve inspired.

  8. Mmm – I would be so interested to read this. Pity about the Butler section – but we also have to allow faults in ourselves and each other, don’t we, something we really seem to struggle with as a sex, so I don’t judge her harshly given what sounds like a real accomplishment.

  9. Great post. I’m all for being aware of how we are shaped by fantasies and expectations, particularly with regard to gender roles. As for different brands of feminism, I wonder if the American and French schools correspond to a distinction between liberal feminism and post-modern feminism? Sounds like it.

  10. Nymeth – I am completely indebted to your review as I read about this book there and instantly knew I had to have it! And I admired it so very much. There is a fantastic female tradition of combining autobiography with all kinds of other writing, and this was a welcome addition to it.

    Charlotte – oh I can see you getting a real kick out of this book. Staal has such a good voice – honest and intelligent, right up your street. And thank you for the lovely comment!

    Lilian – oh if only! Staal does lots of things better than me, but that makes it a really good learning vehicle, too.

    Pages of Julia – I would love to know what you think of it – do let me know if you read it!

    Gentle Reader – always a delight to give you a laugh! And I’d love to know what you make of this book – it is such an interesting read.

    Annie – I would find your reaction to this book so very interesting. I wonder how our entry into the feminist perspective, the time and the way we were first enlightened, affects our feelings about everything that happens in that domain subsequently. I try to watch myself in respect to this question, but it’s hard. One needs comparisons really, and discussion. Do let me know if you read this.

    Courtney – oh this is a wonderful book for you right now, in the thick of entwining motherhood into your life. I would love to know what you think of it if you read it!

    Caroline – you’re right, there have been several interesting books out lately about feminism, and there are several more I’d like to read (Delusions of Gender being high among them). There’s been such a big backlash against feminist ideas – for years my students wrinkled their noses and said they wouldn’t call themselves feminists much in the same way that people would no longer call themselves Communists! But the inequalities remain, and sneak back in, and it’s still a complex situation. I agree there is a huge difference marked by the Atlantic Ocean.

    Oh – bless you as ever for a lovely comment. I’m always intrigued by the differences between French and American feminism, because we really do need both, and those different perspectives have so much significance and value in each case. I read The Woman’s Room a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. There was such energy at that point and a growing belief in the power of the sisterhood. Mothering risks becoming divisive and competitive these days, and I think that’s hard when it’s a time in life when you really need your female friends! Actually, I can’t think of any time in life when one doesn’t need one’s female friends.

    Doctordi – oh no, it’s meant as a plea for the relevance of Butler et al (which is often not immediately obvious) and not a sharp critique, because it is, as I said, an excellent book.

    Pete – hmm interesting comment about liberal/post-modern feminism. French feminism grew out of May ’68, which was a political and cultural revolution that sought to overturn rigid heirarchies of power. But it was also strongly influenced by psychoanalysis and so the whole thrust of the movement, begun in the universities, turned inward to structures of the mind. But seeing that postmodernism was also gaining ground at the same time, with the same sort of interest in upending power structures, it can surely be considered an important influence in its own right. So yes, I agree. And I do love a bit of fantasy – always fun to pick at!

  11. You sold me, this book is now on my TBR list. I was at university the same time as you and being American we read some of the French theorists but they just weren’t practical with their heads in the abstract clouds. And psychoanalysis? That was so over. 😉 Interestingly, as someone who has chosen not to have children and was led to believe this was a powerful choice that made a statement and one that was being made by large numbers of women and had become culturally acceptible, etc, etc,. Well, let’s just say I was surprised that this was/is not exactly true. Sometimes women can’t win, eh?

  12. This sounds absolutely fascinating. Does she get into class or race at all? Because of course those are impossibly confounding factors, can’t get along without them.

  13. Stefanie – I would so love to hear what you make of this book! And I’m not sure that any woman wins these days – the pressures from all sides are so intense, and you simply cannot please all of the people. As for psychoanalysis – cheeky! 😉 Just wait til I come over there and analyse one of your blog posts. 🙂

    Jenny – good question – and the answer is sort of. It comes up, where you might expect, in the issue of home help, and how fraugt it is for the wealthier woman to employ the poorer one to look after her kids, often removing her from her own family to do so. At the very end she also discusses the blog, Riverbend Girl, written from the heart of the conflict in Iraq. So there are instances, but not a prolonged discussion – to the best of my recollection!

  14. None of the libraries I use own this–very bad (I shall be requesting it!). Another area I only have peripheral knowledge (I’ve done some reading but not a lot of books). This is a good place to start?

  15. Ooh, interesting – sounds like David Denby’s Great Books, except feminism-focused and across the road at Barnard rather than at Columbia. The combination of the personal with literary analysis is so appealing when it’s done well, and it sounds like Staal does it well. I’ll have to add it to my TBR list!

  16. Pingback: Wish Lists « Charlotte's Web

  17. A hundred years after you wrote this, I’ve come here via Michelle’s blog and excellent review, and enjoyed your excellent review too. I consider myself a feminist to the point of being enraged by women who claim not to be feminists, yet I’ve never read any of these texts and am probably pig ignorant. This looks like a good place to start informing myself…

  18. Pingback: Stephanie Staal, Reading Women (2011) « Smithereens

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