Tag Archives: feminism

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to Be a Woman - Caitlin MoranHow to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
Harper Perennial, 2012

Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran is in part a memoir about Moran’s life as a woman, while interweaving these anecdotes with Moran’s vision of why feminism still matters. Tackling topics such as pubic hair, breasts, menstruation, marriage, having children, sexism, and abortion Moran tries to portray the relevance of feminism for modern women.

This book has been on my have-read-should-review pile for a while now, but the fact of the matter is: it confused me. On the one hand this book is straight forward, entertaining, and funny. On the other, it left me with a lot of questions and disagreements with Moran’s vision of feminism. I admire her for standing up and proclaiming that feminism is still relevant. And I think that by illustrating that with funny (although a bit overtly so at times) and touching personal anecdotes she makes feminism a lot more easily digestible for a lot of people. Because the book features frank retellings of situations that are often less-than-comfortable to talk about, parts of this book were like finding that friend that woman magazines always expect you to have but so little of us actually do. You know, the one that you can talk about all the bodily issues with, etcetera? Or perhaps that’s just my experience. On this account, I enjoyed reading How to Be a Woman. And yet..

The more I think about my reading experience of Moran’s book, the less the side of that bosom-friend with which you can share everything stands out. Instead, I mostly feel the annoyance at everything Moran seems to ignore. By focusing on the personal day-to-day side of feminism, Moran is a little quick to dismiss those feminist viewpoints that she feels problematic things. There is a chapter in the book where she mentions how some feminists have made women feel bad about taking on domestic help. And how there’s no reason for that, because it’s just a matter of paying for someone’s services, just like everything else in the economy. You see, at this point I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. From one perspective, yes, it’s an economic transaction, but surely you’ve heard of this idea that gender, and class, and the frankly quite overlooked category of race, intersect? But sadly, intersectionality, or any of the other criticisms leveled at traditional feminism in the past, oh, I don’t know, decades, are mostly overlooked in this book. And this made me sad. And at times, a little angry.

On the one hand, I enjoyed How to Be a Woman, and I felt that perhaps the personal perspective might make feminism a little bit of a less-frightening term for the general public. On the other hand, I had rather hoped that the book would offer a more inclusive view of feminism, with a few more side-notes, and a few more incorporations of new feminist critiques. For, by missing out on such things, the book sometimes makes feminism less something “for everyone”, and as such misses a chunk of its intended message.

The Feminist Texan Reads offers a more thorough and intelligent write-up of what is lacking in How to Be a Woman. It was only when I read her review that I finally found the courage to formulate my own struggles with the text. And so I particularly wanted to point it out to you.

Other Opinions: The Feminist Texan Reads, Shelf Love, Leeswammes, Reading Matters, The Blue Bookcase, Entomology of a Bookworm, the Book Brothel, Novel Insights, My Books My Life, The Literary Kitty, The Book and Biscuit, The parenthesis and the footnote, Lucybird’s Book Blog.
Did I miss your post on this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list.

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The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster

The Coquette by Hannah Webster FosterThe Coquette – Hannah Webster Foster
Girlebooks, 2011 (originally published in 1797)

The Coquette is an epistolary novel based on the then famous death of Elizabeth Whitman, an elite woman who fell from grace and died giving birth to a still-born illegitimate child. Whitman’s death was publicly blamed on the ‘bad influence of novels on the mind of women’. Foster wrote the story of Eliza Wharton in response to this accusation, outlining the difficult and restricting circumstances of American middle class women at the time.

Eliza Wharton is the daughter of a clergyman, who was recently released from an unfortunate marriage to a clergyman she did not love, because of the death of her betrothed. After his death, Eliza stays with friends for a while and quickly attracts the attention of two men: a proper but slightly boring clergyman called Boyer and a libertine called Sanford. Eliza does not want to bind herself to one man (hence “the coquette”) and in the end Boyer gives up on her because of her flirty ways. Sanford too seems to move on when he marries another woman for her fortune. But, while Sanford is married, he and Eliza carry on an affair. In the end, Eliza, like Elizabeth Whitman, flees from her mother’s home and dies of the complications of childbirth.

What is interesting about this novel is that it can be read and interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, Eliza is a coquette and you are set up to want to tell her to behave and consider her status and let go of her silly flights of romanticism. This is what is scary about the book: Eliza is portrayed in the manner in which women were often portrayed in 18th century novels. I kept thinking: “silly girl”. But when you think about it, why is she silly at all? Because she does not choose the man everyone thinks is right for her? While reading the book I was often annoyed with Eliza, but thinking about it, it may have been a clever style of writing to make the reader think about the restrictions placed on girls at the time (or maybe even now still).

On the other hand, Foster makes the reader feel for Eliza. Towards the end of the novel, you go from thinking “silly girl” to thinking “poor, sad thing” (which in itself need not be a positive statement about women). From a modern point of view, I did not completely understand why she had to leave home, especially since her mother would have wanted to take care of her no matter what, but I guess it is not about what might have happened, but about what Eliza felt she should do, and she felt she had no way out precisely because of the prevailing social conventions.

I think this would be a very interesting novel to discuss in feminist classes, or maybe classes on 18th century novels. However, as an epistolary novel featuring letters of many of the characters, it is sometimes hard to follow. And for a novel of this kind, that was written during this period (“silly girls”, social conventions, romantic developments, social critique), I do feel there are more enjoyable and better ones out there.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Four Major Plays - Henrik Ibsen“A Doll’s House” (1879) in:
Four Major Plays – Henrik Ibsen
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

I doubt I can say anything that has not been said before in this month’s discussion on A Year of Feminist Classics. So I’m posting small notes, simply because I’d like to have a record of this project by the end of the year.

A Doll’s House is about Nora and Torvald, her husband who has recently received a promotion in his job at the bank. Torvald treats Nora as a child, a precious pet, and throughout the book calls her names such as “my little sky-lark”, “little squirrel”, etcetera. This annoyed me to no end. But it also sets up the scene of their marriage perfectly: they interact as if by lines learned from a book, pet names once given and always there now. Only when they fight (which they do in several scenes) do the names suddenly stop, as does some of the condescending manner of Torvald.

As many before have said, I believe both Nora and Torvald are trapped in the social manners they are supposed to take on, by society. This does not mean that this doesn’t leave a lot more freedom towards Torvald to shape his life in a certain manner.

Actually, I disliked all the characters in this play. Torvald, Nora (how could she be/play so dumb and stupid?) and many of the supporting characters. When Nora plays with her children, she truly seems to be a child herself. It is as if the whole first act tells you: “see, this is marriage, and it is only right, because looks at what women are..”

I think it is only when the turn occurs in Act III that I started to go from feeling the play was “okay” to “good”. This is also where everything fell into place for me. Nora, especially, suddenly commanded a lot more respect:

Nora: It’s right, you know, Torvald. At home, Daddy used to tell me what he thought. then I thought the same. And if I thought differently, I kept quiet about it, because he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his baby doll, and he played with me as I used to play with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house….

Torvald: What way is that to talk of our marriage?

Nora: What I mean is: I passed out of Daddy’s hands into yours. You arranged everything to your tastes, and I acquired the same tastes. Or I pretended to… I don’t really know… I think it was a bit of both, sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. When I look back, it seems to me I have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by doing tricks for you, Torvald. But that’s the way you wanted it. You and Daddy did me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I’ve never made anything of my life.

The characterisation of the treatment of Nora as a doll in a doll’s house is so spot on for everything that went on in the play. And that last line shows how Torvald is trapped as well. Can we really agree with Nora that it is all Torvald’s fault? I think what Ibsen was trying to say was that it is society’s conditioning that was/is at fault.

As for the ending, you can feel the controversy. It must have been huge at the time (and the introduction tells me it was). I can see why.. I don’t think I necessarily agree with Nora’s choice, although I doubt if she had another choice to build up her own life. What it really made me stop to think about is how normal we still consider it for a woman to never leave her children, while a man leaving his is.. sad but okay. This play helped me consider that, something I had never thought about before. Isn’t it weird how a play that is more than 130 years old can still be so relevant today?

I am very glad I bought a book that has three other plays by Ibsen in it. I cannot wait to read them in the upcoming months.

This book counts towards A Year of Feminist Classics as well as the Nordic Challenge.

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Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life – Stephanie Staal
Public Affairs, February 2011

Reading Women is about Stephanie Staal’s participation in a women’s studies class in university as married women and mother, years after she first read the same texts as an ambitious student. She discusses and reads these texts in the light of her own personal life, the experiences of her friends and the discussions in class.

How could I not say yes to a review copy of this book? Especially since it comes so close to our own project: A Year of Feminist Classics?

There are so many interesting things to say about this book, some of which Ana, Emily Jane and Amy also mention in their posts on this book. In this post I will discuss the few things that stood out to me.

First, there is Staal’s emphasis on how reading the same works at different stages in life thoroughly affects your understanding and experience of a book. She says:

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.  I cannot read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights without remembering myself at fifteen, sprawled on my twin bed, deep in the throes of first love, and therefore secretly enthralled by the tragic of proportions of Heathcliff and Cathy’s passion; but there, too, is my twenty-five-year-old self who had by then been through heartbreak more than once – for her, the primacy of their passion recedes into the background, as instead the damaging repercussions of this passion come into relief.  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.

As a regular reader and book blogger, it is hard not to find yourself nodding along vigorously to this passage in the book of Staal. But it isn’t only in this one paragraph that Staal reflects on reading and rereading, it is a central premise of the book. Staal first read a lot of the feminist texts she discusses in her memoir as a young student. Now, she reads them in a (sometimes) completely different light, from the point of few of a recent mother, a married woman, who struggles with the idea that she gave up part of her dream of independence to take care of her child, to be a wife to her husband. She discusses these struggles most vividly: how do you reconcile feminist ideals to the pragmatic circumstances of motherhood? It is a subject that has been described before, but that does not make Staal’s approach less worthwhile. It might be a subject that I have had little to do with just yet (since I am, very much, still the student of Staal’s younger years), but it is interesting, since I more or less know that one day I will be confronted with these same issues, even if I never marry, even if I never have children.

What makes Staal’s book interesting for bloggers who are also participating in our feminist reading project is that Staal’s approach to the works of feminism very much reminded me of what we are doing. She does give insight into the central premises of these works of feminism, but she doesn’t describe them in a scholarly fashion alone. Like we have done with Wollstonecraft, Mill and Ba, she looks at these works both in the light of the historical context as well as in the light of modern concerns. Furthermore, she engages with them through the prism of her own personal life. Something that does, I think, sound very familiar to book bloggers.

The most important thing I took away from reading Staal’s book, is that it made me very enthousiastic to engage even more with our own project of reading feminist texts. She made me realise once more how reading these texts together with bloggers from very different backgrounds and at very different stages in life sheds new light on the texts and the ideas formulated within them. Furthermore, her discussion of some of the books we have and have not on our list, is absolutely inspiring. Her portrayal of the opinions voiced on Wollstonecraft in the class she participated in were very similar to the responses many of us had to Vindication. Staal also made me want to read the many works that were on her reading list, but that aren’t on ours. Maybe it is time to reconsider the naming of our project and the fact that we initially limited it to one year? If there is one thing Staal shows, it is that a project like this, or the reading and interpretation of feminist text is never finished. And I have to say, I like it that way.

I did have some small problems with the book, but they were minor. For example, like Ana, I at first had some difficulty getting into the style of the introduction of the book. However, I was exited enough about the premise to make me want to continue reading, and the style definitely changed after the introduction. And I have to agree with Emily that Staal at times seems to stretch how the books she discusses fit her private life. At the same time, this does show how books always seem to offer us something, however small that something is. All in all, this is a very interesting read, that does offer a great starting point for whoever is interested in reading books about feminism, or rereading them.

If you are interested in Staal’s book, please be sure to check out our A Year of Feminist Classics blog, since we will be giving away one copy of the book.

Note: I would like to thank Public Affairs for kindly offering me a review copy and for engaging with our project and offering a copy of the book to give away on our blog.

Interlude: Mary Hays on Female Dependence

The Memoirs of Emma Courtney provide much food for thought. I especially enjoy reading Hays’ exclamations on the unfairness towards women at the time. She truly seems a great author to read as a companion to Mary Wollstonecraft:

Cruel prejudices! – I exclaimed – hapless woman! Why was I not educated for commerce, for a profession, for labour? Why have I been rendered feeble and delicate by bodily constraint, and fastidous by artificial refinement? Why are we bound, by the habits of society, as with an adamantine chain? Why do we suffer ourselves to be confined within a migic circle, without daring, by a magnanimous effort, to dissolve the barbarous spell?