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.

13 thoughts on “Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

  1. Pingback: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal – With Giveaway! « A Year of Feminist Classics

  2. dragonflyy419

    I am really intrigued by this book and I think it is a great one to read along side the feminist classics project (which I am so absolutely loving) … I think the idea of re-reading books at different stages in our lives really does produce really interesting insights so I think this book would be a great read.

  3. nymeth

    I LOVE how you compared her approach to what we tend to do as bloggers – it’s something I haven’t thought of, but it goes along way towards explaining why her tone immediately made me feel at home.

    And by the way, I would completely be up for “A Lifetime of Feminist Classics” – maybe an ongoing book club with more people joining us as guest hosts for different months *daydreams*

  4. Pingback: Review: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal « Amy Reads

  5. Ash

    I’ve read so many reviews of this book and I just want to read it right now! I’m really intrigued by her process, reading them as a student and then returning to them. I’m joining the next book for A Year of Feminist Reading!

  6. Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    I loved your comments. You really are reading some interesting books in your project. And I can’t agree more with the quote above. I have read Things Fall Apart about three times and Weep Not Child about twice. Yet I seem to discover something new each time I do read. My sad thing is I haven’t reread most of the books I have read since I am discovering new books too.

  7. Pingback: Review: ‘Reading Women’ by Stephanie Staal

  8. Nicola

    What an interesting and original subject for a book. I’m always interested in how the best writers Bronte, Austen etc appeal on deeper levels at different stages in your life.

  9. Bina

    This book sounds fantastic, I must get my hands on a copy! And it’s so interesting to see how her opinions change (or not, as the case may be).

  10. Jennifer

    This book sounds wonderful. I love the premise of this book. It sounds like it is relevant to women everywhere. I’m definitely going to be adding this one to my reading list. I have really enjoyed reading more feminists works in my classes and would love nothing more than to continue reading feminist pieces in my free time even after graduation. I know that I am lacking on my reading of some of the classics and it sounds like if nothing else, this book will provide me with a wonderful reading list. I have a feeling I will get a lot more than just a reading list out of this.

  11. Pingback: Interview with Stephanie Staal « A Year of Feminist Classics

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