Tag Archives: A Year of Feminist Classics

Sunday Salon: Continuing A Year of Feminist Classics

After a year of somewhat, on my part, failed hosting of the first reading list of A Year of Feminist Classics, Ana, Amy, Emily Jane and I decided that this project was too worthwhile to have it only last one year.

We decided to continue with a slightly different format, as we now have 8 other hosts joining us! Thus, we have aimed to guarantee that every month will see a number of post on the book under discussion. The project is still pretty much the same, with at its root the idea that we “think of this project as an informal feminist reading group. You don’t have to commit to joining the discussion every month, but we’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you’re able to.” In coming up with the list of books we have aimed to fill in gaps from last year’s list, which resulted in a list that features some more recent works, but that we feel are still influential enough to fit the word “classic”.

The reading list we will be reading from, starting February:

  • February – Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (Amy)
  • March – The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine De Pizan (Jean)
  • April – Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Cass)
  • May – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë read alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Iris)
  • June – Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Emily)
  • July – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Nancy)
  • August – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Lauren)
  • September – Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (Melissa)
  • October – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (Jodie)
  • November – Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi (Ana)
  • December – Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Emily Jane)
  • January – Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Eva)

Join us, for one, all, or a selection of, the above titles? 

Personally, I am uncertain whether I will be able to join in for all the books, especially since I do not have enough money at my disposal to buy books not available at my library. But I’m trying not to worry about that, I’m much too excited to be part of this project again.

Watch Me Persevere, or: reading The Second Sex

The Second Sex - Simone de BeauvoirI was nervous, but excited too, to read The Second Sex for A Year of Feminist Classics. When the book arrived in my mailbox, I admit I had to do a double take: that many pages?! But still: nerves and excitement about finally reading this.

Here is the thing though: it is not just a tome of a book, but it is slow reading too. Now, having read the first 300 pages, which means I have finished Part I, I am not all that excited anymore. Reading as few as 20 pages feels like a true accomplishment with this book, and yet, when you sit down to report your progress on GoodReads, you notice that you’re still only 10% done after five of such 20-page-sessions.

Simone de Beauvoir is smart, alright. Often, she makes me feel stupid. I have an okay-ish background in philosophy, but she appeals to so many different concepts all the time that I find it hard to follow. Also, the pace of the book, the style, it feels I am only reading as a passive observer, never really engaging with the text.

I did enjoy the Introduction. I made notes. Lots of them. I could have copied the whole introduction as one long note. So interesting, so sharp, so smart.

Something else I liked? How she rejects Freud. Ah, I have a feeling I simply like reading how Freud was wrong.

But then the problematic analysis started. Perhaps I simply misunderstood, perhaps I am stuck in my academic mindset of my specific “brand” of historical research, but generalisations about history get on my nerves. Especially the part about prehistory, which such bold assertions about a society we know so little about..

I know that books about grand developments deserve a place in the canon of history books too. Often, they make for much more interesting reading than the detailed analysis of one group, at one period, through one theoretical framework.. But De Beauvoir goes beyond that. I am not saying I discard her conclusion that women have always been cast in the role of The Other, or that they have been oppressed for most, if not all, of history. It is the manner in which she sets about proving this, that I couldn’t go along with. It got on my nerves. What do we know about the developments back then? Sometimes, her theories read like Hegel’s ideas on the development from Subjective to Objective mind, pointing with such seeming effortlessness to ‘grand changing points’ in the history of the world. I don’t know.. I just don’t know..

And the part about literature? I can see how it shows how in any system that reduces women to “nature”, “fertility”, etc. How any reductionist thinking, in the many forms it took, fashioned women into something not-completely-human-like-men. At least, I think that was what De Beauvoir was trying to tell me, because I admit her thorough analysis of authors and their work were so detailed as to bore me a little, which led to skimming at times. I wish I did not have to admit this. I often had to remind myself that I am reading this to “finally read this classic” and that skimming is not exactly to that purpose. But.. but.. I have no excuses really, I just skimmed, I felt it was alright to skip over some lines hoping I still got the general gist.

I will persevere with this book, and I do plan to finish Part II eventually. But it may take me until December (since this part is another 500 pages). I have heard that it becomes more interesting from here on out. Perhaps that is true?

I feel so ignorant and dumb and as if I am missing out on something important about this book. Oh, I know about its importance, I had just hoped against hope that it would be easier to read.


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.

The Subjection of Women, part I

On Liberty and Other Essays - John Stuart MillThe Subjection of Women – John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor
As published by Oxford World’s Classics in: On Liberty – John Stuart Mill (2008, originally published: 1869)

This post is about my thoughts while reading part I of this 4 part treatise on the subjection of women, written by John Stuart Mill in cooperation with his wife, Harriet Taylor (though she is not acknowledged as such in any of the published editions, as Ana remarked in her introductory post).

Just think about the fact that John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women in 1861, 69 years after Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Mill still felt the need to plead for the education of women, of their right to be educated. Progress, much?

Mill’s argument in part I centres around the idea that in history, men have cast aside all forms of inequality: there has come an end to white men’s slavery, to the inequality between classes (or at least, there has been a start) and the slavery of Africans. According to Mill, one form of slavery still exists: that of women’s submission to men. This is the hardest form of slavery to break, because it is seen as the most “natural” one.

Accordingly, Mill proceeds to reflect on the idea that women are naturally inferior to men, and states that:

Neither does it avail anything to say that the nature of the two sexes adapts them to their present functions and position, and renders these appropriate to them. Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing – the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.

It is nice to see this argument, which we have seen in A Vindication, further developed. What I find most surprising in reading all these classic texts, is how old this idea actually is. Most of the time, it is one of the first things you get taught when you start learning about gender. Yet, it is something that we still feel the need to explain and underline all the time, it has not become commonly accepted that the differences between men and women are not natural, but socially conditioned.

He goes on to say that, the fact that we hear so little about the experiences of women, or their political or social ideas, is because they have had little chance to develop them, let alone express them:

It is but of yesterday that women have either been qualified by literary accomplishments or permitted by society, to tell anything to the general public. As yet very few of them dare tell anything, which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear. Let us remember in what manner, up to a very recent time, the expression, even by a male author, of uncustomary opinions, or what are deemed eccentric feelings, usually was, and in some degree still is, received; and we may form some faint conception under what impediments a woman, who is brought up to think custom and opinion her sovereign rule, attempts to express in books anything drawn from the depths of her own nature.

Ah, but then Mill does something that might work against the emancipation of women. He denies the existence of women writers as a group to be reckoned with, and furthermore states that many of the works written by women were only written to enhance their chances of a good marriage, etcetera.

The greater part of what women write about women is mere sycophancy to men. In the case of unmarried women, much of it seems only intended to increase their chance of a husband. Many, both married and unmarried, overstep the mark, and inculcate a servility beyond what is desired or relished by any man, except the very vulgarest. But this is not so often the case as, even at a quite late period, it still was. Literary women are becoming more free-spoken, and more willing to express their real sentiments. Unfortunately, in this country especially, they are themselves such artificial products, that their sentiments are compounded of a small element of individual observation and consciousness, and a very large one of acquired associations. This will be less and less the case, but it will remain true to a great extent, as long as social institutions do not admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men.

How often have women’s voices been written out of history, consciously or unconsciously, I wonder? Here, Mill certainly tries to make a point for women’s rights, and yet, he does not acknowledge the work done by women in his time or before him. Nor does he seem to point to earlier texts written on the subject of women’s right, at least not in the first part of his treatise.

There is one more paragraph I would like to remark upon, and that is the paragraph in which he compares the lot of women to that of slaves or sailors, saying that in all cases, the argument has always been that (white, upper-class) men, have to force their inferiors to do a certain job, because otherwise it would not happen. Instead, Mill argues, we should pay every person what their job is worth, and oppression would not be necessary anymore. Mary Wollstonecraft uses the same comparisons, sailors and slaves. It makes you wonder.. Certainly, the time at which these texts were written made these comparisons work, they were recent examples of inequality, the abolitionist movement was well-known at the time, etcetera. But I cannot shake the feeling that part of the comparison is unfair, somehow? However, I am not certain yet why I feel that way. Maybe it is because it feels wrong to lump every form of oppression together under one category, to compare them as if there is no difference in circumstances, needs, cruelty, etcetera? And yet, dividing such issues from each other, keeping them completely separate, seems wrong too. That happened during the feminist waves in the twentieth century, in which class and ethnicity were often forgotten. So I don’t know what to think, really.

So far, The Subjection of Women is an easier read than Vindication was. It is more to the point, less rambly, written in a style that feels more contemporary. I am not sure if I am enjoying it better, it is simply that it is easier to reflect upon, since it is a faster read.

This post was written for A Year of Feminist Classics. Interested? Please consider joining us..