Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life by Stephanie Staal

Sometimes you get a book just when you need it, unexpectedly, as if the Universe decided it was time for you to read it.  On a whim, on Twitter, I entered a contest to win this book even though I knew nothing about it.  I only knew the title Reading Women, not even the rest of the title or the author’s name.  When I received it in the mail, saw the great cover, I immediately began reading, forgetting all the other reading I had planned.  I finished the book in three days, completely swept up in Staal’s memoir of her rediscovery of the great books of feminism after the birth of her daughter.

I think when we talk  about feminism, we always want to talk about how we came to be a feminist, so that’s how I want to start this review.   Much like Staal, I took my position as a woman in society completely for granted.  I come from a non-traditional family (at least, it was pretty non-traditional when I was younger) and have always had a mother who worked during the day and a step-father who did the chores like laundry and vacuuming during the day before he went to work in the afternoon.  My grandmother never cooked, my grandfather did.  When I was a little girl, I would be indignant if a story did not include a girl I could relate to.  In fact, I hated Bible study because so few of the stories were about girls, which was a great injustice in my young opinion.  Both my high school and college and low male to female ratios, with many more girls.  Every job I’ve ever had has been in a female dominated environment.  I have no brothers, so I couldn’t even compare how my parents would raise a girl versus a boy.  I had (and sometimes have) a hard time relating to stories of sexism in public or in the workplace.

But in college I became involved with a rape crisis center and learned so much about the struggles that a lot of women still face in the world, from their loved ones, from strangers, from authority figures, such as police officers or hospital employees.  Nothing opens your eyes to the continuing presence of sexism like a phone call from a woman afraid that she will lose her job if she tries to stop her boss from sexually harassing her.  Nothing makes you feel more helpless than telling her there is little to nothing you can do to help her except talk her through her options, of which there are few.

So that is where I am coming from.  Often I have a hard time seeing the practical side of a lot of what is talked about in feminism today, which is not at all to say that we shouldn’t be talking about it.  Stephanie Staal is a woman who took a lot of women’s studies classes in college and believed firmly in what she was learning.  Now a young mother, she is losing herself to motherhood and being a wife, two things she is sure she wanted but unsure of how to manage (“creating ones destiny is only the beginning; living with it, day in and day out, is quite another” (104)).  So she decides to return to college and retake Fem Texts 101, the class that changed her perspective on life the first time around and one she hoped would give her new perspective on her current life.

If nothing else, this book is an excellent resource in terms of what books curious readers should be reading.  Staal artfully describes how she is relating to each work, without giving too much away so there will still be something fresh for us who have not read the texts.  That being said, it is also completely accessible for people who have not read the books.  She explains just enough and talks about the works in a way that is neither too academic nor too plain.  I had read some of the texts, but definitely not a majority.

I think this book works as one woman’s relationship with feminism, which is the kind of story I prefer.  I had a lot of the same questions that Staal found herself asking throughout the memoir and in her I found a kindred spirit, especially about reading:

I read constantly – in cars, walking the dog, lying in bed with my legs resting against the wall, yoga-style.  At any given time I am in the middle of several books at once, my place marked by whatever scrap of paper happens to be close by, whether it’s my latest credit card bill or one of my daughter’s crayon drawings.  My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home.  If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience.  To me, books are magic:  They inform the mind and transform the spirit.  I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1.  In a special section, old favorites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savor a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration.

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. (10-11)

Through this power of rereading, Staal comes at feminism with a fresh perspective that only experience as a woman in the job market and in family life can give you.  It was so refreshing to see such honesty when it came to the way she felt about feminism and her life.  I think this is a book that every woman (and man) should be reading, especially if they are at a similar time in their life as Staal.  I really enjoyed it and will be reading some of the books that Staal read, to gain my own perspective on my life and the great works of feminism.

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life will be published February 22, 2011.

Thanks to Public Affairs for sending me this book to review!



11 thoughts on “Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life by Stephanie Staal

    1. Ohhh: I just looked it up and saw that it’s not published until February! I guess I can’t be too annoyed with my library then. 😉

  1. I loved that you shared your experience with feminism. I think I had similar beliefs and upbringings and recall being a wee bit put-off when I signed up for a Women’s Studies class in college. I found a lot of the conversation dominated around, “Cosmo is bad because it subjugates women” and I wanted more depth. I ended up growing snarky with other classmates (returning housewives who wanted to educate themselves) instead of looking for ways in which we could grow together through our different womanly experiences.

    This sounds like an amazing memoir. Like Eva, I cannot wait until it comes out in February.

  2. I had a very similar background in feminism with the added bonus of fandom as yet another female-dominated space I was (and am!) a part of. The juxtaposition between rediscovering feminist texts and the love of reading and rereading sounds wonderful.

  3. *pouts* It’s not out until February but I want to read it NOW! 😉 The book sounds fantastic, I definitely think it is one that I would enjoy as well. Thanks for the review!

  4. I think I would really, really love this book. I’ve really gotten into Feminism in college. I come from a pretty traditional family, both of my parents worked etc. I guess it was more non-traditional when I was in elementary school though because most of the moms were stay-at-home moms or worked from home. I was basically unaware of the injustices against women when I was in high school, but looking back on some of the experiences now I’m angered by the way I was sometimes treated for being a woman. I honestly think a lot of my self-esteem issues in high school were rooted in the way I was treated as a female because I felt I was constantly being placed in an inferior position. At the time I thought it was because I was stupid or not good enough, now I see it was often because I wasn’t a boy. I’m sure in ten years I’ll have to reevaluate my views on Feminism, just like the author of this book.

  5. Oh, I bet my sister would love this. She has been reading lots of important (I almost said “seminal”) feminist books in the past few years. She’d be extra double interested in reading books about feminist books. I sort of wish I hadn’t already bought her Christmas present.

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