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Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life Paperback – Feb 22 2011
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J. Courtney Sullivan
“If you could enroll in your favorite Women’s Studies class again ten years after graduation, armed with everything you know about the complexities and compromises of adult life, what would you make of the feminist ideals you once held dear? That’s exactly what Staal endeavors to find out in this brave and compelling book, which is one part memoir, one part astute literary analysis. As she struggles to make sense of love, life, marriage, and motherhood on her own terms, the author traces the history of women’s words over centuries—from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe. I cherished every page.”
“A swift, enchanting, and informative sweep through the feminist canon.”
“Intimate in its reflections and keenly perceptive on a larger scale, Staal’s erudite literary memoir refreshingly embraces women’s eternal quest for self-knowledge.”
“Staal's metaphorical prose not only enforces the importance of reading but also sheds light on the relevance of re-reading. Her pages reach the feminist in everyone and show how retaking the course connected the dots on the woman she was and the woman she became.”
About the Author
Stephanie Staal is a former features reporter for the 'Newark Star-Ledger', and has written for 'Cosmopolitan', 'Glamour', 'Self', and the 'Washington Post'. She is the author of 'The Love They Lost', a journalistic memoir about the long-term effects of parental divorce. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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. Through the 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.
There were several points in this book where I laughed out loud. There were ALSO several points where I just went "whoa, whoa, my mind is exploding with this amazing realization." As an 18-22 year old, I may not have been able to fully grasp some of the feminist theory; and revisiting it with all of my adult experiences makes the point all more clear.
I really appreciate that this book reminded me of feminist concepts again. I don't agree with all feminist writings, but I am definitely a feminist - of the same generation as the author. Being out of the academic environment, I hadn't been questioning or being critical (in the analytical sense) of what I experience and see in this world. The book got that academic-style thinking going again.
Overall, I loved it! It's neither an academic text, nor purely a novel - it's both and neither at the same.
A decade later, as a wife and mother who had traded in stability for the flexibility of free-lance and moved from Manhattan to Annapolis, Maryland, the life she had envisioned had seemingly shrunk, while she felt like a shadow of that former self.
Deciding to pursue the feminist classics seemed like a way to rediscover herself, so she signed on to sit in on Fem Lit classes at the university; and thus began her journey into understanding her relationships and herself, while revisiting the tomes she had once studied.
From the perspective of her life in the moment that she began this journey, she viewed the literature and the theories from a different vantage point. She discovered that she could identify with the first-wave feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, while coming to odds with former heroines, like Beauvoir; she also learned to make peace with post-feminists like Katie Roiphe. She stated near the end: "Sometimes I grappled with the divisiveness of second-wave feminism and the ambiguity of third-wave feminism, while the postmodern theory I would have analyzed with delight as a college coed was cause for vexation when viewed in the framework of my daily life. Yet even these theoretically dense texts provided important opportunities to question and challenge my own beliefs, my own reactions."
As I read this intriguing memoir/journey, I couldn't help but compare this author's experiences to some of mine. Despite the fact that my own niche could most closely be categorized as "second-wave feminism," I could see that we had some similar experiences. When awash in the enthusiasm of intellectual pursuits and the passions of political activism, we are often unable to imagine how our theories will stand up to the lives we live. When we are faced with the day-in-and-day-out living, especially as parents, we have to reexamine our former beliefs.
Studying Staal's journey and reading her thoughts took me back to the thesis I wrote for my master's degree in counseling, in which I examined, researched, and theorized about useful therapeutic interventions for relationships in flux: relationships undergoing radical changes in terms of divisions of labor; attitudes about roles; and what a "rewritten marriage contract" in the face of change might look like. I theorized that, as an aftermath to these changes, stress might develop and require therapeutic interventions. As I wended my way through my thesis, and then tried to apply some of what I discovered to my own life, I reached a stalemate. I was unable to recreate the family I envisioned, so I struck out on my own. Redefining my life in a new incarnation led to another kind of journey.
Staal's Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life opened my eyes to one woman's quest and how feminism had altered her life and the lives of the women who embarked on their own voyages of discovery. From this book, I also concluded that, despite apparent progress, we still have a long way to go to achieve our goals.
One thing I do have to say first is; this writer is exceptional. I found this book very easy to read and approachable. This was written with today's woman in mind and did not cloak itself in philosophical jargon. She tells the story of why she pursued this topic and melds the story of her going back to school to retake courses she took before becoming a wife and a mother, while also dealing with some issues in her life and marriage. This is very important as without this perspective, this book would not have quite the voice it does.
The author was very analytical and well researched and touched on many of the issues woman deal with each day in our "real" lives. While she had grown up in a very non-traditional home, her married life, actually was much more traditional. However, any one who has shared a home with another, can understand these issues as they ranged from laundry to housework. What triggered her recent issues, being a new mother, she suddenly felt, her role as a mother had more expectations than her husband's role as a father. But, the big question was, was she enforcing these responsibilities, was he or was it their collective expectation, having been been indoctrinated into doing so?
In the course the author took on Feminist Texts you can see that feminist writings vary from tip-toeing around the prevailing dogma, just to be heard while others are pretty radical in male bashing or trying to rewrite the family structure. From the discussions in her classes, the author realizes, she is a different person, than she was years ago, when she first took these courses. Having become a wife and a mother, these issues were no longer black and white. She finds her classmates and professors have even different insights. Also, she was unsure of the changes in society being in the right direction. Young women seem to be embracing objectification as showing how they can be "one of the guys". This is far from, what would be expected as a step in the right direction for equality. Objectification serves no one well. Especially the objects.
I thought the author did a great job pointing out, that being a feminist, is not being anti-male, though some of the early texts are truly male bashing. I'm also glad she pointed out the "inequality" of the civil rights movement, where the rights of woman, were not addressed, but in fact considered laughable. This was appalling to me.
One interesting point, that was brought up, that I in fact discussed with some men in my life, was the concept of feeling selfish for taking time out for yourself. This is a female issue. None of the men I brought this up with once considered feeling guilty about taking time from the family for themselves. Ladies it would appear that we are part of the problem. A very good point.
At the end of the book, the author provides her reading list and it spans from very early authors to current day, as well as issues for women in third world countries. I'm certainly planning to pick some of these up.
This was an eye-opening book.
Instead, what I got was a well-constructed look at the texts, both from the perspective of a naive undergrad and a woman with some more life experience under her belt. The texts are examined and deconstructed, agreed and disagreed with, all in the context of Staal's life experiences during the two years she attended the classes.
Staal also includes the reading list from her syllabi, so that readers may examine the original works -- a very helpful addition.
I enjoyed the book, and got a fresh look at works ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft to Riverbend (an Iraqi woman blogger). Well worth reading.
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