Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading Women, Personally

45. Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staal



Reading Women is neither more nor less than it claims to be. The memoir-in-books begins with a quote from Virginia Woolf; "When a subject is highly controversial-and any question about sex is that-one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions, as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncracies of the speaker."

Staal, despite what I perceived as limitations in her interpretations of the texts, fulfills the conditions of the quote admirably. In her Author's Note she explains, "Let me be clear that I approached these books as neither critic nor scholar but rather, as Virginia Woolf put it, 'the common reader.''" I suppose this is what ended up being particularly disappointing for me, because, without knowing it, I had expected and hoped for a much more insightful analysis of texts like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, rather than highly personal reactions to Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft as people, and well-known critiques of Friedan. I haven't read these texts myself, and I do intend to, and Staal does provide a useful introduction in terms of biographical context and summary, but she goes no further. I didn't find Staal's personal story compelling either, it's unfortunately a familiar one. Admittedly, I might feel differently were I a wife and mother myself, but while I'm not unsympathetic to her, her motherhood and marital troubles explained her interest in feminist texts, but she didn't actually show how the texts changed her life as far as the way she related to her husband and daughter. I'm not necessarily saying she should, but I felt that was what the book was claiming.

When Staal thinks "So what?" in response to Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (which I have read in part), I have a lot of trouble relating to her. When it comes to issues like queer gender and sexuality, pornography and sex bloggers, Staal and I are just not from the same generation. She does give me a view into women who are against pornography for feminist reasons, but it's not one I can wholeheartedly agree with. In regard to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, I learned "for all its vaunted sexuality...there was a lot of talk...but not much action," which is perhaps something I would be interested to learn from a book review, but really doesn't say how the book helped propel feminism or what points it has to make. For me, there were two problems with Reading Women; not the depth of analysis I wanted and a lack of personal connection to Staal.

The most valuable part of the book for me was the reading list for the Feminist Text classes that Staal took. While many of the books that Staal discusses would have been on my feminist to-read list, there are others, and particularly articles, I might never otherwise have heard of. If I found her book less than compelling, she does succeed in spurring my interest in some of the texts she reads. I also appreciate the list of other books that Staal recommends.

In the same way that I feel Staal's book chronicles extremely personal and simplistic reactions to feminist texts, I feel that my reaction to her book was also very personal. I can see where another kind of reader would find Staal very valuable. I also see where someone who relates a lot more to Staal's life experiences and concerns would better appreciate the memoir aspect of her book. Something to keep in mind when reading my review.

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