Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

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

I received this pre-release book free through the Goodreads First Reads Program (www.goodreads.com) on December 2, 2010 and immediately proceeded to the first page.

The plot of this book interested me when I read about it on the Goodreads First Reads page, so I was looking forward to hearing how a fellow thirty-something's life had been changed by the books of feminism.

In her thirties, Stephanie Staal decides to return to her college alma mater, Barnard College, after experiencing what I would call a moment of lost identity. This self-proclaimed feminist, who wanted to be a career woman suddenly found herself as a wife and mother working as a freelance writer on occasion. Staal suddenly felt like a traitor to the feminist movement she had studied and read about as an undergraduate, asking the question that thousands of women ask everyday -- "What the hell is happening to me?"

So, in an attempt to figure out what happened to her own feminist ideals, she audits the year long Feminist Texts course at Barnard College, reading 42 books/texts and 20 selected essays, by numerous writers including Ida B. Wells, Elaine Pagels, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Simone de Beauvoir and others.

Rereading these texts gives her the opportunity to examine, and re-examine, how her own reaction to the works has changed since she was an undergraduate as well as remark on an obvious generation gap between her thirty-something self and the 18-22 year old women in the class.

While I found the writing very open, honest and personal, I found the story somewhat bland. Staal has an identity crisis because she feels as if she hasn't stuck to the feminist ideals she was raised with and adopted in her college years. She finds herself, at 30, a wife and mother. She changed aspects of her career (from full-time journalist to freelance writer/journalist) to be able to stay home with her daughter. She has also adopted a more domestic lifestyle, taking care of the house on a full-time basis. These changes lead her to wonder if she has stopped being a feminist and if she has stopped upholding the ideals she once had.

I did feel sympathetic towards Staal as she began to struggle with changes in her life brought on by turning 30, getting married and having a baby. Staal says "The age of thirty, as nineteenth century French novelist Honore de Balzac once noted, is one of the most dangerous periods for a woman, and indeed, it was at this particular juncture in my own life, the turning from one decade to the next, that I -- somewhat predictably, somewhat ashamedly -- started to unravel." (Page 5)

As a thirty-something myself, I have felt that sense of "now what?" as I transitioned from one decade to another. There is something that happens when a person turns 30 and, in my case, I will say Staal was not alone in that sense of lack of accomplishment. That is also where our similarities end.

I myself am not a wife nor am I mother. I have not had to make the decision of many working women who become mothers -- do I stay home or do I go back to work? One day, I will face that question and will have to decide if I can afford to stay home or if I will have to return to the workforce after becoming a mother. I know that is a difficult decision thousands of women make everyday, but does it say something about what kind of feminists they are? At this time in my life, I guess I am upholding the ideals of the feminist movement -- I'm an educated, independent career woman. Does that make me a better feminist than Staal, than other women who choose to stay home with their children? I don't think so, but maybe she would disagree with me.

I admit that I am unfamiliar with about 90% of the feminist texts Staal read, both in the Feminist Texts course she took, as well as the 25 additional books she read at home, so this book was a bit of an introduction for me to feminist literature. My basic understanding of feminism comes from what little I learned in my history classes in junior and senior high school. I knew about the Suffragettes and their fight for the right to vote. I also know that ever since women were given the right to vote, there has been an ongoing fight for equality in all areas of the workforce and respect in all aspects of life.

I know that women have been fighting to be able to work and be mothers without suffering backlash or consequences, and I also know that the corporate world still hasn't quite adjusted itself so that women don't have to choose between being a working mom or a stay at home mom. I hope that one day, a woman will be able to work from both home and office and not have her career negatively impacted because she is a mother and that the same woman will be able to be home as much and as often as she wants with her children without having to step off of the corporate ladder. I hope one day, the demands of the working mom can reconcile with the demands of the stay at home mom, and they both will feel like they are living up to, and fulfilling, the ideals of the feminists who came before them.

I get the impression that Staal feels inadequate on many levels. She isn't like the other neighborhood mommies, who discuss their babies’ nursery themes and carry designer diaper bags. She isn't that "perfect" mother who can get her daughter's breakfast made to her liking, dressed in a "pretty outfit", and out to school on time and happy. The thing is, she's not alone. There are a lot of mothers who want to be that "perfect" mom like June Cleaver or Mrs. Brady was, but find that they aren't quite on the same level as those perfect TV moms. Even while working as a freelance journalist, she feels like she's somehow not being a good mom or a good feminist.

As her studies progress in the Feminist Texts course, she explains what each text is about and how the class reacts to the message of each. Based on her explanation of each text, I do not think these texts changed Staal's life. I do think they gave her the ability to create and develop her own feminism. I do not think Staal is turning her back on the feminist ideals she was raised with, she isn't a traitor. I do think that being able to take this course as a thirty-something, working-stay-at-home-mom (she is a freelance journalist which seems to be a fitting example of working-stay-at-home-mom) gave her some insight into who she was, who she is, and who she will become as a woman, a wife and a mother. She also got to find out what a younger generation thought of feminism and the feminist movement, which was mainly a feeling of disinterest and lack of enthusiasm.

By the end of the book, I felt like I had been given a very quick and interesting introduction to feminist literature and feminist authors but I did not see any type of significant change in Staal based on the ideals presented in the texts. At the end of the book, it was unclear to me how these books actually changed her life. I do think the books showed her how feminism has developed, changed and grown over the century, and how it continues to change with each new generation of women.  I think these texts also showed her how to change and grow as a woman.

On a 5 star rating scale, I give this book 3 stars. This book will be available in bookstores, from Public Affairs Publishing, on February 22, 2011.
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