I picked up Stephanie Staal’s book Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life on a whim at the library and read it relatively quickly over the July 4th weekend. It was a good book, an enjoyable and interesting read, although I found it more interesting for the personal stories told than for the discussions of feminist texts. Perhaps it was because I was already familiar with many of the books she discussed and her summaries of their main arguments didn’t go beyond the basics, but I was always a little relieved when she returned to her personal story.
The book begins with Staal’s frustration with her situation in life — unexpectedly finding herself a dissatisfied wife and mother who was struggling to keep a career going. She decided to look for books by women who addressed the frustrations she was feeling, and she found herself looking through the Women’s Studies section of her local bookstore searching for wisdom. Eventually she hits on the idea of retaking the “Fem. Texts” course she took at Barnard as an undergrad. She will read or reread the great works of feminism to see what she can learn from them the second time around, and also to see how she has changed and how the students taking the class have changed from her undergrad days. (The premise of the book is in essence the same as David Denby’s Great Books where he goes back to Columbia to retake their “Great Books” curriculum, and she doesn’t mention this. I kind of thought she should have.)
The book takes us through her year of reading, beginning with Genesis and the Garden of Eden story, and hitting many of the great feminist writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Helene Cixous, and many others. Staal intersperses discussions of these writers and descriptions of classroom dynamics with stories about her life. She writes about raising her daughter while trying to keep a freelance career going, about moving to Maryland from New York City and trying to fit into the very different culture there, about her sometimes troubled marriage and her struggles getting her husband to understand what she was feeling and to help out more around the house. She’s dismayed at the distance she has traveled from her undergrad self, from the person who would not have believed that she would one day find herself feeling trapped in the house taking care of a child. She found she identified much too closely with the audience of dissatisfied 1950s housewives Betty Friedan addressed in The Feminine Mystique.
Not surprisingly, taking the Fem. Texts course leads Staal to more questions than answers, but she does take comfort in reading how other women grappled with the those same questions. There was less comfort to be found from observing her young classmates. She admires their self-confidence, but also feels that feminism has taken a wrong turn somewhere. She is disturbed by certain aspects of third-wave feminism, especially the easy comfort the students feel with pornography and our highly-sexualized culture. She worries about what her daughter will face as she grows older.
This book would be worth reading for anyone who wants an introduction to feminist texts (it comes complete with reading lists), and for anyone who wants to read about one woman’s struggles to stay true to her feminist values. I enjoyed it most for the latter, but it does both well.