Mini-reviews: Books About Feminism

There are some topics I find extremely difficult to write about because to me the truth is just so obvious that I don’t even know how to explain or argue for it, and one of those topics is feminism. I don’t know how to say, other than DUH, that every woman should be a feminist. To me, feminism is the simple belief that women should have equal rights as men. And it’s not just rights under the law – women should have the same societal rights as men, things like … let’s see, the freedom to walk down a public street without getting harassed, the freedom to work at a job where your boss doesn’t sexually assault you, the freedom to have a few drinks at a party or bar without the constant vigilance to not get raped. Things like that. But since this is so obvious to me, it’s hard for me to discuss it with any measure of intelligence because I just want to throw up my hands at anyone who disagrees and walk out of the room in anger. Since that’s not productive, usually I just don’t discuss it. But I do like reading about it, I like books that enrich my understanding of where the feminist movement has been, where it’s going, and what feminists young and old can learn about those who came before us. So here are two such books.

The Beauty MythThe Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf
Published by Harper Perennial

Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

I wanted to put that short synopsis there because for those who haven’t heard of this book I wanted to give a little snapshot of what Wolf means by the beauty myth. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and somehow never got to. It’s exceptionally well-written, which is what you’d expect from someone like Wolf. She uses facts to prove her arguments and her research is extensive. Much of this book fell into the obvious category for me, but the way Wolf lays out her arguments and explains the intricate layers of the beauty myth, and how it affects woman at so many different levels, deepened my understanding of it. This is a must-read for anyone interested in feminism.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of LibertyKilling the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Published by Vintage

I am ashamed to say that before picking up this book, I hadn’t read a book that dealt with the intersection of race and gender. This book rocked my world, opened my eyes to so many things I hadn’t even considered before, and is generally one of the best books on feminism I’ve ever read. It’s incredible to understand how much my white privilege has kept me from even thinking about the issues Roberts presents in this book. Roberts does such a fantastic job tracing the history of black women’s bodies being used for purposes other than what the women themselves actually want all the way back to slavery. Her research is impeccable and the timeline of the book makes a lot of sense – it makes what could be a dense and difficult read very easy to follow and instinctual in its getting from start to finish. Killing the Black Body is an incredible read that is a MUST for anyone who cares about feminism or racism. (Which should be everyone, but sad to say it’s not.) Please read this one.

Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan

Click: When We Knew We Were FeministsClick: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan
Published by Seal Press

This collection of essays features many prominent young feminists explaining that “click” moment – that moment when the light bulb turned on, when they understood with absolute clarity that they were feminists.

Most people identify with some kind of ideology – a religion, a political belief, a specific stance on something – and there is almost always a pivotal moment in a person’s life that makes that belief cement itself, that brings it to the forefront of one’s mind with perfect clarify. I personally have several things that I believe that are absolutely critical to my identity and sense of who I am, feminism being just one of them. So I appreciated this book, a book about women (and one man) who, just like me, at some point in their lives, came to the realization that feminism is where it’s at.

I liked how varied these essays are – the many contributors come from different backgrounds, educationally, racially, socially, in pretty much every way. So many of these authors came to feminism in nontraditional ways. I personally had my “click” moment in a college women’s studies class – so predictable – but many of these writers had theirs in such interesting and unique situations.

And everyone who contributed to this collection is a GOOD writer! I was engaged and interested in every single one of these essays.

I highly recommend Click for those who enjoy thoughtful essays and/or get why feminism is still important and relevant (hint: it is). This is a great collection edited by two smart and talented women.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

9780385349949Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Published by Knopf, an imprint of Random House

From the publisher:

Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women’s voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg examines why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential.

Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and is ranked on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business and as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2010, she gave an electrifying TEDTalk in which she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Her talk, which became a phenomenon and has been viewed more than two million times, encouraged women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto.

In Lean In, Sandberg digs deeper into these issues, combining personal anecdotes, hard data, and compelling research to cut through the layers of ambiguity and bias surrounding the lives and choices of working women. She recounts her own decisions, mistakes, and daily struggles to make the right choices for herself, her career, and her family. She provides practical advice on negotiation techniques, mentorship, and building a satisfying career, urging women to set boundaries and to abandon the myth of “having it all.”  She describes specific steps women can take to combine professional achievement with personal fulfillment and demonstrates how men can benefit by supporting women in the workplace and at home.

Written with both humor and wisdom, Sandberg’s book is an inspiring call to action and a blueprint for individual growth. Lean In is destined to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what they can.

I read this book almost two months ago and I am still thinking about it, almost every single day. That’s how relevant Sandberg’s message is to my life. I literally think about something she wrote in this book at least once per day – and I think this sentiment will echo with most everyone who reads it.

I’m a woman in a leadership position at a company in which almost every executive is male, in an industry in which almost every executive is male. So this book hit particularly close to home for me. That being said, I think most people (not just women, I’ll get there) can find something to grab onto here, something that will cause you to stop and think and maybe even have one of those “aha” moments.

Personally, I found myself looking back through a lot of the choices I’ve made since … well, high school, really, and realizing that although I consider myself pretty successful for my age, I could possibly have made a few different choices. And not that the choices I’ve made so far aren’t good ones, it’s more like, once I look through the lens of societal norms and pressure on the different genders and all that, well it just makes me see things a bit differently.

It’s hard to explain, because Sandberg covers SO much ground here and gives an incredible amount of good advice, it’s impossible for me to be concise about what I found so valuable in the book. Basically – everything was valuable to me. And she provides so much evidence to support what she’s saying, and so much honesty about her own life, that it’s next to impossible not to hang onto every word. Which is exactly what I did.

Oh! And I listened to the audio, narrated by Elisa Donovan, and it was a great experience. She did an excellent job, and for me books like this just work really well in audio.

I have to say this, too – Lean In is absolutely not just for women. Personally I am married to a man and my boss is a man, and I think they could both benefit tremendously from reading this book. Because they both have wives (and in my boss’s case, daughters) and because they both have female employees. So not only do I highly recommend this as required reading for ALL women (I don’t care what you do for a living – full-time mother, doctor, teacher, lawyer, whatever, it’s relevant) but I think it should be required reading for all men who work with or live with women.

Reading this book gave me a huge level of respect for Sheryl Sandberg and I’m now one of her biggest fans. If you’ve read this, I’d love to discuss! What did you think?

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

Girls in America are being marketed to at younger and younger ages, the message being that looks are everything and becoming a princess should be the ultimate goal. With a young daughter of her own, Peggy Orenstein grew very concerned about this princess phenomena and set out to understand and analyze it. Orenstein digs deep into this subject, exploring the Disney Princess empire, the Pageant circuit, the American Girl store, and she even attends a Miley Cyrus concert. What she finds might not surprise you, but will definitely empower you to make better decisions regarding your own daughters, nieces, sisters, and other young girls in your life.

I was very impressed by Orenstein’s Schoolgirls when I read it years ago, so Cinderella Ate My Daughter went on my TBR list as soon as it was published last year. With this book, I continued to appreciate Orenstein’s ability to get to the heart of an issue, to really involve herself in what she’s studying, and to write about these issues in a conversational tone that is the complete opposite or dry or boring.

One thing I loved about Cinderella Ate My Daughter is how Orenstein presents what she finds in such a balanced way. For example, when she attends a beauty pageant for young girls (babies through elementary school girls), she expects to be repulsed by the way the mothers tart up their daughters in caked-on makeup and inappropriate outfits and coach them to flirt with the judges, which, don’t get me wrong, she definitely is. However, she sees another side to these pageants, she sees the humanity in these mothers and in the young girls competing, and she is not afraid to show that side to the reader too. Instead of sensationalizing how horrific these pageants are, she makes it clear that these are real people participating and encouraging their daughters to participate, and they are not evil people or bad parents because of it. This is one example of how Orenstein illustrates that there are no easy answers to these issues.

While it is disappointing that Orenstein can’t wave a magic wand and come up with the perfect antidote to princess culture, it is reassuring to learn that there are things all parents can do and say to give their daughters a better way of understanding and interpreting the messages that they are inundated with on a daily basis. While Cinderella Ate My Daughter doesn’t come up with many answers, it is a fascinating book and at the very least, gives parents a very clear understanding of what they are up against in the attempt to raise intelligent, independent, forward-thinking, clear-headed daughters. Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a must-read for anyone with a young daughter, niece, granddaughter, sister, etc. Highly recommended.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

From the eBook editionHerland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Published by Pantheon, an imprint of Random House

Herland, published in the early 1900’s, is a Utopian novel based on the idea of a society of women somehow being able to reproduce asexually and thus creating a world that, for two thousand years, has consisted of only women. In the book, three men from “regular” society hear about Herland and travel over there in order to investigate it for themselves. When they find that this society truly does exist, they get to know some of the women there and even form relationships with them.

This book was interesting, to say the least. While I didn’t particularly connect with the characters, I don’t think that Gilman’s point was to have readers fall in love with the characters – the message here is deeper than the characters or the story. It definitely gave me a lot to think about, the main thing being that this society, because they have no men, don’t see through a lens of gender in any way. As I can’t imagine such a thing – women are always compared to men in real life – it is an interesting concept to spend time thinking about. What would it be like if people were just people and gender was completely irrelevant?

To be completely honest, after reading Nymeth’s review of Herland, I can’t possibly come up with anything intelligent to comment on that she didn’t already say. I agree with basically her entire review (she’s kind of awesome anyway, you should check out her blog if you don’t already read it), so if you want to know what I think of Herland, just go read her post on it.

If you want to know whether or not I would recommend reading Herland, the answer is yes I would if you are interested in classic feminist literature. It is definitely a valuable read but I do need to acknowledge that the book may not be for everyone. If you are interested in this stuff, then, definitely pick it up!

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Published by Dover

This short (88 pages) play tells the story of married couple Nora and Torvald, who have a traditional marriage in that Torvald is a bank manager, responsible for the finances of the home and with that, all decisions except those Nora is allowed to make about herself, the home or the children. When Torvald requires a treatment for an illness they cannot afford, Nora acquires the money and tells him it’s a gift from her father, but really it’s an illegal loan she’s acquired from the bank by forging her father’s signature. While Nora knows she shouldn’t have done something illegal, she also feels that she was doing something to protect and help her family, and that makes her proud. The end of the play is a confrontation between the two of them as Nora realizes she has the ability to be an intelligent, independent woman and Torvald can only laugh at this possibility.

I don’t normally read plays, so I have to admit that I went into reading A Doll’s House with a fair bit of trepidation. I needn’t have worried, though, because I zipped through the book in one sitting and it provided me with much food for thought.

What surprised me about A Doll’s House was just how current the message is, especially since it was written in 1878. For the first fifty pages or so, the message is definitely dated, as women now have autonomy over financial decisions and most women have held a job at some point in their lives. I also think most marriages are pretty equal in terms of who gets to decide what happens with the family finances (at least, most marriages that I know of). But it’s the end of the book that really gets to the heart of the matter, and that’s where I think the play really shines and holds significance for women of today’s world.

While I don’t want to give anything important away, the end of the book is basically a stand-off between Nora and Torvald. Nora is asserting the fact that she is a person, independent from her duties as wife and mother, and she should be treated as such. She makes the case that just because she is a wife and mother, her own humanness shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of her husband and children, and that she should have the right to think for herself and make decisions according to what is best for her individually. I think that many mothers struggle with this even today – the question of being an independent person apart from one’s husband and children is something that I see all the time. Women ask themselves, do I make a decision based on what’s best for me, best for my husband, best for my children, or do I try to make a compromise for all of us? While A Doll’s House was about more than just that question, that was the point Nora got to by the end of the play and I do feel that was, in the end, the biggest message here. Women do compromise their needs and desires and put the other members of their family first – and by the end of the play, Nora wasn’t interested in doing that anymore.

Anyways, I really appreciated A Doll’s House for its central message and was surprised to find how current that message still is. For anyone interested in reading classic feminist literature, this book is an important work to pick up.

Mini-reviews: A Variety of Nonfiction Reads (TSS)

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill was the February selection for A Year of Feminist Classics, and I have to say that I found it to be surprisingly accessible and very interesting. As the book was written in 1869, and as I tend to have difficulty reading classics, I imagined that this would be a trying read for me. While it wasn’t the most fun book I’ve ever read, it was a much more enjoyable experience than I was expecting! I was pleasantly surprised by how progressive Mill’s opinions were on the subject of women’s rights and equality. Of particular interest to me was the fact that he mentioned the social construction of gender multiple times throughout the book. While he didn’t use the phrase “social construction of gender” (of course) he blatantly stated that men “are” a certain way and women “are” another way because society tells men and women how to behave and think, and people tend to act accordingly. While anyone who has taken Women’s Studies 101 or even read a basic feminist text will be able to explain this nowadays, I didn’t expect to read about someone having a solid understanding of that concept in the mid-1800’s. Overall, this was a pleasant reading experience and I would definitely recommend The Subjection of Women as an important feminist classic.

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark was exactly the kind of thing I needed to read at the time I was reading it. What Dark argues is that the God of the Bible doesn’t look for us to be docile sheep who simply go along with the crowd, acting and thinking just like everyone else. Instead, the God of the Bible encourages questioning, demands that we look at the world with a critical eye, analyze what’s happening around us and really question those aspects of life and of faith that just don’t add up. I loved this book so much because often in my faith journey, I get the feeling that I am doing it wrong. That when I read a passage of scripture or hear a teaching by my pastor and think to myself, “Hmm, not sure I agree with this” that I am somehow offending God, that I am not being an obedient child of His. I needed to be reminded that it was God Himself who gave me my brain, who gave me the freedom to think for myself and the courage to question that which just does not agree with my sensibilities. This may not be the book for everyone, but it tremendously encouraged me and I would highly recommend it.

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin I loved, LOVED The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In case you haven’t seen the buzz this book has generated, Gretchen Rubin dedicated a year of her life to trying to become a happier person and then wrote a book about that year. She also maintains a blog about her happiness project, which I have visited one time but now I plan on becoming a regular reader. This book was just so very motivating. I do not have the time nor the energy to come up with an actual happiness project of my own, but I can see the immense value in some of the things Rubin did, especially when it comes to attitude adjustments. I loved that she came up with twelve personal commandments for herself and really attempts to live according to those commandments – something I definitely would consider doing myself. Truly, I loved so many things about this book and I absolutely couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods I also really liked Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods. Vanessa is an Australian scientist who thought she would want to study chimpanzees for the rest of her life – that is, until she met and fell in love with Brian, who researches bonobo apes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She agrees to travel to the Congo with Brian and gets involved with his research, and this decision completely changes the course of her life. The first time I’d personally heard of the bonobo was when I read Sara Gruen’s Ape House, and I have to admit that as a reader, I fell in love with these delightful animals immediately. That love was expanded quite a bit after reading Bonobo Handshake – I still find it so difficult to believe just how human-like these apes really are. They can communicate, cooperate, show affection, form familial bonds, among many other things. Many traits that we believe make us human these bonobos actually share. I also appreciated that Woods treats the reader to quite a bit of information regarding the government in the Congo, the various wars that have happened there, and how the bonobo/chimpanzee black market works there. Also, I listened to Bonobo Handshake and can definitely recommend the audio version. This was such a fascinating read, I absolutely recommend it.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
Published by Dover Publications (first published in 1792)

First published in 1792, this work by early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft caused quite a scandal when it came out. Wollstonecraft was an independent women with ideas of her own, and she grew up educating herself and eventually formed ties with other radical intellectuals who were looking for changes to take place in their time. This book is one of the very first feminist writings and for that fact alone, is an important read.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women was the first selection for A Year of Feminist Classics, and I must admit that it was an extremely difficult read for me. I closed the book hoping and praying that the other eleven books I hope to read for this project won’t be as taxing. Luckily, I’ve since finished The Subjection of Women (the February selection) and found it to be a much more pleasant experience, so I needn’t have worried about that. If you’ll notice I’m reviewing A Vindication in early March – I was supposed to have finished this book in January. I honestly could not read more than 5-10 pages of this book at once, which is why it took me so long to read. The narration is very difficult to get into, the writing is dense and uses tons of words I’m not familiar with, and it seemed to me that Wollstonecraft repeated herself about a dozen times, just using different words to say the same things.

However, while this book was not an easy read for me by any means, I’m still glad I read it. I think it gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles women have had to go through to get to where we are today. In Wollstonecraft’s day, she was ostracized and condemned for writing a book that is based on a simple truth: women are people, too. Women should have rights just as men do, women should have choices available to them, etc. And that was quite a radical concept back in Wollstonecraft’s time.

It’s clear just how radical the concept was by the fact that most of her ideas would still be considered conservative and oppressive in today’s world. She wasn’t advocating for complete equality between the sexes, she was simply advocating for women to have some rights, some choices, some decision-making abilities, some representation in leadership, etc. She still wrote that women were best suited for motherhood, that they aren’t as strong as men – ideas that when people say them today I want to laugh in their faces. But again, she was extremely radical for her time.

Did I find reading this book to be an enjoyable experience? Not really. But was it a worthwhile one? Absolutely. I do not read many classics or historical texts of any kind, and reading this book reminded me that I should at least put a little effort towards this area of literature. The ideas I have and the beliefs I hold have a historical context, and reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women was one tiny step towards my understanding of that fact.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Published by Hyperion

Frankie Landau-Banks went through quite a few physical changes in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at her elite boarding school. As a result of these changes, she’s caught the eye of the very popular and gorgeous Matthew, whom she soon begins dating. When she finds out that Matthew belongs to the secret society on campus – The Loyal Order of the Bassett Hounds – she becomes determined to learn more about the society and also become part of it. Problem is, it’s boys only, and Frankie doesn’t exactly fall into that category. So she embarks on a quest to become a part of the Bassett Hounds, no matter what it takes.

I’ve been anticipating reading The Disreputable History for as long as I can remember. I’ve been hearing such great things about this book for so long that I finally gave myself permission to just pick it up and give it a chance for myself.

And YAY for that because this book was everything I wanted it to be. This novel is fun, and funny, but it also has a lot more depth than I was expecting. Frankie is a person who does not believe in maintaining the status quo, at least not when the status quo is clearly beneficial for only the privileged few who get to enjoy the perks. This is a novel absolutely drenched in feminism, and I mean that in the best way possible. Frankie is not going to sit idly by, watching her male friends get to have all the fun, absolutely not. The fact that Frankie is smart, articulate, well-read, but also seeking Matthew’s approval is a perfect illustration of those of us women who have been there as teens. I would have loved this book when I was fifteen – I can’t say that I’m anywhere near as intelligent as Frankie is, but I certainly remember the feeling of wanting to be myself but also impress the boy I liked at the time – which could very well have meant dumbing myself down. It’s a terrible way to feel, and Frankie does such a fantastic job of illustrating the fact that teen girls can be intellectual, politically aware, and hilariously funny all at once.

Honestly, I loved everything about this novel. While the ending was difficult, and my heart just broke for Frankie, it was actually sort of perfect and the only ending that realistically fit in with the rest of the story. Frankie is one of my new favorite kick-ass heroines, and as soon as I closed the book I found myself wishing for a sequel so I could be a part of more of her adventures. Plus, The Disreputable History is just ripe with topics for discussion – it would make an excellent book club pick.

I cannot more highly recommend The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I beyond loved this book, really and truly.

Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio

Title:  Cunt:  A Declaration of Independence
Author:  Inga Muscio
Release date:  October 15, 2002
Publisher:  Seal Press
Pages:  416
Genre:  Nonfiction, Feminism, Women’s studies
Source:  Personal copy

In this provocative piece of women’s studies writing, Inga Muscio traces the history of the word “cunt” and explains that while once the word was a term of respect and power between and about women, over the years the patriarchy turned it into something disgusting, shameful, and just about the worst insult in the English language.  With this book, Muscio hopes to empower women to understand that they hold their own power in their very actions towards the world, with how they choose to support or not support the patriarchy, how they choose to support or not support institutions that harm women, and how every decision women make can be a feminist, political one.

I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, but when Eva talked about how much she loved it, I knew I had to bump it up to the top of my list. Cunt is absolutely a wonderful book.  It is exactly what its title proposes:  a declaration of women’s independence.  Independence from the institutions in society that keep us less than, from the messages we face every day that tell us we are unworthy, from the male-dominated companies making decisions about the products and services that only (or at least, primarily) women consume.

I have to say that while I don’t agree with all of Muscio’s opinions, she definitely gave me plenty of food for thought.  For example, I personally LOVE my oral contraceptives because they do wonders for my body in a lot of ways, and Muscio is opposed to them on principle (why should women have to alter our body’s chemistry for the benefit of men, etc…), but her stance on the issue made me think about what other things I might be doing to my body or my mind because society tells me I have to.  It also made me grateful to know that we live in a world with the availability of these medicines, and the ability for every woman to decide for herself the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and regulate her body’s cycle (or not).

I have to honestly say that I know Cunt won’t be for everyone.  Muscio is a really, really radical feminist – perhaps the most radical one I’ve read – and her attitudes won’t be shared by every reader, but I do think it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless.  Like I said, I don’t agree with several of her arguments, but I still found the book eye-opening and a valuable asset to my collection of feminist works.  If nothing else, the book will help you define your own opinions about feminism and how women can take more control and have more power in this male-dominated world.  If you are at all interested in feminism and/or women’s studies, Cunt:  A Declaration of Independence is a must-read!