Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, by Stephanie Staal
I got an advance reading copy of this book sent to me by Public Affairs (my first ARC, very exciting!) because of my involvement with the Feminist Classics Project. My co-hosts and I will be conducting a give-away of this book and an interview with the author later this week, so click on over there and stay tuned!
Stephanie Staal, an optimistic and committed student of feminism at New York City’s Barnard college in the ’90’s, found herself one decade later a mother, a wife, and a successful writer; a woman quite different from the one she’d expected to become. Though each piece of her identity seemed to be both a struggle and a strength, she felt some sort of unidentified discontinuity running through them, preventing them from fitting comfortably together. Somewhere along the line, she had lost contact with the defiantly optimistic girl she used to be, and was deeply lost without her. So she returned to her alma mater and re-took the “Fem Texts” class that had so inspired her as a younger woman, and found worlds of new meaning in them that would help her to make sense of her changed older self.
Ten years later, Staal has wildly different reactions to the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler–among many others–than she did upon her first reading of them. Interestingly, she sometimes has wildly different interpretations than do the younger women in her class, as well. This inter-generational exchange of interpretations was one of my favorite parts of the book, and I loved how the conversational tone allowed for so many different perceptions to get their due. Many times, in fact, I was tempted to take a break from reading and talk back to Staal and the girls in her class! But not all of the book is classroom centered. Staal always refocuses on how the things she’s learning from the “great books of feminism” impact her relationships with her friends, family, and everyone else.
Staal is an incredibly endearing writer. She is witty, quick, and most importantly, she is completely honest about some of her most personal feelings and experiences. I imagine that it’s very difficult to write so openly about ones’ marital issues and parenting doubts since there’s still a lot of stigma around speaking anything-less-than-totally-positively about either role, but the book was stronger for her openness and made me all the more sympathetic to her journey. And I can’t speak to this myself, since I am unmarried, without kids, and closer in age to college-Staal than current-Staal, but I imagine that her concerns are widely relatable among married working mothers of a similar class background.
This was a really enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I admit to being slightly irked at times when it seemed that her experience wasn’t lining up all the way with her organizational planning for the book, yet she opted stubbornly to make it fit rather than re-work her very neat plot outline. Meaning, sometimes it felt like she was really stretching to demonstrate ways in which her reading was changing the way she thought about herself and her life, whereas I’d rather she just admit that, for example, Judith Butler just didn’t have that much to say to her, in particular. Similarly, though Staal’s monumental growth as an individual was obvious and rewarding upon reaching the book’s end, I think the title’s claim that her experience “changed her life” was a bit exaggerated. Made her life a whole heckuva lot better, I’m sure, but I was left a little confused about the exact nature of this radical transformation.
But these are small quibbles, really. I was very pleased with the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in “the classics” of feminism who’s looking for something light but intelligent.