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Catching Up pt. 3: A Natural History of the Senses, The Housemaid, North and South, The Book of the City of Ladies, Epileptic

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In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman draws from a number of sources and memories in a meandering rumination about the senses through which we understand the world and interpret our own human experience. It is particularly hard to communicate the specificity of different physical sensations, but Ackerman writes about smells, touch, and the like so effectively that these mercurial interpretations manifest concretely and jump straight off the page, making the reading experience, well, sensual. The book is filled with interesting trivia, such as that smell was likely the first sense developed in the primordial oceans by the earliest living organisms, and I enjoyed the recounting she did of an interview with a professional “nose”, or perfume mixologist. Clearly I was most won over by the chapter on smell, as it sticks most strongly in my memory. However, I became increasingly annoyed with Ackerman and her frequent, bizarrely specific and lengthy descriptors. They often distracted from her main point and felt unfocused, a feeling intensified by the book’s format of short, thematically arranged but otherwise non-sequitor chapters. Also, while not generally opposed to heavy reliance on anecdote, hers felt obnoxiously self-referential and pompous. So, while the subject matter was fascinating, I didn’t really get along with Ackerman very well and will likely avoid her other writing.

One day, an older woman labeled a “witch” and disowned by her grown children finds a dead infant abandoned behind her hut in rural Ghana. Word spreads quickly through her village and suddenly everyone is arguing about who is to blame, with men vilifying the imagined neglectful mother and the women bemoaning the sad arrogance of undependable men. But as the true story of what happened is told through the perspectives of a number of women, it becomes clear that this child’s death is not the fault of one or another sex, but a society in which exploitation is quickly becoming a dominant means of attaining wealth. It begins when a young housemaid travels from her village to Accra to work for a wealthy older woman whose deceased husband’s family believes that her money rightfully belongs to them. The housemaid gets caught up in a plot of inheritance to win back the money for the husband’s family, but does not realize that her employer, though happy and confident in her independence, is not free of the sexual demands of the businessmen who remain in a class above her and so is not easy to manipulate. Nor does she understand that her own family’s motives may not be good for her, personally. The final telling of what happens to her baby is tragic but it is the fault of no individual: instead, it is the result of greed and an caustic individualism. A very worthy novella that counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge.

I’d been wanting to read North and South forever, but passed up the North and South read-a-long because it overlapped with my trip to Kenya and then promptly forgot about it. Even though I coincidentally ended up reading it at the same time as the read-a-long, I guess it’s still good that I wasn’t signed up because I didn’t have regular internet access nor the time to participate in the discussions, but anyway. I had huge expectations for this book, and while I enjoyed it, it fell just a little flat for me. It’s hard not to compare Gaskell to her contemporaries: not as much nuance as Austen, not as righteous as Dickens, less detailed than both. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but some combination of Austen and Dickens is what I thought I was going to get. Margaret, who moves from an idyllic country village to a busy, crowded industrial town, falls in love with the rugged Mr. Thornton (about whom I agree with Iris is a much more worthy love interest than most of Austen’s suitors ;)). There, she befriends some of the working poor that she’d previously been so judgmental about, and sides with them in a strike against factory-owner Thornton. Thornton, a proud, self-made man, learns through Margaret to sympathize with those less successful than he in “working their way up” while Margaret reconciles herself to the reality that the country isn’t exactly paradise for the poor, either. Culture clash, class, and the industrial boom frame this troubled love story, and I appreciate how direct Gaskell was in dealing with such themes. However, there was a bit too much compromise and neatness in the way it all wrapped up for my taste. Still liked it, though, so will try more of Gaskell.

This was (ahem) the FIRST book listed for The Year of Feminist Classics challenge* and yes, I only got to it last month. This book was written by Christine de Pizan, the only (?) professional female writer in late fourteenth century Europe. It is impressive not only that she was able to support her family with her writing at this time, but that she was able to do so while unequivocally challenging the most common anti-woman sentiments of her day. Here, she imagines a scenario in which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice come to her aid embodied as three strong and lovely women to help her construct a city of positive history and mythology in which she will collect and house all the world’s most virtuous ladies. They do so first by debunking myths such as that women are natural liars, that they lack conviction and are emotionally weak, that they are selfish and are intellectually inferior to men. Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would do almost four hundred years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, de Pizan argues that it is the way in which society brings girls up differently from boys that makes these stereotypes appear true and universal, but that given an equal education, girls would show as much aptitude as boys and in the same subjects (she does, however, fall very short of actually advocating for this). While her argumentation rested on reworking mythology, and this is not an acceptable form of debate nowadays, it was then–and since I was unfamiliar with so many of the stories, I kind of got a kick out of ’em despite the fact that it became very, very tedious reading. All the stuff about being a good, chaste wife etc. was irritating to my modern sensibilities, too, but I get that then she was reacting against the fact that women were only thought to be about their bodies, rooted in materiality with no spiritual or mental inner lives and value. I wouldn’t call this book relevant for feminists today, but I still enjoyed it as a feminist for the times when de Pizan utilized her stinging sense of humor and because it really made me consider context. It’s interesting to see that some ideas which are completely regressive and sexist now were once a step AWAY from an oppression that we still know, but in a completely different transformative phase. Of course, not all reactions against oppression are “progressive”, nor can that word be applied evenly across cultures and eras, which raises a lot of important questions about what constitutes progress in any given situation.

Epileptic is the deeply troubling autobiographical story by David B., formerly Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose life has largely been shaped by his brother’s epilepsy and his family’s never-ending search for a cure. Epilepsy was little understood in 1960’s France when Jean-Christophe had his first seizure, and one of the most horrific aspects to this family history is how cruelly Jean-Christophe was treated by children and adults alike, alienating him, his siblings, and his parents from the community as punishment for exposing them to the symptoms of his illness. Their parents move Pierre-Francois, Jean-Christophe, and their sister in and out of various new-agey macrobiotic communes, inspiring hope in an unrelenting succession of mystical mentors and spiritual healers who are ultimately as lost as they are. While his parents experience increasing guilt after every failure to “fix” their eldest son and his sister becomes despondent with depression, David B. pours himself into his illustrations, picturing epic uphill battles that signify his struggle against his brother’s sickness. His thick, bold-lined drawings are appropriately claustrophobic and disconcerting, adding a fantastical element to this tragedy. David B. is always honest, refusing to leave out the ugliest bits of his history and the resentment he sometimes felt toward his brother, whose disease he could never measure up to. Dark and moving; beautiful work and intensely raw.

*I think it’s time I admitted to myself and everyone else that I’m not going to catch up on The Feminists Classics challenge this fall like I wanted to. In fact, there’s only a few books from this year’s selection that I haven’t read, but even excluding re-reads, it just isn’t going to happen. Truth be told, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a Very Bad Thing that happened earlier this month in the life of myself and my friends and have had difficulty concentrating on books, so I know that if I don’t allow myself to read at whim I won’t be doing much reading at all, and I don’t want that. Sincerest apologies for committing to it and then only reading one book and not participating in any of the conversations**…hopefully I will get to all the others at a later date, as they all remain interesting to me. I still plan to host the last read when the time comes, but all reading projects and such will otherwise be put on hold or ignored.

**Hello, guilt.

Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks

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Wow. So, after making a quick trip to a cousin’s wedding and having to replace my old computer, it’s been really hard to get back into the rhythm of writing about what I’m reading. It’s been made no less difficult by the amount of school work I need to make up, and by the amount of time I’m spending with my band preparing for SXSW next week. In any case, I woke up early this morning, so let’s see if I can eke out just one post real quick!

Feminism is for Everybody was our first pick for The Year of Feminist Classics 2012. It’s a brief introductory text that covers a number of topics and is both inclusive and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of feminist movement politics. hooks maintains a relaxed tone and seems to speak directly and comfortably to the reader about the relationships between feminism, sexuality, class, race, gender, U.S. history, parenting, love, and more. Short chapters keep the reading brisk and engaged, but remain substantive. In other words, it was a great place to start this year’s project.

hooks wrote this book to be a straightforward primer that would serve to explain some of feminism’s key concepts to the uninitiated or misinformed, and in that sense I’d say she the book is a success. However, it isn’t perfect. I wish she’d done a bit more contextualizing, for example…feminism in the United States didn’t start with the Second Wave in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and this work was very much grounded in a specific era of feminist thought.

On the project discussion page for this month, Amy asked:

do you think this book would convince someone who didn’t identify as a feminist why it is important to do so / that they might want to do so?

I really like what onereadleaf had to say about this. She describes coming to identify personally with feminism as a process, and my experience with it was similar. Many of us have had “click moments”, but for me those had to be followed up by long bouts of introspection and info-seeking before I became comfortable using the term “feminist” to describe myself. So, I don’t know if this book alone would “convert” someone who wasn’t already a feminist or at least interested in feminism, but that’s okay: instead, it works to familiarize the reader with a diverse and conflictual set of related questions and beliefs; to reveal the ways in which the struggle for gender equality is relevant to us all, no matter who we are. It’s a place to start.

But, while I would recommend this to new feminists or people interested in feminism, I would include with it recommendations to more contemporary sources, including blogs. The book is only about ten years old, but as onereadleaf also points out, the internet changed a lot of things for popular feminism and this book predates those changes. The content of the book isn’t outdated because of that, I don’t think, but some of the language marks it as very, very ’80’s to me, which: fair enough! bell hooks is certainly the product of an older time, even if the book is new. I was especially struck by her repeated use of “females” and “males” as nouns, for example, because I only ever see them as adjectives in feminist writing now, IF that. Also, phrases like “white male capitalist patriarchy” are not inaccurate in describing interlinking systems of oppression, but they are just so typically ’80’s (and so typically bell hooks, too). I don’t think these things are a big deal, at all. But they don’t feel entirely current.

And another thing: my recommendations for new feminists or those curious about feminism would need to include specific examples about the ways in which we’re all affected by sexism and the strategies that feminists might use to think about them or act against them, too. hooks is great at introducing feminist sensibility, but she can be very vague about it’s application!

Amy also asks:

hooks defines feminism simply as:

“A movement to end sexist oppression”

What do you think of that…?

I like it. I like that it’s simple and cooperative, rather than individualistic. I like that it’s flexible and open to interpretation. I also like “the struggle toward gender equality”, as it’s more about making something than ending something. I like that hooks argues that feminism is and must always be political, and that she emphasizes activism. I don’t think you have to be an activist to be a feminist, though…unless you consider challenging your own viewpoints, the sexist status quo, and standing up for the gender equality you believe in to be activism 😉

All in all, I trust and respect bell hooks, and agree with her most of the time if not all (she said something about prostitution in one chapter that made me lift an eyebrow). I think it makes a good introduction to certain feminist issues, particularly those first articulated in the ’60’s and ’70’s which have persisted to trouble us in the early twenty-first century. I would gladly pass it along to those who’d like a primer, but it probably wouldn’t be the only thing I’d give them. A list of other recommendations deserves it’s own post, perhaps one day to come…

For now, please excuse the possibility of another lengthy blog silence. I will try to schedule some updates for when I’m out of town the next few weeks, but no guarantees. I’ve been reading some really great stuff, and can’t wait to talk about it with you eventually!

ETA: OH, I forgot. This book also counts toward the Read and Resist Tucson challenge, as it’s one of the books that was banned there in conjunction with ethnic studies!

Written by Emily Jane

February 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm

A Year of Feminist Classics, 2012

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I am pleased to announce that A Year of Feminist Classics is now entering a second year with an excellent reading list and a number of new co-hosts! It took us a while to get organized (the holidays, and all), so we’ll be running the project from February 2012–January 2013. Each book will be presented by one main host, but we’ll be working together to ensure continuity in the case of real-life distractions. Here’s what we’ll be reading, with the name of each month’s host in parentheses and a link to their own blogs:

  • February – Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks (Amy)
  • March – The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine De Pizan (Jean)
  • April – Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (Cass)
  • May – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë read alongside Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Iris)
  • June – Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (Emily)
  • July – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Nancy)
  • August – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Lauren)
  • September – Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua (Melissa)
  • October – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (Jodie)
  • November – Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi (Ana)
  • December – Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis (Emily Jane)
  • January – Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (Eva)

If possible, I’m even more excited about the project this year than I was last year. I’m so glad that it’s being continued with more hosts and, hopefully, with more participants!

As Ana wrote in her introduction to this year’s plans,

We invite you all to think of this project as an informal feminist reading group. You don’t have to commit to joining the discussion every month, but we’d love to hear your thoughts whenever you’re able to. We’re very excited to read these books together, and we hope we’ll have the opportunity to continue to learn from each other and from you.

If you’re not yet involved but at all interested, we’d love to have you join us…on your own terms 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

January 15, 2012 at 6:22 am

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir

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As anyone who’s tried to do it surely knows, writing confidently about The Second Sex is as mammoth a task as reading it is. The brick-like tome was our July read this summer for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but it took a few months longer to finish and will likely be a source of contemplation for innumerable months to come.

In what was a very radical and unprecedented move in the late 1940’s, existentialist philosopher Beauvoir set out to understand the social condition of Woman by examining women’s place in history, mythology, biology, and lived experience within and without the family through the lenses of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Only someone with the exacting brilliance of Beauvoir could pull it off–and she does.

As someone with little to no background in either existentialist philosophy or psychoanalysis, some parts of the book were less accessible to me than were others. In fact, Beauvoir’s scope and knowledge is so far-reaching that I doubt all of it would be completely accessible to any one lay reader, and that’s perfectly fine. I found the first sections of the book to be the densest and most intimidating, although the chapter on mythology was one of my favorites and was full of information totally new and fascinating to me. I did find the second half on “Lived Experience” much easier to follow and comprehend, though it was around this point too that I began to develop slight criticisms of Beauvoir’s presentation.

I’m not going to pretend that I understood all–or even most–of Beauvoir’s analyses. That said, and especially given my lack of exposure to theories of psychoanalysis, I found it’s application quite jarring and unconvincing at times. I just wasn’t sure I bought it, I guess, as an explanation for childhood sexual development and women’s inferiority complexes, amongst other things. And the ways in which she discussed both “frigidity” and lesbian sexuality made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say about them, but I thought it could be a conceptual disagreement. It could also be because the language she was using is now totally outdated. Most likely it was a combination of both those things. Also, she consistently picked the most extreme examples to illustrate her points, which I found counter-productive and distancing. But maybe that was a more widely practiced writing technique at the time? Or maybe it seemed necessary since the arguments were so new that the most extreme examples were warranted? I don’t know, but I found it off-putting.

At the same time, though, her chapter on “Girlhood” was equally reliant on psychoanalysis and REALLY struck a chord with me. It was eerie, actually. So many things I hadn’t considered before as potential sites for social and theoretical interrogation–girl’s interest in having and sharing secrets, obsessive friendships, and quietly inward-gazing narcissism–suddenly made sense in a whole new way. Not that all girls or women share any one quality or experience (and she does tend to generalize a whole lot), but I related to that chapter more than any other and it’s the one which forced me to concede, albeit hesitantly, that there might be something to this whole psychoanalysis thing after all.

Beauvoir is truly in a league of her own. Even when using questionable methods to arrive at contestable conclusions, her intelligence is tangible and dazzling. You may just have to read it to figure out how such a thing could be…and given the number of times I’ve thought back on The Second Sex in random “A-HA, I GET IT NOW” moments of total clarity about pop-culture* or daily life since finishing it weeks ago, I’d say it is worth the challenge!

*For example, when and only when did I apply concepts from Beauvoir’s chapter on mythology to the ridiculous female character in Cowboys and Aliens did that role make any sense to me. Sadly, this application only served to make that character even more absurd and offensive than she already was! Of course, the whole premise of that movie was…well, just don’t get me started on it!

Written by Emily Jane

October 10, 2011 at 5:49 am

The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor*

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This was the February pick for the Year of Feminist Classics read-a-long.

Sometimes it’s hard to really get into an essay like this one, because so much of what made it original and startling when published is now largely taken for granted. We don’t usually feel the need to justify our assertions that men and women should have equal access to the workplace, or that equal partnership in marriage is a good thing. Well, sometimes we are pushed to, but we don’t need to work as hard to make our point as Mill did in the mid-19th century.

Mills argues for women’s liberation from subjugation through politics, education, marriage, and family. He does so clearly, cleverly and, in my opinion, with a fine sense of humor. He tackles the claim that Victorian-era ideas about women and their roles in society follow simply what has been proven by “nature”. Claiming that we can not truly understand the nature of either men or women in any meaningful sense as long as the binary system through which they are related is one which unfairly favors men, he assures his contemporaries that there is no reason to fear allowing women more freedom of opportunity in the workplace. If his detractors are correct, he says, and women are naturally not as good as men at certain jobs, then the competition of the free market will ensure that a more qualified man is hired anyway. If women prove capable of the same jobs, then the idea that they are naturally inferior at certain tasks will be debunked and knowledge will be furthered. Heavily influenced by the thinking of the Enlightenment, he makes the point impersonally (which it is his privilege to be), stressing that reason alone can determine truth, and that assumptions about the way society works and has always worked are completely unreasonable: they have not been properly challenged as no large-scale experimentation has been allowed.

Furthermore, he makes examples of women like Joan of Arc and English queens who have excelled in non-traditional roles, whom more women could emulate if given the chance. Let them prove themselves at writing, music, leadership, etc. Why intentionally limit the possibility of greatness?

He notes that most prejudicial complaints about women–their neediness, their emotionality, their frivolity–stem from socialization, and that equal education of the sexes would result in a greater sense of self and bearing for women. Not only would this be to the benefit of women, but it would also benefit men to be able to relate intellectually to the women in their lives, and would contribute to a greater culture of intellect in society in general. Shared responsibility in both the private and public spheres would relieve the specific burdens placed on both parties and would lead to happier marriages.

Finally, he breaches the subject of suffrage. Though absent from politics, he says, women are by no means unaffected and should be able to vote for their own interests.

So, okay. I yawned myself while typing this and hope no one reading has fallen asleep. I did a terrible job at backing up my claim that Mill is actually pretty funny. He is! I promise! He makes jokes and employs sarcastic witticisms! :/ Even so, though, it’s true: The Subjection of Women is not particularly riveting. If it wasn’t for my commitment to the Feminist Classics project, I probably would have tossed it aside after twenty pages and taken for granted that I agree with all of Mill’s contentions and that he had nothing new to say to me. However, once I got into the swing of things, I found Mill pleasant company enough and am satisfied with being able to comfortably use his essay as a reference for more complicated arguments in the future, if need be.

*You won’t likely find her officially credited as author anywhere, but after our discussion at the Feminist Classics blog about how she’s been widely demonized and written out of history, I wanted to both make a point and pay her respect.

Written by Emily Jane

March 5, 2011 at 2:18 am

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

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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.

Written by Emily Jane

February 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba

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So Long a Letter was the second January pick for the Year of Feminist Classics Project, and at just 95 pages of lovely prose, it was one I was very grateful for following my struggle with Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.

But don’t let that fool you: there is a lot of complicated material, emotion, and power to tease out of this slim novella.

Following the death of her husband, Ramatoulaye writes a letter to her friend Aissitou in which she tells her all about her husband’s decision years earlier to take a younger, second wife and her difficult decision, as a mother of twelve, to endure the imposition rather than break up her family. She is left with nothing of her own, and what happens to her is largely out of her control. Aissatou’s life has also been disrupted by her husband’s decision to take another wife but has, in contrast to Ramatoulaye, left her husband and taken her children to the U.S. where she has done very well on her own. Ba compares the two women’s experiences skillfully, so that neither seems “right” or “wrong” for reacting the way they have, which is one of the book’s major strengths. Through the meanderings of Ramatoulaye’s letter, Ba also expands her scope to encompass Senegalese politics and culture more broadly so that the reader is presented with a clearer picture of some of the reasons for, and results of, a system which leaves women vulnerable to this kind of expendability.

But, whereas the book tackles the unfortunate disadvantages for women within polygamist society, it is not without hope. What was most interesting to me was the contrast between what Ramatoulaye and Aissatou seemed to experience as an age-old problem with the excitement of Senegalese independence from France (1960) and what they imagine that does, or should, mean for women. Though women are sadly underrepresented in Senegal’s new government, they are not unaware of the momentous gains of women’s movements around the world. Of course, though Ramatoulaye desperately wants progress, the effects of modernization leave society “shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues” (p. 76). When she sees these effects take root in her own children, she finds that “progress” can be complicated to define, and more difficult to embrace than she had previously imagined.

I really was impressed with Ba’s ability to say so much with so few words. For example, the short bit about Ramatoulaye’s ventures to the movies by herself, and her hesitancy–then courage–in the face of disapproving or confused looks, says worlds, I think, about the everyday challenges she faces as a discarded wife (um, for lack of a better phrase?) while also reflecting her strength and development as a character.

As I’m sure is clear, I quite enjoyed this book and think it made a really great contribution to the Year of Feminist Classics project. I look forward to jumping into February’s read, The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (though you probably won’t see her credited many places for her contribution, Grr!) Feel free to join us at any time, for as long as you’d like, if you haven’t already 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

February 3, 2011 at 12:15 am

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft

with 15 comments

I’ve been debating about whether or not I want to write a personal post about each book I read for the Year of Feminist Classics project that I’m taking part in, or just link to the discussion so as not to be redundant. Of course, I’ve decided to do both; though it may be annoying for those of you following both blogs (sorry!), it makes me feel more organized to have my thoughts recorded here in addition to there, in comments.

My reactions to Vindication were very similar to those of some of the other readers, particularly those of Nymeth, Emily, and Iris, whose posts were written long before mine (I’m still a bit behind in my blogging). I urge you to read them, as I fear that at this point I’ll mostly be regurgitating things that they said better and in more depth than I’ll be able to. Lest I give the wrong impression, though, there was quite a difference in opinion about this book expressed in comments that was really interesting and totally valid, so I really recommend reading the thread on the group blog. So go, read those first, if you haven’t already, and then come back!


Vindication was a difficult read. Wollstonecraft rambles, and I got lost a great number of times while reading. It wasn’t always clear where she was going with her arguments, or why, and that was frustrating. At times, reading Vindication became a chore. But, ultimately, I found it worthwhile.

Wollstonecraft was writing in response to, and against, famous rationalist intellectuals of the time, her main point being that women only act like useless, silly creatures because they are taught to act that way, and that if they were to be educated in the same manner as men, they would become more virtuous, influential members of society, which would be of benefit to everyone. She recognized that the biggest differences between men and women were the results of socialization, which remains a central focal point within feminism today. That alone made it a good project-starter, in my opinion. May seem obvious now, but hey, someone had to be among the first to say it–and it was not a common opinion at the time that she did. Hard to imagine, really. She attacks the idea that women exist primarily to please men, an idea that has not entirely been completely removed from public consciousness, and writes angrily of condescension toward women, i.e. male chivalry. These parts were my favorite, and the ones I think are still the most relevant.

Mostly, though, I do find her outdated. She was a radical in her time, no doubt: but she’d never fit the bill today. She remains a staunch gender essentialist who thinks that physical and intellectual exercise for women will lessen the inequality between the sexes but that men will remain just a little bit superior no matter what, that women’s biggest priority in life should necessarily motherhood, and that both these things are so because God has deemed them the way of nature. For example. More examples: she considers only the middle class, regularly bashes on Islam and atheism, and–true to the context in which she was living and arguing, but deeply troubling to me nonetheless–she emphasizes reason over human emotion and passion in every circumstance. Of course, she argues for logic passionately and, as it has been pointed out a number of times at the group blog, she herself did not live according to her own strict proclamations as to reasonable conduct. I’m not really bothered by that last point so much, truth be told, but it was an interesting part of the discussion at the group blog. Actually, I think I’d be more interested in reading biographical material about Wollstonecraft than I was in reading Vindication! I think she’s a very interesting character, though there’s lots to disagree with her about.

So, I found Vindication interesting as a historical artifact, located in a very specific place of time, more than as a text that spoke strongly to me about our current state of affairs. Which is sort of how I expected to feel about it. I was surprised at the number of parts that DID resonate with me now, as a matter of fact. So while it wasn’t always a fun read, and was, indeed, positively annoying at times, I thought it a good place to start our project–not because it was very radical (though it WAS, at the time), but because it effectively put into motion the train of thought–however thin it might seem to us now–that would continue to inspire the development of different strains of Western feminism that I suspect we will continue see in our readings for this year.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the reading this month and helped me to formulate my ideas about this complicated book! Reading everyone’s comments has been awesome and really informed my reading 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

January 20, 2011 at 8:11 pm