Caught My Eye: Reading Women

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alright, I know that I said that regular posting would resume Friday, but I didn't account for one major thing: sleep. Upon arriving home, I attempted to stay awake, but instead collapsed into an earth-shattering slumber, not to be awoken unless food was available. So, this post that was supposed to be put up Friday is actually coming to you today. My apologies for the delay!

Contrary to popular belief, finals time for me is great for doing all the things I miss out on during the rest of our very busy school year. So, when reading week began and I realized that I actually didn't have anything I needed to catch up on, I dove into this book that had been waiting on my shelf for quite some time: Reading Women by Stephanie Staal.

In some ways, this book was just what I needed - not only was it a distraction from test anxiety, but it is the tale of a former Barnard student who was excited (even desperate) to get back to her alma mater while all of us current students were scrambling to leave it.

The book follows the author's inner conflict between her feminist beliefs and the overshadowing effects of motherhood on these values. In an attempt to regain some perspective, she returns to Barnard as an alumna and takes Major Feminist Texts to find some answers on how to reconcile feminism with her new life as a mom. What results is an introspective look at the patterns of Staal's own life through reading assigned books and weaving them in with her current perspectives of life as a woman. I must admit, when I picked up this book, I didn't know what to think of it. It was more a deal for a new paperback than something I had been seeking to read my whole life. Only later (when I found myself reading late into the night, unable to put it down) did I realize that this was the book I didn't know I needed.

Feministing has also reviewed this book, which gave me a vote of confidence for its merit, but reading it from my own Barnard perspective makes it all the more easy to relate with. It highlights a lot of the challenges I myself think about for a future me. Do I want to be a mother? What does it mean to be a feminist as I grow older? These questions will never end and this book is a nice introduction to what one woman has experienced in both of those roles. Not to say that the book comes up with a happy ending that will reconcile all these issues - rather, it allows you to see that you are not alone.

Another positive about this book is that it integrates the theory and literary analysis of feminist texts with the author's memoir; I have not previously read a book that weaves these two types of nonfiction together. It made it pleasant and interesting - especially for an English major - to see that someone has brought together a close reading of the feminist implications of The Yellow Wallpaper as it applies to her own life. As an added benefit, the text also provides plenty of reading material in the lists at the end of the book. I could be reading feminist texts all summer thanks to Stephanie Staal!

One criticism that I have of this book, however, is that there are not very many women of color voices in the text. If you read through the text list that is presented at the end, they did read books like A Bridge Called My Back and the works of bell hooks, but these were not the ones presented in the memoir itself. Whether Staal identifies more with the works she does present or whether the story deliberately omitted those voices, I don't know, but it made the work less accessible to my demographic in particular. Throughout reading, I had to keep in mind that this book was not created as an extended essay about feminist theory as it could apply to a variety of different people: it was written as a book centered specifically around one woman's life and her type of feminism. I do not know if this is easily highlighted for other readers, however, particularly those that have not been exposed to feminist texts. Where I would disagree with some of Staal's points, others may relate, but it is best to keep in mind that there is no "right" feminism. On another note, there were some points at which I wondered about Staal's portrayal of her fellow classmates, but that is of course dependent on her experience.

Overall, this book was an enjoyable easy read that gives you a taste of many different feminist works from Firestone to Levy. It encourages readers to keep investigating and ends more on a question than an answer about the conflicts present in being a young feminist, a mother, and a wife all at the same time.

You may be interested in reading my other book reviews, pieces on women, or feminist topics.
You can also absorb more media with me through my on-going Caught My Eye series.