Monday, April 11, 2011

Book 24: Reading Women

Stephanie Staal attended Barnard as an undergraduate and took classes like "Feminist Texts."  After college, she embarked on a career in journalism, but once she hit 30, she realized that she was facing similar problems as women 50 years ago.  After starting her career, Staal ended up married and with a child.  She and her husband both work from home, but somehow like most other women, she still found herself with a greater deal of the housework, and wondering how her life had led her to such a domestic spot.  After reading a few chapters of The Feminine Mystique and relating, she gets the idea to go back to college and re-take "Feminist Texts" to see how her perspective has changed and how they relate to her current life.
The book is part memoir and part analysis of feminist texts.  She discusses all the obvious suspects, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone deBeauvoir and Virginia Woolf, and also engages in these women's complicated and contradictory life styles.  Compared to some of the young women attending the class for the first time, Staal has a more forgiving view of their personal lives, and understands the difficulties.  It was definitely a nice reminder of some of the theories I had read in college, and I have wondered before how I would engage differently with some of these texts now vs. then.  It's so easy to see things in black and white when younger.  I know just when reading feminist websites now, I occasionally think people are going a bit overboard about things, I feel like there are way too many trigger warnings at some websites (are we really that fragile?), and become rather defensive whenever they try to talk about women in the military.
In her personal life, Staal discovers similar problems that have already been discussed endlessly in feminist classes - the difficulty of balancing personal life and career; the treatment her husband gets for being an engaged father while it's expected of her; the idea that women feel selfish for taking personal time (I don't remember how much we discussed this in my "Intro to Feminist Theory" class, but it definitely came up in my class about chick-lit since many of the chick lit texts about motherhood deal with exactly that - one novel in particular that we read was I Don't Know How She Does It - the point being that she wasn't doing as well in either her personal or professional as she wanted).  She and her husband experience some marital difficulties after they move away from New York, and they attend therapy - their marriage counselor basically asks Staal what's wrong when told that he assists with some household tasks, doesn't cheat and makes money.  They resolve their differences, though Staal doesn't elaborate too much on how they did that (they moved back to New York as well) other than combined dislike of their counselor and a new approach to communication.
I quite enjoyed the book while I read it but it's been about a week, and I feel like it was rather forgettable.  This may be because Staal didn't go completely in depth with many things.  I'm not sure if I felt like she'd really changed that much by the end of the novel with the exception of her location and I guess I would like to know more about how she is now doing balancing the professional and personal.  Given her subtitle, I can't say I feel like her life really changed as a result of the feminist texts, and that may be more due to what she has told the reader - I guess moving back to New York is a big change, but it's the day to day that would interest me more, such as how did she communicate with her husband or get him more involved?  Her analysis of the texts was also more of an overview rather than in depth analysis but it works for what she was trying to accomplish.  She discusses her classmates' views some and compares them to students in the early '90s.  I thought a bit more of this would have also been interesting.  She touches on a few topics along those lines, such the different reactions to pornography in discussions now (it was more accepted now, and included arguments about women's empowerment).  She also believes that the students are more aware of how impossible it is to have anything, while Staal had left college thinking she could have it all.

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