Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

In the opening pages of  Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life Stephanie Staal outlines a familiar plot: “And then I got married, had a baby, and everything changed”, and though married to a “progressive and supportive man” (though his credentials for that portrayal appear insubstantial) is disheartened when her narrative conforms to the familiar plot. Resolved not to forgo her feminist ideals Staal returns to college to take a Feminist Texts course. By the closing pages it is difficult to see what effect the ‘Fem Texts’ course had on Staal’s original distress and she concludes the memoir:

The storyteller in me wishes I could point to one watershed event, but the truth is that we had change slowly, incrementally, coming closer together through thousands of tiny moments that make up a day, a life. This didn’t have to happen. I knew from experience, both my own and others, that those moments could have just as well pulled us apart, if even one of us had chosen otherwise.

In other words, Staal participated in a relationship through the high and low points and grew. A memoir, engagingly told, not particularly profound, and one that fails to offer any substantive suggestions about how women (or men) can reconcile the broad ideals of feminism with marriage and parenthood. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

There is considerable value though in Reading Women is as a synoptic primer of feminism, at least as it pertains to the middle classes. Staal progresses chronologically through ‘Fem Texts’, with a fascinating summary of Elaine Pagel’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, an ‘intellectual history of the first two chapters of Genesis that traces traditional patterns of gender and sexuality’.

From there Staal argues convincingly for the continued relevance of first-generation feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft,  cleverly contrasts the fiction of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and moves on to a half-hearted defence of Beauvoir. The strongest section of the book deals with the feminist writers most familiar to Staal, those of the sixties and seventies.

The section I had been anticipating with interest was the next generation that includes writers like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Staal evidently struggled with these texts and reverts to the comfort blanket of Erica Jong, amusing enough but trite. She recovers towards the end when studying Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, the one text Staal covers that I felt compelled to order immediately.

As a memoir it was a quick, occasionally amusing but ultimately forgettable event. As a whizz through three generations of feminist writers, for those, like me, that frequently know the names but only the basic arguments, it was a useful doorway to deeper exploration.

9 thoughts on “Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

  1. i share your dissatisfaction on this one. but i suppose that is as good as it’s ever gonna get, you are to call your husband all nice even if he’s a prick for otherwise you’re a manhater etc. plus, a solution for the parent-marriage feminism reconciliation problem, with a list of things that have to change with reasons a – z and suggested solutions, that’s much too feminazi and challenging, wouldn’t probably have been published…all you ever are allowed to utter is some vague dissatisfaction and adorn it a little with feminist sparkles, but, please, not too much.

    what though I think is viable is the dutch model where parents work 4 days but 9h a day so they don’t loose out much on the cash and they work on different days a week so the sprogs have to go to the nursery only on 3 days. but, that’s a very different social climate there….

    • The book served my purpose quite well because I am not deeply read in contemporary feminism, so it gave me some useful pointers. I just didn’t think it worked very well as a memoir, not particularly profound or insightful.

  2. I am glad to read your thoughts on the book. It’s waiting for me to pick up at the library. I will be curious to hear what you make of A Different Voice. It’s a really interesting book that raises lots of questions.

  3. I’ve been reading more deeply in feminism lately, and this books doesn’t strike me as terribly interesting…. except, perhaps, I suppose, as a passing primer on some of the figures.

    I was glad to see you use the phrase “at least as it pertains to the middle classes”. Much of liberal, middle class feminism seems to accept the logic of the current system, but seeks to gain access to it for women (right to work [“careers”], etc), when most women have always had to work outside the home, along with being responsible for childcare. More radical feminism, and feminism from women of color, is often better at recognizing that the system itself is suspect, that access does nothing. For you gain access, perhaps, but then you are still forced into the logic of choosing children over career, or vice versa, or somehow trying to do both…. etc etc.

    You might be interested in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman [as a start towards black criticisms of white liberal feminism], Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking… these, to me, were very helpful books, while also being bibliographical goldmines.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Richard, they look very helpful. I’m not deeply read in feminism so this book was a useful kicking off point, but it and the books it discusses seem to represent a narrow view of the world.

  4. You make a great point here separating the book between how it functioned as a memoir, and how it functioned as a doorway to further reading. As a doorway to further reading, I think Staal has done a great job and definitely got me interested to read many of the primary texts (some of which I’ve read, some I’d never even heard of) but as a memoir she is frustratingly inconclusive. She shies away from going too deep with respect to her own marriage (not that I want to be a voyeur, but she raises questions that she doesn’t answer) and her resolution to the identity crisis that serves as a basis for the book. That identity crisis is why so many women are engaged with her memoir in the first place, and I would have liked her getting a little braver.

    I didn’t manage to work it into my own response to this book, but I also noticed that she really only addresses white middle class feminism (in her reaction to the texts essentially) and as one of your other commenters point out, there is a wealth of ideas in other reactions to feminism – Adrienne Rich and bell hooks immediately come to mind.

    If anything, I’m glad the book is out there and getting noticed, because it serves as a conversation starter. (And it gave me a lovely reading list).

    • Thanks for the motivation to read the book, Michelle, and I am pleased that I did. It’s a great conversation starter and for someone, like me, that is not well versed in feminist texts, is a good doorway.

      Staal not only addresses a narrow audience, but also reads texts that address a similarly narrow audience at least so it appears. I am grateful of the doorway that Richard opened in these comments to some different texts. Would it suit this year’s theme for your blog to publish a definitive list of feminist texts that is more representative?

      • A list of feminist texts is a great idea, and I would like to work something like that into a piece or a few pieces related to my project as a whole. I’m looking at fiction mainly, and reading rather haphazardly as it is, but I’m hoping to find some connecting threads…

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