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.