A book blog called the Classics Club is sponsoring a challenge each month in 2014. I missed January and February, but I’m planning to start participating in each challenging beginning this month. The idea is that each month has a theme, and participants read one or more works of literature that fit within each theme. Participants then tweet links to their articles using the hashtag #cc12months. March’s theme is Feminist Literature. The fact that I am excited about this challenge and have already assembled a list of books to read and reread – more than I will ever be able to get through in March, I know: A Room of One’s Own, Gaudy Night, The Transit of Venus, Mating, Lysistrata, Wide Sargasso Sea, and so on – is somewhat ironic, since I have a history of deeply, deeply loathing the F word.
What? Of course the F word is ‘feminism.’ What else would it be?
First, a few demographics: born 1976, San Francisco. Lukewarm Catholic. K-8 in an all-girls independent school, 9-12 in a large Catholic high school that had just integrated by gender the year before I arrived. English major, staying as far away from theory as I could. Then years of grad school, teaching, coaching, writing, and other time-suckages, As a child I read anything and everything, including a fairly massive dose of my mother’s women’s magazines: Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal. I bypassed the parts about actual housekeeping and beelined straight for the articles about botched back-alley abortions, cliteroidectomies, and women who married Iranian-American husbands and ended up trapped in Iran, begging to spend a few minutes a day with their children. The most famous of these women was Betty Mahmoody, who wrote a book called Not Without My Daughter that was made into a film by the same name starring Sally Field. The daughter’s name was Mahtob, which means ‘moonlight.’ Why do I remember her name, in two languages? Why do I remember any of this?
Entirely by coincidence, I watched the very first episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. I was home sick, and my mom had set up the old portable black and white TV by my bed, and for some reason I chose Oprah over lame cartoons and Leave it to Beaver – which was pretty much all that was on TV in the daytime in 1985. My mom read Oprah’s autobiography and fell into a depression for weeks. I read it and shrugged: more rape. More demonization of female sexuality. More violence.
There are all kinds of things I could say about 1988-90, and my tutelage under a certain RMFHT (that’s Radical Marxist-Feminist History Teacher), but I’m going to take a shortcut and direct you here if you want to know more about the RMFHT. My evening has not gone as planned and has involved a runaway cat, and searching for the runaway cat in the rain, and feeling guilty because I blamed my dad for the fact that the cat ran away. [Note: This paragraph was written on Monday night. I am finishing this post on Thursday, but I’m still not going to venture into a long digression about the RMFHT. That’s what my other blogs are for.] So apologies all around for cutting this post a little bit short. I’ll just summarize the main point I wanted to make:
By the time I was old enough to talk about feminism in any kind of academic context, the clichés of feminism had bored their way so deeply into my head that there was no taking them seriously. By the time I was fifteen I could tell from the first frame of a movie whether a character just being introduced was going to turn out to be a rapist. Don’t ask me how – maybe it was rape music, rape lighting, some subliminal rape joo-joo that my senses learned to pick up on. Every few months a new autobiography of some horribly exploited female child star or up-by-the-bootstraps farm-girl-turned-TV-personality made its way into our house: books by Shirley Temple Black, Patty Duke, Mary Tyler Moore, Maya Angelou. My mom read these and curled deeper into her sadness. I read them and rolled my eyes. They were all the same.
And of course, with the saner eyes of hindsight, I can reread what I’ve just written and recognize that the fact that I was bored by feminism by the time I was fifteen is a sign that feminism has succeeded. Being able to yawn one’s way through an article about a back-alley abortion is a sign of great privilege.
I loathe the idiotic bumper-sticker truism “Feminism is a belief in the revolutionary idea that women are people.” It’s nasty and snarky, which in and of itself may not be a bad thing, but my main objection is the fact that it’s wrong. I challenge anyone to read The Scarlet Letter and tell me Hawthorne doesn’t see Hester Prynne as a “person,” that Portia and Lady Macbeth and Miranda aren’t as fully human and Shakespeare’s male heroes. I encounter jerky men in my reading, of course, but just as often I encounter men (authors as well as fictional characters) who marvel at the endurance of women, at their equipoise in the face of childbirth, at the wisdom of mothers.
From a historical perspective, feminism is bunk. Total crap. Skill and wisdom and power and grace have been handed out in equal measure to both sexes, and for most of history, men and women have been partners in the backbreaking labor that is the central reality of most human lives. On the short term, sure – many women have been bullied and restrained and made miserable by men (as have many men by women), and if the hodgepodge of ideas that have come to be known as ‘feminism’ helped some of these women to develop courage and strength, then that’s great. In most cases, cultures that are criticized for oppressing women are also cultures that prescribe rigid gender roles and rigid codes for men, many of whom suffer under a strict masculine code that they hate. I’m not a feminist. But I am pro-human, pro-freedom, and pro-equality. That’s enough, right?
So, on this happy note, let’s read some feminist literature! I’m starting with Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, which I was happy to see on the Classics Club’s list of feminist literature because I have been planning to read it anyway – it was recommended to me by the instructor of the workshop I recently took. I’m also planning to reread an Alice Munro story that I love, called “The Office,” side by side with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. After that, I’m hoping to have time to reread Norman Rush’s Mating, which I’ve been wanting to write about on this site for a while now because I have a sense that not a lot of readers know about it – and they should. And then, of course, there’s Anna Karenina.
P.S. This is not just an elaborate ruse to get out of reading Paradise Lost. Really, it’s not.
P.P.S. The former teacher in me admits that I didn’t do the greatest job of citing my sources in this post. And in some cases, I don’t have sources. However, my ideas in the second half of this post – about the historical relationship between men and women being one of mutual camaraderie and respect – germinated when I read Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English’s wonderful book For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. Ehrenreich and English’s thesis in this book is that the Industrial Revolution, which moved families from farms into cities and shifted the bulk of each person’s daily life out of the home and into the workplace (usually a factory), disrupted what was generally a harmonious relationship between men and women, both of whose efforts were absolutely essential in the unending physical labor of the pre-Industrial home or farm. If you’re interested in this topic (or skeptical of these claims), I highly recommend this book.