Feb 3, 2009

Two Very Short Introductions

I love the Oxford Very Short Introduction series. All the books I’ve read so far were great. They are short, yes, but not superficial. They don’t try to dumb down or oversimplify the topics they’re about. And if you want to read more, they point you in the right direction. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters and Racism: A Very Short Introduction by Ali Rattansi were fortunately no exception.

I picked up Margaret Walters’ book because even though I care about the feminist issues, I don't know all that much about its history. I knew this book wasn’t going to tell me everything, but it was a start. (And I saw Ali Rattansi’s book right next to it at the library, so I thought “why not?”)

Feminism: A Very Short Introduction is a historical overview of women’s fight for equality from the Middle Ages to our time. In the introduction, Walters says:
But how often, still, do we hear women anxiously asserting ‘I’m not a feminist but . . .’ as they go on to make claims that depend upon, and would be impossible without, a feminist groundwork? The American feminist Estelle Freedman argues that right from its origins, the word has carried negative connotations; that surprisingly few politically engaged women have styled themselves feminists.
This is indeed something I hear often. In fact, it's something I’d often say myself in my teens. The reason why I did was because I misunderstood what feminism actually was, as so many people, men and women alike, still do. The fact that the negative connotation of the word has been there all along can be seen, for example, in Virginia Woolf’s rejection of the term, even though much of her work deals with feminist issues.

Throughout the book, Margaret Walters writes several women who fought for equality in different ways. Some, like Mary Astell, Marion Reid or Anna Wheeler, were new to me, and I’d love to read more about them. Others I was already familiar with, but I enjoyed reading the sections about them anyway. These included Marjorie Kemp, Aphra Benn, and of course, Mary Wollstonecraft. I did learn something new about Marjorie Kemp, though. I knew she was one of the earliest known female writers in English, but not that she had survived fourteen life-threatening pregnancies, and eventually made a deal with her husband: she would pay all his debts if he stopped demanding sex. The unusual thing, of course, is not that she was pregnant that many times, but that, unlike the majority of women at the time and for centuries after that, she actually survived.

Feminism: A Very Short Introduction is focused on the history of feminism in England, so if you’re looking for a book on contemporary feminist ideas, this isn’t it. There is, however, a chapter called “Feminists across the word”, which deals with the challenges women still have to face nowadays, as well as with the intersection of sexism with class and race issues. Also, I liked that it included all sorts of problems, from female genital mutilation and stoning to issues western women face, like domestic and sexual violence and the gender pay gap.

Unlike Walters’ book, Racism: A Very Short Introduction by Ali Rattansi is more concerned with racism today than with its history. There's still history, of course, but there is also an extensive analysis of contemporary racism, mainly in the UK and the US, but also in other parts of the world.

Large sections of the book are also devoted to trying to define “race” and “racism”. Rattansi suggests that part of the difficulty is that there are no simple ways to define these terms. About racism, he says:
It is my view that public and academic debates should move away from simplistic attempts to divide racism from non-racism and racists from non-racists. At the risk of exaggeration, I would suggest that one of the main impediments to progress in understanding racism has been the willingness of all involved to propose short, supposedly water-tight definitions of racism and to identify quickly and with more or less complete certainty who is really racist and who is not.
He also suggests that the common sense definitions of race as a biological concept and of ethnicity as a cultural one don't really hold. In biological terms, the concept of rare has been long discarded, as research shows that there is much more variation among a single human population than between different ones.

There is, however, danger in the idea that the modern world has moved from biological to “cultural” racism, because very often the original concept of race is still at stake if you look under the surface. As Rattansi says, if you are attributing intrinsic and permanent negative traits to a group, it doesn’t much matter if the justification is biological or cultural. Saying “Members of group x are naturally lazy/violent/uncivilized” or “members of group x are lazy/violent/uncivilized because their culture makes them so” boils down to pretty much the same:
In practice, though, cultural demarcations are often drawn and used in a form that naturalizes them by implying that they are more or less immutable. Thus the supposed avariciousness of Jews, the alleged aggressiveness of Africans and African Americans, the criminality of Afro-Caribbeans or the slyness of ‘Orientals’ become traits that are invariably attached to these groups over extremely long periods of time. The descriptions may then be drawn upon as part of a common-sense vocabulary of stereotypes that blur any strict distinction between culture and biology.
Racism: A Very Short Introduction, then, defines racism widely enough to include the Holocaust or hostility towards the Irish, for example. Racism is a theme I’ve always been interested in, and so this is not my first time reading about it. Even though a lot of the facts in the historical sections were already familiar to me, this book still gave me completely new things to think about. It looks at race and racism in a complex and serious way, and I highly recommend it.


  1. I'm a big fan of these also, mostly for philosophy and literature topics. I'll have to check these two out! I'm also an Idiot's Guide junkie. They give me a great overview of whatever I'm interested and I can decide from there if I want to dig deeper.


  2. I also love these short introductions on important subjects. I buy quite a few of these for the community college library that I work for because I feel they are perfect introductions for our students on some pretty tough subjects.

  3. this does sound very interesting.
    these do sound like a good introduction to such important topics.


  4. I've never read any of the Very Short Introductions books, but now I'm really tempted. This could be a new addiction in the making! :D

  5. Lezlie: They're great, aren't they? They're also a very good way to refresh your memory about a given topic. I have a bunch of science ones here to read! Including one on dinosaurs, because why not? :P I haven't read any of the Idiot's Guides yet, but if I see one on a topic I'm interested in I'll keep what you said in mind.

    Lisa: I once had a professor recommend one of them to the class too...they really are perfect introductions. They make things easy to understand without oversimplifying them.

    Naida: Indeed they are!

    Marineko: Yep, they can be addicting :P I have like 5 that I want to read next, lol.

  6. I've never heard of these books but they do sound pretty interesting and I love the 2 topics that you picked!!

  7. Oh dear, I'm guilty of saying "I'm not a raging feminist, but..." ha. ;)

    These sound like great intros, thanks for bring them to my attention!

  8. Wow, I have trouble imaging how those authors managed to condense such a big topic into a short book like that! It must have been interesting to read those books, though, to see what the authors thought was so important that it needed to be included.

  9. I haven't heard of this series but I'll have to keep my eye open for it. Feminist studies has always been an interesting topic for me and I'd love to learn more. I'm reading The Woman in White right now and am constantly fascinated by the portrayal of women (although this is getting off the topic of feminism). Are you getting your degree in a social studies field or literature or something completely different?

  10. I've never even heard of this series, but they sound like a fantastic idea. There is no reason a book has to be enormous to carry an important message. The ability to look at topics like this in a succinct and yet meaningful manner is a real triumph.

  11. Interesting subjects! I know I won't pay any attention to them if I see them on display but your review has definitely piqued my interest!

  12. I've never read any of these, but I just looked in my library's catalogue and the only one they have is on Islam so I'll be getting that!

  13. I had no idea these books covered such a wide range of topics! Rich has a handful, but they're all science ones (big surprise, huh?). I hate admitting that I know next to nothing about the history of feminism. Though I know how incredibly lucky I truly am, living when and where I do in terms of being a woman, I have to admit that I'm very guilty of taking it all for granted. And I'm really eager to find the one on racism...that one sounds really, really good. Whew, I could find myself getting a little obsessed with those books, seeing how many diverse topics they cover!

  14. I've never heard of this series before, but will definitely check it out now. It sounds really good, and like something I'd be very interested in. Thanks!

  15. These do sound interesting - I've never heard of this series either. I'm particularly interested in the feminism one. I knew this girl at university who told me feminism was bullshit because women are equal now. Sheesh.

  16. these little books have always attracted me but I never actually read any! should do that one day:P

  17. I too had never heard of these books. I am interested in the feminism title though, and wonder what other books are available in this series. I will have to check them out.

  18. Staci: They're great! Do check them out if you have the chance :)

    Amy: you're welcome! They are great indeed.

    Kim: It's a hard task, but these are pretty successful! Of course, a lot was left out or just mentioned briefly, but they didn't feel superficial at all.

    Trish: It's literature/linguistics (and before that, psychology), so nothing directly in these areas, but I've always loved learning about them. And I want to read more on feminism too.

    Carl: exactly!

    Melody, I hope you go pick them up :) It's a great series.

    Joanna: I've had my eye on the one on Islam too. I know next to nothing about it, and it'd be a good way to begin to change that.

    Debi: I have a few science ones here to read...global warming, human evolution and dinosaurs. I'm really looking forward to them. And you know, I'm also definitely guilty of taking a lot for granted. I thought of you when I was reading these because I know these topics interest you. I really think you'd enjoy reading them!

    Robin, you're welcome! They're often used in introductory courses here in Europe, but from what I see it looks like they're not as well-known in the US. They're definitely worth looking into!

    Jenny: I've heard similar things too :S

    Valentina: Indeed you should! They're informative, quick to read, and fun. What more can we ask for? :P

    Zibilee: There are hundreds of books in the series, with more being published every year! There's definitely lots to read here.

  19. Hmmm.

    Maybe I should read the one on feminism because, in spite of being the first female officer in a three county area back in the day, today's feminists leave me flat-out cold. It might be a good idea to rediscover the roots, so to speak.


  20. cj: Something else I liked about the book was the fact that the author explains how feminism today encompasses many different ideas and "schools of thought". She herself points out things she doesn't agree with (and I'm with her on those). I'd love to hear your thoughts on it if you do read it!

  21. Two more books that really appeal to me. As I mentioned on your review of *What Jane Austen Ate ...*, my major was American Social History. I studies various social movements - feminism, civil rights; even things like the development of cities and history of public education. Fascinating stuff!

  22. Very interesting. I had never heard of this series before, but I think I'll be checking it out soon! Thanks for the info/reviews.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.