Feb 22, 2011

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

Reading Women is a reading memoir subtitled “How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life”. The author, Stephanie Staal, came of age in a progressive family after the second wave of feminism in the 1970’s, and thus her expectation was that her gender would not set her back like it had women of previous generations. These were her feelings when, as an undergraduate, she took a class called Feminist Texts at Barnard College. But later in life, when she’s married, has a young child, and has given up full-time work to care for her, Staal returns to Barnard to take Feminist Texts again. What she finds in the pages of these books is something quite different this time around – and this experience is what Reading Women is about.

I broke my No-Review-Copies policy for Reading Women because the concept sounded far too close to what my blogging friends Amy, Emily and Iris and I are doing with the Feminist Classics project for me to be able to resist reading it. Even Staal’s reading list (which is helpfully included at the end of the book) is very close to our own. I confess that at first I didn’t get on with Stephanie Staal’s writing at all, but after the preface, the tone becomes far less poetic-slash-purple and more conversational, which I personally much preferred.

It’s good to keep in mind that Reading Women emphasises the memoir part just as much as it does the reading one: it’s a very personal book, but considering that the texts being discussed amidst Staal’s reminiscences are about incredibly personal challenges women have faced and continue to face throughout time, this approach only makes sense. The practical applications of feminism and the ways in which it can be helpful when it comes to everyday decisions are, after all, the major themes of this book. Another reason why I didn’t mind the highly personal tone was because the author was a pleasure to spend time with: she comes across as sensible and highly intelligent, and it doesn’t hurt that I agreed with her about 90% of the time. It was easy to imagine myself discussing all these books with her over coffee - which again brings me to the communal reading experience that the Feminist Classics project is all about.

The autobiographical angle of Reading Women is a good illustration of how difficult the positions women continue to be put in really are. It drives me a little crazy when people imply that to acknowledge this is to Choose to Be a Victim; that the right feminist attitude is a We Can Do It All super-heroine attitude. Obviously I don’t believe in declaring, say, the conciliation of motherhood and work impossible and simply giving up. But there’s nothing defeatist about acknowledging that women have a lot more expectations to contend with, that they very often do a lot more of the housework even in supposedly progressive relationships, and that things are not, in fact, easily solved by a magical attitude shift. About her own decisions, Staal says:
After weighting the costs of hiring child care against the potential salary and hectic schedule of a journalist, it was not so much a choice as, really, the only course of action that seemed practical.
This is the crux of the matter, really. Choices take place in a context, and this context is often far more confining than people are willing to admit. Also, this passage about her and her husband’s shared parental relationships sounded all too familiar:
We worked out a schedule in which I took Sylvia in the mornings; John took care of her in the afternoons. Our shared parenting time appeared astonishingly equal to outsiders—maybe too equal. It didn’t take too long to discover that they viewed my time as duty, whereas John’s time was a gift—he was saint to my sinner.
Feminist texts might not have the answers to the questions these situations raise, but they do help. In Staal’s case, they help her place her life in a larger historical, social and political context, and that is no small thing.

Moving on to the actual bookish discussion: I was surprised when I first saw Staal’s reading list, because it included books I wouldn’t have defined as feminist texts myself: Katie Rolpie’s The Morning After, Freud’s case study Dora, and Carol Gillian’s In a Different Voice. Of course, I don’t expect my own brand of feminism to dominate discussions everywhere, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a syllabus including problematic texts – quite the contrary. As it turns out, Stephanie Staal’s sensibilities are quite close to my own, and she does problematise these particular texts. Despite disagreeing with her, she’s far more forgiving of Rolpie than I would have been; but when it comes to Gillian, much as I personally dislike her book, I appreciated the complexity of Staal’s approach.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Gillian is a developmental psychologist who put forth the theory that traditional psychological forms of assessment and developmental theories privileged a “male” mode of approaching the world, as opposed to a more “feminine”, caring, relationship-oriented style. This smacks of Victorian notions about the fair sex, but if there’s one thing Gillian is absolutely right about, it
’s the fact that styles traditionally considered masculine are still put in a pedestal, while a “feminine”, relationship-orientated approach to life decisions tends to be devalued (Sebastian Faulks’ recent “heroines” versus “female heroes” debacle is a perfect example of this). It turns out that Gillian herself didn’t believe that these two ways of approaching the world were inherently male or female, but the problem with her work is that the way she frames these concepts makes it far too easy to take it that way. Staal cites as an example the fact that in 1999, the Virginia Military Institute used Gillian’s book as their defence in a court case about their refusal to admit women. Women, they argued, would not survive in a highly competitive environment, as this was contrary to their very nature. The fact that they won the case even though Gilligan herself testified against them pretty much says it all.

I particularly liked Staal’s responses to Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir, two authors on the Year of Feminist Classics Reading list. It made me smile to see how similar Staal’s classmates’ responses to Vindication were to our own, and how they had considered the very same questions we struggled with. Here’s what Staal has to say about Wollstonecraft:
Indeed, in Vindication Wollstonecraft spurns sexual desire in favour of reason, a turn that, upon a cursory reading, while sensible, seems more than a little bleak. But I wonder if, by leaving those ineffable qualities of sexual desire and love on the sidelines, where the reading may muse on them privately, Wollstonecraft succeeds in elevating the fundamentally cooperative nature of marriage, one that emphasizes a foundation on respect and intimacy. Vindication is a narrowly focused polemic, after all, seeking not to cover the whole of experience but rather to provoke and contradict the accepted wisdom.


To her critics, she may represent a misguided and false consciousness. But from where I stood, Wollstonecraft’s choices resounded with the lessons I had learned time and again since entering adulthood—life is unpredictable, relationships are complex, and the mind cannot always rule the heart.
And in relation to Simone de Beauvoir, she mentioned something that drives me crazy in biographies of Mary Shelley, and also of women in general who belong to circles where unconventional romantic arrangements are the norm: the idea that they couldn’t possibly want those things themselves; that they were victims; that they went along with the men in order not to lose them (the fact that Jude Morgan’s Passion refuses to do this is, of course, one of the main reason why I loved it):
By her own account, Beauvoir at times missed Sartre so desperately that she sank into despair. Of course she felt anger and jealousy over Sartre’s lovers, which probably gave rise to moments when she wanted Sartre all to herself, as Menand and others contend. But we know she also felt passion—even love—for other men, and perhaps women, too. Most of all, we know that she tried to live her life according to the philosophical principles in which she believed, even at the price of loneliness. “In what a ‘desert world’ I walk”, she writes in her journal, “so arid, with the only oases my intermittent esteem for myself.” To make the claim, then, that all she ever really wanted was Sartre’s sexual devotion, that she was merely living her life at his direction, is sexist.
Thank you, Ms Staal.

I have gone on for long enough, but I feel that I’ve only just brushed the surface of all the things Reading Women deals with and all the ideas it made me consider. I’ll leave you with a list of books this memoir made me covet (not including all the ones already on our list for Feminist Classics):
  • The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America by Ruth Rosen
  • Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
  • Tête-à-Tête by Hazel Rowley
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen
  • Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • “The Politics of Housework” by Pat Mainardi
Other points of view: Regular Ruminations, Reading Through the Night, Amy Reads, Booked All Week, Iris on Books

And if you drop by the Year of Feminist Classics blog, we’re giving away a copy and it's open to everyone.


  1. What makes me interested in this book is the shift in Staal's perceptions of feminism and her struggle to reconcile it to real life. I'm sure many of us have experienced the shift from when we first read feminist texts as students and then later on as adults. Intriguing!

  2. This sounds really interesting. My husband and I come from very conservative backgrounds. Neither of our mothers worked and none of the married females in our families work, aside from myself. I can relate to the quote about some people feeling like it's the woman's duty to take care of the children and that the father is a saint anytime he steps in. Very frustrating!

  3. Your comemnts (and quotes) re. child caring hit a nerve because people around me are having babies and my female friends really strugle with the expectations to make everything in their life "work" because that's the modern way.

    Staal is very right in pointing out that the mother's time with the baby is looked on as a duty while the father's as a gift. So many years of feminism and these perceptions just won't go away!

  4. This is definitely a book that you were meant to read, so no doubt whatsoever on why you had to accept! In fact, this lady could be your lost twin, yes? I have not ever pursued this in my reading, but I'd be interested to read how a woman who considers herself a feminist reconciles her role if she chooses to stay home and care for her children. This was (is) my situation, and I'm generally at peace with it, but I'm still curious as to the opinions of others.

  5. (SciReg, I cannot tell for sure if you're a spambot or not :| Apologies if you aren't - I've had some bad experiences lately.)

    Sakura: My own experience was a bit different, because despite being younger than Ms Staal I grew up in a far more conservative family and society, especially when it comes to "a woman's place". So my expectations were never quite as positive - though there WAS a similar process of joining the dots and realising that so much of what held me back came down to sexism.

    Kristi: Isn't it? I also see it happen a lot, despite not being a parent myself.

    Alexandra: I know! Begone already.

    Sandy: Part of what this book is about is exactly Stephanie Staal realising that there is no contradiction between feminism and staying at home with your family if that's what you want to do (as opposed to, as in her case, making that choice because the alternative is impractical). The idea that a "true" feminist is a high-achieving career woman is a real hindrance, and it alienates a lot of women for no good reason at all - though of course a lot of women who do identify as feminists have done their share to perpetuate it :| But there's nothing about Staal's choices - or yours, or those of countless other women I know and admire - that "disqualify" them. It was very interesting to see her come to that realisation with the help of all these books.

  6. Great review Ana! I'm so happy that we found this book as it really is a perfect fit for our challenge. I really liked a lot of the same things that you did. Really a lot to think on and I loved her approach to all of the books, even in cases where I didn't fully agree with her!

  7. I'm so glad you liked this one! I really enjoyed Staal and her perspective. I think it's really relevant and not a voice you hear too often. It seems to be something we're all thinking - applying feminism to our honest-to-goodness daily lives - but not one that really gets brought out into the open. How DOES feminism relate to the realities of parenting and relationships? I thought Staal provided an excellent perspective on this and had a great balance between the personal and the informative.

  8. It's so cool that an offer for this review copy came during the perfect time in your reading life, and I can totally see why you loved this book. It sounds like the author shares a lot of your viewpoints, and I can imagine that you found this very refreshing. Very nice review, Ana!

  9. Oh I so want to read this, as it is very much the kind of book I am trying to write at the moment. Wonderful review as ever, Nymeth, and I think it's extremely important that we keep on pointing out the contradictions in our so-called equal world, most of which cling persistently to the task of motherhood. It's not an insurmountable problem, but there are all kinds of deep-rooted fears, anxieties and demands around it, which prevent the women of our generation from making - or being culturally encouraged to make - sensible work/life balance decisions around it.

  10. Interesting post. Thanks. I've enjoyed following your reading this year. You make me want to revisit Wollstonecraft and Mill as well.

    I can't help but point out that in many countries throughout the world there is no debate about staying home vs. working. In some working is the only answer. In others it's just a questions of what form of child care do you want. In America we are luckier than some, but not as lucky as others.

  11. Amy, same here! She got me thinking even when we did disagree.

    Lu: Yes, I completely agree. I'm used to reading books that are more theoretical and divorced from everyday life, and while I do appreciate them, this made for a very nice change.

    Zibilee: We were actually offered a review copy BECAUSE of the project! Very fitting :P

    Litlove: I am very, very excited about the thought of you writing a book along these lines! It's an approach I'd love to see more of, and if anyone can excel at it it's you :)

    C.B. James: That's certainly a good point - as you know I'm not American, and in my country the overwhelming majority of women work because it's unthinkable for a family to live on only one income. So the whole motherhood versus career thing has always struck me as a very American dilemma. But though it's a privilege to be in a position to choose at all, I don't think that lessens the reality of the position women like Staal are put in. It all comes down to social expectations, I suspect. Because everyone in my country HAS to work, mothers aren't made to feel like they're "abandoning" their children for doing so. There's also state-sponsored inexpensive child care, which I imagine makes quite a difference.

  12. Wonderful review, Ana! I really enjoyed reading it! I loved this line that you have quoted - "I had learned time and again since entering adulthood—life is unpredictable, relationships are complex, and the mind cannot always rule the heart." Thanks for giving the link to the article by your favourite Laura Miller :) I really enjoyed reading it. I somehow missed your post on Jude Morgan's 'Passion' - I hope to read it soon. (I just read the first line and it ended with a 'wow' - a 'wow' from Nymeth is something :)) Thanks for sharing the list of feminine classics quoted by Staal. I have read 'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong and I loved it. It was quite a controversial book when it came out - the conservatives even regarded it as porn - but it is a wonderful and powerful book and we can feel its force even today. I wrote a very inadequate review about it before I started blogging. I would love to hear your thoughts on it, whenever you get to read it.

    Thanks once again for this wonderful review and for introducing this beautiful gem to us :)

  13. I've always thought Gillian was a feminist. I have never seen her books as having as a primary point the male versus the female way of thinking. Rather, in my opinion, they are about girls growing up to find their ideas are no longer treated equally. But, as you observe, it's easy to focus on the other stuff.

    I also can't stand when people judge others as having *choices.* I think there are plenty of factors, even besides context, like socialization and whether or not one has learned effective psychological tools, that can in essence take away choice just as if there weren't any.

  14. like fact this looks like it coulkd introduce you to this genre ,which to be honest I ve read very little ,all the best stu

  15. Vishy: My library has Fear of Flying, so I'll be getting to it one of these days, hopefully soon! Also, I'm very excited that you clicked over to read about Passion, but I'll save my thoughts on that for when I e-mail you :P

    Jill: I had a very very strong negative reaction to Gillian when I first encountered her, but I was an 18-year-old first year psychology major and a very different person than I am now :P I'm sure I'd be far more able to see the other, far more positive side of her arguments today than I was then - reading Staal's thoughts on her gave me a good hint of that. Also, I completely agree with you on the whole "choice" issue!

    Stu: This would indeed be a great place to start, and it would give you tons of ideas about what else to read.

  16. Hmm, interesting - I wasn't totally aware that people make the she-was-a-victim-of-male-lust argument about Beauvoir, but I can say that such an argument doesn't seem very informed by her own work. Unless you want to argue that her whole philosophical output was just her "putting a good face" on her romantic situation, which is so unbearably condescending I can't even begin. Also very conservative in that it dismisses the genuine objections to the marriage institution about which both Beauvoir and Sartre wrote. I could never deal with being in a polyamorous relationship, but I also think it's a bogus argument to dismiss them as soon as one partner feels jealous. Plenty of folks in monogamous relationships feel jealous, too.

    Anyway, Staal's book sounds interesting and very apropos of the Year of Feminist Classics project!

  17. Emily, Staal cites a major publication review of Hazel Rowley's biography of Sartre and Beauvoir whose ONLY point was to dismiss Beauvoir on those grounds. Like you, she found it condescending beyond belief, but apparently some of her classmates felt otherwise, and that undermined the discussion of her actual ideas in class :\ I feel the same about polyamorous relationships - not something I could handle emotionally myself, but I think they're a perfectly valid choice for those who feel otherwise. And it really, really annoys me to see people claim they're something only a man would ever want.

  18. Ugh, she is far more forgiving of Roipe then I am, too. Blah! It was still interesting, though, to witness her thought process about that text.

  19. Glad to know that you have 'Fear of Flying' in your library. Hope you enjoy reading it. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it whenever you get to read it. I remember recommending it to one of my friends who reads only thrillers and murder mysteries, and he read it and told me that even though this was the kind of book that he never would have discovered on his own, it was one of the best books that he had ever read.

  20. This book sounds so interesting. I am not at all familiar with feminist theory but it sounds perfect for me trying to consider reading a bit more deeply into this issue. I keep feeling like I'm confronted with the reality of feminism by my life and I really wish I had the background to deal more effectively with what happens outside books.

    Also, I was unaware of the Sebastian Faulks debacle - thank you so much for linking to that article by Laura Miller. It so beautifully echoes my own thoughts in ways I couldn't have used to express them!

  21. Emily Jane: Yes, I thought it was as well. But still: ugh :P

    Vishy: That makes me all the more excited to get to it!

    Meghan: This book is a perfect entry point, really - more than about abstract theories, it's about what feminism really means for women's lives.

  22. Dearest Nymeth, my respect for you knows no bounds. yikes.
    I have this idea that I would love this book and should go buy it immediately. I like the idea that she stresses her own experiences and interpretations in a personal intelligent manner. but I feel like I will be handicapped by not knowing anything she is talking about.
    On the other hand, I need a place to start.
    My own story feels complex and immensely contradictory and I hope to find a kindred spirit or place to begin the discovery, so to say.
    Anyhoo, you astound me and I respect you so much. Thanks for being here in blogosphereworld.

  23. This book sounds really great. I love books about reading and I also love memoirs, and also books about feminism, so on the list it goes!


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.