Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reading Women--a book review

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal is subtitled "How the Great books of Feminism Changed My Life."

Staal graduated from Barnard College in the early 1990s.  While there, she took a course she refers to as Fem Texts--reading and discussion of authors from Wollstonecraft to Friedan to Roiphe.

At age 24 Staal met her future husband and after several years of living together,  married him, had a child, and moved to Annapolis.  She continued to work part-time from home as a free lance writer, but as many young mothers do, she felt trapped.  She remembered her course of reading feminist texts and was inspired to ask if she could audit the course once more at Barnard--from her perspective years later as a wife and mother.

So that's the story of the book.  It goes back and forth from summarizing readings and classroom discussions to recording Staal's life of child care, laundry, and work.

Reviewers on GoodReads complained that Staal did not present the perspective of women of color, lesbians, single women, women who lived in poverty, etc.  Some complained that she picked and chose only a few of the course's texts and gave others cursory overviews.

I found the book labeled "Advance Reading Copy" on my daughter's bookshelves.  I needed something to occupy during hours in the airport and plane and this book met my need.

I find myself thinking "It is what it is!" and why complain if it isn't what others expected it to be.  It is the story of a privileged white woman who marries and has a child and a career.  She is struggling to find herself in her role as a mother and wife but also as her own person just as most women need to do.  She comes at it from circumstances unlike most.   She was a latchkey kid whose mother was a working academic.  She had no siblings until she was 11.   When she was 13,  her parents divorced and she was raised by her dad.  Her other major book was a research study on children of divorce.

I was reminded of the Ladies Home Journal series on  "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"  Maybe that was what kept me reading to the end when I was relieved that she thanked her husband for his "unwavering love" and "ineffable patience."  They made it through new jobs, moving back to  New York City, and working with a terrible marriage counselor.

There were funny, memorable scenes in the book.  There was the woman at the playground who asked Staal what the theme was for her daughter's nursery and all she could think of was "storage room," but she said "unicorns."  Or the visits to the marriage counselor that united Staal and her husband against the common enemy--Dr. Betz.  She wondered if that could have been his strategy.  Or the second semester professor of the Fem Texts class who sends around a snack list.  I don't know if that was meant to be funny but it struck me as so stereotypical.

  From my perspective at age 68, I no longer fret much about my role in life.  But I once did.  My daughter doesn't like phrases like "work-life balance" and "having it all."  But when she writes about these topics on her blog, the comments are far more than when she writes about less controversial topics like LeBron James returning to Cleveland.

We each come at life from different families.   Our children's needs, our finances, and our energy and stamina differ and our own need to succeed in a profession varies.  Our priorities are certainly different.  I hope at least that I have learned to be accepting of these differences and not criticize those who have made other choices.   And I do plan to add some of these feminist readings to my own "Want to Read" list on Goodreads.

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