Conversations with EVE, by Barbara Cuthbertson, attempts to isolate when and how women lost their cultural equality to men, and to describe how women can regain it in the modern age. The book is a product of a lifetime of working closely with women through Planned Parenthood.
Cuthbertson describes how she met many women who were unaware of how badly they are treated in a patriarchal society. She says this book is her way of reaching out to as many women as she can, to hopefully change the status quo.
The “EVE” of the title stands for “Every Vagina on Earth.” Cuthbertson explains that her stylistic decision to call women “EVE” instead of “women” or “female” is rooted in linguistic structure: “women” or “female” denotes only that women are not men or not male, not what they are in essentials.
The logic of this move is sound but the decision to use a Judeo-Christian term undermines its effectiveness, especially since she indicts religious structures for subjugating women. The term also assumes that a woman’s identity is rooted in her biology, a theory that naturally excludes intersex and trans women. Moreover, reading “EVE” instead of “women” or “female” throughout the book disrupts the flow of the prose and reduces its rhetorical strength.
Word choice aside however, Cuthbertson has written a well-organized, historical study on the position of women since pre-historic times. The book begins with a section entitled “Culture Before the Myth,” a well-researched look at a time when society organized itself through mutual respect between the sexes, co-operation, and the near worship of women because of their innate power to bring forth new life. She cites societies such as those of various First Nations as late as the seventeenth century, and ancient hunter-gatherer societies of 50,000 years ago.
Though her research is well-documented in endnotes and her sources are strong, the information is presented simply, perhaps too simply. Cuthbertson is very clear that she believes these societies were all good all the time, that women were revered and respected and everything was perfect. There are many “probablys” present in her argument, and the oversimplification of the information calls into question the hard facts. It creates the feeling that Cuthbertson is manipulating historical facts to make a point. The result is a pseudo-intellectual historical study.
After the historical setting is established, Cuthbertson describes how and when societies began to change from female-centered and co-operative to male-centered and cutthroat. Simply, culture changed when “the Myth” was invented; to be specific, the myth of male superiority.
When men began to see themselves as a group distinct from women, they needed to establish a set of characteristics that were firmly opposite from those of women. They began to define themselves as powerful, domineering, strong, and unemotional, most likely due to their evolution as hunters. And because they needed to carve out a place in society that would feed their egos, they stripped women of their power as mothers, healers, and goddesses and labeled them inherently inferior.
Modern society is the result, Cuthbertson affirms, and we are still slowly finding our way back to that cultural “Eden,” as she calls it. The large majority of the book describes the many cultural ills visited upon women throughout the centuries. Domestic abuse, rape, the attempts to own and control women’s sexuality, restrictive “women’s protection” laws, and the sexual harassment of women in the workplace are all discussed at length, with powerful results. Cuthbertson undoubtedly knows what she’s talking about, and even though the writing veers at times towards a “gender-wars” attitude and even, at times, an anti-business tone, the facts speak for themselves.
It’s a realistic book in the way it presents cultural fact, but at times it reads too simplistic, too optimistic, and too neat. Though Cuthbertson cites influential feminist theorists such as Judith Butler and Naomi Wolf, I began to feel like the more sophisticated arguments of those women were being stripped down and simplified.
But perhaps the effectiveness of this book will be the way it can introduce young readers to the realities of cultural inequality between the sexes, and provide a “gateway” to the more complex works of feminist leaders past and present. The book will necessarily challenge readers who believe women’s work is done, or who believe women are better off than they have ever been. Cuthbertson affirms that women still have a lot of work to do, not just in developed countries but around the world. She urges women to put aside religious, racial and cultural differences and work together.
She leaves the reader with some advice: “So laugh, learn, love, and live free, because we’re the generation of EVE that’s going to put culture back on the right track!” Cuthbertson’s optimistic call-to-arms, and indeed the entire book, will hopefully achieve what it is meant to: educate women the world over and inspire them to initiate the changes that give women back their natural female power.