feminist classics book club

Gender Focus Reads: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

by Jarrah Hodge

I’m a bit late to the party reviewing Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Feminism and the Scapegoating of Femininity for Feminist Classics Book Club (it was April’s pick) but really wanted to cover it for the blog anyway since I think it’s a feminist must-read. Cass at FCBC said Whipping Girl “changed [her] entire understanding of the intersection of feminism, femininity, and trans identities”.  I had a similar experience.

Perhaps Serano’s most provocative argument is against women’s groups like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, who create “women’s only spaces”, even occasionally including trans men while excluding trans women. She argues that feminism needs to embrace trans issues, specifically the issues of trans women since all our oppression is linked through a general scapegoating of femininity. She points out how reality shows focus more on trans women than trans men and particularly highlight the before/after pictures and videos of trans women putting on makeup. “We are ridiculed and dismissed,” Serano writes, “not merely because we ‘transgress binary gender norms’…but rather because we ‘choose’ to be women rather than men.”

Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Books, Feminism, LGBT 1 Comment

Gender Focus Reads: The City of Ladies

by Jarrah Hodge

This is a response to the February book selection for Feminist Classics Book Club: Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies (1405). Here’s some of the background from their site:

Christine de Pizan (1363-c.1430) was quite a well-known poet in her day. She was born in Venice, but her father accepted a position at the French court soon after[...]In her book, Christine builds an entire metaphorical city out of noble, heroic, or righteous women.  She creates three allegorical women, Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, who engage in a dialogue with her about why women are slandered and how to show that women do not deserve this reputation.

There are two aspects of Christine’s treatise that I want to examine: the basis for her defense of women, and the attacks she identifies against them. The former – her defense – was no doubt revolutionary at the time. Rosalind Brown-Grant, who wrote the introduction to the edition I read, asks us to remember that Christine was responding to attacks that were based in Aristotelian philosophy and Christian scripture. Therefore, she examines the contradictions in these sources and uses them to help her respond. Her extensive use of references to mythology wouldn’t pass peer-review nowadays, but what she was doing was using the very weapons of women’s attackers against them. According to Brown-Grant:

“At the heart of Christine’s defense of women…was her profound conviction that it is a human – and not a specifically female – trait to be prone to sin. However, she also believed that if men and women are alike as sinners, they are equally capable of adopting rational forms of behaviour and of making informed choices.”

However, few of the arguments she makes in regards to women’s virtue or natural roles would be palatable to feminists today. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Books, Feminism 1 Comment

Feminist Classics Book Club: A Room of One’s Own

May’s read at Feminist Classics Book Club is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’d read it before in University but for some reason didn’t remember liking it. Luckily I really enjoyed and appreciated it this time around.

Nymeth, the host of this month’s discussion at FCBC does a good job summarizing the book:

“Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929, and it was based on two lectures delivered and Newham and Girton Colleges in 1928. The central premise of the essay is that “every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year” – without economic independence and the freedom that derives from it, women’s achievements in the arts and letters will always lag behind.”

Even though A Room of One’s Own is based on lectures, Woolf chose to deliver her message through a fictional narrator and used an impersonal tone in order to avoid the impression she “had an axe to grind”. Nevertheless, I found myself really drawn into the narrative, which moves with Woolf’s characteristic flowing, compound sentences.

Woolf takes us from the women’s college at Oxbridge, where the academics are served inferior meals and possess inferior resources for study than their male counterparts, to the childhood home of Shakespeare and his fictional sister Judith, to the shelves of the library where books about women authored by men predominate. The writing doesn’t feel like a lecture and throughout all we get the message that there is a gaping hole where women’s writing should be, and that this cannot be filled until women gain economic independence through advances in social equality.

The part that I found most interesting and which I’d somehow overlooked on my first go-round was Woolf’s defense of the depiction of lesbian “friendship” in books:

“Chloe liked Olivia…” Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in teh privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change there was. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature…For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.

One of the key pillars in Woolf’s argument is to contend that women’s creativity is inherently different than men’s, and therefore needs to be promoted in order to advance the richness in our culture. But while that argument  might appear overly essentialist on the face of it, what Woolf is saying is more that women should not be forced into a masculine ideal in order to succeed: “It would be a thousand pitites if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”

In the end, this section is my big take-away:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were present; and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imaginatino the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from teh violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.

All that you will have to explore, I said to Mary Carmichael, holding your torch firm in your hand. Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’s bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo-marble.”

-Jarrah

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Feminist Book Club: Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft

This post is part of A Year of Feminist Classics book club. Visit their site to join the book club!

Confession: I’d already read most of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, starting in Grade 12 for an English project, and continuing in first year Women’s Studies at University. I found it really boring at the time so I didn’t re-read the whole thing. I did read the introductions to my edition, which I’d skipped a few years ago. Then I listened to the first six chapters in audio-book form. I have to admit that the more time passes since college the less I want to read books that feel like a bit of a chore, which this one does to me, purely because of Wollestonecraft’s overly descriptive style. So take my contributions to the discussion with a grain of salt.

I’m going to go through the discussion questions laid out by Amy on the book club website:

Were you as surprised as I was that the reaction was initially favorable to this work? And surprised at how devastating the repercussions of the memoir were? This question refers to the post-mortem publication of Wollstonecraft’s memoirs by her husband, which revealed intimate details of her life, including illegitimate children and suicide attempts. Apparently the initial response to her book was quite favourable until after her death.

The only reason finding out about the positive initial reaction surprised me was because she spent so much of the book nitpicking various writers, doctors, and philosophers. I have to say I skimmed a lot of this, as I was more interested in the overarching themes like the importance of women’s education, how women’s education fits into their role as mothers, the importance of education and free debate for a responsible society and government, and God’s intentions for women.

One part I found interesting because it evaded my notice on the first read was Wollstonecraft’s insistence that lack of education makes women flirty and coquettish, obsessed with beauty and thus not the ideal wives for smart husbands, or responsible mothers for future leaders of the nation. Today we see some of the same arguments, but without the concept of woman’s role being as a wife and mother. I’m thinking about books like Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and other feminist treatises that look at how women dumbing themselves down and sexing themselves up makes them complicit in their own oppression. I have some issues with this argument, but it was interesting for me to see how it maybe had some roots dating back to Wollstonecraft. 

Do you think reputation and life still matters as much for women in terms of their intellectual achievements? Would women’s works today be dismissed after details of their personal lives came out?

Amy’s reply to this question was a yes, and I’d probably agree. The first case that came to mind was the run for Congress of the awesome but unfortunately-named Krystal Ball, who was trashed after racy pictures of her at a Christmas party were posted on Facebook. Now, she probably wouldn’t have won the election, but a lot of feminist bloggers made pretty convincing arguments for why her indiscretions were given so much more attention than male candidates’. Another great example of the scrutiny on women’s personal lives affecting how their intellectual achievements are perceived would be the whole “is Elena Kagan a lesbian?” kerfuffle. The controversy around Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife Virginia’s political dealings barely compared to the media furor that surrounded the picture of Elena Kagan (gasp!) playing baseball.

But these are both political examples. I’d be interested to know if anyone has any examples of academics, writers, or other intellectuals that may have been unfairly subjected to scrutiny about their personal lives because of their gender.

-Jarrah

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 1 Comment

Feminist Classics Book Club

Late last year, bloggers Ana, Amy, Emily Jane, and Iris set up a cool online feminist classics book club for 2011. It’s a really great idea, but I wasn’t sure I had time for more reading on top of the books already on my list. Butseeing that I already owned but hadn’t read some of the choices, and that participants don’t have to read/respond every month won me over.

Each month starts with some historical context from that month’s host, then later in the month we get discussion questions, which we can respond to on our own blogs or on the comments on the main page. It’s been amazing to start to see what others have to say so far. There’s still time to join and the reading list is below for those interested. I’ll post in the next few days about my trials and tribulations plodding through the first book: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, as well as look at answering some of the suggested discussion questions.

January: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft AND So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
FebruaryThe Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill
March: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
April: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
May: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
June: God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi
July: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
August: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
September: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
October: Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks AND Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology
NovemberGender Trouble by Judith Butler
December: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde


-Jarrah

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 6 Comments