Boning up on pop feminism


I spent almost three years of my life researching gender quotas, and there were times I thought I’d never want to see the word feminism again. But over the past few months I’ve been rehabilitated, and I’m back to reading again with a bang.

As part of my (over-enthusiastic) purchasing for International Women’s Day, I bought myself a picture of Constance Marcievicz from the excellent Jam Art Factory, and this lot:

Luckily enough, the latest tome from Caitlin Moran landed on my desk the same day, so there is a veritable treasure trove of witty women awaiting me.

I got stuck into Emer O’Toole‘s Girls will be Girls yesterday on a train journey and I’m thoroughly enjoying it, not least because her childhood and mine were fairly similar (same cartoons for one thing, although I object to her saying the Turtles had no female protagonists – clearly I’ve tried hard to emulate April O’Neil, in my career if not sartorial choices).

I don't remember her boobs being that big...
I don’t remember her boobs being that big…

A bit of a chat ensued on Twitter with people exchanging their feminist reading favourites. I’m not a huge reader of non-fiction, but even in fiction there are plenty of feminist authors whose storytelling will open your eyes to inequality. Here’s a list (in no particular order) of the women writers who have changed the way I look at things. I’m not an expert – this is entirely based on my own scattergun approach and lack of theoretical background. So I know I’m going to be missing people… and that’s where you come in!

  1. Jane Austen. I’m not sure you can call her an actual feminist, but her depiction of the desperation of Mrs Bennett in the face of her daughters’ penury, purely because of their sex, showed me how far we’ve come.
  2. Louisa May Alcott. A household run by women in the absence of their pacifist father, a second daughter who railed against convention, marriage and the expectations on women? Little Women (and, by the way, the numerous sequels most people haven’t heard of – I was lucky to have a good librarian as a kid) is, for its time, an exceptionally feminist work. Jo March basically got away with all sorts, she saved her family from the breadline by cutting her hair and eschewing notions of female beauty, and all while being great craic. I always wanted to be Jo but with the tenacity and courage of, erm, Amy, that was never really going to happen. I think Jo was my first feminist icon, to be honest.
  3. Germaine Greer. I only recently read The Female Eunuch, and I’m sorry I didn’t read it a lot earlier, because so much modern feminism is derivative of Germaine. Much of what she’s written is seen as a bit passe now (given her recent pronouncements on things like transgender people and the attractiveness of boys, even more so), but it’s important to read her because she had such a huge effect on feminism generally.
  4. Caitlin Moran. How to Be a Woman changed the way I look at the world. While my adolescence was frankly incredibly boring in comparison to hers, her impassioned arguments for equality are both convincing and relatable. Her description of her abortion was a real challenge for me but it eventually changed the way I think about choice. (I know not everybody agrees with Moran’s style by the way – a commenter on my facebook had a very good link to a blogpost which I now can’t find, all about how Moran’s feminism is overly simplistic, very Western-centric and also how she is quick to diss women she doesn’t agree with or finds silly. That’s true. But it’s more accessible than much of the very angry, divisive discussion online, for instance. Think of her as a gateway drug).
  5. Marilyn French. When I was about 23 I read French’s novel The Women’s Room, about being a woman in stultifying suburbia in the US. It charts social change and finally explained to me why gin and Valium were known as mother’s little helper. It’s an essential read if you are inclined to buy into the argument that things were easier for women when they didn’t have to worry about work, paying bills, etc.
  6. Joyce Carol Oates. A novella called Rape: A Love Story, sits prominently, shocking visitors to my house, on a bookshelf in the sitting room. Well worth reading. Terrifying.
  7. Louise O’Neill. In the same vein, Asking For It, O’Neill’s second book, is a terrifying but all too realistic depiction of the aftermath of a rape. Inspired by the Steubenville case but set in rural Ireland, it’s shocking but viscerally real.
  8. Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale is basically an advance history of what will happen, eventually, if Donald Trump gets elected. She wrote it long before he appeared, but there are so many parallels with Atwood’s world and the bizarre world of the Tea Party that the programme of sex slaves, breeding off women and entirely male-dominated world she descibes is… well… possible. And if you don’t think so, watch ISIS do it now in an entirely different part of the world. Extremism is bad for everyone, but always, always, worse for women.
  9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. White Western feminism is often worlds away from the struggles faced by women in other countries and – sometimes in our own countries – other cultures. Adichie’s novels are in general worth reading but her We Should All Be Feminists is important for a wider understanding of what feminism is and can be. You can watch it here if you don’t want to read it:
  10. Sheryl Sandberg. I mentioned how white Western feminism is worlds away, didn’t I? Well, Sandberg in many ways inhabits another planet of privilege, but that’s precisely why I think Lean In is important and instructive. It proves that even at the very top of your game there are still challenges and struggles inherent in being a woman in the world, because of our social structures and basic assumptions about life and gender roles.  While I do have quite a few problems with the assumptions she make (it’s not very easy to lean in when you don’t have any of the advantages she has, and to put it very mildly she completely ignores structural inequality), there’s still something in it.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – it came off the top of my head, in response to a Twitter conversation after I tweeted my IWD haul. I want your recommendations please! 

 

 

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