Over the last year and a bit I’ve been reading a lot of books about feminism. Partly as research for a thing I’m writing but mostly just because I’m interested. (This is also why I’m writing about it!)
Here is a short round-up of my feminist reading list.
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto seems to me to be the grandmother of all feminist texts, the one that started the second wave of feminism. First published in 1970, it attempts to cover all aspects of being a woman under the headings Body, Soul and Love. This edition was published in 2006 and includes a new foreword by Greer about what the world is like for women at the beginning of the 21st century.
I didn’t find the book as informative or as an inspiring as I’d hoped. The second wave of feminism is a movement that I’m very familiar with which meant it felt more dated than revolutionary. It’s very much one-woman’s view of the world and how women should think and behave, it’s a bit too academic and a bit too bossy for my tastes.
The added extras at the back include a essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel called The New C-Word, which I did find interesting. It condemns the notion that feminism is all about choice; that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist action. She writes “To say anything goes, feminism is whatever you believe it is, not only renders the movement meaningless but also amounts to a demand for rights without responsibility…We don’t have to respect everyone’s choices and we do have to say to certain women that they are behaving like idiots, that their choices are not good enough for a feminist world.”
The Guardian recently listed The Female Eunuch as one of it’s 100 best nonfiction books, they obviously liked it more than I did!
The Feminine Mystic, Betty Friedan
The Feminine Mystic was first published in the 1963 but to me, it felt more relevant and contemporary than The Female Eunuch. I liked the fact that there was so much research behind it. Fifteen years after they graduated, Friedan sent an intensive questionnaire to her college classmates. She got responses from 200 women. She also interviewed 80 women and analysed popular media, namely women’s magazines. She looked at how women are described in these magazines, in articles and in fiction, and what that says about how women are perceived by society. Similar studies done today look at female roles in tv and film, such as the fascinating Largest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue by Gender.
Frieden coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” for the yearning and dissatisfaction that American housewives felt in the 1950s and 1960s. This problem often manifested itself in physical as well as psychological symptoms. These women got married in their early twenties and were constantly told, particularly by advertisers, that being a wife and mother was the most worthwhile thing they could possibly aspire to. Friedan’s descriptions of how home-making was marketed to women in the 1950s reminded me of the early Noughties when domesticity was very much back in fashion. Women were sold an idealised cupcakes-and-crafts version of femininity and the Domestic Goddess was (re)born. The battle for equality seems to be circular. American women found a place outside the home during WW II but afterwards they were aggressively encouraged to go back to being a housewife. The cult of domestic goddess was a reaction to the 80s Career Women and the Ladette of the 90s. Even in the early Irish State, after women played key roles in the trade union movement, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, once freedom was achieved De Valera’s government sent them swiftly back into the home, literally writing it into Article 41.2 of the constitution. A lot of work has gone into keeping women in the home over the years.
Girls Will Be Girls, Emer O’Toole
At last, a book that’s about my own country written during the present century! After reading books about feminism in different countries and different times in the past, it was wonderful to read about an Irish woman’s experience, particularly someone around the same age as me, who has had similar experiences. This really is unusual and revelatory. Women are uniquely skilled at putting them into the place of the person they are reading about – even if they are very different. We’re good at it because books are mostly written about people who aren’t like us. It’s a much more satisfying experience to see your own experiences reflected back at you through someone else’s eyes. For any Irish woman, this book is work reading for that alone.
There are lots of other great reasons to read this book. It’s written in a more populist way than the more academic texts on this list. In a way it’s a beginners guide because it charts someone coming out as a feminist and realising the need for feminism, which the other books don’t really do.
It’s also very very funny. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the two previous books but O’Toole will have you snorting with laughter and at the most inappropriate things. For a little taster, read her piece about not shaving. But between the laughs there’s also some excellent information, such as also this mind-blowing bit of info about the clitoris.
“Shockingly, the clitoris remains either misrepresented or omitted in much contemporary medical literature, including many of the anatomy textbooks used to train doctors. In spite of the pioneering work of the urologist Helen O’Connell in the nineties and early noughties, the first 3D model of the clitoris wasn’t made until 2009. So, to put that in some kind of perspective: modern science authoritatively mapped and made models of the human genome before it adequately described or modelled the clitoris.”
It angers me that science and medicine plays so little attention to the female body. To the extent that car test-dummies are always male so they only examine what happens to the male body in a collision (and extrapolate that the same would happen to a woman. It wouldn’t. Our bodies are different.). I think it is shameful that women’s bodies are treated like this. Doctors still don’t really know what causes endometriosis even though 1 in 10 women suffer from it and there is still a lot unknown about the menopause, which all women will go through.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This is not really a book about feminism. It’s a book of personal essays with a provocative title but it certainly delivers on that title. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay on The New C-Word was about calling out women who’s “choices are not good enough for a feminist world”. Gay’s book gives you permission to be that person. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes bad choices now and again.
Roxane Gay is a great writer and here she writes persuasively and engagingly about a host of different topics including gender, race, rape culture, women in popular culture and competitive scrabble tournaments. I found her writing about race and popular culture particularly enlightening. This book should be required reading for Gerry Adams and his ilk. It’s book that made me see the world differently, and while Gay writes critically about popular culture, she is also very enthusiastic about the things she loves. I find her very likeable from her writing. She’s also good fun on twitter. It is one woman’s view of the world, but instead of attempting to say that this is the way it should be for all women, these are personal essays that only aim to show one person’s experience of the world. It’s a more inclusive way of writing.
That’s some of the books I’ve been reading in the last year. Some upcoming feminist books that I am looking forward to include Lindy West’s Shrill and Laura Bates’ Girl Up. Both women are in Dublin this month to talk about their books and I’m looking forward to seeing them live as well. I’m always interested in recommendations of good nerdy, feminist books so if you have suggestions, please let me know!