Not Oprah’s Book Club: Reading Women

Reading Stephanie Staal’s new hybrid memoir-literary critique, Reading Women, felt like having an intimate conversation with a good friend. The gist of the book is this: Staal returns to her Barnard College Feminist Texts classes ten years after graduating to see how the meaning of the book morphs after marriage, baby, and all the usual disillusion and complication that comes with being an adult in the real world.

First things first, Staal can write like it’s nobody’s business. Take lines like these, reflections on badly behaved women after reading the diary of an aristocratic rebel in North Africa at the end of the second century A.D. diary: “The feminist story, she reminded me, is a counternarrative, a narrative of disobedience, a chronicle of battle, not of surrender. Women who do not fit the mold are too often maneuvered, manipulated, and manged into some culturally safe archetype.”

I found myself frequently stunned at Staal’s beautiful, rhythmic language, her capacity to use totally original words to describe something I have read about a thousand times. I also felt like she organically stumbled on all sorts of conversations I’ve been having lately in far-reaching contexts. On anger and its presence or lack thereof in the contemporary feminist movement: “Anger, after all, leads to action, while ambiguity tends to lead only to confusion.” On exhaustion and overwork among my peers and older friends: “Today women suffer less from Friedan’s mystique than from another kind of problem–a problem that has too many names…Something has got to give.”

What was missing, for me, was a genuine investigation into topics outside of Staal’s comfort zone. She’s Ivy League educated, economically stable, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied–you name it, she’s “normative” on it. This presented a problem, as the analysis largely grew out of her own life, her own struggles. What emerges is a very woman-centered version of feminist texts. Though Judith Butler was mentioned, for example, she gets short shrift as too academic, too radical, to be fit into the narrative of “regular” life. We all have the limits of our own experiences, but I wish Staal had sometimes taken her own advice: “Feminism gives us room to tell the unexpected story, and this, perhaps, is its greatest gift.”

Stall’s greatest gift is her rare way with words and her powerful introspection about her own life, and the ways in which “her personal” is, indeed, political. This book will speak to so many women wondering what Simone de Beauvior and Betty Friedan might say were it possible to have them over for homemade dinner and some real talk.

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