Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life
by Stephanie Staal

Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2011. ISBN 978-1-586-48872-7.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 06/15/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Reading Women, by Stephanie Staal, is a remarkable and worthwhile book for women who have come through the ranks at home, work, and in their social life wondering what the upheavals of the last 150 years have been about. The book is a discussion of feminist literature, including such notable works and authors as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism by Katie Roiphe, and Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. Staal explores these books and others as a framework to her own life, and a way of defining herself and her feminism.

Staal provides an excellent reading list at the end of the book which encompasses all the texts she refers to in her book, as well as lists of feminist texts and selected essays, and a Discussion Group Guide. These additions make this a book that belongs on every woman's bookshelf as a provocative handbook of feminism: where we've been and where we are going.

But this book is also one woman's search for her own path within the parameters of feminism, motherhood, and marriage. Staal's struggle, both inside and outside of what society considers the norm for stay-at-home-moms, is a constant in her life. And even moms who work from home (Staal is an at-home writer), want to feel connected and valued without having to protest decisions made about them based purely on their female sex, or roles as defined by society of what marriage and motherhood should be.

Staal examines her own roots in feminism, focusing on women's studies to try to get a handle on what it means to be female today. Is being empowered as a woman more about the right to be a sexual being and less about rights in the job jungle? Do the daughters and granddaughters of previous feminists take for granted the accomplishments and achievements of previous generations?

Staal's book is divided into four parts, each viewing and discussing remarkable, timeless feminist literature, within the context of her own modern life. Part I, Discovery, begins her "Revisiting" of feminism for herself. Part II, Destiny, takes a look at motherhood and marriage within the context of feminist thought. Part III, Divisions, discusses her own struggles and those of other women of her age who are trying to create viable lives for themselves. The last part, Part IV, is titled Desire. and here she discusses the sexual revolution and how it has shaped feminist literature.

Staal deals with the controversial and less pleasant as well, discussing porn and objectification (Part III) as strange out-croppings in feminist thought. In the 60s and 70s we came to understand that porn "creates a climate in which sexual violence can occur." For some, the earlier years (1850-1960) seemed to have been "more uncomplicated in their goals—education, suffrage, economic equality..." Now the abstract, sometimes ambiguous viewpoints of feminism leave behind confusion and ire. Staal reaches into her reading to find answers...and of course, more questions.

The struggle goes on for most of us. Women are relationship-focused, for the most part, while men seem to be more hierarchy-focused (according to some of Staal's reading.) One sometimes feels a pragmatic sense that the present is too fixated on differences and contentious "banter" which appears to keep women in stasis. Staal's own generation seems to want to acknowledge the male/female differences, while examining the politics of these changes and what they mean in their lives.

The bottom line? As women redefine themselves personally and strive to come to terms with how to express themselves and be themselves, men continue to understand and express themselves better within the matrix of changing politics and mores. As Staal concludes, for herself, "[The] girl I once was and the woman I am today, I see now, are simply points on the same line; she is me and I am her..." Through her reading, she grew to see that she had turned to those very books at very specific times in her life in an effort to deal with her own frustration, confusion and guilt. This book makes it possible for other women to explore that territory and is well worth reading again and again.

Stephanie Staal started in the film and publishing industries as a literary scout before turning to writing as a career. After working as a features reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, she wrote The Love They Lost: Living with the Legacy of Our Parents' Divorce (Delacorte, 2000), a journalistic memoir about the long-term effects of parental divorce on her generation. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she recently received her J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, where she was the recipient of a Prince scholarship, and has held legal internships at the Center for Reproductive Rights, Equality Now, and the law school's asylum clinic, Safe Harbor Project. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her website.

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