Review: ‘Reading Women’ by Stephanie Staal

by Kim on February 23, 2011 · 14 comments

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Title: Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life
Author: Stephanie Staal
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2011
Acquired: Won in an online giveaway.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: Can the great books of feminism help one working mother reconcile her idealized outlook on life from college to the experiences she has today?

One Sentence Review: Although I felt like I was not quite the right age group for Reading Women, I loved the analysis of feminists texts and want to go read even more of them.

Long Review:

If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience. To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit.

When a book starts out with a statement like that one, I know it’s going to be a book that resonates with me. For Stephanie Staal, author of Reading Women, rereading the classic books of feminism creates a pathway for her as she struggles to reconcile her roles as wife, mother, and individual.

Staal originally read many of these books when she was a 19-year-old college student at Barnard College, a women’s college in New York City, taking Feminism 101. Fem Texts is a year-long course where students explore many of the major works of the feminist movement, from the first-wave feminists like Mary Wollenscraft to the second- and third-wave feminists of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and today. Struggling through the day-to-day obligations of being a wife and mother, Staal feels the limitless potential of her college self slipping away and decides to re-enroll in Fem Texts to see what the books can teach her now. Reading Women is a memoir and literary analysis of what the books have meant and continue to mean to women of today.

I think what I most appreciated about this book was how honest Staal was when approaching the idea of early feminists that women should “have it all” — a great career, motherhood, and total fulfillment. That promise — one that Staal herself counted on — is not always the case, and Reading Women does a good job of exploring the different ways that promise is kept and not kept for the women of today. I think that’s an important message.

But I also got the feeling about midway through Reading Women that I was in between the perfect ages for this book, and so while I enjoyed the analysis of great feminists texts and many of Staal’s anecdotes about them, I felt disconnected from the types of insights she was having. For each book Staal reads and discusses, she explores both her reaction to it as an idealistic college feminist and her reaction to it in the present as she tries to reconcile the different roles she is being asked to fill.

I’m not an idealistic college student anymore, nor am I married with a kid and trying to reconcile an identity I once had with what my life is now. I’m in some sort of middle phase between these two places, and so felt like Reading Women was just a couple steps ahead or behind me the entire way though. There are anecdotes about Staal’s life in this middle space, but they’re not the focus of the book. I suspect this disconnect makes this a book that I’m going to reread myself when I get to a time when my issues match Staal’s more closely.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s Staal’s point anyway — books mean things to use at different periods, they impact us a lot or not at all or in different ways depending on what we bring to them ourselves:

Since this is, at its heart, a book about rereading, my greatest hope is that others will be inspired to read — or reread — some or all of the books that have been mentioned on these pages and any I may have left out.

I’m not familiar with many of the books Staal focused on in this reading, but the book made me want to pick up so many of them — The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and A Room of One’s Own by Virgina Woolf, just to name a few — and give them a try to see what they might be able to teach me now.

Other Reviews: Regular Rumination | Reading Thru The Night | Iris on Books | things mean a lot | Amy Reads |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kailana February 23, 2011 at 7:14 am

I am curious about this book. Hopefully I will be able to get a copy at some point. Great review!

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Kim February 23, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Kailana: I hope you are able to read it. Despite the age issue, I really enjoyed reading it.

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Lu February 23, 2011 at 7:14 am

I understand what you mean about not being quite the same age as Staal. I’m in the same place, but I’ve wondered these same things about the future, so it was nice to see someone asking those questions that I’m sure I’ll have to think about. I’ve been thinking lately about the lack of books about young women in their early 20s, just out of college. I’m not sure if it is a lack of books because I’m not reading them or because they just don’t exist. I am having a hard time finding a book to read that is about a girl like me, out of college (even though I’m technically in graduate school, I’m only there once a week, so it doesn’t actually feel like I’m still in school). I’m not really working at any kind of job you could consider a career. I’m trying to navigate relationships with boyfriend and friends. And it’s all really hard! Most of the people I know are at a loss of what to do right now. There aren’t many jobs and the people I know who do have jobs are working insane hours just to keep their jobs. Where are the novels about this… that aren’t chick lit or romance? I don’t want to pigeonhole any book that someone suggests to me, but it seems like the majority of books that deal at all with this age group are chick lits and romance. So,basically, that long rant boils down to: if you know of any, let me know! ;)

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Kim February 23, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Lu: that’s definitely a sense I read the book with — anticipating these sorts of questions, and looking at Staal as an example of how one might wrestle with them.

I think you’re right about it being hard to find books about people our age that aren’t chick lit. I’ve read some nonfiction on the age group in the last year or so, but no fiction that I can think of that deals with that topic. And most of the nonfiction just dealt with in a sort of abstract way. I do have a book called Emerging Adulthood by Jeffrey Arnett that I’m looking forward to.

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Ash February 23, 2011 at 9:02 am

I think the universe is asking me to read this. Everyone seems to enjoy it so much and it sounds like something I would love.

And I don’t think anyone can really “have it all.” You have to decide what is important to you– and I think the ability to make that decision is what is important.

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Kim February 23, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Ash: I think you would! Staal has a nice writing style, and if you’re at all curious about the big books of feminism, this book is like an idiosyncratic crash course in thinking about them. It made me want to read more.

And I agree with you on “have it all,” although I think it’s still a mindset people, particularly women, have — balancing home and work and whatnot, when maybe it’s not possible to be the best at all of those things.

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Cass February 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

I bought this the other day (clearly we just like to read the same books ;)) and skimming through the intro put me off a bit because of the wife/mother thing. Also the weird part Emily Jane mentioned about Staal’s response to Judith Butler. Everyone’s review of this book is making me want to read it soooon, library books be damned.

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Kim February 23, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Cass: Yes, that must be it :) I think the tone of the book changes after the first chapter — the intro really is set up to the dilemma, but the rest doesn’t focus on that aspect of it so much. One review I read — can’t remember which one — mentioned something about the intro being different.

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Jennifer March 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Part of me wants to read this book just so that I can get the reading list and start reading more feminist works. It has been a project of mine to read more feminist pieces. However, I don’t always feel inspired enough to dig into some of it. Still, this book is definitely on my TBR list and I can’t wait til I can get my hands on a copy of it and read it. I’m not sure if I can still consider myself an idealistic college student – I am graduating this year, but I feel like the idealistic part of me has already died a little. Still, I think that this book will be an interesting read even if I can’t necessarily relate to the two points in her life that she discusses in the book.

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Kim March 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Jennifer: The reading list for the book is amazing. I can’t wait to pull some more books from it. I’m not sure if “idealistic” was quite the right word for Staal as a college student. Maybe just that she had the sense it’s possible to do everything, compared to the reality that isn’t always true.

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Amy March 8, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Great review. I, too, felt that I wasn’t really the ideal target audience for the book but still got a lot out of it. I really liked too the discussion about the promise that we get that really isn’t kept up.

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Kim March 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Amy: The idea of “having everything” promise was one of my favorite parts of the book, since I think it’s something that impacts every woman, regardless of age.

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