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!

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