A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Further Feminist Readings?

Are you interested in hosting a book (or multiple books!) on this site? We’re looking for hosts to help us continue this site, and the discussions that it generates. We’re also interested in ideas to help the discussions grow.

Please email us at feministclassics@gmail.com with your information and the titles you are interested in!

Feminism Without Borders: Chapter 1 Discussion

Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Apologies for disappearing! My offline life got quite busy and my health declined a bit, and somehow the days have just flown by. Also apologies for not yet replying to the discussion questions from last time; I’ll try to do so later today or tomorrow. I hope that everyone’s had time to read the book if they’re going to; if you haven’t read it, don’t worry: I’ll keep the discussion broad enough to include you too! I’ll likely combine some of the chapters together in discussion posts, but since chapter one goes straight to the heart of the book’s intent, I thought it needed its own post.

Chapter one is entitled “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” It’s quite dense and academic, but I think it comes down to Mohanty resisting the urge of Western scholars (both feminist and not) to put Third World women in a box, defining them by one or two categories. Once the scholars have simplified innumerable complexities into the ‘Third World women’ box, they then make broad descriptive generalisations as if they capture their lives at all and broad policy suggestions that are at all useful. But since their scholarly foundations are flawed, anything they build on top is subject to the same structural problems, rendering much of the scholarship essentially useless, particularly for those who wish to enact feminist change. As Mohanty says:

Huston assumes that all Third World women have similar problems and needs. Thus, they must have similar interests and goals. However, the interests of urban, middle-class, educated Egyptian housewives, to take only one instance, could surely not be seen as being the same as those fo their uneducated, poor maids. Development policies do not affect both groups of women in the same way. Practices that characterize women’s status and roles vary according to class. Women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion, and other ideological institutions and frameworks. They are not “women”-a coherent group-solely on the basis of a particular economic system or policy. Such reductive cross-cultural comparisons result in the colonization of the specifics of daily existence and the complexities of political interests that women of different social classes and cultures represent and mobilize. (30)

And again:

It is not possible, however, to talk about Bemba women as a homogenous group within the traditional marriage structure. Bemba women before the initiation are constituted within a different set of social relations compared to Bemba women after the initiation. To treat them as a unified group characterized by the fact of their “exchange” between male kin is to deny the sociohistorical and cultural specificities of their existence and the differential value attached to their exchange before and after their initiation. It is to treat the initiation ceremony as a ritual with no political implications or effects. (27)

And one more:

…Third World women as a group or category are automatically and necessarily defined as religious (read: not progressive), family-oriented (read: traditional), legally unsophisticated (read: they are still not conscious fo their rights), illiterate (read:ignorant), domestic (read: backward), and sometimes revolutionary (read: their country is in a state of war; they must fight!). That his how the “Third World difference” is produced.

Another problem Mohanty brings up is that Western scholarship defines/presents Third World women as essentially passive. They are portrayed as victims of patriarchy, solely objects acted upon instead of ever subjects doing the acting. And it is precisely this victimhood that, in the eyes of these scholars, unites them.

Thus, for instance, in any given piece of feminist analysis, women are characterized as a singular group on the basis of shared oppression. What binds women together is a sociological notion of the “sameness” of their oppression. …This results in an assumption of women as an always already constituted group, one that has been labelled powerless, exploited, sexually harassed, and so on, by feminist scientific, economic, legal, and sociological discourses. (Notice that this is quite similar to sexist discourse labeling women as weak, emotional, having math anxiety, etc.) This focus is not on uncovering the material and ideological specificities that constitute a particular group of women as “powerless” in a particular context. It is, rather, on finding a variety of cases of powerless groups of women to prove the general point that women as a group are powerless. (22-23)

I find that last bit especially intriguing; do feminists fall into a logical fallacy that easily?

Mohanty does not fault all Western feminist scholars. In fact, she includes a few examples of scholars who get it right. How do they do so? First, the pay attention to the specific social circumstances of the women they’re studying (their class, culture, etc.). Secondly, they emphasise the context of their case studies. Mohanty describes the importance of context with an excellent example that requires me to type a fairly long passage, but I think it’s worth it.

…the problem is not in asserting that the practice of wearing a veil is widespread. This assertion can be made on a basis of numbers. It is a descriptive generalization. However, it is the analystic leap from the practice of veiling to an assertion of its general significance in controlling women that must be question. While there may be a physical similarity in the veils worn by women of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the specific meaning attached to this practice varies according to the cultural and ideological context. …For example, as is well known, Iranian middle-class women veiled themselves during the 1979 revolution to indicate solidarity with their veiled, working-class sisters, while in contemporary Iran, mandatory Islamic laws dictate that all Iranian women wear veils. While in both ese instances, similar reasoning might be offered for the veil (opposition to the Shah and Western cultural colonization in the first case and the true Islamization of Iran in the second) the concrete meanings attached to Iranian women wearing the veil are clearly different in both historical contexts. In the first case, wearing the veil is both an oppositional and revolutionary gesture on the part of Iranian middle-class women; in the second case, it is a coercive, institutional mandate. It is on the basis of such context specific differentiated analysis that effective political strategies can be generated. To assume that mere practice of veiling women in a number of Muslim countries indicates the universal oppression of women through sexual segregation not only is analytically reductive but also proves quite useless when it comes to the elaboration of oppositional political strategy.

While this chapter is focused on academic texts, I could see the same problems in books produced for general reading as well. So often, books featuring ‘Third World’ characters are written by Western authors, and they tend to be portrayed in stereotypical ways. In fact, I was reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Jumping Monkey Hill.” You can read it for free here. It’s about a writing retreat in South Africa conducted for ‘African writers,’ in which the black Nigerian woman writer is told by the white, English, male retreat leader that her black sub-saharan African woman character is unrealistic. It’s quite powerful, very relevant to this discussion, and I’d love it if you go read it (if you haven’t already!).

Now that I’ve laid out the chapter’s primary issues, let’s discuss them! Do you agree/disagree with Mohanty’s description of how Third World women are portrayed and the ramifications? Do you think she went too far in emphasising context-specific scholarship? Is there room for any generalisations/broader lessons in Mohanty’s vision of a culturally aware academia?

More broadly, and for those who didn’t read the book, do you see signs of what Mohanty describes in your own reading? Any examples you can think of, nonfiction or fiction, written by Western authors that portrayed Third World women as a stereotypical monolith? Has it made you rethink your book selections at all? If so, has it been easy or challenging to find books written by and about Third World women?

These are just jumping off points; if you have other questions/thoughts, definitely share them. Next time, we’ll be skipping to the last chapter in the book, entitled “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited,” in which Mohanty returns to these issues and elaborates further on what she meant. She especially goes into more detail re: context v generalisations. Talk to you soon!

Feminism Without Borders: Pre-Reading Discussion

Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty

I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten my copy of Feminism Without Borders and have read the introduction and first two chapters. I can tell this is going to be a challenge, since as the subtitle Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity hints, Mohanty tackles a lot of theory. While I’m enjoying the theoretical analysis, I think it’s important for a group that like that we tie it back to our lives and experiences (I expect from the second part of the subtitle that Mohanty will be doing the same later in the book).

With that in mind, a few things struck me in the introduction as good pre-reading discussion questions (so even those who can’t read the book can still participate). To encourage an equal platform, I’ll be sharing the questions here but my own answers as a comment. Here we go!

Borders suggest both containment and safety, and women often pay a price for daring to claim the integrity, security, and safety of our bodies and our living spaces.

What are your thoughts on this? Agree/disagree? Have any anecdotes to share?

Feminism without borders is not the same as “border-less” feminism. It acknowledges the fault lines, conflicts, differences, fears, and containment that borders represent. It acknowledges that there is no one se of a border, that the lines between and through nations, races, classes, sexualities, religions, and disabilities are real…
In my own life, borders have come in many guises, and I live with them inside as well as across racialized women’s communities. I grew up in Mumbai (Bombay), where the visible demarcations between Indian and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor, British and Indian, women and men, Dalit and Brahmin were a fact of everyday life. This was the same Mumbai where I learned multiple languages and negotiated multiple cultures in the company of friends and neighbors, a Mumbai where I went to church services-not just Hindu temples-and where I learned the religious practices of Muslims and Parsees. In the last two decades, my life in the United States has exposed some new fault-lines; those of race and sexuality in particular. Urban, Illinois, Clinton, New York, and Ithaca, New York, have been my home places in the United States, and in all three sites I have learned to read and live in relation to the racial, class, sexual, and national scripts embedded in North American cultures. The presence of borders in my life has been both exclusionary and enabling, and I strive to envision a critically translation (internationalist) feminist praxis moving through these borders.

Using Mohanty as an example, define your own geography, especially the borders you’ve observed, crossed, or been bound by.

Finally, I’d love to hear about your “feminist vision.” If you could snap your fingers and remake the world as a feminist utopia, what would it look like? Mohanty describes hers, but you might want to write your own before reading the below quote.

Here is a bare-bones description of my own feminist vision: this is a vision of the world that is pro-sex and -woman, a world where women and men are free to live creative lives, in security and with bodily health and integrity, where they are free to choose whom they love, and whom they set up house with, and whether they want to have or not have children; a world where pleasure rather than just duty and drudgery determine our choices, where free and imaginative exploration of the mind is a fundamental right; a vision in which economic stability, ecological sustainability, racial equality, and the redistribution of wealth from the material basis of people’s well-being. Finally, my vision is one in which democratic and socialist practices provide the conditions for public participation and decision-making for people regardless of economic and social location.

The prompts I’ve provided are just a springboard: if you respond to the excerpts I’ve shared in another way, definitely share that instead! Let’s get talking.

Feminism Without Borders: Time to Start Reading!

Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty
This month, we’ll be reading and discussing Feminism Without Borders by Chandra Talpade Mohanty. I (Eva) am thrilled to be reading a book that combines feminism and women’s studies with international issues such as colonialism, world trade, ecology, and the global North/South divide. I’m also curious to see the perspective of an Indian-born scholar (she teaches in the USA), since so much of the discourse about world events is dominated by Western/Northern-born thinkers.

This is a simple reminder post to get your copy of the book and/or start reading! I know we’re coming off the holidays, so I’ll save the meatier discussion for another week or two. Until then, happy reading!

Introduction to Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and sociologist who is renowned for her work on women’s rights within Islam. Beyond the Veil is the result of her doctoral research and was first published in 1975; the edition I have, from 2011, includes a new introduction addressing the Islamophobia that currently permeates European politics and the West’s obsession with the veil.

So far I’ve only read the first few chapters of Beyond the Veil , and before I say anything about them I want to acknowledge a few things, namely that as a white European whose knowledge of Islam is limited I’m likely to get things wrong. Obviously it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to try to get them right, but I think that acknowledging my perspective and letting you all know that I’m more than open to hearing from people more knowledgeable than I am will make for a more productive discussion. So if I happen to be wrong, feel free to correct me, and if you happen to be knowledgeable about feminism and Islam, I would love to hear from you.

In the  introduction to the original 1975 edition, Mernissi says the following:

In this book I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam’s premises, actualised in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of makes.

Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain their power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.

The point Mernissi makes in the second paragraph seems particularly important to me: gender inequality is not inherent to Islam, but is the result of specific  religious interpretations having been actualised into law, policy, and social practices. There are historical reasons for why these anti-equality interpretations trumped more progressive ones, and I can’t wait to read more of Beyond the Veil to find out what they were.

And of course, I’m also really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.

Further Reading:

‘The Feminine Mystique’ – Betty Friedan

book cover of the feminine mystique by betty friedan

In 1957 Betty Friedan conducted a survey of her Smith College class for their 15th anniversary reunion in 1957. She discovered that these women were living life styles that conformed to the current American feminine ideal. They were housewives, totally independent of the demands of the workplace. They had children. Yet many confessed to being unhappy despite living in circumstances of material wealth and marital stability. Friedan went on to interview many other housewives and found that while they often identified the same vague unhappiness, many could not explain why they were unhappy. In the first chapter of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Friedan calls this ‘the problem with no name’ which ‘lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women’.

I think it’s the meat of this book that makes it so interesting, rather than Friedan’s own background, so shall we get right into analysing it? After reading the first chapter of ‘The Feminine Mystique’, what do you think Friedan identified as the cause of ‘the problem with no name’? And what does she think has made women bury this problem?

Borderlands/La Frontera: An Introduction

Book cover: Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria AnzalduaThis month’s selection is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Originally released in 1987, the book was a groundbreaking contribution to postcolonial feminism; it also introduced new Chicana feminist concepts to academia at a time when few feminists of color were being published.

A self-described “chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist,” Gloria Anzaldúa was born on September 26, 1942 in south Texas (aka the Rio Grande Valley). A daughter of sharecroppers, she experienced different forms of oppression throughout her life that would eventually shape her Chicana feminist views: machismo in Chicano culture, sexism in the Chicano activist movement, cultural marginalization in academia.

Anzaldúa’s health and sexual development also shaped her feminist beliefs; born with a rare condition, she began menstruating when she was three months old and stopped growing when she was twelve years old. It was a painful condition that shaped her sexual identity, and the pain ended only when she had a hysterectomy. In an interview with AnaLouise Keating, she said:

I had no sexual identity because this part of my body was in total pain all the time. Once a month I’d get fevers of 106, tonsillitis, diarrhea, and throwing up. Sometimes it would go on for seven to ten days. So I withdrew all feeling from my genitals; from the time I was little it was always a smelly place that dripped blood and had to be hidden. I couldn’t play like other kids. I couldn’t open my legs, my mother had to put a little piece of rag there. My breasts started growing when I was about six, so she made me this little girdle. I was totally alienated from this part of my body.

Black and white photo: Gloria Anzaldua standing knee-deep in water at the beachUpon reflection, Anzaldúa later wrote, “I was born queer.”A lot of these themes come up in Borderlands/La Frontera, as does her sense of alienation from being caught between two cultures: the Mexican/Indian side (which at times also also labels her as an Other), and the Anglo side. She writes in her preface to the first edition:

The actual physical borderland that I’m dealing with in this book is the Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican border. The psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands are not particular to the Southwest. In fact, the Borderlands are physically present whenever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.

I am a border woman…It’s not a comfortable territory to lie in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.

Borderlands/La Frontera isn’t always the easiest read. The first half is comprised of essays that are part history, part personal narrative; the last half is comprised of poetry. Not only does Anzaldúa incorporate several dialects of Spanish and Spanglish, she does so consciously in response to all the language-related push back she experienced throughout her life. Several of the essays discuss how colonization has forced so many to lose their language, and she is adamantly opposed to translating her multilingual text into pure English. In one of her more famous essays, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” she writes:

Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without always having to translate…as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.

I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white.

I’ll leave it on that note and end with some ideas for further discussion:

  1. What is your reaction to the different languages in the book?
  2. This isn’t the first book this project has discussed where anger plays an important role in the text. How does Anzaldúa’s anger help shape her feminism?
  3. As Anzaldúa writes, borderlands are everywhere. In what ways do you think the mainstream feminism of today ignores/acknowledges these borderlands?
  4. What are some of the values Anzaldúa envisions in “Towards a New Consciousness” when she states:

I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.

Some links for further reading:

UPDATE: If you can’t get a hold of the book or are daunted by reading the whole thing, here are links to a few of the more popular selections from the book:

Borderlands/La Frontera giveaway

Hello everyone! My apologies for getting the ball rolling a little late on Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. A proper introduction post is in the works. But before I get to that: I recently purchased the newest edition of the book, so in the interest of not hoarding, I’d like to offer up my old copy. It’s a second edition that’s in pretty good shape, but I bought it used, so there are a couple of “used” stickers on it. A few of the pages also have some underlining (not mine).

Leave a comment by Friday night if you’re interested, and on Saturday I’ll randomly draw someone.

Wrapping up The Bluest Eye

So, now that we’ve all presumably read it (again), what are your thoughts? 

There are a few things that stuck out at me when I read it this time.

First is the visceral presentation of internalized racism. Prior to reading it, I’d been totally oblivious to the effect that beauty norms in the United States have on people who aren’t white. It simply never occurred to me, even though I’ve been on the receiving end of some impressively ignorant commentary upon the more “exotic” aspects of my appearance (I’m bi-racial, but mostly look white). The theme of ugliness is really critical in The Bluest Eye; much of Pecola’s trauma and the MacTeer sisters’ rage centers around the notion that blackness makes them ugly and less desirable.The image of Pecola drinking gallons of milk out of a Shirley Temple cup is especially powerful, as is her mother’s obsession with movies and white actors and actresses), both of which symbolize the extent to which notions of white beauty are ingrained upon everyone’s collective subconscious. 

I was also struck by Morrison’s critique of second wave feminism’ handling of domestic politics. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, as the second wave of feminism was picking up speed. I can’t help but read much of the narrative as a critique of the second-wave ideal of the woman as someone who casts off the shackles of domestic labor in order to have a career, as epitomized by Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, which was published in 1963. While it was doubtless an incredibly important work of feminist literature, it largely overlooked the fact that poor women, especially women of color, had always worked outside the home, often in the domestic sphere of white families, and that this work took a toll on their own families. Perhaps they would have preferred to devote time to their own families, rather than the career of caring for white ones? Morrison’s critique rings true even today, as many women, particularly poor women and women are color, are funneled into so-called “pink collar” caregiver professions. 

What do y’all think? 

Let’s Talk about The Bluest Eye.

I have a few entries lined up that I’ll be posting throughout the month (so be sure to check back!), but I thought ImageI’d start the conversation about The Bluest Eye by asking about the reaction that you, personally, had to it and the feelings that it inspired in you. 

I was in the final semester of my junior year of college the first time I read The Bluest Eye. I was taking a seminar class that focused on Morrison’s novels, which we worked through in chronological order. As The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first novel, it was the first thing we read. While I was familiar with Morrison’s work, having read Beloved once in high school and twice in other college-level classes (suffice it to say that I’m never reading it again, even though I enjoyed it), I had never had the opportunity to fully explore her works. I loved the class so much that I wound up writing my undergraduate thesis on her works (which necessitated yet another re-reading of Beloved). While I ultimately didn’t include The Bluest Eye in my thesis, it was my second-favorite book we read that semester after Paradise. 

I know that I am somewhat unusual in that I read The Bluest Eye after a lot of Morrison’s other works. According to many of my friends, both in the book blogging community and in real life, The Bluest Eye is often assigned to high-school age students (14-18, for those of you who aren’t in the US). Have you read it before reading it for this challenge? Did your reaction to it change over time? If you haven’t read it before, what is your initial reaction to it?