A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Sister Outsider: Discussion Questions and Wrap-Up

Happy holidays to all who celebrate them, and a lovely few weeks to all who don’t! I hope you’ve been able to take some time off for yourselves and your loved ones, and maybe even been able to curl up with a good book or two 🙂

Having seen Audre Lorde referenced all over the place within feminist circles, I was relieved to finally read her work for myself. This collection was more diverse than I thought it would be. I wasn’t expecting so much about poetry as a means of expression, for example, or the first and last pieces about Russia and Grenada, respectively. And honestly, I didn’t find those topics as striking as the others.

My favorite parts of Lorde’s essays were the ones in which she details some of the microaggressions she faces regularly as a black, lesbian, feminist woman by feminists and non-feminists, men and women, and people of all races alike (the bullet points on p. 126 in the essay “Uses of Anger”, for example). These allow us to see just how insidious notions of superiority really are, and how easily dismissal of others disguises itself as something benign. As Lorde makes clear, this is no less true for feminists than it is of anyone else, regardless of their academic standing or level of “awareness”. This is a really important criticism that remains relevant as feminists (and others) continue learning to understand each other better through the acknowledgment of difference while moving away from generalizing experience in attempts to build solidarity.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that Lorde made some uneasy generalizations herself. I felt this mainly in her discussion of female eroticism…(what the heck is that?!). In her interview with Lorde, Adrienne Rich asked her to speak to similar criticisms, one of which was that, in response to the essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, she’d “heard it remarked that here you are simply restating the old stereotype of the rational white male and the emotional dark female” (p. 100). Her response was complex and nuanced. Personally, I wasn’t completely sure what to make of it, so my first question is:

Did you find her response to this question convincing and/or satisfying? Do you think the criticism itself is valid?

Another thing I think we should discuss is the theme of anger. I understand that anger is a contentious topic within feminism, because it is so often used to unfairly belittle, dismiss, misdefine, or oversimplify feminist claims and arguments. At the same time, I agree with Lorde that anger is an appropriate response to oppression, that it can lead to productive work, and that it’s important both to feel it when it occurs and to be willing to deal with it. Feminism is not defined by anger, nor are feminists. We are all human, though, and anger is a human emotion. So:

How do you understand the relationship between anger and oppression, or anger and feminism? Is there one? What kind of role can/should it play? Why does it so often seem easily dismissed?

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I know I wrote in my introduction that I would be focusing on this essay, as it seems to be the most widely quoted. It was one of my favorites, but I hope no one minds terribly that I ended up inspired to ask questions about others as well 😉 In any case, it was easy for me to agree that real change requires a complete restructuring of power relations and that Lorde’s expression of this need was effective and particularly eloquent. But, easier said than done! My question is:

How do we recognize the master’s tools for what they are?

Finally, I was interested in Lorde’s discussions of parenting a boy as a lesbian feminist in an era when separatism was more seriously regarded (by some) as a serious option. In recent years I’ve seen a lot more discussion about not only feminist parenting, but feminist parenting of boys, which I see as a really positive development. Girls seem to receive the bulk of feminist education, be it from their teachers or their parents…but boys need it too! I don’t have any specific questions about this, but if any parents would like to weigh in on what they thought of Lorde’s essays on the subject, or on their own experience, I’d be delighted.

Anything else? If there’s something you’d like to discuss or think I’ve neglected anything important, do feel free to bring it up!

Oh, and please stick around for updates on plans for 2012. We may have slacked off on hosting duties at times (ahem, sorry)…but I know the first year of feminist classics has been both challenging and fulfilling for us and hopefully some of you as well. Looking forward to hearing from you (even if it has to wait until the holiday season has passed) and thanks for your participation!

Introduction to Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

I am excited to be hosting discussions about Sister Outsider this month, as I’ve been looking forward to this one all year! I know that many of us will be very busy leading up to the winter holidays, but most of these essays look short and, well, anything’s bound to feel a breeze in comparison to Butler! (I admit that I did not get to it last month, but have struggled through the section on performativity for many a college course).

According to Wikipedia, Audre Lorde was, in her own words, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who wrote throughout the ’60’s, ’70’s, and ’80’s. Like bell hooks, she wrote compellingly about racism within U.S. feminist movements and argued that recognition of, and respect for, differences amongst women is crucial for any movement seeking to build meaningful relationships of solidarity between them. This is pretty standard feminist discourse, now, I think; back in Lorde’s day, though, this was a highly contentious claim and a lot of other feminists reacted defensively, marking her an “outsider”.

Still according to Wikipedia,

In her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, Lorde attacked the underlying racism of feminism, describing it as unrecognized dependence on the patriarchy. She argued that, by denying difference in the category of women, feminists merely passed on old systems of oppression and that, in so doing, they were preventing any real, lasting change. Her argument aligned white feminists with white male slave-masters, describing both as “agents of oppression”.

This is the essay I see mentioned most frequently in conjunction with Lorde’s name, so it is the one around which I will probably focus discussion. I will be reading all of them, though, so if there’s another essay you think is particularly interesting or important that I don’t bring up in my next few posts, please don’t hesitate to interject! Lorde had a huge impact on feminist thought, so I’m sure there will be no shortage of worthy discussion topics 🙂


The Woman Warrior: Discussion Questions

Hello everyone! Is anyone besides me still stubbornly working through The Second Sex? I’ve got about 200 pages left, myself. For those of you who also read The Woman Warrior this month, here are some things I was wondering about:

1. What do you see as the main distinctions between what our narrator deems Chinese-feminine and American-feminine? How does she see herself fitting into either of these categories?

2. What did you make of the fact that the word “ghost” is used in the text to describe both dead individuals and foreign groups of people?

3. Moon Orchid is said to go mad at the end of “At the Western Palace” because of the shameful infidelity inflicted by her husband, but insanity is a prevalent theme throughout the text and I think the reasons are more numerous. What do you think those reasons are?

4. About the Woman Warriors: I was reminded of the chapter on Myths in The Second Sex, and Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that historically, cultures that have exalted women in myth are no more fair to them in real, down-to-earth matters than are cultures whose myths exclude them. What are the differences that our narrator sees in the Woman Warriors of the past and the women in her own family? Are there any qualities that they share? What qualities does our narrator believe make warriors of women?

I know this month is hectic for many of you, and comes at the end of a long succession of hectic months. If you managed to fit this book into your schedule, though, I would love your input! It sure has kept me thinking.

Introduction to The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston

This month we’re going to be reading The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in addition to working our way through the rest of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I hope that some of you, like me, enjoy taking short breaks from such long, dense books to revitalize our reading brains, and that this month’s overlap will offer inclusion to those who have decided to skip The Second Sex (or have already read it) with no added pressure!

The Woman Warrior was written in 1975 and blends memoir with Chinese folktale to portray the experience of Chinese-Americans in the wake of the Chinese revolution. According to wikipedia, the book has remained controversial since its publication as many have contested its portrayal of both Chinese culture and Chinese-Americans. Kingston has been accused of simplifying people and history into stereotype so that her work would be more easily received by a Western audience, and one reviewer thought it “too mainstream American feminist” (to be believable? for his taste? I’m not sure). In 1982 Kingston responded to her critics with an essay in which she asks why she must be held responsible for representing all of China or the entire Chinese literary tradition in the telling of her own story.

I think the questions of cultural authenticity that have fueled criticism of this book are interesting in that they are an indication of marginalization. Though individual white male authors in the U.S. are sometimes lauded for writing “the great American novel” or accurately capturing the “American spirit”, or whatever, it does not seem to me that this is the standard to which all white male authors in the U.S. are held. They are allowed to write as individuals as a function of privilege, whereas members of marginalized communities are seen only as members of those communities and not as individuals, and thus face the increased expectation of accurately representing all of their history and culture.* This seems, to me, an impossible burden and a set-up for almost inevitable failure.

Despite the criticism, though, The Woman Warrior has remained immensely popular and is taught in a variety of academic settings. The Modern Language Association, in fact, has named it the most frequently taught text in modern university education, which was a surprise to me as I have yet to come across this book in my classes. I am newly interested in “creative nonfiction” and am looking forward to learning about how Kingston has experienced girlhood as a Chinese-American and the ways in which she locates herself and her personal history in the context of 20th century events and timeless mythology.

Discussion questions will appear next week!

*This seems to work a bit differently with gender. Instead of the expectation that women should represent all of womanhood in their writing, the expectation for women writers seems to be that they should somehow transcend their gender in their writing so as to be “un-gendered” which, as we have seen in Beauvoir’s work, masculinity is assumed to be, and therefore more acceptable for a mixed-gender audience. Otherwise, they’re filed away under “chick-lit”. What do you think?

Wrap Up: A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House is a very short text, but one which raised some interesting questions and, of course, some wonderful responses. I want to thank you all for your thoughtful participation. I was nervous about my first month of hosting, but you made it a most enjoyable experience 🙂 Here’s what you had to say!

Silverseason noted the literal meaning of the title and the implications thereof:

I begin by thinking that punctuation matters. A “dollhouse” is a plaything, a way to help little girls fantasize about the perfect home they will have some day. The “doll’s house” in Ibsen’s play is a real house in which a doll lives now, and the doll is Nora, the perfect self-sacrificing wife. This wife is less than a real, grown-up person, as the descriptive language used by both Nora and her husband Torvald makes clear. She is a little squirrel, a skylark, and irresponsible bird.

Lauren related the play to both John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft:

I was strongly reminded of The Subjection of Women as I read A Doll’s House, as well. Mill went into great deal detailing the number of ways in which the marriage contract could hurt or damage women, and the reader sees two of them play out in A Doll’s House. Christine, the friend of Nora, the protagonist, has been left destitute as a direct result of her husband and father’s deaths…

Nora, on the other hand, experiences Wollstonecraft’s gilded cage: she is continually condescended to by her narcissistic husband, who confines her to the domestic sphere.

Caribousmom discusses the relationship between economic independence and gender parity:

Money is one means by which power is obtained – and in Ibsen’s play, that idea becomes central. Nora appears to be completely under the control of her husband who stands to become very wealthy when he is promoted to a top position in a bank. Ibsen allows Nora to regain some of her autonomy through her ruse to obtain a loan – and then further empowers her by giving her the means to pay back the money. By putting money into Nora’s hands, Ibsen turns the table on tradition and allows a woman character to enjoy her own independence. In 1879, this would be a revolutionary idea.

Emily was bothered by Nora’s character, but was also felt caring towards her:

Nora and I do not have much in common.  She is not a character I feel particularly drawn to, and honestly, for most of the play she annoyed the snot out of me.  But when she tells Torvald that she has a sacred duty to herself, when she says, “I think that before all else I am a human being just as you are, or at least I will try to become one,” I saw myself opening my door for her, providing her with a haven for as long as she needed it.  I don’t know if that’s just my port-in-a-storm side coming out – that part of me that insists on being a source of stability and comfort for people who need it – or whether, in resolving to become the person she truly is, I finally connected with her.  I suppose the reason doesn’t really matter.  Either way, my door is open, Nora.

Iris notes that Torvald is conditioned and constrained by his role as husband/breadwinner, too:

The characterisation of the treatment of Nora as a doll in a doll’s house is so spot on for everything that went on in the play. And that last line shows how Torvald is trapped as well. Can we really agree with Nora that it is all Torvald’s fault? I think what Ibsen was trying to say was that it is society’s conditioning that was/is at fault.

Cathy Geagen, unrocked by the ending of the play, looks at the the foreshadowing that occurs with what seems a trained analytic eye:

Of the most fundamental importance to A Doll’s House are the onstage movements of the characters. In the body language of the Helmers we see the truth of their marriage played out while the Helmers pay lip service to happy families. The pathetically cutsie first interplay between the couple shows the male breadwinner, pen in hand, lecturing his picture perfect wife on the virtues of household economy. While the doll plays the role of a “little bird” with her speeches, the audience can see the first earmarks of the farcical element of her role.

ChasingBawa also wrote about the way in which Ibsen built tension slowly throughout the play and how she was both glad and suprised to see Nora realize her potential:

In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Ibsen is quoted as saying in his notes

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.

It seems that for a woman, there can be no win-win situation and that is what Ibsen was trying to address. I was actually rather worried that Nora would consider taking her own life and dreaded finishing the play but was pleasantly surprised when she showed her strength and finally awakened to who she really was. I’m sure she knew all along who she was, but I feel that she played along to what was expected of her and in doing so constructed her own prison.

Dragonflyy419 locates the power of the play in the last act:

The most important discussions in this book come from the revelations in the last act.  Nora comes to the realization that her marital relationships have been like those with her father, where she is not attempting to be her own person, but what others dictate her to be.  I believe this act is where the true aspects of the play having a feminist value comes in as well as where it would have shocked contemporary audiences.

Christina wondered about the moral, political, and social ramifications of Nora’s renunciation of motherhood:

Speaking of separation, this play led me to think about how divorce and custody have evolved to be more woman-friendly. Nora chooses to actively leave her family. In doing so she automatically forfeits her children and any monetary help from Torvald. Nora doesn’t lament these losses, since she wants to make a clean break and discover herself on her own. But the societal principle here is so obviously wrong: a woman must stay with her husband if she wants to be with her children, and if she wants to have any household income to speak of. The tables have turned now, at least in the U.S. I’m no expert on the subject, but I believe the default arrangement is for the mother to have primary custody of her children after a divorce, and we all know about alimony and child support. Did early feminist literature like A Doll’s House contribute to this change? Social change usually has to happen before legal change, right?

Dangermom is also highly critical of Ibsen/Nora’s dismissal of the children:

I suppose it’s partly that the children are not major characters in the play, which is really about the relationship between Nora and Torvald, but Ibsen easily dismisses the children as if they are of no importance, and this bothers me quite a lot. Nora’s comment that she is of no good to her children is a simple lie, not the clear-eyed assessment of her own incompetence that Ibsen seems to want it to be. Her children don’t care that she has never learned to be an adult, and would probably prefer that she work on it without leaving them. Had Ibsen never seen the effects of parental abandonment, or was he just trying to keep the children out of the issue?

Nymeth was lucky enough to attend a production of the play, and here’s what she got from the experience:

The production of A Doll’s House I went to see last week was all-around very impressive: the acting, costumes and stage effects were all perfect; and not only did it bring the play to life, but it made me notice more details, as I imagine a re-read would. For example, it wasn’t until I saw this production that I realised that Christine Linde and Krogstad’s relationship provides an alternate model to Nora and Torvald’s. Krogstad’s sense of masculinity seems to be slightly different from Torvald’s – different enough for the thought of his wife working being acceptable for him. It is because of this that he and Christine come to an understanding, and begin what seems to be a beneficial relationship for them both.

Phillip wrote about how he responded to the characters from a contemporary perspective:

At the end when she leaves Torvald to learn to stand on her own feet, the thought occurred to me that that’s almost expected these days in Western society. While many of the issues I read about Vindication of the Rights of Woman are still issues today, this one rarely is.

But Amy finds it still completely relevant:

In this respect, how Nora feels she has to put herself first and understand herself before she can focus on being a wife and mother, the play would still be shocking today to many. As the introduction points out, still a concern and still shocking, and something we still have to work toward achieving – a place where it isn’t ‘selfish’ for a wife and mother want time to herself.

If I’ve missed yours, please link it in the comments! Stay tuned for next month’s selection, Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman hosted by Iris. In the meantime, I’ll try to catch up on the comments you’ve left about A Doll’s House. Happy reading, everyone!

A Doll’s House: Discussion Questions

Hello again, everyone! I know that this was a short text, and that many of you have already written up your thoughts on the play, perhaps long ago (if you haven’t yet, don’t fret: there’s plenty of time before I collect all the links to write-ups and post them at the end of the month). But I, for one, have not yet stopped thinking about it and have a few questions I’ve been working on.

1. The first comes by way of Lauren of Underneath a Book. In comments on my introduction post, she voiced concern about the fact that the character Nora and her experiences were largely based on a woman whom Ibsen knew in real life and the troubles she’d had in her marriage; a woman who was not particularly pleased to have her story appropriated in this way for public consumption. What are the politics of fictionalizing an individual’s story to make a universal point?

2. Throughout most of the play, Torvald treats Nora, his wife, like an overgrown child or a care-free pet, and she does kind of act like one. But by the end we realize that Nora is not the shallow, vapid creature she appears at first to be; she has been, at least in part, consciously playing a role. Why? Has it been to her benefit or her loss?

3. Nora expects that when her husband finds out that she has broken the law to save his life, he will take credit for her actions and she will commit suicide to save his reputation. He surprises her by refusing to do so. Why doesn’t he? What is the relationship between his refusal and the role that he plays in their marriage?

4. Torvald tells Nora, in the end, that “I’d gladly work for you day and night, Nora–go through suffering and want, if need be–but one doesn’t sacrifice one’s honor for love’s sake.” Nora responds by saying that “Millions of women have done so.” This line gave me chills. It was this, above everything else in the play, that resonated with me and felt still too relevant today. What resonated with you?

Please feel free to answer one or all the questions, or to contribute your own!

A Doll’s House: Introduction

Henrik Ibsen (March 1828–May 1906) was a Norwegian poet, playwright, and theater director who is often referred to as the “founding father” of Modernist theater. Ibsen was a controversial figure because his works sought to reveal the sometimes unsettling truth of human reality that lay obscured behind the veil of Victorian society’s moral dictates. In many of his plays, women were the vessels through which disruption of these dictates was enacted. 

A Doll’s House was published in 1879 and its role-defying protagonist caused quite an uproar (to the extent that some performances actually presented a more conventional alternate ending to the play). Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage is a traditional one in which Torvald, manger of a bank, is supposed to make all the major financial decisions save those that his wife is allowed to make with her regular allowance to keep up herself, the children, and the house. But when he falls sick and requires a year of rest in Italy which he cannot afford, he is too proud to ask anyone for the help that he needs. So Nora leads him to believe that the money for the trip is a gift from her father, though really it’s from an illegal loan which she has taken out behind his back and to which she has forged her father’s signature. All the while Torvald pampers her and calls her cute, condescending nicknames while she appears complimented and content; he suspects nothing unusual as his “little song lark”, his “child”, flits nervously about the house. She has quietly saved and done a little paid work of her own in order to pay back what she owes and is very proud of this, but not all is well at the bank: something drastic must soon take place.

Through taking out a faulty loan, Nora is doing something that she knows is “wrong”, but with conviction that she is acting in her family’s best interest. This play deals explicitly with the emancipation of women from an oppressive marital/familial system without necessarily–despite what many of his contemporaries thought–condemning those systems completely. My copy of the play is published, along with five other plays by Ibsen, by the Modern Library and includes an introduction by Eva Le Galliene, who writes that

Ibsen was accused of being an enemy to “the sacred ties of marriage”; people could not understand that to him marriage was so sacred that he believed it must be based upon a spiritual communion; mere “living together” was not enough. he felt that a man and a woman should, ideally go through life together as perfect equals, in perfect honesty, free to develop–each in his own way–into a complete human entity. As Nietzche said: “What is freedom? To have the will to be responsible for one’s self”.

To look at the play with Nietzche’s statement in mind is to see that the solutions to Nora’s problems lay within Nora herself, a lesson that can be similarly applied to women and other marginalized groups more generally. I have mixed feelings about this so far: I find that notion both empowering and dismissive of the fact (idea?) that freedom is only real if recognized as such by others, particularly those in more privileged positions of power. But I’ll wait to find out what happens in the end, and for everyone else to begin reading, before pushing that point any further or asking what you think about it 🙂

I’m very excited to be hosting this month and I think that A Doll’s House is going to offer up a lot of interesting points of discussion. I’ll be back before too long with some questions for you all–until then, happy reading everyone!