A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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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!

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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!

‘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:

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? 

Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

This is my second contribution to this month’s discussion of Little Women.

One issue which is seldom discussed when appraising feminist themes in literature is the role of women in old age. Too often older women are invisible, just as Doris Lessing observed in her novel The Summer before the Dark.

Last year, when we discussed Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

I was impressed by Gilman’s description of an all-female society where older women are both honored for the lives they have led and employed for their wisdom and self-control. Here the male visitors are greeted:

“If they were only younger,” he muttered between his teeth. “What on earth is a fellow to say to a regiment of old Colonels like this?”

In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.

Although Louisa May Alcott is writing about a real 19th-century world – not a fantasy like Herland – she also recognizes the powerful role older women can take in understanding and counseling the young as they try to make their way in life. Marmee in Little Women is a clear example. Her opinions are usually conservative.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”

Also,

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I would accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

At the same time, Marmee unites with Mr. March in not accepting poverty passively. When the girls propose to find work,

“Believing they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good-will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.”

What is most striking to a modern parent is not that the girls’ mother gives advice – all mothers do that – but that the girls take the advice so seriously.

Alcott’s next successful children’s book after Little Women was An Old Fashioned Girl. In it, Alcott continues to show the strong role an older woman can take in a sometimes dysfunctional household. Young Polly – pretty, gifted and poor – comes to stay in the Shaw household. The Shaw children are friendly but spoiled. Polly receives understanding and support not from their mother, but from their grandmother. When they meet, unsophisticated country Polly is praised by Grandmother Shaw because she is still a child:

“Well, dear, I’ll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n’t dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it’s possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blas, at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me.”

But children were not idle at all:

“Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I’m the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty.”

“That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose,” said Polly.

This function of advice giver and reinforcer of conservative family values is given to Uncle Alec in another successful children’s book, Eight Cousins. But still, the many aunts in the story sometimes get a word in and the elderly great aunts, Peace and Plenty, stand firmly for the good old days and good old values.

Even in her adult novel, Moods, Alcott finds a place for a wise woman. When Sylvia is grieving over the unfortunate marital choice, she has a “sudden memory”:

“If ever you need help that Geoffrey cannot give, remember cousin Faith.”

This was the hour Faith foresaw; Moor had gone to her in his trouble, why not follow, and let this woman, wise, discreet, and gentle, show her what should come next.

Faith diagnoses that Sylvia has two spirits contending in one body, and “…each rules by turns, and each helps or hinders as moods and circumstances lead.” Advice and comfort are then given and gratefully received.

Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels to Little Women. In Little Men and Jo’s Boys Marmee does not completely disappear, but Jo is now clearly in charge of the family destiny. Whereas she was once the harum scarum tomboy who wanted independence of action, now she follows the fortunes of others and guides them on their various ways. Jo is now the wise woman.

Little Women – Feminist Novel?

I would like to open the discussion of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel for girls, with a proposition. Some readers find in the book a feminist message of independence and self-expression, while others find a message of social conformity. So which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? My proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

The March sisters receive a letter from their father in which he expresses his ideals for his “little women.”

Let’s start with the conformity message. In Little Women, Mr. March is the absent father, leaving the four sisters and their mother to fend for themselves while he serves as a military chaplain in the Civil War. His presence is strongly felt, however, as he presses for the girls to grow up in accordance with his ideals.

 “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

If they must fight their bosom enemies and conquer themselves, then they must suppress their true natures in favor of a standard set by him, the father. This is reinforced when, near the end of part one of the book, Mr. March comes back from the war and proclaims:

“I see a young lady [Jo] who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied.”

A “strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman” is no bad ideal, but it is Mr. March’s ideal, not Jo’s. Alcott realistically shows that when a girl is as energetic and ambitious as Jo, she can expect loving parents will try to get her to conform. Most books for girls at that time would leave it there, with Jo seeing the error of her ways and finding happiness in meeting family expectations. Alcott is a better writer than that. She depicts a Jo who is fully appreciative of love and support; she is not rebelling against her family but against the role of a girl:

“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”

After she publishes her first story, Jo does not reject her family role, but desires to be independent within it, to support those she loves as – dare we say it! – a boy would have been expected to do.

 Jo’s breath gave out here; and, wrapping her head in the paper, she dedewed her little story with a few natural tears; for to be independent, and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.

By the time she wrote Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was establishing herself as a professional writer. Like Jo, she wanted to support her chronically-needy family, by any honest means. She did, in fact, try various jobs including teaching, sewing and serving as a paid companion. Writing paid best, besides being satisfying in other ways. She wrote plays, poetry, short stories, thrillers, and an account of her nursing experiences in a Civil War hospital – whatever would sell. Her greatest affection was for her “adult” novels, such as Moods, with their emphasis of emotional states and high romance. She wrote Little Women on assignment so, rather than trying to move the reader as in Moods, she told the story, as in Hospital Sketches. When the story is told – drawing on her own experiences growing up with three sisters in the poor but worthy Alcott family – her true values are expressed in the story itself and the choices she made in telling it.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

People talk like that. These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

Jo does want to make money for her family, but she also knows that with money comes power, and she wants that too.

 …Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house….

Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

  1. Which is the stronger message within Little Women – conformity or independence?
  2. What other messages to you find there?
  3. What are the roles of Marmee and of Jo’s sisters?  Do they support or deny feminist values?

For more information about Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and the interesting town of Concord, visit my blog page: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/courses-and-presentations/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott/

An Apology

Some of you are probably wondering what happened with this month’s title, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Unfortunately our host for the month was unavailable, so we decided to postpone the group read and discussion to February 2013. The Year of Feminist Classics schedule will carry on as planned, and we’ll be back next month with a discussion of Little Women. See you then, and once again our apologies. Sometimes life gets in the way of blogging despite our best intentions.

ETA: I realise this post is coming considerably late, so if any of you already read and blogged about the book, feel free to drop us your link and we’ll do a round-up.