A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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The Book of the City of Ladies: Wrapup

The City is completed and the Queen welcomed in

Here we are at the end of March (well, close enough), and it’s time to wrap up our reading of the Book of the City of Ladies.  I hope you all enjoyed it or at least got something out of it.  I know my rather one-sided enthusiasm for Christine’s amazing book is not necessarily shared by all of you!

I was so pleased to have the chance to learn about this international debate, the “Querrel du Roman de la Rose,” and the resulting discussion about the status of women in society.  I would love to read more of the documents from that debate, and hope to get that chance sometime.

Thanks so much for joining in this month’s reading.  If you haven’t yet linked up your blog post, this is the place to do it.  Please tell me your thoughts about medieval society, women, and Christine’s challenge to her contemporaries.

The Book of the City of Ladies: Discussion Post

I hope you’ve all been able to find copies of the book and are enjoying it.  I have been having a great time with Christine!  Her book is so medieval in its logic and sort-of-allegory, and so different in content from any other medieval text I’ve ever read.  I enjoy how Christine poses a question about the misogynist point of view and then answers it with examples from history (or legend, as the case may be).  I particularly like how she takes tradition and Christianity and uses them to support her points.  She makes her ideas sound obvious and like plain common sense, and yet they must often have been quite stunning to her readers.

Some questions we might discuss:

Sometimes Christine changes the story she’s telling for her own purposes: Minerva, Ceres, and other figures we know as mythological goddesses become historical women, Biblical characters act a little differently than we might remember, or stories from history are changed.  Some of this probably comes from Christine’s source material; she worked from fewer texts than we have now.  Some of it must come from Christine herself.  What do you think about this, and was it effective for her purposes?

Some people argue over whether Christine de Pizan can really be called a feminist.  What is your opinion?

Once you get to the end, tell me what you think of Christine’s recommendations for society. What changes does she imagine?  What do you think of her critique of her society and women’s place within it?

Introduction to The Book of the City of Ladies

I’ve so been looking forward to this book!  I’ve never done a group discussion blog or anything before, though, so I hope you’ll forgive me for being a newbie.

Christine de Pizan (1363-c.1430) was quite a well-known poet in her day.  She was born in Venice, but her father accepted a position at the French court soon after.  Christine grew up in Paris, privileged with with unusual opportunities for self-education, which she pursued with zeal.  She married at 15 and was widowed at 24, at which point she started writing as a professional pursuit in order to support herself and several dependents.  Over a 30-year career, she wrote exclusively in Middle French and moved from ballads and courtly poems to longer works and discussion with literary intellectuals of the time.  She was deeply involved in the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” an argument over the merits of of that work, and her Book of the City of Ladies is her answer to that rather misogynistic poem (which I just read!) and other texts that slandered women as weak, morally corrupt, and generally impossible to live with.

In her book, Christine builds an entire metaphorical city out of noble, heroic, or righteous women.  She creates three allegorical women, Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, who engage in a dialogue with her about why women are slandered and how to show that women do not deserve this reputation.  They help her to build the City of Ladies out of stories: first by dismantling literary lies about women, and then by building their city out of stories about great deeds done by women.  Finally they choose a queen for their city, and Christine appeals to her readers to refute the lies of men.

The Book of the City of Ladies was a big deal in 1405, but in the intervening centuries it fell into obscurity–in the English language, at least.  Simone de Beauvoir knew of it, but a modern English translation did not appear until the early 1980’s.  Scholars have brought Christine de Pizan back into prominence over the last few decades, for which I am thankful.  I hope you’ll join us in reading this early defense of women’s rights.

Thank You & See You Next Year?

We wanted to thank all of you for participating in the Year of Feminist Classics project in 2011. We know we have not been the greatest hosts, at least 3 out of 4 hosts experienced some difficulties this year and because of this we were absent a lot more than we should have been. Nevertheless, we hope you found this project as fulfilling as we did. Moreover, we hope you will consider joining us next year!

We are still putting the details together and we hope to reorganise a little so as to make the project more workable for all hosts. More details will follow in the upcoming week or so, we are just putting the final touches to the list. In composing it, we have aimed to take your recommendations and comments on the 2011 list in account. If there is anything you think we should consider, be it in books to read or organisation-wise, please feel free to leave a comment.

Again, thank you for joining in on our somewhat messy, but hopefully worthwhile, journey into the works that have defined and changed feminism through the years.

Happy 2012 to all of you!

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!