Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women

I picked up Stephanie Staal’s book Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life on a whim at the library and read it relatively quickly over the July 4th weekend. It was a good book, an enjoyable and interesting read, although I found it more interesting for the personal stories told than for the discussions of feminist texts. Perhaps it was because I was already familiar with many of the books she discussed and her summaries of their main arguments didn’t go beyond the basics, but I was always a little relieved when she returned to her personal story.

The book begins with Staal’s frustration with her situation in life — unexpectedly finding herself a dissatisfied wife and mother who was struggling to keep a career going. She decided to look for books by women who addressed the frustrations she was feeling, and she found herself looking through the Women’s Studies section of her local bookstore searching for wisdom. Eventually she hits on the idea of retaking the “Fem. Texts” course she took at Barnard as an undergrad. She will read or reread the great works of feminism to see what she can learn from them the second time around, and also to see how she has changed and how the students taking the class have changed from her undergrad days. (The premise of the book is in essence the same as David Denby’s Great Books where he goes back to Columbia to retake their “Great Books” curriculum, and she doesn’t mention this. I kind of thought she should have.)

The book takes us through her year of reading, beginning with Genesis and the Garden of Eden story, and hitting many of the great feminist writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Helene Cixous, and many others. Staal intersperses discussions of these writers and descriptions of classroom dynamics with stories about her life. She writes about raising her daughter while trying to keep a freelance career going, about moving to Maryland from New York City and trying to fit into the very different culture there, about her sometimes troubled marriage and her struggles getting her husband to understand what she was feeling and to help out more around the house. She’s dismayed at the distance she has traveled from her undergrad self, from the person who would not have believed that she would one day find herself feeling trapped in the house taking care of a child. She found she identified much too closely with the audience of dissatisfied 1950s housewives Betty Friedan addressed in The Feminine Mystique.

Not surprisingly, taking the Fem. Texts course leads Staal to more questions than answers, but she does take comfort in reading how other women grappled with the those same questions. There was less comfort to be found from observing her young classmates. She admires their self-confidence, but also feels that feminism has taken a wrong turn somewhere. She is disturbed by certain aspects of third-wave feminism, especially the easy comfort the students feel with pornography and our highly-sexualized culture. She worries about what her daughter will face as she grows older.

This book would be worth reading for anyone who wants an introduction to feminist texts (it comes complete with reading lists), and for anyone who wants to read about one woman’s struggles to stay true to her feminist values. I enjoyed it most for the latter, but it does both well.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women

  1. This sounds like a very interesting read that I’d like to look into. Curious about her take on Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Also, the experience of rereading at a different stage in life is an interesting topic in itself. Like I’d certainly have a different perspective now if I reread books that I’d read when I was young… like in your post about WSM’s works. Finally, I’ve appreciated her distinguishing between different kinds of feminism… and frowning upon “the easy comfort the students feel with pornography and our highly-sexualized culture” of third-wave feminism. Thanks for a detailed review, Dorothy!


  2. Those young women in her classes may change their minds when they’ve had more experience of life.


  3. Thanks for a very interesting review!

    After several years studying and teaching feminist theory, I have become, in some ways, a bit tired of theory – . Lately I have focused more on literature as art, and not so much on literature as texts in a theoretical way. And I have also become much more interested in biographies than used to be, I’m not sure if this is a good thing – but it seems this is the way I have to go.

    I have never heard of David Denby’s “Great Books”, is this a book you would recommend?


  4. Arti — I think you might like the book. She’s very good at giving the history of feminism and in discussing the problems that women are still experiencing. The way she weaves in her personal experience is interesting and effectively done.

    Lilian — I’m curious about that. It’s interesting to see how people’s opinions and beliefs change as they age and get more experience. It’s exactly what happened to Staal herself, and the book is largely about how she changed as much as she did.

    Sigrun — I liked Denby’s book, but I know of some people who didn’t like his writing voice and persona, so I’m not sure. It’s a great overview of many classic works, and he writes about them in an interesting way. It might be worth reading a few chapters of, to see if you click with it. Interesting that you have read and taught feminist theory. I’m sympathetic with your fatigue with theory; it can be fascinating but also intense and challenging.


  5. I really enjoyed the personal story, too. Although probably what I most admired was the way Staal could move between theory and real life. That’s very hard to do so smoothly, and I was impressed. But yes, the personal story had a real kick to it – and of course it’s always fascinating being taken behind the scenes in someone’s real life!


  6. Nice review. And thanks for the reminder about the book too. I keep forgetting to put it on my TBR list. Now it’s there so I can wait for it from my library.


  7. I thought this sounded interesting when Litlove first wrote about it, so this is a good reminder to add it to my wishlist, too. I hate to say that I have read very little in the way of feminist literature–at least the sorts of books I imagine she writes about, so this would be a perfect place for me to start.


  8. Litlove — I agree that she handles the transitions between the theory and her life very well, and it’s amazing the connections she finds between the two. And yes, I also admire writers who are willing to share the details of their lives, in a thoughtful, intelligent way.

    Stefanie — you’re welcome! I think you might like it, so I hope you are able to get to it one day.

    Danielle — it really would be a great place to start to get an introduction to feminism. Her reading list is really great and is a good starting place to learn more.


  9. Thanks for pointing out to this book, I definitely put it on my wishlist. I like the idea to revisit some of the studies that you received years ago and that was lost on you. I certainly do feel like it would be a good idea for me (I never took feminist courses but I’m thinking international relations and economy mostly), but I lack time and courage. In French we don’t have the equivalent of “youth is lost on the young” but how very true!


  10. Smithereens — I like the idea of returning to past studies as well, although I’m afraid I wouldn’t remember enough of my thoughts from a long time ago to really make comparisons! Sad. But still, going back to college when you’re older like she did sounds great.


  11. Pingback: Stephanie Staal, Reading Women (2011) « Smithereens

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