A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘feminism

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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And so here we are: the final book of the year and the last post of this blog. And what better way to round off this canter through some of the highlights of women’s lit past and present than to leapfrog back a few centuries to one of the early trailblazers?

Memories and attention spans being what they are, we have a tendency to think that we, or at a stretch the generation before us, invented most of the big ideas. From sexual intercourse beginning in 1963 to the term ‘wireless’, we congratulate ourselves on working it all out pretty much from scratch.

When it comes to feminism, we can be particularly smug. Alright, so we vaguely remember the suffragettes. But they were a bit quaint and genteel with their high-necked dresses and bustles, weren’t they? Really the whole thing only kicked off with Germaine Greer and after that, well, it all went a bit quiet. In fact it’s only in the last year or so with sheroes like Kat and Caitlin showing us how to be women that feminism has truly got off the ground.

Well, not quite. And there are few texts more qualified to show up the flaws in such short-termism than Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Published in 1762, the text sets out Wollstonecraft’s arguments against the marked inequality she sees between men and women at all levels in society. This, she claims, stems from a ‘false system of education’, which prizes ‘delicacy’ above all other traits in women, denying them the opportunity to  develop their talents and interests in a meaningful way, and encouraging them to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men to amuse themselves with. Given such an education, she writes, is it any wonder that women’s ‘minds are not in a healthy state’?

From this she proceeds to set out her stall for a new and better system of education that would enable women to develop their faculties and reasoning on the same footing as men, and give them the opportunity to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society. Give us a chance, she argues, and if it turns out we’re no good at it, at least you’ll have solid proof of women’s inadequacies rather than mere conjecture.

Writing from personal experience and observation, Wollstonecraft includes many anecdotes to illustrate her points. Inevitably, some of her own bugbears creep in, lending the text an occasionally quirky air. The observations on the indecency of women changing in the same room as each other and the frivolity of reading novels, for example, are products of Wollstonecraft’s time and taste, rather than central planks of the argument, but they lend the book some welcome colour.

Readers with any knowledge of more recent feminist literature will be struck by the amount that Wollstonecraft anticipates. From observations on the way men ‘inwardly despise’ women, foreshadowing Greer’s comments nearly 200 years later, to compelling arguments against gender-specific toys that might have been made by Kat Banyard, Wollstonecraft repeatedly sets out arguments that will be rehearsed over centuries to come. Even her reflections on the generations it is likely to take for true equality to take root find their echo in Marilyn French, Greer and Caitlin Moran.

But perhaps most striking of all, is the point that Wollstonecraft leads with in her introduction: that inequality stems from a tendency to ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’. Having spent a year reading women writers, this seems to me to be the problem facing women authors these days too. Until we get past the stage of thinking of books by women as a sort of sub-set of literature proper and realise that they are every bit as diverse, compelling, complex and vital as those by men (as I hope this blog has gone some small way to showing), women will continue to be under-read and under-published and intelligent young women will continue to regard books by their contemporaries as somehow lesser.

Wollstonecraft was on to this more than two centuries ago. Isn’t it time the rest of us caught up?

Thanks to everyone who has followed and commented on this blog over the past year, and to all those who have suggested books. It’s been a great pleasure and privilege to have your support. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read (or even if you haven’t), please join me on my next adventure. I’d really appreciate your help.

Best wishes for 2012.

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 31, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion

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A couple of years ago, I was queuing for a cashpoint in Queen’s Park, sporting a baggy jumper and the remnants of a hangover, and arguably not looking my radiant best. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help being taken aback when the man in front of me — a late-middle-aged chap with a thick French accent — turned, pointed to a heavily made-up woman in a shift dress and knee-high boots, and informed me: ‘You are not as beautiful as this girl’. I was so surprised to be addressed in this way that all I could do was voice an incredulous ‘So?’ at which this connoisseur of female beauty raised his eyebrows in disgust and turned away.

The world that Kat Banyard describes in The Equality Illusion is full of such incidents. Echoing Richard Dawkins in much more than her title, she sets out her stall passionately in her ‘Alarm call’ introduction, stating that ‘it is time to find the way back’ and recognise feminism as ‘one of the most vital social justice movements of our age’ by debunking the comfortable lie that we now live in an equal world and demonstrating that women are still very much considered as objects to please and serve men. 

There can be no doubt of the work and effort that has gone into the compilation of Banyard’s book. Based on hundreds of interviews with marginalised and vulnerable women, and bristling with statistics, this is an ambitious and heart-felt attempt to unpick the structures of everyday life.

When it works, it is compelling. The discussion of gender creation in young children, for example, with its examination of the active toys, pursuits and clothes we give baby boys and how they contrast to the passive, pretty and impractical objects with which we surround girls — and the way parents have been shown to reward assertive behaviour in boys and punish it in girls — is fascinating.

But it doesn’t always work. Much like Dawkins, Banyard is so passionate about her subject that she is often unable to give the case for the opposition its due (and sometimes neglects to acknowledge it altogether). For example, the possibility that a woman could enter prostitution through anything other than male coercion is never entertained. Instead, Banyard is relentless in her attacks on popular portrayals of prostitution such as the Billy Piper Secret Diary of a Call Girl series, which she sees as a gross and misleading glamorisation of a seedy and exploitative industry.

While she is right that that show is ridiculously silly — and while the sex trade clearly exploits many vulnerable people — Banyard conveniently neglects to mention that the concept for the programme was based on a blog by a real-life former prostitute, research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, who chose the occupation and appears pretty unscathed. (‘I didn’t go into it cheerfully, but I wasn’t resigned and broken either… I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money,’ she told The Times in 2009.)

Similarly, again like Dawkins, Banyard has a tendency to get swept off into irrelevant arguments in her enthusiasm. Her analysis of the way the beauty industry works by playing on women’s insecurities may be accurate but is surely no different to the way advertising works across the spectrum. Fear of inadequacy has always been used to shift units, whether you’re selling compacts, cars or cottages in the Algarve.  

All of which is a shame, because Banyard has plenty of good stuff to say. It’s just that she weakens her argument (to use a traditionally male metaphor) by wanting to score more goals than the opposition in every match, rather than trusting that her line-up is strong enough to win on aggregate now and then and scoop the championship overall.

Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing she’d been standing behind me that day in Queen’s Park. Now that would have been entertaining… 

Picture by The Jordan Collective

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

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When I was at university, a supervisor picked me up on one of my essay writing habits. ‘Why do you always call the reader “he”?’ he asked. I replied that it was shorthand, that I couldn’t be bothered with adding the cumbersome ‘or she’ every third sentence, that the Elizabethans used to use ‘he’ as a neuter form (I was a cocky so-and-so) and that, as a woman, I was aware I could get away with it.

He looked at me kindly but sternly. ‘I think you need to think more carefully about the battles that have been fought about this issue,’ he said.

Marilyn French wouldn’t have needed such a reminder. Writing in the seventies, a few years after the crest of the second wave of feminism broke on western shores, she made the struggles of women for equal recognition and a voice in debate the lifeblood of her work.

Told from the perspective of Mira, a bright but deeply conventional woman who gradually learns to test and then finally reject the status quo she has been brought up with in small-town America, The Women’s Room blows apart accepted structures and forces readers to question whether what is is what has to be. It brings in the lives of numerous female characters, each of whom eventually runs up and smashes against the limitations of the world in which she is obliged to exist.

The book is so massive in scope (despite its domestic subject matter) that it’s tempting to think of it as a sort of female Odyssey, in which the heroine encounters a string of challenges in an effort to reach harmony and a true home. French would no doubt reject such a definition, however, as her narrative is nothing if not a struggle to find a way of articulating the mental fetters that bind women by breaking free of traditional masculine structures, Homeric epics and all.

Val, French’s most memorable and tragic character, puts it most succinctly:

‘We’re rebels against all establishments because we’re rebels against male supremacy, male surface bonding, male power, male structures. We want a completely different world, one so different that it’s hard to articulate, impossible to conceive of a structure for it’

And that’s the dilemma that makes the book so compelling: when all that’s biased and tainted is stripped away, precious little remains on which to build a new vision. Val has a stab at it, positing a sort of Utopian community not dissimilar to the Italian commune Germaine Greer sketches out in The Female Eunuch, but even she has to admit the vision is unconvincingly vague.

Witnessing the sad dissolution of the women’s lives, you can’t help but feel how difficult it is to envisage true equality in a system that is fundamentally constructed by and for men. We are all (men and women alike) so trapped in the world-view we’ve been fed and clothed in since we were born that imagining that there might be an alternative is challenge enough for most of us, let alone trying to thrash out what that alternative might look like.

Society, the book leaves you feeling,  would be entirely different if it had been constructed by women — not necessarily better, but very different. In such a world, instead of swallowing my arrogance and adding ‘or she’ into my assignments, I might not have been writing essays at all.

Picture by Galdo Trouchsky. With thanks to Georgina for recommending The Women’s Room.

Written by londonchoirgirl

June 25, 2011 at 9:06 am