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1. Thinking Back with Our Foremothers: For Jane Marcus

It is far too early to tear down the barricades. Dancing shoes will not do. We still need our heavy boots and mine detectors.
—Jane Marcus, "Storming the Toolshed"
1. Seeking Refuge in Feminist Revolutions in Modernism
Last week, I spent two days at the Modernist Studies Association conference in Boston. I hadn't really been sure that I was going to go. I hemmed and hawed. I'd missed the call for papers, so hadn't even had a chance to possibly get on a panel or into a seminar. Conferences bring out about 742 different social anxieties that make their home in my backbrain. I would only know one or maybe two people there. Should I really spend the money on conference fees for a conference I was highly ambivalent about? I hemmed. I hawed.

In the end, though, I went, mostly because my advisor would be part of a seminar session honoring the late Jane Marcus, who had been her advisor. (I think of Marcus now as my grandadvisor, for multiple reasons, as will become clear soon.) The session was titled "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Feminist Revolutions in Modernism", the title being an homage to Marcus's essay "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers" from the 1981 anthology New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, itself an homage to the phrase in Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Various former students and colleagues of Marcus would circulate papers among themselves, then discuss them together at the seminar. Because of the mechanics of seminars, participants need to sign up fairly early, and I'd only registered for the conference itself a few days before it began, so there wasn't even any guarantee I'd been able to observe; outside participation is at the discretion of the seminar leader. Thankfully, the seminar leader allowed three of us to join as observers. (I'm trying not to use any names here, simply because of the nature of a seminar. I haven't asked anybody if I can talk about them, and seminars are not public, though the participants are listed in the conference program.)

Marcus was a socialist feminist who was very concerned with bringing people to the table, whether metaphorical or literal, and so of course nobody in the seminar would put up with the auditors being out on the margins, and they insisted that we sit at the table and introduce ourselves. Without knowing it, I sat next to a senior scholar in the field whose work has been central to my own. I'd never seen a picture of her, and to my eyes she looked young enough to be a grad student (the older I get, the younger everybody else gets!). When she introduced herself, I became little more than a fanboy for a moment, and it took all the self-control I could muster not to blurt out some ridiculousness like, "I just love you!" Thankfully, the seminar got started and then there was too much to think about for my inner fanboy to unleash himself. (I did tell her afterwards how useful her work had been to me, because that just seemed polite. Even senior scholars spent a lot of hours working in solitude and obscurity, wondering if their often esoteric efforts will ever be of any use to anybody. I wanted her to knows that hers had.) It soon became the single best event I've ever attended at an academic conference.

Jane Marcus

To explain why, and to get to the bigger questions I want to address here, I have to take a bit of a tangent to talk briefly about a couple of other events.

The day before the Marcus seminar, I'd attended a terrible panel. The papers that were about things I knew about seemed shallow to me, and the papers not about things I knew about seemed like pointless wankery. I seriously thought about just going home. "These are not my people," I thought. "I do not want to be in their academic world."

I also attended a "keynote roundtable" session where three scholars — Heather K. Love, Janet Lyon, and Tavia Nyong’o — discussed the theme of the conference: modernism and revolution. Sort of. It was an odd event, where Love and Nyong'o were in conversation with each other and Janet Lyon was a bit marginalized, simply because her concerns were somewhat different from Love and Nyong'o's and she hadn't been part of what is apparently a longstanding discussion between them. I mention this not as criticism, really, because though the side-lining of Lyon felt weird and sometimes awkward, the discussion was nonetheless interesting and vexing in a productive way. (I know Love and Nyong'o's work, and appreciate it a lot.) I especially appreciated their ideas about academia as, ideally, a refuge for some types of people who lack a space in other institutions and have been marginalized by ruling powers, even if there are no real solutions, given how deeply infused with ideas of finance and "usefulness" the contemporary university is, how exploitative are the practices of even small schools. (Nyong'o works at NYU, an institution that has become the mascot for neoliberalism. His recent blog essay "The Student Demand" is important reading, and was referenced a number of times during the roundtable.) As schools make more and more destructive decisions at the level of administration and without the faculty having much obvious ability to challenge them, the position of the tenure-tracked, salaried faculty member of conscience is difficult, for all sorts of reasons I won't go into here. As Nyong'o and Love pointed out, the moral position must often be that of a criminal in your own institution.

All of this was on my mind the next day as I listened to discussions of Jane Marcus. After the seminar, some of us went out to lunch together and the discussion continued. What I kept thinking about was the idea of refuge, and the way that certain traditions of teaching and writing have opened up spaces of refuge within spaces of hostility. Marcus stands as an exemplar here, both in her writing and her pedagogy. The question everyone kept coming back to was: How do we continue that work?

In her 1982 essay "Storming the Toolshed", Marcus reflected on the position of various feminist critics ("lupines" — she appropriated Quentin Bell's dismissive term for feminist Woolfians, reminding us that it is also a name for a flower):
Feminists often feel forced by economic realities to choose other methodologies and structures that will ensure sympathetic readings from university presses.We may be as middle class as Virginia Woolf, but few of us have the economic security her aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen's legacy gave her. The samizdat circulation among networks of feminist critics works only in a system where repression is equal. If all the members are unemployed or underemployed, unpublished or unrecognized, sisterhood flourishes, and sharing is a source of strength. When we all compete for one job or when one lupine grows bigger and bluer than her sisters with unnatural fertilizers from the establishment, the ranks thin out. Times are hard and getting harder.
Listening to her students and colleagues remember her, I was struck by how well Marcus had tended her own garden, how well she had tried to keep it from being fatally poisoned by the unnatural fertilizers of the institutions of which she was a part. She found opportunities for her students to research and publish in all sorts of places, she supported scholars she admired, and when she couldn't find opportunities for other people's work, she did was she could to create them. She was tenacious, dogged, sometimes even insufferable. This clearly did not always lead to the easiest of relationships, even with some of her best friends and favorite students. As with so many brilliant people, her virtues were intimately linked to her faults. Jane Marcus without her faults would not have been Jane Marcus. Faults and all ("I've never been so mad at somebody!"; "We didn't speak to each other for a year"), again and again people said: "Jane gave me my life."

There seemed to be a sense among the seminar participants that the sort of politically-committed, class-conscious feminism that Marcus so proudly stood for is on the wane in academia, and that while the field of modernist studies may be more open to marginalized writers than it was 30 or 40 years ago, the teaching of modernism in university classes remains very male, very Eliot-Pound-Joyce, with a bit of Woolf thrown in as appeasement to the hysterics. (I have no idea whether this is generally accurate, as I have not done any study of what's getting taught in classes that cover modernist stuffs, but it was the specific experience of a number of people at the conference.) Since the late '90s, there's been the historically-minded New Modernist Studies*, but the question keeps coming up: Does the New Modernist Studies do away with gender ... and if so, is the New Modernist Studies a throwback to the pre-feminist days? Anne Fernald looked at the state of things in the introduction to the 2013 issue of Modern Fiction Studies that she edited, an issue devoted to women writers:
The historical turn has revitalized modernist studies. Beginning in the late 1990s, its impact continues in new book series from Oxford and Columbia University Presses; in the Modernist Studies Association (MSA), whose annual conference has attracted hundreds of scholars; and in burgeoning digital archives such as the Modernist Journals Project. Nonetheless, one hallmark of the new modernist studies has been its lack of serious interest in women writers. Mfs has consistently published feminist work on and by women writers, including special issues on Spark, Bowen, Woolf, and Stein; still, this is the journal’s first issue on feminism as such in nineteen years. Modernism/modernity, the flagship journal of the new modernism and the MSA, has not, in nineteen years, devoted a special issue to a women writer or to feminist theory. Only eight essays in that journal have “feminist” or “feminism” as a key term, while an additional twenty-six have “women” as a key term. And, although The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms includes many women contributors, only one of the twenty-eight chapters mentions women in its title, and, of the six authors mentioned by name, only one—Jean Rhys—is a woman.
Similarly, Marcus's socialism and Marxism may not be especially welcome among the New Modernists, for as Max Brzezinski polemically suggests in "The New Modernist Studies: What's Left of Political Formalism?", the New in New Modernist Studies could easily slip into the neo in neo-liberal.

For scholars who have at least some sympathy with Marcus's political stance, there's a lot of deja vu, even weariness. How long, they wonder, must the same battles be fought?

For once, I'm not as pessimistic as other people. Routledge is launching a new journal of feminist modernism (with Anne Fernald as co-editor). Within the world of Virginia Woolf studies, much attention is being paid to Woolf's connections to anti-colonialism and to her ever-more-interesting writings in the last decade of her life. There is a strong transnational and postcolonial tendency among many scholars of modernism of exactly the sort that Marcus herself called for and exemplified, particularly in her later writings. Vigilance is necessary, but vigilance is always necessary. Networks of scholars and traditions of inquiry that Marcus participated in, contributed to, and in some cases founded remain strong.

As some of the people at the conference lamented the steps backward to regressive, patriarchal views, I thought of how lucky I've been in how I've learned to read and perceive this undefinable thing we call "modernism". The modernisms I perceive are ones where women are central. The Joyce-Pound-Eliot modernism is one I'm familiar with, but not one I think of first.

2. Foremothers

I discovered Woolf right around the time I discovered Joyce and Kafka. I was too young (12 or 13) to understand any of their work in any meaningful way, but something about them fascinated me. I flipped through their books, which I found at the local college library. I read Kafka's shortest stories. I memorized the first few lines of Finnegans Wake, though never managed to get more than a few pages into the book itself. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, enjoying the first chapter very much and not getting a lot from the later ones (I still don't, honestly. My tastes aren't Catholic enough). I skimmed the last section of Ulysses, looking to see how Joyce made Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness work. And then I read the first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway. That wasn't a library book, but a book I bought with my scant bits of allowance money, saved up for probably a month. It was a mass market paperback with a bright yellow cover. I read the first 50 or so pages of the book and found it enthralling and perplexing. It ended up being too much for me. But there was something there. The first paragraphs were among the most beautiful things I'd ever read.

Skip ahead five or six years and I'm a student at NYU, studying Dramatic Writing. A friend I respect exhorts me to take a course with Ilse Dusoir Lind, who has mostly retired but comes back now and then to teach a seminar, this term on Faulkner and Hemingway. She wrote some of the earliest critical articles on Faulkner and, she later tells me, helped found the Women's Studies program at NYU. My friend was right: her class is remarkable. I don't much like Hemingway except for some of his short stories, but she takes us through The Sun Also Rises, various stories, and The Garden of Eden with panache. (I particularly remember how ridiculous and yet captivating she thought The Garden of Eden was.) And then of course Faulkner, her great love. She taught us to read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, for which I will always be grateful. Thus, my first experience of academic modernism was an experience of two of the most major of major modernist men seen through the eyes of a brilliant woman.

Skip ahead a year or so later and I've just finished my junior year of college. I've decided to transfer from NYU to UNH for various reasons. It's a tough summer for me, a summer of reckoning with myself and my world. I work at the Plymouth State College bookstore, a place I've worked on and off for a number of summers since middle school. That June, the College is hosting the International Virginia Woolf Society's annual conference, organized by a relatively new member of the PSC English Department, Jeanne Dubino. My colleagues at the bookstore are all working as volunteers at the conference. They introduce me to Jeanne and I join the ranks of the volunteers. The bookstore goes all-out with displays. We stock pretty much every book by and about Woolf in print in the US. I remember opening the boxes and helping to shelve the books. None of us were efficient at shelving because we couldn't stop looking at the books.

Hermione Lee's biography had just come out and we hung a giant poster of it up. I bought a copy (35% employee discount!) and began to devour it. One night, I was working the registration desk. Hermione Lee came in. She was giving the keynote address. She was late, having been delayed by weather or something. She was tired, but friendy. "Can I still get my registration materials?" she asked. "Certainly," I said. "And might I ask you to sign my book in return?" She laughed, said of course, and did so while I finished with her paperwork.

I found the conference enthralling. I never wanted to go home. (My parents had just divorced; being at the conference was much more fun than being at the house with my father.) The passion of the participants was contagious. Jeanne was astoundingly composed and friendly for someone in charge of a whole academic conference, and we continued to talk about Woolf now and then until she left Plymouth for other climes. I got to know Woolf because I got to know Jeanne.

Skip forward 6 months to the spring term of my senior year at UNH. By some bit of luck and magic, the English Department offered an upper-level seminar on Woolf this term and I was able to fit it into my schedule. I was the only male in the class, and relatively early on one of the other students said to me, in a tone of voice reserved for a rare and yet quite unappealing insect, "Why are you here?" (What did I reply? I don't remember. I probably said because I like Woolf. Or maybe: Why not?) The instructor was Jean Kennard. We read all of the novels except Night and Day, plus we read A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, and numerous essays. It was one of the hardest courses I've ever taken, either undergrad or grad, and one of the best. It exhausted me to the bone, and yet I wouldn't have wanted it to do anything less. Few courses have ever stayed with me so well or let me draw on what I learned in them for so long. Prof. Kennard was exacting, interesting, and intimidatingly knowledgeable. I didn't dare read with anything less than close attention and care, even if that meant not sleeping much during the term, because I feared she would ask me a question in class and I would be unprepared and give a terrible answer, and there was no way I was going to allow myself to do that because I already identified as someone for whom Virginia Woolf's work was important. I figured either I'd do well in the class or I'd collapse and be put on medical leave. (I had other classes, of course, and I was acting in some plays, and there was a bit of work on the side to give me some income, so not many free hours for sleeping.)

In the days of the LitBlog Co-op in the early 2000s, I met Anne Fernald. I didn't know she was a Woolfian or involved in modernist studies; I knew her as a blogger. Eventually, we talked about Woolf. (When I moved to New Jersey in the summer of 2007, Anne gave me a tour of the area. I remember asking her how work on a critical edition of Mrs. Dalloway was coming, naively expecting that work must be almost done. We had to wait a few more years. It was worth the wait.)

I didn't really encounter modernism in a classroom again until recently, because it wasn't a part of my master's degree work, except peripherally in that to study Samuel Delany's influences, which I did for the master's thesis, meant to study a lot of modernism, though modernism through his eyes. But his eyes are those of a black, queer man influenced by many women and committed to feminism, so once again my view of modernism was not that of the patriarchal white order, even though plenty of white guys were important to it.

And then PhD classes and research, where once again women were central. (It was in one such class that I first read Jane Marcus's Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race.)

Thus, this quick overview of my own journey is a story of women and modernism. My own learning is very much the product of the sorts of efforts that Marcus and other feminist modernists made possible, the work they devoted their lives to. They are my foremothers, and the foremothers of so many other people as well. My experience may be unique in its weird bouncing across geographies and decades and media (I've never been very good at planning my life), but I hope it is not uncommon.

3. Reading Marcus

I've been reading lots of Jane Marcus for the last month or so. Previously, I'd only read Hearts of Darkness and a couple of the most famous earlier essays. Now, though, I've been combing through books and databases in search of her work. (At the MSA seminar, someone who had had to submit Marcus's CV for a grant application said it was 45 pages long. She published hundreds of essays and review-essays in addition to her books.)

I'm tempted to drop lots of quotes here — Marcus is eminently quotable. But perhaps a better use of this space would be to think about Marcus's own style of writing and thinking, the way she formed and organized her essays, which, much like Woolf's many essays, show a process of thought in development.

At the end of the first chapter of Hearts of Darkness, which collects some of her more recent work, Marcus writes:
The effort of these essays is toward an understanding of what marks the text in its context, to hear the humming noise whose rhythm alerts us to the time and place that produced it, as well as the edgy avant-garde tones of its projection into the modernist future. For modernism has had much more of a future than one could have imagined. In a new century the questions still before me concern the responsibility for writing those once vilified texts into classic status in a new social imaginary. If it was once the critic's role to argue the case for canonizing such works, perhaps it is now her role to question their status and explore their limits.
This statement concisely maps the direction of Marcus's thinking over the course of her career. Her efforts were first to recover texts that had fallen out of the sight of even the most serious of readers, then to advocate for those texts' merits, then to convince her students and colleagues to add those texts to curricula and, in many cases, to help bring them back into print. She argued, for instance, for a particular version of Virginia Woolf, one at odds with a common presentation of Woolf as fragile and apolitical and sensitive and tragic. Marcus was having none of that. Woolf was a remarkably strong woman, a nuanced political thinker whose ideas developed significantly over time and came to a kind of fruition in the 1930s, and a far more complex artist than she was said to be. Later, though, Marcus didn't need Woolf to be quite so much of a hero. She was still all the things she had been before, but she was also flawed, particularly when it came to race. The Woolf that Marcus looks at in "'A Very Fine Negress'" and "Britannia Rules The Waves" is in many ways an even more interesting Woolf than in Marcus's earlier writings, because she is still a Woolf of immense depth but also immense contradictions and blind spots and very human failures of perception and sympathy. Marcus's earlier Woolf is Wonder Woman (though one too often mistaken for a mousy, oversensitive, snobby, mentally ill Diana Prince), but her later Woolf is more like a brilliant, frustrating friend; someone striving to overcome all sorts of circumstances, someone capable of the most beautiful creations and insights, and yet also sometimes crushingly disappointing, sometimes even embarrassing. A human Woolf from whom we can learn so much about our own human failings. After all, if someone as remarkable as Woolf could be so flawed in some of her perceptions, what about us? In exploring the limits and questioning the status of the works we once needed to argue into the mainstream conversation, we also remind ourselves of our own limits, and perhaps we develop better tools with which to question our own status in whatever places, times, and circumstances we happen to inhabit.

This is not to say that Marcus's early work is irrelevant. Not at all. It is still quite thrilling to read, and rich with necessary insights. (If anything, it does make me sad that a number of her best, most cutting insights about academia and power relations remain fresh today. There's been progress, yes, but not nearly enough, and much that was bad in the past repeats and repeats into our future.) Here's an example, from a May 1987 review in the Women's Review of Books of E. Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical by Patricia Romero, a book Marcus thought misrepresented and misinterpreted its subject. Near the end, after detailing all the ways Romero fails Pankhurst, Marcus makes a sharp joke:
Sylvia Pankhurst has had her come-uppance so many times in this book that there's hardly anywhere for her to come down to. Romero says that she met her husband on the same day that she met Sylvia Pankhurst's statue in Ethiopia. One hopes that he fared better than Sylvia.
Ouch. But this joke serves as a conclusion to the litany of Romero's failures as Marcus saw them and turns then to a larger point:
Let it be clear that I am not calling for nurturant biographies of feminist heroines. I, too, as a student of suffrage, have several bones to pick with Sylvia Pankhurst. In writing The Suffragette Movement she not only distorted history to aggrandize the role of working-class suffragettes in winning the vote, but, more importantly, she wrote the script of the suffrage struggle as a family romance, a public Cinderella story with her mother and sister cast as the Wicked Stepmother and Stepsister. It was this script which provided George Dangerfield and almost every subsequent historian of suffrage with the materials for reading the movement as a comedy. Sylvia provided them with a false class analysis which persists. Patricia Romero now unwittingly wears the mantle woven by Sylvia Pankhurst as the historian so bent on the ruthless exposure of her subject that she gives the enemies of women another hysteric to batter — though the prim biographer would doubtless be horrified at the suggestion that the Sylvia Pankhurst whom she despises and exposes was engaged in a project similar to her own and is, in fact, her predecessor.
Such an amazingly rich paragraph! The review up to now has been Marcus showing the ways that she thinks Romero misrepresents Sylvia Pankhurst, and the effect is mostly to make us think Marcus venerates Pankhurst totally and is defending the honor of a hero against a detractor. But no. Her message is that feminist history deserves better: it deserves accuracy. Both Romero and Pankhurst failed this imperative by letting their ideologies and prejudices hide and mangle nuances. Both Romero and Pankhurst, wittingly or unwittingly, presented the deadly serious history of the suffrage movement as comedy. Both, wittingly or unwittingly, provided cover and even ammunition for misogynistic discourse. And that, ultimately, is the argument of Marcus's review. She sees her job as a reviewer not to be someone who gives thumbs up or thumbs down, but to be someone who can analyze what sort of conversation the book under review enters into and supports. The limitations she sees in the book are not just the limitations of one book, but limitations endemic to an entire way of presenting history.

She then brings the review back to Pankhurst and Romero's portrait of her, and now we as readers can appreciate a larger vantage to the evaluation, because we know it's not just about this book, but about historiography and feminism. Marcus mentions some other, better books (a hallmark of her reviews: she never leaves the reader wondering what else there is to read — in negative reviews such as this one, it's books that do a better job; in positive reviews, it's other books that contribute valuable knowledge to the conversation), then:
The problem with the historian's project of setting the record straight is that it flourishes best with a crooked record, the crookeder the better. Romero has found in Sylvia Pankhurst's life the perfect crooked record to suit her own iconoclastic urge.
We might think that Marcus here is holding herself apart from "the historian's project of setting the record straight", that she is setting herself up as somehow perfect in her own sensibilities. But in the next sentence she shows that is not the case:
Admitting one's own complicity as a feminist in all such iconoclastic activity, one is still disappointed in the results. I came to this book anticipating with a certain relish the pleasure of seeing Sylvia Pankhurst put in her place. But because the author writes with such contempt for her subject as well as for activism of all kinds, I came away with a deep respect for Sylvia Pankhurst and the work she did for social justice.
To be a feminist is to be iconoclastic. To be a feminist is to be faced with many crooked records. But this book can serve, Marcus seems to be saying, a warning of what can happen when the desire to be an iconoclast overcomes the desire to be accurate, and when one is tempted to add some crooks to the record before straightening it out. The danger is clearly implied: Beware that you do not depart too far from accuracy, lest you lead your reader to the opposite of the conclusions you want to impart.

Marcus would have been a wonderful blogger. Her writing style is discursive, filled with offhand references that would make for marvelous hyperlinks, and she doesn't waste a lot of time on transitions between ideas. At the MSA seminar, someone said that Marcus's process was to write lots of fragments and then edit them together when she needed a paper. Her writing is a kind of assemblage, both in the sense of Duchamp et al. and of Deleuze & Guattari.

(In the course where we read Hearts of Darkness, one of the other students pointed out that Marcus jumps all over the place and rarely seems to have a clear thesis — her ideas are accumulative, sometimes tangential, a series of insights working together toward an intellectual symphony. If we were to write like that, this student said, wouldn't we just get criticized for lack of focus, wouldn't our work be rejected by all the academic publishers we so desperately need to please if we are to have any hope of getting jobs or tenure? "She can write like that," our instructor said, "because she's Jane Marcus." Which in many ways is true. We read Jane Marcus to follow the lines of thought that Jane Marcus writes. It's hard to start out writing like that, but once you have a reputation, once your work is read because of your byline and not just because of your subject matter, you have more freedom of form. And yet I also think we should be working toward a world that allows and perhaps even encourages such writing, regardless of fame. Too many academic essays I read are distorted by the obsession with having a central claim; they sacrifice insight for repetitious metalanguage and constant drumbeating of The Major Point. It's no fun to read and it makes the writing feel like a tedious explication of the essay's own abstract. Marcus's writing has the verve, energy, and surprise of good essayistic writing. This was quite deliberate on her part — see her comments in "Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic" on Woolf as an essayist versus so many contemporary theorists. I don't entirely agree with her argument, since I don't think "difficult" writing should only be the province of "creative writers" and not critics, but I'd also much prefer that writers who are not geniuses aspire to write more like Woolf in her essays than like Derrida. And the insistence that academic writers build Swamp Thing jargonmonsters to prove their bona fides is ridiculous.)

Her discursive, sometimes rambling style serves Marcus well because it allows her to connect ideas that might otherwise get left by the wayside. Marcus makes the essay form do what it is best at doing. Her 1997 essay "Working Lips, Breaking Hearts: Class Acts in American Feminism" masterfully demonstrates this. At its most basic level, the essay is a review (or, as Marcus says, "a reading") of Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, which builds off of the work of Tillie Olsen, particularly her invaluable book Silences. But Marcus's essay is far more than just a look at this one anthology — it is also a tribute to Tillie Olsen, who herself influenced Marcus tremendously, a study of feminist-socialist theory and history, a manifesto about canons and canonicity, a personal memoir, and even, in one moving footnote, an obituary for Constance Coiner, a feminist scholar who died in the crash of TWA flight 800.

By writing about Olsen, a generation her elder, Marcus is able to take a long view of American feminism, its past and future. She's writing just as the feminists of the 1970s are becoming elders themselves and a new generation of feminists is moving the cause into new directions, often without sufficient attention to history. Discussing one of the essays in Listening to Silences, she writes:
More troublesome (or perhaps merely more difficult for me to see because of my own positionality) is Carla Kaplan's claim that my generation of American feminist critics used a reading model "based on identification of reader and heroine, and it tended to ignore class and race differences among women" (10). She assumes that the generation influenced by Olsen always produced such limited readings of exemplary texts — Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers", and Isak Dinesen's "The Blank Page" — without acknowledging that there was a strong and vocal objection to reading these texts historically as merely embodying the interests of certain feminist critics themselves. I know I was not alone in choosing never to teach them. (I have often said that these texts were chosen because they reflected the experience of feminists in the academy.) In addition, it seems important to make clear that the differences among women made by race, class, and sexual orientation were marked by many critics at the time (always by Gayatri Spivak and Lillian Robinson, e.g., and often by other nonmainstream feminist critics). There is a real danger in essentializing the work of a whole generation of feminists.
What Marcus repeatedly did for the history of British modernism, especially in the 1930s, she here does for the history of the movement she herself was part of: She calls for us not to reduce the history to a single tendency, not to make the participants into clones and drones. She acknowledges that some feminists in the 1970s and 1980s read from a place of self-identification, oblivious to race and class, but exhorts us to remember that not everyone did, and that in fact there was discussion among feminists not only about race and class, but about how to read as a feminist. She doesn't want to see her own generation and movement reduced to stereotypes in the way the British writers of the 1930s especially were. Throughout Hearts of Darkness, she writes about Nancy Cunard, first to overcome the many slanders of Cunard over the decades, but also to offer a useful contrast with Woolf in terms of racial perceptions and desires. She wants attention to Claude McKay and Mulk Raj Anand because only reading white and mostly male writers distorts history, which distorts our perception of ourselves: "It is my opinion that the study of the period would be greatly enriched by wresting it from the hands of those who leave out the women and the people of color who were active in the struggle for social change in Britain. It is important for students to know that leftists in the thirties were not all leviathans on the questions of race, gender, and class. Not all their hearts were dark. ...the critics before us deliberately left us in the dark about the presence of black and South Asian intellectuals on the cultural scene" (181). (Peter Kalliney's recent Commonwealth of Letters does some of the work of tracing these networks, and Anna Snaith has done exemplary work in and around all of this.)

"Working Lips, Breaking Hearts" brings all of these interests together, and does so not only for British and U.S. writers and activists of the 1930s, but also for Marcus's own generation of feminists. This is our history, she seems to say, and we must take care of it, or else what was done to the people of the 1930s by historians and literary critics will be done to us.

In "Suptionpremises", a blistering 2002 review-essay about critics' interpretations of whites' uses of black culture in the 1920s and 1930s, Marcus wrote:
Why should cross-racial identification with the oppressed be perceived as evil? Certainly, while it was both romantic and revolutionary and very much of the period, such love for the Other is not in itself a social evil. The embrace of the Other and the Other’s values and the Other’s arts, language, and music, has often been progressive. Interracial sex and interracial politics were and are important to any radical cultural agenda. Cunard and [Carl] Van Vechten were not sleeping with the enemy. One might even say that the bed, the barricade, the studio, and the boîte, or Paris nightclub, were the sites where the barriers to progressive human behavior were broken down.

But the mistaking of those whites who loved blacks, however motivated by desire, politics, or by sheer pleasure at hearing the music and seeing the extraordinary art of another people, as merely a set of cultural thieves does not contribute to our understanding of the cultural forces at work here.
The cultural forces at work were ones Marcus begins to see as queer:
The fear that motivates [critics] North, Douglas, and Gubar is the taint of the sexually perverse. What is the fear that motivates Archer-Straw and Bernard? Is it fear of the damage done to the stability of the black family and the wholeness of black art by the attention of queer white men and white women who broke the sexual race barrier? If we try to look at this from outside the separatist anxieties that are awakened on both sides of the color line by these early personal and political crossings, the modernist figures represent a rare coming together of radical politics, African and African American art and culture, and white internationalist avant-garde and Surrealist intellectuals. These encounters deserve attention as a queer moment in cultural history and I think that is the only way to get beyond the impasse of discomfort about the modernist race pioneers in our current critical thinking. If it is because of a certain liberated queer sexuality that certain figures could cross the color line, could try to speak black slang, however silly it sounded, then sex will have to take its place as a major component in the translation of ideas.
As she so often did, Marcus pays attention here to what she thinks are the forces and desires that construct certain interpretations. "Why this?" she asks again and again, "and why now?" What sort of work do these kinds of interpretations do, whom do they help and whom do they hurt, what do they make visible and what do they leave invisible? What social or personal need do they seem to serve? And then the implied question: Whom do my own interpretations help or hurt? What do I make visible or invisible by offering such an interpretation?

One of Marcus's masterpieces was not a book she wrote herself, but an annotated edition of Woolf's Three Guineas that she edited for Harcourt, published in 2006. Three Guineas had not been served well by most critics and editors over the years, and Marcus's edition was the first American edition to include the photographs Woolf originally included, but which, for reasons no-one I know of has been able to figure out, were dropped from all printings of the book after Woolf's death. Marcus provided a 35-page introduction, excerpts from Woolf's scrapbooks, annotations that sometimes become mini-essays of their own, and an annotated bibliography. It's a model of a scholarly edition aimed at common readers (as opposed to a scholarly edition aimed at scholars, which is a different [and also necessary] beast, e.g. the Shakespeare Head editions and the Cambridge editions of Woolf). (She had already laid out her principles for such Woolf editions in a jaunty, often funny, utterly overstuffed, and quite generous review of [primarily] Oxford and Penguin editions in 1994, and it seems to me that we can feel her chomping at the bit to do one of her own.) Three Guineas is in many ways the key text for Marcus, a book overlooked and scorned, even hated, but which she finds immense meaning in. Her annotated edition allows her to show exactly what meanings within the text so deeply affected her. It's a great gift, this edition, because it not only gives us a very good edition of an important book, but it lets us read along with Jane Marcus.

It's unfortunate that Marcus never got to realize her dream of a complete and unbowdlerized edition of Cunard's Negro anthology. Copyright law probably makes re-issuing the book an impossible task for at least another generation, given how many writers and artists it includes, although perhaps a publisher in a country with less absurd copyright regulations than the US could do it. (Aside: This is yet another example of how long copyright extensions destroy cultural knowledge.) Even the highly edited version from 1970 is now out of print, though given how Marcus blamed that edition for many misinterpretations of Cunard and her work, I doubt she'd be mourning its loss. I wish somebody could create a digital edition, at least. Even an illegal digital edition. Indeed, that would perhaps be most in the spirit of the original text and of Marcus — somebody should get hold of a copy of the first edition, scan it, and upload it to Pirate Bay. We need to be criminals in our institutions, after all...

4. Refuge and the Criminal

Let us go then, you and I, back to where we began: refuge and revolutions.
"the numbers show that the teaching staff at America's universities are much whiter and much more male than the general population, with Hispanics and African Americans especially underrepresented. At some schools, like Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Princeton, there are more foreign teachers than Hispanic and black teachers combined. The Ivy League's gender stats are particularly damning; men make up 68 percent and 70 percent of the teaching staff at Harvard and Princeton, respectively." Mother Jones, 23 November 2015
(Somewhere, Jane Marcus says that we may have to work and live in institutions, but that doesn't mean we have to like them.)
"Experts think that the more than $1.3 trillion in outstanding education debt in the U.S. is more than that of the rest of the world combined." Bloomberg, 13 October 2015
My own assemblage here breaks down, because I have no conclusions, only impressions and questions.

Photo: Nabil K. Mark, AP

Right now we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, a refugee crisis. In my own state of New Hampshire, the Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, said there should be a halt to accepting all refugees from Syria. It is an ignorant and immoral statement. Maggie Hassan is a typical centrist Democrat, always rushing to put disempowered people in the middle of the road to get run over by the monster trucks of the ruling class.
"Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center." NYT, 24 June 2015
Yesterday (as I write this), a man walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic with a gun. He killed three people before police were able to take him into custody. It was an act of terrorism, but will seldom be labelled that. Maggie Hassan will not call for middle-aged white men with beards to be barred from entry.
"The Republicans also organized a gun-buyer’s club, meeting in a conference room during work hours to design custom-made, monogrammed, silver-plated 'Tiffany-style' Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistols." Slate, 24 November 2015
As I write this, U.S. police officers have killed 1,033 people this year, including 204 unarmed people. The shooter at the Planned Parenthood clinic is very lucky to be alive. This proves it is actually possible for U.S. police not to kill people they intend to take into custody, even when they're armed. If the shooter had been a black man, though, I expect he would be dead right now.
"'We are locked and loaded,' he says, holding up a black 1911-style pistol. As he flashes the gun, he explains amid racial slurs that the men are headed to the Black Lives Matter protest outside Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct police headquarters. Their mission, he says, is 'a little reverse cultural enriching.'" Minneapolis Star Tribune, 25 November 2015
Laquan McDonald had a small folding knife and was running away. 16 bullets took him down.

(Have you seen M.I.A.'s new video, "Borders"? You should.)

(What can we use, too, from Wendy Brown's recent discussion of rifts over gender and womanhood? What is getting lost, and what is newly seen?)
"The year-to-date temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.55°F (0.86°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for January–October in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set in 2014 by 0.22°F (0.12°C). Eight of the first ten months in 2015 have been record warm for their respective months." —National Centers for Environmental Information
(I could go on and on and on. I won't, for all our sakes.)

After listening to Heather Love and Tavia Nyong'o at MSA, I came back to the idea I've been tossing around, inspired by Steve Shaviro's great book No Speed Limit, of the value of aesthetics to at least stand outside neoliberalism. Love and Nyong'o seemed dismissive of aesthetics, and I wanted to mention Commonwealth of Letters to them, and propose that perhaps if an art-for-art's-sake aesthetic is not, obviously, an instigator of utopian revolution, it may be a refuge. Kalliney shows that such an attention to aesthetics was just that for some colonial subjects in the 1930s who came to London to be writers and intellectuals. I am wary of an anti-aesthetic politics, a politics that seeks revolution but not the good life, a politics that does the work of neoliberalism by insisting on usefulness.

The university certainly has been an imperfect refuge, often just the opposite of refuge. Aesthetic attention will not open up a panacea or a utopia, nor will the refuge it provides be significantly more just and effective than the refuge of academia. But it is not nothing, and it is not anti-political. I think Marcus's writings demonstrate that. She recuperates The Years and Three Guineas not only by arguing for their political power, but for their aesthetic achievements. They survive, and we who cherish them are able to cherish them, not only because of what they say, but how they say it. Form matters. Form is matter.

Which is not to say, of course, that we should descend into a shallow formalism any more than we should wrap ourselves in the righteousness of an easy economism. Remember history. Remember nuance. Remember not to distort realities for the sake of an easy point. Don't provide cover for the exploiters and oppressors.

5. Art and Anger

Photographs of suffragettes lying bloody, hair dishevelled, hats askew, roused public anger toward the women, not their assailants. They were unladylike; they provoked the authorities. Demonstrations by students and blacks arouse similar responses. Thejustice of a cause is enhanced by the nonviolence of its adherents. But the response of the powerful when pressed for action has been such that only anger and violence have won change in the law or government policy. Similar contradictions and a double standard have characterized attitudes toward anger itself. While for the people, anger has been denounced as one of the seven deadly sins, divines and churchmen have always defended it as a necessary attribute of the leader. "Anger is one of the sinews of the soul" wrote Thomas Fuller, "he that wants it hath a maimed mind." "Anger has its proper use" declared Cardinal Manning, "Anger is the executive power of justice." Anger signifies strength in the strong, weakness in the weak. An angry mother is out of control; an angry father is exercising his authority. Our culture's ambivalence about anger reflects its defense of the status quo; the terrible swift sword is for fathers and kings, not daughters and subjects. The story of Judith and the story of Antigone have not been part of the education of daughters, as both Elizabeth Robins and Virginia Woolf point out, unless men have revised and rewritten them. It is hardly possible to read the poetry of Sappho, they both assure us, separate from centuries of scholarly calumny.
—Jane Marcus, "Art and Anger"

Why not create a new form of society founded on poverty and equality? Why not bring together people of all ages and both sexes and all shades of fame and obscurity so that they can talk, without mounting platforms or reading papers or wearing expensive clothes or eating expensive food? Would not such a society be worth, even as a form of education, all the papers on art and literature that have ever been read since the world began? Why not abolish prigs and prophets? Why not invent human intercourse? Why not try?
—Virginia Woolf, "Why?"

*In "Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies", Susan Stanford Friedman sums up some of the changes that made the New Modernist Studies seem new: "Modernism, for many, became a reflection of and engagement with a wide spectrum of historical changes, including intensified and alienating urbanization; the cataclysms of world war and technological progress run amok; the rise and fall of European empires; changing gender, class, and race relations; and technological inventions that radically changed the nature of everyday life, work, mobility, and communication. Once modernity became the defining cause of aesthetic engagements with it, the door opened to thinking about the specific conditions of modernity for different genders, races, sexualities, nations, and so forth. Modernity became modernities, a pluralization that spawned a plurality of modernisms and the circulations among them.

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2. The hijab can be a feminist act

Feminism and Islam are rarely considered to be complimentary to each other or even capable of coexisting. A mere cursory glance of any major media outlet and one can find endless articles, newscasts, and videos of radical Islam waging war against the West and systematically oppressing women. The image of the veiled Muslim woman has become emblematic of the patriarchal control Islam seems to yield unrelentingly over female followers of the faith.

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3. Book Review- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Penelopiad
Author: Margaret Atwood
Series: Canongate Myths
Published:  October 2005
Length:  198 pages
Source: library
Other info: Atwood has written many things, such as The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Heart Goes Last. The Penelopiad was written as part of the Canongate Myths series.
Summary : For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay...And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope's twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? 

Review: Since her husband Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War, and then gets caught up for ten years on the way back, Penelope has been left running her household, and fighting off suitors who want to marry her, and eat her out of house and home. Now that she's dead, she's ready to tell her side of the tale, as are the twelve maids who were hanged.
According to Goodreads, I read this a few years ago and gave it three stars, but I don't remember doing that. Now I know the Odyssey a bit more, and we're doing a feminist-orientated piece of English coursework, I decided to pick this up, and now I understand things better, I loved it.
There's reinterpretations and challenges to the characters and stories. Obviously, there's those against Odysseus, where there's the question of whether the Cyclops he fought was a monster or a one-eyed barkeeper, and whether his years with Circe and Calypso were spent in brothels or nymphs and witches. But there's also a conversation with Antinous, one of the suitors, explaining why they wanted to marry Penelope so much, and the presentation of Helen as vain, proud, and wanting to conquer men just because she can. Atwood has taken inspiration from multiple sources, not just Homer's epic, but also theories from Robert Graves (who used many writers to inform his work) and Homeric hymns. I like the possibilities this gave Atwood to work with, and the ways she used them.
Penelope's voice often dryly comments on various parts of the stories, and I enjoyed her different insights. What I liked most was the use of the chorus, the twelve maids, whose chapters mostly alternate with Penelope's and change styles each time. Poems, songs, plays, and a transcript of a modern-day murder trial are some of the ways the maids pass their story on in many ways. The writing is well crafted, allowing each of the styles as well as Penelope's main narration to work together to make a story that is intriguing and easy to read.

Overall: Strength 5 tea to a book that makes you think about the different interpretations a myth can have, and provides a new one.

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4. Key events and writings in contemporary Mormon feminism

Mormon feminism may seem to some a recent phenomenon, but events and writings in the history of Mormon feminism date back to the early 1970s. Here we have compiled these key moments in when Mormon women have engaged with question about gender in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a timeline of the pre-history and history of the Mormon feminist movement.

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5. How much do you know about Mormon feminists?

No issue in Mormonism has made more headlines than the faith's distinctive approach to sex and gender. From its polygamous nineteenth-century past to its twentieth-century stand against the Equal Rights Amendment and its twenty-first-century fight against same-sex marriage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has consistently positioned itself on the frontlines of battles over gender-related identities, roles, and rights.

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6. Building momentum for women in science

I recently attended an event at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine “Celebrating 200+ Women Professors”. The celebration of these women and their careers inspired me, especially as a “young” woman and an assistant professor. It was also humbling to hear about their successes in spite of the many challenges they faced solely due to their sex.

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7. Lady Macbeth on Capitol Hill

Describing her role as the ambitious political wife Claire Underwood in the American TV series House of Cards, Robin Wright recognized she is "Lady Macbeth to [Francis] Underwood’s Macbeth." At one point in the second series, Claire emboldens her wavering husband: "Trying’s not enough, Francis. I’ve done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do."

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8. Atheism and feminism

At first glance atheism and feminism are two sides of the same coin.

After all, the most passionate criticism of patriarchy has come from religious (or formerly religious) female scholars. First-hand experience of male domination in such contexts has led many to translate their views into direct political activism. As a result, the fight for women’s rights has often been inseparable from the critique of organised religion.

For example, a nineteenth-century campaigner for civil rights, Ernestine Rose, began by rebelling against an arranged marriage at the tender age of 16, and then gradually added other injustices she witnessed during her travels around Europe and the United States to her list of causes.

Rose was born in a Jewish family, and her religious background certainly affected her subsequent life in two distinct ways. Judaism fostered an inquisitive and critical attitude to the world around her, while at the same time making her aware of the gender inequalities in her own and other religious traditions. She went to the United States in 1836 where she soon started to give public lectures on ending slavery, religious freedom and women’s rights. After one of such public appearance, she was described by the local paper as a ‘female Atheist … a thousand times below a prostitute’.

Negative publicity meant that Rose’s popularity grew significantly, although her speeches were met with such outrage that had to flee the more conservative towns. She continued to make appearances at women’s rights conventions across the United States, although her outspoken atheism caused unease to both men and women.

It did not, however, stop her from becoming the president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854. She worked and made friends with other politically involved women of her time, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. Rose’s atheism was not exactly at the forefront of her struggle for justice but it implicitly informed her views and actions. For example, she blamed both organised religion and capitalism for the inferior status of women.

Bali 033 - Ubud - flower offerings
Flower offerings. By mckaysavage. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Well over a century later the number and variety of female atheists are growing. Nonetheless, atheism remains a male-dominated affair. Data collected by the Atheist Alliance International (2011) show that in Britain, women account for 21.6% of atheists (as opposed to 77.9% men). In the United States men make up 70% of Americans who identify as atheist. In Poland, 32% of atheists are female, and similarly in Australia it is 31.5% .

On rare occasions when female atheists appear in the media, they are invariably feminist activists. This is hardly a problem but unfortunately it leads to a conflation of feminist activism and atheism, which in turn makes the ‘everyday’ female atheists invisible. It also encourages stereotyping of the most simplistic sort whereby the feminist stance becomes the primary focus while the atheism is treated as an add-on. But the two do not necessarily go together, and the women may not see them as equally central to their lives.

As significant progress has been made with regard to gender equality, and traditional religion has largely lost its influence over women’s lives, the connection between atheism and feminism has become more complicated.

My current project involves talking to self-identified female atheists from Britain, Poland, Australia, and the United States. Times may have changed but the core values held by these women closely resemble those espoused by Ernestine Rose, and the passion with which they speak about global and local injustice indicates a very particular atheism, far removed from the detached, rational and scientific front presented by some of the famous (male) faces of the atheist movement.

Two themes have emerged. One is the ease with which an atheist identity can be combined with ethics of care and altruism (thus demonstrating the compatibility of non-belief with goodness). Two is discrimination against women within the atheist movement.

Ernestine Rose. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The latter reminds me of a paper I once heard at a Gender and Religion conference in Tel Aviv. The presenter compared two synagogues in Paris: a progressive and liberal one which had a female rabbi, and a conservative one which preserved the strict division of gender roles. The paradox lay in the fact that more instances of discrimination against women, including overt sexism and sexual harassment, were reported among the members of the liberal synagogue.

Clearly, nobody looks for sexism in a place defined as non-sexist. A similar paradox applies to atheists. An activist in the atheist community told me that she received the worst abuse from her fellow (male) atheists, not religious hardliners.

One of the explanations for women’s greater religiosity is their need for community, emotional support, and a guiding light in life. Conservative religions perform this role very well, but so do alternative spiritualities where traditional religion is in decline and women suffer from emotional, not material, deprivation.

Atheism does the same for my interviewees. The task of a sociologist is to de-familiarise the familiar and to find the unexpected in the everyday through the grace of serendipity. Female atheists find empowerment and means of expression in their atheism, while at the same time defining it for themselves, rather than relying on the prominent male figures in the atheist community. While on the surface they lack the structure present in religious communities of women, they create networks of support with other women where atheism is but one, albeit a crucial one, feature of their self-definition.

The openness provides a more inclusive and flexible starting point for coming together and fighting for equality and justice, not necessarily on the barricades. Activism is inspiring but values spread more effectively it is in the everyday, mundane activities. In this sense, deeply religious and deeply atheist women have a lot in common. Both find fulfilment and joy in forging connections with other people and creating a safe haven for themselves and those close to them.

The female atheist activists all say the same thing: ‘I do it because I want to help’. A modest statement which can achieve a lot in the long run.

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9. Unspeakable Things

I got myself on the hold list for Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution because of what Ana wrote about it. And like Ana all I want to say over and over again is “my heart needed these words.” The thing is, I didn’t know I needed these words until I started reading the book. But within the first few sentences I was hooked:

This is not a fairy tale.

This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine.

Unspeakable Things is unapologetically feminist. It is angry and it is not sorry for being angry either because there is a lot to be angry about.

Broken up into five essays that examine gender from different angles, the book is personal — Penny writes of spending time in a mental institution when she was 17 and anorexic — but also broader, historical, systemic, economic. This patriarchal neoliberal capitalist system we live in has damaged us all but especially women and GLBT folks and really anyone who doesn’t fit into prescribed gender roles.

In the chapter “Fucked-Up Girls” Penny looks at the female body and the ways in which it policed and controlled, the damage such policing does to the psyche of girls and women. In “Lost Boys” we see how patriarchy damages boys and men, makes them promises that are never delivered, and how these failed promises intensifies and promotes hatred of women. “Anticlimax” is about sex, sexual desire, sexual objectification, rape and reproduction. “Cybersexism” is about the promise of the internet to be a place free from sexism and how that has failed spectacularly. If you have been following the horror that is Gamergate over the last few months you will understand just how very ugly it is online. The book concludes with “Love and Lies,” a chapter about the load of bull we’ve been served up about love and romance. I actually thought this final chapter was the weakest. Nonetheless, it was still good and hard hitting.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how Penny doesn’t tone down her language, doesn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings, refuses to be a nice girl bland feminist who talks about problems but in such way that they can be dismissed as somehow happening somewhere else to someone else. She does acknowledge that all men aren’t rapists or woman haters but this does not let them off the hook:

What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour. What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis. You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world and still benefit from sexism, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt or discriminated against. That’s how oppression works.

What I loved about this book and why, like Ana, I want to say over and over, “my heart needed these words,” is because I feel like I have been recharged. I am reminded of how I felt in my early twenties when feminism found me in a college literature class and I was so very angry about how I had been lied to (girls can do anything!) and how I would challenge men on their sexist comments and behavior. And over the ensuing years that spark dwindled under the onslaught of every day sexism.

The spark was revived for a while when I worked for a feminist nonprofit that no longer exists. Recently, between Mala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize, things in my personal life, horrible news stories of domestic violence and rape, and gamergate, I’ve been feeling stirred up, grumpy, and sometimes just straight up pissed off. Unspeakable Things came along and relit the spark. It reminded me I am not alone in being pissed off; not alone in wanting to change the way things work. I’m finding my twenty-something courage again. It’s dulled by life and a thick crust of cynicism, but it’s in there.

In an Afterword Penny writes:

If we want to escape the straightjacket of gender under neoliberalism, we must stop trying so hard to hold ourselves and others up to impossible standards, standards we didn’t set ourselves. We have to resist the schooled inner voice telling us to be good girls, tough boys, perfect women, strong men. If we are to realize a greater collective humanity, we must learn to see one another as human beings first.

Unspeakable Things is a potentially incendiary book. It is dangerous. I highly recommend it.

Filed under: Books, Essays, Feminism, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Laurie Penny

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10. Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been popping up all over the place it seems these last several months and now I have finished it I understand why. Since I read Laurie Penny’s book just before picking this one up I can’t help but make a few comparisons. Both are essay collections but where Penny focuses on gender and patriarchy, Gay is more wide ranging with essays on competitive Scrabble, teaching, race, gender, books and movies. Penny is pissed off and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if she offends anyone. Gay is more measured, moderate, questioning and even funny. Both women have been raped. Penny almost died from anorexia. Gay struggles with being overweight. Both understand that feminism is a bigger issue than women having equal opportunity to make money. Gay refers to this as feminist essentialism and it is why she calls herself a bad feminist.

Feminist essentialism is what second wave feminism from the seventies got boxed into — humorless, militant, pornography-hating, hairy-legged, no make-up allowed women with unwavering principles and if you waver, you’re not a real feminist and you’re kicked out of the club. Second wave feminists also had a hard time addressing racial issues as well as heteronormativity. All this morphed into the kind of feminism Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about in a 2012 Atlantic article in which “real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own.” And later that same year in a Harper’s Bazaar article she added that real feminists also work hard to be beautiful and would never “misrepresent the cause by appearing less than hale and happy.” If that’s what feminism is, no wonder Gay calls herself a bad feminist. I’m bad too!

Gay admits to being a bundle of contradictions. She often finds herself singing along happily to songs that are blatantly misogynist but the tune is so catchy she just can’t help herself. She dates men she knows are not good for her and she has, and probably will again, fake an orgasm because it is easier than taking the time and effort to get what she wants from a man who she is sure she will never have sex with again. She really likes to watch bad reality television.

Feminism is not perfect, she says, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. We forget that feminism is powered by people and people are flawed and

[f]or whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.

Gay’s favorite definition of feminism was offered by an Australian woman named Su in 1996:

feminists are ‘just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.’

Gay has a fantastic essay, “Peculiar Benefits,” about privilege. Most of us who live in western industrialized countries have privilege of one kind or another. I’m white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied, and in a heterosexual relationship that allows me to be married (Minnesota allows same-sex marriage — yay! — but that didn’t happen until 2013). I probably have other privileges I haven’t even thought about. They are nothing to be ashamed of. They are to be recognized and acknowledged for what they are. I know there are people in my city and all over the world who don’t have half the privileges I do. I don’t have to do anything about it, but I try to in my own imperfect way. As Gay says,

You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. …You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good — try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done, and the results are shameful.

I could go on and on about how wonderful this book is. Gay’s writing on rape culture is excellent and her essay on trigger warnings, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” is a thoughtful discussion on the topic. Her examination of racism, especially in books, film and television, is also fantastic.

I read an interview with Gay recently (sorry, I don’t remember where!) in which she expressed her surprise that Bad Feminist is doing so well. This is her first foray into nonfiction, she considers herself a novelist, and this book was outside her comfort zone. I’m glad she wrote it and I hope there will be others. If you’ve not had a chance to read the book yet and are wondering if you should, yes, definitely give it a go.

Filed under: Books, Essays, Feminism, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Feminism, Roxanne Gay

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11. If Hermione were the Main Character in Harry Potter

While this blog post doesn’t contain uncensored swearing or sexual references, it does refer to a website story that does (and a related topic that features some random what-the information). So if you’re easily offended, now might be the time to temporarily click away. The sweary/sexual innuendo website story in question is BuzzFeed’s If Hermione […]

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12. Celebrating Women in STEM

It is becoming widely accepted that women have, historically, been underrepresented and often completely written out of work in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Explanations for the gender gap in STEM fields range from genetically-determined interests, structural and territorial segregation, discrimination, and historic stereotypes. As well as encouraging steps toward positive change, we would also like to retrospectively honour those women whose past works have been overlooked.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel to the first female winner of the Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, you can use our interactive timeline to learn more about the women whose works in STEM fields have changed our world.

With free Oxford University Press content, we tell the stories and share the research of both famous and forgotten women.

Featured image credit: Microscope. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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13. Pussy Riot’s real crime was feminism

In February 2012 a group of young women wearing balaclavas went into Moscow’s most grandiose Russian Orthodox cathedral and sang about 40 seconds of an anti-Putin song they’d written, before being bodily removed from the premises. Pussy Riot quickly became a household name. The chorus of their “Punk Prayer” prevailed upon the Virgin Mary to kick Putin out of power, and included the line: “Shit, shit, holy shit.” That night, they mixed the footage into a longer version of the song and put it up on the web, where it went viral. Three of the group were caught and jailed a few weeks later. Ekaterina Samutsevich appealed her sentence successfully and was released on probation in October of that year, while Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina remained imprisoned. Having become an international cause celebre for freedom of speech, the two were released two months ahead of schedule in December 2013, in advance of the Sochi Olympics.

The Russian judge in Pussy Riot’s trial had condemned them to jail for two years for committing the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred“. In short, they were sentenced for an ostensible hate crime against Russian Orthodoxy. What is not well known, however, is that in her sentence Judge Marina Syrova claimed that Pussy Riot’s belief in “feminism” was at the heart of their anti-religious beliefs, and thus was the motivator for their crime. As Syrova elaborated:

Pussy Riot by Denis Bochkarev. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Facebook.

“Affiliation with feminism in the Russian Federation is not a violation of the law or a crime. A series of religions, such as [Russian] orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, have a religious-dogmatic basis that is incompatible with the ideas of feminism. And while feminism is not a religious teaching, its representatives are invading such spheres of social relations as ethics, norms of decorum, relations in the family, [and] sexual relations, including nontraditional [sexual relations], that were historically built on the basis of a religious worldview. In the modern world, relations between nations and peoples, between various [religious] confessions, should be built on principles of mutual respect and equality. The idea of the superiority of one [belief], and, accordingly, the inferiority and unacceptability (nepriemlemosti) of another ideology, social group, [or] religion, gives grounds for mutual animosity and hatred, for interpersonal conflictual relations.”

In essence, the women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for being feminists.

After their release, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, now the “faces” of Pussy Riot, became the most sought-after female duo on the liberal speaker circuit. While in the United States, they gave a talk at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Forum in September 2014. I attended the event and asked a question: What had they thought of that particular part of the sentence, so little reported in the Western press? Tolokonnikova responded, “That was the most interesting part of the judge’s sentence for me, too.” She then told a story about how, during the trial — during which the prosecution complained that Pussy Riot had used swear words while inside the Church — she had asked Liubov Sokologorskaia, one of the witnesses for the prosecution (whose job was to mind the candleholders, icons, and blessed relics in the cathedral), whether “feminism” was a “dirty word” (brannoe slovo). “In the cathedral — yes,” was the response.

The Harvard Forum attendees laughed loudly at this story, but it captured an insidious theme at the trial. A week in, Larisa Pavlova, lawyer for the prosecution, had informed the court that feminism was a “mortal sin, like all unnatural manifestations associated with human life,” while outside the courthouse young people associated with the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, chanted slogans including, “The women’s revolt won’t be allowed,” and “Pussy should sit in a cell.” Apparently, Pussy Riot’s “crime” was not only to have spoken publicly against Putin, but to have embraced feminism and its dangerous defiance of traditional gender relations — a threat to the Russian church and state alike, as both depend on patriarchy for their legitimacy.

Heading image: Pussy Riot by Denis Bochkarev. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Rebel Girl: Lesley Gore’s voice

In 2005, Ms magazine published a conversation between pop singer Lesley Gore and Kathleen Hanna of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Hanna opened with a striking statement: “First time I heard your voice,” she said, “I went and bought everything of yours – trying to imitate you but find my own style.”

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15. Suffragist Lucy Stone in 10 facts

Lucy Stone, a nineteenth-century abolitionist and suffragist, became by the 1850s one of the most famous women in America. She was a brilliant orator, played a leading role in organizing and participating in national women’s rights conventions, served as president of the American Equal Rights Association [...]

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16. None of the Above – 2015 Diversity Reading Challenge

Today’s diversity read is one I had been looking forward to since meeting the author at one of the biannual SCBWI conference LGBTQ meetings a year ago. It doesn’t exactly fall into any of my categories, but boy, is it … Continue reading

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17. Secret Wonder Bondage Woman!

I recently read Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman alongside Noah Berlatsky's Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism, which had the bad luck to be published at nearly the same time. The two books complement each other well: Lepore is a historian and her interest is primarily in the biography of William Moulton Marston, the man who more or less invented Wonder Woman, while Berlatsky's primary interest is in analyzing the content of the various Wonder Woman comics from 1941-1948.

Lepore's book is a fun read, and it does an especially good job of showing the connections between late 19th-/early 20th-century feminism and the creation of Wonder Woman, particularly the influence of the birth control crusader and founder of what became Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. The connection to Sanger, as well as much else that Lepore reports, only became publicly known within the last few decades, as more details of Marston's living arrangements emerged: he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his legal wife, Elizabeth, and with his former student, Sanger's niece Olive Byrne (who after Marston's death in 1948 lived together for the rest of their very long lives). Some of the most fascinating pages of Lepore's book are not about Wonder Woman at all, but about the various political/religious/philosophical movements that informed the lives of Marston and the women he lived with. She also spends a lot of time (too much for me; I skimmed a bit) on Marston's academic work on lie detection and his promotion of the lie detector he invented. As she chronicles his various struggles to find financial success and some sort of renown, Lepore's Marston seems both sympathetic and exasperating, a bit of a genius and a bit of a con man.

Because she had unprecedented access to the family archives, and is an apparently tenacious researcher in every other archive she could get access to, Lepore is able to provide a complex view not only of Marston and his era, but especially of the women in his life — the women who were quite literally the co-creators of Wonder Woman: Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne. She is especially careful to document the contributions of Joye Hummel, a 19-year-old student in one of Marston's psychology classes who, after Oliver Byrne graded her exam (which "proved so good she thought Marston could have written it") was brought in to help work on Wonder Woman. Originally, Marston thought he could use Hummel as a source of current slang, and to do some basic work around the very busy office. "At first," Lepore writes, "Hummel typed Marston's scripts. Soon, she was writing scripts of her own. This required some studying. To help Hummel understand the idea behind Wonder Woman, Olive Byrne gave her a present: a copy of Margaret Sanger's 1920 book, Woman and the New Race. She said it was all she'd need." When Marston became ill first with polio and then cancer, Hummel became the primary writer for many of the Wonder Woman stories. (Lepore provides a useful index of all the Marston-era Wonder Woman stories and who worked on them, as best can be determined now.)

Lou Rogers, 1912
H.G. Peter, 1943/44
Lepore also has a few pages on Harry G. Peter, the artist who brought Wonder Woman to life, and does a fine job of showing how Peter, who was about 60 when he got the Wonder Woman assignment, was also influenced by the iconography of the suffrage movement. He had been an illustrator for Judge alongside the far better known Lou Rogers, who created some of the most famous artwork of the later suffrage movement. Lepore writes: "To Wonder Woman he brought, among other things, experience drawing suffrage cartoons." (Not a lot seems to be known about Peter — Lepore has a note stating that "details about Peter's life are difficult to find, largely because, after his death in 1958, his estate fell into the hands of dealers, who have been selling off his papers and drawings, one by one, for years, to private collectors.")

Marston was hardly a perfect man or role model, and one of the things the story of his life and the lives of the women around him shows is the complexity of trying to live outside social norms. While Marston had some extremely progressive ideas not only for his own time but for ours as well, he was also very much a product of his era and location. That's no earth-shaking insight, but Lepore does a good job of reminding us that for all his liberalism and even libertinism, Marston still had many of the flaws of any man of his age, or of ours. He truly seemed to dislike masculinity, and yet lived at a time when it was difficult to imagine any way of living outside of it or its hierarchies, and his ways of analyzing the effect of masculinity and patriarchy were very much bound by his era's common notions of gender, biology, propriety, and race. Lepore does a fine job of showing not only how the assumptions and discourses of a particular time, place, and class situation shape notions of the possible in Marston's life, but also in the lives and politics of the early 20th century feminist movement.

However, Lepore's book is seriously under-theorized, and that's where Berlatsky comes in. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is aimed at a general audience, and Lepore is a historian, not a theorist. This would be less of a problem if Marston's life and work didn't scream out for the insights of someone familiar both with feminist theory and, especially, queer theory. (Lepore actually seems quite uncomfortable with the sexual elements of the story, and even more so in an interview she did for NPR's Fresh Air, where she can't help giggling over it all.) Berlatsky makes the excellent choice to take the queer elements seriously. He organizes his book into three large chapters, the first focusing on feminism and bondage, the second on pacifism and violence, the third on queerness. A brief introduction gives background on the comic and its creators; the conclusion looks at Wonder Woman's (sad) fate after Marston's death.

Berlatsky's writing is accessible — he's perhaps best known for founding the Hooded Utilitarian blog, so he's used to writing for a non-academic audience. (The blog has tons of Wonder Woman material, including lots from before the book, so you can follow Berlatsky's thinking as it develops, get more information and imagery, and see Berlatsky in conversation with many thoughtful, informed commenters and guest bloggers.)  Though his prose is not heavily academic, Berlatsky is well-versed in comics scholarship and has some good knowledge of both feminist and queer theory, all of which he uses to fill a relatively short book with a real density of ideas. It helps that the early Wonder Woman comics are so strange and suggestive; even after Berlatsky's most thorough analyses, it still feels like there's plenty left to say. (Which is no slight to him.)

In the introduction, Berlatsky describes the 1941-1948 Wonder Woman comics as “…an endless ecstatic fever dream of dominance, submission, enslavement, and release.” His first chapter then offers various ideas about bondage and fantasy, with the majority of its pages devoted to a complex reading of Wonder Woman #16 (you can see Berlatsky first thinking about this issue in a 2009 post at HU that gives a good overview the plot and substance, as well as lots of samples of the art). Ultimately, Berlatsky argues that the story is a representation of, among other things, incest ... and I'm not sure I followed him there. Something about the analysis feels forced to me, though I don't have any good rebuttal to it.

Chapter Two was more convincing for me, as Berlatsky has some cogent insights about violence, maleness, and superheroes: "Looking at Spider-Man's origin makes clear, I think, that superhero violence is built on, and reliant on, masculinity." Is Wonder Woman different? "It is certainly true that, in Marston and Peter's initial conception, Wonder Woman, like other heroes, often solves problems in the quintessentially superhero manner. That is, she hits things." Wonder Woman also participated in World War II, as the first appearance of her character coincided with the US entry into the war. "It was natural that Wonder Woman's alter-ego, Diana Prince, worked as a secretary for army intelligence, just as it was natural for Wonder Woman herself to foil spy rings and Nazi plots. Superheroes and war went together as surely as did goodness and power." But Marston wanted Wonder Woman to be something other than just a fist-fighting warrior, thrilled to hit anybody she could find. She is a fighter, but, Berlatsky says, a pragmatic fighter for peace: "The Nazis embody war; therefore, fighting the Nazis is fighting on behalf of peace. Or, more broadly, masculinity embodies war; therefore, fighting on behalf of an America that Marston sees as feminine means fighting on behalf of peace."

Berlatsky then goes on to show how some of Marston's psychological and social theories (particularly about the force of love) find expression through the Wonder Woman stories. Coming off of Chapter One, I was a bit skeptical about all this, but by the end of Chapter Two, I'd pretty well been convinced. The evidence Berlatsky marshalls from Marston's writings, particularly his book Emotions of Normal People, is compelling. (Emotions of Normal People itself is a fascinating source. Lepore describes it thus: "Emotions of Normal People is, among other things, a defense of homosexuality, transvestitism, fetishism, and sadomasochism. Its chief argument is that much in emotional life that is generally regarded as abnormal…and is therefore commonly hidden and kept secret is actually not only normal but neuronal: it inheres within the very structure of the nervous system." Berlatsky uses it well in the second and third chapters to show where some of the oddest Wonder Woman moments derive from.)

Chapter Three is what really won me over, I will admit, particularly because Berlatsky brings in ideas from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Julia Serano to explore the implications of various situations and images throughout Wonder Woman. As it explores Marston's lesbophilia and the manifold queer implications of the Marston-era Wonder Woman comics, the chapter ranges across all sorts of subject matter, including, among other things, James Bond and Pussy Galore (from Goldfinger). Berlatsky notes that unlike Ian Fleming's women "Marston's women don't want the penis; rather, his men want the absence of a penis — a unique female power."

There's too much good stuff in this chapter for me to summarize, but one especially interesting bit involves the relationship of the vagina and penis in Marston's idea of sex. Berlatsky quotes Emotions of Normal People: "The [woman’s] captivation stimulus actually evokes changes in the male’s body designed to enable the woman’s body to capture it physically. …[During sex] the woman’s body by means of appropriate movements and vaginal contractions, continues to captivate the male body, which has altered its form precisely for that purpose." Berlatsky summarizes: "Penises don't defile Marston's vaginas; on the contrary, Marston's vaginas swallow up penises."

(If that sentence doesn't make you want to read this book, then there's really no hope for you!)

Berlatsky then shows how these ideas play out in Wonder Woman. "Men in Wonder Woman are never as disempowered and objectified as women in James Bond or gangsta rap or Gauguin — a couple thousand years of tropes don't just vanish because you have a vision of active vaginas. Thus, when Marston flips the binary from masculine/feminine to feminine/masculine, the result is not simple hierarchy inverted. Rather, it's heterosexuality inverted — which is another way of saying it's queer." He then develops this idea to show that "For Marston, essentialism and queerness are not in conflict. Instead, queerness is anchored in, and made possible by, an essentialist vision of femininity. Femininity for Marston doesn't just appear to be strong and love; it is strong and loving. Women for him capture men not just as metaphor but as scientific fact. And it is from those beliefs that you get [in Wonder Woman #41] Sleeping Beauty rescued/captured by a semisentient vagina, or men turning into women on Paradise Island. Femininity makes the world safe for polyamory. You can't have the second without the first."

It's these sorts of insights that would have brought more nuance and complexity to Lepore's portrayal of the role of early 20th-century feminism in Marston's creation of Wonder Woman, but we can be grateful that we can read the two books together.

I've only barely touched on Berlatsky's arguments here, and may have misrepresented them simply by trying to summarize, so if they seem especially bizarre or off-base, check the book. (They may still be bizarre, but to my thinking, at least, they're more often convincing than not.) It's an extremely difficult book to summarize because its ideas and arguments are carefully woven together, even as, in an initial reading, it all often feels quite off-the-cuff, like an improvised high-wire act.

Wonder Woman has suffered in popularity in comparison to male superheroes, and even in this age of wall-to-wall superhero media, a planned Wonder Woman movie has had all sorts of problems getting started. Of course, no Wonder Woman is going to be Marston's Wonder Woman, which is one reason why it's unfortunate that DC hasn't been able to finish re-releasing the 1941-1948 Wonder Woman stories — some, as far as I can tell, have never been reprinted at all, and the most comprehensive collection, part of the DC Archive Editions, petered out after seven volumes, ending with issues from 1946. (Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Comics is quite good.) For the casual reader, the material in the Wonder Woman Chronicles, which got up to three volumes before apparently stopping in 2012, works well, though some of the best and craziest comics come later.  There just doesn't seem to be enough demand from readers, and so a trove of wondrously strange material remains generally unavailable.

Perhaps Lepore and Berlatsky's books will create enough new interest to spur DC at least to finish the Archive Edition releases. Personally, what I'd most like to see is a 300-400 page "Best of the Marston Years" collection edited by Berlatsky, because only the real die-hards need all of the various Wonder Woman stories, and it would be nice to have a one-volume edition of the most engaging and exemplary material.

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18. Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part I

The guy at the front of the room was saying stuff I’d never heard a man say before, especially to a room full of young college guys. Through my basketball-player-eyes, I sized him up to be at least 6’5” with the broad shoulders of a power forward

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19. Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part II

In my 1980 interview with Chris Norton, he spoke of the tensions of being a pro-feminist man, of struggling with how to integrate his commitments to feminism with his daily life as a carpenter, where he worked with men who didn’t always share those commitments. He spoke of Men Against Sexist Violence’s (MASV) internal discussions of sexism and pornography, and of his own complicated relationship to feminism and other progressive politics.

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20. Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part III

Flash forward to 2010. I was now a tenured full professor. I was working with two young male Ph.D. students who in some ways reminded me of myself thirty years earlier—inspired by feminism, wanting to have an impact on the world. Both Tal Peretz and Max Greenberg had, as undergrads, gotten involved in campus-based violence prevention work with men.

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21. Women in the history of philosophy

For the most part, the practice of philosophy tends to be collective and conversational and collaborative. We enjoy reading what others have written on a given topic, and we like to hear what others have to say, because different people see things differently.

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22. BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)

Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.

Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. :-)

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

  1. Pun intentional.

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23. Technologies of sexiness

By Adrienne Evans

What does it mean for a woman to “feel sexy”? In our current consumer culture, the idea of achieving sexiness is all-pervasive: an expectation of contemporary femininity, wrapped up in objects ranging from underwear, shoes, sex toys, and erotic novels. Particular celebrities and “sex symbol” icons, ranging throughout the decades, are said to embody it: Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Farrah Fawcett, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Pamela Anderson, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox. Ways of achieving sexiness are suggested by new sex experts, confidence and self-esteem advocates, and make-up aficionados, who tell us how to “Have Better Sex!”, “Seduce Your Man!!”, “Look Sexy, Feel Sexy!!!”

All this expectation to be sexy, and to be constantly working on becoming sexy, has created a high level of cultural anxiety around sexiness — not to mention that this should remain “naturally” sexy, as though no work had gone into it at all (see, for example Jennifer Lopez’s “ordinary” sexy selfie in a bath full of rose petals).

Alongside these pressures, women’s feelings of sexiness now also take place in a period that’s been defined as “post-feminist.” It’s become culturally normative to assume the battles of the feminist period have been won, and that women now have equality with men. This means that, ironically, we are told how to do, think, act and feel sexy, as long as we’re doing it for ourselves. The expectation to feel sexy becomes as contradictory as a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.

How do women make sense of sexiness as part of feeling like a woman in the 21st Century? More importantly, one has to understand how generation figures into the equation, in terms of the “discursive repertories” that different age groups would have at their disposal in the context of “post-feminism.” How do women at different life stages negotiate the pressures to be sexy? Is sexiness achievable, or is the expectation too much? Do all women have an equal right to feel sexy? Who is missing from contemporary understandings of sexiness? How does the culture of sexiness interact with how women feel about themselves?

Postmodern sleeping beauty

During the research stage of our book, we spoke to two groups of white, heterosexual women, whom we called the “Pleasure Pursuers” (aged 25-35) and the “Functioning Feminists” (aged 45-55). Our discussions with these women were filled with stories of pleasure, pain, anxiety, fun, concern, disgust, and support. However, what was interesting was how both groups made sense of sexiness as a way of defining themselves as ‘good’ people: either as “good” new sexual subjects (fun and pleasure-seeking) or as “good” feminists (critical and nostalgic). Both allowed women to understand themselves in affirmative, authoritative ways. But the actual experience to feel sexy was something to work towards, or something that had already passed. Neither groups talked about feeling sexy in the here and now.

What it means to feel sexy now, today, is political. It folds together spheres of governmental policy, consumer culture, identity, and new digitally-driven feminist activism. The idea of a powerful and self-defined sexually confident woman has a strong pull for feminist researchers, as do calls to respect women’s “voice” and agency. However a consumer culture that sells confidence, choice and self-determination to women is way more difficult to defend. What we did find, though, through our discussions with women, was that their positions were slippery, contested full of contradiction, and never fully formed. For us, this spoke volumes about how to make sense of sexiness today, as a political construct, and as feminist academics and researchers.

Whether we’re pursuing the post-feminist promise of the sassy, sexy, self-determined, self-knowing feminine identity, or critically reacting against it, wishing it was replaced with more “authentic” feminist notions of sexiness, the cultural impulse to be sexy is side stepped. In a similar argument, Nina Power, author of One Dimensional Woman, warned us not to “be misled: The imperative to “Enjoy!” is omnipresent, but pleasure and happiness are almost entirely absent.” What it means for women to feel sexy today is what’s missing — and it’s these missing places, gaps, and contradictions, that deserve more critical inquiry and inter-generational dialogue.

Adrienne Evans is a Senior Lecturer in Media at Coventry University. Her main research interest is in exploring women’s contemporary sexual identities. Her current work continues in contemporary gender relations and the use of creative methods in research and teaching. She has published this work in the European Journal of Women’s Studies, Journal of Gender StudiesMen and MasculinitiesTeaching in Higher Education, and Feminism and Psychology. She is co-author of Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity, and Consumer Culture.

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Image: Postmodern Sleeping Beauty by Helga Weber. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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24. Theatre review- Travesti

Title: Travesti
Director: Rebecca Hill
Performed by: Unbound Productions
Major cast: John Askew, Dominic Attenborough, Aled Bidder, Hugo Bolton, Stanley Elridge, James Lawrence
Seen at: Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe

Review: Six men tell women's stories about things such as makeup, pressure, sex, and assault.
The set of six revolving mirrors is very effectively used throughout, as ironing boards, kitchens, display boards, and hanging spaces for the suits the actors wear at the start.
For a cast that all works very well together, I found it a shame that they put some actors out of action at various points in, the play, and they don't return until the end.
At times, they used songs to transition to the next topic. Props to Francesca Fenech, musical director, for putting in some really nice harmonies. Also, the actors have very good voices.
In parts, there's two or more stories being told at once. I have mixed reactions to this; it works at times when two contrasting opinions on one topic are being related, but sometimes it seems like they're talking over each other and interrupting in midsentence just for the sake of it  which made both stories disrupted and harder to follow.
They talk about a good range of topics, and it's interesting to see lots of perspectives on things.
Each individual actor is very good at using movement to emphasise the point that is being made. This is especially clear at the points when they strip, the way they do so and their expressions showing how the person being objectified at that point feels.
The concept of Travesti is a very good one, and does make you think about the differences between expectations and perceptions of genders in society; for example, people were laughing when the men were grinding and singing Do What You Want With My Body, while if it were women doing it then it wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary. It's a very good play to see starkly the way different genders are treated in society, in situations ranging in seriousness.

Overall: Strength 4 tea to a thought provoking, well performed piece that everyone should watch.

Links: Company

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25. A Woman’s Iliad?

Browsing my parents’ bookshelves recently, in the dog days that followed sending Anna Karenina off to press, I found myself staring at a row of small hardback volumes all the same size. One in particular, with the words Romola and George Eliot embossed in gold on the dark green spine, caught my attention. It was an Oxford World’s Classics pocket edition – a present to my grandmother from her younger sister, who wrote an affectionate inscription in curling black ink (“with Best Love to Dellie on her 20th birthday from Mabel, July 3rd 1917”), and forgot to rub out the price of 1 shilling and 3 pence pencilled inside the front cover. Inside the back cover, meanwhile, towards the bottom of a long list of World’s Classics titles, my heart missed a beat when I espied “Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: in preparation”: Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation was first published only in 1918.

As I drove homethat night with Romola in my bag, I thought about my grandmother reading Eliot’s novel (unusually set in Florence during the Renaissance, rather than in 19th-century England), and I also thought about the seismic changes taking place in Russia at the time of her birthday in 1917. I wondered whether she was given the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina for her 21st birthday, and was disappointed on a later visit to my parents to be presented with her copy of Nathan Haskell Dole’s pioneering but wholly inadequate translation, reprinted in the inexpensive Nelson Classics series. I pictured my grandmother struggling with sentences such as those describing Anna’s hostile engagement with her husband. After Karenin has begun upbraiding Anna for consorting too openly with Vronsky at the beginning of the novel (Part 2, chapter 9), we read, for example: ‘“Nu-s! I hear you,” she said, in a calm tone of banter’. The Maudes later translated this sentence into English (“Well, I’m listening! What next?” said she quietly and mockingly”), but they also changed Tolstoy’s punctuation, and the sarcastically deferential tone of Anna’s voice (Nu-s, ya slushayu, chto budet, – progovorila ona spokoino i nasmeshlivo – “Well, I’m ready to hear what is next,” she said coolly and derisively”).

Back in 1917, Oxford Word’s Classics “pocket editions” featured a line-drawn portrait of the author, but no other illustration. These days, nearly every edition of Anna Karenina has a picture of a woman on the cover, even if Tolstoy’s bearded face is absent opposite the title page. More often than not it will be a Russian woman, painted by a Russian artist, and while we know this is not Anna, it is as if the limits of our imagination are somehow curbed before we even start reading. The dust-jacket for the new hardback Oxford World’s Classics edition of Anna Karenina reproduces Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of Louise Jopling. The fact that this is an English painting of an English woman already mitigates against identifying her too closely with Anna, but this particular portrait is an inspired choice for other reasons, as I began to understand when I researched its history. To begin with, it was painted in 1879, just one year after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel. And the meticulous notes compiled by Vladimir Nabokov which anchor the events of the narrative between 1872 and 1876 also enable us to infer that the fictional Anna Karenina was about the same age as the real-life Louise Jopling, who was 36 when she sat for Millais. Their very different life paths, meanwhile, throw an interesting light on the theme at the centre of Tolstoy’s novel: the predicament of women.

Louise Jane Jopling (née Goode, later Rowe), by Sir John Everett Millais. National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 6612. Wikimedia Commons
Louise Jane Jopling (née Goode, later Rowe), by Sir John Everett Millais. National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 6612. Wikimedia Commons

Louise Jopling was one of the nine children born into the family of a railway contractor in Manchester in 1843. After getting married for the first time in 1861 at the age of 17 to Frank Romer, who was secretary to Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, she studied painting in Paris, but returned to London at the end of the decade when her husband was fired. By 1874, her first husband (a compulsive gambler) and two of her three children were dead, she had married for the second time, to the watercolour painter Joseph Jopling, exhibited at the Royal Academy, and become a fixture in London’s artistic life. To enjoy any kind of success as a female painter at that time in Victorian Britain was an achievement, but even more remarkable was Louise Jopling’s lifelong campaign to improve women’s rights. She founded a professional art school for women in 1887, was a vigorous supporter of women’s suffrage, won voting rights for women at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters after being elected, fought for women to be able to paint from nude models, and became the first woman member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1902. None of these doors were open to Anna Karenina as a member of St. Petersburg high society, although we learn in the course of the novel that she has a keen artistic sense, is a discerning reader, writes children’s fiction, and has a serious interest in education. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya similarly was never given the opportunity to fulfil her potential as a writer, photographer, and painter.

Louise Jopling was a beautiful woman, as is immediately apparent from Millais’ portrait. In her memoirs she describes posing for him in a carefully chosen embroidered black gown made in Paris, and consciously donning a charming and typically feminine expression to match. On the third day she came to sit for Millais, however, the two friends chanced to talk about something which made her feel indignant, and she forgot to wear her “designedly beautiful expression”. What was finally fixed in the portrait was a defiant and “rather hard” look, which, as she acknowledges, ultimately endowed her face with greater character. This peculiar combination of beauty and defiance is perhaps what most recalls the character of Anna Karenina, who in Part 5 of the novel confronts social prejudice and hypocrisy head-on by daring to attend the Imperial Opera in the full glare of the high society grandes dames who have rejected her.

Louise Jopling’s concern with how she is represented in her portrait, as a professional artist in her own right, as a painter’s model, and as a woman, also speaks to Tolstoy’s detailed exploration of the commodification and objectification of women in society and in art (as discussed by Amy Mandelker in her important study Framing Anna Karenina). It is for this reason that we encounter women in a variety of different situations (ranging from the unhappily married Anna, to the betrayed and careworn housewife Dolly, the young bride Kitty, the unmarried companion Varenka, and the former prostitute Marya), and three separate portraits of the heroine, seen from different points of view. Ernest Rhys interestingly compares Anna Karenina to “a woman’s Iliad” in his introduction to the 1914 Everyman’s Library edition of the novel. Another kind of woman’s Iliad could also be woven from the differing stories of some of Tolstoy’s intrepid early translators, amongst them Clara Bell, Isabel Hapgood, Rochelle S. Townsend, Constance Garnett, Louise Maude, Rosemary Edmonds, and Ann Dunnigan, to whom we owe a debt for paving the way.

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