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1. 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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2. 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.

ErnestineRose
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.

The post Atheism and feminism appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 24 Hours of Women Cartoonists: Dre Grigoropol

Screen Shot 2013 03 14 at 12.48.10 PM 24 Hours of Women Cartoonists: Dre Grigoropol

Dre Grigoropol has contributed to several anthologies and ‘zines, and works as an illustrator, cartoonist, and blogger. Her blogging work can often be seen addressing feminism and pop culture topics at Bust Magazine. Her latest long term project, DEE’S DREAM (pictured above) features the bohemian life of a young poet and rocker, and in particular the myriad complications of her romantic entanglements. A print version of the first episode of DEE’S DREAM, “Cosmic Wombat House” is currently available in self-published mini form. Dre’s style is versatile but always shows an appealing homage to manga lines. Her inking is particularly striking, as she moves between varying line widths for emotional effect. Aside from producing her comics and blogging, she’s also a rather astonishing body paint artist for cosplay contests and takes part in many indie comics shows in the mid-Atlantic region.

[*Disclaimer: you might well see Grigoropol's occasional reports about indie comix events featured right here on the Beat!]

 

 

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8. Crush: The Love Plan, by Angela Darling

Lauren is a girl who plans things.  She checks and double checks.  She loves having everything in its place.  So it really comes as no surprise that when it comes to love, she has a plan.  Lauren has come up with her love plan.  This is the summer that she will get Charlie not only to notice her, but fall for her just like she has fallen for him.  She knows from taking lots of multiple choice tests in teen magazines that she and Charlie are indeed soul mates.  She will get him to notice her through her flowcharted Operation Cell Phone, where she has planned each detail of their "chance" encounter.

The problem is Lauren hasn't even left for the beach and there is a wrench thrown into her plans.  Lauren's mom thought it would be fun to invite Chrissy along on vacation to keep only child Lauren company.  Lauren likes Chrissy alright, but she certainly isn't part of her plan.  And the worst part of it is that Lauren sort of told everyone at school that she and Charlie are already an item.What will Chrissy think when she sees the truth?

Lauren need not worry about Chrissy.  It turns out she is super understanding and supportive of Lauren's love plan.

Things start off great.  The girls get along famously, and Charlie is indeed at the beach with his friend Frank.  Lauren thinks this is just perfect because she can hang out with Charlie and Chrissy can hang with Frank.  But Lauren soon learns not only that the best laid plans don't always work out, but that crushing on someone from afar, is indeed different from knowing a person face to face.

This is an easy breezy beach read that gets the desperate tone of first crushes just right.  What I like is that Darling gives Chrissy and Lauren agency, and put it right out there that sometimes the boy with all the looks can be lacking in other areas.  This is a squeaky clean romance that will have tweensters flipping the pages to find out who Lauren will choose.

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9. Happy International Women’s Day. Celebrate YOU and The Women You Love

I love International Women’s Day (IWD). I think it’s important to celebrate women–ourselves, the strong girls and women in our lives who we love, and the women we admire and know from afar–especially while we live in a sexist and oppressive society. (Think we don’t need IWD? Check out this article.)

We are making a difference together towards a kinder, more compassionate, more equal world. Sometimes the changes feel so very slow…but they are happening. I think of how social workers, police officers, and teachers are more sensitized and aware of child abuse in the home now–far more than they were when I was a child and teen. Of how women are now in some occupations that they never could get into before–even if we’re often still struggling to get equal pay. LGBT rights are increasingly growing in the world, and so is an awareness that oppression of any kind is not okay. There is a lot of cause for hope and celebration, even as we continue to fight for a better world.

dancing under the rainbow
Mara ~earth light~ / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Even if we’re “just” putting greater compassion and kindness into the world through our everyday interactions with others, we are making positive change. We are helping the world be a kinder place. And that takes goodness and strength, especially when we’ve been faced with oppression or adversity ourselves.

So I hope you take today to celebrate yourself–all the good you put into the world–as well as the women you know and love. We matter. And we are making a difference together.

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10. Some More on the Bestselling Womens Book Club or BWFBC

Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.

Your suggestions clarified two things for us:

1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.

2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.

We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.

Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).

  1. Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce.

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11. BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Update)

Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.

If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:

Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.

The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.

I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.

I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).

JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!

You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.

I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.

God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.

I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.

KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.

I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.

Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”

JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.

I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone. :-(

KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.

There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.

JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.

It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.

All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.

Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.

Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.

It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?

I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.

Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.

The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.

KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:

1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).

I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.

Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.

JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!

1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.

Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.

I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.

Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.

The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.

I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)

KE: I have a few other comments.

We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.

Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:

“I love you, Jen—really.”

Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”

Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.

What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.

JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.

That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.

It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.

Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.

I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:

“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”

This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”

“Exactly.”

She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.

“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”

Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.

——-

So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?

Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.

0 Comments on BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Update) as of 3/13/2014 12:08:00 AM
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12. Is our language too masculine?

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As Women’s History month comes to a close, we wanted to share an important debate that Simon Blackburn, author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, participated in for IAITV. Joined by Scottish feminist linguist Deborah Cameron and feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, they look at what we can do to build a more feminist language.

Is our language inherently male? Some believe that the way we think and the words we use to describe our thoughts are masculine. Looking at our language from multiple points of views – lexically, philosophically, and historically – the debate asks if it’s possible for us to create a gender neutral language. If speech is fundamentally gendered, is there something else we can do to combat the way it is used so that it is no longer – at times – sexist?

What do you think can be done to build a more feminist language?

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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13. The Tweedles Go Electric – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: The Tweedles Go Electric Written by Monica Kulling Illustrated by Marie Lafrance Published by Groundwood Books, February 2014 Ages: 5-8 Themes: electric cars, early 20th century, historical fiction, inventions Opening sentences: The Tweedles don’t own a car. People think they’re behind the … Continue reading

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14. BWFBC: Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956)

Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.

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

If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:

KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.

JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.

Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.

KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.

JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*

Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.

KE: Also a classic text on classism.

What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).

The juxtapositions are whiplashing.

OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG

JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.

Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .

It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.

Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”

KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.

JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.

KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.

JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.

KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.

JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.

KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.

JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.

It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)

KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.

JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.

KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.

JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?

Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.

It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.

There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.

KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.

JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?

KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.

JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.

This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.

KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”

JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.

The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.

KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.

JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.

KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.

JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.

The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.

KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”

So I can see why the novel was a sensation.

JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!

That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.

KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.

JL: Ha! I guess that’s our TL;DR: ENEMAS!

Our Next Book: Ann Petry The Street (1946). Join us at the end of June to discuss the first ever bestseller in the US by an African-American woman. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

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15. Welcome to the OHR, Stephanie Gilmore

By Caitlin Tyler-Richards


This summer, our editor-in-chief Kathy Nasstrom is taking a well-deserved break, and leaving the Oral History Review and related cat-herding in the hands of the extremely capable Stephanie Gilmore. As some may have read in the Oral History Association’s most recent newsletter, Stephanie is a multitalented historian who works to combat sexual assault on university campuses. With a PhD in comparative women’s history from the Ohio State University, she is the author of Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America (Routledge, 2013), as well as many essays on sexuality and social activism. She serves as associate editor at The Feminist Wire and newsletter editor of the Committee of LGBT Historians’ biannual newsletter. She is also a member of the editorial collective at Feminist Studies.

A few weeks ago, I chatted with Stephanie about her experience with oral history, activist work and her plans for the OHR. I started with the most important and hard hitting question: “When did you first become interested in oral history?” Like many in the field, Stephanie told me she has always enjoyed listening to people talk about their lives and experience. She recalled one assignment in a undergrad women’s history course when she interviewed her own mother. While an admittedly simple approach to oral history, the experience drove home for Stephanie “that everyone has her own stories and experiences that can contribute to and complicate a larger history of a group.” This sentiment grew as Stephanie continued to work with women’s stories. She told me, “It was when I was working on my MA thesis on the Memphis chapter of NOW that I really came into the power and potential of oral histories. What I had learned about the women’s movement in its 1970s heydays was based on histories grounded in New York, Boston, and Chicago. These histories were often told as “national” histories of the US women’s movement. When I started studying feminist activism in Memphis, I discovered feminists whose lives were nothing like their counterparts in the North. The archival material was fairly rich, but only in talking to Memphis feminists about their lives and work did I actually learn how important southern identity was to them and to their activism.”

Stephanie had a similar experience working on her recently published book, Groundswell: “In Groundswell, I traced feminist activism through NOW in the 1970s and early 1980s in Memphis, Columbus, and San Francisco. Only through oral histories could I really understand how feminist activism shaped and was shaped by geographical location. For example, only in talking to Memphis feminists about their lives and work did I actually learn how important southern identity was to them and to their activism. But even more importantly, I found that archives could and would only tell me part of the histories I was looking to share and analyze. None of the people in my book are media ‘stars,’ but they were the rank-and-file movers of the women’s movement for equality and liberation. I could only find them by looking locally, and then by moving out of the archives and into people’s homes, coffeehouses, libraries, and other places I collected oral histories.”

Gilmore picture

Sophie Gilmore. © Sophie Gilmore. Do not reproduce without permission.

I learned that Stephanie uses oral history not only to study past feminists, but also to engage in her own activist work. After spending nearly a decade teaching, Stephanie became interested in issues outside the classroom — namely, how students react to and combat sexual violence in their everyday lives. At the moment, she is especially interested in understanding the gap between government and nonprofit research, which suggests approximately 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault while at school, and Cleary Center documents, which report that little to no sexual assault occurs on university and college campuses. In order to understand the disconnect, Stephanie works with women, students of color and LGBTQ students who did not report their sexual assault experiences. She told me she did this for two reasons in particular, “On one hand, institutions can learn a great deal from these students and can start addressing the problem of underreporting sexual violence. But I also seek to elevate the voices of those who have been most marginalized in and beyond the academy. There is a tremendous amount of attention devoted to the issue of sexual violence on college campuses, and we are wise to listen to those who have been the victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence as we contemplate and enact solutions.” Stephanie also wanted to let readers know that she gives lectures and workshops on this topic. She welcomes anyone interested in learning more about her programs to contact her through her website, www.stephaniegilmorephd.com.

The more I learned about Stephanie, the clearer it became why OHA director Cliff Kuhn contacted her about the OHR position. When I asked how she felt about coming to work with the journal, she responded, “I’m delighted to think even more explicitly and historically about the connections between social movement activism and oral history as a legacy of social justice work. I owe so much of my own professional success to feminist, queer, and antiracist activism AND to oral history – and I have been able to learn and see how activism and history are intimately related. Editing a journal is a tremendous amount of work, but the opportunity to continue shaping the field of oral history as it relates to social justice activism is thrilling!”

She certainly sounded excited to join the OHR, but what exactly did she have in mind for the journal? “What’s in store? We will continue the short-form initiative that Kathy Nasstrom initiated – it is so exciting to hear from scholars, activists, and oral history practitioners about new developments, theoretical questions, and the like – things that are not quite a traditional article-length publication but relevant and important nonetheless. But we will also be taking on a couple of new ventures.”

Such as?

“The 50th anniversary of the Oral History Association is upon us, and Teresa Barnett has agreed to help facilitate a special section of the journal to commemorate; It is a good time to see where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. We are also calling for papers for a OHR special issue, “Listening to and Learning from LGBTQ Lives.” The immediate interest in the call suggests that we are onto a good idea here! And of course, we are always excited to see what our readers submit –  so if people have ideas for short- or long-form articles, roundtables, or the like, please let me know!”

All in all readers, I think we’re in for a great time. Welcome to the team, Stephanie!

Caitlin Tyler-Richards is the editorial/media assistant at the Oral History Review. When not sharing profound witticisms at @OralHistReview, Caitlin pursues a PhD in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research revolves around the intersection of West African history, literature and identity construction, as well as a fledgling interest in digital humanities. Before coming to Madison, Caitlin worked for the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, add them to your circles on Google Plus, follow them on Tumblr, listen to them on Soundcloud, or follow their latest OUPblog posts via email or RSS to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.

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16. Men Explain Things to Me

I have never read an entire Rebecca Solnit book before. Oh yes, I’ve read an essay here and an essay there as they appear in magazines I read now and then. I have intended to read Field Guide to Getting Lost for ages but wouldn’t you know, as these things go, the first Solnit book I actually read cover to cover is her newest collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me. The book is slim but it packs quite a punch!

The title of the collection comes from the essay of the same name. I think I mentioned before that the essay, originally published on the internet, brought about the invention of the word Mansplaining. This word was not invented by Solnit and in a short afterward to her essay she says she doesn’t really like the word all that much because it makes a blanket assumption that men are inherently flawed this way and it allows people to laugh off the phenomenon. And what is that phenomenon exactly?

It is something that happens when a man/men and a woman/women are in conversation and the man makes the condescending assumption that he knows more than she does simply by virtue of being a man. Solnit’s essay describes a moment at a party in Aspen when a man was telling her about an important book that had just been published a few months previous. Solnit realized he was talking about her book and when she tried to engage him in discussion about the book it became clear that a) he didn’t believe that she was the author, and b) he had not read the book, only a review of the book. He remained undaunted, however, and continued to explain her book to her.

This essay sets the tone and theme for the entire collection. The essays that follow are squarely feminist and deal with issues like violence against women in general and rape specifically. She points out that while most men are not rapists nor are they violent, most all violent crime in the United States is committed by men and women aren’t generally known to rape men nor regularly commit violence against them. The onus of rape prevention is placed on women who are taught how to protect themselves and avoid dangerous situations while men are rarely talked to about not being rapists. Rape and violence against women is rarely seen as the civil rights and human rights issue that it is.

But the book is not all gloomy. There is a really wonderful essay about how feminism and the push for equality in marriage opened the door for same-sex marriage. The essay also discusses what might be one of the base fears of those who oppose same-sex marriage: it completely removes gender hierarchy from the relationship and opens up the relationship and the marriage, granting to people the freedom to define their own roles. And of course just as the feminist push for equality in marriage opened the door to the GLBT community, same-sex marriage will tip back over and affect how heterosexual couples relate to one another.

In another essay, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” Solnit talks about just how much things have changed since the feminist movement began. She also talks about revolutions and insists:

What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind.

Something to keep in mind given the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision.

This collection also includes the marvelous essay “Woolf’s Darkness” on Virginia Woolf, which is what prompted me to buy the book to begin with. The essay was even better the second time around and I plan on doing a whole post on it because Woolf. Love her. Love what Solnit writes about her.

Men Explain Things to Me turned out to be a good little collection. Depressing at times, but enjoyable too, and ultimately uplifting. I was left with a sense of communal feeling, of not being alone, of working on big ideas and changes with women and men all around the world. The book left me feeling pretty darn good.


Filed under: Books, Essays, Reviews Tagged: Feminism

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17. Akbar Jehan and the dialectic of resistance and accommodation

By Nyla Ali Khan


To analyze the personal, political, and intellectual trajectory of Akbar Jehan—the woman, the wife, the mother, and the Kashmiri nationalist, not simply an iconic and often misunderstood political figure—has been an emotionally tempestuous journey for me. The Kashmiri political and social activist is my maternal grandmother. I am so interested in studying her life and work because, to my mind, there is a historical value in challenging the historical narratives about the political actors of pre-and post-1947 Jammu and Kashmir and the movement for an autonomous and pluralistic Kashmir. I have attempted to steer clear of delimiting and constricting narratives about her life and work in my recent book. It is important to reshape the collective historical memory so that it includes the humanitarian and pluralistic endeavors of leaders of the movement at that critical time after the partition of India.

While teaching classes on Women’s and Gender Studies at the Universities of Nebraska and Oklahoma, I realized that history has done a rather inadequate job of memorializing the contributions of women political and social activists. Akbar Jehan’s work of sustaining the community, caring for the marginalized and disempowered at a turbulent time, has not been captured by professional historians, who have peripheralized the work of women in rebuilding societies following armed conflict.

With the oral and historical resources available to me, I investigated the impact of Akbar Jehan’s work on the legal, social, and economic status of women in Jammu and Kashmir. She was a passionate advocate of women’s education who sought to place girls—including those of impoverished backgrounds—in the modern and vibrant world of intellectual and scientific pursuits. Working with Lady Mountbatten, wife of the first Governor General of post-Partition India, Lord Mountbatten, Akbar Jehan advocated for repatriating young women who had been forcibly removed from their families during the partition of the country. According to my mother Suraiya and her older sister Khalida, Akbar Jehan also worked to restore the honor of those women who had borne the brunt of communal vendetta. Following the partition, she helped to form the Relief Committee and served on the chair of the Food Committee, which sought to address economic losses resulting from the collapse of the tourism sector and the subsequent rise in the cost of living. Later, Akbar Jehan founded the institute Markaz Behbudi Khawateen, still in operation today, which imparts literacy, training in arts and crafts, health care, and social security as tools of empowerment.

All of these efforts constitute a powerful rebuttal of the tendency among Western observers to conflate Islamic norms with practices. Western feminist epistemologies in particular, as I have observed in Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir, can impair the research paradigms, hypotheses, and field work on women in Islamic societies. Akbar Jehan believed that women citizens should be accorded equal rights with men in all fields of national life—economic, cultural, political, and in government services. She reinforced the idea that women should have the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men; women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though she argued that the law should also give special protections to mothers and children. In contrast to many Western feminists, however, Akbar Jehan gave equal credence to the path-paving work of women within religious, familial, and communal frameworks. Moreover, she sought to motivate education within minority communities (as opposed to state-controlled education), and above all she recognized culture and history as sites of political and social struggle.

Akbar Jehan understood that reforms and consciousness-raising could occur most decisively at the grassroots level, not in the corridors of power in New Delhi, nor in the plush halls of parliament. I would venture to say that the many harangues, digressions, dogmatic statements, and red tape of parliament could not intimidate an activist who had worked in the trenches and walked shoulder to shoulder with the leaders of the anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and Independence movements of the Indian subcontinent. Akbar Jehan was of the opinion that enfranchisement of both women and men, and assuring women of equal opportunities in education, are not empowering in themselves, but would cause a momentous shift in traditional gender relationships. To address these political obstacles, women who were active in politics in the 20th century sought not only to improve the position of their particular organizations but also to forge connections between the various women’s groups. One of their major accomplishments came in 1950, when the government of Jammu and Kashmir developed educational institutions for women on a large scale, including the first University, as well as a College for women. There remains much scholarly work to be done in exploring how women in civic associations and in government led the way toward a peaceful pluralistic democracy.

By virtue of her status among the major Kashmiri institutions, Akbar Jehan earned the authority to make major policy decisions. Thus, she enjoyed a privilege that other intelligent visionary women did not have. For example, she represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian parliament from 1977 to 1979 and 1984 to 1989, respectively. Akbar Jehan was also the first president of the Jammu and Kashmir Red Cross Society from 1947 to 1951. She was the first lady of Jammu and Kashmir from 1948–1953 and again from 1975–1982. So, it would be difficult to deny that making one’s vision a reality, particularly for a woman in the South Asian context, is contingent, to a certain extent, on socioeconomic privilege and political clout. And though Akbar Jehan’s critics have pointed out that her elite position gave her visibility and access to the echelons of power, this by no means diminishes her legacy.

khanNyla Ali Khan is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and member of the Harvard-based Scholars Strategy Network. She is the author of The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, and The Life of a Kashmiri Woman. She is also the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir, a contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2013), and a guest editor for Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Oxford Islamic Studies Online is an authoritative, dynamic resource that brings together the best current scholarship in the field for students, scholars, government officials, community groups, and librarians to foster a more accurate and informed understanding of the Islamic world. Oxford Islamic Studies Online features reference content and commentary by renowned scholars in areas such as global Islamic history, concepts, people, practices, politics, and culture, and is regularly updated as new content is commissioned and approved under the guidance of the Editor in Chief, John L. Esposito.

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18. Next on BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s Carol/Price of Salt (1952)

The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.

The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. It sold extremely well and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.

It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths, and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.

Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.1

  1. Yes, different timezones make for chaos.

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19. Women and Girls - Power or Not?

Kelly over at Stacked just wrote a powerful post on being a woman and speaking your mind. If you haven't already, head right over and read it. I'll wait for you. *quietly scrolling through tweets*

Ah, good. You're back. Kelly has a couple of, oh, ten or twenty cogent points, eh?  She is speaking truth to power - and to us.

The issues of gender and power, girls and power and the destructive subtlety of people speaking and working against women who wish to be themselves and self-directed has been a lifelong concern of mine. As a young fire-brand librarian I was active in Women Library Workers, a feminist library network and support group that now is in an embers stage of it's existence. I have stood down from much of my active work but I have never believed for a nano-second that we are in a "post-feminist" age.

My partner is a guy with a voice pitch that is slightly higher than encountered in most guys. He has spent considerable time on the phone in his jobs. When men on the other end of the phone mistakenly think they are talking to a women, to a man, they are patronizing, dismissive, abrupt and sassy. When the person on the other end thinks my partner is a man, he is treated completely differently.  This has been a conversational topic between us for over thirty years. "Post-feminist age," my eye.

When Kelly talks about the expectations that men and women have for women and girls I hear her talking. As I commented on her blogpost: "I was reminded of a photo going around FB where Jada Pinkett Smith was asked why she let her daughter shave her head. Pinkett Smith wrote, 'The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power, or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes, and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.' "

This spring I attended a wonderful and enpowering unconference at UW-Milwaukee called "Out of the Attic and into the Stacks: Feminism and LIS". Lots of students and lots of old-guard feminist librarians. It was great to be around that living timeline of  feminist librarians. One question that came up from the students to the vets was, "How do you bring feminism into your work?"

This is what I said: You bring feminism into your work every day in every way. By making sure that you purchase and display materials that highlight strong women and gentle men; that open up the hidden contributions of women and that highlight girls as strong and not just frilly.  You do programs that empower girls but also don't shut out either gender. When girls come in to your library, you compliment not their hair or clothes but tell them they are looking strong or tall or smart today. The messages that we give - no matter how small - matter.

We need to stand strong together on these issues of women and girls and power. It does make a difference and will make a difference for decades to come. But we have to commit to doing the support every day in every way.

Image: 'Superherohttp://www.flickr.com/photos/51336161@N02/5416260011 Found on flickrcc.net

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20. The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. I was a junior in high school that year and I wish I could say I was with it enough to know about the book but I didn’t even know who Margaret Atwood was back then. Not until I got to college and took a literature by women class did I learn about her. We did not read Handmaid’s Tale in that class. Instead, we read Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. Surfacing is tied for first with Alias Grace as my favorite Atwood book. Over the years I have managed to read Atwood’s poetry, a good many of her essays, and all but two of her novels, The Robber Bride and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I don’t know why I waited so long to read Handmaid’s Tale especially since I went to the dark side in college and became a feminist. Maybe it is because the book became so very popular and for awhile, especially when the movie came out (I did see that) everyone was reading the book. I am not generally accused of hopping onto bandwagons, so I stood aside and watched it drive on by. And after that it just became one of those books I needed to get to.

Well, I finally got to it. I was kind of disappointed. I liked the book and everything, don’t get me wrong. I found it intense and frightening, a story that is still all too possibly real. The writing is good, the story moves along and I found myself fearing for the safety of Offred. I hated the ending. That might be a big part of my disappointment. When I closed the book I had a “that’s all?” sort of feeling. I was expecting more, something bigger, something more damning of the way women are treated. But the style of the book, while not a diary, is diary-like and sort of documentary in a way. And even though I had feared for Offred, I didn’t get an emotional payoff at the end. Having the final chapter be a conference in the future on the history of what happened during the time of the book featuring a discussion on the provenance of the “tale” I had just read is such a bland way to wrap things up. The end needed punch, something like Orwell’s 1984 where Winston ends up loving Big Brother. Not that I want Offred to end loving the totalitarian state of Gilead, but something with a bit of oomph would have been more satisfactory.

Ending aside, Atwood does a fantastic job of creating Gilead and of explaining how it all came about. What resonated most for me was this simple bit:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

Isn’t that how a good many horrors happen? These lines made me think of WWII and the people living practically next door to concentration camps who said they had no idea what was going on. I like to think I would notice something like a concentration camp or even the small changes towards a totalitarian society but when I read books like Handmaid’s Tale there is a small part of me that worries I wouldn’t notice, that I would ignore. I don’t know what I fear more, the possibility of being a person who ignores or living in a society like Gilead.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, well it is, but there are moments of wry Atwood humor:

The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen.

“Pen Is Envy” Ha!

The Handmaid’s Tale has made its way onto high school and college reading lists. I am very glad for that because it seems a good book to foster discussion about women, religion, and politics. The book is jam-packed with juicy discussable things from the big and obvious to the small and subtle. I will leave you with one of my favorite subtle bits, one that gives me a chill every time I read it:

Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.

Now I suppose I should get around to reading Robber Bride so I can be all caught up on Atwood novels. Perhaps a book to put on my 2013 reading goals list.


Filed under: Books, Feminism, Margaret Atwood, Reviews

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21. Women and Youth Librarianship


On this the first day of Women's History month, the issues of gender and power are much on my mind.

Hi Miss Julie just wrote one of the most powerful posts I have read on the issue of the politics of this power and how woman are pushed towards silence. She turns a burning light on this in particular in her own life and then in relation to the world of children's work within librarianship.

This post links directly with her earlier post on recognition and youth work. For those in youth work who read this earlier post's comments section, it was stunning how utterly and completely some of the comments missed and blew past the point of her post. Dear Abby advice on how to "put yourself out there" wasn't where Julie's post was going. My read was she was calling out the larger world of librarianship for the disregard and disrespect for the marvelous and powerful work youth librarians are doing (although one commenter insisted that youth librarians don't really do anything innovative...oh, why yes, that *is* the sound of my teeth grinding).

There have been some ugly bullying of women bloggers, FBers and tweeters in the recent past - most swirl around the picayune-ness; the paltry-ness; the unimportance of our concerns - from Arcgate to our observations on how we appropriate cultural touchpoints. It's ok to provide book recommendations for another librarian's offspring but shut-up will you in the world of politics and opinion. Smile and be nice.

It is the subtle and not so subtle pushing women back and down - and in youth work, where our clientele is devalued because of their powerlessness in the larger society, we work under the burden of powerlessness by association in the eyes of some in our profession. Is it reflective of the larger society that so devalues women by insisting our little minds can't handle our own decisions on our lady parts? That continues to put roadblocks to upward mobility and insists that we need to be uber people that parent, work, achieve, clean, and look fetching and smile, smile , smile all the time? Um, yes.


The discussions on blogs and twitter have been painful and eye-opening. Here are some of the links that have particularly made me think deeply and know I - and many other women and youth library workers - are not entirely nuts in thinking "What the deuce is going on with our colleagues?" I thank Kelly Jensen and Sophie Brookover for some of these links.

Kelly over at Stacked
Kristin at Action Librarian
Ingrid at Magpie Librarian
Nicolas at information.games 
Justin at Beerbrarian
Me (I know this is so self-regarding)

There are more posts out there on the issues of women and librarianship, power and gender. Please share and let's keep this conversation going. These are issues of long standing, my friends, and battles that have been going on since long before I was a SLIS student and young librarian decades ago (I'll share those stories another day). I am just discouraged that 40 years later, we see the same poor behaviors.

Gender matters. Being supportive matters. Making sure there is an interlocutor between brain and mouth or fingertips matters. Let's get started on supporting each other and celebrating the work we all do on behalf of varied clienteles. Nobody is better than anybody. We are all in this together. Like that.

Image: 'The Hidden Beauty!'  http://www.flickr.com/photos/44345361@N06/5929570738 Found on flickrcc.net




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22. The Sleeping Lionesses Awake...


That's the way it feels to me lately. The issue of gender in librarianship, especially as it relates to those of us who work in youth librarianship, has been sleepily in the background for a long time.

A number of issues that have cropped up recently have brought the subject back to the forefront and women and men are standing up and saying, "Whoa! Wait! Stop!" "Let's back up here and get real again!". It feels as if powerful people who have long been sleeping are once again awakening and looking around - and want to claim -or reclaim -some power that has long been lost or trivialized.

Part of the discussion has been in the blogosophere; part on twitter and part on a librarian group on Facebook, Think Tank. What started in a somewhat rancorous way is building to something slightly different - an open and honest exploration of the roots of discourse on gender in librarianship. People are talking, exploring and sharing.

Kate Kosturski over at Librarian Kate blog has written two posts in the last few days tracing the scholarly research on gender and librarianship (here and here) and they are fascinating.  Her part 3 will be on youth librarianship as it relates to gender issues.  Please read the posts and consider sharing your experiences of gender bias in youth work with her at librariankate7578 at gmail dot com. I think we need to read more.

I can imagine the research is might thin on this topic. Other than recent blog posts , some of which I cited in my last post,  I have seldom read of youth librarianship and bias issues in my almost 40 years in the business. What there is probably was probably published in small presses and gathered in the marvelous Alternative Library Literature anthologies (edited by Jim Danky and Sandy Berman) of the '80s through early part of this century.

I, for one, am glad we're waking up to have this discussion.

Image: 'Open wide.....'  http://www.flickr.com/photos/66164549@N00/2884630721 Found on flickrcc.net

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23. VIDA at AWP



One of the most interesting discussions I saw at the AWP conference was one sponsored by VIDA, with editors and writers talking about the results of VIDA's 2013 count of female and male writers in various publications. This year, they were able to offer a particularly revealing set of graphs showing three year trends in book reviewing at major magazines and journals.

The only report of the discussion I've seen so far is that of VIDA volunteer Erin Hoover at The Nervous Breakdown (although I'm sure it was covered by Twitter when it happened). Hoover gives a good overview of the panel and the issues. I took lots of notes, so will here add some more detail to try to show how the discussion went.

After introductory remarks by moderator Jennine Capó Crucet, the first responses were made alphabetically by last name, and so two men began: Don Bogen, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review, and Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review. Bogen noted that, inspired by VIDA, he'd done a count of the poetry published by CR during his 7-year tenure and discovered to, really, his surprise that he'd achieved parity between male and female writers (or at least male and female bylines). How had he managed to do this unconsciously, he wondered? The best hypothesis he had was that he seeks real diversity of experience and point of view in poetry and has eclectic taste — indeed, the only poems he said he's not particularly interested in are ones that reflect his own experience. He noted that certainly the idea of parity depends on where one is counting from, as particular issues of the magazine would go one way or the other, and he tends to organize blocks of poems in between other genres in each issue in ways that have sometimes been balanced but also sometimes been entirely female or entirely male. Many times, too, he said, he does his best to read blind, paying little to no attention to a byline, and has often discovered that material he thought was "male" or "female" had been written by someone of another gender. Thus, the magic of literature.

Of the panelists, Stephen Corey seemed perhaps least comfortable with the discussion. His initial statement was simply a set of questions. (I think I managed to write them all down, but may have missed something.) When we talk about gender balance, he asked, are we talking about balance in submissions? In page counts? (Does a 30-page story count the same as a 1-page poem?) Should reviews be counted the same as poems, essays, or stories? Do you want an editor to read your work with gender in mind? Should a publication put out a call for more work by males or females? Should a publication put out an anti-call against one gender? When you read, do you care if what you read is by a man or a woman [audience: YES!], and should an editor care?

After Corey, E.J. Graff said so many interesting things I had trouble taking notes. Here's what I wrote down:

  • The count is an example of why all English majors should take a course in statistics. Graff: "I wish I had!"
  • The submission gap is enormous. With opinion pieces, women editors solicit women and are often turned down or need more time, whereas men often say yes and offer to get the piece done very quickly (important for current events).
  • Men continually send pitches after rejections, women don't.
  • Structural acculturation. We have to overcome our own socialization — and not just in terms of gender. The audience, for instance, was overwhelmingly white.
  • We must make our own choices conscious because many of our prejudices are unconcious. Graff pointed to the Implicit Association Test.
  • For students, there is a dramatic shift between the world of school and the world of work. It can be difficult to learn how to promote yourself. Men tend to do this more comfortably than women, because it's generally more socially acceptable for men.
  • Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.
  • When lesbians and gay men started working together in the 1980s, there were many difficulties, suspicions, and prejudices. To overcome these difficulties, many groups decided on a shared leadership structure that required equal power sharing between a man and a woman rather than just one leader. Why not do that with more prizes, editorships, groups?
Katha Pollitt (a personal hero of mine, and one of the main reasons I went to the panel) then offered her perspective, particularly as someone who has a long career as a poet and essayist, as well as a former editor with The Nation. Because I love Katha Pollitt, I tried to write as fast as she talked, and so here are my notes from her initial statement:
  • Some editors are quite conscious, others not at all — and some of the latter group are women. They can be very far away from consciously considering the issue, they can be very far away from any sort of balance, and yet still think they're doing great (and thus not need to become conscious).
  • As VIDA has shown, raising the issue can, sometimes, make change.
  • At The Nation, the front and back of the magazine are totally separate. In front, the subject areas (politics, news, current events) and speed of weekly publishing means the editors have settled on "go-to" people who they know are very reliable — maybe not the best writers, but they turn in clean copy on time. These editors would need to make the time to seek out new, female experts who are reliable. Some places have made such an effort — Alternet and Mother Jones, for instance.
  • You have to think about it (make the issue conscious) because we have to compensate for elements in the culture.
  • There are too many women trying to write in too few subject areas. Look at how many women are writing about Girls! Women should try to cultivate interest and knowledge in areas outside those seen as "feminine" or "women's issues".
  • If you're not getting submissions from women, you have to ask why. Why would a woman throw herself at your wall?
  • Most op-eds are solicited. Most slush piles aren't even read by an editor. Slush is not where the problem lies.
  • Things are fairer at newspapers. They have unions and must follow anti-discrimination policies.
Then the discussion moved on to questions and comments from the audience. Again, from notes, which may distort some things simply because I couldn't write fast enough. (I'll offer some summary and response at the end.)

Q: Is gender-identified subject matter more or less appealing? Also, racially-identified? Etc.
Don Bogen: An experience can be gendered, but not to the writer. Surprised plenty of times to discover the gender of a writer whose byline was indeterminate. The otherness of the imagination is important.

Q: 99% of news is what is seen to be traditionally male. Much of human life is dismissed as female.
E.J. Graff: It's worse than you know! The Global Media Monitoring Project statistics are horrifying. Women in the news are usually victims or family members ("the wife of", "the mother of", etc.). These create our implicit biases. Though, as Katha Pollitt said, there may be a good amount of female bylines in newspapers, the top editors and the columnists tend to be male.

Q: Wal-Mart has a huge effect on the economy because it is so large, and so getting Wal-Mart to change practices can have a massive ripple effect. Is there a Wal-Mart of the literary world that we should focus on trying to change?
[Some laughter, cross-talk]
Another audience member: The Wal-Mart is in the room. Unsubscribe from magazines you don't like the numbers for, and let them know. Let Harper's know. Let The New Yorker know. Don't let your subscription lapse silently — it's important that the magazines know why you are leaving them, and what it would take to get you back.

Q: Why is the literary world so obsessed with dudes from Brooklyn?! I don't want "women's literature", I want literature. Even when women are put forward, though, they become invisible.
Pollitt: Yes, why when Jonathan Franzen writes a book is everybody else suddenly invisible? Can Karen Russell get the same amount of notice? She should, but does she? It's a problem of publicity. Some women get attention. But does the attention last? Will it last? Can we make it last? The writers are there, the quality is there, the publicity is not.

VIDA volunteer: Feel empowered. Email magazines. Use knowledge to use your money and time well. VIDA is 10 volunteers. You are many. Vote with your dollars.

VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu: Most of the media reports on the count frame the story as, "It still sucks." And it does. But there's more to it than that. Many places say they need a comment from people such as New Yorker editor David Remnick if they're going to run a big story, but the editors of the highest-profile magazines won't talk, and so the story is not seen as journalistically significant. Behind the scenes, though, there is concern. One well-known female fiction writer gots calls from multiple editors when the count was released this year — the publications were embarrassed, and they wanted this writer to contribute. She didn't have any short fiction available and also didn't want to be the token female, so she gave the editors the names of 5 other writers who might be able to give them something.

Q for Katha Pollitt: Is there a perception among editors that there are female and male subject matter? Is more male subject matter being covered?
Pollitt: War, politics, etc. — these are not "male" subjects! More women are killed by war than men. Women's lives are deeply, intimately, and constantly affected by politics. These are human subjects. The New York Times has two male columnists who started out as food writers, a subject often associated with women. Get to know a lot about something interesting in a less crowded field and you will have an easier time getting published.

And then time ran out.

The take-away message was, as Erin Hoover wrote, consciousness. The world we live in is structurally biased against equality, and as people who live in this world, if we don't consciously work toward increasing equality, we will unconsciously contribute to inequality.

I love the idea that we could follow Don Bogen's lead and try to read and publish eclectically, seeking experiences and representations outside of our own, and thus achieve equality. But I don't think it would work. I expect he's an outlier and his example would be difficult, even impossible, to replicate. Worse, a stated interest in diversity might be used as cover. I think too many publishers and editors could just say to themselves, "Hey, we're nice, tolerant, liberal people who sorta like, you know, value that diversity thing. Yeah. We'll be equal," and then go right on reinforcing the status quo. I actually would prefer that someone just say, "I couldn't care less about equality," and not pretend.

Let's go back to Stephen Corey's questions. They're good for discussion, but I think they're problematic overall. With regard to page lengths and genres, etc., it's really not that hard to compare like to like, and VIDA, for instance, offers statistics in various breakdowns (books reviewed, reviewers, etc). The "overall" stats that VIDA provides are useful as a way to view the problem generally, but yes, there's a difference between a 200-word review and a 10,000-word article. The general view is useful, though. We're not to the point where distinctions necessarily say a lot. The trends are so bad that getting too specific is pretty much a waste of time. Maybe in the future it would be an interesting exercise, but right now the information is pretty damn unambiguous and shameful. As Don Bogen showed, there's plenty of reasons for an individual magazine issue or section of an issue to be dominated by women or men, but once you step back from individual issues and sections, once you increase the data set, then consistent, significant inequality speaks for itself.

Do we want editors to read our work with our gender in mind? I've never assumed they wouldn't. I'd love to live in a world where my gender presentation was irrelevant, but I don't live in that world, and pretending I do just reinforces a status quo I loathe. My name is Matthew and I physically present as male; that affects people's perceptions of me consciously and, especially, unconsciously. How much does that matter to any one editor? I assume a bit (at least), unless they want to give me multiple results from the Implicit Association Test showing that they are utterly unaffected by gender ... at which point I might assume they don't entirely care about my apparent maleness. Otherwise, I'm going to assume they're living in the same swamp of associations that I am.

Should there be a call made for more of one gender, or against another? Oh, please. This is a question better left to concern trolls. I can just imagine the sort of call that would go out: "Dear Womens: We don't know any female scribblers. Please submit to us so we can see if you know how to write. Thanks!" Or, even better, "Hey guys! These feminazis are doing their thing and we're afraid it might hurt our reputation in this politically correct environment, so please cut it out with the submissions for a while. Once we've published some girls, then we can get back to the real work."

More interesting to me is the question: Do you care about the gender of a writer you read, and should an editor care? The audience loudly affirmed that they care about the gender of writers they read. For me, this is a similar sort of problem to whether I care about if an editor knows my gender when I submit writing to them. In an ideal world where gender is as meaningful as handedness or eye color, a writer's gender for me would be an interesting and inconsequential detail. But I don't ever expect to live in such a world. Human culture has been and continues to be meaningfully and significantly affected by gender. To not care about a writer's gender in such a world is to not care about something that meaningfully and significantly affects that writer. So yes, I notice the gender of writers I read. I care about it. The world does not just naturally drop a nicely balanced group of male, female, and genderqueer writers on my readerly doorstep. The world makes it easiest for me to read white male writers who use the English language and publish with major publishers. I make the conscious effort to seek out others. (Among the books I'm currently reading: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin; The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde; Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux.) If I want to know about the world outside of my own experiences — and that really is why I read — then I have to pay attention to some of the categories the writers I read fall into. It's why I got interested in African literatures, even before I ever traveled to Africa. I can't imagine not reading such work now. Not for reasons of political correctness or some other overloaded scare term, but for purely selfish reasons: my life is richer and more interesting with such writings in it than not.

So it's probably not surprising that I think editors should notice and care, because otherwise the structures of our culture are going to notice and care for them, and will replicate the dominant status quo.

The most important thing to come out of the VIDA count, though, is a desire from editors, writers, and readers to actively fix the problem. This, it seems to me, is VIDA's real message and value. Here are the stats. If you don't care about them, then don't care about them. (You're an asshole, but maybe you're okay with that.) If these numbers shock, dismay, annoy, or even just vaguely bother you, then do something. If you're an editor, seek out female writers and work to make sure your venue is not one that posts various signs saying, "GIRLZ KEEP OUT!" (Hint: If you publish mostly male writers and seriously wonder why non-males don't submit more to you, you're behaving like an oblivious dunderhead.) Be conscious, put forth some effort, and don't start whining for cookies because you did what you should have been doing all along. If you're a reader, let the VIDA count guide you. Tin House, Poetry, and Threepenny Review are three magazines that have deliberately tried to get their numbers to be better, and they're three great magazines well worth your support. There are others, too, and will, I expect (I hope!), be more. If it matters to you, speak up with your voice and your writing, with where you submit work, and with where you spend money. We can be proactive.

And remember E.J. Graff's advice: Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.

2 Comments on VIDA at AWP, last added: 3/15/2013
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24. You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

sermonby Rachel Lieberman

I write YA, and I often ask myself, “Does my writing promote good messages to teen girls?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stories that preach = BIG FAT NO. Making your story a mouthpiece for your beliefs is never a good idea.

This is not your job.

BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to wonder who’s going to read your stories, and what those readers will get out of their experiences.

For my graduate lecture, I took a look at how feminist and post-feminist literary theory can help us look at YA literature and decide for ourselves what messages we want to send. Feminism is, at its core, the belief in equal rights for all genders, but of course there are many definitions and variations among those definitions. The question of choice (who gets to choose, and what they should choose) is sometimes a point of contention among critics.

20120104060816!Twilight_book_coverI think that one of the reasons so many critics find fault with Twilight and novels like it is because Bella’s choices may be her own, but they are consistently at odds with the choices we want our girls to make. When we show characters who consistently choose dangerous, controlling partners, our fear is that young adult readers will also choose dangerous, controlling partners.

I don’t think this is an invalid concern, but my intention isn’t to debate or argue it. That’s for another time, another post. My intention is to say, that if you’re a YA writer and this is something you are thinking about, there are ways to develop a good feminist story without making it preachy or propaganda. I’ll share some methods that I found useful and talked about in my lecture.

1. What does your main character want? If it’s just a relationship, consider that in real life, a desire for a relationship is usually a symptom of a deeper desire for something else, like security or acknowledgment. Consider what other forces might be at work, and you’ll avoid creating shallow characters whose problems can be solved by a significant other.

2. Make sure your character stays active. Find places in the story that force her to act, that take away her safety net and test her. This is true of practically any story, but in YA romances, it’s especially important. She doesn’t need to be a hero, but she shouldn’t rely on her love interest too much.

3. Pay attention to your character’s love interest. Speaking of the love interest, don’t forget to pay attention to him! Or her. What does he want? Does he act in a way that harms the main character, and if so, are there negative consequences? If your character has to choose between two love interests (very common these days), is the choice made too easy (by having one character turn out to be a jerk)?

4. Romance novel vs. novel with romantic elements. A romance novel is a little different than a novel with romantic elements. A romance novel’s plot is dependent on the relationship between two characters, so if you want to write a story with feminist undertones, you might choose the other path.

5. Why do your characters get together? Think about the reasons your characters are together. Is it because they find each other so attractive? Or do they share a deep, mutual connection? The more you develop the relationship, and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to connect with readers.

6. The moral of the story. All of these factors combined puts you in a better position to control the final factor: the moral of the story. Once you’ve finished a draft, it might be a good idea to take a look around. What’s happened to the characters? Who’s alive? What have they had to sacrifice? Your character’s rewards and punishments reveal a lot about your story’s message. Is it the message you want?

There are, of course, many more factors than these six that you will need to pay attention to in order to write a great novel. But this is a place to start if your aim is to write a story with romantic elements that will both appeal to teen readers and give them characters and situations they can look up to.

Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman works in higher education and writes YA. Her short fiction has appeared in Opium, Awkward, Emprise Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Tampa.

Visit Rachel’s blog: A Reputation in Digital Form: The Writerly Musings of Rachel Lieberman

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @LiebermanRachel

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

March Dystropia Madness


11 Comments on You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance, last added: 3/25/2013
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25. You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You: Feminism and the YA Romance

sermonby Rachel Lieberman

I write YA, and I often ask myself, “Does my writing promote good messages to teen girls?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Stories that preach = BIG FAT NO. Making your story a mouthpiece for your beliefs is never a good idea.

This is not your job.

BUT that doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to wonder who’s going to read your stories, and what those readers will get out of their experiences.

For my graduate lecture, I took a look at how feminist and post-feminist literary theory can help us look at YA literature and decide for ourselves what messages we want to send. Feminism is, at its core, the belief in equal rights for all genders, but of course there are many definitions and variations among those definitions. The question of choice (who gets to choose, and what they should choose) is sometimes a point of contention among critics.

20120104060816!Twilight_book_coverI think that one of the reasons so many critics find fault with Twilight and novels like it is because Bella’s choices may be her own, but they are consistently at odds with the choices we want our girls to make. When we show characters who consistently choose dangerous, controlling partners, our fear is that young adult readers will also choose dangerous, controlling partners.

I don’t think this is an invalid concern, but my intention isn’t to debate or argue it. That’s for another time, another post. My intention is to say, that if you’re a YA writer and this is something you are thinking about, there are ways to develop a good feminist story without making it preachy or propaganda. I’ll share some methods that I found useful and talked about in my lecture.

1. What does your main character want? If it’s just a relationship, consider that in real life, a desire for a relationship is usually a symptom of a deeper desire for something else, like security or acknowledgment. Consider what other forces might be at work, and you’ll avoid creating shallow characters whose problems can be solved by a significant other.

2. Make sure your character stays active. Find places in the story that force her to act, that take away her safety net and test her. This is true of practically any story, but in YA romances, it’s especially important. She doesn’t need to be a hero, but she shouldn’t rely on her love interest too much.

3. Pay attention to your character’s love interest. Speaking of the love interest, don’t forget to pay attention to him! Or her. What does he want? Does he act in a way that harms the main character, and if so, are there negative consequences? If your character has to choose between two love interests (very common these days), is the choice made too easy (by having one character turn out to be a jerk)?

4. Romance novel vs. novel with romantic elements. A romance novel is a little different than a novel with romantic elements. A romance novel’s plot is dependent on the relationship between two characters, so if you want to write a story with feminist undertones, you might choose the other path.

5. Why do your characters get together? Think about the reasons your characters are together. Is it because they find each other so attractive? Or do they share a deep, mutual connection? The more you develop the relationship, and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to connect with readers.

6. The moral of the story. All of these factors combined puts you in a better position to control the final factor: the moral of the story. Once you’ve finished a draft, it might be a good idea to take a look around. What’s happened to the characters? Who’s alive? What have they had to sacrifice? Your character’s rewards and punishments reveal a lot about your story’s message. Is it the message you want?

There are, of course, many more factors than these six that you will need to pay attention to in order to write a great novel. But this is a place to start if your aim is to write a story with romantic elements that will both appeal to teen readers and give them characters and situations they can look up to.

Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman works in higher education and writes YA. Her short fiction has appeared in Opium, Awkward, Emprise Review, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Tampa.

Visit Rachel’s blog: A Reputation in Digital Form: The Writerly Musings of Rachel Lieberman

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @LiebermanRachel

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

March Dystropia Madness


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