Welcome to Harpy Seminar, a regular feature we plan to have at regular intervals, unless we get too busy to have it at regular intervals, in which case it shall appear whenever we have time and inclination for it. Each Seminar begins with a question, which we discuss amongst ourselves, and we then edit the highlights of our conversation into a post. Please feel free to join in in the comments!
This week’s question: What book or books do you (or would you) recommend to other feminists? Please interpret this as broadly as you wish: the book/s can be theoretical, or historical, or studies, or good fiction–whatever, whether it’s officially “feminist” or not. What have you read that helped you identify as a feminist, or gave voice to your concerns as a feminist?
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: One of the reasons I stopped reading fiction around the age of sixteen was that I just could not find any representations of female characters that resonated with me or even felt like it was an incisive depiction of women’s lives within the sphere of societal dictates.
I delved into nonfiction, starting with theological history, like the works of Barbara G. Walker, Elaine Pagels, and Karen Armstrong. They opened my eyes to the treatment of women in organized religion, from shunting them aside to systematic oppression. Pagels’ Adam, Eve, and the Serpent was particularly influential, and she simultaneously won a National Book Award and was slammed by the uber-conservative Christian Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
I was raised in an extremely liberal and mainly atheist household, where the oppression of women was not something I recognized as a daily occurrence in my life. Reading Pagels and Walker really showed me exactly how necessary feminism is, in both theistic and atheistic contexts.
BeckySharper: I can’t remember ever reading anything and having a “eureka” moment of feminist enlightenment, but even as a kid I was always drawn to books about strong women, probably because I grew up with well-educated, empowered women, so I sought out books about similar women. My aunt gave me a copy of Jane Eyre when I was nine and it became one of my favorite books ever, because Jane had such an iron backbone, and because I thought of myself as a bit of an ugly duckling, too. The same could probably be said of my love for Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls Wilder. And of course, I always had a fondness for Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, who is not in any way a nice or even sympathetic character, but she’s resourceful, cunning and determined to make the best of the hand she was dealt, patriarchy be damned!
SarahMC: I have not read any official feminist books. I know, crazy, right? But I recommend the novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman. It was published in 1969 and was described as the “first feminist novel” by its original publisher. It’s about Sasha Davis, a rebellious Midwestern girl who struggles to find herself whilst living in a male-dominated society. Some things have changed, but too much as stayed the same since the 40’s and 50’s.
PhDork: Rebellious Midwestern girl in a male-dominated society? YO SOY SASHA DAVIS. I’ve heard of AKS, but never read that book. There are tons of books that I look back on from my childhood and can understand what I liked about them (like Ann of Green Gables, the Little House books, the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett), but more recently, one non-fiction book I’ve gone back to time and again was Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Biography. Angier is smart and readable, and I am endlessly fascinated by the amazing abilities of human, especially female, bodies. It made me think differently about my body, and what it can do.
As far as books that were more explicitly feminist (but not theory-heavy) that made me get all farrred up early in my college days: Carol Tavris’s The Mismeasure of Women, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and Jean Kilbourne’s Deadly Persuasions. I would recommend them to anyone looking for a smart, enlightening read.
And of course everyone has to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. RIGHT NOW.
Becky Sharper: Can I also put in a plug for the classic of classics, Our Bodies, Ourselves? My mother had the first edition, which I would pull off the shelf and sneak-read when she wasn’t at home. Oh the education I received! And then when I was 15, she gave me a copy of my own–the second edition–and I now have the latest edition. It’s one-stop shopping for accurate, empathetic information about women’s health and nearly every other aspect of our lives. Fuck the Gideon Bible–it’s Our Bodies, Ourselves that should be handed out for free to every woman in the world.
Pilgrim Soul: OMG, PHDORK, IT’S ANNE WITH AN “E”. She would have been horrified. She was pretty formative for me; my parents began reading me the books when I was six. I also loved Emily of New Moon. L.M. Montgomery is wonderful for all the awesome women in her books. I still to this day, hear Mrs. Lynde telling me “Pilgrim Soul, you are HEEDLESS and IMPULSIVE!” at least once a day.
My feminist awakening came in a class, as you know, so I don’t actually associate it with text in quite the same way. I read a lot of MacKinnon and Butler early on, but I would just, were I advising someone today, say just go straight to “A Room of One’s Own.” I’m not a fan of Woolf’s fiction, but that essay illuminated so many things for me and my friends when we were lit students.
PhDork: It was a typo, I swear. A heedless and impulsive typo.
So, readers, what life-changing books have you read? What would you recommend to your fellow Harpies?