Entry 6: Thoughts From an Enthusiastic Reader

Storytelling as the ‘Other’ (Part 2) is coming soon I promise! But I haven’t quite finished sorting through all the data yet to compose what I really want to say/explain/impart. So instead I thought I would give an update on my latest reading endeavours.

First and foremost on my mind has been a book called Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era. This is a recent study on feminism (published in 2014) by Kristin J. Anderson, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown in the US. I read this book over a cup or two of coffee in a single afternoon (it was honestly that good!). If you’re looking for a concise, well-researched, but easy-to-read summary of the state of Western feminism (or post-feminism) today, then this is a must-read.

While Anderson doesn’t discuss women’s leadership in any great detail, feminism is one of the key informing concepts I’ll be using in my research to justify the use of women’s literature and the value of women’s perspectives. Rather than being gender-neutral as many people would like to believe, leadership discourses are still informed, however implicitly, by hegemonic masculinity and “impregnated with concepts of the hero” (Ford, Harding & Learmonth, 2008, p. 116)

Anderson begins her analysis by discussing post-feminism, she writes that “…post-feminism is marked by the shift from feminism as a collective movement for women’s liberation to superficial empowerment of the individual and her choices” (p. 19). In this neoliberal, and increasingly narcissistic and self-focused culture, feminist goals, Anderson contends, have been depoliticised and collective action rendered largely irrelevant: “Post-feminism is about the individual woman – personal choice, individual expression, and individual career success – and no recognition of the need for a united and collective social movement to liberate all women and enact structural change” (p. 19).

Anderson then goes on to discuss a whole range of current feminist issues, including hyper-sexualisation and pseudo ‘empowerment’ in Western culture, sexism as part of a wider system of inequality, the double bind faced by women in the workplace, popular understandings of the term ‘feminism’ (i.e. ‘man-hating’ feminism), and the ‘end of men’ and the ‘boys crisis.’

The key point Anderson makes is that we still need feminism (and not post-feminism), and I think she does a fantastic job of explaining why. I particularly like this salient quote:

Feminists tend to see women and men as not very different from each other, and this is threatening to the gender status quo. If, as feminism argues, women can do what previously only men were thought to be able to do, then you can see how some would perceive manhood as under assault and the perpetrator of the assault feminism. Manhood is exclusionary and, to the extent that men’s activities can be performed by women, it is no longer a special role, no longer male. If women can perform the men’s role, it must mean neither the qualities nor the role are so special after all. (p. 66)

As a result, a whole tribe of anti-feminist authors (for example, Kate O’Briene, Harvey Mansfield, Roy Baumeister, C. H. Sommers, to name a few) have emerged who are not interested in equality but rather “in keeping boys and men at the centre. But not any men, white men in particular” (p. 163). I really like how Anderson alludes to this idea of an identifiable “centre,” a centre that has the potential to be deconstructed and re-imagined. While replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, or male with female, is not my intention, there is definitely room to destabilise systems of inequality by exploring and emphasizing women’s narratives that disturb the centre.

We desperately need more self-labelled feminists in business who can see beyond the individualist rhetoric of post-feminism and recognise the need for structural change. As Anderson (2015) argues, feminists need to remain focused on raising women’s awareness of continued gender inequity in order to motivate young women to understand that work still needs to be done. Not convinced? Before you disagree with me, I challenge you to read Modern Misogyny (it’s at the public library so you have no excuse!).


Novels, Stories, Narratives…

I spent several hours last week trawling through all the women’s reading lists I could find and it turned up a few new exciting possibilities (Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray, The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer)! At this point I feel I'm abandoning the idea of using short stories…I have found one really excellent short story (‘Sur’ by Ursula Le Guin) but that’s it so far (note to self: Summer reading list = short story collections).

1.  The Women’s Room (1977) by Marilyn French

Applicability Rating: 6.5/10

Relevant Themes: Expectations & perceptions, women’s work, feminism

Key Thoughts: Published in 1977 at the end of the ‘sexual revolution,’ The Women’s Room sparked outrage for its controversial and forward-thinking ideas on women’s rights and desires (addressing the ‘what women want’ question). Set in 1950s America, The Women’s Room follows the life of Mira Ward, a conventional and submissive young woman in a traditional marriage, and her gradual feminist awakening. Now considered a ‘classic’ piece of women’s literature (although I doubt many women my age would have even heard of it), French suggests in her opening introduction (written in 2006) that it is just as relevant for today’s audiences (think white, middleclass women) as it was 38 years ago. She notes that “despite many easements on female life in the west, the world’s ethos has moved in the opposite direction – toward more hostility between the sexes” (p. xvi). I’m not quite sure this is the case and whether or not The Women’s Room transcends time boundaries in quite the manner French intends (there is a fair amount of material which is concerned solely with issues addressed by second-wave feminism), however I did find this novel much more engaging and interesting than Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) which follows a similar coming-of-age, 'awakening' premise.

One of the best things about this novel are the lively discussions French crafts between Mira and her female friends at Harvard. These scenes make you wish you were part of their dynamic group! Underpinning all their debates is, as Val succinctly observes, the issue of equality between the sexes: “The simple truth – that men are only equal – can undermine a culture more devastatingly than any bomb.” However, I am still a bit hesitant to use this book as part of the literary research section. First of all, it is very long (a mere 526 pages!) and rather than read huge chunks all at once, it’s more a book you want to read in snippets (it took me about 5 days rather than my normal 24–48 hours). Secondly, there is almost an insuperable amount of ideas discussed and contained within the text, from politics, to feminism, to marriage, to racism, to sex, etc... It moves between topics and themes with dizzying speed, leaving nothing sacred. It left me feeling unsettled, but at the same time revitalised. But I can imagine some women absolutely hating it! Nonetheless, French is a witty and observant storyteller who is entertaining and engaging even if she does spend pages and pages discussing women’s domestic work and the trials and tribulations of the middleclass housewife (she actually makes it interesting!).

Would I use The Women’s Room then? I think it definitely has a lot of potential as a text which can work to deconstruct patriarchal/male-dominated grand narratives, but I can’t imagine women sitting down to read the full novel in as short a timeframe as they would, say, The Lifeboat or The Invention of Wings. With this consideration in mind, I may use it as a reference text (there are some excellent discussions in there!) or as a suggestion for further reading.

2.   Lavinia (2008) by Ursula K. Le Guin

Applicability Rating: 5/10 (or, perhaps 8/10)

Relevant Themes: Gender roles, maternal leadership, crisis situations

Key Thoughts: I love Le Guin so I was very excited when I found she’d recently (in 2008) written a historical novel featuring, and even named for, an ‘historical’ female character. The novel relates the life of Lavinia, princess of Laurentum, a very minor character from Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. Sounds like a great premise, right? Unfortunately, Lavinia never emerges as the strong, decisive female character you want her to. Instead I found her underdeveloped and rather wooden, as well as unlikeable. She vacillates, cries, makes odd decisions, and is, ultimately, painfully complicit in her 'fate' (in other words, the decisions of men).

There were, of course, a lot of interesting, well-researched details in the story and I can see what Le Guin was trying to achieve by 'completing' or fleshing out one of Virgil's female characters – giving her a 'voice' as Queen of Latium (filling Le Guin’s “immense white area”). But somehow the whole story fell flat, for me at least, due to the fatalistic tendencies of its heroine (although I’m not sure I can even call her a heroine – she didn’t really do anything). In terms of women’s leadership, Lavinia does exhibit a form of maternal leadership for her ‘people,’ but readily abandons her ‘power’ in favour of her son. Everything she does is vis-à-vis men, even though she has so much potential to break out of their confines and rules. Perhaps this is a good discussion point (e.g. why are women often so complicit in their own oppression?), however, I think Le Guin’s ‘Sur’ makes a better contender for my research project. Although perhaps there is room for simultaneously analysing multiple Le Guin stories? I have her non-fiction book, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989) so I will test the potential of this idea further as I read her critical essays.

 

Other Books…

I’ve just finished reading The Boston Girl (2014) by Anita Diamant (author of The Red Tent) and I’ve also skimmed Top Girls (1982) by Caryl Churchill for the third time. They are both possibilities as well but I’ll leave my reviews of them for the next entry.

Sometimes it seems that I am reading a lot of women’s literature which won’t be applicable or useful for my study. However, as Jane Smiley (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Thousand Acres) points out: “Sometimes the reader has to read novels that don’t work for her and think about why they don’t work – representative lists, unlike “my favourite” lists, have to include uncongenial works” (quote found in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, 2005, p. 271). I admire Smiley’s approach to literature – she read 100 ‘great’ novels over the course of three years and then proceeded to write about her experience and the effect/s the different books had on her as a reader (reflective thinking at its best!). 

 

What else I’ve read…which won’t work:    

·       Property by Valerie Martin (2003)

This short novel won the Orange Prize for women’s fiction in 2003 and I can understand why! It’s a very gripping tale set in New Orleans in 1828 against the backdrop of civil unrest and slave uprisings. Property tells the story of Manon Gaudet, the unhappy wife of a plantation owner, and Sarah, Manon’s house slave whom she brought into the marriage. The drama is centred on the fact that Sarah is not only a slave, but also Manon’s husband’s unwilling mistress, causing resentment on both Manon and Sarah’s sides. There is no happy ending to this haunting tale, in fact it is quite grim and heart-breaking in the way it explores humanity's predilection for cruelty. However, it doesn’t say anything about the ‘women question’ or leadership in particularly. Its strength lie is in its historical analysis and narrative power rather than in topical relevancy.

·       House Girl by Tara Conklin (2013)

Conklin’s debut novel is a reasonably well-written and mildly interesting story, but overall it lacked finesse and depth. The narrative switched between the late-1800s, where it followed the unhappy tale of a young slave woman, and the 2000s where it focuses on the story of a young, outgoing, annoyingly ‘perfect’ female lawyer who is trying to 'survive' in a male-dominated law firm. While Lina, the litigation lawyer, makes some pertinent (although rather cliché) remarks on male and female dynamics in the workplace, there is nothing in particular that makes this story stand out. It's more a journey of uninspiring self-discovery for the not very likeable lawyer and a tragically (though predictable) ending for the fictitious slave girl. Ultimately it fails to engage the reader and, I feel, trivialises the horrors of slavery in the way it flits between meaningless details about Lina’s contemporary existence and the slave girl's sad story. It's a piece I wouldn't be quick to recommend.

·       How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

Now, I was very excited about this book when I first got my hands on it. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014, and the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, How to Be Both promised to explore gender boundaries and perceptions in a new and exciting way. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it even half way through before I became extremely frustrated with Smith's disjointed, overly complicated narrative style. Yes, it is a clever post-modern ‘work of art’, but I just didn’t like it. [Note: I actually went back and reread this book several months later and garnered a lot more from it the second time round, in fact, I might venture to say I even enjoyed it!]

·       A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)

On the other hand, I did love A Thousand Acres, the 1992 Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley. Following the basic plotline of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Smiley tells the story of an aging farmer (a patriarchal and misogynistic white man) who offers his prosperous Iowa farm to his three daughters. Tragic (although not quite as tragic as Shakespeare’s classic), dark and unpredictable (well, unless you’re familiar with King Lear), the novel explores family power relations and the transformation of Ginny (the oldest daughter and narrator) from a naive and weak pawn in her family’s power struggle, to an independent and strong woman. Why won’t it work for my analysis? Ultimately, I think the novel says a lot more about trauma and family relationships than leadership, so to reduce it to a ‘lesson’ on leadership would distort its more salient themes. But I highly recommend this book if you haven’t read it already!

I am more than halfway through reading and note-taking for my section on Women and Leadership. A couple more texts to go through and 8-10 journals. The plan is to finish the research by midweek and then work on a comprehensive outline. It may be a little bit ambitious to try and have the whole section written by the end of October, but I least want to have half of it done by then! #goals

References:

Anderson, K. J. (2015). Modern misogyny: Anti-feminism in a post-feminist era. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ford, J., Harding, N., & Learmonth, M. (2008). Leadership as identity: Constructions and deconstructions. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.