Our book club began with Bell Hooks because we wanted foundational feminist theory that was short and accessible. This is an updated version of Hook’s earlier attempt to define feminism in her book entitled, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. She begins with debunking harmful myths about angry feminists and addressing a definition of feminism that appeals to everyone’s motivations for activism. She simplifies the definition by stating, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (xii). Hooks continues to outline the criteria for a feminist revolution, which cannot happen until we “…end racism, class elitism, and imperialism” (Hooks, xii-xiv). What our group found very useful was her look into the background of second wave feminism and how it evolved and split between several polarizing sects of feminist objectives; those that wanted equality within the status quo and those that wanted an all out reform or revolution to end patriarchy. She discusses class, race, gender, violence, global feminism, feminist masculinity (which started a conversation about letting men into our group), and women’s sexism towards other women that is often the strongest impediment to transformation and sisterhood.
Her chapter entitled, “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness,” really validates our group’s mission to recover and understand women’s history. This chapter also reinforces the need for women to develop a clear understanding of feminism so that we can go out and educate others against anti-feminist backlash because otherwise, as Hooks says, “we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what they learn is negative” (23). Raising our own consciousness became our mission.
Many of the women of the group also identified with the chapter, “Beauty Within and Without” because in it, Hooks deals with old sexist notions of feminine beauty that we all feel entangled in. Many of the mothers in the group also appreciated her look into parenting, gender roles, and male domination in the home. Finally, we all welcomed her discussion on feminism and its broader implications in chapters, “To Love Again: The Heart of Feminism” and “Feminist Spirituality” because we all share the desire to love, to collaborate, to support, to not compete, and to understand the “value of mutual growth and self-actualization in partnerships and in parenting” (Hooks 103).
Yes, because despite its academic leaning (which only some found problematic), Hooks offers a comprehensive, yet accessible book for a book club with various levels of interest in feminist theory, and it helped our group figure out and unify everyone’s understanding of feminism right from the start.
The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World
Our group selected this book because we wanted to go back further than first wave feminists and suffragettes. We considered several books, including Cristine Pizan’s The City of Ladies, which is an excellent tribute to powerful women in antiquity, but it is also very dense. Instead, we decided to dive into a short, early feminist Utopian novel by Margaret Cavendish. We soon found out that in order to understand the complexity of Cavendish’s characters and fictional worlds, we would need to know a lot about her life and her deep interests in the natural sciences, which proved to be harder to find as she is not as researched in this area as one would hope. Research on the royal academy was helpful, but The Blazing World is really difficult to appreciate without a solid understanding of scientific theories and debates being discussed during her time. With that being said, many of us really enjoyed the ways in which her central character, essentially herself, moves freely between fictional worlds and physical bodies. Her character breaks physical barriers and creates a world where empirical knowledge is appreciated above rational thinking and Cartesian philosophy. The main character is essentially creating her own world as she imagines it, and relies on the Dutchess of Newcastle (her public persona) to advise her on how to arrange and rule the new world. What seems to be at the heart of the story is female authorship; a woman fully in charge of creating and ruling her own world. Also, for a woman of her scientific ambitions, her main character interrogates existing beliefs in science and is actively involved in enacting her own concepts of the natural world.
We found it interesting that Cavendish did not really break down the class structure or create a society without a central ruler, given that most utopian writers try to offer some other solution to centralized authority. Her new world wasn’t exactly a model utopian society either (one might prefer her fascinating book, The Convent of Pleasure, to find a mock society ruled by women). We found her female character to have moments of brutality and to maintain an imperialistic attitude towards the people she would rule in her new world. Having a maternal love for her subjects made her authority no less undemocratic.
With that being said, our group responded to the creative feminine spirit shared and enacted by the two main female characters. We also appreciated the main character’s rich imagination, and we related to her desire to arrange her world outside of traditional ideas.
Even though some of the ideas were difficult to understand without more knowledge of the scientific debates happening during her time, we still enjoyed the narrative style and the creative female force motivating Cavendish’s characters. I would present some scientific terms to go with the reading and maybe even read her Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy first.
Margaret Cavendish is a writer that all women should know about. She wrote texts that seem to be ahead of her time. One can spend a lot of time on Cavendish because not only did she write poems, novels and plays, she was also very much engaged in natural philosophy, wrote scientific papers, and fought to be recognized by the Royal Society.
We started our book club on the day of Kate Millet’s death, so we wanted to read something by the legendary author in order to better understand her contribution to feminist theory. We also chose this book because we thought we were reading radical feminist theory, which it is. We soon found out that this book is also a foundational text, or maybe the foundational text for feminist literary criticism. Coming from a literary studies background, I didn’t find Millet’s literary analysis to be too difficult to get through, but other members in our group did, especially since we had not read many of the authors she is discussing.
Millet begins by critiquing male authors of the twentieth century’s sexual revolution, like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and D.H. Lawrence. That these male authors have been lauded for their contributions to the sexual revolution sets up Millet’s critique of their misogynistic characterizations of female sexuality and problematic structures of masculine and feminine. Millet shows how the patriarchal system of power, violence, and rape, along with passive, ineffectual female characters pervade their novels. After reading exerts from various texts by these authors, we easily identified with her words because the type of male desire and fantasy that originates from control and violence towards women is pervasive even now. Interestingly, some of the younger women in the group really liked some of Miller’s sex scenes and considered Millet to be responding prudishly to them. Is this because younger women are so indoctrinated into porn and romance fantasies like 50 Shades of Grey?
We found Millet’s second chapter, “Theory of Sexual Politics,” to be the most important because in it, she lays out her theories on sexual politics, which she identifies as the relationship between dominance and subordination, biology and culture. She writes, “…fertility cults in ancient society at some point took a turn toward patriarchy, displacing and downgrading female function in procreation and attributing the power of life to the phallus alone” (28). She discusses the family as the institution of patriarchy, she explores women and class, women and education, economics, the myths of religion and anthropology, (which reinforces Sarah Hrdy’s book), medieval romance and chivalry, and Victorian attitudes towards female sexuality. The next few chapters in Part II Historical Background go deep into the early sexual revolution and then the counter revolution. She discusses the “state sponsored and legally enforced sexual counterrevolutions” in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, forced motherhood as a social obligation, and essentially what she describes as conditions that were “…worsened in the first decades after the revolution” (167-171). She goes on to discuss Freud and social Darwinism, the influence of functionalism, and the divisions of roles and labor--basically any power structure or ideology that has been used to justify the dominant power structure that is patriarchy.
Yes, if a person has been introduced to literary criticism and enjoys feminist theory being applied to literary analysis. No, if a person is looking for a more condensed book focused only on feminist theory.
Yes, because it is a foundational text for understanding feminist theory and some history of the various waves of feminist movements going back as far as Mary Wolstencraft in the 16th century. It is evidence of Kate Millet’s contributions to the feminist movement and the language we use to discuss feminist issues today, and, well, she is brilliant.
No, because other texts might provide similar information without the several chapters devoted to literary criticism, making for a shorter and more focused read. This book is incredibly dense and packed with more information than is probably needed for a basic understanding of feminist theory. One might find Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex a little more accessible as it stays more in the realm of feminist theory. One does need to have a basic understanding of Psychoanalysis and Marxist theories though to fully appreciate her perspectives.
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina is an important text for a feminist book club to read because it offers so many good discussion points about female sexuality. Wolf begins with the brain/vagina connection and hormones released during orgasm that connect the woman to her creative energies and vitality. She discusses the pelvic nerves and the autonomic nervous system and gives a thorough examination of how we have lost our understanding of our vaginas’ relationship with our brains. Wolf discusses the traumatized and subjugated vagina, the historically repressed vagina, the denigrated vagina that was once sacred, and the misconceptions of the liberated vagina. She also talks about the porn industry with a section entitled, “Porn and Vaginal Literacy” where she writes, “…porn addiction abundantly serves the status quo. Porn puts people to sleep, conceptually and politically as well as erotically” (233). Wolf’s book ends on a positive note, looking to the teachings of Tantra spiritual practices to reconnect men and women with their deeper sexual natures. She discusses the Goddess Array that includes sensitive touch, relaxation of the central nervous system, breathing, meditation, eye gazing, and words of affirmation that honor the Goddess. Wolf offers ways women can heal sexual trauma and develop deeper connections with their selves and partners.
Some of the women in the group fell in love with this book because Wolf validates so many of our experiences with disconnect, and with men or partners habitually using porn or denigrating women or using women for their own pleasure. Some of the younger women in the group did not want to vilify porn, perhaps because it has become so ubiquitous, and they were unwilling to accept other possibilities for their methods of sexual pleasure (readily available and fast). Some criticized Wolf for not considering other spectrums of sexuality and instead, focusing on what seem to them to be issues only felt by cisgender women. Wolf’s target reader might be a valid point for discussion as a considerable rift seemed to be felt between women over thirty and women under thirty.
Yes, because Wolf validates many women’s experiences, offers historical insight into how we lost our connection with our vaginas in the first place, how our sexuality has been used to subjugate and control us, and how we can reconnect and heal personal traumas and generational trauma. Her book speaks to women’s experiences somewhat globally by recognizing female sexuality as a weapon of war and instrument of male violence and domination.
Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was a response to reading some heavy feminist theory. In short, women in our group wanted a comedic break and a lite read. Poehler’s book definitely fit this bill with her witty humor and flippant attitude about writing the book. The book begs the reader not to take it too seriously. In fact, most of the book is about her life working in improve in Chicago before getting hired on Saturday Night Live (SNL), and then working on the set of SNL with an amazing cast. Every page felt like “Wow! She has an amazing life” and “Wow! She never sleeps.” She’s kind of like Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec, who never sleeps and never stops smiling while working more than humanly possible. The book is not a feminist read in that Poehler never refers to herself as a feminist, but she does discuss feminist issues like working in a predominately male centered environment, speaking up for herself, believing in herself, and balancing work and family life unapologetically. She is open, honest, and funny, and she has some great chapter titles like “say whatever you want,” “do whatever you like,” and my favorite, “every mother needs a wife.”
Yes, because if offered relief to some of the women in the group that were fatigued by the heavy reading. We may have read this book after Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics or Delta of Venus. Some of the women enjoyed the raw honesty of Poehler’s prose and humor---what woman doesn’t love Amy Poehler?
No, because despite loving Amy Poehler, for some, reading this book felt like a waste of time as some women wanted to keep focusing on deeper issues and women’s history.
This book is purely entertaining for someone interested in popculture and Amy Poehler, and does not add much to understanding women’s history or feminist theory. Poehler is sometimes very relatable, especially when she is being open and honest about being a mother. Other times, her book feels like an actor’s memoir full of life moments most of us ordinary folk will never experience.
Delta of Venus
Little was known about this author before setting out on the difficult task that would be reading her book of erotic tales without being triggered. The first few stories, in a series of short, erotic tales written for an unknown male patron, are hard to stomach. I’m talking about a father molesting his two daughters and raping his son and a woman’s vagina being mutilated kind of hard to get through. For those that kept moving forward despite the incredibly violent, misogynistic, and male-ego feeding fantasies, Nin’s writing does evolve into longer, passionate stories with real plot development and somewhat complex female characters. Some of the women still long to be raped, and are sometimes taken against their will, but some of the stories give power over to the women to enact their sexual desires.
Excerpts from Nin’s diary gives some insight into her desire to open what she refers to as Pandora’s box where in it is “contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate” (xi). The reader learns that Nin is writing on behalf of Henry Miller who was offered by a book collector one hundred dollars a month to write erotic stories. The first stories Miller wrote were meant to be outlandish and experimental as he did not take the job seriously. She claims to have done the same, writing “tongue and cheek, to become outlandish, inventive, and so exaggerated that I thought he [the collector] would realize I was caricaturing sexuality” (ix). Eventually, Nin decides to break free and write beautiful erotica that captures women’s unique sexuality as she says, “I gathered poets around me and we all wrote beautiful erotica. As we were condemned to focus only on the sensual, we had violent explosions of poetry” (xii). Nin and her collective writers begin to revile the patron and his taste for meaningless sex without emotions or sensuality. Eventually, looking back on the experience, Nin realizes that there are moments in her writings where she sees clearly a feminine sexuality, different from male sexuality that “never separated sex from feeling, from love of the whole man” (xv).
There are moments like these such as the time when Elena, a reoccurring character, “invents a more thorough lover; She closed her eyes and thought. Now his hand is lifting my dress slowly, very slowly. He is looking at me first…” (131). One can glimpse the evolution in Nin’s writing that moves towards a passionate, emotional, and sensual longing for a more feminine sexuality. Since such glimpses are scattered, the reader is left to sift through the mud to find the gems.
The problem with much of the book is that the reader cannot tell which stories are written for the male patron and which ones are written by Nin and her writer friends to push back against the patron’s request for basic pornography. One can only hope that she doesn’t consider vaginal mutilation synonymous with female desire. It’s actually quite disturbing to read the short review on the back cover by Cosmopolitan that characterizes her writing as “a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal desires...” Many of her female character’s desires are anything but universal.
Yes, but only because the question is immediately raised about what really is female desire? How much of what we know about female desire stems from the same patriarchal dynamic of subjugation and control from which we are trying to escape? How much of the violence that some women claim to like is a holdover from early porn designed to feed male desire and ego? How much of men’s fantasies and women’s fantasies are a direct result of a long history of female subjugation? Can we not examine the socio political undercurrent of sexual fantasy? These questions were difficult to answer, especially by the younger women indoctrinated to their own sexuality in one form or another through porn.
No, because some of the women in the group were triggered by the first few stories and did not want to continue reading. Everyone should at least be warned that the first three or four stories are disturbing and degrading, but they do get better, at least, less violent towards women.
Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species
After a few months of reading, we started to feel that our books were disconnected. We decided to start reading books according to larger themes over the course of a few months. The first theme we chose was motherhood, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book was the perfect introduction as Hrdy looks at motherhood and maternal instincts from her anthropologist, primatologist, and evolutionist lenses. She buries old doctrines that prescribe women as passive participants in evolutionary processes. Instead, she shows how females in animal species are not only actively engaged, but are constantly making decisions for the sake of the whole species about how and when to procreate. She discusses female sexuality, intuition, and choice as central to ensuring “genetic representation in subsequent generations” (79).
Motherhood requires so many variations and considerations across species that pigeonholing maternal instincts is nearly impossible in the animal kingdom, especially when looking at the tough decisions females make in the wild to protect and raise offspring or to abort or kill. According to Hrdy, these decisions are made based on social politics, resources, and greater chances for survival for the many. Hrdy also discusses the concept of allomothers, which is the community that supports mothers in the wild, especially visible among primates. She also discusses lactation and gives an in-depth look at the industry of wet nursing in humans that has been lost to modern women.
Sarah Blaffer Hardy
Did we like it?
For feminist book club?
Yes & No
Yes, because it provides copious information that is foundational to any discussion of motherhood or maternal instincts. For example, I did not know that queen honeybees determine each bee’s gender based on the needs of the hive. Some spider species fatten themselves up only to become their newborn babies’ first meal. Female primates may stop ovulating to support the alpha female’s reproduction when resources are limited...and on and on.
No, because the book is incredibly dense and overwhelmed some of the women in the group. The layout is all over the place and somewhat disjointed, making the information more difficult to process. Despite reading over the summer, many women did not make it past the preface, whereas others started with an earnest interest in getting through the whole book, but could not finish. A dedicated scholar might be rolling her eyes at this point, but Amaya and I learned the hard way that consideration does need to be taken when trying to manage different levels of reading skills and interests in a book club.
Yes, because, although it is a whopping 541 pages not including the preface and notes, Hrdy provides so much research and material to consider with any debates about reproductive rights, female sexuality, maternal instincts, mothers and work/life balance, and supporting mothers with resources. Just make sure everyone is fully aware of the book’s length before voting. It should be broken into two months at least, so that everyone has time to get through the material and digest it all.
Mothering Without a Map: The Search for The Good Mother Within
Following Hrdy’s Mother Nature, we selected a book that deals not only with being a mother, but being the daughter of a mother. Not all the women in our book club are mothers, but we are all daughters, and we know intuitively that mothers play a significant role in our identities for good or bad. Black discusses her journey into motherhood and how the transition to becoming a mother signaled a need to reconcile issues with her grandmother that raised her after her biological mother died when she was very young. Her book is full of women’s stories about dealing with the shortfalls of their own mothers.
As in all these women, questions arise when our mothers were not there for us; did not instill positive values of self-acceptance or love; could not be the shining examples of motherhood that we needed. She begs the question of whether under-mothered women can ever love and support their own, or are women doomed to repeat the mistakes made by their mothers? Black testifies to the strength that under-mothered women have. That despite been truly seen by our own mothers, “we under-mothered women especially need to know our children in ways our mothers did not know us” (211).
Intergenerational transfer is an interesting term used by Black to discuss the transferring of generational trauma. Generational trauma comes up again and again in our book discussions, and we are all coming to see that dealing with generational trauma is critical to healing ourselves and women’s collective consciousness.
Yes, because it validates many women’s experiences with being under mothered or dealing with intergenerational trauma. Many women could relate to the stories and even Black’s.
Yes, because, it offers a space for women to think about their own experiences with their mothers, good or bad, which all women seem to have on various levels. Black offers some good motherly advice and assurance that under-mothered women still have enormous potential to be the kind of mothers they want to be.
No, only because we desperately wanted Black to give these incapable mothers doing irreparable damage to their daughters some kind of historical context. Why were mothers during these generations so selfish and unloving? What was happening in the world during their time that might be contributing to their maternal deficiencies? How can we see our mothers’ struggles more clearly so that we can understand them and forgive them? We cannot simply blame them. Black does not offer any such context.
Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts
It is really exciting to see the interest in the witch hunts happening in mainstream culture right now because this topic has for too long been ignored by history. With all the new books that our out on witches, our book club chose Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s book, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts with the subtitle Our Legacy of Violence Against Women. She begins immediately discussing how many witch hunt researchers continue to neglect gender politics when discussing the widespread persecution of women for heresy. The legacy of hatred and violence towards women has not been the main focus for much research on the topic, and it has not been referenced as a historical framework for understanding the increase in violence and backlash towards women that are now speaking out against misogyny and harassment in the wake of the #metoo movement and the resurgence of the feminist movement.
According to Barstow, the three factors that have been ignored are gender analysis, the high degree of physical violence, and the sexual nature of the violence towards women (1). She estimates that 100 hundred thousand people (80%women) were executed over a roughly 200 hundred-year period (Barstow 23). From a feminist perspective, Barstow looks at this phenomenon (across various parts of Europe and the U.S.) as an attack on women’s sexuality, but more importantly their power in their communities. Women were scapegoats for social and economic matters, and they were controlled by the patriarchal structure of the court system (religious and secular) that only recognized them as separate, legal beings from their husbands in order to prosecute them as witches.
When Barstow looks at why women were targeted more than men, she shows how the belief in supernatural powers pervades the middle ages, but women’s access to and agency in herbal remedies, magic potions, midwifery, and wet-nursing becomes threatening to Christianity and the state that uses religion to control the people. Women of all ages and social classes were targeted for various reasons. Wealthier, educated and outspoken women were targeted for their property or their social position. Wise women with special knowledge and leadership roles in the community were killed. Old and poor women were killed for the burdens they bore to the public. Sexually forward women were accused along with mothers and daughters, children of witches, and on and on.
Barstow also analyzes the structure of the witchcraft accusations, such as the fantastical crimes women were accused of committing and to which they were expected to confess, the sexual nature of the search for the devil’s mark, and the extremely brutal torture women had to endure even before they were sentenced to death. The brutal reality is that, “…women were accused primarily by men, tried by male juries, examined by male searchers, sentenced by male judges, tortured by male jailers, burned to death by male executioners—while being prayed over by male confessors” (9). The stories she tells in the book are difficult to hear, but necessary in order to really understand what was being done to women and how such extreme violence was being justified by religious, patriarchal authority. Barstow’s chapter “From Healers to Witches” looks at women’s long respected roles in medicine, healing, midwifery and how these roles threatened priests, but also the rising, educated male physician and the institution of medicine. This discussion feeds nicely into her chapters “Controlling Women’s Bodies” and “Keeping Women in their Place” as women are victimized and criminalized for their sexuality by the clergy and the state. Women are viewed as less than human, and their natural bodily functions and anatomy used as evidence of coercion by the devil. As a result, women’s bodies are mutilated and fear pervades. No wonder women are still feeling the deep wounds of disconnect and reticence from this inherited, epigenetic trauma.
Absolutely! Understanding the widespread persecution of women for hundreds of years is essential for awakening to our past traumas. Why do we feel disconnected from our bodies and ashamed to seek pleasure? Why do we feel such a deep loss of empowerment over our own bodies? Why do we know so little about our own sexual anatomy? Why are women marginalized into the nursing field for lower pay and criminalized for any attempt to practice medicinal healing outside of the mainstream medical and pharmaceutical industries? The answers to these questions emerge from Barstow’s book with clarity, which is important if women are to heal these old wounds and bring feminism back into balance.