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Why I am a feminist: A reading list – Metaphor Hacker
Education Extended writing Framing Gender Reading Lists

Why I am a feminist: A reading list

I became a feminist because a woman once told me not to be an idiot and I decided that it was good advice. That was in 1998. But I was all ready to be a feminist long before that, so it really just took a small push to get me over the hump. I was always surrounded by strong women who outshone the men around them, read books as a boy with girls holding their own, later on had women friends who I could respect and like more than most of my male friends.

Yet, I was reticent to apply the label to myself. In those times, it was the women around me who were very sceptical of feminism. So, even when I had doubts about the essentialism of the male/female difference, I was willing to go along without examining the position in too much depth. But looking back, I don’t think I was too happy about it.

So it took just a little jolt to show me a new way to reflect on things and I never looked back. Not being a feminist would now feel just as odd as not being a vegetarian.

But perhaps I did not always go about it the right way. In the early days, I felt like I had to go back to all my women friends and try to convince them that they really should be feminists, too. Later, I wrote articles supporting political correctness, reviews of Vagina Monologues and other books about gender. And the occasional blog post since. I tried my best.

I have not really felt the need to do any of that recently because it seems to me that the world of today has plenty of voices closer to the action and perhaps I don’t have much to add. But then I started looking for a reading list for a friend and was surprised that few of my top choices made the top choices of others’ lists.

The reading list of reading lists

There a plenty of ‘feminist reading lists’ on offer:

They list classics I know or know about like de Beauvoir, Steinem, Friedan, bell hooks, as well as new authors and books that passed me by. They list fiction, manifestos, polemics. Margaret Attwood makes a frequent appearance, some go as far back as Mary Wolstonecraft and the more complete include Judith Butler. There’s plenty to read when one goes by the lists.

And I don’t really object to any of the items on these lists. Particularly some of the older ones like de Beauvoir or Wolstonecraft are fascinating thinkers even today. But the six I came up with as recommendations appear on none of the lists I looked at. They don’t even make the much more comprehensive Wikipedia List of feminist literature. Perhaps I have something to share, after all.

My list of 6 Books

These are the 6 books that I use to go to for feminist argumentation most often in my mind and the occasional writing. These books are not necessarily radically political but they are radically intellectual. Which, I think, is the main appeal of feminism to me. At its best, feminism is a radical unthinking of the commonplace. And what is more symptomatic of the commonplace than gender? Everything to do with the male/female distinction is steeped in an apparent natural inevitability. And feminism allows us to transcend that inevitability and gives us the inspiration to look for other inevitabilities to be made illusory in its wake.

I tried to find a related video for each book. Here’s a whole companion playlist.

“Language and woman’s place” by Robin Tolmach Lakoff (1972)

“Language uses us as much as we use language” – thus opens Robin Lakoff the world of possibilities with the first line of her book. It it was published in 1972 but it may be best to read it in its 30th anniversary edition with commentary and reflection. This is a foundational book for understanding the depth through which the gender power disparity is reflected in language.

Since then, there have been many books on gender and language from various perspectives – updating and expanding Lakoff’s work. Deborah Tannen is one of the more prolific authors worth reading but ‘Language and woman’s place’ is the place to start.

Here’s a podcast where Lakoff talks about language and gender. Deborah Tannen has written lots of books and has lots of videos. Here’s one I like about the differences between male and female speech patterns in friendship discourse.

“Why so slow” by Virginia Valian (1997)

This is a book that asks the question of what to do when the battle of the minds was won. In 2020, it seems like the battle is starting over again but in the late 1990s it appeared to have been all but over with just a few loose ends to be tied up.

Valian shows that it is the small steps that can add up to significant blockers of progress. The world in which women (at least in certain parts) find themselves today would have seemed far beyond the horizon of the possible as recently as the 1950s. But the chasm seems ever wider and deeper the closer we are to it. ‘Why so slow’ looks at some of the components of the gap and can help us find levers to perhaps finally close it. In many ways, many of Valian’s suggestions have entered the common discourse but it is still worth going back to the source.

My biggest takeaway was that no overt sexism is even required for a society to end up with an imbalance between the sexes. Just small cumulative everyday injustices that may even pass beneath notice of most people involved in them.

Virginia Valian speaks on the topic in a lecture from 2009.

“Is multiculturalism bad for women?” by Susan Moller Okin and other contributors (1999)

Intersectionality is now on everybody’s lips but the history of the fight for equality by various marginalised groups is one of constant tension. For example, women’s movements were at different times both deeply intertwined with movement for racial justice and keeping it at arm’s length.

This is a book of essays written in reaction to Okin’s famous article that underscored the practical difficulty of women’s rights when confronted with cultural rights. All contributors start from a concern for women’s rights but some even turn the question on its head by asking questions like is feminism good for non-western women? Some question the underlying categories. But none offer easy answers.

When it comes to the utopias hidden behind the placards held by marchers needing to be translated into dirty realities, this is the book to turn to. The title of Martha Nussbaum’s essay, “A Plea for Difficulty”, should perhaps be a rallying cry for the aftermath of all revolutions just about to tuck in into their children.

I couldn’t find any videos about this book but there are good discussions of the topic here and here even though they do not explicitly reference this debate. I mentioned Nussbaum and here’s a great interview with her on gender and development.

“Marriage: A history” by Stephanie Coontz (2005)

This is not a book about feminism at all. It is a history of the Western side of the institution in which men and women most often used to encounter each other. It is a book that shows how what we know as ‘marriage’ is determined by the way we talk about it, the surrounding economic realities, and what came just before. Most importantly it shows the constant invention and reinvention of marriage and puts the lie to the ‘traditional’ notion of marriage invented by 1950s TV.

Stephanie Coontz talks about her earlier book ‘The Way We Never Were’ in a lecture here.

There’s also a great interview with her on a New Books Network podcast. She also wrote a subsequent book about feminism and its reception in the 1960s and is interviewed about it here.

“Against Love: A Polemic” by Laura Kipnis (2003)

Kipnis is not against ‘love’ the feeling but against love as the organising principle of male-female relationships. Where Coontz shows the invention of love as an institutional category, Kipnis takes it apart in its various daily guises that people willingly enter into just to bind themselves to somebody else’s nostalgia. Love, when conceived as a social institution, is worse for women than men. Exemplified by the traditional wedding photo of a woman turned subtly towards the male, while the man stares boldly forward. It is not love but the performance of love that can do more harm than good.

I couldn’t find Kipnis talking about this book anywhere but here’s an interview with her about a later collection of essays which shows her insight and subtlety of argument even in the face of a mediocre interviewer.

“The Gender of the Gift” by Marilyn Strathern (1988)

Not for the faint of heart, this is a dense book of anthropological insight. But it puts the question of women’s role in society in a non-industrial perspective. This is both a feminist book but also a meta-feminist book thinking through the dualism that rejecting the dualistic can lead to. It also offers an answer to the question of multiculturalism being bad for women before it was ever asked – the answer being it’s complicated.

I’m not sure if reading the first five books would make one ready to read Strathern – to get the wider point one has to read through a lot of technical anthropology. But what is feminism after all if not applied anthropology? Ultimately I think it’s worth it – if perhaps a journey best embarked upon with a friend.

Strathern talks about an earlier book on gender and anthropology briefly here. Here’s her later lecture on a different subject but showing the anthropological approach to similar issues.

All other books

All books, when read with gender and sex unthought, can be be part of a feminist reading list. They can be read for what they don’t say, as well as what they do say. I wrote about some of my thinking on this here, here and here. And I seem to have written even more than I remember in Czech here: Feminismus a láska.pdf

And when all else fails, there’s always Buffy the Vampire Slayer to turn to.