Friday, April 3, 2015

All the sleeping women / Are now awake and moving

The Essential Feminist ReaderThe Essential Feminist Reader by Estelle B. Freedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Essential Feminist Reader is a collection of feminist essays edited and compiled by Estelle B. Freedman, a U.S. historian specializing in women's history at Stanford University.

The essays in the book span time and geography. We begin with an essay published in France in 1405 by Christine de Pizan, who lamented, "in my folly I considered myself most unfortunate because God has made me inhabit a female body;" we conclude with a statement issued in 2004 by a women's group from Afghanistan, celebrating International Women's Day and looking towards "the road to democracy and prosperity." How far we have come! Containing essays written by Alva Myrdal, a member of the Swedish Government in the 1940s, as well as Ding Ling, the director of the Chinese Literature and Arts Association in Yan'an during Mao's time, The Essential Feminist Reader powerfully attests to the extended and universal fight for women's rights.

Kishida Toshiko uses a sublime extended metaphor in her essay to describe how women are confined inside a "box." Like Toshiko,  Simon de Beauvoir argues that the "physiological, psychological, or economic forces" of women decide their destiny and deny them "full membership in the human race." On the subject of women's victimization, Susan Brownmiller presents one of the strongest arguments in the whole book by saying that "to talk about rape, even with nervous laughter, is to acknowledge a woman's special victim status."On a similar plane, The Committee on the Status of Women in India argues that "prostitution is the worst form of women's exploitation and inequality" because it forces a woman to be "viewed solely as a sex object and as an outlet for man's baser instincts." These are just some examples of the problems facing women that are illustrated in the book. 

It is fascinating to see how the arguments for feminism have evolved over time. Mary Astell, like many  early feminists writers, framed her argument in religious terms in order to appeal to a secular audience. Many also stress the advantages that gender equality brings to men: Flora Tristan argues that a female workforce would double productivity levels in industries, and that better-educated women would raise better-educated sons. Despite the pragmatic truth in such arguments, however, the best essays are those that vouch for feminism with less of an accent on how feminism is important because it benefits men. For example, François Poullaine de la Barre points out the absurdity of laying so much emphasis "on the constitution of the body to justify the difference between the sexes." One of the most memorable lines in the whole anthology is her argument that "the mind has no sex."

The writers in the anthology also present solutions for the problem of gender inequality. Many essays emphasize the importance of education and being well-informed; in particular, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective puts forward the argument that learning about women's health can help women understand their own image "on a firmer base," becoming "better friends and better lovers, better people, more self-confident, more autonomous, stronger, and more whole." Margaret Sanger argues for birth control as a way of giving women more agency over their bodies. Susan B. Anthony also claims that it is important for marriage to "be a luxury, not a necessity" and that only working women can see it as so because "whoever controls work and wages, controls morals." John Stuart Mill shares the same philosophy, saying that the "power of earning is essential to the dignity of the woman." Most memorably of all, Virginia Woolf presents an elegant solution in Three Guineas, arguing that financial support in preventing war, promoting women's education and providing for professional women would help women have a more significant presence in the public sphere. 

The road to gender equality, however, is no easy path. Qasim Amin, writing from Egypt, considers the status of women "inseparably tied to the status of a nation. She rejects the traditional veil and instead advocates for "a type of upbringing that will itself become an impenetrable veil and fortress protecting a woman from all forms of corruption at each stage of her liberation.” Mary Wollesetencraft blames upper-class women who are "so intoxicated by the admiration" they receive that they neglect to assert their own rights as individuals. (In other words, she is saying, "wake up," to these women.)  

The problems of "intersectional feminism" is also tackled in some essays. In "Two Speeches," Sojourner Truth points out the problem of racial discrimination overlaps with gender inequality, stressing that black women do not share the same rights as white women despite their common dream for feminism. Palesa Beverly Ditsie from South Africa urges the members of the Fourth World Conference on Women to "remove the brackets from sexual orientation," saying that some women are victims of not only gender, but also sexual, discrimination. Only through transcending such obstacles can, as Anna Julia Cooper says, "the cause for freedom" become "not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class," but "the cause of human kind." And of course, as Pat Mainardi humorously pointed out in The Politics of Housework, the gender stereotypes of men are bulwarks to the advancement of gender equality. 

Right before we get to the contents page, we see that the book is dedicated "to John."
Indeed, The Essential Feminist Reader is an important read not only for women, but also for men. As Jonah Gokova from Zimbabwe reminds us, "the term 'gender' is not synonymous for 'women.'" Rather, the Federation of South African Women defines it as the search for "permanent peace throughout the world." The anthology is a testament to how the power of the written word, be it in fiction or essays, is harnessed in fighting for equal rights and, as Betty Friedan wrote, in helping women become "complete." 

To quote Sarah M. Grimké: "Thine in the bonds of womanhood,"


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