This is an article by Chris Ciolli.
Editor’s note: Chris informed me today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day and March is Women’s History Month.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but up until fairly recently, I made it a point not to read books about the realities of being a woman. I was doing my “ignorance-is-bliss” bit, because frankly, it wasn’t something I wanted to think about on a regular basis.
Besides, as a member of a generation of middle-class, educated American women that has never had to strike or protest for the right to vote, or work outside the home, I’ve never really identified myself as a feminist. While I wouldn’t consider myself anti-feminist either, I’ll confess to a slight cringe at being labeled with the term, during class discussions and debates with friends and family. My attitude about being a “feminist” changed somewhat after moving to Spain, a country where traditional gender roles and expectations make me want to throw things and scream my head off, but my reading habits pretty much stayed the same.
I read lots of women writers, but skipped writing about “being a women.”
Fortunately, a good friend of mine kept pushing “women’s studies” and “feminist” books at me, and like the book addict I am, I finally gave in, and consumed the words. After my first literary foray into women’s studies and feminist essays, I was hooked. These books made me stop and consider a lot of things I’d been doing on autopilot, and a lot of assumptions about myself, my culture, and other women I’d been making for years.
Even though I didn’t agree with everything I read, anything that makes you uncomfortable with preexisting assumptions and prejudices–anything that makes you stop and really think about why you do or feel something—is a good thing. Even when, like me, the cultural norms are so deeply ingrained that you can’t bear the thought of never wearing makeup, or skirts again, or swearing off tweezing your eyebrows…
So without further ado, here’s a short list of the books that first made a dent in my admittedly hard head and got me interested in feminism.
How to be a Woman by Caitlyn Moran- A British broadcaster and newspaper columnist, Caitlyn Moran reflects on the hoops women jump through to be thought of as attractive, not to mention serious topics like abortion using examples from her personal life. She also has a no fail test to see if you’re a feminist: “Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?” An answer of yes to both makes you a feminist—pretty simple, really.
Warning: This book has a lot of swear words, a lot of TMIs, and a lot of references to British culture that Americans may have to google, but is funny, poignant and thought-provoking.
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio – This is an interesting and extreme set of essays. While a lot of the things Ms. Muscio talks about will verge on disgusting and ridiculous for many readers and are far from mainstream, her thoughts about the origins of words describing women and their private parts, and about the culture of rape are worth contemplating. While I don’t agree with everything or even most of what Inga has to say, she provides a truly unique perspective on a lot of women’s issues. The index of women-friendly websites and institutions in the back of the book is a nifty bonus.
Warning: Lots of swear words, references to“The Mother-goddess” and hostility towards traditional medicine, mainstream culture and anything else Inga regards as coming from “The Man.”
Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter- Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is crammed full of individual women’s stories and scary statistics about how today’s hyper-sexualized mainstream culture and especially pornography have affected men’s and women’s attitudes about the female of the species and how they should look and act, and how they can move up in the world—hint: it’s all about making the most of your physical appearance and sexuality.
Warning: This is an unpleasant read. It will make you think, and likely make you sad, as the problems brought to light in the book are not the kind that can be fixed in a matter of days or even years.
Room for thought: The Gender Divide in Everyday Life
So what? I read a few women’s studies books. Big deal? For me, yes. Ignorance might be bliss, but consciousness is a gift, and not one I’ll readily give up. Here are a few of the new and stressful things I’m thinking about on a regular basis, thanks to my new reading habits.
- The constant media attention paid to any “perceived” genetic differences between men and women, and popular books and media about how men and women and boys and girls “naturally” think and behave differently.
- The percentage of free-time and income that women are expected to use removing “unsightly” facial and body hair and maintaining their appearance.
- The acceptance and glamorization of prostitution, stripping, pornography and the sex industry in mainstream culture.
- The profitable industry that revolves around shaming women about the normal shape, size and smell of their bodies and natural bodily functions.
- How women are made to feel ashamed of rape and sexual abuse, and how rape is eroticized in literature and cinema.
It’s not that I never questioned any of these customs and habits. I have, I did, I do. It’s that for the most part it’s not culturally acceptable to do so, not on a regular basis. Women that speak out about these societal standards or even worse, refuse to accept them, are most often labeled, ugly, dirty and/or prudish, sometimes by other women. Or worse, they’re called out as reactionary—There are women in “other” places that are treated like property. There are “less fortunate” girls that are mutilated, and not allowed to go to school. And it’s true, women’s problems in the United States and other western democracies can’t compare, but they’re still worthy of our attention.
Reading books by women that wrote passionately about these “first-world” women’s issues, analyzed them, and in some cases had data to back up their opinions (whether or not I agreed) made me realize a few things, however reluctant I had been in the past to declare myself a feminist: I’m definitely a feminist and it’s a good thing, because despite the privileges I enjoy as a woman living in a western democracy, true equality and the freedom that comes with it, continues to evade us.
A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.
Photo: Some rights reserved by ocean yamaha
Excellent observations. I often ignored that which was uncomfortable, and now I’m going to have to read these books.
Chris Jean Ciolli
I really, really recommend Living Dolls for harsh truths, and Caitlyn Moran’s How to be A Woman for a more humorous take on those harsh truths.
Sarah L. Webb
Thanks for having the courage to read those books, confront the uncomfortable, and write this post about your experiences.
I remember hearing about these things and realizing how easy it is to remain blind and ignorant. We make so many assumptions about what’s natural and normal based on gender, and it irks me.
It’s time to just get free.
Chris Jean Ciolli
Ignorance is the easy way out, which is why it’s so appealing to shut our eyes to the truth. An occasional escape from harsh realities is understandable, but sometimes we overdo it, or at least I had.
You have enunciated harsh truths here, truths that we turn away from in discomfort. Hopefully facing these truths, becoming more aware of them, will bring change.
Chris Jean Ciolli
Facing the truth is the first step towards change, I think….I hope.
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