Reading Women

Stahl_READINGWOMENGotham teacher Stephanie Staal's nonfiction book, Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, has just been published.

The premise of the book is intriguing. The author revisits the feminist literature she studied in college, this time from the perspective of living in the world as a wife and mother, not to mention a grownup. The book offers an overview of the classics of feminist literature, while also examining their relevance to the real world, and in particular, Stephanie’s own personal journey.

Here is the book’s preface:

I graduated from Barnard, an all women’s college in New York City, in the early 1990s. As a woman born in the ’70s, who came of age in the ’80s, I entered adulthood with a certain set of expectations. The ideals of feminism were not so much a crescendo that crashed through my life but rather the steady beat to which I grew up. Anything boys could do, girls could do—better. To me, feminism was evolution, not revolution. Many of the achievements that women only a generation ago might have viewed as groundbreaking, I took for granted. Of course, women could be doctors and lawyers, run governments and corporations. In college, these assumptions accepted during my youth were emphasized, underlined, spoken aloud; indeed, attending a single-sex college, in which our gender was treated as a glory, the opening up of opportunities for women appeared not so much as options but mandates. We were, all of us on that graduation day almost two decades ago, poised to take over the world.

Life, however, is not lived by directive, and there has been much talk in recent years of the false promises of feminism, the disillusionment and disappointments, the lash and backlash, especially for those of us who married, who became mothers—or perhaps it has always been thus? Each generation, I suppose, forges new paths over the same old terrain. The role of feminist has never been easily reconciled with that of wife and mother, particularly in the public eye, but neither, it’s true, has it rested easily in the privacy of our own homes. Parental love and professional ambition make for uneasy allies. And for my generation—women empowered by feminism as our due course—the contradictions can strike at the heart of who we are, or at least the way we see ourselves. The same women who grew up believing we could have it all now understand the toll of the transformations into wife and mother, the ambiguities and compromises they raise, the pledges broken both to ourselves and to others, the stark realization that perhaps we are not the heroines we once thought we were.

It was only after I got married and became a mother that I fully grasped the common refrain that the older you get, the less you know. Motherhood introduced a new range of emotions, from crazy love to mad frustration, emotions I could never have imagined that changed the tenor of my existence. As a mother, linked to my child in a million ways, I could not ignore the difficulties of applying my feminist ideals to my life’s realities, yet I could not turn my back
on feminism, either; I could not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I longed to fashion my own incarnations, the personal with the political. In those early years, I thought a lot about the young woman captured in the graduation photo on my wall, brimming with hopes about the future, always sensing the framed glass that separated us. But to say I started this book in search of her, and ended up finding myself, is only part of my story.

Reprinted by permission of Public Affairs. For more on Stephanie and her book, visit: