Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.
Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.
There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.
This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.
Les Parisiennes tells the stories of women who lived in Paris during World War II. It is a complicated book, structurally, with far too many individual stories told to keep track of all of the people. There is a six page list of all of the women mentioned in the book, before the index, if you want to be a better person than me and actively try to keep them all in your head.
I didn’t worry about keeping everyone straight because that’s not really the point of the narrative. Les Parisiennes is arranged chronologically and that has the advantage of reminding you that Paris is a big city, full of different people who asked themselves “what do I need to do to survive?” and answered differently. There are the women who collaborated, those who resisted loudly, those who resisted quietly, and those who did what they had to in the gray area in between.
I learned about Drancy, the holding area for prisoners before they were sent to concentration camps. During the early 1944 chapters of the book, it does leave Paris for Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Because it’s a third-person account it’s less emotional than, say, Survival in Auschwitz, but it was still nightmare-inducing. I couldn’t read these chapters before bedtime.
The most light-hearted part of the book is, of course, about fashion. No one writes a book about Paris and without including the fashion industry. You learn about the codes embroidered onto hats and belts and about the rather insane turbans women would wear just to piss off the Nazis. There is one memorable photograph of a woman, keeping watch on the top of a building during the liberation of Paris in 1944, wearing a lovely flowered skirt and sling-back heels with a helmet, holding a machine gun.
The juxtaposition of the soft and the hard in that photograph is what makes it interesting and it’s the jumble of all these women’s stories told together that makes Les Parisiennes work.
Society has a very definite idea of what makes someone an appropriate woman. Or, to quote yet still more Anne Helen Petersen, a good girl. You’re thin, wealthy, subordinate your own desires (of all kinds) to your husband’s, (of course you have a husband). Don’t swear, don’t look like you’re trying too hard, don’t have ambition, don’t yell, don’t age. And god forbid you have a bodily function.
Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud celebrates women who break all these rules, and it is awesome. Serena Williams is the best in the world and if you can’t accept her ambition, mouth, and body type, that’s your problem, not hers. It’s the first chapter and it sets the appropriate tone for the whole book.
Caitlin Jenner is included, and Anne Helen Petersen talks about how she’s problematic for her book, because she wants to be the most stereotypical woman she can be – transnormative – and not unruly at all. But simply by being such a prominent trans woman, she breaks barriers. With her show, she brought more trans stories to light and explored different ways to be trans in the world, sometimes despite herself.
Personally, I wish the Madonna chapter had been more fleshed out. As I’m getting older myself, how women are allowed (and not) to age becomes more interesting to me. (Selfish, I know.) But the point of that chapter is that Madonna isn’t aging like other women (unruly), but she’s fighting age in a way that we’ve seen before, by trying to act and perform as young as possible. The big idea is that Madonna has always been new. She transforms herself to stay new; her fight against age isn’t new. We’ve seen it before by others. The chapter was unsatisfying.
The book overall though is a strong recommend. Maybe my favorite book of 2017.
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is about women in Afghanistan. There are two interwoven stories: Rahima, a young girl who pretends to be a boy before becoming a 13-year-old fourth wife of a warlord, and her great-great grandmother, who does many things to not die while trying to get a bit of autonomy.
All the women in this book sort-of escape from the shackles of Afghani life. If you can call death or drug addition or getting forcibly married to someone who doesn’t beat you escape. It’s more like coming to terms with what you can do with where you are. Escape seems like too bold a word.
All sexism (and all racism) is, at its core, economic. It’s one group denying another the ability to earn enough money to live in the ways they want when they want. Controlling your labor. Standing in the way of you owning your own business. Refusing you health care so you can’t work. It’s vividly illustrated when you talk about Afghan society, it takes work on your part to see it here in America too. Policing what women wear. Pressuring men and women to be married and/or have children. Women fighting each other instead of supporting each other.
You can read The Pearl that Broke Its Shell and congratulate yourself that at least America isn’t that backwards or think that at least all of its main female characters end the story at peace. But mostly, I just felt unsettled.
What’s it about?
Alice is 29, happily married, and pregnant with her first child. She’s happy about this. Which would be wonderful, except for the fact that it’s in her head – she’s really a 39-year-old mother of three and about to be divorced. She’s hit her head. Now she needs to figure out just what happened in the last ten years.
Why should you read it?
I personally will always pick up any book by Liane Moriarty because she does the PTA-mom thing so well. She gets all those power dynamics, and because that’s the world I live in, I enjoy the satirization of it. In What Alice Forgot, she also covers exercise, long-term relationships, power dynamics, and, in this case, how a friendship ruined a marriage.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about books about relationships. This is partially because of my recent foray into reading romance books. But anything that’s about relationships, particularly when there’s at least one woman involved, tends to get classified as “women’s literature” whether thats romance or chick lit. And then it can be dismissed, or treated as lesser somehow.
Any maybe this is just me being ashamed of something I shouldn’t be – maybe this is a latent, internalized misogyny on my part. (God knows I’ve found enough of that as I’ve been raising my daughter – it’s amazing where it lurks.) But I suspect it’s more than just me – that books written by women, about relationships really are marginalized. (This story on Jezebel about what happened when a female author sent out her novel under a man’s name is enlightening.) And I wish that didn’t happen.
So I will continue to read and review books by women about women and relationships. And hope it helps de-marginalize it at least a tiny little bit.