It was the appropriation, and perversion, of her idea that rankled most

Old BaggageOld Baggage
by Lissa Evans

This year marks 100 years since (some) women were able to vote for the first time in the UK, and 90 years since full voter equality was achieved here, and Lissa Tremain’s novel covers both these developments with gentle humour.

It is the start of 1928 and Mattie gives regular lectures about her suffragette past. She is widely admired for her history and her oratory but she can’t seem to get people interested in the ongoing struggle for equality. There is a popular assumption that the partial enfranchisement that women won in 1918 should be enough. It also begins to become clear that, while she is well-intentioned, she is blind to the reality of life for working-class women.

This is in stark contrast to her best friend and housemate The Flea, who works as a health visitor in some of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The Flea smooths out Mattie’s problems before Mattie notices she has them, which has the unfortunate effect of meaning that Mattie rarely learns that she is getting it wrong.

“’Your memoir?’ The Flea was astonished. ‘I had no idea!’
‘Started long ago and never completed.’
‘But why ever not?’
Mattie hesitated. ‘I found the task…counterproductive.’ She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing…She had written about that accident…but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes.”

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Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find

The GroupThe Group
by Mary McCarthy

This is often mentioned as a feminist classic alongside the likes of The Awakening and Herland, so it should have been right up my street. The thing is, the other word thrown around about this book is “satirical”, which I have no problem with in theory, but in practice I have often taken a dislike to satirical books (for every Scoop there’s also an Emma). Humour is a tricky thing.

This is the story of a group of eight women, friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933, and follows the next few years of their lives. Each chapter centres around a different member of “the group”, some with more crossover between the friends than others. It opens at the wedding of Kay and Harald one week after graduation. Kay is the first of the group to get married, though not the only one to have a fiancé before finishing college. The others are fascinated by her low-rent, friends-not-family wedding and its indication of her bohemian life to come (Harald is a playwright).

“To Elinor, this wedding was torture. Everything was so jaggedly ill-at-ease…Intelligent and morbidly sensitive, she was inwardly screaming with pity for the principals and vicarious mortification. Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find for the antiphonal bird twitter of ‘Terribly nice’ and ‘Isn’t this exciting?’ that had risen to greet the couple in lieu of a wedding march. Elinor was always firmly convinced of other people’s hypocrisy since she could not believe that they noticed less than she did.”

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I prefer to think that women are human

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L SayersAre Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
by Dorothy L Sayers

I thought this would be an appropriate review to publish on International Women’s Day. As the title suggests, this tiny volume is a pair of pieces by Sayers on women’s rights – an address given to a women’s society in 1938, and an essay first published in 1947.

I was a little frustrated by Sayers dismissing feminists as too extreme while arguing the case for women being individuals. But in general she finds smart, astute ways to explain how men, and society in general, treat men as human individuals and women as identical members of a stereotype.

“Are women really not human, that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep? I think that people should be allowed to drink as much wine and beer as they can afford and is good for them; Lady Astor thinks nobody should be allowed to drink anything of the sort. Where is the “woman’s point of view”? Or is one or the other of us unsexed? If the unsexed one is myself, then I am unsexed in very good company. But I prefer to think that women are human and differ in opinion like other human beings.

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They destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions

The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories
by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman

This is an astounding collection. It is all the more remarkable when you remember that these stories were written in the 1890s and yet most of them feel like they’re set in the 1950s or even later.

The title story is the best known and probably also the best written in the collection. It’s certainly the most psychologically complex. A married couple rent an old house while their own home is being remodelled. The wife, who narrates the story, takes an instant dislike to the yellow wallpaper in the large room they use for a bedroom. Her health and mental state deteriorate, leading her physician husband to confine her to bed, which she is sure is exacerbating the problem.

“I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”

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The delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box

A Little Knowledge
by Emma Newman

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds, a fantasy series that Newman started in 2013 with Between Two Thorns. This review may contain spoilers for the previous three books.

The story still centres on Cathy – one of the “fae-touched” humans, whose life is controlled by the Fae – and Max, whose job is to protect innocent humans from magical misdeeds, such as being disappeared. Cathy must now live in the Nether, a magical reflection of the human world, known as Mundanus. Though she theoretically inhabits a powerful position in fae-touched society, she is frustrated by the confines of an extremely patriarchal system. Her experience in Mundanus exposed her to feminism and women’s rights – thoroughly foreign concepts in the Nether. But the resistance to her proposed changes is so extreme that she wonders if something else is going on.

“It didn’t help that at social events she just wanted to sneak off and read a book, like she had as a child. Although Cathy understood that wasn’t possible anymore, it was too much of a leap to suddenly acquire all the social delicacy and insight now required of her. Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it.”

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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For what is lightness but inconsequence

aurora leighAurora Leigh
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, I read an epic poem, or novel in verse, and it wasn’t just to tick something off my Classics Club list. I really like Browning and had been meaning to read this for years.

Aurora Leigh is born in Italy but when her beloved parents die she is sent to England to be raised by her aunt. At every step she chooses her own way in a manner that to a modern reader might appear progressive and feminist. She is self-taught (aside from a few years when she is taught by her aunt) and chooses her career over a man; she argues for the contributions of women to the arts, and poetry in particular. From the day Aurora declines a marriage proposal because her suitor denigrates her chosen career and her gender, I was in love with her.

“We get no good / By being ungenerous, even to a book, / And calculating profits – so much help / By so much reading. It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth – / ‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.”

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Our ideas of gender have not evolved very much

we should all be feministsWe Should All Be Feminists
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is Adichie’s TEDx speech in book form, so it has a lot in common with the Rowling book I reviewed last week. Again it’s short (about 50 pages) and can easily be read in half an hour. Again, I found my enjoyment of it was helped by trying to read it “aloud in my head” to semi-recreate the original format. And again I thought it an important, moving work but have some minor reservations.

Adichie describes herself as “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men”, which I think says something about her but a lot more about the resistance she has encountered to the label “feminist”. That resistance will be familiar to a lot of readers. In calm, reasonable and approachable style, she explains that the goal of equality has not yet been achieved, despite widespread claims to the contrary.

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘normal’ that only men should be heads of corporations.”

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Female superheroes

When Tim went to our local comic shop a few weeks ago, he brought home issue 1 of several new (or recently started) series, no less than five of them new Marvel series with female leads. Which is a pretty big step to redressing the gender imbalance that has tended to exist in superhero universes. I’ve only read this selection of first issues (plus last year’s new series Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel) but they’re all kickass heroines who promise plenty for the future.

Bearing in my mind that these are single issues, so I’ve only had 20 or so pages of each story, here are my thoughts on these new series.

****Spoiler warning****
Tim has pointed that, because these characters are not new, my reviews do contain spoilers for previous series featuring these ladies, so if you’re a little behind in the Marvel universes, you have been warned!

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Sunday Salon: International Women’s Day

The Sunday SalonHappy International Women’s Day, folks! While I can only remember hearing about it for the past couple of years, this day was created in 1909 as a national day in the US and went international in 1911. There’s all sorts of fun facts about this day on the official website, but my favourite one is that International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

I am mostly celebrating by listening to 6 Music, which seems to have dedicated its whole day of programming to International Women’s Day, but when I do find some time to read I’ll be continuing my way through Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her birthday was 6 March and to celebrate I wrote a piece for the Redhead Reads micro newsletter. Aurora Leigh is an appropriate read for today not only because it was written by a woman but also because it’s about a woman trying to break free of the social constraints placed on her by her sex. And it’s really good.

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