Review: Writing a Woman’s Life

Writing a Woman's Life
Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Though published nearly 30 years ago, Writing A Woman’s Life is a compelling feminist argument that still has value today. Heilbrun argues that there are far fewer narratives of women’s lives available to us than there are narratives of men’s lives. Why does this matter?

“We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”

We make sense of our lives through narratives, and we make decisions about what is possible in the context of whatever stories are available to us. In this sense, narratives of women’s lives– biographies, autobiographies, memoirs– serve as road maps, showing us what kind of lives can be lived. They can open up the world or close it down.

One of the most interesting distinctions Heilbrun makes is between romance stories (often ending in marriage) and quest stories. This is a useful distinction, because it calls attention to the patterns of difference between women’s and men’s lives. Quest stories are exciting. They emphasize self-determination and agency. Men on quests pursue their passions and strike out on their own. In contrast, women’s romance stories are closed loops. They operate all in the service of finding a man to dissolve into, the goal being to lose oneself, as opposed to constructing oneself, becoming a whole person. Obviously, much has changed since this book was written, and a major shift occurred when the writing of working-class women and women of color became more widely accessible. But it is still worth considering to what degree this argument is still applicable today.

“We must stop reinscribing male words, and rewrite our ideas about what Nancy Miller calls a female impulse to power, as opposed to the erotic impulse which alone is supposed to impel women. We know we are without a text, and must discover one.”

This is the kind of book that I crave– a strong feminist voice that asserts women’s right to personhood, to leading a full life and developing to one’s greatest potential. It chips apart commonplace assumptions about what kind of lives women and men are allowed to live, and for that, I’m definitely grateful for this book.

Reproductive Justice & Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

I have to confess, I have been slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing how absolutely crucial reproductive justice is for a more free society where all people can develop to their fullest capacities. As a feminist, this gap in my thinking is terrifying! I believe my shortsightedness up to this point reflects mainly two things. First of all, there’s my privilege. As a white, middle-class woman, living in mostly blue states, I haven’t had to personally face many obstacles to accessing healthcare. And second, it illustrates just how successful the anti-abortion movement has been in shaping the conversation surrounding reproductive rights, even for people like myself who are strongly pro-choice.

In Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, it becomes apparent that the abortion issue, at the heart of it all, is about the power to control, subordinate, and punish women. And in particular, poor women and women of color. Katha Pollitt does an excellent job untangling the rhetoric and revealing the ways in which anti-abortion arguments mask the issue at hand. She argues that even while abortion opponents claim to care about women, children, and families (aw shucks…), the movement to restrict access to reproductive healthcare punishes women for having sex (in ways that men just aren’t punished for) and devalues motherhood (hey, anybody can raise a child, even a fifteen year old girl with no job and life experience). Not to mention the movement’s indifference towards– or efforts to straight up take money away from– policies meant to ensure the well-being of children that actually already exist.

Pollitt’s argument isn’t exactly a new one, but it’s an extremely important one. And this is especially true right now, as abortion opponents are gaining a great deal of ground in restricting access. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Pollitt’s discussion of the real world implications of criminalizing abortion, as well as the chapters that delve into this issue of personhood. Is a fetus a person? Is a woman a person?

What strikes me most though is this question: Why should the course of a woman’s life be drastically altered by a zygote? And to push this one step further, would we expect a man to give up an opportunity to go to college, to have a career, or to take better care of his already existing children, if there were other options for him? No. A man’s (a middle-class, white man’s, that is) right to self-determination is a given in a patriarchal society. Women, in contrast, are still reduced to nothing more than potential baby-makers and are advised to live their lives in accordance with this fate. I am now coming to see how reproductive justice must be central to any liberatory project. The anti-abortion movement’s success in restricting access to reproductive healthcare, and the pro-choice movement’s failure to highlight the positive aspects of access to abortion, are scary and damaging developments that affect everyone, not just women. I definitely recommend Pollitt’s book, especially if you find yourself somewhere in the middle ground on the issue.

Dworkin’s Heartbreak, Reviewed

I am reading Dworkin out of order, starting with these personal essays. I have been on an essay and memoir kick recently, and I just can’t pass up a book titled Heartbreak (so good!). A lot of people hate Dworkin, and I suppose this has something to do with her uncompromising stance towards some controversial issues (and saying a bunch of things people don’t want to hear in an impolite way). Some things she wrote were construed as pro-incest, but having read Heartbreak, I am highly skeptical that that was her point. So why does she get a bad rap? People’s disdain and disgust for radical feminists that persists to this day draws me to them so strongly. I’m just starting to piece together the legacy of radical feminism and have a lot of reading and thinking to do, but the stuff gets my heart pumping. And I loved these essays.

Dworkin has a do-or-die commitment to women. She cares deeply for those who have been abused and coerced by men. And she is dedicated to listening to what women have to say.

I do not know why so many women trusted me enough to speak to me, but underneath anything I write one can hear the percussive sound of their heartbeats. If one has to pick one kind of pedagogy over all others, I pick listening.

Through the course of these essays, she shows a tireless impulse to have an open heart towards other people’s pain. She feels the harm that men cause in the world so acutely. This ability to connect one’s experiences to others’, to listen to other women who have basically been through the shit, and then to act on that in a positive way, to set out to make sure that those abuses don’t happen anymore… it’s some of the best things a human can do in the face of this messed up world, and I love Dworkin for it.

The other thing that I am drawn to in her writing (and her life) is her refusal to compromise. In one chapter, she writes about people trying to make her sing “Silent Night,” and how she had never and would never sing it. She calls things as she sees them without mincing words. I mean, I can work to cultivate an appreciation for ambiguity as much as the next person, but there are also situations where a person needs to see through the mud people try to fill your head with. Dworkin sees through this bullshit, she is critical of all the lying adults she encounters, and she resists all the ways that people try to break her spirit.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Reviewed

Kate Chopin portraitNext stop on my mission to finally read some of the feminist works I haven’t gotten around to: Chopin’s The Awakening. It seems like most people read this one in high school, and I’m glad I didn’t actually. I am fairly confident that I would have hated it then and dismissed it completely. Reading it now, at 29 (same age as the main character for the latter part of the story), I could appreciate it. Reviewing this book without giving away major plot points is impossible, so be warned that what follows is full of spoilers!

The story revolves around Edna Pontellier, who is married to a wealthy businessman and has two small children. The book begins in Grand Isle, where the family is vacationing in the Gulf. We see that Edna’s marriage is stifling and mothering doesn’t interest her all that much. As the summer goes on, Edna develops feelings for another man, Robert Lebrun. But he sets off for Mexico unexpectedly. Back in New Orleans, Edna’s passionate awakening is now in full swing. She starts to follow her own desires instead of trying to fit into the restrictive life that has been set out for her– she pursues her interest in art, starts to come and go whenever she pleases, and finally takes up residence in a smaller house around the corner from the family mansion. When Robert returns to New Orleans, the desire Edna’s been harboring for him doesn’t quite work out. After some passionate kissing and caressing, Robert decides to leave in order to protect Edna and himself from the fallout that would likely occur if they followed their desire to be together.

In some ways, this is the perfect first-wave feminist work of literature. It seems obvious to point out that Edna is white and extremely privileged, but it’s important. The womanhood that she struggles against (with its emphasis on submissiveness, chasteness, purity) is constructed in contrast to the supposed easy sensuality of a number of women of color who we see mostly coming in and out of the background of the book. There is Mariequita, the “Spanish girl” in Grand Isle, with her dirty feet, and the general category of seductive “Mexican women” the characters refer to. Edna’s world is one where “the quadroon” looks after her children (though Edna always has a comment about her ineptitude), nameless “black girls” sweep and do laundry, and Edna has a relaxing weekend watching the “darkies” do fieldwork at her parents’ estate. I point these things out, not because they are aspects of Edna’s world that are so jarring to me 2015, but because it is vital to understand how white, middle-class womanhood is racially constructed (still to this day).

In this context, Edna’s attempts to feel passionately, to become awakened, fall flat for me. Though there are some poignant scenes towards the beginning, my empathy for her peters out. Edna’s obviously not shaking off some great chains of oppression in her situation, and the way she takes people for granted bugs me. I can’t help but draw comparisons between her and Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which I also read recently and definitely enjoyed more. Same kind of privileged white woman, but at least in Nora’s case, she is upfront with her husband about why she needs to break free from him. Nora decides to leave to go become an independent person, and she walks out the door. Edna, in contrast, is a little bit sneaky while her husband is away on business and seems to be waiting for somebody, ideally Robert, to rescue her from the monotony of her life. In the end, no one can rescue her. The other dude, Arobin, is a creep, and Robert is just as beholden to the rules of the era as her husband is.

I suppose what annoys me about it all is that Edna’s struggle to find passion and become a real, independent person comes off as shallow (and maybe this is just because it’s 2015 now and I have more options for how to live than Edna did). Passion can definitely awaken you to life, but you have to go somewhere from there. Love is a more nourishing, sustaining action, and I don’t think Edna ever allows herself to get there. Of course it’s going to end badly if you just substitute one man for the next! But she’s got her artwork and her new attitude towards the world and a model of what it’s like to be a female artist living on your own (the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz). Why not move forward and explore the possibilities of what life could be like, as Nora does? For me, that would have made a much more powerful, feminist statement.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Reviewed

I finally sat down with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and am really glad I did. Le Guin gets pigeonholed as just a sci-fi writer (she talks about it here), and this has definitely steered me away from her work. What is it about science fiction that makes me feel ambivalent at best? I’m sure this is an unfair generalization, but sci-fi always seemed to me like a world that adolescent boys and young, nerdy men can dive into to forget about their worries and to find strong, reassuring male heroes. But what appeal could that have for me? I don’t want to read novels to escape to a dressed up version of the status quo (or to force myself to wade through really complex “hard” science that I’m not all that interested in). Dystopian novels always made a lot of sense to me though. They have that uncanny ability to reveal familiar facets of power and oppression in the strangest, most foreign worlds (recently, I loved On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee). And I have tried with some sci-fi lately. 2312 didn’t capture me and was impossible to trudge through.

The Dispossessed isn’t like that. Yes, it’s science fiction. And once in a while, I felt like I was watching a cheesy episode of Star Trek from the 1970s. But there are a lot of great things about this book.

What does freedom look like and how can it be cultivated? So many people have written about Le Guin’s choice to make the anarchist society of Anarres imperfect. While it is ostensibly a free society, power still operates in a more insidious way. A group of Anarresti begin to recognize the ways in which they are unfree, how they are compelled to obey work placements and compromise their values and scientific or artistic endeavors. Le Guin’s imperfect Anarres illustrates that people can’t just arrive at this noble goal– a society built on anarchist “principles”– and then live there happily-ever-after. Freedom is something that people must strive for continually. (Just as hierarchies must be continually maintained by those in power.) For me, this is actually a hopeful insight. We don’t just fail and call it quits, saying oh people will never be free, the powerful are just too powerful. The struggle for freedom is a constant, it’s a way of being in the world.

I have also been thinking more specifically about gender in this book. Online, people tend to point to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to discuss her gender politics, but I think The Dispossessed is interesting in its own right. First of all, why a male protagonist? If Anarres is such an egalitarian society, why don’t we have a female physicist driving the story? I was wondering this throughout the book, especially when we get to learn more about Takver, Shevek’s female partner. According to one site, Le Guin has defended her decision by explaining that she is drawn to entering alien minds. So writing from a male point of view is an interesting challenge, and I can buy this reasoning. I also think just logistically, it allows her to create a character that is going to be at least relatively accepted on Urras, enough that we can see how that very oppressive world operates.

The Anarresti aren’t hung up about the differences between men and women. They don’t emphasize them to institute a hierarchy of the sexes. They also do a lot to remove class distinctions. Essentially, class societies are those where certain groups of people do the dirty work while others don’t have to. But the Anarresti take work placements every so often to do whatever work needs to get done. This is pretty intriguing stuff!

I am looking forward to reading more of Le Guin’s work, as well as more specifically feminist science fiction. There is something really powerful and captivating in being able to re-imagine the world, the whole of it, the way society is fundamentally organized, and the kinds of relationships that form the foundation of that.

How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea, Reviewed

Michelle Tea How To Grow Up book coverI was super excited last week to learn that Michelle Tea has a new book out. I remember discovering Tea in the stacks of the Chicago Public Library in my early twenties, and checking out this really thumbed-through copy of The Chelsea Whistle. Having just gone to school in Boston and messily high-tailing it out of there without a degree and plenty of parental disapproval, I was immediately sucked in to her stories about the struggles of growing up weird and working-class in Massachusetts. A few years later, I remember seeing her read at Quimby’s (er wait, was it Women & Children First? Or both? UGH my head is shot). Well, location and dates elude me, but it was TOTALLY AWESOME.

The new memoir documents her experiences of becoming a full-fledged adult, from her tumultuous twenties and thirties, into the more or less serene present day. Plenty of life lessons and colorful experiences. There are some parts in here that are really spot on. She is a gifted writer and her stories easily draw you in. She writes about her living situations, her relationships, travels, a little bit about her work in organizing literary events, the Sister Spit tours, and founding RADAR (which I would have liked to hear much more about over what it’s like to live in a punk house).

But there are also some parts that are just painful to read (a description of what all goes in her green smoothie, for instance), and her conversational tone started to wear on me by the end. But that’s who she is, and she’s honest about it, and I can totally appreciate that. What’s truly great is that Tea is happy and sober! Her previous books really impacted me and made me feel more substantial at a time when I really needed it. They made me realize that those fraught and confused experiences of being a young woman are important. As others have written, this memoir does get a little self-helpy. It’s not the same Tea I loved then, and that’s fine. People do grow up and do things that seem very weird (Botox?!).

The chapter on education (“Too Cool for School”) stands out as the strongest in my mind. What’s great about it is that she expertly shows how social structure and biography intertwine. As a kid, nobody ever told her there were all these different, middle-class occupations that she could aspire to. A college education wasn’t assumed, and in fact, just having to ask her mother for the application fees was a really tough thing to do. This is the kind of writing about growing up working-class that shows how economic inequalities profoundly shape one’s opportunities– that people aren’t just sitting around deciding not to make anything of themselves. It gets into a little bit of dangerous territory in the sense that she makes her way into the middle-class regardless, without going to college. It’s important to remember that this is the exception. Overall, I wish she engaged more with her politics throughout the book, because she is really pretty good at it in that chapter. (I highly recommend Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing up Working Class, a book Tea edited way back when that introduced me to a lot of other great authors).

The book is definitely entertaining and worth the read if you want to check back in with this excellent writer, though I’d suggest reading her other books before this one.