Feminist Fridays: I wrote an entire essay about hair?

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly: I recently filled an entire eight pages with an essay about hair. Since it has a decidedly feminist perspective, I thought I would discuss it with you all in this week’s installment of Feminist Fridays.

For my English Literature 1910-Present tutorial I was asked to read Not So Quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith, a WWI novel published in 1930. Helen Zenna Smith is actually the name of the protagonist– the author, a journalist named Evadne Price, wrote under a pseudonym. The novel follows a group of ambulance drivers from England working on the front lines in France. These women are volunteers from mostly upper-class families whose parents want their children to be bestowed with the honorable “glory” of the war effort. As I read the novel I couldn’t help but notice the plethora of references to the women’s hair, from when bold Tosh cuts hers to get rid of disgusting lice infestations to when Helen ultimately decides to cut her hair after being kissed by a soldier, suggesting a connection between short hair and overt female sexuality. Why was the mention of hair such a repetitive occurrence? I decided to do some investigating.

My concluding argument ended up being that although the women are able to cut their hair short on the Front because it is a liminal space where women perform masculine acts (such as driving ambulances), the Victorian ideals of virtuous femininity lingering in British society prevent women from fully deconstructing these traditional gender roles. In the literature of the Victorian Era, there was a clear link between long hair and proper womanhood. In Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” that I discussed in a previous Feminist Friday post, a lock of golden hair is actually used as currency, rendering woman’s body a sort of commodity in the masculine economic sphere. As much as we would love to believe that the dawn of the twentieth century saw the immediate and pervasive rise of the “New Woman,” Smith’s novel shows that the transition was much more gradual.

Why is this important or relevant in the slightest? I think we’d be amiss to believe that these traditional Victorian ideals of what it means to “be a woman” have escaped modern society completely. In actuality, the stigma surrounding “unfeminine” things like short hair still exists today, albeit in less overt ways. If you perform masculine behavior as a young girl, you’re often labelled a “tomboy”…. but why can’t you still just be called a girl? Why must we distinguish between those who perform more masculine behavior rather than feminine actions? And who decides what is “masculine” and “feminine” anyways? This very discussion demonstrates that the lock of golden hair used in “Goblin Market” still hangs over our society’s head.

What are your thoughts on Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet…Have any recommendations for other works I should read? Do you feel as though hair is an important marker of gender? Let me know in the comments section below!




Feminist Fridays: ANN VERONICA by H.G. Wells

Today’s Feminist Fridays feature focuses on another text I’ve read for a tutorial this term: H.G. Wells’ 1909 novel Ann Veronica. Set at the turn of the century, the novel tells the story of a young woman named Ann Veronica who yearns to achieve a sense of personal independence from her controlling father. What begins as mere trips to London and an aspiration to study science at a prestigious university ultimately leads to involvement in the woman’s suffrage movement, an unpleasant affair, and even eventual elopement. Although the beginning of this novel seemed to promise an empowering feminist read, it ultimately left me with a sour taste in my mouth and more conflicting feels than I know what to do with. 

On the surface, it seems as though this novel is about a young woman breaking away from traditional Victorian gender expectations and achieving independence as a New Woman. However, a closer look reveals that Ann Veronica doesn’t quite reach as far as one would hope or expect. Although she does get involved with the woman’s suffrage movement while in London and even spends time in jail after participating in a protest, she quickly abandons the endeavor when she realizes that she doesn’t fit in with the supposed “man-hating” suffragettes. Wells paints an overtly negative portrayal of the suffragettes, implying that they have no sexual desire and are destined to live their lives alone and unmarried. Ann Veronica may have left her controlling father behind when she moved to live by herself in London, but she is never without influence from an older man. She continually revolves circles around the men in her life, following their actions and taking on their beliefs. The most obvious example of this (spoiler ahead!) is when she gets married at the end of the novel and is no longer referred to as Ann Veronica but “Mrs. Capes” instead. In this way, Ann Veronica travels full circle from the hands of one man (her father) into the hands of another (her husband).

George Orwell by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

The more I researched about this novel, the more I began to question it as a feminist text. Apparently it was written as a sort of autobiographical story about H.G. Wells’ own affair with a woman named Amber Pember Reeves. This brings up interesting questions about what his motivation was for writing this novel in the first place. Wells also has rather hypocritical views on woman’s role in society as well. Although he was a proponent of “free love,” he only did so under the stipulation that it should be for reproductive purposes. There was little room for complete equality between men and women in his ideology.

The novel is also complicated by the fact that it is a man writing from the perspective of a woman. How could Wells possibly know what it is like to be a woman living during this time? How are we to trust his opinions when he has not experienced gender inequality for himself? It’s all too easy to take this novel at a distance and categorize it as a feminist work, but the more I think about it the more I wonder whether this is an accurate label at all.

Ann Veronica may be frustrating and infuriating to read, but it is also a fascinating look at what a man thought a woman’s life should be like at the turn of the twentieth century. If you want a novel that will challenge how you think about gender roles and woman’s rights, definitely check this one out!

What are your thoughts on Ann Veronica? How do you feel about male authors writing from a female perspective? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: WHAT HAPPENED by Hilary Clinton

This week’s Feminist Fridays feature edges into a topic that has the potential to be very controversial and divisive: politics. As I mentioned in my nonfiction TBR list for 2018, it was a goal of mine to read Hillary Clinton’s recent memoir What Happened, published on September 12, 2017. Well, consider this goal officially accomplished! Today I’d like to explore some of the ideas Hillary discusses in her book as well as the role of women in politics and leadership positions in general. However, before going further I’d like to say that this post does not revolve around where you fall on the political spectrum. I’m tackling these tough questions from the perspective of a woman rather than the view of a Democrat, Republic, etc. Personally, I feel as though gender inequality is an issue we should all be talking about regardless of our political views.

For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the constraints of running, Hillary takes you inside the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet. {Goodreads}

For the purpose of this post, I’d like to focus on Hillary’s discussion of experiences she’s had as a woman in politics and leadership positions in general. She wasn’t taken series as a woman attorney in the courtroom. She’s treated differently from male politicians, interrogated with different questions and scrutinized much more harshly for her appearances and tone of voice. She’s been criticized for her age when male counterparts are viewed as wise, mature, and experienced at the same age or older. The list goes on and on and on.

The specific example that surprised me the most was how people blamed her for not taking her husband’s last name. Apparently when her husband and former president Bill Clinton failed to be reelected as governor of Arkansas, some people said that it was because Hillary went as “Hillary Rodham” instead of “Hillary Clinton,” suggesting that she was not dedicated to her husband nor his career. This fascinating Washington Post article titled “The complicated history behind Hillary Clinton’s evolving name” explains that even though there was likely no connection whatsoever between her name and the outcome of the election, it certainly impacted how people perceived her in relation to her husband.

This was a partial bow to tradition — but also, in this sense, it was a political play. It was an attempt to disrupt the idea that she was an excessively ambitious woman or disinterested in the traditional role of the state’s first lady. Bill Clinton became governor again.

There’s almost no way to say what role Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name change played in that outcome. She never left her law firm (note: The Rose Law firm wasn’t able to tell us by deadline if and when Rodham became Rodham Clinton in that office). But, at the very least, maybe a few more culturally conservative Arkansas voters viewed her as caring and emotionally connected to her husband.

Personally, I think this is absurd. Why does it matter what her last name is? What possible relation could her last name have to her love, loyalty, or devotion to her husband? (After what Bill Clinton put his wife through *cough* adultery *cough* I think he should have been the one to change his last name.) Women should have the freedom to keep their last name if they choose. This should not just be a legal freedom as it is now but a cultural freedom as well. We need to rid our society of the negative stigma attached to women who keep their last names, and this is a perfect example of why.

What do we do with all of this information about gender inequality in politics? I don’t have an exact answer, but it was comforting to learn that Hillary doesn’t know for sure, either:

“I’m not sure how to solve all this. My gender is my gender. My voice is my voice. To quote Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, under FDR, “The accusation that I’m a woman is incontrovertible.” Other women will run for President, and they will be women, and they will have women’s voices. Maybe that will be less unusual by then.”

I immensely enjoyed listening to the audio book of What Happened, which is narrated by Hillary herself. Not only does this book feel honest, authentic, genuine, and real, but it also humanizes Hillary in a way that the media has refused to do in recent years. What Happened is well written, carefully crafted, meticulously researched, and has clearly been created from a heartfelt place of insightfulness and reflection. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in current political events in the United States, women in politics, feminism in general, or who simply what’s another perspective on what in the world happened in the 2016 presidential election.

What are your thoughts on What Happened? How do you think feminist does or should fit into politics? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: Augusta Webster

This week I’ll be discussing one of the Victorian poets I read for the first time last term: August Webster.

Born as Julia Augusta Davies, August Webster (1837-1894) was a writer of all sorts: poems, essays, plays, translations, and even a novel. Although she started out studying Greek at home, she eventually got the opportunity to study at the Cambridge School of Art. Like many women writers of the time period, Webster published her first poetry collection using a male pseudonym: Cecil Homes. Although she is most well-known for being a sort of successor to the popular poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her work advocating for women’s rights is also remarkable. Not only did she work for the London branch of the National Committee for Women’s Suffrage, but she also was the first female writer to ever hold elective office because she was on the London School Board in 1879 and 1885.

Although her writing was quite popular during her lifetime, she unfortunately became less well-known after her death. The Webster poem I’m most familiar with is the “A Castaway,” which was first published in 1870. “A Castaway” is told from the perspective of a “fallen woman”; in other words, the poem is narrated by a prostitute who has been shunned by genteel society due to how she earns a living. However, the narrator offers a sharp and witty critique of the Victorian society in which she lives, pointing out that her work does not make her any less moral or honorable than those in other professions:

“I know of worse that are called honourable.
Our lawyers, who, with noble eloquence
and virtuous outbursts, lie to hang a man,
or lie to save him, which way goes the fee:
our preachers, gloating on your future hell
for not believing what they doubt themselves:
our doctors, who sort poisons out by chance,
and wonder how they’ll answer, and grow rich:
our journalists, whose business is to fib
and juggle truths and falsehoods to and fro:
our tradesmen, who must keep unspotted names
and cheat the least like stealing that they can:
our — all of them, the virtuous worthy men
who feed on the world’s follies, vices, wants,
and do their businesses of lies and shams
honestly, reputably, while the world
claps hands and cries “good luck,” which of their trades,
their honourable trades, barefaced like mine,
all secrets brazened out, would shew more white?”

The narrator also looks back on her past as a young girl, saying that she never expected to be living such a life at this age. She explains that she’s grateful that her mother died before she could see her daughter like this:

“Oh mother, mother, did you ever dream,
you good grave simple mother, you pure soul
no evil could come nigh, did you once dream
in all your dying cares for your lone girl
left to fight out her fortune all alone
that there would be this danger? — for your girl,
taught by you, lapped in a sweet ignorance,
scarcely more wise of what things sin could be
than some young child a summer six months old
where in the north the summer makes a day,
of what is darkness … darkness that will come
to-morrow suddenly. Thank God at least
for this much of my life, that when you died,
that when you kissed me dying, not a thought
of this made sorrow for you, that I too
was pure of even fear.”

Perhaps my favorite part of the poem is when the narrator exposes the hypocritical view of women that men hold. Fathers may send their daughters to school to be educated, but what is the point if they are just going to marry them off to do mindless housework for the rest of their lives? Why must men put women in a corner like this?

“Well, well, the silly rules this silly world
makes about women! This is one of them.
Why must there be pretence of teaching them
what no one ever cares that they should know,
what, grown out of the schoolroom, they cast off
like the schoolroom pinafore, no better fit
for any use of real grown-up life,
for any use to her who seeks or waits
the husband and the home, for any use,
for any shallowest pretence of use,
to her who has them? Do I not know this,
I like my betters, that a woman’s life,
her natural life, her good life, her one life,
is in her husband, God on earth to her,
and what she knows and what she can and is
is only good as it brings good to him?”

The stigmas, prejudices, and inequalities emphasized in this poem still linger in our society today. Women are often viewed as inferior to men, particularly in the workplace. Although we have undeniably made great strides towards gender equality, the writing of poets such as Augusta Webster remind us that we nevertheless have a long road ahead of us. 

Are you familiar with Augusta Webster? Do you have a favorite poem written by her? What other writers would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: WOMAN AND LABOUR by Olive Schreiner

Fellow nerds, I am SO excited for today’s installment of Feminist Fridays because I have the pleasure of discussing Olive Schreiner’s fantastic work Woman and Labour. One of the many perks of being in a Writing Feminisms tutorial at Oxford is that I’m introduced to numerous writers that I had never heard of before.

Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) is a South African writer most well-known for her novel The Story of an African Farm, which she began writing when she was a teenager. In addition to being a novelist, Schreiner was also a notable suffragist, anti-war campaigner, and political activist during her time. Interestingly, her life goal was to become a medical doctor; however, she was never able to make this goal a reality due to her poor health. Schreiner eventually turned to writing as one of the few professions she could feasibly do considering her serious issues with asthma.

Woman and Labour was published in 1911, during the last decade of her life, and discusses her views on the Woman’s Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The text begins with a comprehensive history of woman’s labor since the hunter-gatherer days of humans living in the wilderness before she turns to more modern concerns. Schreiner uses this important historical context to assert that the so-called “New Woman” of the moment is not new at all; rather, she is rooted in the feminine past.

The banner which we unfurl today is not new: it is the standard of the old, free, monogamous, laboring woman, which, twenty hundred years ago, floated over the forests of Europe…

She further emphasizes that the Woman’s Movement to gain more opportunities for women in labour fields other than domestic work was for the benefit of all women, both present and future– not for the advantage of the individual. If society was to improve over time, it would only be through the simultaneous and harmonious improvement of men and women together. The alternative path– continuing on with a male-dominated labor force– would only exacerbate the problem of sex-parasitism in which women were left dependent on their husbands for wealth, property, etc. Only through the emergence of the so-called New Woman could the “New Man” develop and prosper, for “if anywhere on earth exists the perfect ideal of that which the modern woman desires to be–of a laboring and virile womanhood, free, strong, fearless and tender– it will probably be found in the heart of the New Man.”

What struck me most about Woman and Labour is how incredibly relevant it is to our modern society. Of course, women have significantly more opportunities in the workplace today than in 1911 when this book was first published; however, many of the concerns that Schreiner expressed are ones we still face now. The Center for American Progress recently released “The Women’s Leadership Gap” in which they explain that despite the fact that women make up not only the majority of the national population but also the majority of those graduating with undergraduate and master’s degrees, they still do not hold nearly as many leadership positions as do men. Their following conclusion is even more alarming:

Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988.56 They have earned at least one-third of law degrees since 198057 and accounted for fully one-third of medical school students by 1990.58 Yet they have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that should have followed.

In a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. As recently as 2012, their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards; as TV pundits, Wikipedia contributors, Hollywood writers, producers, and directors; and as members of Congress—was just 18 percent.59

In fact, it has been estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in key leadership roles in the United States.60

It is undeniable that we have come a long way since the publication of Woman and Labour; yet it is also undeniable that we still have a long way to go before achieving gender equality for all. Reading works such as those of Olive Schreiner is a valuable way of reminding ourselves where we stand and why we need to continue standing up for this important cause.

What are your thoughts on Schreiner’s ideas in Woman and Labor? Have any recommendations for other works I should read? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: GIRL UP by Laura Bates

Last week’s Feminist Friday featured five nonfiction feminist reads that I’d like to read in 2018. Fortunately, I’ve already been able to check one off the list: Girl Up by Laura Bates. I hadn’t intended for this to be the first nonfiction read of the new year, but I saw a copy of it in a bookstore a few weeks ago and couldn’t help being drawn in by the colorful, fun, creative design. Time to share my thoughts!

+ Covers countless topics. Social media. Body image. Self-esteem. Protesting. Harassment and abuse. Sex. Education. Careers. Confidence. Gender stereotypes. Sexism. History of feminism movement and inspirational women. Feminism today. The list goes on and on and on, yet somehow Girl Up never feels as though it is rushing through one topic to get to another; rather, every subject is given plenty of time in the spotlight. Bates also does an excellent job of connecting all of these concepts by referring to them in multiple chapters and in different contexts.

+ Educational, but not preachy. One of my biggest pet peeves is when books turn from fun and informational to preachy and almost condescending in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, Girl Up has a balanced blend of direct facts, Bates’ personal anecdotes, and experiences from other women that she includes as supportive evidence for her arguments. Reading this book feels like having a conversation with a friend who genuinely cares about your well-being– what more can you ask from a book?

+ Bates’ hilarious personality shines through. All I thought after finishing this book was: Where can I get my hands on more of Laura Bates’ writing? Her voice here comes across as authentic, genuine, honest, and incredibly passionate about everything she discusses in this book. I may have even started laughing out loud to myself as I read this in bed…

+ SO FUN. From colorful graphics and snarky comebacks to ideas of what to send someone when they text you an unwanted photo, Girl Up is definitely a book that will make you smile.

The only drawback of this book for me is its intended audience. Although it may advertise itself as a book geared towards teens and college students alike, much of the information and context of the book suggests a younger audience (maybe 15-16 years old?). Despite this disparity, I believe that readers of all ages can still take away something valuable and empowering from this book. 

I would absolutely recommend Laura Bates’ Girl Up to anyone and everyone, especially those who identify as women or who would like to know more about feminism in general. It’s important to have as many people as possible in our conversations about gender inequality, so the more the merrier!

What are your thoughts on Girl Up? Have any recommendations for other feminist reads? Let me know in the comments section below!





Feminist Fridays: Nonfiction for 2018

A new year is right around the corner (eek!) which means it’s time to take a look at what 2018 will hold in terms of reading. I’ve tried not to go overboard with setting goals for next year, but I something I would really like to do is read more feminist nonfiction in 2018. Today I’m going to share five books about feminism, women, and our current culture of sexism that I’m hoping to read next year.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

“Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better. “{Goodreads}

I have yet to read anything by Roxane Gay, which is a shame considering all the fantastic things I’ve heard about her writing.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun.” {Goodreads} 

I definitely should have read this by now, especially considering how short it is!

Girl Up by Laura Bates

“Hilarious, jaunty and bold, GIRL UP exposes the truth about the pressures surrounding body image, the false representations in media, the complexities of a sex and relationships, the trials of social media and all the other lies they told us.” {Goodreads}

I want to read this book just from reading the synopsis alone– it sounds so interesting!

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

“For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the constraints of running, Clinton takes you inside the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet.” {Goodreads} 

No matter where on the political spectrum you fall, it’s undeniable that Hillary offers a unique and fascinating perspective on being a woman in the politics today. I’m so intrigued by what she has to say!

Shrill by Lindy West

“Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible–like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you–writer and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but.” {Goodreads}

This sounds like it will be as interesting and worthwhile as it will be humorous– sign me up!

What are your thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned? Have any recommendations you would add to the list? What are your goals for 2018? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: The “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Controversy

In the spirit of the festive season, today’s installment of Feminist Fridays discusses the seemingly never-ending controversy surrounding the classic Christmas carol “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Written by Frank Loesser in 1944 for the film Neptune’s Daughter, this song has been performed and recorded by countless artists in the following decades. However, in recent years this duet has been criticized for being a sexist song about rape. What is an avid listener of Christmas carols to do?

When I first heard the numerous arguments against this song, I was wholeheartedly in agreement. After all, how could I support a song about using alcohol in order to take advantage of women, which is a situation that happens all too often in actuality. In “A Line-by-Line Take Down of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’” published by the HuffPost last year, this song is put squarely into the context of our modern day society:

Which begs the question: if our rape problem is still so bad today, 70 years later, but we’re at least now aware of this problem, then why does this creepy song still get so much play? Most of its new versions have been recorded in the last decade, with three new versions released in the past year! Yes, it’s a catchy tune, with some linguistically clever back-and-forths that make for a fun (or at least, fun-to-record) duet — even we can’t help but sing along! But in the age of campus rape awareness (finally!) and Bill Cosby allegations, how can so many contemporary artists (and listeners) not be more conflicted about a song that basically sanctions date rape — roofies and all?

Yet as a student of English literature, part of me couldn’t help but notice that there are two conflicting cultural contexts at war here: that of today and that in which the song was originally written. While I don’t buy into the excuse of pardoning problematic things just because they’re so-called “products of their time,” it can be valuable to view text or art in light of when it was produced.

In an article by Persephone Magazine titled ‘Listening While Feminist: In Defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”’ the cultural context of the 1940s is brought into the debate by analyzing the role of alcohol in the song:

So let’s talk about that drink. I’ve discussed solely looking at the lyrics of the song and its internal universe so far, but I think that the line “Say, what’s in this drink” needs to be explained in a broader context to refute the idea that he spiked her drink. “Say, what’s in this drink” is a well-used phrase that was common in movies of the time period and isn’t really used in the same manner any longer. The phrase generally referred to someone saying or doing something they thought they wouldn’t in normal circumstances; it’s a nod to the idea that alcohol is “making” them do something unusual. But the joke is almost always that there is nothing in the drink. The drink is the excuse. The drink is the shield someone gets to hold up in front of them to protect from criticism. And it’s not just used in these sort of romantic situations. I’ve heard it in many investigation type scenes where the stoolpigeon character is giving up bits of information they’re supposed to be protecting, in screwball comedies where someone is making a fool of themselves, and, yes, in romantic movies where someone is experiencing feelings they are not supposed to have.

After reading articles such as this one, my fervent opposition to the song began to waver once again. Have we been taking this song out of context during this entire heated controversy? Then again, does context even matter at this point if the modern interpretation of the lyrics is so unpleasant?

So which side is the “right” one? Or can a single side even claim that bold title? This controversy is important because it brings up a question that plagues Christmas carol listeners and students of English literature alike: Is this a case of needing to recognize that something we enjoy is problematic, or have we misinterpreted the cultural context in which it was created in favor of emphasizing our own? Unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer.

What are your thoughts on this song? How do you deal with problematic art that you’re just not sure about? Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: NOT JUST JANE by Shelley DeWees

It’s Friday, folks! You know what that means: another installment of Feminist Fridays, in which I discuss books, media, and topics relating to feminism. Today I’m showcasing a book that I read about a year ago called Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees. This book was actually sent to me for review, and I agreed to review it as soon as I read the subtitle: “Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature.” Sign me up!

I could go on and on about why I enjoyed Not Just Jane immensely; however, I already wrote and posted a book review that does just that. As I wrote in my initial review of this book:

Not Just Jane offers so much more than a mere summary of these writers’ texts; instead, DeWees provides a comprehensive view of the lives of these incredible women in order to help explain their rise to (albeit temporary) success. She discusses both their familial and romantic relationships, their struggles with poverty, mental illness, and overcoming the stigma surrounding women writers at the time. Several of them turned to writing as a last resort, a way to financially support themselves in troubling times of financial need. Though many were not respected by their peers, a few of these talented women climbed the ranks of the social ladder and worked their way into impressive literary circles. For instance, who would have known that Catherine Crowe rivaled Charlotte Bronte in social prowess, was betrayed by Charles Dickens, and influenced much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work? DeWees shows us these women as human beings first and foremost before delving into their literary lives on the page.

Rather than discuss this book in general, I would like to dive deeper into an important topic that DeWees specifically raises: our inability to separate women’s lives from their work. Back in the Victorian Era, women writers were constantly associated with whatever “scandals” or controversies happened in their personal lives. DeWees emphasizes how readers often knew about changes in the marital status, mental health, living situations, etc. of women writers, which inevitably influenced how readers perceived what they read. Anything that had a negative connotation in Victorian society– affairs, mental health problems, losing money– would ultimately impact the success of their work, for better or worse.

However, this phenomenon did not end in the Victorian Era and it does not solely apply to women writers. We can see this obsession with the personal lives of women in all kinds of spotlights, from politics to music to the red carpet. It seems as though we still have different criteria or standards when it comes to judging the work of women versus the work of men. An obvious example is the music of Taylor Swift (which I discussed in last week’s Feminist Friday post!), which listeners are always trying to decode for details regarding who she was dating, how the relationship went, and why it ended. Swift is often criticized for putting so much of her personal life into her music– yet those specific details are what many fans love to hate. Why don’t we place this much emphasis on the romantic lives of male artists in association with their music?

This gendered emphasis might not seem all that significant in the moment, but over time and on a grand scale it can have a serious impact. In an article for The New York Times titled “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women,” Amanda Hess exposes the problem with the way people have made a distinct separation between men and their artistic work. When it comes to recent abuse allegations by numerous men in Hollywood, supporters have been quick to push for continued separation between the two spheres; however, critics have finally declared that enough is enough.

This idea of assessing an artist’s work in light of his biography is, to some critics, blasphemous. Roman Polanski’s 2009 arrest inspired a New York Times round table on whether we ought to “separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior.” It stands as a useful artifact of the prevailing attitude on the question in the early 21st century. The screenwriter and critic Jay Parini wrote, “Being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one’s personal behavior.” Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies scholar at Duke University, put it this way: “Let the art stand for itself, and these men stand in judgment, and never the twain shall meet.”

If we associate women’s work with their personal lives, then we should certainly hold men to the same standard. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Victorians.

If you’re interested in learning more about these topics in a Victorian context, then I would highly recommend checking out Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees.

Let me know in the comments section below!



Feminist Fridays: Taylor Swift as a Problematic Poet

On my recent flight from England back to the States I spent hours finally listening to Taylor Swift’s new album reputation. I’ve been a loyal Taylor Swift fan since my middle school days, mostly for nostalgic reasons; however, I’ve always had some mixed feelings about her music and the image she portrays of herself. Today I’d like to discuss a question I’ve been pondering a lot lately: Where does Taylor Swift fit in with feminism? I’d like to approach answering this question as any English major likely would: namely, by analyzing her lyrics as poetry.

Before I begin, I would like to add a little disclaimer: I listen to Taylor Swift’s music all the time. Is this a bit hypocritical of me? Perhaps. I am in no way trying to suggest that no one should ever listen to her music because I think it’s certainly possible for us to enjoy things while also acknowledging that they may be problematic. 

It’s clear that the music of Swift’s early career does not align with feminist thought today. In “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album, Swift emphasizes the image of a “crazy” ex-girlfriend while simultaneously threatening to falsely “out” someone for not loving her back:

So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy
That’s fine!
I’ll tell mine
You’re gay
By the way…

She continually perpetuates the image of herself as an idealized victim of romance throughout her later albums. In “Love Story” from her album Fearless she presents the classic Romeo and Juliet story, complete with a marriage proposal that is completely one-sided. Her Romeo must come and save her of his own volition, for she is apparently incapable of independently mobilizing herself at all. Yet she also acknowledges that this romanticized story is an illusion in her song “White Horse” when she sings:

That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairy tale
I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet,
Lead her up the stairwell
This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town,
I was a dreamer before you went and let me down
Now it’s too late for you
And your white horse, to come around…

You can see why my conflicted feelings about her music has persisted over the years, especially when such contradictions also run through her other albums. Her album Speak Now contains uplifting songs like “Mean,” showing listeners that they’re not alone in being bullied and that one can overcome such traumatic experiences. However, it also has songs like “Better Than Revenge” in which Swift participates in some obvious slut-shaming: 

She’s not a saint
And she’s not what you think
She’s an actress, whoa
She’s better known
For the things that she does
On the mattress, whoa…

My conflicted feelings only worsened when Swift endeavored to change her image entirely with albums Red and 1989, shifting from country music star to pop music artist. I greatly admired her work with 1989, especially the way she poked fun at how she was often viewed by the media in “Blank Space.” Here we see the persistence of the “crazy” and obsessive girl in love, yet she is attempting to use it against those who view her this way.

So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game…

But how effective is this satire actually delivered? Does it come across that she is self-aware of how people view her, or does it simply perpetuate the image that she’s been feeding fans all along? The line between the two sides is incredibly fine and ultimately subjective, making it difficult to confidently argue either side.

Then comes her most recent album reputation, which was released on November 10, 2017. It’s obvious that Swift has had enough of the way people have viewed her in the past, making this album an overt attempt to reclaim power over her public reputation. At first I was overjoyed when I learned the theme of this new album– finally, Swift was going to break free from the problematic aspects of her work that have made me feel conflicted for so long. However, as I listened to this album multiple times from my airplane seat I couldn’t help but be disappointed that the same controversial tropes still saturated her lyrics. Of course, there are songs that I really enjoy and genuinely like, and then there are those that make me inwardly cringe as I sing along.

Take the song “Don’t Blame Me” as an example. The entire song is a plea for innocence from a victim of romance, as suggested with the repeated lines:

Don’t blame me, love made me crazy
If it doesn’t, you ain’t doin’ it right
Lord, save me, my drug is my baby
I’ll be usin’ for the rest of my life…

It’s as though Swift’s actions are out of her control because love has made her insane. This image is far from the independent, strong, bold feminist figure she often strives to possess in interviews and television appearances. The Swift of this song is a possession of her lover and completely under his control:

My name is whatever you decide
And I’m just gonna call you mine
I’m insane, but I’m your baby (your baby)
Echoes (echoes) of your name inside my mind
Halo, hiding my obsession
I once was poison ivy, but now I’m your daisy
And baby, for you, I would fall from grace
Just to touch your face
If you walk away
I’d beg you on my knees to stay…

By stating that she would “fall from grace” for her lover, she is invoking the sexist idea of the “fallen women” that was promulgated in the Victorian Era. Here love is portrayed as something too dangerous and sinful for a woman to participate in without inevitably “falling” from her inherent purity. Why would anyone want to perpetuate this awful stereotype that we’ve been trying to break for centuries?

What is the verdict, then? In my opinion, Taylor Swift is undeniably problematic as a supposed feminist figure. Yet despite this bad reputation, my nostalgic attachment for her music continues (as do my ever-increasing conflicted feelings!). This is where it is important to emphasize that it is possible to enjoy art while also acknowledging that it is problematic. I have no problem criticizing Taylor Swift for her sexist, controversial lyrics– but don’t be surprised when I inevitably sing along the next time they blast from the radio.

What are your thoughts on Taylor Swift? Have you listened to her most recent album? How do deal with enjoying problematic things? Let me know in the comments section below!