Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I was thrilled that part of my postcolonial literature tutorial during my last term at Oxford was reading and writing about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fifteen years after the publication of her debut novel Purple Hibiscus in 2003, Adichie continues to make headlines today. Not only is she known as a renowned Nigerian novelist, but she has also made great viral strides with her TED talks “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009) and “We Should All Be Feminists” (2012). Adichie’s popular success in the public eye has thus had major implications for her most recent novel Americanah, published in 2013. Today I’d like to discuss Adichie’s role as a public feminist figure as opposed to how we would stereotypically categorize an academic.

Image from the Washington Post.

After the critical successes of her first two novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), alongside the publication of her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck in 2009, Adichie began to step further and further into the popular spotlight through publicly giving TED talks. Part of her “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk was also used in Beyonce’s 2013 single “***Flawless,” immediately thrusting Adichie into a wider, more varied audience than those who attend TEDx conferences or judge literary prizes. Adichie’s dual role as both novelist and public figure allows her the agency and opportunity to advocate for her own work and ideas without relying on the voices of literary critics for praise.

Perhaps Americanah has also achieved great popular success due to the close alignment between Adichie’s values as a public figure and those promulgated by the novel. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie explains how reading African literature helped her realize that “people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature” and therefore “I started to write about things I recognized” (Single Story). Years later, Americanah becomes a direct reflection of these words, even honing in on African women’s hair from the very beginning of the novel when Ifemelu wonders “why there was no place where she could braid her hair” in Princeton (Adichie 4). Ifemelu does not mirror the characters Adichie describes reading as a child, who were all “white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples”; instead, she has delivered her promise of branching beyond that single story promulgated by the Western literary canon (Single Story).

Likewise, in “We Should All Be Feminists,” Adichie laments that “because I’m female, I’m expected to aspire to marriage; I’m expected to make life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important” (Feminists). This disdain for women’s dependence on men for their personal identities and sense of self-worth is greatly emphasized in Americanah through Ifemelu’s increased agency. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Ifemelu has taken control of her own life on her own terms, remarking that “still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being” (Adichie 475). It is only after she creates this identity for herself that she finally allows Obinze, her past lover, to come into her house, thereby putting herself before the prospect of finding a partner. Adichie consistently values feminism and diverse representation both within and beyond her texts, becoming a reliable figure in the public eye. Her novel is therefore seen and read in this empowering context.

I highly recommend watching Adichie’s TEDtalks as well as reading her latest novel Americanah. Adichie is both a masterful novelist and public speaker, and the messages she delivers are certainly ones worth hearing.

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on Adichie? Have you read any of her books? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Advertisements
Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Postcolonial Literature & Tsitsi Dangarembga

First, I want to thank you all for being so receptive to my last Feminist Fridays post about postcolonial literature. I didn’t expect there to be such resounding interest in this topic, but I’m so happy that there is! Today I’ll be talking about a groundbreaking author who does not get nearly enough time in the spotlight as she deserves: Tsitsi Dangarembga. After reading her debut novel in my postcolonial literature tutorial, I can’t help but want to dedicate an entire post to her impressive work.

Born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe) in 1959, Tsitsi Dangarembga made her mark in 1988 as the first Zimbabwean women to publish a novel in the English language. After studying medicine for some time at Cambridge University, she ultimately returned to Zimbabwe due to the intense racism she experienced in England. While studying psychology at the University of Zimbabwe she began writing plays and then finally wrote her landmark novel in 1988. The success of her debut text led her to study and pursue film as a career, and in 2002 she founded the International Images Film Festival in order to challenge the damaging stereotypes and beauty ideals promulgated by beauty pageants.

Her debut novel titled Nervous Conditions tells the story of several women struggling under the pressures of sexism, racism, and colonialism in 1960s Zimbabwe. Although narrated from the perspective of Tambudzai, a woman looking back on her life growing up in this tumultuous time, Dangarembga goes to great lengths to emphasize that Tambu is one of countless women whose experiences and perspectives are rarely considered, both in Zimbabwean society and in literature. Not only are there multiple women who feature prominently in this novel, but their lives are written with nuance and a meticulous attention to detail that defies homogeneity. By emphasizing multiplicity in Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga suggests the necessity and advantage of many voices being heard rather than a single perspective prevailing over all others. This cacophony of expression thus provides a space for African women writers to share their experiences and ideas in the predominantly male sphere of postcolonial literature.

Was Dangarembga successful in helping break down barriers of access and opportunity for a tradition of African women’s writing? When asked this question in an interview with Seal Press found in their 2004 edition of Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga responded: “I like to think the novel’s success might have encouraged other African women to go out there and do their thing […] because the shortage of role models is a critical issue for young black women in my part of the world.” Dangarembga’s emphasis on multiplicity in numerous aspects of the novel–from Tambu’s narration and focus on five women’s experiences to subverting Sartre’s notion of a singular “nervous condition” and portraying eating disorders with careful, meaningful nuance–defies the creation of a single homogenizing interpretation of women’s experiences of colonialism. In writing Nervous Conditions as a novel about African women and largely for African women, Dangarembga has indeed asserted the perspective of women into the otherwise male-dominated literary sphere of postcolonial writing. By engaging with the idea of multiplicity in the present, Dangarembga strives to ensure a multiplicity of African women’s voices being heard in the future.

I would highly recommend this novel to anyone and everyone, especially those who have studied postcolonial literature or have read novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Here Dangarembga asserts that there is no universal women’s experience, calling for increased intersectionality and nuance when discussing feminist issues around the globe.

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on Nervous Conditions? Are you interested in hearing more about what I’ve been reading in this tutorial? Have you ever taken a course on postcolonial literature? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Postcolonial Literature, Feminism, and Unexpected Enthusiasm

As of this week I am halfway through my third and final term at Oxford, meaning that by this point I’ve done enough work to form a solid opinion about my Trinity tutorials. Today I’d like to talk about my unexpected enthusiasm for postcolonial literature and how feminist perspectives play a role in reading and discussing this relatively recent field of study.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by postcolonial literature. This is actually a really difficult category to define, largely because it is commonly used to encompass a variety of different writers, texts, and ideas that don’t necessarily belong together. As Paul Brians explains in his article for Washington State University, “Taken literally, the term “postcolonial literature” would seem to label literature written by people living in countries formerly colonized by other nations.” However, he further argues that there are numerous problems with this definition because it can be homogenizing, generalizing, and therefore does not lead to productive and effective discussion of such texts or ideas:

“The more it is examined, the more the postcolonial sphere crumbles. Though Jamaican, Nigerian, and Indian writers have much to say to each other; it is not clear that they should be lumped together. We continue to use the term “postcolonial” as a pis aller, and to argue about it until something better comes along.”

As a relatively new field in academia (it only really started to develop in the US in the 1980s), postcolonial studies is a subject we are still grappling with today. Although it is much more commonly studied at universities now than in the past, it still isn’t as popular or frequently studied as other time periods or kinds of literature. Before coming to Oxford I had never studied this specific area of literature before and had little to no prior knowledge of the history of any of the nations I would be focusing on. When my tutor emailed me during spring break asking what texts I would like to read in the upcoming term, I remember worriedly replying: “I don’t even know where to begin.” Needless to say, I was intimidated, concerned, and convinced that I would be too stressed to even enjoy this tutorial.

As per usual with these kinds of situations, I needn’t have worried at all. 

First of all, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to study something I have absolutely no experience with. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and bogged down with all of the new information I need to know, I can’t help feel excited and curious to learn even more. As a student who has mainly studied the same time periods and writers over and over and over again (I like modernism, what can I say?), it’s actually exhilarating to be tackling something completely new. There’s only so much T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf I can read before I start to ask: “Okay, but what else is out there?” {The answer? SO MUCH.}

Most importantly, the aspect of studying postcolonial literature that I’ve enjoyed the most is analyzing it from a feminist perspective. How does gender play a role in this genre of literature? How does taking gender into consideration change how we think about classic postcolonial texts like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? Not only are these questions complicated by differences in languages and time periods, but they are also made more complex by differences in cultures. In her excellent book Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Chandra Talpade Mohanty denounces Western feminism for characterizing women outside of the Western world as inherently inferior:

“This average Third World woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘Third World’ (read ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-orientated, victimized, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions” (Mohanty 22).

These are the kinds of challenging, eye-opening, fascinating questions that studying gender in postcolonial literature forces you to think about in each and every text. The answers are never simple or easy to reach, yet the process of coming to some sort of conclusion in each essay is a mode of learning in itself. There is nothing quite as rewarding as peeling back yet another layer of ignorance or homogeneity in a text to reveal the nuance, specificity, and purpose with which women writers write texts about women, for women. There are so many more voices out there that need to be heard, but we’ll never make any progress if we don’t first start listening to the ones that are slowly but surely trying to break through the masculine cacophony of the literary sphere.

Deciding to take this tutorial on a whim when I first applied to study at Oxford for a year was one of the best decisions I’ve made regarding my tutorial schedule. I can’t wait to see what new ideas the last few weeks of tutorial bring!

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

Is feminism in postcolonial literature a topic you would like me to write more about in the future? Are you interested in hearing more about what I’ve been reading in this tutorial? Have you ever taken a course on postcolonial literature? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Book blogging as a feminist space?

When I think about why I love blogging and why I’ve stuck with it for over five years, a few things come to mind: a welcoming sense of community, bloggers that support one another through encouragement, thought-provoking discussion, etc. Lately I’ve been asking myself what makes this kind of positive, supportive community possible online, and I’ve come to one of countless possible conclusions: a sense of equality. More specifically, I’ve been asking myself: Is the book blogging community a feminist space? 

{Disclaimer: This discussion is based on my own personal experiences in one corner of a much larger book blogging community online. I am not saying that all bloggers are feminists, nor that these views are necessary in order to be a blogger. Any statements that sound generalizing are inadvertent and are not meant to imply that every book blogger shares these same beliefs.}

When I say that the book blogging community is a “feminist space,” I’m not trying to suggest that only people who identify as women are book bloggers; rather, that this community is a space for everyone and anyone–no matter you gender, sexuality, race, class, etc.–to share their thoughts on books and bookish topics. Are there flaws with this view? Of course. No community is ideal, no matter how hard we strive to make it so. There are barriers preventing some people from participating as much as others: access to internet, computers to post with, cameras to take photos with, purchasing books vs. buying them from libraries, etc. There has also been much debate and discussion about the entrenched hierarchy of popularity regarding statistics. When one blogger becomes hugely popular, it can feel as though the sense of equality has diminished. At times it can feel as though numbers are all that matters and that an impressive number of page views is necessary in order to make your voice worth listening to in the midst of all others.

One way to combat this inequality due to statistics is to emphasize discussion and commenting rather than the number of views a blog receives. For the past few summers I’ve participated in the Comment Challenge hosted by Lonna @ FLYLēF and Alicia @ A Kernel of Nonsense that runs from June to August. After filling out a short survey, the hosts match you up with a blogger that has similar interests as far as the kinds of books they write about. The goal is to comment on each other’s posts as much as possible over the course of the challenge (you can choose between the 5+ or 10+ posts categories) in order to help bloggers connect with each other and meet new people. Not only has this challenge introduced me to some fantastic new blogs in the past, but it also gets me into the habit of commenting more on other blogs. If this challenge sounds at all interesting to you then I’d highly recommend giving it a try! Click here to read more about the rules of the Comment Challenge.

With that said, my personal experience with blogging does lead me to view this platform as a feminist space. When I blog I feel comfortable sharing my opinions without being discriminated against or judged because of my gender. When I read other blogs I don’t care which gender they identify with. I’m able to make weekly features like Feminist Fridays and not be bombarded by angry, insulting comments; I’m lucky enough to be part of this supportive community that fosters thought-provoking discussion and challenges me to think more deeply about important topics such as this one. To me, these freedoms are priceless.

Whether or not this means that the blogging sphere is simply a feminist space from my perspective or that this sense is pervasive throughout the book blogging world, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, I am so grateful that a discussion like this is even made possible by this incredible platform. 

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

Do you think book blogging is a feminist space? How can we improve it? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Pride and Prejudice (circa 1995 BBC)

Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, along with many of her other novels, often receives criticism for depicting women as utterly dependent on men. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this criticism (look at Austen’s satire! her wit! her humor! making fun of those who depend on men!), today I’d like to discuss this perspective regarding a modern adaptation of the novel: BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. After watching this in a matter of days at the beginning of my spring break (and becoming remarkably invested in the story absurdly quickly), I’ve returned to the age-old question: is this beloved, classic story feminist, particularly in mini-series form?

Of course, it has to be recognized that the Georgian Era in which Pride and Prejudice was written and is set is highly problematic by modern standards. Not only did women have no right to property and had to rely on advantageous marriages in order to move up in the ranks of society, but they also did not have great opportunities in terms of education, occupations, and paths forward in life. The incredibly class-conscious society depicted by Jane Austen in this 1813 novel and reflected in the 1995 mini-series left no room for the freedom of expression and opinion that women now have as a right today. It is to be expected that in depicting such a sexist society, the story itself would not be a call to action for the rise of women’s rights.

However, I would argue that there is something decidedly feminist about this story, particularly in the character of Lizzie Bennet. Not only is Lizzie independent, witty, and intelligent, but she is also much more active than women were expected to be during this time period. For instance, this subversion of the passive, obedient standard for women is apparent in mini-series scene where she trudges all the way to see her sister, Jane, at the Bingley’s house and arrives covered in mud. While the other women in the house scoff at Lizzie’s disorderly appearance, Mr. Darcy admires her for her subversion of gender norms. These feminist moments may seem subtle, but I believe that they’re vital to understanding this story as a counter to sexist expectations of women during the Georgian Era.

Another admirable aspect of this novel and screen adaptation is the emphasis it places on bonds between women. While the romantic plot of this story is often highlighted as the most important element of the story, I think it can be argued that the relationships between women are equally as prevalent. The Bennet sisters rely on each other for comfort, support, and guidance in a society that stifles young women and fails to see their potential as independent citizens. The bond between Lizzie and Jane is particularly strong in the mini-series and demonstrates the importance of women lifting each other up in times of struggle, be that emotionally or physically. When it seems as though Mr. Bingley is no longer interested in Jane, Lizzie admires her emotional strength and encourages her to move on and not dwell on the past. Again, these moments may be subtle, but they nevertheless highlight the ways by which women in this society helped each other and found their own kinds of power in their lives.

Is Pride and Prejudice a flawless feminist text or television series? Of course not. However, I think it would be amiss to entirely discount this story as one that portrays women poorly without any meaningful underlying purpose. For all of its faults, I’m happy to admire this story for its feminist moments (and the binge-watching splendor of the mini-series!). If you haven’t yet watched this mini-series, I would highly recommend it!

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on the novel Pride and Prejudice and any of its television or movie adaptations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Feminist Writing Tutorial

Now that Hilary term at Oxford has officially come and gone, I’m going to share my thoughts on the Feminist Writing tutorial I recently completed. This tutorial (basically what they call classes at Oxford) was an English course, but it also blended some feminist theory into the mix as well. It was nice to have a bit of a break from solely reading novels all the time. In this post I’ll be discussing some of the texts we read (although there were many more), the themes we focused on, and my thoughts on the course overall.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft || This was my second time reading this for a class (the first was for a social contract theory course my freshman year of college) but my first time reading it in a strictly gendered context. While much of what she says is very outdated now (it was written centuries ago) a surprising amount of it is still relevant today. Definitely worth a read!

Woman and Labor by Olive Schreiner || loved reading this book, especially alongside Wollstonecraft’s work. There are so many brilliant quotes that I copied down into my notebook as I was reading–not to help with future essays, but simply because I found them inspiring and empowering. Here’s one of my favorites:

“I would like to say to the men and women of the generations which will come after us: you will look back at us with astonishment. You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little, at the, to you, obvious paths to attain our ends which we did not take. At the intolerable evils before which it will seem to you we sat down passive. At the great truths staring us in the face which we failed to see, at the great truths we grasped at but could not get our fingers quite ’round. You will marvel at the labour that ended in so little. But what you will never know that it was how we were thinking of you and for you that we struggled as we did and accomplished the little that we have done. That it was in the thought of your larger realization and fuller life that we have found consolation for the futilities of our own. All I aspire to be and was not, comforts me.”

Olive Schreiner is an underrated, under-appreciated writer that deserves more time in the feminist spotlight. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on her writing, check out the Feminist Friday feature I wrote about her. 

This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray || Let me just say that this book is a wild ride. My professor asked us to focus on the essay “This Sex Which Is Not One,” which basically argues that we should use the image of “two lips” in order to challenge the phallic discourse that currently dominates our society. It was really interesting, but had a bit too much Freud in it for my taste.

Poems by Emily Dickinson || Emily Dickinson may just be my favorite poet. We read many, many of her poems for this class and all I wanted to do when I finished was go back and read them all over again. I love how her poetry is frustratingly ambiguous yet still brilliantly poignant. I can’t even keep track of all of my favorite poems by her!

Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald || I’ve never actually read Homer’s Iliad before, but I think a basic understanding of the epic is enough to read this contemporary poem. Not only is Oswald’s language haunting and beautiful, but it also brings up important questions about revitalizing old works, the oral tradition, and women’s writing. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this poem, click here to check out my recent review. 

White Teeth by Zadie Smith || This was the first Zadie Smith book I ever read, but it most certainly won’t be my last! Now I want to read literally everything Smith has ever written. If this praise isn’t convincing enough, check out my review of the novel to make you want to read it even more. 

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison || Everything Toni Morrison writes is brilliant gold, and Playing in the Dark is no exception. I was so excited when I saw that this was on our reading list because I had read a certain section of the book many times for prior essays but had never actually read the entire collection. This work is so important for literary scholarship today as well as how we think about diversity in media and our lives in general. Would absolutely recommend to everyone! 

Education, marriage, and professions for women || I liked that we started off with this topic because it’s arguably the easiest category in which to see the vast improvement that women have made over the years. Of course, there’s always room for more improvement!

The body and sexuality || This is the week we drew on more abstract feminist theory to talk about how women’s bodies and sexuality are represented not only through language, but also through imagery and art. It raises some really interesting and important questions about how women portray themselves today and what that says about cultural gender norms.

Intertextuality, subverting/transforming genres, creating a tradition of women’s writing, the woman writer || This was definitely my favorite topic out of the ones we studied throughout the entire term. Thinking about writing traditions, reception studies, and genre formation really fascinates me, and coupling that with Emily Dickinson was a blast.

Differences among women; crossing boundaries, transitions, intersections; an “outsiders’ society” || Ending with this theme was great because it allowed us to look at feminist writings throughout the past few centuries from a modern standpoint and asses how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Overall, I am so glad that I decided to take this tutorial on a whim when I was signing up for classes months ago. Not only did it introduce me to some remarkable women writers, but it also provided me with new tools to use when analyzing other literature in terms of gender and intersectionality. If you ever get the opportunity to take some sort of feminist writing or theory course, definitely do!

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

Have you ever taken a class on feminist theory or literature? What are some of your favorite feminist writers, books, poems, etc.? What are your thoughts on any of the writing that I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Have celebrities corrupted the feminist movement?

Earlier this term I attended a debate at the Oxford Union discussing the following motion:

“This House Believes Celebrity Icons Have Corrupted Feminist Movements”

Celebrities, such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, have defined a new brand of popular feminism in the eyes of millions, but does this strand of feminism distract from the everyday challenges many women face?

I thought this would be a really interesting topic to bring up in a Feminist Fridays post considering I have talked about celebrities and feminism in the past (throwback to my Taylor Swift post). Sometimes it’s tempting to denounce celebrities who don’t seem to “uphold” feminist values in everything that they do or who appear to take advantage of it for their own financial gain and fame. Taylor Swift was brought up in the Oxford Union debate many times as an example of a celebrity who jumped on the feminist bandwagon when it recently became a more mainstream, culturally valuable stance to take. But does she really display the kind of intersectionality we need in the feminist movement? Is she asking tough questions and fighting for women’s rights around the globe?

No, Taylor Swift is not doing those things; however, I would argue that that is not necessarily her job. While I believe celebrities should of course use their platforms to advocate important issues and create positive change, they are not politicians and have not been trained to organize any of these campaigns. Those who choose to do so, such as Emma Watson and the He for She campaign, are admirable and can be aspired to by others. Yet I think we should acknowledge that it’s unreasonable to expect this kind of work from all celebrities.

Ultimately, I feel as though celebrities complicate the feminist movement, but it would be inaccurate to say that they corrupt it. How much of an impact do we actually think these celebrities have? Will Beyoncé’s opinion stop people trying to help women around the globe get better opportunities for education, careers, healthcare, or help in domestic or sexual abuse? NO. Yet at the same time, Beyoncé’s opinion is nevertheless important because it could be the only way that a young teenager first interacts with the feminist movement. Isn’t some discussion about this important and vital endeavor better than no discussion whatsoever? I would also argue that the simple fact that this topic is still being debated in spaces such as the Oxford Union means that the feminist movement has not been corrupted— otherwise, how and why would we be able to have intelligent, thoughtful, insightful conversations about it?

The Oxford Union debated was decided by a landslide vote: the opposition won with hundreds of votes, meaning that we decided that celebrities have not corrupted the feminist movement. That is certainly not to say that their views on feminism are perfect (whose are?) or that they will singlehandedly create gender equality in the world; rather, they provide an important platform from which to spread the word about this movement and the changes that need to occur.

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on this debate? Do you agree with the way we voted? Would you rather celebrities be more or less vocal about movements such as feminism? Do you have a favorite celebrity icon who is vocal about this issue? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

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!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays

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!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED by Gail Collins | Review

8174415When Everything Changed is an incredibly comprehensive account of how the role of women in society has changed throughout recent American history. Though I expected this book to have a certain level of detail in its research, I did not expect it to discuss this topic from such a wide variety of perspectives. Here the heterosexual white woman must share center stage with lesbians and women of color as well, piecing together a historical view that is much more holistic in its approach. For instance, Collins emphasizes the struggles of Native American women who have been further discriminated against and marginalized due to their culture. History is never one-sided; consequently, Collins has clearly made an effort to reflect as many sides of the historical dice as possible.

While reading, I found there to be both advantages and disadvantages to the way this book is organized. In general, the overarching structure of this book worked really well. It was divided into parts and chapters, with each chapter being further divided into different sections that each began and revolved around specific quotes. It was a subtle way to keep important themes alive throughout the entire text without directly stating them each time. However, at times the narrative felt a bit disjointed, mostly because Collins tended to go off on tangents about certain women or events. Though she always meandered back to the main topic eventually, these diversions made it more difficult to follow the chronological line that Collins initially seemed to be following.

One of the last topics that Collins discusses in When Everything Changed is Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Though she was not successful in gaining the seat in office, at the time her attempt was nevertheless hailed as a political success for women. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder what remarks Collins might make about Hillary’s most recent presidential campaign and the results of the presidential election in general. (Is this me secretly hoping for the publication of an updated edition? YES.) In light of these recent events, I think that Collins’ book and the questions asks are not only relevant but vital for our society to be thinking about when moving forward.

Overall, there are so many reasons why I enjoyed reading When Everything Changed: it captivated me, educated me, and made me think. Whether you’re a history buff or simply looking to gain more knowledge about the role American women have played in society in recent decades, look no further than Collins’ comprehensive, entertaining, and thought-provoking account.

My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! I think that this is an important topic for anyone and everyone to learn more about, regardless of gender.

Have you read this book before? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Have any other recommendations for Gail Collins’ writing or books about this topic in general? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY