It’s been a couple of months at least since I’ve read a book that was so much fun that I resent any interruption from life, work, or sleep that requires me to put it down. But this weekend, I tore into just such a book: Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life. The book is billed largely as a memoir, but don’t let that fool you. It’s got great touches about the personal life of the author, and why she wanted to return to the feminist texts that she had left behind in college now that she’s a married mother and a freelancer whose life at home makes her often relate a little too much to the housewives that Betty Friedan interviewed for The Feminine Mystique. But what really makes it fun is to read someone reading so many great books, and really engaging the ideas. The personal stuff just adds color to the intellectual stuff. After all, for feminists, the personal is political, and Staal does a great job of relating fights with her partner over housework and struggles to balance motherhood with career to the text she’s reading while she audits a course called “Feminist Texts” at Barnard that she took when she was an undergraduate.
It’s also fun to read someone engage these texts with a sympathetic view towards the women who wrote them. I think, all too often, it’s easy to slip into the “criticize all the time” mode, and not take the time to praise, expand upon, or engage positively alongside our criticisms. This is particularly true in feminism, where a lot of discourse around feminist thinkers is about nipping at their weaknesses over discussing their strengths. It’s nice to revisit the strengths and insights of famous feminist writers, even as some of their ideas fall out of fashion or are legitimately disproved. This doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna and never seeing the flaws in someone’s work. But it was nice reading Staal engage with nuance these writers, and touch on what she really gets out of them even if something else in their writing doesn’t work. I particularly was engaged in her defense of Shulamith Firestone, who has some ideas that are really quite wacky in retrospect, but as Staal notes, her anger is invigorating. Indeed, the anger of the second wave is something that gets pissed on a lot, but it was absolutely necessary.
So, with that in mind—and a just general desire for positivity on what is a rather gray day—I thought I’d toss out this discussion question. I asked it of Staal when I interviewed her today, though you’ll have to wait for the podcast to find out her answer. What famous feminist, dead or alive, would you want to have a beer with? Not, who do you think is perfect and has no flaws or downsides to her thinking, or who would you want to confront. Who would you enjoy a conversation with? Whose brain would you want to pick, and have a friendly conversation where ideas are being teased out and exchanged? Who would you think it’s fun to banter with?
Me, I think my answer is pretty obvious: Simone de Beauvoir. Again, this isn’t me saying she’s perfect, but it’s also not me saying that I’d want to drill in and attack her for what I perceive to be the flaws in her thinking. I just think she had some amazing, provocative ideas and I’d love to ask her some questions and offer my thoughts. She also seems in general like she’s my kind of lady, with a whiff of peevishness to her, which often indicates that a woman has a spine. I appreciate that. I also like what Staal was surprised, in the book, to find that the professor attacks de Beauvoir for, which is the way she makes feminism an intellectual enterprise, instead of forever mucking around in her own feelings and emotions for analytical tools. I think that a proper feminist canon should have all types, and it makes me sad that someone thinks there’s a “wrong” way to do feminism. (I mean, outside of being straight up wrong or using make-believe instead of reality-based tools for analysis.)
But obviously, everyone is different. So, who’s your famous feminist? Why would you want to have some drinks with her?