Stephanie Staal, Reading Women (2011)

What a better day for reviewing Stephanie Staal’s memoir than International Women’s Day ? Unfortunately I was much too frazzled busy that day to write an intelligent review. And today is not much better, so don’t expect much from me beyond a sisterly nod of appreciation—and lots of unanswered interrogations.

I bought this book after reading many positive reviews, from Litlove, MichelleDorothy and others. I simply had to read it. I won’t repeat the book’s ambition in details, an interesting mix between an exploration of feminist theories and a heartfelt memoir of a woman who, upon realizing that she has become “one of those” suburban free-lance mothers she’d never thought she would turn into, re-enrolls into the Feminism 101 class she took in Barnard College a decade earlier and re-interrogates her feminist beliefs with fresh eyes. I really enjoyed the mix between the personal essay and the general literary analysis, something French writers don’t do quite well enough in my opinion.

But here I too have to mix this review with the personal circumstances. I read, no, devoured the book in two days straight, reading it at all (conscious) hours because I was in bed with the flu and because my post-feminist husband had taken charge of the whole family life in the meantime. And here I was, a full-time working mother, a wife in a marriage where chores are equally divided, a woman working in a traditional male-dominated industry earning a good salary with a good enough position, in a country where you receive benefits from the state for having more than 2 or 3 children, for employing a private childminder if your local state-subsidized nursery can’t take care of your baby, where you have a generous maternity leave of 16 weeks before and after birth and a legal protection from being fired while pregnant, where most women work even after having a child, where most children go to kindergarten from age 3… I felt so grateful and lucky, so much so that I felt a bit inadequate to review the book.

But most of Staal’s interrogations have to do with her inner feelings of happiness as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, and as a feminist, rather than factual barriers in terms of equal rights (well, the fact that she couldn’t find a way to keep her previous job after her daughter’s birth is factual enough). She speaks more about the social, psychological forces that mold expectations about what a woman and a mother should do or should be. And on that point, French expectations are nothing to be proud of (very few women in top management positions, in high political circles, while women are forced to take part-time, under-qualified jobs for lesser pay, and I’m not even addressing the image of the effortlessly chic and sexy Parisienne who does it all)

Staal cleverly tries to reconcile the feminists’ claims (even those idealist, unrealistic, extremist ones) with the more complex, subtle materials of our lives: our feelings of love, of guilt, of inadequacy, our dreams and ideals that are not all consistent and black-and-white. This is such a worthy quest that I want to applause her with all my heart, even if this is an endless task with no easy solution.

It just irked me a little how much guilt there was in her perspectives to motherhood, to career choices etc. (I’m beginning to think this is an American thing, please don’t take this in the wrong way), and how few references she made to the necessity of having a collective movement to change things. It seemed to me that Staal implies that change begins at home (and it sure does for a part) and progresses bottom up, while as a French woman (call me socialist if you want) I see all the benefits of having collective pressure (upside-down) to ensure that change will reach every household (I’m not talking coercive, punitive, I’m talking incentives!). As a French woman, I was a bit ashamed to never have read many of all these feminist texts she mentions, and even less the French ones (I read novels and memoirs by De Beauvoir, but stopped there). She sure made me want to have a closer look at them, and also a more critical approach to my own personal circumstances.

5 thoughts on “Stephanie Staal, Reading Women (2011)

  1. What you say is so interesting. I think France has infinitely better state involvement in family situations than in the UK, for instance, where it can be very, very hard to find childminders (there was only one in my village) or after school clubs (again, just the one and not much good). But British women don’t think that the state should provide it – or at least, we DO, but we have absolutely no hope that the state will do such a thing. When my child was young, I knew it was just struggle along as best as I could, and my husband was not at that time interested in helping (he’s got better as the years have passed and I’ve nagged him more). My situation was very similar to Staal’s but my son is 17, and things have changed even since he was little. I’d read pretty much all the feminist texts she had, but goodness me did I lack a community or a sisterhood to support me in early motherhood and I really needed one!

    • Why oh why is that sense of sisterhood or community lacking everywhere? I thought that it was lacking in France due to the good institutions (if the state or the city provides, why bother check on your neighbor?)

  2. Since my children are all adults now, I probably am not the best source of how American women feel about the childcare issue or domestic equality. I know that maternity leave is far better now than it was when I was having children (which wasn’t so great). Not sure if I would enjoy this book, but I did enjoy your posting about it. (And I think young men are better about the whole sharing responsibility thing than their fathers were…I hope).

  3. I have t his book from the library and I am hoping to get to it this coming weekend. I’ve already renewed it once and I’d hate to have to return it unread.

  4. This looks like an interesting book. Sadly, having lived in a number of different European countries, with different attitudes towards maternity leave, childcare and female solidarity, I feel that the issues are still very current. Especially if you have more than one child – then, suddenly, there seems to be a reversion to traditional gender stereotypes in most households.

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