Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic. These are the well-known totems of the feminism, the books that galvanized a movement and defined a generation.
These totemic books are important because they make history. But what about the thousands of books that are not totems? Which books are responsible for more private revelations – for opening an individual mind, for making a writer and for changing the way a writer lives (and writes) feminism?
We asked three women writers to answer these questions.
In 1976, when I was six years old, I found a wooden truncheon hidden behind my parents’ wardrobe. It was impossible that it belonged to my father. In their marriage, my father controlled my mother in much the same way as a buoy controls the sea. The truncheon was a trophy, brought home by my older brothers along with a Bobby’s helmet that my sister threw out of the window in a white panic as if it were an unexploded bomb.
To our two brothers, physical supremacy was everything and dangerous situations were sought out to prove just that. They imparted information in a straightforward way. Always punch from the shoulder; never put your thumb into your fist; the head-butt is your friend; spitting can say so much. Instructions were equally unambiguous. Bring me a mirror, I can’t open my eyes. Light the fire then light this fag. Don’t tell Carmel that Pauline rang up. Pass me the Bullworker. Don’t tell Pauline that Carmel rang up. The year 1977 saw me still pretending I had a knob and at one point – in 1978 – I told my classmates that my sister was a stripper.
By the time I read Washington Square it was 1985 and I was no longer pretending I needed a penis. Yet out in the world I found it difficult to reconcile a young woman’s perceptions with the meanings I had borrowed from men; I could no longer explain myself with fighting talk alone. Nevertheless, Catherine Sloper’s plight under the cold grey eye of her father and the extremity of her suffering at the foolish hands of Morris Townsend disturbed me most of all because she didn’t fight either of them.
Morris bent his head and kissed her forehead. ‘When you are quiet, you are perfection,’ he said, ‘but when you are violent, you are not in character.’
The stillness was, and remains for me, unbearable. When Doctor Sloper spoke to his daughter I felt the beginning of a dreadful understanding and saw the cruelty that was possible in restraint. The callousness towards Catherine, etched in miniature, makes very much of what isn’t said. The control is rarely noisy but rather precise; she is at the mercy of the economy of her father’s irony and wit. A vista opened up to me, where the fine art to shutting up a woman seemed infinitely intricate and with the feeling of someone on the edge of a precipice, I felt nostalgic for that old wooden truncheon.
In my sophomore year of college, I was assigned to read Jamaica Kincaid’s novel The Autobiography of My Mother. It was the first time I had ever read Kincaid, and I can still remember how unsettled I felt after finishing the book. The novel called into question the values I had been raised with – especially the feminine values of self-sacrifice, modesty and sensitivity. Above all, the novel questioned the worth and meaning of familial ties. I had encountered similar sentiments in books like The Stranger and The Catcher in the Rye, but those narrators didn’t get to me, because I couldn’t help seeing them as privileged young men, whose rebellion against familial duty had no real stakes.
Xuela, the narrator of The Autobiography of My Mother, was different. I wouldn’t say that I identified with her; I wouldn’t even say she’s a character, exactly – at least not in the modern, realist tradition. Xuela’s defining quality, apparent from the novel’s first sentence, is that she is motherless. Her lack of a mother doesn’t define her in the Freudian sense – it doesn’t affect her ability to love or feel. Instead, her motherlessness frees her from the genealogical imperative, so that she can clearly see the self-interested – and occasionally altruistic – motivations of everyone around her. To put it simply, Xuela is someone who doesn’t suffer guilt trips.
To live without maternal guilt trips was a great fantasy of mine, especially at age nineteen, when I was reminded, on a weekly basis, to stop slacking off and ‘being dreamy’ because my tuition was costing a lot of money. I was full of gratitude, but I didn’t know how to express it; my mother was full of pride – and also, I think, a bit of envy. The college I went to was a boys’ school until 1975, which means that my mother could not have attended it when she was college-aged. Her generation had laid the groundwork for the opportunities afforded to mine, and she was bitter about that, refusing to see it as some kind of worthwhile sacrifice. I resented her bitterness, because it made me feel guilty, but reading The Autobiography of My Mother helped me take it less personally. I realized that she was rebelling against a society that asked her to be noble when she was actually pissed off, just as I was rebelling against the notion that I had to be industrious, simply because I had access to resources offered to young men for hundreds of years.
My aunt told me a story about a kid who heard that if he stared at a parakeet long enough, blinking little if at all and maintaining a certain threatening eyebrow posture, the parakeet would die of a heart attack. The following week, curious and sceptical, the kid positioned a kitchen chair to face his grandmother’s parakeet Susie. He trained his gaze on the bird, who shifted its spindly feet and chattered nervously before dropping dead half an hour later, landing in a pile of its own feathers with a little pffff. The kid cried and couldn’t eat his dinner due to his murderer’s guilt. There was a formal burial.
‘What’s the point?’ I asked my aunt, who was ruminating, while making dinner, on the question of whether the kid should have been sent away to boarding school, maybe one with military overtones.
‘Don’t be cruel,’ she said, plugging the pork tenderloin with cloves of garlic. ‘You never know what will happen.’
Later, in high school, I would sit outside the admissions building, in a dark and damp alcove, eating my microwaved bagel and eavesdropping on a group of boys who parked themselves on a bench every day. They varied in number but there were always enough to be called a pack, and their conversations almost always revolved around whichever girl happened to be walking down the big cement stairs leading from the lockers to the cafeteria. Sally shouldn’t wear a skirt, with her legs as big as tree trunks; Clara sucks a popsicle like she really knows what she’s doing, har har. The girls inevitably felt the eyes on them even if they couldn’t hear what was being said, and for the rest of the day they might glance over their shoulders or sneak off to check themselves in the bathroom during pre-calculus class. Why, I wondered, were girls always the parakeet in this scenario?
I re-read Harriet the Spy in tenth grade. It had been sitting on my tomboy/outcast shelf for a while, which is where I kept all of the books that made me feel better about the fact that I spent my free time thinking about the taxonomy of bugs, and I pulled it out without knowing that it would expose the gender dynamics of the high school staircase and call into question the ubiquitous male gaze I’d study in college as an Art History major. Nose in a book and hair in knots, Harriet shrugged off objectification, morphing from an elementary school student who might have grown into a high schooler at whom the boys would have tittered to a powerful and genderless narrator. She refused to perform, instead occupying a kind of director’s chair that most young girls are taught to forgo. It didn’t win her any popularity contests and certainly got her into trouble, but she’d inverted the power dynamic. Suddenly, the parakeet narrowed its eyes and was staring right back, ready for a fair fight.
Photograph by Pedro Ribeiro Simōes