feminist Book Club

I have been reading a lot of books about the F Word and they have been very interesting. I am getting through them at a fine clip, so I thought I’d put all my thoughts about them somewhere.

I’m a classically educated historian and I have always liked pointing out that great political thinkers have been female and feminist for a long time. I have the luxury of knowing this because the first feminist thinkers I read were Mary Wollstonecraft and Christine de Pizan in my first year Politics and English Literature classes. Mary and Christine remained my only feminist role models because, although I enrolled in a Women’s Studies class each semester of my undergraduate degree, I always dropped it a few weeks into the semester. I inevitably dropped it for a History or English Literature course that always introduced me to more female role models, although none of them ever overtly called feminists.

And so my youth was passed being a feminist without ever understanding why I could be a feminist without breaking a sweat in the current social milieu. It was only as I got older that I fully understood that women, lots of women, had fought long and hard to win me that comfortable feminism. So I decided to pay them the compliment of reading them, and what a fabulous bunch of women they are.

The Misogyny Factor
Anne Summers

I read The Misogyny Factor at exactly the right time, in the two months leading up to Julia Gillard losing the position of leader of the Labour Party and thus Prime Minister of Australia. It was an intense time for any Australian woman interested in politics and I know as a historian that I am going to be very interested in how her time as Prime Minister is going to be presented in the future.

For now I simply must say that The Misogyny Factor is an easy read for me because almost every aspect of misogyny in the workplace discussed had happened to me or had been communicated to me in disbelieving tones by friends.

I like to read books that are not about my life, that take me out of my life, but it is the ones that actually take me back into my life that make me think. I may be painfully aware of the misogyny around me in the workplace, but to survive I always tried to rationalise its presence. When someone older and wiser writes a book about my experience, and thousands of people buy that book, I have no more excuses to hide from the misogyny in my own workplace.

I finished The Misogyny Factor in one sitting, because I was so angry that I hadn’t been imagining the misogyny in the workplace that I couldn’t sleep until I finished it.

Why read it? Anne Summers has been writing about feminism for a long time, and she has that tone that as a perpetual student I love in a speaker, the authority of a lecturer who speaks as she thinks
Why not to read it! It will make going to work a new and frustrating experience
Will it be staying on the shelf? Yes
Will I be lending it out? Yes
Do I quote it? No

Destroying the Joint: Why women have to change the world
Edited by Jane Caro

The other contemporary book birthed out of the misogynist malice of the mass media treatment of Australian women while Julia Gillard was Prime Minister is a collection of very funny, very interesting and very modern responses to a very stupid comment from a very stupid man. I will not be talking about him; he doesn’t deserve any real acknowledgement that he inspired something great out of something quite disgusting.

The contributors to Destroying the Joint are a fine lot of women; clever, successful and uninterested in stupid people with stupid ideas unless it is to react with something better than the original sentiment. When I finished the book (another all-nighter I must admit, reading feminist books is a bit of an addiction for me it seems) I got onto Twitter and followed every contributor with a Twitter feed. As I read the book I felt I was at a really awesome dinner party, but long after I finished the book my feminist Twitter feed is a party every day, albeit a party that always leaves one slightly more outraged than yesterday!

Each contribution is unique, but my two favourites are my favourites for quite different reasons. Corinne Grant’s piece is a comedy skewering of the straw feminists used to argue against more progress for women’s rights and I find myself thinking in Corinne’s voice now whenever a misogynist pipes up. I do have to say that thinking in Corinne’s voice often leads to a Corinne face at some point, but mostly it just calms the outrage.

The contribution from Stella Young is a lot more sobering than entertaining. In the first wave of writing that unearthed all my dormant feminism, I thought I was covering all kinds of women when I considered gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education, religion and politics. I was only just encountering the concept of intersectionality however, and I still hadn’t really immersed myself in current feminist theory. Then I read Stella’s contribution and I realised I had never even thought about ability as something that contributes to discrimination. Which is quite ridiculous when you think about it - ability is a key means of discrimination!

And so Stella Young started me out on the pride-destroying road that is checking one’s privilege and learning to understand just how overwhelming intersectional discrimination can be. It’s a fucking scary world out there for lots of people, and so the outrage returns, despite all the comedy one throws in its path.

Why read it? It’s modern, it’s conversational and it’s now, very, very now
Why not to read it! Here I was thinking we didn’t really have to talk about feminism any more and suddenly it appears the fight hasn’t even really started yet
Will it be staying on the shelf? Yes
Will I be lending it out? No, I want to be able to re-read it whenever I want
Do I quote it? Yes, Yes, Yes

The Public Woman
Joan Smith

This book is very UK focussed so it was a quick read for me (again) because I remember all the hyper-misogyny outlined. The stand out chapter for me was Smith’s assessment of the Amanda Knox trial, which was fascinating for its thesis of a perverse miscarriage of justice influenced by remnants of Italian and Catholic history that I had studied extensively myself. It was disturbing to read an argument that discrimination you had studied in history was arriving in your own time as the worst of anachronisms. I love a bit of historic nostalgia, but modern men squeezing modern women into medieval stereotypes is just ridiculous.

Why read it? It puts some pretty interesting stories together in one place
Why not to read it! There are more thought provoking books that deserve your time
Will it be staying on the shelf? No
Will I be lending it out? Yes
Do I quote it? Yes, actually, because there was nothing terribly new in it so quoting it is not controversial and almost accepted, which is a backhand compliment I guess

Sex and the Citadel: Intimate life in a changing Arab World
Shereen El Feki

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It is fascinating and refreshingly non-Western focussed for all that it is written in English. If intersectionality is a concept I am unfamiliar with, culture relativism is definitely something I am familiar with, and Sex and the Citadel is a master class in giving all the assumptions I had about feminism and cultural relativism a rather thorough going over.

It is a warm and implausibly calm exploration of the sexual life of women in Egypt with some forays into Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, and it presents some extremely timely and positive uses of ideas in other societies that are destructive in my own society. The most surprising concept is that Western pornography can be an unlikely ambassador for discouraging Female Genital Mutilation; reminding me to keep questioning the status quo, whether that status quo is that of the patriarchy project or that of modern feminism.

The most important thing about Sex and the Citadel is that it is written by and about women that are very different to me, and what they require of their feminism is quite comprehensively different to mine. But by spending some time in their world I am learning how to bring people into my own, so they can feel the need that my world has for feminism.

Why read it? It’ll check your cultural and religious privilege and bias
Why not to read it! It’ll surprise you how far behind we are in some areas because of our religion and culture, especially given the dominant ‘clash of cultures’ narrative of the last decade
Will it be staying on the shelf? Yes
Will I be lending it out? Yes, it is too interesting and important not to share
Do I quote it? Oh yes, a lot

Unnatural Selection: Choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men
Mara Hvistendahl

I rushed to finish this book because I could not face another night having my dreams shaped by the rather horrific story it told, and I am not usually a delicate reader or dreamer. Mara Hvistendahl is an author working within non-Western feminism, which is extremely useful to me because her findings and thesis challenge the central concepts of Western feminism that I work within.

The history of sex selective abortion she communicates is a quagmire of racism, colonialism, outright exploitation and deliberation destruction, but I found Unnatural Selection extremely interesting because I was able to clarify a truth of my own view of feminism in opposition to Hvistendahl. The history, statistics and policies that she outlines do not bode well for the continued success of human society making progress towards equality, but she does not take the last logical step needed at the end of the book to give hope, and instead breaks off leaving the reader in an intellectual limbo of terrors and no inspiration.

I found it an empowering but strange experience to put the book down and be able to know exactly where the author lost her way, especially as she lost her way because she was more concerned for the hundreds of millions of bachelors resulting from widespread sex selective abortions than the women they were abusing. So while I feel she lost her way, I actually found mine because I was left to form my own opinions from her information.

Why read it? Central tenants of feminism are on very shaky ground in this book, so it is a great lesson in seeing your beliefs from another angle
Why not to read it! You may find yourself adding sex selective abortion to that special list of things that need to be dealt with now, right next to climate change
Will it be staying on the shelf? Yes
Will I be lending it out? Yes, it is too interesting and important not to share
Do I quote it? I wish I didn’t have to, but the statistics are too chilling not to talk about them


I am going back to the great texts of feminism:

The Feminine Mystique
Betty Freidan
It is slightly alarming how little this book has aged; it is 50 years old and you could be mistaken in thinking it was written last year.

The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone is a joy to spend time with, her intelligence is intimidating and I am reading her slowly so as to savour her.

And then a modern survey of the feminist landscape:

Reclaiming the F Word: Feminism today
Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune


I am very, very keen for suggestions on non-Western feminist writers, although they WILL need to be in English!

And, of course, I have to start collating my list of great female characters and authors!


I have a lot of reading to do:

Loving Protection? Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women’s Rights - Fiona Paisley
Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and White Feminism - Aileen Moreton-Robinson
Getting Equal: The history of Australian Feminism - Marilyn Lake
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer
Louisa Lawson - Selected articles from The Dawn (Journal for Australian Women: 1888-1905)
Rose Scott
Miles Franklin
Edna Ryan
Jessie Street
Gloria Steinem
The Real Matilda - Miriam Dixson
Feminism is for Everyone - bell hooks
A Room of One’s Own - Virginia Woolf
The Beauty Myth - Naomi Klein
Sister Outsider - Audre Lorde
The Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingston
Sexual Politics - Kate Millett
How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The Manifesta - Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
The Future of Feminism - Sylvia Walby
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution - Shulamith Firestone
Against our Will - Susan Brownmiller
My Mother My Self - Nancy Friday
Fear of Flying - Erica Jong
Our Bodies Ourselves - Boston Women’s Health Book
Intercourse - Andrea Dworkin
Backlash - Susan Faludi
Gender Trouble - Judith Butler
Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide - Maureen Dowd
Female Chauvinist Pigs - Ariel Levy
Full Frontal Feminism - Jessica Valenti
Yes means Yes - Jaclyn Freidman and Jessica Valenti
The Vagina Monologues - Eve Ensler
The Great Feminist Denial – Monica Dux and Zora Simic

Sex Work/Pornography
Catharine MacKinnon
Andrea Dworkin
Sheila Jeffreys
Melissa Gira Grant
Laura Maria Agustin


bell hooks
Alice Walker


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