This article came out in The Guardian yesterday. In it, a lot of female writers (Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein, Jeanette Winterson etc) discuss the literary work that made them feminists. Some of the answers were predictable (The Female Eunuch, The Second Sex) and others less so (The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch was a favorite of mine and Mary Beard; The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, Middlemarch by George Eliot, An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria by Sigmund Freud, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson). Naturally this made me think about the books that made me a feminist.
The first question I asked was “did books make me a feminist?” Perhaps in part. I think that my parents were huge influences in making me a feminist. My mom is a fierce, strong, loving, generous woman. My dad is one of those rare men who sees women as people; actual human beings who are worthy of the same respect and consideration as men. So having those role models was instrumental. But my parents also read to me. A lot. When I learned how, they encouraged me to read for myself. They recommended a wide range of books. I think they were both instrumental in making me a feminist and making me a reader. And reading definitely strengthened my feminism.
Perhaps the first book to get me thinking in that direction was Jane Eyre. To be clear, I was already of the opinion that women are capable of far more than they’re given credit for. That was a belief that wasn’t uncommon in the media that I consumed as a teen. But reading about a woman in the 19th century, written by a woman of the 19th century, who not only espouses those beliefs but lives her life by them was a bit of a revelation. Jane was a character born “poor, obscure, plain, and little” and finds herself thrust into what seems like an almost Cinderella-like situation. Her wealthy employer, with whom she is in love, wants to marry her. But when she realizes that the marriage would compromise her principles she walks away from love and financial security in order to be true to herself.
“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Not only was this the first time that such an idea was so clearly laid out, but it was laid out by a woman who, based on circumstances seemed to have won a jackpot. Career prospects for a 19th century woman were limited to say the least. Marriage prospects for someone with no money and not much in the way of looks were also not great. Jane had no family to fall back on. But she lived according to her principles, consenting to marry only when she, and Mr. Rochester were in positions where it wouldn’t compromise her integrity to do so.
I read Jane Eyre as a teenager. I think it was during my sophomore year of high school. A few years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which highlighted just how much of a public space women’s bodies are. Not only are they used to sell everything from clothing to jewelry to and fitness, but people feel that they have every right to tell a grown woman what she can do with her body. The choice to share her body with someone should belong to the woman in question. Instead it often becomes a public discussion. Is what this woman doing “moral” or “right”? Those questions are seldom asked of men. If a woman is pregnant her body becomes even more public. In her novel, Margaret Atwood took all of these ideas, which are so prevalent and pushed them just a little bit further. She created a society in which fertile women are stripped of their names and given the names of the men to whom they “belong”. In this society, women have no agency regarding their bodies. They are required to be part of a fertility ritual, if they conceive they must bear the children and then given them away. Essentially they are denied personhood and defined only by their bodies.
“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”
This highlighted how much of some physical aspects of womanhood are considered public domain in our society (while others, such as menstruation, are inexplicably taboo) and it pushed my thinking further in the direction in which it was already heading.
When I was in college, I encountered Virginia Woolf for the first time. A Room of One’s Own highlighted how much of our literary tradition has been defined by men. Women’s voices have traditionally be silenced. That’s not because they haven’t had the talent or the ideas. It’s because they lived in a world that wasn’t willing to listen. In this book, Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister of equal genius. But she was illiterate. She was never educated or encouraged and she never wrote a word. Obviously if that were true it would be a tremendous loss for humanity. According to Woolf it is all to possible:
“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
She therefore leaves us with a call to action:
Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me – and there are thousands like me – you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science. By so doing you will certainly profit the art of fiction. For books have a way of influencing each other. Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy.”
I think that seeing so many female writers, of different ages, genres, and experiences talking about the books that made them feminists, means that her words were headed. We can never know what talent was never developed because of people feeling threatened or being small minded. But we can work to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future.
Did these books “make me a feminist”? I don’t know. Perhaps I was already a feminist and these books gave me a vocabulary for my ideas. Or perhaps them illuminated aspects of feminism that I might not otherwise have considered. But the literary work of other women has definitely shaped my thinking, and it’s been interesting to reflect on how.