Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

Worlds Apart: A Muslim Girl with the SAS, Azi Ahmed

cover_worlds_apart_aaWorlds Apart: A Muslim Girl with the SAS tells the story of the clash between two very different worlds – so different it almost beggars belief that anyone could have survived in both camps for so long. Yet as we come to know Azi Ahmed through this incredible true story we realise that if anyone can do it she can –she works evenings and weekends in her family’s takeaway; excels in her chosen university; starts her own business and buys her own apartment in London when she is just 24. She is a powerhouse, and if anything seems odd it is that her family believed for so long that she was a dutiful daughter who would accept an arranged marriage, not that such a determined person could survive as a Muslim woman in the military.

Ahmed’s unique perspective on the SAS – as a physically slight woman with no previous military experience encountering deep rooted ethnic bias and sexism – makes for interesting reading, especially for those of us who know of it only as the reserve of hard men and hard men wannabes. She is never fully in the SAS – she is in the army for three years, and is one of the miniscule number of women to proceed through the rigorous training and selection process, and so gives unprecedented insight into an elite organization. She details her grueling training, provides insight into the culture not only of the SAS but of the British military, and I imagine anyone with an interest in the military would enjoy this.

However, I preferred parts of the book detailing the (less extreme?) culture clash of her traditional upbringing and her growing determination and sense of self. At one point in her childhood she is waiting at a bus stop and is verbally abused by racist teens as everyone else ignores what is happening… after she escapes on the bus she gives them the finger through the window, only for the same passengers to be shocked and appalled. Ahmed draws attention to the double standards people live by when judging others, which are as interesting as the double life that she lived.  I would also have liked to have heard more about her burgeoning political career – although judging by how much she has packed into her life to date, there will be more biographies in the future!

I received a copy of this book via Bookollective in return for an honest review.

Hunting Girls- Book Review

 

oliverKelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape certainly has an interesting premise. Written by an eminent feminist philosopher (currently Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University) it looks at popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence (especially sexual violence) is an inevitable, part of feminine coming of age. I came to this book with high hopes for its content.

 “Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans, and the occasional vampire, so appealing? Is this equal opportunity killing?… Killing, instead of loving, animals has become the emblem of girl power. Just as girls are hunted and attacked with relish in these films, our heroines displace that patriarchal violence onto their animal prey”.

The first sections of the book examines several popular movies/franchises in light of violence perpetrated by the heroines and upon them, particularly by their romantic partners. The discussion of the symbolism of hunting provide the most interesting sections of the book. However, despite going over the plot of The Hunger Games (trilogy), the movie Hanna, and a few fairly random name checks and one liners (Merida from Brave has a bow!), it all feels a bit hollow. The best of the points she makes were made by Carol J Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat over twenty years ago.

In the final section of the book, Oliver refocuses on the real world, particularly through the growing prevalence of campus rape in the United States. As an educator, Oliver obviously has strong views about sexual violence on campuses and who is responsible for this culture – to the point she loses objectivity. She ‘name drops’ the Hunting Ground documentary in a way that I was not comfortable with – reducing these real women to more archetypes for analysis. I am not a fan of trigger warnings, but Oliver is extremely dismissive of the need to provide safe spaces for survivors of assault. While I agree with her that there needs to be discussion and debate around the causes of rape culture, I disagree that victims of sexual assault cannot be simultaneously protected and respected.

 I found this book disappointing on a number of levels. Close to the end of the book Oliver states “we should focus on the ways in which girl power in these films is also the result of girls and women bonding together to nurture and protect each other”. I’m going to set aside my utter loathing for the phrase ‘girl power’ for a moment and agree with this. So, if Oliver believes this why didn’t she do that, rather than tearing apart these characters, encouraging the reader to look at them through a violent male gaze instead? That there is a significant issue with the packaging of female suffering as entertainment there is no doubt – but this book is an unrelentingly negative attack on the majority of strong female characters in the past ten years. Which is helpful how? The recasting of these YA heroines as new Disney princesses is gimmicky and doesn’t work (Bella Swan and Edward as Beauty and the Beast anyone? Anyone? No, me neither).  It’s also disappointing that she focuses on the flattened film versions of more complex book series, not least because this insures she is speaking about white women and girls when she talks about women and girls.

 Oliver’s point seems to be that a lack of consent is something prevalent and reinforced by popular culture – which is a bit of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ conclusion to come to. I expected Hunting Girls to be an analysis of, and perhaps a suggested response to, rape culture. Instead this book concludes that yes, there is indeed a rape culture, and lack of consent as a virtue has been around for as long as the Sleeping Beauty myth has. In essence, Hunting Girls is a journal article stretched into a (short) book, shorter again if we take out the plot summaries of several movie franchises that bulk out the first two-thirds of the book. This pop culture analysis, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t mesh with the campus rape discussion in the latter third of the book at all. While some of the points raised are interesting, I felt this book left a lot to be desired.

Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape by Kelly Oliver is published by Columbia University Press and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

 

 

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – book review

DollsDivided into two sections ‘The New Sexism’ and the ‘The New Determinism’, Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a highly readable  call to arms written at a crucial moment in women’s history. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote “[t]he little girl cuddles her doll and dresses her up as she dreams of being cuddled and dressed up herself; inversely, she thinks of herself as a marvellous doll”. Walter’s use of this quote in this book is telling – this is an exposé of systematic societal programming and of the capitalist packaging of female agency so successful that feminism has been rebranded.

 The book opens in a UK club called Mayhem, where an open contest for glamour models is being held. The contestants strip and pose suggestively on a bed while a male DJ decides which woman has received the biggest cheers from the baying crowd. It’s 2007, and Walter – a supporter of sexual liberation – begins unpacking how this ‘liberation’ has turned so quickly back to objectification and oppression.  One of the prostitutes interviewed in the book blames feminism for her situation saying “I believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex was so empowering”. Observing how the women walking through the doors opened by feminism are now funnelled into by a hypersexualised culture into a narrow definition of possibility where “being sexy and using the power of your sexiness is the one kind of power that women are sanctioned to exploit”, Walter successfully debunks the popular myths of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ built into contemporary narratives of pole/lap dancing and glamour modelling as careers by speaking to women who are living those choices.

 There is a great deal of overlap with Ariel Levy’s excellent Female Chauvinist Pigs here, and it is in these overlapping sections dealing with the pornification of culture, albeit from a UK perspective, that Walter is strongest. In fact it’s a quote from Levy’s book that best sums up what Living Dolls articulates throughout “Sex appeal has become a synecdoche for all appeal”. It is not without its weaknesses – the focus is entirely heterosexual. Walter is also too quick to shy away from class issues, even when one lap dancer observes “[t]he men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts; the women are not respectable, they are naked, they have debts”.  However it is still an excellent introductory text for young women on modern-day feminism, and you should give it to your friends, daughters, and perhaps most importantly, your sons.

A Decent Cup of (Vegan?) Tea

How do I love tea? Let me count the ways… actually let’s not do that or we’ll be here all day. Let’s just say there’s a reason Mrs. Doyle is my favourite Fr. Ted character and leave it TEAat that. I’ll just also leave this picture of an actual grocery shop of mine here as supplementary evidence. I love the stuff. I have extremely exacting standards in the tea department, with weak tea being top of my beverage taboos. Just… why? As every good Irish person knows, there is no situation so great or grave that it cannot be improved by a nice cup of tea. Bad day at work? Tea. Bad back? Tea. Bad news? Tea. Just given birth? Tea. Exciting news? Well sure just sit down here with a nice cup of tea and tell me all about it… It’s simply a fundamental part of life. It could also well be the reason for our next civil war, with familial and geographic factions of Lyons or Barry’s drinkers fiercely loyal to their brew of choice.

Prior to World War II, Ireland was the third highest tea-consuming country in the world per capita, with our brew imported via the tea market in London – until tighter export controls in the UK during the war meant that we lost 75% of our supply. Knowing full well that the notoriously ‘roll over and take it’ attitude of the Irish public wouldn’t hold up if they were denied tea, the government quickly set up a new importing agency and a 3867421massive warehouse in the Dublin docklands that could hold a full two years supply of tea leaves for the nation. Tea Importers Ltd (props for naming originality!) dealt directly with tea producers in the countries of origin and quickly discovered that darker teas than we had been getting via England were more popular here. Now Irish people drink some of the highest grades of tea in the world, with gold label black tea dominating the domestic market. None of the weak and thin Indian teas, nor the bergamot laden Earl Grey so popular ‘across the water’ in the UK cut it for us.  Our high grade tea leaves guarantee that the less heavily marketed ‘black stuff’ of Ireland is crazy delicious, and that I can’t go on holiday without a stash of teabags somewhere on my person.

It’s Day 18 of Veganuary, meaning I am more than halfway through, and I knew going in that if there was one potential trauma for me in the month it would be not being able to have a decent cuppa. I drink a wide range of herbal teas too, but I knew they weren’t going to cut it. The morning mug of ‘real’ tea is the only reason I have managed to get to work for about ten years, and I am a twitchy edgy mess if I don’t get to unwind with another cuppa in the evening. I need my ‘real’ tea.

Continue reading “A Decent Cup of (Vegan?) Tea”

Becoming one of them?

After over two decades of vegetarianism, I’m trying veganism for the first time this January. I’m joining over 20,000 people and counting who have signed up to Veganuary 2016 pledging to live without meat, fish, dairy and all other animal based food for thirty-one days. Pretty much the entire family got a nasty bout of gastroenteritis during the no-mans land between Christmas and New Year – and so the start of Veganuary went without a hitch. It’s very easy to be vegan when you literally aren’t eating anything! I’m writing this on Day #7, but for normal eating purposes it’s more like Day #3. So the food has yet to prove an issue but mentally it’s already taking it out of me if I’m honest.

You see, even as a vegetarian I found vegans a bit… off. Weird even. It all seemed so extreme. What on earth were they eating? How did they cope without a decent cup of tea?! I don’t get what the problem is with wool? Or with honey? Bees love honey, don’t they?! Vegucated is a highly watchable documentary currently streaming on Netflix which follows three meat and cheese loving New Yorkers as they attempt to be vegan for six weeks. I watched it for the first time last week and wholly identified with the Vegucated crazysequence where director Marisa Miller Wolfson talks about how she had always thought vegans were weird. Later Brian, one of the three subjects of the documentary, confesses the same. Yup – that’s how I felt for a long time. It didn’t help that the only vegans I met for many years were either hard-core animal activists (the animal version of the awful placarding pro-life nuns who used to terrorise O’Connell St in the 90s) or incredibly unhealthy people with skin conditions who literally cut animal produce out of their diet and subsided on pasta and other refined carbs. So an opinion formed in my mind a long time ago – veganism was not for me. It was too dogmatic, too preachy, there were too many rules and fundamentally I didn’t exactly enjoy myself around the vegans I had met. And like any opinion held for a long time, it’s calcified within me. I’m now doing Veganuary and I’m still thinking –hmmm. Vegan. Am I now one…of them? Continue reading “Becoming one of them?”

Never lose your education

Of course I did not know it at the time, but when I was born, the youngest of eight children, to a farming family in Meath, I hit the jackpot in a birth lottery taking place each and every day in an increasingly unequal world. So privileged was I, that I regularly experienced the state only the under-worked and over-privileged feel – boredom. From my earliest memories, long before my pathological obsession with tea drew equal with it, I have loved the power of the printed word. I am a self-confessed word junkie – I’m Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Aunt Josephine from Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Name your cliché of a character who is so engrossed in the universes spun by words, and I am it. Books are not only a portal to knowledge, but a chance to go places in your head – anywhere you want to be, and a good book can take you there. For most of my life I never even questioned that literacy was something special that my circumstances of birth could have denied me. Once I finished my M.A. I realised that, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a fact universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of an arts degree must be in want of a life. Since it has been said that “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” rather than going someplace in my head I went to China instead.

Working from official statistics, the People’s Republic of China had a literacy rate of 90.8% in the year 2002, with primary school education provided for six years in the state-run public education system. Official statistics often do not show the full reality of a situation however, and the current completion rate of primary education is a little over 78%. Almost 5million students a year fail to complete compulsory education on time. About 1 million children drop out of school each year because of poverty, particularly ethnic minorities and girls – and those girls who remain in education are often the victims of systemic gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas. The poverty of an area as well as the poverty of individual families is an obstacle, with many schools in China lacking the resources to provide more than two to three years of schooling. They are poorly equipped, often providing little more than desks and chairs, and their curricula are severely limited. Notebooks and writing materials, not to mention quality stimulating textbooks, are often prized possessions for the lucky few with access to them.

Continue reading “Never lose your education”