1

Penguin Moderns: ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ by Betty Friedan ****

The 41st book in the Penguin Moderns series is Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name.  The selected work in this volume was first published in her seminal The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan ‘gave voice to countless American housewives… and set the women’s movement in motion’.  In The Problem That Has No Name, one finds the titular essay, as well as a piece entitled ‘The Passionate Journey’.

I have read criticism about Friedan’s work before, and other tracts which mention her, but this was my first taste of her original work.  Friedan notices a marked shift between the 1920s and 1950s in the priorities of women in the United States: ‘A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband.  By the mid fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bat.’  This denotes a crisis in society; few women decided to pursue careers for their own fulfilment, working instead to support their families.9780241339268

Friedan’s work is all-encompassing, and she is very understanding of Everywoman.  The first essay begins in the following way: ‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”‘  As the title of this work suggests, Friedan suggests reasons as to why a name had never before seen given to ‘this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women…’.  The ‘problem that has no name’ consisted of the many women believing that any individuality they once had was swallowed up as soon as they became wives and mothers.

Useful statistics have been woven in throughout The Problem That Has No Name, in order to reinforce or better illustrate Friedan’s points.  She also makes use of the many interviews which she has conducted with females all across America, discussing various problems which they had with their husbands or children.  It is in these instances that her profession of magazine journalism really shows.  She notes the point at which she began to notice signs of something buried within widespread society, and common for so many different women: ‘But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem.  I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest.’  In the 1960s, Friedan notes that news outlets began to report on ‘the actual unhappiness of the American housewife.’  Although she does not talk about her own life in detail, Friedan also touches upon her own experiences of bringing up her children during this period.

The dissatisfaction of women is a major theme in the second essay too, but from an historical perspective which focuses on the path to women’s rights.  ‘The Passionate Journey’ begins: ‘It was the need for a new identity that started women, a century ago, on that passionate journey… away from home.’  Of this journey, which women felt compelled to make in order to keep a grasp on their personal individuality, and to try and escape from societal confines, Friedan writes: ‘Theirs was an act of rebellion, a violent denial of the identity of women as it was then defined.  It was the need for a new identity that led these passionate feminists to forge new trails for women.  Some of these trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.’  This essay is a real celebration of what women have achieved.

Friedan’s writing style is highly accessible, and she takes a clear point of view throughout.  Her prose is highly engaging and quite easygoing, despite the wealth of information which she denotes.  She is incredibly perceptive of womankind, viewing them as individuals rather than as a singular collective, and recognising that many women who were suffering silently during the period which she examines did so for myriad reasons.  The Problem That Has No Name is an empowering tome, and I will certainly be reading the rest of The Feminine Mystique at some point.  Despite the fact that it was published over five decades ago, Friedan’s work is still highly relevant in the twenty-first century.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Advertisements
0

Penguin Moderns: Italo Calvino, Audre Lorde, Leonora Carrington, and William S. Burroughs

9780241339107The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino ** (#22)
I have not really been a fan of what I have read of Italo Calvino’s work thus far, but went into this collection of ‘exuberant, endlessly inventive stories’ with an open mind nonetheless.  The tales collected here – ‘The Distance of the Moon’, ‘Without Colours’, ‘As Long As the Sun Lasts’, and ‘Implosion’ – were published between 1965 and 2009, and have been variously translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks, and William Weaver.  I found Calvino’s work interesting enough, particularly with regard to the metaphors which he uses.  There is some really imaginative imagery to be found here too.  Overall, however, I found this collection – which hovers between the classifications of science fiction and fantasy – peculiar, and not to my taste.  It is nothing which I would have chosen to read had it not been included in the Penguin Moderns Collection.

 

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde **** 9780241339725(#23)
This collection of ‘soaring, urgent essays on the power of women, poetry and anger’ was my first taste of Audre Lorde’s writing.  The majority of the essays collected here were first given as conference papers between 1978 and 1982.  The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House includes the titular work, as well as ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, and ‘Learning From the 1960s’.  Throughout, Lorde writes with confidence and intelligence.    The 23rd Penguin Modern is an accessible book, which explores feminism and the issues which it poses for minority women, and those whose identify as anything other than heterosexual.  Lorde weaves in elements of black history and lesbianism.  Each of these essays is thought-provoking, and I would definitely like to read more of her work in the near future.

 

9780241339169The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington **** (#24)
Leonora Carrington’s The Skeleton’s Holiday is one of the books which I have been most looking forward to in the Penguin Moderns series.  I read her novel, The Hearing Trumpet, last June, and very much enjoyed its brand of absurdity.  The titular story was written as part of a collaborative novel in 1939, and the other stories – ‘White Rabbits’, ‘Uncle Sam Carrington’, ‘The Debutante’, ‘The Oval Lady’, ‘The Seventh Horse’, and ‘My Flannel Knickers’ – have all been translated from their original French by the likes of Marina Warner and Carrington herself.  The writing here is characteristically Carrington’s; each tale is filled with oddity, and surprises the reader at every grotesque turn.  Throughout, Carrington has a wonderful knack of vividly setting scenes, and her prose is at once odd and beguiling.  There is a dark, startling humour throughout, and an otherworldly sense to her stories.  The author clearly had such an imagination; this collection has left me eager to read more of her work.

 

The Finger by William S. Burroughs ** (#25) 9780241339077
These stories – ‘The Finger’, ‘Driving Lesson’, ‘The Junky’s Christmas’, ‘Lee and the Boys’, ‘In the Cafe Central’, and ‘Dream of the Penal Colony’ – have all been taken from William S. Burroughs’ Interzones (1989).  Of his work to date, I have read only Naked Lunch, which I found quite odd.  These stories, however, were far stranger.  As a collection, I did not feel as though there was a great deal of coherence between them, despite an overlap of characters.  Some of them also felt rather brief and unfinished.  I do enjoy Beat writers on the whole, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but I find Burroughs’ work far more difficult to get into.  Whilst the tales here were readable enough, I found that some of the descriptions made me feel rather sick, and I did not enjoy a single one of them.  On the whole, there did not seem to be a great deal of point to any of these stories.  Not for me.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Reading The New Woman

One of my favourite things to learn about during my MA lessons was ‘The New Woman’, a feminist idea which emerged in the late nineteenth century, and inspired feminism and women’s movements during the twentieth century.  They were free spirited, and shunned the Victorian ‘Angel of the House’ ideal, eschewing marriage in favour of careers and independence.

newwoman

‘The New Woman on Wash Day’ – R.Y. Young (from The Library of Congress)

The New Woman is an endlessly fascinating subject for those of us who are interested in female social history and the like.  I thought that I would put together a little reading list for everyone who is interested in reading about The New Woman, or just fancies trying something a little different.

Firstly, we shall begin with two social history books, and will then go on to some depictions of The New Woman in literature.

The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-De-Siecle by Sally Ledger
‘By comparing the fictional representations with the lived experience of the new woman, Ledger’s book makes a major contribution to an understanding of the ‘woman question’ at the fin de siecle. She alights on such disparate figures as Eleanor Marx, Gertrude Dix, Dracula, Oscar Wilde, Olive Schreiner and Radclyffe Hall. Focusing mainly on the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the book’s later chapters project forward into the twentieth century, considering the relationship between new woman fiction and early modernism as well as the socio-sexual inheritance of the ‘second generation’ new woman writers.’

 

The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930 by Jean V. Matthews 9781566635011
‘Following on her history of the women’s movement in America that took the story to 1876, Jean Matthews’s new book chronicles the changing fortunes and transformations of the organized suffrage movement, from its dismal period of declining numbers and campaign failures to its final victory in the Nineteenth Amendment that brought women the vote. Ms. Matthews’s engaging narrative recaptures the personalities and ideas that characterized the movement in these years. She draws deft portraits and analyzes the intellectual currents-in politics, the economy, sexuality, and social thought-that competed for women’s commitment. And she shows how new leadership and new strategies at last brought success in the long struggle during which many feminist leaders had grown old. The Rise of the New Woman emphasizes the historical contexts, including progressivism, in which the women’s movement operated; the disputes and tensions within the movement itself; and the perennial question of who was to be included and excluded in the quest for women’s rights. It also considers the often baffling aftereffects of the 1920 constitutional victory, when women found themselves wondering what to do next.’

 

9780472065080The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand
‘Sarah Grand’s dual novel of the diabolically mischievous twins Diavolo and Angelica and the coming of age of nineteen-year-old Evadne valiantly explores subjects considered taboo for a female writer of the Victorian age. Through her characters, Grand, considered one of the “New Woman” writers of the late 1800s, courageously advocated “rational dress,” financial independence, personal fulfillment over marriage and motherhood, and the freedom of women to initiate sexual relationships outside of wedlock and to openly discuss such volatile sexual topics as a woman’s right to contraception. She was one of the first to explore the complexity of gender roles and their inherent constraints.’

 

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen 9781408106020
‘The slamming of the front door at the end of A Doll’s House shatters the romantic masquerade of the Helmers’ marriage. In their stultifying and infantilised relationship, Nora and Torvald have deceived themselves and each other both consciously and subconsciously, until Nora acknowledges the need for individual freedom. A revised student edition of classic set text: A Doll’s House (1879), is a masterpiece of theatrical craft which, for the first time portrayed the tragic hypocrisy of Victorian middle class marriage on stage. The play ushered in a new social era and “exploded like a bomb into contemporary life”.’

 

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
‘A searing indictment of the rigid Boer social conventions of the 19th century, the first great South African novel chronicles the adventures of 3 childhood friends who defy societal repression. The novel’s unorthodox views on religion and marriage aroused widespread controversy upon its 1883 publication.’

 

9780199538539The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
‘Love, and the erratic heart, are at the centre of Hardy’s ‘woodland story’. Set in the beautiful Blackmoor Vale, The Woodlanders concerns the fortunes of Giles Winterborne, whose love for the well-to-do Grace Melbury is challenged by the arrival of the dashing and dissolute doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. When the mysterious Felice Charmond further complicates the romantic entanglements, marital choice and class mobility become inextricably linked. Hardy’s powerful novel depicts individuals in thrall to desire and the natural law that motivates them.’

 

The Odd Women by George Gissing 9780199538300
‘The idea of the superfluity of unmarried women was one the ‘New Woman’ novels of the 1890s sought to challenge. But in The Odd Women (1893) Gissing satirizes the prevailing literary image of the ‘New Woman’ and makes the point that unmarried women were generally viewed less as noble and romantic figures than as ‘odd’ and marginal in relation to the ideal of womanhood itself. Set in grimy, fog-ridden London, these ‘odd’ women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who run a school to train young women in office skills for work, to the Madden sisters struggling to subsist in low-paid jobs and experiencing little comfort or pleasure in their lives. Yet it is for the youngest Madden sister’s marriage that the novel reserves its most sinister critique. With superb detachment Gissing captures contemporary society’s ambivalence towards its own period of transition. The Odd Women is a novel engaged with all the major sexual and social issues of the late-nineteenth century. Judged by contemporary reviewers as equal to Zola and Ibsen, Gissing was seen to have produced an ‘intensely modern’ work and it is perhaps for this reason that the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ***

When you run a book club with a feminist best friend, it is perhaps inevitable that seminal “girl power” texts such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room will creep onto your reading list.  This was a book which had been selected for our original list when we excitedly created it last year, and the sole choice which was carried across to our revised reading schedule.  Added bonuses came along with The Women’s Room: the copy pictured, which I was gifted for Christmas, is both a Virago and an entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list (number 437, no less), and the book also formed part of my Project Read My Own Books list.  Win win.

Let us begin with the high praise which The Women’s Room has garnered since its publication in 1977 (the USA) and 1978 (the UK).  Fay Weldon deems it ‘the kind of book that changes lives’; Linda Grant says ‘what an earthquake this book was.  It wasn’t the story of my generation of feminists, but it was the story of the generation that made everything possible for us’; and The Observer writes that ‘The Women’s Room took the lid off a seething mass of women’s frustrations, resentments and furies; it was about the need to change things from top to bottom; it was a declaration of independence’.9781860492822

Virago have printed an introduction by the author herself, which was written in 2006, three years before her death.  In it, she discusses the publication of The Women’s Room, and its effect upon readers: ‘reviewers responded in outrage.  That the book is now considered a classic, a given -known, digested, assimilated, no longer threatening – suggests that conditions have changed for women since 1977.  And this is true…  educated women in western countries can now choose their own lives; they are not forced into dependency on a man, as they had been for millennia.  In other parts of the glove, however, women’s situation has worsened’.

The novel opens in 1968, in a public bathroom at Harvard University, where we immediately meet one of our protagonists: ‘Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room.  She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath…  Here she was at the age of thirty-eight huddled for safety in a ticket booth in the basement of Sever Hall, gazing at, no, studying that word and others of the same genre, scrawled on the grey enameled door and walls’.  French immediately places emphasis on the male-dominated sphere in which Mira finds herself: ‘The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women were simply not permitted to go.  It was odd.  Why? she wondered.  Women were so unimportant anyway.  Why would anyone bother to keep them out?’

French-Marilyn

Marilyn French

The structure of The Women’s Room works incredibly well with the plot.  Each long chapter has been split into small bursts, many of which deal solely with a particular character, or a set scene.  There are character interactions, of course, but the only conversations of intelligence seem to occur only between women.  The male characters are shadowy at times, and the children are largely like bit-part actors; we know of them, but we only really get to know about them through their mothers.  It is rare that they are given a voice to do anything with but whinge.

The narrator of the piece was with Mira ‘and the others’ at Harvard in the aforementioned year.  In her particular present, she teaches at a ‘third-rate community college’ in Maine, where she feels ‘terribly alone.  I have enough room, but it’s empty’.  The plot circles around Mira; through her, we meet friends from her past, her husband, and her children.  Learning about the histories of each woman who has been given a place in the novel was interesting, and I felt as though French’s piecing together of pasts was the real strength here.  The Women’s Room references Mira’s past situation as akin to an ‘afternoon soap opera’; really, it is just like that.  So many things happen between different characters – some of them unrealistic, let’s face it – but even with the most terrible occurrences, there is a distinct lack of emotion.

The novel is filled to the veritable brim with domesticity.  Whilst this is clearly an important part of the plot, to demonstrate the ways in which women were “shackled” to their husbands, home, and offspring, and going hand in hand as it does with the overriding female feeling of being enslaved, it serves only to saturate the whole.  I feel as though French has certainly overdone it, and after a while it becomes rather trudging and repetitive.

Some of the quotes which I have pulled out and written in my book journal are powerful; this, for instance: ‘Women are capable of anything.  It doesn’t really matter.  Wife or what, women are the most scorned class in America.  You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re a little frightened of them.  Women don’t get even the respect of fear’.  Despite this, I could not warm to French’s inclination to make broad, sweeping statements, some of which felt as though they could not possibly be true, or believed by the majority of her readers.  Chapter eleven, for instance, begins: ‘Young men like to say that young women want to be raped’.  Who are the young men?  When did they say this?  Where is the contextual evidence?  In the next paragraph, one of the characters, Val, describes the way in which she believes it is impossible for a woman to reach her ‘utmost in desire’ until her thirties.  Again, where is this substantiated?

The Women’s Room, as one might perhaps expect, holds some extremely negative views; it is a product of its time, certainly, but its particular brand of ardent feminism and the feeling of its treading down of every single male who has ever existed felt radical to me, and was consequently quite difficult to stomach: ‘And there are so much easier ways to destroy a woman.  You don’t have to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her.  You can just marry her.  You don’t even have to do that.  You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week’.

Throughout, I felt as though there was an overriding distancing with regard to all of the characters; French had placed some of her women on pedestals, and described them in detail, but there was still no depth to it in places.  Perhaps too much is said about them at times; their inner and outer conflicts are pressing, and I understand that, but I wish I had been able to make that emotional connection with either character or plot at least once during my reading.  No empathy was felt on my behalf, aside from at a couple of points to those characters on the periphery who were being unfairly put down by one or other of the female protagonists.  Many of the problems which French describes within the still heavily patriarchal society seem to be brought on, in part, by the women themselves; they were rarely blameless.  None of the women were likeable either, which should not be important in a work of fiction such as this, but probably would have helped to garner some compassion on my behalf.

Whilst The Women’s Room was rather interesting, and sometimes immersive, I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed French’s prose style.  Nothing in her descriptions really stood out to me, and some sections felt stodgy, underwhelming and lacklustre in consequence.  I am afraid to say that the novel did not have much of an impact upon me.  Perhaps if I had been younger and more impressionable, or had been reading it at a different time of life, or in a different decade, my feelings may have been different.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Feminine Gospels’ by Carol Ann Duffy *****

I have been a fan of Carol Ann Duffy’s for some years now; she is a wonderful poet, whose work always speaks to me.  I was in awe when I read The Bees, and cheering for girl power when making my way through The World’s Wife.  Her Christmas books are an absolute delight, and she has even introduced one of my favourite novels, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in the Vintage Classics edition.  When I therefore found two of her poetry books whilst in an Oxfam bookshop, preparing for their Scorching Summer Reads project, I snapped them up immediately.  I loved Rapture, but the second volume, Feminine Gospels, was something else entirely.

Firstly, I must say that I absolutely love what Feminine Gospels has set out to do: ‘Exploring issues of sexuality, beauty and biology, Carol Ann Duffy’s poems tell tall stories as though they are unconditional truths, spinning modern myths from images of women as bodies – blood, bones and skin – and corpses, as writers and workers, shoppers and slimmers, as fairytale royals or girls next door’.  Its style and focus was reminiscent of The World’s Wife for me.
9780571211302

Feminine Gospels marks the first time in which I have read any of Duffy’s longer poems; some of those collected here are almost of Tennyson length.  Her style lends itself incredibly well to these longer works.  Throughout, Duffy makes some shrewd observations, and poses some fascinating thoughts and questions; in ‘The Long Queen’, for instance, she asks: ‘What was she queen of?  Women, girls, / spinsters and hags, matrons, wet nurses, / witches, widows, wives, mothers of all those’.  She praises difference and diversity – for Duffy, all women matter (as, of course, they should in the real world too).

Duffy’s brand of magical realism is glorious and memorable.  ‘The Map-Woman’ is a powerful and thoughtful poem, about the experiences and places mapped upon a body; ‘Beautiful’ holds a few echoes of ‘The Lady of Shallot’; ‘The Diet’ is about a woman who starves herself so much that she ends up shrinking.  Duffy describes her as ‘Anorexia’s true daughter, a slip / of a girl, a shadow, dwindling away’.  Allow me to share a passage from ‘The Woman Who Shopped’, in which a materialistic lady effectively turns into a department store:

‘… Her ribs
were carpeted red, her lungs glittered with chandeliers
over the singing tills, her gut was the food hall…
She loved her own smell, sweat and Chanel,
loved the crowds jostling and thronging her bones, loved
the credit cards swiping themselves in her blood, her breath

was gift wrapping, the whisper of tissue and string…’

As with all of Duffy’s work which I have read to date, her vocabulary has been carefully selected to create startling imagery, and originality prevails: ‘The sky was unwrapping itself, ripping itself into shreds’ (from ‘The Woman Who Shopped’).  So much emphasis has been placed upon all of the senses, and the generational scope too is nothing short of masterful.

In Feminine Gospels, the woman – in all of her many shapes and forms – has been presented as the oracle.  So much of the poetry here is to do with growth, whether physically or emotionally.  There is much importance here, too; she weaves together the stories of women with history, conflicts, and the family, and all has been masterfully interconnected.  Feminine Gospels is an incredibly powerful book, which every woman should pick up at some point in her life.

Purchase from The Book Depository

9

‘Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940’ by Shari Benstock ***

I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it.  Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them I had not even heard of.  Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on.  The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.

The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into.  Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture.  It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did.  Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.

Purchase from The Book Depository