Outlaws and Bad Feminists

No one can be the perfect feminist.  No one can be the perfect activist for any social cause.

Depressing, given our recent political climate, at least where I I live in the United States.  I made the depressing, although not completely conscious, choice to read two books on feminism for my Reading Challenges right around the time that we did not elect our first female president in part because misogyny is still a very real thing in our country.

So is racism.  You can’t read Between the World and Me and deny that racism continues to be a part of our world, but I feel that I can be lured into a false sense of security that feminism is not, in fact, enjoying the same fate.

And in moments we shall have a disturbing leader at the helm, whose racist and feminist attitudes somehow did not prevent his coming into power.

We have to hang on to the gains that we have already made.

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Romantic Outlaws, the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley  by Ruth Gordon

This is a gorgeous interwoven portrait of a famous mother and daughter pair who both believed and gave up family ties and general respectability in order to live and assert the notion that women should be just as free to do as they please as men.  Pursue careers, go and do what they would like to do, have sex with whom they please outside of marriage, although both women were monogamous in their relationships with men by choice.  These two women were both greatly admired by many of their contemporaries while also remaining on the outskirts  of respectability.

Both also suffered from Major Depressive Disorder, with Mary Wollstonecraft having two suicide attempts, which the author explains in a way that garners empathy for the times that she chose to make these attempts.  It was a sad and lonely world for Mary at times, and then without thinking clearly because of being depressed, it was easy for her to choose to stop hurting so much. Ironic that her life was cut short from giving birth to her second daughter after all, after wanting so badly to escape it in unhappier times, and then when things are good for her she slips out of the world in a matter of days.  Depression robbed Mary Wollstonecraft of some of her hard won dignity, in my opinion, and if she had not suffered from it she would have been even more formidable.  Interesting also that her daughter did not make the same choices, despite being numbed and repeatedly devastated by the loss of children.

Mary Shelley went through bouts of it, too, although she was more often surrounded by friends and distracted by the constant responsibility of caring for her husband Percy B Shelley, who although brilliant was selfish and completely idealistic and in the moment.  Her younger years, after running off with Percy with her sister and living with other wealthy people  remind me of my own graduate school days. Not because I was spending my time with history makers and writing a modern classic, but because there was a lot of selfish behavior. I was dating my own version of Shelley, an idealistic man who really wanted romantic love and felt it should happen for him whether or not he did anything to take care of his relationship or make any sacrifice, no matter how small, for it.

Neither Mary was the perfect feminist.  Both pined after their wandering men and invested more in them than they got in return.  Both took care of their men (and many of their relationships. Both were at the ready to put themselves aside for a friend in need) at their own expense.  Mary Shelley let her husband take lots of the writing spotlight for her own work and after they died there was a period of backlash against all the progress they did make in changing the world’s views and treatment of women.   But both lived the closest to their ideals as they could manage, which is more than you can say of anyone, past or present. They fought for the time and space they needed to write and participate in the creative life that they both found sustaining. This book is beautiful, captivating and well-written and does give me home of some of the progress we have made in advancing the second sex.  Gordon did a spectacular job at researching and painting a very human portrait of these two women who never got the time together they deserved.

All right, so after tackling those 500+ pages, you could think, damn, women have it good now. They can own property and do not need a husband around for much of anything if they don’t want him there.  They can have any job they want!  Sweet! But old cultural norms die hard:

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Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

No, we are still in the middle of those woods.  Although feminism does not require the life changing sacrifices as it once did, it hangs over us. Both in our entertainment and in the way the media still perpetuates the idea that it is unreasonable that (white) men shouldn’t always get what they want.

Gay starts the essays by writing about her own vulnerabilities: her worst feminist flaws seeming to be in her enjoyment in rap music, to which I can relate, her impostor syndrome as a PhD and college professor, her trying to reach out to black students where she teaches and how they are still very different from her.  Although not a flaw, I do particularly like the self disclosure of her love of Hunger Games and how the book helped her to get through the dreaded time at the gym.

It’s a good opening to the subsequent shredding of many things one can put forth as beacons of progress, especially with race relations.  Because racism is much less acceptable than other forms of denigration it has burrowed into subtlety.  I listened to her feelings about Tyler Perry movies while driving in the car and the whole time I was like, damn, sick burn, Dr. Gay.

Feminism was a shred of less subtle forms of denigration.  A news media coverage of a gang rape of an eleven year old girl where the newscaster seemed to feel that this little girl ruined the lives of the men going to jail, not vice versa.  The discouraging popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, where the whole point of the stories is a woman reconciling herself to a BDSM lifestyle to be with an insanely rich, damaged and controlling man.  I am at least happy that some of the romance novels I read for the Christmas posts involved women and men connecting over their family values and their hearts desires rather than a battle over who was going to be in control and who had to deal with it in the bedroom.

What are your thoughts on the future of racism and feminism as we soon transition to a new president at the helm?

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