Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
Why? It was the Cheltenham Feminist Book Club book for February.
When I went to buy this book in a bookshop – which, fair enough, is pretty retro – I had no idea where to find it. I’d thought it was a novel but according to the quick google once I had twice gone round the shop I learnt it was actually non-fiction. Once I’d found the book and appreciated the premise, the confusion made a lot more sense. Three women is the culmination of eight years of work by Lisa Taddeo, following the lives of the three women of the title. In many ways the prose seems like fiction. It’s incredibly beautiful, easy-to-read, and compelling. Though all three of the women were very different to me and in very different situations, I found parallels in myself in the way each of the women related to themselves. The story of Maggie in particular, who was essentially groomed by and had a brief relationship with one of her teachers, felt very honest about how it feels to be a young woman and how that can be exploited. Overall, Three Women shows up the pressures and judgements women face in response to their lives and sexuality.
Women and Power by Mary Beard
Why? Picked it up in Blackwells because it is short and the cover is shiny: perfect for attracting women and magpies.
I’m a new Mary Beard fan. I thought she seemed pretty cool from things she stands up for on social media, but I knew nothing about her academic work apart from ‘it’s old stuff’. Having read this …tract? …long essay?, I am a convert. Maybe this text is not her major academic focus but surely a key reason why we study history is to use it as a lense through which to view our world today. She holds your hand and walks through a series of stories where women’s voices have been negated since the ancient Greeks. This is very useful in order to see the historical extent of the issue (Q. Why can’t inequality be fixed quickly? A. Because it’s been going on for literally AGES). After all of this, the most interesting point that she suggests, but perhaps doesn’t elaborate on enough, is that we associate power with dominance and celebrity (and masculinity) but maybe we don’t have to. She opens the possibility for power to be a different kind of thing. I don’t think this necessarily has to be a ‘feminine’ power, but in the continual exploration of women developing power, maybe we can find a way to have power in a different, less aggressive way. Unfortunately this is approximately where she stops. Beyond suggesting that ‘power’ could be different, she offers few suggestions for how it could be different. But opening up this idea is certainly the first step to a wider way of thinking.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Why? I read about it in Mary Beard’s Women and Power and it sounded like an interesting concept. Also I was keen to read more CPG.
The broad premise of this book is that three male explorers discover a remote nation completely unconnected with the rest of the world, and this world is entirely populated by women. There are no men at all, despite the three explorers being convinced that there must be men hidden away somewhere, especially because this nation is civilised – it is indeed inconceivable that women might be able to develop and run a civilised nation. After the men live in this nation for a while and they start to exchange ideas, they learn that the women have developed the ability to reproduce without men and that it truly is a nation entirely of women. Herland, however, is not what they imagine a world full of women to be like; the women are strong, highly educated and kind, unlike women that the explorers expect who are ‘feminine’, sniping and coquettish. Over 2000 years, the women of Herland have worked together to advance their nation as far as possible, to ensure everyone has space, food and community. This world is almost utopian compared to the horror, famine and poverty in the world that the men come from, where men are the leaders and women stay at home (‘our world’ as it was to Gilman in the early 20th century). The compassion and intelligence of the Herland women, however, leads them to believe that life and the world must be superior with the two sexes and that they have much to learn from the rest of the world. We can see how wrong they are through the narrator, Van, one of the explorers, who hesitates to tell them fully about the patriarchal world compares to their matriarchal society.
This book is very slim but took me a much longer time to read than I thought because after the adventure of reaching Herland, it does get fairly philosophical. It’s not un-readably dense, but there are a lot of ideas that you might want to sit with. The ideas are very interesting to consider in the light of several things at the moment. First, the idea that Mary Beard suggests in Women and Power that the only established way to have power is very masculine and perhaps women don’t have to wield power in a way that simply emulates the way men have held it. The way the women of Herland relate to each other challenges these power dynamics and actually suggests some ways female leadership (or our whole idea of leadership) could be different. In a way, Herland offers suggestions to the problems that Beard postulates in Women and Power. Secondly, perhaps we could see Herland as a counterpoint to Naomi Alderman’s The Power. This shows an opposing view of women and power, instead of the utopia of Herland, when women develop powerful electricity which gives them superior power over men in The Power, the world turns into dystopia, women, it turns out, can be just as violent and ruthless as men, it is simply a matter of power. Perhaps you would argue that this shows Gilman’s naivety, but I would disagree, I feel that all Alderman’s questions of power and opposition are redundant in Herland. Gilman’s women have no opposition to face because they simply have no men at all, and their power is not a question of superior physical strength (though these women are also strong) so they are free to build their own community without any question of fighting over sex. What has really sent the message home over the past year for me has been the different attitudes towards the virus between male and female heads of state. This is not a strict line, but generally the attitude of female premiers has been to go to all lengths possible to protect the population of their country, combatting the virus effectively, with much lower death tolls and shorter lockdowns, whilst prominent male leaders have blustered around, ignoring the seriousness of the situation, and telling people to prepare for their loved ones to die. Perhaps there is more in this than gender and compassion, perhaps these women are merely protecting their own backs because, we all know, if they were to ‘fail’ in this they would surely be blamed more harshly than their male counterparts. Either way, it is effective. So I would recommend Herland for all of the reasons above, but beyond these, you have to read this simply to enjoy the irony of Gilman writing, more than one hundred years ago, about how amazing it was for the women of Herland to have practical clothes WITH POCKETS. How do we still not have pockets?
(To be fair, Herland, should also come with a warning that, while some ideas seem pretty modern, others are decidedly historic.)