Hilary Boyd’s Thursdays in the Park

This is one of those books that I really wanted to enjoy. It is the story of a woman’s reawakening after an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant man. Unfortunately, the entire book is the minimisation of male violence both in the marriage of the main character, Jeanie, and that of her daughter. Like Paula McLean, who wrote The Paris Wife,  Hilary Boyd seems to have little understanding of the level of coercion and control that is common. Boyd also gives both husbands an ‘excuse’ for their abusive behaviour: one is the victim of child sexual violence and the other suffers from extreme jealousy. Obviously, neither man is responsible for their own behaviour to the point that Jeanie labels herself a bitch for wanting out of her unhappy marriage.

I would really like to read a “romance” novel, since Jeanie had to find a new man rather than be happy by herself, that actually understood the dynamics of domestic violence. Just one. 

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I know I’m late to the party on this having only discovered her books two years ago but she is an amazing writer. The Poisonwood Bible is one of the best books I have ever read. Pigs in Heaven covers the same terrain as The Poisonwood Bible: motherhood, sisterhood, female friendships, family and surviving.

Pigs in Heaven is the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle who is Cherokee. The central plot is who Turtle really belongs too: the woman who illegally adopted her but who nurtured her through the trauma of her extensive physical and sexual abuse or the Cherokee nation into whom she was born. Kingsolver asks complicated questions about family and sisterhood and, whilst the ending is too pat, it is, fundamentally, a testament to how we should be raising our children: not as possessions but as members of extended communities built on love and tradition.

These are my two favourite quotes: 

Alice realises something important about her daughter at this moment: that she’s genuinely a mother. She has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you every had time for small things like despising the color pink. 

… 

Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that makes them bubble and rise.  

For obvious reasons. 

Helen Castor’s She-Wolves:The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

I couldn’t put this book down. Helen Castor has a real gift for prose; a rare gift among historians. The hours I’ve wasted reading badly written historical texts in my life are extensive so this was a joy to read. I also knew next to nothing about the 5 queens that Castor profiled: Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine,  Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Mary Tudor. She-Wolves: The Queens who Ruled England Before Elizabeth is a fascinating and quick read. There are some problems with the text; notably the complete lack of footnotes and sources. I understand this was written as a piece of “popular fiction” but the inclusion of the bibliography at the back was not enough. I want to read more about these four women but it’s hard to tell which would be the best texts for me to read next. 

Castor’s respect and admiration for these five women, however flawed they were is evident, but this is still a military history of battles and men. Yes, this testifies to the paucity of primary source material on the lives of these women but the book is still focused mainly on military history, dynastic squabbles and male temper tantrums. There is very little about the women themselves and much of what Castor writes focuses on their military and political battles. In many ways, this is a very traditional “history” text, albeit one written about women.  Castor simply doesn’t make enough of the social and cultural milieu in which the women lived. She focuses on the military history to the exclusion of the households and courts of the women themselves. They are all defined in relation to the men they married or birthed.

Castor also leaves numerous questions unexamined. She claims from the start that these 5 women were prevented from becoming true queens because of their inability to lead armies. Her first evidence of this is Matilda’s inability to lead an army to fight Stephen who ousted her from her thrown. Yet, less than 20 pages later, Castor claims that Stephen’s wife lead an army against Matilda’s troops. Why could King Stephen’s wife, a queen consort, lead an army whilst the ousted Queen Matilda could not? These women also lived across 4 centuries and Castor makes very little of the changing political and social structures which dramatically changed the women’s ability to claim the thrown. After all, Matilda was English -born [but the granddaughter of William the Conquerer] whilst Isabella, Eleanor and Margaret were all foreign-born. Mary become queen by dint of being properly English [and a Tudor]. That makes a significant difference.

I did enjoy this book as Castor’s gift for writing compensates for any problems within the text. It isn’t the best text for learning more about these 5 Queens of England though. What She-Wolves does demonstrate, more than anything I’ve read in a long time, is cultural femicide: the complete erasure of women from culture. The fact that there is simply not enough evidence of the lives of these 5 women to write a history without basing it on their relationships with men is cultural femicide.

As ever, I would love recommendations for histories of these women!

The Daddy Rat : Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, The Real Science Behind Sex Differences

It’s a standing joke in the Mumsnet Feminism/ Women’s Rights section that we should all be receiving royalties for Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. I must recommend it at least once a week on threads about gendering children or men being too stupid to see dirt so they, consequently, stink at housework. This, of course, is the same men who are so “visual” that they need to look at porn in order to get off. How, precisely, one can be simultaneously visual and non-visual is beyond me but that’s the argument always put forward by those who believe in innate gender differences.

I’m a neuroskeptic. I don’t believe in innate gender differences. I certainly don’t think we can “scientifically observe” gender differences when our culture is so seeped in woman-hating that anything constructed as “female” is immediately wrong. I have no tolerance for people who claim that boys are physical and girls are emotional. Or, that boys are better at math and spatial awareness than girls because their brains are hardwired that way. All the neuroscience I see insisting on innate gender [and never sex which is what they actually mean] differences has been about supporting the status quo of women’s subordination. 

Cordelia Fine deconstructs all the major “research” on innate gender differences and demonstrates what unrelenting twaddle it is. She is equally snarky, funny and downright angry at the misuse and falsification of “scientific evidence” to support fallacious constructions of gender [which fail to acknowledge the historical and cultural situations in which they were created]. I can not recommend this book enough for anyone who thinks that its totally normal for boys to be violent and girls to be nurturing. This is by far one of my most favourite feminist texts, despite not being advertised as such.


This is my favourite quote from the book: The Daddy Rat

Male rats don’t experience the hormonal changes that trigger maternal behaviour in female rats. They never normally participate in infant care. Yet put a baby rat in a cage with a male adult and after a few days he will be caring for the baby almost as if he were its mother.  He’ll pick it up, nestle it close to him as a nursing female would, keep the baby rat clear and comforted and even build a comfy nest for it. The parenting circuits are there in the male brain, even in a species in which paternal care doesn’t normally exist. If a male rat, without even the aid of a William Sears baby-care manual, can be inspired to parent then I would suggest that the prospects for human fathers are pretty good. (88)

It makes me snigger every time I read it.


Some interesting Discussions on Mumsnet: 




Jewly Hight’s Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs

The problem with this book is that it is just one book. It should be nine separate books: the eight singer-songwriters that Hight adores so much:
And, Jewly Hight herself; because Hight might claim to be writing the stories of these eight women singers-songwriters and their examination of “their geographical, cultural, familial, and religious roots in their music” but Hight’s actually written herself into the text. I want to know more about the 8 female artists and Hight.  A longer book would have allowed the inclusion of more of the lyrics by these talented women but also more of Hight herself. Right by Her Roots is a love affair with these talented women singer-songwriters and it’s love-affair that just isn’t long enough.

It’s all fascinating but at 200 pages, there simply isn’t enough space to really examine these issues and fully explore the back catalogues of the music of these women. I want to know more about all 8 women but equally I want to know about Hight. I want to know about how Hight traces her roots and I want more of Hight’s personal responses to these women.

I definitely recommend this book but with fingers crossed that Hight writes more in-depth books about these women (and herself).

 

Barbara Black Koltuv’s The Book of Lilith

I’m in two minds about Barbara Black Koltuv’s The Book of Lilith. I found the history of the myths surrounding Lilith, and her previous incarnations in other cultural traditions, utterly fascinating. This is a history of women and myth that I knew nothing about. Koltuv’s choice to quote large sections of original text were of immense value. On the other hand, I was less fond of Koltuv’s use of psychoanalysis because I felt it involved an essentialist construction of women as being either Eve or Lilith. This is obviously an odd criticism considering Koltuv is a well-respected psychoanalyst but the constant reference to the power of modern women’s sexuality detracted from the origin myths of Lilith. 

Prior to reading this, I knew nothing of Lilith and I will have to reread this book as there is just so much information packed into such a short text that I feel I have missed out on pieces of Lilith’s story.  I knew Lilith was the first woman in one version of the Christian tradition but I did not know about Lilith’s construction within Jewish texts. I certainly did not know that Lilith is purported to be one of the two “mothers” of the infant in the Biblical story the Judgement of Solomon. I want to know more but I found myself distracted by Koltuv’s inclusion of her current patients. Koltuv’s use of psychoanalysis to read the stories of Lilith throughout history was really powerful and riveting but the references to her modern practise were simply not. 

Lilith’s rewriting as mother and whore, as the moon but also a deity fascinates me. So, if anyone has any excellent recommendations to read on the story of Lilith [and written by women!], please let me know.

Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

My mother bought this book for my daughter two years ago. My daughter has never bothered to read it since it lacks vampires (sighs) so I read it instead.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an utterly beautiful book about the relationship of two women in 19th century China. It is the story of the friendship between Lily and her laotong Snow Flower. I had never heard this term before but Lily’s aunt defines it as “made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons.” I can’t decide if the acknowledgment that women’s emotional needs are worth consideration and are, therefore, encouraged formally makes me sad or relieved.

The relationship between Lily and Snow Flower is not a healthy one. The two women are very different and Lily’s insecurities all but destroy Snow Flower. Their friendship should have saved them, and it does maintain them through their footbinding as children, but both suffer dreadfully throughout their lives. Snow Flower’s husband is violently abusive, whilst Lily, who ‘marries well’ remains deeply unhappy and hurts those she loves the most.

In many ways, the book is about the power of women’s friendship and the trauma when it is torn asunder. Despite this particular friendship being destroyed by jealousy, it is the thought of the friendship which sustains both women through civil war, VAW, marriage, childbirth and infant loss.

It is a young adult fiction book but I enjoyed it very much.

If Heterosexuality is Compulsory, I want to Marry Batman

[image from here]
  1. He’s rich. 
  2. He’s never home. 
  3. He has a butler to take care of his every need: so no Wifework!
  4. He’s either whining, brooding or hanging about in a cave with bats. And, therefore, not clogging up the living room. Or, whining, brooding or hanging about anywhere near you. 
  5. You won’t actually have to spend any time with him at all.*
Or, we could just lose the compulsory heterosexuality bit, because, frankly, marrying Batman is about as intelligent as advising young girls to “toughen up” about street and sexual harassment. Rachel Roberts‘ recent piece in the Independent demonstrates everything which is wrong with a rape culture rooted in compulsory heterosexuality. What is really depressing about the piece is that Roberts’ clearly believes that Lib Dem spin doctor Jo Phillips was right about schools teaching girls to “toughen up” whilst simultaneously trying to situate her piece within feminist discourse around the prevention of violence against women through education. Any time a writer need to use the phrase “I would never wish to blame the victim“, you know it is too late. Roberts’ piece, from her homely quotes about her 13 year old niece to her failure to mention the the behaviour of boys and men is about blaming young girls for not being “tough” enough. 

Roberts seems to have misunderstood EVAW’s Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign which isn’t about teaching girls to be “tough” but rather ending sexual harassment within schools completely. This requires as much a focus on boys’ education and a fundamental restructuring of sex education as it does teaching 13 year old girls how to be assertive: 
Aged 12-13, girls ought to have at least a few hours of tuition on how to be assertive when faced with difficult situations, such as street harassment. I do not mean to suggest the onus should be on girls to be able to defend themselves by means of a witty retort or a sharp kick in the knackers – although both of these methods have served me well on the long walk to womanhood. The goal should of course be to make sexual pestering and all forms of abuse unacceptable to both genders, but until such a utopia dawns, it makes sense to teach girls practical strategies, such as naming the behaviour (e.g. “That’s very insulting”, “You’re invading my space”) and removing yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. It might sound like simple and obvious stuff, but a surprising amount of adults, never mind young people, don’t have the confidence to use this kind of language, or simply don’t know what to do in a threatening situation.

How, precisely, will this help a 13 year old walking home from school who is harassed by a group of men? How will it help a vulnerable 14 year old cornered in the school cafeteria by a group of boys demanding to see her breasts? Why is the onus always on teaching girls “practical strategies” for dealing with male violence instead of teaching boys how to behave. Why aren’t we seeing more support for campaigns like EVAW’s in schools? Why aren’t we seeing more support for programs dealing with sexually predatory behaviour of young boys? Why are we educating a generation of girls to believe that male violence is their problem because they weren’t “tough enough”? Why aren’t we raising a generation of boys to believe that violence against women and sexual harassment is wrong?

It is not a lack of confidence which prevents women from standing up to sexual harassment: it’s fear. It’s fear of the situation escalating and the possible consequences of it becoming physically violent. Within schools, one 13 year old girl standing up to a boy demanding a blowjob in the hallway won’t prevent him from doing it to another girl. Nor will it prevent that 13 year old from becoming a victim of further bullying by being labeled frigid or humourless. We need to be tackling the behaviour of boys, rather than insisting that girls be held accountable for not being “tough” enough.

This isn’t to say that Roberts’ piece is entirely without merit. After all, I am firm supporter of sex education moving out of pregnancy prevention and into relationships and the signs of domestic violence. Roberts’ piece just reflects current patriarchal discourse which makes women responsible for male behaviour. Her article focuses exclusively on the education of girls and her throw away line about “utopia” shows just how little Roberts’ believes that male behaviour will change.

Teaching girls to “toughen up” is as sensible as telling girls to marry Batman as a career plan. It does nothing to change the fundamental problem our culture has with male violence. It also presupposes a heteronormativity that does not reflect the realities of the relationships of many adults. Instead of teaching girls to “toughen up”, how about we teach boys that sexual harassment is a crime and will be prosecuted as such?

* This is liberally borrowed from a post on MN from years ago which I think was lost in the annals of chat.