Feminist February – Round Up

If you hadn’t already seen I’ve spent February reading a range of different feminist texts in order to learn more about the movement, diversify my reading and learn some intersectional feminist theory. Since the current political climate is looking dismal for women’s and minorities’ rights, educating myself is one of a number of things I can do to stand up for these rights, and hopefully by sharing what I’m doing I can encourage others to do the same.

So what did I read?

I haven’t read this much since I was studying literature! Over four weeks exactly I managed to make my way through:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Stay With Me
  • The Bloody Chamber
  • Ms Marvel
  • Bad Girls Throughout History
  • Bad Feminist
  • On Beauty
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain
  • Feminism is for Everybody
I was so proud that I read so much – namely because I raced through a few which were just utterly brilliant. I was also glad I managed to get such a wide range – the books include fiction, essays, history, graphic novels and comedy.

I also had a wonderfully diverse range of authors, including women of colour and those who identify as LGBTQ+. The books explored feminism from these diverse perspectives, pushing me to see views outside of my own.

What did I learn?

I learnt so much this month. The issues covered were as diverse as motherhood, abortion, women’s representation, race, religion, class and sexuality.

Thanks to Phoebe Robinson I learnt how much politics is embedded in black women’s hair. Roxane Gay showed me the importance of language in both patriarchal oppression and feminism. Zadie Smith made me think about the beauty standards I still internalise, despite my intellectual position on these issues. Ann Shen gave me the women’s history lesson I never knew I needed.

I have a new feminist hero in Kamala Khan. I am inspired by how we can rethink women in fairytales and female sexuality thanks to The Bloody Chamber. Atwood and Adebayo both had me in tears with their explorations of female identity in relation to motherhood and the value society places on this.

All in all I have an awful lot to think about thanks to this challenge. I’m so glad I got to read these books and decided to do this challenge. I am keen to make this something I do regularly, and so I hope continue this challenge next Feb!

I also want to say thanks to those who got on board and also completed the challenge, it was great to see people so interested in what I’ve been doing!


Feminist February – Week 4

In case you missed it, I have decided to spend February reading exclusively on feminism! Check out the books I aim to read and the reasons behind my Feminist February Challenge

In my last week of this challenge I delved into the academics of feminism with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and bell hooks Feminism is for Everybody. 

These books were a brilliant pair, looking at the different forms and perspectives on feminist thinking. Smith uses a number of black female characters in her book, all of which seem to be based on typical stereotypes but she complicates this, making making these women seem multi-dimensional, real and conflicted. She explores a number of issues around political and ideological extremes, but the novel centres around aesthetics itself, an issue central to the women and female identity in the novel. Kiki is overwieght, and while she seems happy in herself, doubts do seem to arise in relation to her marriage.

Her daughter Zora is fiercely intellectual but is unable to reconcile this with personal beliefs, obsessing over her appearance and aspiring to patriarchal beauty standards. She also illustrates how women themselves are capable of perpetuating misogyny, labelling Victoria, the 18 year old who subscribes to patriarchal ideas of sex, a ‘slut’.

By the end of the book Kiki and Zora both seem to have undergone a change, learning something about themselves in the climax of events, and it is clear that they come out empowered.

Feminism is for Everybody exemplified many of the issues Smith raised, with individual chapters on a range of different topics. Amongst the more interesting things that hooks explores are ideas such as global feminism, the insights that lesbian women offered to feminism, and the damage that women can do through exacerbating patriarchal structures, namely when it comes to violence against children.

I am so glad I read these books because they helped me to see things from different perspectives to my own. They also helped me to uncover some of the patriarchal values and standards which I have internalised, and by identifying these hardwired issues, I hope I can challenge them in the long run.

Review: Stay With Me

baileys-logo5 stars

Stay With Me tells the emotional story of the pressures society places upon women around motherhood and one woman’s desperate struggle to find her identity when all she wants to be is a mother.

Yejide desperately wants a baby, however her and her husband Akin are yet to conceive. Facing the pressures of Nigerian culture which values motherhood and offspring highly, the couple are forced to accept the polygamy which Yejide’s mother-in-law forces them into. Yejide is desperate to conceive, delving into superstition as she begins to clutch at staws.  Either due to unfortunate coincidence or the pressure placed upon her, Yejide develops from a ghost pregnancy, threatening to break her marriage apart.

What ensues is a tale of betrayal, deception, scandal and loss much darker than you would have ever expected. The novel is told from the perspectives of both Yejide and Akin as they fight to form a family and then literally fight to keep their family alive. It is also set against a backdrop of political unrest, which mirrors the tense atmosphere of the novel, up until the parallel climax  of both the context and storyline. Alongside its use as a literary device this also serves to ground the novel in a real sense of time and place.

The story is difficult and heart-wrenching. Seeing both perspectives complicates where your sympathies lie and all of the characters are at fault. Notably Yejide is not always sympathetic and likeable – but this was a good decision, as it made her far more real and relatable, as she struggles to come to terms with her identity and relationship to motherhood in a culture which places mothers on a pedestal and shuns women who cannot meet this standard.

The book was compelling and exquisitely written, making it emotive, frustrating and ultimately heart-breaking. If this is Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, then surely there can only be better to come from such an exciting new author.

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Feminist February – Week 2

In case you missed it, I have decided to spend February reading exclusively on feminism! Check out the books I aim to read and the reasons behind my Feminist February Challenge

The second week of the challenge was a lot slower than the first. I should have rocketed through the next few books on the list as they were so short but unfortunately life got the better of me this week. On the plus side I finished two books which made another great pair, as well as starting two seemingly different books without realising that they actually had a similar theme.

Genre Bending

My first book of the week was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, a series of short stories which rework well known fairytales. These stories are often pinpointed as feminist due to advocating female agency, and dealing frankly with, and embracing, female sexuality. The stories presented show a range of women from heroines to victims, including women who openly undergo sexual awakenings and come to terms with their bodies. Many stories, for example those based around Beauty and the Beast or Red Riding Hood, use transitional states to explore the significance of the body in female sexual identities.

I decided to read a graphic novel alongside The Bloody Chamber for the way it deals with genre; Ms Marvel reworks conventions of superhero genre. Kamala Khan is the first female Muslim lead of her own comic. Her origin story follows the typical trajectory of feeling at odds with the world and so assuming a superhero identity and larger purpose. She discovers the ability to shapeshift and initially starts to save people in the guise of her hero Captain Marvel. However, rather than hiding behind a blonde Captain Marvel – which she could do if she desired, she chooses to embrace her Muslim identity, with a costume based upon the traditional ‘salwar kameez’ . As in Carter’s stories, transitional states become a symbol of Kamala’s struggles as unlike her hero, her super-power is to shape-shift. This also breaks typical conventions of idealised and sexualised female bodies in the genre, as she is often depicted disproportionately and she can manipulate and use her body the way she wants to.

Reclaiming ‘Bad’

The next two books I have started Bad Girls Throughout History and Bad Feminist are both non-fiction. The first is an illustrated compendium of the stories of 100 remarkable women who changed the world, while the latter is a series of essays by Roxane Gay. Both reclaim the word ‘bad’: Ann Shen looks at how all of these women broke rules and pushed boundaries to make change, while Roxane Gay uses it in acceptance of the fact that there is no one perfect form of feminism. Either way these books make being ‘bad’ not so bad after all.

I’ll be ploughing on with these books over the next week and hopefully also starting On Beauty to complete my original list. Stay tuned!

Feminist February – Week 1

In case you missed it, I have decided to spend February reading exclusively on feminism! Check out the books I aim to read and the reasons behind my Feminist February Challenge

The first seven days of this challenge have been incredibly productive! A work trip away gave me long train journeys with plenty of uninterrupted reading time so I ploughed through The Handmaid’s Tale in just two days – obviously the fact that it was an incredible book spurred me on!

After this I had to insert another book into my original list as I was coincidentally approved for an ARC from NetGalley. The book was Stay With Me by Ayobame Adebayo, and I am so glad I got this because it was perfect for my challenge and such a wonderful read. The novel deals with a Nigerian couple who have not yet had children, and they have to deal with a culture which values children and motherhood so highly that it endorses polygamy as a means for producing more children, as well as their own issues around this.

The exploration of motherhood and pregnancy was wonderful to compare to the themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and in some respects it illustrated show these dystopian themes operate in real societies. You can’t help but wonder if Yejide’s life and marriage may have been a lot happier if she did not feel so pressured to become pregnant. In Atwood’s novel, abortion is forbidden as bearing children is the prime goal of the handmaids, however in Yejide’s culture abortion is never even mentioned – pregnancy and motherhood is valued so highly that it never even comes in to play.

I found both of these books absolutely heartbreaking – I did actually cry at both. The way they deal with questions of purpose and identity around motherhood, and parenthood, is incredibly interesting and it is something that women all have to deal with on a personal level. It is also something which is becoming more and more fraught in the push for gender equality, just look at conversations about shared parental leave and maternity as an issue in the gender pay gap, never mind age-old debates over custody and traditional roles.

I really loved the fact that the two books so coincidentally complimented each other; it definitely made me think about the subjects they dealt with in a lot more depth. I think I may continue to pair up interesting combinations for this very reason.

My next book, which I am already halfway through, is The Bloody Chamber, and since I knew I would never just stick to my original list I think I may add in the graphic novel Ms Marvel, which is currently sat on my shelf. Ms Marvel the first Muslim superhero to headline her own book, and the team behind her consists of two women, so like The Bloody Chamber, this graphic novel is redefining a traditionally male and patriarchal genre, meaning they could be another interesting pair!

Feminist February – a reading challenge

The past week has undone decades worth of progress for women and minorities’ rights. It is devastating to watch this happen in the name of democracy, but on a more positive note there has been unity across the world as people have come together to protest these injustices. First, we saw the record-breaking Women’s March protest, beginning in DC with sister marches across the globe. And just this weekend we have seen people unite in protest against orders to ban those from seven Muslim majority countries, preventing not only refugees, but those with the legal right to live in the US, including some high-profile figures, such as the Oscar nominated director Asghar Farhadi and Olympian Mo Farah, from entering the country. Many are viewing this as the first step towards a Muslim Ban which seems likely with the actions taken by the new President.

I fully support these protests and am disgusted by the actions that the President has taken.  As a UK citizen, there is sadly not much I can do politically (if I was a US citizen I would be penning letters to my representatives rather than writing this blog post). However, I can do what I do best: reading.

This is why I have decided to do a Feminist February reading challenge. The idea came around when I realised that most of the books on my immediate TBR and planned reading for February were must-read feminist books. This realisation came around the Women’s March and so I decided to cultivate this into a list which could be made into a more substantial challenge.

The point is to read a range of books which are not only feminist, but intersectional, to catch up on some of the classics I’ve never read, and learn more about the issues that are affecting women and minorities.

Without further ado here is the list of books I have picked:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale

I’m actually ashamed that I’ve never read this and now is a more important time than ever: one of the best signs from the women’s march read ‘Make Margaret Atwood fiction again’ and was based on the dystopian vision offered in this book

  1. The Bloody Chamber

Again one that I never read but should have. I love fairy-tales but they are inherently patriarchal, and here Carter turns tradition on its head to bring us a better representation.

  1. On Beauty

Another author I haven’t read but should have* and I think the US/UK setting of this one as well as the explorations of race and politics will be very interesting in today’s political climate.

  1. Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Women Who Changed the World

Just released last year I feel like this is just the book I need right now. Much like my literary education, my history was all about Western, white men. This wonderfully illustrated non-fiction work features a range of women who deserve to be in the history books.

  1. Bad Feminist

I started reading this for my dissertation research last year and, as the deadline crept closer, never finished. I loved Roxane Gay’s exploration of feminist issues and am keen to return to this.

* this challenge is sadly illustrating that throughout two literature degrees I read books largely by straight, white men.

I have tried to cover a range of voices, ensuring that the list is not simply white, heterosexual women. This list is also just the starting point – I have a backup list to tackle if I finish these early and will post updates as I go on.

I hope that the very least this challenge achieves is for me to learn something new. I would love it far more if other people wanted to get on board too. If you fancy joining in let me know your lists, you can comment here or tweet them to me @ellenorange and I look forward to seeing your lists!

Update: You can check out my progress week by week:

Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 , Week 4

You can also see my final thoughts in Feminist February – Round Up