The books that made me a feminist were the books that got me into trouble. I lost a lover, alienated friends, angered students, got into arguments with teachers — all because of books that followed through on the clichés: something clicked, a light snapped on. But sometimes the click turns into a slammed door, and what we find in the bright light is something we hoped not to see.
When I was in college in the early 1970s, the women in my dorm were passing around books that nobody assigned in classes — Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973). We were fascinated with the anger of the narrators who — unlike the heroines of our reading lists (Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre), didn’t believe that marriage or love or even sex (Jong’s famous “zipless fuck”) was the answer to their seething discontent.
In an English class, a professor told us that novels about women ended with the main characters married or dead. That was the larger cultural sentiment about women, too. But this was also the era of free love and the birth control pill. The Bell Jar and Fear of Flying struck a chord because these heroines were caught up in mixed messages. One of my all-time favorite literary images is Plath’s alter-ego character Esther tossing designer clothes from a rooftop in Manhattan. The things in her life that were supposed to make her pretty and special instead were making her crazy. The arguments started when I went to graduate school and was told these books weren’t “real” literature.
The dismissive word “chicklit” hadn’t yet been coined, but bookstore shelves were quickly filling with novels by the likes of Marilynn Robinson and Marilyn French who didn’t think “married or dead” were the only two female plots. The fights were mostly with professors defending the canon against this new influx of books, but there were also male colleagues in the classes and workshops who disdained the novels and poems that were influenced by this women’s lib stuff. The argument I remember most vividly was about Adrienne Rich’s woman-centered poetry collection Dream of a Common Language (1978) which claims poetry itself as “the drive/to connect.” But the fight revealed huge disconnects about what we thought poetry was supposed to be and do. The writing workshop that night ended up at a bar, so the quarrel was fueled by alcoholic passion that opened deep wounds in friendships. “This book is politics, not poetry!” someone shouted. But many of us were beginning to figure out the politics of who-gets-published and what-gets-canonized, and we were starting to make connections.
A major turning point for me was Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975). It was the first time I was exposed to a big, systemic argument mapping out the relationships between bodies and power. The evidence was massive and persuasive — the uses of rape in wars, the dissociation of rape and sexual desire, the threat of rape as the policing of women’s activities. But when I gave my breathless account of this book to the man who was in my life at the time, I was met with stony silence, and I immediately saw the problem — not with the book but with the relationship, which ended soon.
A few years later, I was a lecturer at a university where courses in women’s studies were just starting up, and we were excitedly passing around Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (1978), a wild mix of manifesto, exorcism, and radical feminist philosophy. I remember the jolt of realizing history could be read through the lens of gender: why hadn’t I previously figured out the link between misogyny and the Salem witch trials? We invited Daly to give a campus lecture where she attacked and denounced every academic discipline and took questions only from women in the audience. Our male colleagues were appalled, and my friendship with two of those men, previously good-natured in our squabbles about feminism, never quite recovered from the bitterness of the ensuing argument.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), the anthology by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, was a stunning rebuke to the whiteness and heterosexism of what I had been calling sisterhood. I was teaching at a small Catholic college by then, and when I put novels by lesbians and women of color on my syllabi — Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Doris Grumbach’s Chamber Music (1979) – the backlash came not from colleagues but from students, who were often far more conservative than the Jesuits there. I don’t want to romanticize these conflicts. Scores of women faculty in the 1970s were denied tenure because these books and topics weren’t considered legitimate objects of study. I got off easy. And I’m humbly indebted to that previous generation of feminists, for whom books like these weren’t just trouble but isolation and the end of a career.
One of my favorite books of the past few years is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2013), her memoir about being in serious trouble and finding her way out of it by making a dangerous journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. An inexperienced hiker, she over-packed her backpack to the point that it weighed nearly as much as she did, so she had to ditch anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. One of those bare necessities was a copy of Rich’s Dream of a Common Language, lines of which she says she’d memorized so she could repeat them like incantations. Strayed was a women’s studies major in college, and that’s why she knew Rich’s poetry, so it’s worth thinking of the journey of that book long before it was tucked into Strayed’s backpack. Dream of a Common Language ends up on syllabi because of decades of political and academic struggles. For better and for worse, certain kinds of trouble have been institutionalized as academic disciplines, as we know too well in women’s studies. But those books haven’t lost their power to stop us in our tracks, or, as in the case of Strayed, keep us going.
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Linda Mizejewski is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. Her latest book is Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. This article was first published on Books Combined, a blog about the power of books, and is reproduced here with permission.