Two Essential Feminist Reads

Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” in The Nation

I remember sitting in my Craft of Memoir course in college, listening to a zealous-eyed classmate give a book report (is it possible we had book reports in college?). She was presenting a memoir by a female war photographer who’d amassed some crazy intense stories from all over the globe; ie, in the line of duty, she’d been raped multiple times, a fact by which the classmate presenter seemed particularly impressed. The memoir sounded interesting, a lot better than most being presented, but when my classmate shared the title I was immediately turned off. Shutterbabe? What the hell was that?

So it turns out that there was a reason for the vapid title and that the author shared my distaste. In this piece in The Nation, Deborah Copaken Kogan takes up arms with the pervasive sexism inherent in the literary/arts establishment by chronicling her own career, even though “I’ve been warned not to do this. It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you.”

Kogan’s career is like a cross between a female Wes Anderson character and a primer for Sexism in the Arts 101. This lady has been a war photographer, television producer, best-selling memoirist, rape survivor, traveler, mother and novelist. Kogan chronicles how, throughout all these incarnations, she has been told to keep quiet, to compromise some core part of her voice and self. The result:

I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it.

If Kogan comes across as having a chip on her shoulder, I suppose it’s for good reason. Of course the piece is only one perspective; of course Kogan has still chosen to participate in the system she criticizes; of course the critique she offers has become fashionable in and of itself. This is not an easy essay and I think that makes it all the more important to read. Kogan’s level of what-the-fuck-age inspires her to finally speak up despite the threat of backlash from the powers that be that she’s been warned of her whole career. And I’m glad she does; for us younger females struggling with the same issues, the same roadblocks and the same feelings, Kogan’s piece makes us feel less alone.- Lauren

Susan Faludi’s “Death of a Revolutionary” for The New Yorker

Before reading Susan Faludi’s epic profile of Shulamith Firestone and the movement she led, I had only the vaguest idea of who Firestone was. In this, I was like much of my generation–and apparently, much of Firestone’s generation as well. Even as they were radically challenging the status quo of both the dominant culture and the protest movements of the New Left, Firestone and the radical feminists had only fuzzy and haphazard notions of their predecessors. Barbara Mehrhof, who went with Firestone to the D.C. home of Alice Paul (the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment) recounted Paul pointing to a series of oil portraits of “formidable-looking women” and demanding the radical feminists identify them. They couldn’t. “How,” Mehrhof asked, “can we pass the torch when we don’t even know who we are?”

This question, fundamental and tragic, is at the heart of Faludi’s piece. Firestone’s struggle to free herself of the bounds of her Orthodox family and oppressive father; the radical feminists’ struggle for identity outside of the traditional and hierarchical class, family, and cultural structures; and the schizophrenia, literal and metaphorical, that both the woman and the movement suffered as a result of their unmoorings. The brilliance of Faludi’s work here is how it conveys the tragedy of that schizophrenia–in particular the paranoid “trashing” that destroyed radical feminist “sisters”–without ever losing respect for the radical feminist movement, and without diminishing the necessity of its struggles. It still amazes me how much we, women of my generation, take our rights for granted; Faludi references restaurants that refused to serve “unescorted” women, and quotes an early radical feminist saying, “that women would choose to get together to talk about their lives without any males present was radical…It freaked people out.” The queasy, dismissive attitude so many modern women take towards feminism forgets that there was a time when women would get up to speak about women’s rights only to face shouts of “Fuck her down a dark alley!” In this complacency, it is also easy to forget about the many contemporary assaults to the rights established by second-wave feminists.

But more than a picture of a movement, Faludi’s piece is a nuanced, heartbreaking portrait of a woman who, after inspiring a generation of women to search for themselves outside of the confining traditional roles reserved for them, wound up dying alone and isolated and receiving a traditional Orthodox burial. The second-wave “sisterhood,” once radical, gave Shulamith Firestone the community she’d never found in family; destroyed her; rebuilt her; and then slowly trickled away, leaving her again to her unmaking. Faludi’s is a story, personal and political, which should drive a small spur of guilt and compassion into the hearts of modern women, and make them reconsider their own troubled sisterhoods. —Sarah


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *