Women We Read This Week

1. Sarah Smarsh’s “How political nuance could save America” in The Guardian

If you have not been reading Sarah Smarsh, start ASAP. Allow me what could seem like hyperbolic gushing but in this case, I promise you, is not: Smarsh’s work is crucial to understanding how to heal political rifts and challenge Trump. She is thoughtful, empathetic, and incredibly smart. Writing from the perspective of a Midwesterner who grew up in a working class family, she smashes lazy myths about red and blue, rural and coastal, the elites and the masses.

Around the turn of the millennium, cable news networks came to a consensus that “red” meant Republican and “blue” meant Democrat. Since then, most of us have settled into a destructive habit of envisioning entire states as political monoliths, our country two disparate sociopolitical lands.

We’ve seen this sort of bifurcation myth before: during the civil war, northern whites were the good guys, southern whites the bad. In fact, most whites in the north were on the right side of history because of where they happened to live, and they too benefited from slavery and white supremacy.

Yet, with our notoriously short-term American political memory, we have no problem again constructing two pat sides: educated urban America and socially backwards “Trump country”.

2. Ariel Levy’s “Elizabeth Strout’s Long Homecoming” in The New Yorker

Oh, happy is the week when a powerful, badass woman writer profiles another powerful, badass woman writer in an epic longform piece. Levy explores Strout’s upbringing, writing career, and complicated relationship with her family and Maine. Kick back and revel in this, friends.

Strout dislikes it when people refer to her as a “Maine writer.” And yet, when asked, “What’s your relationship with Maine?” she replies, “That’s like asking me what’s my relationship with my own body. It’s just my DNA.” It took her decades to understand this. After law school, Strout quickly decided that she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all, and that she didn’t care if she ended up an aging, unpublished cocktail waitress: at least she would have spent her time writing. (“I took myself—secretly, secretly—very seriously!” Lucy Barton says in Strout’s novel. “I knew I was a writer.”) Strout barely published before she turned forty, except for a few stories in “obscure literary journals” and in magazines like Seventeen and Redbook. “It was a long haul,” she said. “I kept going, long past the point where it made sense.” Zarina told me, “I remember being really small and registering that she was miserable about it, and I was, like, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’ And, of course, she was, like, ‘Because I can’t.’ ”

3. Gail Sheehy’s “The Lioness in Winter” in Mother Jones

Extra goodness this week, because not only do we get a woman writer profiling another woman writer, we get a woman writer profiling a major woman politician. Sheehy takes an in-depth look at Dianne Feinstein’s childhood, political career, and current strategizing, delving into the complexities of the senator’s shifting positions and preoccupations throughout the years.

Feinstein turned 83 last summer. Her hair is still thick, her blue eyes penetrating, the toll of the years apparent in just a bit of unsteadiness in the knees. She is charming enough to often get people to say “yes” without asking. But, says one of her admirers, former CIA Director Leon Panetta, “if she suspects you’re not telling her the whole story, then she’ll become your enemy.”

People who know Feinstein say the election has been transformative for her. “Trump injects an entirely new level of outrage,” Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society and a longtime Feinstein friend, told me. With the president going after institutions that Feinstein has historically been aligned with—chief among them the intelligence establishment—Schell believes she will find a middle-of-the-road position increasingly untenable.

4. Bridget Huber’s “The Living Disappeared” in The California Sunday Magazine

This is a dramatic, gut-wrenching, in depth feat of reporting spanning from the rise of Argentina’s brutal dictatorship in the 1970s all the way up to the present. Huber does a masterful job weaving together the larger political narrative of the country’s transformations, the individual narrative of one family’s quest to find a missing child, and the collective narrative of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo searching for their disappeared. The story is an illuminating and disturbing example of the powers of obfuscation at work under a dictatorship and the untenable weight this obfuscation can place on families. I cried at the end and then wanted to read again.

Delia counted the days until Stella’s due date. Then she started looking for Martín, too. A neighbor whose own son was missing told her that searching mothers were meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The first time Delia went, there were just a handful of mothers, but their numbers multiplied each week. The women made head scarves from cloth diapers they’d saved from their children’s infancy and embroidered them with their missing sons’ and daughters’ names; their white kerchiefs would come to symbolize the search. Public assemblies were forbidden, so the women would make counter­clockwise laps around the plaza, sometimes prodded along by soldiers’ gun barrels. (Within a year, three of the mothers would disappear.) In the plaza, Delia met other women who were looking for pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law. Soon they were meeting in parks and coffee shops. They’d bring props like knitting or birthday gifts to pass themselves off as harmless grandmothers on a social call. But really they were plotting investigations. The women made the rounds at candy stores and orphanages and spied on families that might have acquired a child under murky circumstances. They gathered evidence and stuck it in tin cans that they buried in their gardens.

5. Gabrielle Bellot’s “A Life Altered by War and Transmuted into Fiction” in The New Yorker

A review of Pajtim Statovci’s novel My Cat Yugoslavia, this piece is also a beautifully written mini-essay on immigration and identity.

Perhaps this is the strange, phantasmal way the language of the past calls us from exile, the way the borderlands of an old identity may become less distinct the further we move away from it, without ever fully vanishing. We think we have left a world behind, only to realize we are still walking, somehow, along its edges. Like Statovci, I fled my country, not because of war but because of laws that criminalized being openly queer; as a trans woman, I fled, too, from the social appearance of a gender that did not define the contours of me, knowing, like Bekim, that something in me would shatter if I did not. I often feel that I’ve come to better understand both my former home and my former self by leaving each behind. And yet, when I look in my own mirror of the past, I still sometimes fear what I will see.

6. Monica Torres’s “People Are Using Gifs to Get Off” in Highstrung

A smart, short essay on the way gifs allow women in particular to claim, revisit, celebrate, and share their particular desires, subverting the narratives of the porn industry and highlighting specific moments that might otherwise be ignored. The writer explores an academic paper entitled “Giffing a fuck: Non-narrative pleasures in participatory porn cultures and female fandom”and a Tumblr entitled orgasmictipsforgirls, so really, you have to read. Go.

Holly has created highly-detailed guides on how to help women masturbate filled with supplemental gifs that act as useful, nonjudgmental visual aids. If I had known about all these ways I could hump myself to completion when I was a sexually frustrated teenager, I would’ve had my sexual awakening a lot sooner. And many other fans have been in that same boat based on the frequency readers ask Holly, “what’s an orgasm?”

Holly believes gifs can titillate women in ways that porn videos can’t: “[I]deas often fail at being good or believable or non-skeevy the whole way through (especially for women!) but most anything can be sexy for 2.2 seconds.”

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