learning · reflection

Reading Women

This summer there has been a flurry of discussion surrounding the reading and reviewing of work by women. In response to poor percentages of publications on women’s work Gillian Jerome and a group of collaborators launched CWILA (more on that here). Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound has been writing about and reviewing women (and others) for years, and she’s launched a renewed effort on her blog. The discussion has had some detractors and some rockiness, but hey, at least there’s a renewed engagement with women’s writing happening in Canada.

 A few weeks ago Queyras asked people to post their favourite critical essay written by a woman. Though I can’t link to it here (the list was on her FB page) I can tell you that in a few hours it was long, diverse, and wholly exciting list. In the spirit of her generative question, the work that CWILA is doing, and the aim of this blog–that is of creating a space for discussion across genres and disciplines–what follows is a list of five influential texts written by women. Influential to whom? To me. To my reading and my intellectual development as a feminist literary and cultural scholar. I offer not so much an annotated bibliography as an eclectic biographical reading map. Please, if you’re so moved I would love it if you added a meaningful (for you) text written by a woman in the comments section. As a dear friend of mine said recently, we learn so much about one another when we talk about what we’ve read. I guess that’s what Adrienne Rich called re-vision in an other context, huh? In no particular order then:

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (published 1929, read 1999) I read this in my first feminist class in university. I was in my third year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I was running out of English credits to fill. My friend suggested I take this course. I read Room, and it was not love at first read. Quite the contrary. It is hard to admit this, but I found myself aggravated, impatient, and often bored. When I said as much in class and the professor asked my why I didn’t really have a good answer. “Woolf’s sentences are too long,” I offered, lamely. But what I meant was: I have never thought about masculine versus feminine syntax before. I had never really had to think about having space and time to read. Thinking about Woolf, thinking about the women who could afford to do all of these things, well, that meant thinking about the myriads of women who couldn’t. And can’t. Of course I knew this was the case, but for whatever reason, reading Virginia Woolf’s long sentences at that particular moment in my life in that classroom introduced to me a consideration of my own class that I had managed to sidestep for far too long.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. (published 1991, read 2001) The following semester I took a course on feminist political theory. It was single-handedly one of the most challenging courses in my undergraduate career. Collins’s text introduced to me the concept of intersectionality as a mode of thinking about the ways in which different kinds of oppression interlock. Intersectionality was one of the first theoretical concepts that I could see in the world as well as conceptualize. The discussions we had in that course specifically, but not only, in relation to Collins’s text (I read Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time that semester as well) nuanced both my thinking and my ability to situate myself in a larger, more complex dialogue about race, gender, sexuality, and class. This class also taught me to listen, to not take up space that wasn’t mine, and to consider coalition politics as a genuine possibility for feminist action.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. (published 1993, read 2005) When I was studying for my comprehensive examinations one of my PhD committee members suggested (read: insisted) that I read Phelan’s book. This text taught me the possibility of poetic AND theoretical writing that could be both complex in content and lucid in construction. Phelan writes about politics, contemporary events, documentary, and performance in this text. She draws from a vast range of theoreticians and knits together an ever-evolving argument about the politics of representation that is both theoretical and goose-bump-inducingly relevant in daily life.

Godard, Barbara. “Feminist Periodicals and the Production of Cultural Value: The Canadian Context.” (published 2002, read 2005) I came across Godard’s essay when I was working on my comprehensive exams as well. I’ve written a fairly lengthy introduction to it here.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. (published 2009, read 2010) I read Kamboureli’s text when I was in the first year of my contract at Dalhousie. I was feeling overwhelmed with all of those things one becomes overwhelmed with in a new job. I was also feeling stuck. Call is post-PhD paralysis. I needed something to jar me out of my habitual modes of thinking. Like Phelan’s text Kamboureli’s offered a rhizomatic, discursive, networked reading of a wide range of texts in my field. She foregrounded her own reading and thinking practice in such a way that I found myself both provoked and inspired. The texts were surprising, the critical analysis unpredictable in the best possible way. I finished the text feeling as though I had a new critic with whom to converse.

Well, there you go. This is a preliminary and partial list of formative reading moments in my life. What about y’all? Who inspires you and why?

3 thoughts on “Reading Women

  1. Thank you for sharing this list. I've read Virginia Woolf (and will again), but the rest of the works on this list are definitely ones I will add to my own. I especially want to read Patricia Hill Collins' Black Feminist Thought.

    hmmm, now, do I have anything to add?

    Judith Butler's Gender Trouble
    Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will
    Monique Wittig's The Straight Mind, The Category of Sex, Some Remarks on the Lesbian Body, and I think she also wrote something about coming out of the closet, which Judith Butler took up in her own work (I digress).
    Pretty much anything written by Luce Irigaray (i.e Speculum of the other woman; The sex which is not one; when our lips speak together).
    Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (or the sex which is not one).
    Patricia White's Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.

    oy . . . I broke my secret promise to myself to keep that list short :S I could go on, but I won't. Again, thank you so much for these recommended texts; exactly what I was looking for, too.


  2. oh dear . . . I forgot about the why:

    For the Queer and feminist theorists: they inspired me because they opened my eyes to the construction of gender, gender inequality, and systemic bias. For the French ones in particular, they inspire me to work on my language skills–which I will do, eventually, I promise myself. They also challenge the Anglo-centrism of my thought processes which opened my mind to analyses of structural issues (in both literary arguments, and social systems). :p


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