Going back to Women’s Studies 101

I stumbled into women’s studies unexpectedly as a minor in college. I had entered undergrad thinking I would become an English teacher. First semester of sophomore year, I started my first education class. I lasted a week. It became clear to me very quickly that teaching was not for me. I then started to panic. I needed to have four classes in the semester to keep my scholarship so I went scrambling to find a class to fill the gap. I didn’t have many to choose from that had room left. I stumbled across a class called Women’s Social Movements that had space. It would change the focus of my undergraduate studies. I have never worked harder in my life than I did for that class but it was worth it as it opened up a whole new realm of study for me that I’d only really been vaguely aware of.

Because of my stumbling into Women’s Studies, I didn’t take the intro to Women’s Studies (WS 101) until I was a junior. By then, I’d picked up bits and pieces of the theory along the way through other classes. I adored my 101 class though; digging into the theory and history of women was fascinating. Because of that, I looked forward to reading Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life in which Staal returns to her alma mater to re-take Barnard’s 101 equivalent, Fem Texts years after she left.

This book makes me wish I could re-take WS 101 again. Like most women’s studies classes, it was hard and I worked like a dog for it but I loved every minute of all the reading, response papers and class discussion prep. In reading Staal, I was able to remember all the wonderful texts that we discussed and looked at but also re-visit them and see if, like Staal found, my opinions had changed about them.

Staal not only retakes her Fem Texts class but she shares her life story while she does so, revisiting her parents’ divorce, her 20s in New York City in the mid-90s, getting married, having a daughter and then moving to the suburbs in quick succession and the stress that took on her and her husband. In re-visiting Fem Texts, Staal not only re-reads and re-examines her response to the texts, she’s also getting to see what the current generation of Barnard students think of them. I liked Staal a lot; she’s an engaging and honest writer. I am sure there are things she wanted to sugar coat a bit; her and her husband go through a rough patch over the book, but Staal never hides it or shys away from it. She was also a very self-aware writer which I think some authors in this kind of book are missing. I wanted to be in class with Staal and the students discussing Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir, Woolf, Friedan et al. The book made me reach for my worn copies on my shelves and glance through my margin notes from classes 10 years ago. I think the first wavers are still my favorite, the second wavers interesting and then third wave a bit too much for me (their theories fall into post modernism and I loathed that in my literature classes as well).

This book reminded me of all the best of women’s studies classes and why I loved them; the discussion, the ability to take a theory and edit it for my own life as needed and the ability to use it to relate the world I see around me. It was nice to have this trip down memory lane with such a great guide.

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