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.


Did Cinderella Eat Your Daughter When You Weren’t Looking?

From Goodreads

Sigh, I need to be careful here, I know. I don’t have a daughter of my own nor will I have one any time soon. I only have my experience as a daughter myself, along with four years of women’s studies where I read books like this by the dozens – particularly ones that look at how fairy tale mythology operates in today’s culture. I wrote my thesis on that after all. It was even focused on Cinderella. My conclusions dealt with the idea that Cinderella is an ever-adaptable myth; whether you put her in science fiction or horror. She is also at her best when she is surrounded by strong support groups, often female, rather than isolated as she is often pictured. Even Disney’s Cinderella had her band of faithful animal friends to fall back on for a dress. So, I’d say I came to this particular examination of Cinderella and how she translates in the modern world “girlie culture” with a fairly solid background of knowledge.

In Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, I agree with the main thesis. I cannot argue against the fact that the way culture and society inundate girls from the second they leave the womb with conflicting messages of pink, princess, sex and more pink is a problem. However, that problem goes in both directions because don’t we inundate boys with black, blue and how to be a “real” man from the start as well? I’d say gender modeling hasn’t quite gotten to the equality stage we’d like and science, as Orenstein explains, may not ever let the sexes be entirely on the same footing because, like it or not, some of it is genetic. There are some things we do seem to be hardwired to do, to be. What made me anxious reading this book was how anxious that made Orenstein. Is it a bad thing if there are a few inherent differences? Shouldn’t we celebrate those as much as we do when we make a step forward in gender equality? Wouldn’t it be slightly boring if we were all the same?

I know, it bugs me that I was wondering that too. But Orenstein is anxious, worried, almost obsessed with the fact that she might be somehow either not raising her daughter anti-girlie or not raising her girlie enough. As I am not yet a parent, I have to ask – does everyone get this worried about this? As I thought about my own childhood, I tried to think about my parents and how they approached raising my sister and me, opposites from the day we were born. I come from a Disney family so the Disney Princesses were always there in some fashion. I had a Beauty and the Beast lunch box for years in elementary school, I saw all the movies when they came out, and we went to the parks all the time. I, however, wasn’t a kid when Disney Princesses was a brand, when parents spend fortunes to let their daughters go to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, when it seems like a family vacation to Walt Disney World is now somehow ruined because the little princess doesn’t get to have breakfast at the Castle with Cinderella.

Personally, I loathed wearing dresses as a kid (still do), had more guy friends than girls (that changed when I got to high school), could play tackle football with the best of them and wanted to be smart, brainy Belle when I grew up. The fact that she was a princess somehow didn’t really seem to register. She liked to read, she spoke her mind and she wasn’t afraid of the Beast. Oh, and I hated the color pink. I have made my peace with it over the years but I’d still pick blue over it any day of the week. My sister? Adores dressing up, loves pink, can ride any horse you put her on and will give you an opinion of any college basketball team in the country on demand. Now, I’d need to ask but I don’t think Mom and Dad ever fretted over whether to buy me the Barbie house versus a book nor do I think they worried when Ally discovered horses, makeup or declared her wish to become a sports broadcaster. I think they were just always present; paying attention, supporting us and letting us find our own way whether that was by decking out in pink and frills or enjoying earth tones and hiking boots.

And that brings me to my biggest issue with this book – I don’t think Orenstein needs to be that worried. She is ever present in her daughter’s life, a little girl who seems to have a healthy curiosity, who enjoyed Disney Princesses until she graduated to Wonder Woman and who sounds, quite frankly, that she is more aware of women stereotypes than I am. This is a little girl who asks questions and who has a mother informed, interested and open enough to answer and then see what her daughter does. Culture and society are not going to change any time soon. We still see trends today that we’ve seen from the 1950s. At the same time, there are new trends, trends yet to show themselves and trends we haven’t even thought of yet. Yes, Cinderella is always going to be there, be she in Ashenputtel, Cendrillon or Cindy garb, but I think the best way to deal with her is head on and see what happens. I think we may find our daughters just might surprise us. Or, maybe I’ll go into spasms of worry the second I have a baby daughter of my own but I think having a little more faith in ourselves as caretakers and our daughters as bright, intelligent women with equally strong women ahead and behind them will be the best cure to Cinderella fever we’ll ever find.