Stephanie Staal grew up in a time and a place where the equality of the sexes was considered a given. The feminist literature she read as a college student simply served to reinforce what she already believed. But, she writes in her memoir Reading Women, more than a decade after finishing school she found herself struggling with the role of mother and wife. So she decided to return to college and read those feminist texts again. The second time around, Staal found that the same books spoke to her differently. I recently had a chance to talk with Staal about the feminist writers that she loves and what she believes they still have to teach us.
Most of us complain that there are so many books and so little time. But you devoted a year of your life to rereading. Why?
Obviously we can’t reread everything. But I think that for books that have really had an impact on you, it is very interesting to go back and reread them at a different point in your life. When I read “The Feminine Mystique” [by Betty Friedan] in college, I thought about it in kind of an intellectual way. But then to go back 10, 15 years later, and be at a different point in my life, I realized, I’m reading this completely in a different light, and that says a lot about where I am in my life and who I am and how things have changed. That’s a really interesting exploration that you can get through rereading. It’s almost like sparking an interior dialogue with yourself.
It seems that the first time you read these feminist texts they spoke to you on a theoretical level – and then later in a more practical way.
I think that has a lot to do with it. When you’re in college you’re young and you’re being introduced to a lot of these ideas for the first time. You’re in this place where you’re being bombarded with ideas. It’s one thing to read about the difficulties of balancing work and family when you’re 19 and just projecting, and another when you’re actually trying to do it.
One of the things that you learned from retaking this class is that you are an individual and your story is unique to you – and that’s all right. But are there also universal truths in these feminist texts, truths that might speak to any of us at any time?
What was surprising to me, going back, now being married and being a mother, was that I now saw that a lot of these tensions existed centuries ago: tensions between balancing a commitment to yourself and your own ambition and the responsibilities that you take up when you’re part of [a] social unit like the family.
That’s something Mary Wollstonecraft was dealing with in the 19th century. I found that kind of inspiring, actually, just because it was sort of a common thread that joined the generations of women.
We live in a society where we all have responsibilities to other people. It’s not as if we can ever say, “It’s all about me all the time.” It’s always about balancing things between self and other so it was really interesting to see how other women had navigated that in different times in history.
During your early years of motherhood – in the course of the time you narrate in this book – you and your husband decided to leave the suburbs and return to urban life in New York. Once back in the city, you immediately felt much happier as a young mother. Is it somehow easier to have a more liberated sense of motherhood in an urban setting?
Certainly there was a connection between my [rereading the feminist] texts and our decision [to move back to New York]. I don’t want to come down like, “People should all live in the city. The suburbs are stultifying.” Because I know a lot of people are happy in the suburbs But for me it was difficult.
Going back to the feminist texts really helped me because it made me realize, this [suburban model of motherhood] isn’t me and that’s OK. It helped me gain confidence. Even for people who are raised with feminism, and I certainly was, there’s something about that first time of becoming a mother that can make you really vulnerable if you don’t have the right support.
Do you have a favorite among the feminist writers?
Mary Wollstonecraft didn’t do much for me when I read her as an undergrad, but this time around I really loved reading her. On the flip side, in college I really loved Simone de Beauvoir, but then I had some problems rereading her. And I loved her so much when I was an undergrad!
I didn’t have a favorite because every author spoke to a different aspect of my experience. But I think I learned the most from rereading “The Feminine Mystique.” When I read it as an undergrad I was like “I’m never going to be this person! This is such an artifact.”
A lot of students in the class, that was the way that we approached it. And then it was such a shock [later] to find myself kind of identifying with [the struggling wives and mothers in “The Feminine Mystique”]. That was really interesting. It wasn’t my favorite book, but I think that I learned the most from it.
Your daughter is 9 now. Do you suppose that someday she will pick up these books and these feminist writers will speak to her?
I hope so! Even if one isn’t identifying personally with some of these books, it’s really interesting just to see the history of feminism and how it has progressed, how it’s evolved. Certainly there’s been a lot of tension within feminism itself and a lot of debate. It’s not one monolithic thing.
It’s a difficult culture for women to live in. There are a lot of mixed messages. There certainly were when I was growing up, too, and there are even more now.
I think there’s an incredible pressure on young women today to be perfect at everything. They have to excel in school, and they have to excel at looking “hot,” and they have to excel at their careers and at family life – it must be exhausting! What I think is so good about going back to these books is that, you know, I had sort of lost my feminist lens a bit, somewhere between college and becoming a parent. It had sort of slipped. So it was really great to go back and sort of look at the world again through this lens. That’s what I’d like to give to my daughter.