This spring and summer have been remarkable ones
for books about sex, gender and reproduction — the avid women’s issues
reader has been up to her ears in provocative feminist tomes.
What’s amazing about the books discussed
below is not just the powerful arguments they make individually, but
the way they together paint a complete picture of our culture wars at
home and abroad. That broad picture reveals the ugly truth that women’s
bodies remain battlegrounds for ideological struggles all over the world.
But there is something heartening in
the lifting of voices both within the books and by the authors themselves.
Robust, articulate, and multifaceted critique of patriarchy in its many
forms storming bookshelves all at once has to be a good sign.
The Purity Myth (Seal Press)
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Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth addresses
the virgin-whore dichotomy as it manifests itself in our modern lives.
Anyone who knows their basic feminist theory is aware that what are
purportedly opposite ends of the spectrum of women’s behavior – the
slut and the virgin – are actually two sides of the same coin. Both
the over-sexualization of girls and the obsession with their purity
reduces women to their bodies and sexuality. Whether – as Valenti relates
– we’re equating them to used gum in abstinence-only classes, urging
them to join the "modesty movement," or buying high heels
for "prostitots," we’re participating in the Purity Myth.
Valenti goes even further by reminding us that the losing-your-virginity/giving-it-up
terminology we use to describe first sexual encounters is dated and
demeaning, implying that being sexually untouched is something of great
What’s amazing about the publicity surrounding
Valenti’s book is how controversial her thesis remains. Today Show hosts
Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotbe responded to Valenti’s well-reasoned
arguments with trite platitudes
about the "consequences" of sex while "Observe and Report" demonstrated how far the rape culture Valenti describes has
permeated the mainstream. The American psyche seems unable to conceive
of a culture in which rejecting degrading objectification of women does
not mean corralling them into a chaste corner. Valenti argues powerfully
for a middle ground where women are "more than the sum of their
Quiverfull (Beacon Press)
If Valenti’s book explores the pervasive
myths and rotten information that dogs most American girls, Kathryn
Joyce’s Quiverfull examines the extreme margins of that spectrum,
in the midst of a home-schooling, housewife-centric culture of fundamentalist
Christianity. We know the Quiverfull advocates through their websites,
which advocate an extreme anti-abortion, anti-birth control mentality
and lifestyle. But Joyce goes far deeper. These aren’t just the tongue-speaking
evangelicals mocked by Borat and the culture at large, but also a growing
movement within the "reformed" Calvinist church (i.e some
mainline Protestant denominations unhappy with the egalitarianism in
their faiths). This movement emphasizes the ideals of "male headship"
and "wifely submission" claiming the belief that man is to
woman as Jesus is to his worshippers, a guide to be followed and a voice
to be heeded. Liberation through submission is the gospel for womanly
duty within this paradigm.
Quiverfull in some ways is reminiscent
of Jon Krakauer’s incredible Under the Banner of Heaven, in that
it spends time amongst the devotees of the Quiverfull doctrine and its
spiritual kin, depicting a different kind of "life on the edge."
Joyce documents the rivalries, feuds, excommunications, and sometimes
extreme poverty which families experience when they embrace Christian
Patriarchy, all evidence that makes its cult-like properties apparent.
But Joyce is not merely telling a story
that affects one group – her message is one of concern for all of us.
The Quiverfull movement is more than a cult on the sidelines. Its members
see their flocks of children as armies, crusaders against feminism,
secularism and hedonism. And perhaps more ominously, their numbers are
potent enough to effect political change. Some of those public policy
echoes are seen in Valenti’s book and Michelle Goldberg’s work, discussed
below. Joyce’s meticulously-researched, densely-packed book, then, is
not just an exploration but also a warning signal that this movement
should be ignored at our own peril.
The Means of Reproduction (Penguin
In The Means of Reproduction, Michelle
Goldberg’s takes the domestic ideological tussle Valenti and Joyce describe
and reveals how it affects policy abroad. This phenomenon is most obvious
in the flip-flopping reversals and reinstatements of the Global Gag
Rule, leading to dramatic shifts in care options for millions of women.
But The Means of Reproduction offers
us a detailed and much-needed history lesson as well. Goldberg opens
by describing the population control/family planning craze of the mid-century,
a drive to get birth control to developing nations that was nonpartisan
and, unfortunately, had a strong whiff of paternalism to it. Goldberg
shows us the feminist awakening led by women in the population movement
who felt that it simply wasn’t enough to provide women birth control
— giving them social equality had to be part of the deal.
And then of course, Goldberg takes us
through Reagan revolution, and rise of the religious right as we now
know it, an anti-abortion, anti-family planning juggernaut which made
the intra-arguments within the population movement pale in comparison
to the "culture wars." Suddenly, politicians like George Bush
Senior (once nicknamed "rubbers" due to his enthusiasm for
prophylactics, as Goldberg points out) forgot their eagerness for population
control in an effort to kowtow to the reactionary bible-waving crowd.
Goldberg also details the seminal victories
in this battle, including the famous 1994 Cairo and Beijing conferences,
at which family planning and women’s rights victories were won on paper.
But the reality on the ground failed to catch up, and some of the book’s
most heartbreaking passages describe the trials of women in countries
like Nicauragua where religious influence has curtailed abortion rights
– and the brave women activists fighting those restrictions.
Finally, Goldberg concisely and clearly
delineates the battle lines between "rights" and "rites."
Is exporting gender equality, particularly in terms of rituals like
female genital mutilation, a form of cultural imperialism? Or is it
a matter of basic human dignity? Goldberg argues the latter, but she
believes it’s crucial to stand in solidarity with women all over the
world waging local and internal struggles for bodily self-determination.
My Little Red Book (Twelve
On a lighter note, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
brings a universal female bodily experience out into the open with My
Little Red Book, an exploration of menstruation – particularly that
exciting, and/or traumatizing, first period. Her book takes the form
of a collection of short- to medium-length memories, poems, essays and
narratives. Julie at feministe has offered some legitimate criticisms
of the book, particularly
the overabundance of typically white, suburban and young stories in
However, there are some amazing variations
on the theme from remote places and long-ago times that are just fascinating
– from Kenya, China, Turkey and Ghana to the Comanche nation. There’s
a Holocaust story and a Cultural Revolution one. Despite such huge differences,
common themes do emerge within the stories: shame, shock, fear that
people will notice, and either intense bonding between women or longing
for such bonding. Women may talk about periods with each other, but
women’s bodies are still shameful, and menstruation particularly so.
This book aims to break the taboo, and it’s an admirable effort.
While the stories could have been culled
more selectively in order pack more of a punch, there is immense value
in this kind of exercise. As did "The Vagina Monologues,"
collections of first-person stories can go miles in de-stigmatizing
women’s bodies. This book works well as a gift for pubescent girls who
can learn that their feelings of relief, sadness, alienation or horror
are not abnormal. And I’d love to see it lying around coffee tables
in the direct view of men, who might be alienated or icked out by this
basic part of every woman’s life.
Front Lines: "Words of Choice" (The
Writer and Rewire blogger Cindy
Cooper’s "Words of Choice" weaves together humor, pathos,
and politics to paint a picture of reproductive rights in America. She
juxtaposes excerpts from a variety of different sources, personal and
political, public and private, that all illustrate the state of reproductive
freedom in our country. Some of the most notable moments come right
from the Roe vs. Wade decision, congressional testimony about
so-called partial birth abortion, an Onion parody, the word of a nurse
injured in a clinic bombing, poetry, songs and more. The tapestry woven
by these disparate excerpts is surprisingly complete, and may leave
the reader or viewer with a good deal of righteous anger towards anyone
who would use blanket laws to restrict something so personal and intense
as reproduction. In this way, it’s reminiscent of the 2007 anthology Choice,
except Cooper’s intentions are more defiantly (and refreshingly) political.
"Words of Choice" as worthwhile a play to read as it must
be to watch.
"Words of Choice" appears in
the anthology Front Lines edited by Alexis
Greene, and Shirley Lauro–all
of which is worth reading. Front Lines is a group of political
plays by American women, many of which got considerable media attention
when they were first staged ("The Exonerated" about wrongful
imprisonment and "No Child,’ which tackles education in particular).
It’s exciting to see so many of these plays together because they do
make a powerful point about creative women taking on a whole range of
issues, from domestic violence to war to legal injustice. Any lingering
stereotypes that political writing is a masculine realm are rendered
Supergirls Speak Out (Simon
Fighting back against the cult of overachievement
is an uphill endeavor. Books like Courtney E. Martin’s Perfect Girls,
Starving Daughters, which targeted the toll of perfectionism on
young women’s bodies, and Alexandra Robbins’s The Overachievers,
which followed high school students through the college application
process, were the vanguard of questioning whether all this impressive
output on the part of the millenials was healthy.
Liz Funk’s Supergirls Speak Out adds
to this conversation, pointing out the anxiety, body-image issues, and
low self-esteem that can accompany that drive towards surface perfection
in teen girls. Funk, herself only a senior in college, followed several
younger girls closely and details some quietly disturbing behavior in
her teen subjects – like obsessively rewriting paper drafts for endless
teacher approval when an A was already inevitable, or laying out coordinated
outfits and makeup palettes each night. Funk’s interest in pop culture–and
knowledge of the tv shows and music that make up her subjects’ frame
of references–is a key part of the book. She analyzes the conflicting
messages celebrity culture sends and how that can lead to a spiral of
confusion. Like My Little Red Book, Supergirls works particularly
well when targeted towards the girls it describes, as a way of preparing
young women for the issues they face or making them feel less alone.