Off the Shelf

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For those who care about the po’ biz, as the “business” side of the poetry world is sometimes called, the details of who gets published, how, when, and why, often seem to be of utmost significance. Although this might be a small subset, it’s heartening to see how many others are tracking and fighting for better gender parity within publishing now. And for those who like to dig into gender theory, especially the exploration of what Helene Cixous coined “l’ecriture feminine,” it’s gratifying to know these debates are still active. Finding a book that addresses all of these issues serves not only as an exemplar of hybridity but also as a daring act of new publishing practice.

Feminaissance: A Book of Tiny Revolts, edited by Christine Wertheim, just out from Les Figues Press, serves all these purposes. For one, it acts as a journal from the conference of similar name (Feminaissance: A Colloquium on Women, Writing, Experiments, and Feminism) held in 2007 at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. For another, it offers not only innovative writing from intriguing poets, but each offers commentary about what it means to be a woman writing now. Some essays grapple with Cixous’s idea of l’ecriture feminine and what it means to “write as a woman”; some offer a meta-level response through the work itself.

“Another anthology of women’s writing!” is how Wertheim wryly starts out her dedication, followed by the inevitable rhetorical question, “Don’t we live in a post-gendered, post-subjective age where isolating the work of specifically defined groups is outmoded?” Her answer comes in the book’s subtitle, taken from contributor Dodie Bellamy’s piece that “grand revolutions are passé” but, as Bellamy writes, “tiny revolts” are still necessary. Wertheim offers that this book is meant to serve as a “display of the many different avant-garde experimental, innovative and conceptual modes that women themselves conceive.” Issues explored include “whether there can be specifically ‘feminine’ forms of text; the economic position of women as writers in the academy and marketplace; mothers, real, symbolic, and imaginary; questions of aesthetics and representation in relation to women’s work” and more.

While all of these questions are vital, and the work of Les Figues is both exciting and crucial, the volume itself requires either a natural ADD-like ability to accrete meaning from scattered forms, or earnest retraining in how to read a text, an admirable challenge, but one that most readers are not likely to bother with. I applaud the subjects addressed in this volume, and the quality of deep thought that most (but not all) offer in their responses, but the material book’s construction, an act of innovative publishing, made it difficult to absorb the texts.

Each page in Feminaissance is divided into three sections, with the author identified in a tiny vertical byline in the page’s margins. Until I caught on to this, I kept trying to read down the page, puzzled by the glitches in sequence.  As the publishers and editor write in the forward this allows for “multiple reading strands on each page” and “uses the space of the page as a visual arena for a public conversation.” By allowing, as they write, for “multi-vocality” they enable different styles of reading, both discursive and narrative as well as, they write, and “a more poetic meditation.” I admire this, but also found it detracted from the power of the authors.

The contribution most compelling to me is one that rippled before the book came out, stirring new controversy into a sadly evergreen debate. The essay “Numbers Trouble” co-written by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young was published, post-conference, in the Chicago Review. Their essay was a response to a previous article (Jennifer Ashton’s “Our Bodies, Our Poems” published in American Literary History) which contended, (in brief summary), that gender parity is no longer an issue within publishing, writing programs, etc., and that commitment to a “notion of difference” is essentializing and regressive. Spahr and Young confront Ashton’s notions of parity by literally counting pages and the result is dismaying. Things are, in fact, worse than they thought in terms of female representation in literary journals. (Much of this debate, including Ashton’s rebuttal, is collected at this site by scrolling down to “Gender.”)

When they published their essay the poetry world bristled at claims of sexism. I find their research admirable and their outrage constrained, given their findings. The essay authored just by Spahr (“Gender Trouble” a nod to Judith Butler’s book) is also a lucidly sobering recounting of gender performance and politics inside the creative writing program Spahr attended from 1989-1995, with its concomitant issues of power around gender representation within academe, (“the heroic male literary tradition”) mentorship and publishing, and then, full circle, who gets hired to start the cycle over again. Spahr and Young’s essay canvasses the whole of the book, in a two-line couplet-like form that looks like a running headline. Intrigued, I paged onward almost as if gleaning a story from a flip book, but couldn’t take in their whole meaning until I printed the essay whole.

The mix of poems included is admirable, although some are less successful than others. I found Wanda Coleman’s poem “Rape” (which I heard her read at the LACE book party) to be baffling to comprehend in tone. The essay by poet Tracie Morris (“Embracing Form: Pedagogical Sketches of Black Women Students Influenced by Hip Hop”) was especially interesting for its intersectional address of race and gender, as well as interplay of music and poem, with reference to contemporary performing artists and her breakdown into “craft specifics.”  Some of the more innovative styles, such as work by publisher Vanessa Place, and certainly, editor Christine Wertheim’s visual poems, are an acquired taste, undoubtedly most appreciated by those fully engaged in avant-garde aesthetics. I had the pleasure of hearing Wertheim “read” one of her poems at the book’s debut and her vocalizations were astounding, but without this rendering, the poem’s dimensionality on the page loses a reverberation of meaning.

“Where are the Whitmans? The Steins?” asks Lidia Yuknavitch in an epigraph. This is a book ripe for a graduate school classroom and I wished I had a cohort of poets and academics to hash through it with, particularly to discuss the issues raised around gender identity, essentialism, and how l’ecriture feminine can be understood currently, nevermind is bounded by race, class, and other markers. It is successful in drawing attention to critical issues, both theoretical, aesthetic, and practical, about women’s writing. What it is not is easy to absorb, something I don’t think its editor or contributors will mind in the least.

This phrase, coined by Sharon Cameron for the title of her book about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles (the sewn bundles of folded poems found after her death) references Dickinson’s refusal to abide by the conventional poetic prosody of her time, and through her creation of the fascicles, her rejection of set sequencing of her work.

A little over a century later, New Yorker Rachel Lehmann-Haupt chronicles how contemporary women are eschewing linear expectations for family-building and creating innovative combinations of choice. The stakes couldn’t be more different, but this phrase (choosing not choosing) — about Dickinson’s deliberate resistance to restriction into categories — strangely fits as Lehmann-Haupt navigates the channels, islands, and walking-off-the-edge-of-known-territory-into-new-frontiers changes with reproductive options.

In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment, and Motherhood recounts Lehmann-Haupt’s reach toward motherhood.  She details her relationships, some pulsing with hope they will lead to a walk down the aisle, some clearly just had for fun, but all viewed through the lens of wanting a child and cognizant of her likely decline in ability and aching increase in awareness of these limits.  She interweaves personal narrative with factual research and first-hand interviews as she educates herself about freezing her eggs, freezing embryos, single motherhood, donor eggs, donor sperm, and the attendant issues each topic brings – ethical, scientific, financial – and how this clashes with the still-longed-for- “dream.” She explores the consequences of creating an “insta-family” as women (and some men interviewed) grapple with dating and mating under the pressures of time.

Her voice is engaging, although some of the boyfriends grow tiresome. Lehmann-Haupt thinks so too, hence the succession as she also winnows down to what she most wants.  I found the book most rewarding when she’s not recounting the quirks of her dates or her busy, jetsetting life, but rather working hard to compress the vagaries of all the reproductive options now available.  I wished she would linger longer on the knottier topics that these choices generate.

There is “Luc” who thoughtfully donates sperm and is thrilled to meet the woman who will receive it, yet who becomes far less enchanted when he learns she plans to offer up extra frozen embryos for “adoption” to other families he won’t have the chance to know.  Or the doctor who suggests that while reproductive technology can extend the fertility shelf life for many women (at great price), why not work to undermine the system that tells women they should focus on their careers and delay childbearing in sync with their male counterparts?  Or the 46-year-old woman who has twins through donor sperm and donor egg but admits she could have been just as happy never having kids.  I hoped Lehmann-Haupt would dig deeper into these contradictions, but the book skates back to her dating life and internal wrestling with risk, reality, and wistfulness.  When the scientific facts square off with ethics and are then pressed through the powerful feelings her interviewees express, Lehmann-Haupt’s acuity is at its best.

“I don’t like not getting what I want,” says one woman interviewed by Lehmann-Haupt about her decision to become a single mother by choice.  And she realizes she feels the same way too.  While “choice” has become a highly charged word for women, “options” and wanting to keep them open, seems far less loaded.  Lehmann-Haupt ultimately decides to freeze her eggs to keep her reproductive potential likely available for longer into the future, despite knowing the success rates with pregnancy from frozen eggs are still quite variable.  In this thoughtful book, Lehmann-Haupt grapples with what “having it all”– or at least trying to – means when modern technology can make the path to motherhood wider or longer, and realizes glad as she is for this, she also really wants a partner to travel beside her. “But nature, in the end, will decide whether I have children or not; science can go only so far,” she writes towards the book’s end.   Her story starts when Lehmann-Haupt is in her early 30s; she finishes it on the cusp of 40, older, wiser, and leavened with the sobering sagacity more knowledge often brings.

My thoughts have very much been with Girl w/Penner Alison Piepmeier these past few weeks, in part because of what she is going through as she wrote about here, and in part because I’ve so enjoyed reading her latest book, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism.  Published by NYU Press this past fall, it is a significant contribution, wonderfully well written.  Comprehensive in tracing the history of girls’ involvement with zines, Piepmeier shows the significance of how zines function as an activist, feminist space.  Through her analysis, Piepmeier offers that “considered collectively, zines are sites for the articulation of a vernacular third wave feminist theory.  Grrrl zines offer idiosyncratic, surprising, yet savvy and complex responses to the late twentieth-century incarnations of sexism, racism, and homophobia.”

Her meticulous research is organized into five chapters – each exploring an aspect of zines’ history and use. Piepmeier gives an overview of the legacy of “grrrl zines” and their use by third wavers, then moves into the special joys the materiality of zines offers, particularly in contrast to the virtual world.  She analyzes how zines explore gender expectations, sexuality, motherhood, and intersectional identities through writing and drawing about topics such as body image, naming and calling out injustice, struggles with relationships and sexuality, in addition to creating visions for the future.  Finally, she offers a reading of zines as a “public pedagogy of hope” considering how zines are spaces of activism and agents of change.

Piepmeier is adept at revealing the incredible uniqueness of the zine as an active space for women and girls — a locus to work out identity, talk back to the presumptions of the mainstream media, contest heteronormative representations, and unleash anger, frustration, and an urge for change.  Her reading of zines as material artifacts of a generation’s grappling with cultural and political ideology becomes fascinating as these handmade artifact accrue meaning collectively.

What becomes progressively more mesmerizing is the revelation of how many levels at which the zine can function.  A handmade object, its value is held, in part, from the intimacy of containing the literal impressions of the hand that made it, then sent through the mail (almost old-fashioned now) with personalized attention, to be read individually.  Piepmeier points out the zine’s foremother in the scrapbook, then second wave’s move to the mimeograph machine, as part of a legacy of spaces where women collect images, preserve thoughts, and by taking the reins of independent printing also unleash words that might not otherwise be said, often around sexual abuse or identity, or dialogues that deviate from an omnipresenent cultural script.  Particularly interesting is watching the progression of Bitch magazine from its original zine roots in 1996 to its present-day incarnation with a major distributor as it straddled “zine and magazine status.”

This open space — standing outside “traditional” publishing practices of the magazine aimed at the teen girl, releases in zinesters an empowering sense of being able to say whatever they want, and unmasks worlds of emotion, rhetorics of protest, and concern with the micropolitical that uniquely combine in this format.  As Piepmeier details, the intersection of text and image, and a consequent sense of invention allows zinesters to query a multiplicity of issues through use of “flux, contradiction, and fragmentation” as she writes, using the zine as a space to both experiment and to creatively play.

Also conveyed is the sense of deep satisfaction zine-makers feel with their creations; by constructing their zines so they construct their subjectivities. Piepmeier writes, “I suggest that the physical act of creating a zine locates zine creators in their bodies… and the act of reading does the same thing for the reader, and thus they are brought into an embodied community.”  Her reading of these zines makes visible the palimpsest zinesters are writing over a cultural preset of female identity as zinesters articulate their outlooks, wounds, and joys.  This deeply affecting work collectively yields a deep effect – just like Piepmeier’s important book.

When people solidly in middle age write memoirs most often they have had unusual lives.  Or — better yet — they’re about to flee from ordinariness into a major life change, or they’re writing about the aftershocks from a sudden jolt.  Melanie Gideon, in her memoir The Slippery Year, fits none of these categories. Half Armenian, half-Indian, she is the middle-class daughter of a pediatrician and a psychiatric nurse raised comfortably with three sisters in Rhode Island.  Now married with a 9-year-old child and settled in the Oakland Hills, she’s a mother in the carpool lane, a wife who resents her husband’s snoring, a reluctant member of a women-only dinner group who buckles under the pressure of what gourmet dish to bring.  And she’s floating in the middle of an existential “Is this all there is and how do you know?” fog that she can’t wipe out of her eyes.

Yet when she squints at the bleary outlines intense humor, sardonic wit, and an almost sentimental angst seeps out.  “I did not have cancer.  My parents had not abused me.  I was in a good marriage to a kind man,” writes Gideon in her introduction as an apologia for the sense of quotidian disappointment and dysphoric angst she constantly feels.  The “slip” that serves as a touchstone throughout the book is a sense of meaningfulness sliding out from under her guise as a modern-day mother entrapped with privilege and accomplishment.

This would be sobering, a kind of pre-“Richard Cory” glance to see what’s lurking inside the minivan if Gideon wasn’t so damn funny.  Blessed and cursed by the fact that she’s deeply aware, she first chronicled the burr of her husband’s impulse purchase of a camper in the New York Times’ Modern Love column and in this book she expands.  Quite literally.  She blows up details of her Bay area life to comic effect, and after letting the air out settles into an almost poetic realization of what her life really is.

In a hilarious passage she describes the tortoise-like pace of shoppers having a “lifestyle experience” at her local Trader Joe’s and how this irks her.  While walking fast in San Francisco she is stopped by someone proselytizing the “Slowmandments” as part of a goal to make San Francisco “an official Slow City.”  Gideon’s response is that the thought of San Francisco being any slower than it already was – “was terrifying.” She replies that he has clearly mistaken her for a native Californian but then feels guilty she’s rebuffed his message. At Chez Panisse in Berkeley she looks for secret messages in her menu since she is so bereft she’s not having an orgasmic food experience like everyone else.

“At forty-four, I feel the current of that river pulling at me,” Gideon writes, “I am one of six and a half billion people currently taking their turn at being alive on this planet” and then she riffs on soccer-parent politics. It’s too flip to call Gideon a postmodern Erma Bombeck – the world is too changed from that era, the jar between generations too rife. But her humor, sense of modern-day ennui, and intense wit settle into a Rothko-like layering where she stares into the lack and creates an atmosphere dark with depth and poignancy. Gideon wades around in the muck of her well-appointed life but messy psyche to create a likeable character grappling sharply with issues of purpose, how to both nurture and let go of her son, know if she’s in love enough, deal with their beloved dog’s remains, weigh risk over safety and feel guilty because she takes this measure.

One critique is that I wish Gideon could show more courage.  Also the author of two children’s books she’s obviously a talented writer who makes no mention of her ambitions.  She is willing to discount her strengths in a way that translates as honest and humble, but also unfairly self-deprecating. Striking is her willingness to indict her own misgivings and chronic worry which makes the moments of happiness, when they float by, the more startling. Her son, Ben, emerges as the book’s mini-Zen philosopher.  In response to hearing his mother explain, “The sky is falling,” he reframes this as “the sky is calling.”  Gideon’s devotion toward her son, and her sense of unbearable grief that he will one day grow up and leave (foreshadowed in a hysterical recollection of his week away at soccer camp) catch up all of the book’s themes in a Gordian Knot of incurable feeling.

“My friends and I search for our lost selves everywhere” she writes, “Where is that plucky girl, that lustful teenager, that optimistic young woman, that tenderhearted young mother?”  “Occasionally, if we are lucky,” she writes, “we catch a glimpse of the woman we are becoming… the one who has been aging gracefully inside of us. She is more than her body.  She is more than her face.” By making the book’s subtitle “a meditation on happily ever after” she outlays its thematic reach – to set thinking against fairy tale, set reality against wistfulness, and the flip of finding her younger self’s aspirations set against the woman she now is.

Powder book trailer

“The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again.”  This dazzling quote by Carole Maso serves as the epigraph to Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, and reflects one of the book’s central intentions — the power of using words to cast light on often dark subjects.  The phrase is also a motto of sorts for Kore Press, a literary press in Tucson, AZ deeply committed to publishing and promoting women authors.  At a time when lack of attention to female authors is a justifiably hot topic this book and Kore’s mission is as vital as ever.

The word “powder” evokes a range of nuances — face powder, baby powder, gun powder, the powdery sand of the desert, the rubbled powder left by a blast. As the editors point out, the word “POW” also lurks within.  This moving and deeply original collection is shadowed by the thought that any powder’s fine particles indicate disintegration. The contributors have sifted through the remains of their experiences to find the precious grains within. Powder offers rare insight into the lives of women in the military, acutely highlighting the tensions between speaking and silence, being female in a heavily masculinized realm, the fraught desire to serve one’s country while often marginalized by the very institution to which these women want to be loyal.

Admirably far-ranging in locations, time frames, and wars represented, the book’s rawest power comes from hearing the women’s voices in concert. Unusual within the genre of anthology, instead of a brief bio at the book’s end, each contributor receives a full page with a photo and a paragraph explaining her motivation for joining the military, what she gained or lost, and answers if she would serve again.  In correspondence with her creative work, these mini-autobiographies highlight the contrast between civilian and solider selves, revealing a compellingly reflective aftermath. Some recount horrors experienced, some moments of unexpected tenderness, some furor at the injustice they saw.  Dr. Donna Dean writes of enlisting before Vietnam when the only jobs open to women seemed “killingly boring” and her now unrelenting PTSD.  Some express motivation to use writing for therapeutic purposes and several have impressive MFA degrees.

The writing is viscerally felt, and has been receiving great attention, as contributors describe wartime horrors, both large and small, often what it is like to feel powerful then powerless in quick succession as they reveal the stringencies and rigor of the military, its entrenched sexism and often disdain for woman within its system. The book’s glossary decodes that “WM” stands for Women Marines, but more than one story reveals this is popularly defined as “Whatta Mistake” or “Wasted Money.” The tension between the obedience the military demands and the need to give voice to personal witness is strong.

In the brief chapter “Enemy in the Ranks” Christy L. Clothier gives a harrowing account of attempted rape, along with subsequent trial and the anguishing resistance to prosecution she encounters.  Her piece ends with her poignant recollection of her second day of basic training and how empowering it felt to scream, particularly after surviving domestic abuse as a military wife when she had learned “never to yell.” She writes, “it was the first time I had heard my voice sound strong.”  Her story is followed by the poem “Yes, Sir!” in which Elizabeth Keough McDonald writes about the uncomfortable feeling of being the only woman in a group enduring a sexual joke and consequent abuses of power.


Before I moved to Los Angeles a little over a year ago, I had never heard people speak with complete lack of irony about their television-watching habits, certainly never academics.  Among the revelations I’ve experienced since moving one of the biggest has been realizing how serious so many people are about what’s on the tube. In La-La Land, of course, because so many work within this industry.

What a pleasure to then discover Merri Lisa Johnson’s book Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts It in A Box with its feminist counter to what’s seen on the screen (see below).  The subtitle riffs off of one of Johnson’s previous books Jane Sexes It Up. This anthology covers many of the cable favorites from the past decade: The Sopranos, The L Word, Six Feet Under, and Queer as Folk, among others, and a show that has spawned its own subgenre of academic inquiry: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In her intro “Ladies Love Your Box: The Rhetoric of Pleasure and Danger in Feminist Television Studies,” Johnson harkens back to the now classic essay “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey and the complicated, gendered relationships long explored between pleasure and spectatorship.  Johnson compellingly outlines her own position in both settling on the couch for a night of cable and wrestling with the theoretical assumptions this act also contains, particularly as a third-wave feminist.  She considers how television is now embracing characters who can be identified along a range of sexual positions and feminist roles and the complicated relationship the viewer enters into by watching.  The book’s contributors explore how plotlines, characters, and thematic twists can be considered progressive as they look through the lens of feminist and queer theory and the scope of cultural studies.

In “Primetime Harem Fantasites: Marriage, Monogamy, and A Bit of Feminist Fanfiction on ABC’s The Bachelor” Katherine Frank offers analysis of the show and its popularity with the imagined alternative ending of a non-monogamous choice or critique of the strictures of heterosexual monogamy that celebrates the finding of “the One.”  Laura Stemple’s essay on “HBO’s OZ and the Fight Against Prisoner Rape: Chronicles from the Front Line” opens with a narrative about her work as former executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, “a national human rights organization working to end the sexual abuse of men, women, and youth behind bars.”  As the show OZ aired, Stemple finds herself stunned by the “gloves-off nature of OZ” with realistic depictions of the effects of prisoner rape, and the psychological dimension of abuse prisoners experience and how this brought victims forward to her center.  She notes that OZ‘s sixth and final season “ran in 2003, the same year in which the first federal legislation to address prisoner rape, The Prison Rape Elimination Act” was signed into law.

On a different note, in Candace Moore’s “Getting Wet: The Heteroflexibility of Showtime’s The L Word” she writes how the show accesses a range of methods to make “straight tourists into queer-friendly travelers” incorporating what she calls “the tourist gaze” sometimes by craftily using “immersion and distance” through camera work and the show’s visual rhetoric.   Cultivating “the tourist gaze,” Moore says, “in politically positive ways” the show moves along an axis between queer and straight viewers allowing for access of “multiple desires and sensibilities.”

On the cusp of big-movie release season, nevermind the plethora of holiday “specials,” Johnson’s book offers welcome relief as its astute critics offer analysis and provocative perspectives on television’s influences. On this holiday weekend, good feminist, media watching to all.

Not far into Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein’s book, Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, the word drive takes on new definition. Friends since they were 11, the duo spent summers together at Camp Kinderland, (where they return to teach a gender awareness workshop at their journey’s end). Aronowitz describes their mutual upbringing as one in which they incubated within the same “bubble: the liberal Jewish one that inhabits New York’s Upper West Side and Greenwich Village.” Post-college, over Bloody Marys and brunch, they hatch a plan to drive across America to try to understand what feminism means to twentysomethings outside this shell. After planning and saving, they set off for an odyssey of exploration, crashing on couches, interviewing in living rooms as well as in bars, doing their best to catch the flavor of whatever city they’re in and to measure how the word “feminist” translates.

Through series of snapshots – both visual and written – they tease out from their interviewees whether or not they comfortably embrace the word “feminist” as part of their self-definition. The book feels like a gloss – in the best sense – Bernstein’s photos are vivid and edgy as is each page’s sleek design. Aronowitz is responsible for the bulk of the writing and through her capsule write-ups she imbues mutable definitions into the word “feminist.”

The two discover a “badass feminist posse in Baton Rouge,” are so taken with the “fascinating women in Nashville,” they say on an extra day, dress up as frumpy second-wavers for some Halloween partying on the Las Vegas strip. They interview members of Big Star Burlesque, a plus-size dance troupe in Austin, chat with graduate students in San Diego and parse the contributions and detriments of “academic feminism,” learn from a young single mother on welfare tending bar in Sioux Falls, and bring some of their “guy friends” directly into the discussion in Kansas City. They drop acid in Abiquiu, follow a text to an afterhours “noise show” in Portland, feel surprised by Seattle’s “crunchy clean,” spend much of their holidays in New York City zigzagging across the boroughs to capture the rich communities of writers, artists, and activists they find.

The effect is one of pastiche, weaving, or braiding, all good second-wave tropes, but with the conversation focused on third-wave concerns. Aronowitz and Bernstein are transparent about their process throughout – and frank about what surprised them. Working out and through the interconnective fibers that bind generations of women is their work. They encounter women who mightily resist the word “feminist” due to generational preconceptions, but still desperately want gender injustice to end. Some embrace the word “humanist” or just want to be called an activist, minus any labels. When some women were confused by what the word “feminist” even meant, the two asked, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” or “What keeps you up nights?” often to a flood of response. The collective narrative picks up friction when Aronowitz and Bernstein openly grapple with women who say they plan to have a “traditional” marriage or eschew premarital sex or are ardently anti-choice. These moments are compelling as Aronowitz and Bernstein gamely push up against these comments, and fairly include them.

Interviews with second wave feminists leaven the book as the two ask what legacy has been handed down, and what these women hope for their generation. The two sit down with Erica Jong, Katha Pollitt (and her daughter), Michele Wallace, poets Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Anne Waldman, Starhawk, (among others), pay homage to Kathleen Hanna, and close the book with an interview with feminist artist Susan Bee Bernstein, Emma’s mother.

If I could wish for one change, it would be less breadth. Surveying with a wide lens is the point of their project – to collage viewpoints and show the multiplicity of meanings that inhabit the word “feminist.” Yet at times the interviewees’ comments are so brief they don’t allow meaning to accrete. The richest part of the book is its sheer panoply of voices and images, but more interstitial reflection would help frame the montage.

It is impossible to not commend the two for the ambitious scope of this project, to admire their commitment, and the sense of passion present in their quest. Sadly, it’s also impossible to not think about the losses that accompany the book – especially the resonating silence that surrounds losing the voice of a young feminist from the collective conversation. But the echo left is one of fervid dialogue – richly diverse – engaged in trying to create what changes lie ahead. If I could think of a topic that travels around the conversations of most women I know, the choice to have a child, and when, often lives pretty near the top of the list.  Following it comes a litany of concerns: how to juggle career, partnerhood, personal and professional ambitions, and more.  Elizabeth Gregory, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston, as well as Full Professor of English, tackles the topic of timing in Ready: Why Women are Embracing the New Later Motherhood with results that bring relief — both in the sense that there is good news to uncover amid all the swirling anxiety, and relief as the strong, clear reasons why many women choose to delay motherhood stand out against a grey fog of cultural pressure that warns against it.

Over two and a half years, Gregory interviews 113 women of diverse backgrounds (gay and straight as well as single and coupled) and focuses on the choices of women who become first-time mothers at age 35 or older.  Recognizing that “later” motherhood is nothing new, Gregory articulates how the difference is that women are now choosing to have first children, rather than last, at what is labeled “advanced maternal age.”  The choices that spur this change swim the  currents of women’s lives: the advent of birth control, and correspondingly, advances with fertility treatment; access to education and the desire for a career; refusal to marry just to gain a spouse, with instead the desire to wait for a peer relationship; commitment to financial security that eschews dependence on a partner.  The best news is how often the women interviewed express deep contentment with their paths.

Gregory’s statistics are compelling: “One of every 12 babies born to first-time mothers in 2006 was born to a woman 35 or older. In 1970, the figure was one in 100.”  Her research reflects the financial as well as emotional rewards of this choice.  She points out that “among full-time workers between 40 and 45 with professional degrees, those who had their first child at 25 made an average of $46,000, while those who waited until 35 made $79,000. A woman’s average long-term salary increases by 3 percent for each year she delays children.” Her exploration of the politics surrounding labor (during birth and other maternal work) and childcare issues continues on her blog “Domestic Product” and in several thought pieces available online.

Ready rounds a spectrum of reasons why women choose to delay, with many citing better emotional preparedness at later ages, as well as not wanting to rush new relationships, or women’s own enjoyment of their 20s and 30s, alongside the desire to be more financially powerful and advanced in their careers, hence better able to leverage work/family balance.  Women who come later to motherhood are more likely to have higher levels of education, more stable partnerships, and be in “peer marriages,” with active partners who commit equally to childcare. Most cheering is the overall positive sense of choice.


Somewhere within my past year’s reading the book Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age by Kathleen Sweeney came into my orbit.  It seemed ideal as I traced the history of girls onscreen, on television, and within other forms of media.  Yet I wish I could give Sweeney’s book a more enthusiastic thumbs up.  Listed as a “media artist and writer” Sweeney has taught at various colleges and been active in media training programs for girls.  Her book began as a “curatorial project of films and videos by teenage girls entitled ‘Reel Girls/Real Girls'” which premiered in San Francisco.

Sweeney casts a wide net and she ranges from exploration of the Riot Grrrl movement to a chapter called “Mean Girls in Ophelia Land” which tracks the rise and fall of the “mean girl” movement within popular writing as well as on screen.  She correctly identifies that for the most part the Teenage Girl, (as she capitalizes it) was a “passive helping noun linked to Daddies, Brothers, and Boyfriends,” until certain cultural zeitgeists began to shift. As cultural interest in girls gathered momentum, the growth of what Sweeney names a Girl Icon has grown.  Sweeney is right on point when she chases this emergence through the past almost 20 years.

The book moves at a fast clip – her quick categorizations of Neo-Lolitas, Career Girls, Geek Girls, Cyber Chicks, as well as Supernatural Girls, Amazons, and Brainiacs, among other labels, often struck me as too glib.  Her most intriguing point is what now defines an Icon in contemporary culture, as well as her reinsciption of the term into the word “Eye-con.”  Sweeney calls an “Eye-con” an “image scam that must be navigated and brought to awareness by analyzing and naming its syntax,” not unlike a stereotype.  Eye-cons do their most damaging work, she says, when viewers are unconscious of their influence.  Within the pantheon of the “Eye-con” is the “Girl-con” she says, which are “Icons of girlhood which posit girls as inevitable Victims.”  Examples are “anorexic adolescent models selling a form of starvation beauty.” Media literacy demands that viewers name the Girl-con and then look beyond to alternative role models as Sweeney says she wants to consider Girl Power Icons for the new millennium against a “backdrop of current and retro Girl Iconography.”  Her writing about visual representation and even semiotics is at its strongest when she is doing this kind of analysis.

Yet, while impressive in scope, the book’s very breadth also serves as its limitation as depth is sacrificed for a sweeping survey of the cultural landscape. Sweeney’s enthusiasm for her subject is most strongly felt when she describes her first-hand work with girls.  Her final chapter “Girls Make Movies: Out of the Mirror and Through the Lens” was the most intriguing to me.  Sweeney’s passion as an activist comes out as she describes some of the current programs working with girls to advocate media literacy and develop their skills.  She mentions Reel Grrls in Seattle, Wash., and GirlsFilmSchool in Santa Fe, N.M., among others.  The book’s list of resources is also wonderfully thorough. I suspect undergraduate students would enjoy having this book assigned for its abundance of popular culture references, generous use of chapter subheads and discrete categorizations.

By contrast, another book I came across during my research was Mary Celeste Kearney’s Girls Make Media which became indispensible to me for both its range and its depth.  Kearney is an academic, now tenured at UT-Austin and the book’s research is admirable.  Neatly divided into three sections “Contexts,” “Sites,” and “Texts” Kearney also traces girls’ historical participation with media.  She delves into girls’ entry into the web, also the impact of the Riot Grrrls, zine culture as well as independent filmmaking.  Her focus on what happens when girls take over media production is what makes this book compelling.  At the same time, she contextualizes the institutionalized practices that have keep girls from participating fully.

Particularly exposing is the deeply entrenched sexism in the field of filmmaking (the idea that cameras are too heavy for female techs to lug and “peer networks” or “structures of acquaintanceship” that boys use covertly, but effectively, advance their ambitions and deny girls access).  Kearney’s cataloging is vast and its impact is felt as she reveals just how much girls who make media have to say.  She includes writing about the need for single-sex media education but steps beyond it to show what girls really do when they’re given access to media tools.  Their work often centers around exploration of identity and re-inscription of messages about gender roles that crack open a universe of deeply felt and powerfully smart dialogues about what most girls experience but hadn’t yet had a place to express.

Some of the titles Kearney includes tell a whole story: films such as Taizet Hernandez’s “Are You a Boy or a Girl?” which explores “real-life gender-bending of a young female” or Hernandez’s film “We Love Our Lesbian Daughters,” which explores coming out experiences and Kearney says offers “A rare glimpse into the lives of queer young Latinas” but focuses on sexual identity over ethnic identity.  She groups films about sexual abuse such as “Love Shouldn’t Hurt” by Tamara Garcia or “It’s Never OK” by Arielle Davis, and includes a cache of films about the ubiquitous doll such as in Lillian Ripley’s “What if Barbie Had a Voice?” Just a fraction of other titles include: “Looks Like a Girl” which “broadens young lesbian representations beyond white, Anglo culture,” and “Body Image” by Mieko Krell, meant to “raise awareness about girls’ different relations to and strategies for negotiating dominant beauty standards.”

When exploring girls’ zines Kearney includes telling excerpts as this one from “Bikini Kill: A Color and Activity Book” about why female youth should enact social change: “To discuss in both literal and artistic ways those issues that’re really important to girls: naming these issues, specifically, validates their importance and other girls’ interest in them; reminds girls that they aren’t alone.  To make fun of and thus disrupt the powers that be.”  Even a smattering of the zine titles reads like a found poem: The Bad Girl Club, Bi-Girl World, Lezzie Smut, The Adventures of Baby Dyke, Geek the Girl, Angry Young Woman, Pretty in Punk, Housewife Turned Assassin, Angst Girl, Pixxiebitch, Ladies Homewrecking Journal, From the Pen of a Liberated Woman. The book’s website is also a wonderful resource as the power of the girls’ voices can be felt shouting through the distance.

We’re pleased to bring you another cross-post from our friends at Feminist Review. In this week’s edition, Sarah Eve Nichols-Fulghum reviews Michelle Goldberg’s The Means of Reproduction. –Kristen

In The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, author and investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg uses her abilities to uncover the truth about the reproductive rights (and lack thereof) for women around the world. As we grow into a global community, the politics of sex, child bearing, and child rearing are monumental issues that are overlooked for the convenience of those in power. This book explores the reality of the situation, including many real life accounts of the struggles faced by women in countries that span four continents.

Chapter one begins with a heartbreaking tale of the first victim of an abortion ban in Nicaragua. The country deemed that abortion in any form was illegal. Jazmina Bojorge began suffering a miscarriage and due to fear of legal repercussions the doctors, against their better judgment, gave her medicine to stop the labor because helping her with the miscarriage—that is, terminating the pregnancy—would have been illegal. The delay in action caused her to die. If the doctors could have performed medical assistance in ways that are associated with abortions, it would have saved Jazmina’s life.

The book goes into great detail about the various issues that surround women’s rights and the laws and culture that repress them. Topics include contraception, pregnancy and childbirth, AIDS, female circumcision, abortion, sex-selective abortion, rape, and the role of women in society. The political stances of both the Left and the Right are dissected with suggestions of what should be done and how women can stand strong together to fight against the torment we collectively endure.

The Means of Reproduction
is a hard hitting read. Goldberg opens the eyes of the reader to the unjust treatment of women due to reproduction. Feminist activists will be motivated to take stronger action after reading this book. Anyone else will be hit with the realization that they can no longer choose to be ignorant. The facts are stacked up, and it’s time to take action.

Review by Sarah Eve Nichols-Fulghum

(Crossposted at Feminist Review)