Off the Shelf

This review comes to GWP courtesy of Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage.  You can read more about Jenny’s work at

My Little Red Book
Edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
Twelve (Feb. 2009)

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I love the idea of it, women sharing stories about something that we’re not “supposed to” share stories about. The problem is that without stories from every corner of the globe, every generation, every rung of the socioeconomic ladder, and so on, what you end up with is redundancy.

And that is precisely the problem with Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s My Little Red Book, I’m afraid. The material would certainly be terrific for an article, preferably written by a remarkable writer gifted with profound insight. And there certainly are a few pieces that were wonderful, like Patty Marx’s curt “Can I Just Skip This Period?” and Ellen Devine’s raw and humorous “Hot Dog on a String.” But for the most part, the pieces were generally the same.


Courtesy of Feminist Review, I am excited to be able to continue the conversation on GWP about the relationship between feminism and religion. Last week, Allison McCarthy brought us an interview with Leora Tanenbaum, author of Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. Today Renee Leonowicz reviews Mary Henold’s Catholic and Feminist (UNC Press) and the rise of a feminist movement that originated within the Catholicism it hopes to change. –Kristen

It may be customary for some to place Catholic and feminist identities in opposition to each other, but Mary Henold’s illuminating and meticulous examination of the Catholic feminist movement unearths a critical link between feminist consciousness and activism, and Catholic tradition and conviction. Her comprehensive research illuminates an exhaustive timeline of the Catholic feminist movement that incorporates information gathered from texts and periodicals, a number of self-conducted interviews, and archival documents.

Henold traces the beginning of the feminist movement within the Catholic community to around the same time of the emergence of the larger women’s movement in the United States. She asserts, however, that religious women’s embrace of feminism was not applied to their faith as a mere reaction to the political climate at large. Henold argues that their feminism was actually propagated by their faith, and explores the inherently radical nature of Christianity through the actions of practicing feminist Catholics who declare social justice as a principle of their faith.

The American Catholic community underwent a radical reconstruction in the 1960s that brought blossoms of feminist consciousness into the church. This change led to a struggle to assert women’s autonomy and integrate progressive ambitions within the staunch conventionalism of the church’s hierarchy, and resulted in confusion, doubt, and subdued optimism in the 1970s. A fissure formed between women who were disenchanted with, and repudiating, the church, and those still hopeful for improvement. Henold chronicles the beginning of those divergent paths, which continue today.

In Catholic and Feminist, readers are introduced to the encapsulating sisterhood of religious women, theological scholars, and laywomen born of the prestigious and virile hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether ruminating on the sexist implications of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, demanding ordination through grassroots organizing, or marching against injustices alongside nonreligious activists, Catholic feminists have incorporated their zeal for revolutionary equality with their faith to challenge sexism and other forms of oppression within the church and society at large.

Review by Renee Leonowicz

Cross-posted from Feminist Review

In a happy arrangement with our friends over at the blog and editorial collective Feminist Review, GWP is pleased to start offering MORE feminist reviews, courtesy of crosspost!  Here is the first, a review of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), edited by Pamela Newkirk.  The review is penned by Brittany Shoot. Here we go…And a big fat shout out to Feminist Review!  –Deborah

While it would help to appreciate and admire the historical importance of preserved letters, you don’t have to be history buff or correspondence enthusiast to delight in Letters from Black America.  In a time of quickly typed emails and SMS, tangible letters hold weight for many who value thoughtful, deliberate communication. In this compendium, Pamela Newkirk skillfully compiles an assortment of missives from the past three centuries that shine a light on the humanity and continued struggles of ordinary and exceptional African American men and women.

Divided into seven sections, the collection of 200-plus letters examines family dynamics during and after slavery, education as a locus for social activism, and Black military service from the Civil War to Iraq. In everyday yet often poetic language, details are revealed about married couples separated by the slave trade and babies born without the presence of their fathers. Open letters previously published in newspapers are included to showcase a wide range of letter writing and how it can be used as a tool to promote public discourse. Prominent Black artists and academics correspond and share visions of hope. One man proposes marriage and later asks to set a date, confirming his lady’s affirmative answer, though the reader never knows what else was actually said.

While the collection does include an interesting cross-section of letter writers and receivers, many are notable figures in Black history, and many—like W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Derrick Bell Jr., and Booker T. Washington—have letters included in several sections. This is not without merit, but letters to and from prominent, highly educated Black leaders are more common than those passed between ordinary citizens. This does not diminish the significance of the selections. At times, it is rather helpful—if not necessary. The often-lengthy writings of Frederick Douglass, for example, comprise a significant part of the letters about politics and social justice. This is not a burden, but an opportunity. Many of these letters are not easily found, even in a time of ubiquitous technology and information. Each letter is introduced with background about the writer and recipient, and these small but critical details make Letters from Black America an incredible reference guide.

While many of the book’s sections are enthralling—love letters from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Coretta Scott (King) and a coming out letter from Joseph Beam to his parents are particularly noteworthy—the climax of the compilation is the third section, “Politics and Social Change.” Some of the most formative communication of our time is found here, including letters between Shirley Du Bois and Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin and Eldridge Cleaver, and Toni Morrison to then-Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

To address the changes in communication over time, the book ends with letters from “Across the Diaspora.” Communiqués between Pan-African leaders of the last hundred years, across oceans and decades, remind us that even as we move into a time when travel and the Internet make our work easier, we have come very far and yet have so very far to go.

–Brittany Shoot

(Crossposted at Feminist Review)

On the heels of Gwen and Tonni’s awesomely informative post-inaugural post on religion, I’m thrilled to bring you this Q&A by GWP reader-now-contributor Allison McCarthy, a graduate of Goucher College who was recently accepted into the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University.  Allison’s work has previously been published or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Baltimore Review, JMWW, Girlistic, Scribble, Dark Sky, and The Write-Side Up.  Winner of the 2007 Maryland Writers Association Short Works Contest, she is currently a features and profiles writer for ColorsNW.  Here she is!  -Deborah

Susan Campbell, 49, is a journalist for the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S. and author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.  The book, published by Beacon Press in January 2009, uses humor, history, and memory to great effect in relating the author’s personal evolution of faith and politics.  She currently lives in Connecticut with her family and sometimes feels mortified that she wrote a memoir, which she says is a “vain thing to do,” and then has to talk about the memoir, thus rendering her “doubly-vain.”  Campbell recently spoke to Girl With Pen about her experiences with writing, feminism, and her ever-contentious relationship with Christianity.

GWP: How did you come up with the title Dating Jesus?  Were there other working titles attached to this project?

SC: It went for a long time without a title at all – I’ve never been able to write a headline and I suck at titles.  I don’t get a lot of great thoughts in the middle of the night, but I woke up laughing because it was almost like I was dating a boyfriend that I didn’t like very much.  The Jesus I was introduced to as a girl wasn’t very human; he was very judgmental and unhappy, fairly sanitized, and in retrospect he mimicked a lot of the adults around me.  He wasn’t very radical at all and this is not a person I would get along with much as a friend, let alone a boyfriend or someone I would worship.  But I tried to hammer myself into that box, anyway.

GWP: You include a lot of footnotes, which seems to be very popular among post-modern memoirists.  What was the significance of this literary device in your novel?

SC: As a trained fundamentalist, you have to back up everything you say with Scripture.  You have to have supporting documentation.  I knew this was going to be read by people like me who want proof.  It became a verbal tic and I couldn’t quit doing it!  I thought I stole this technique from a memoir about the family who came up with Sweet and Low.  The footnotes in that book were often as funny as was what came in the text.  Originally, my intent was pure, but I found it was great fun to put these irreverent footnotes in.  I don’t think of myself as irreverent, but that’s what I’ve been told it is, so I’m going to stick with that.

GWP: In the book, you mention the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in criticizing the gendered roles of contemporary Christianity.  What other feminists influenced your eventual shift from fundamentalism?  Do you currently identify with any communities of feminism?

SC: When I was growing up, the only feminist I knew was Gloria Steinem and I only knew what I read in the media.  I was a fairly wide reader.  I eventually met her and tried on her aviator glasses.  I read Betty Freidan and as a young woman, I thought she made a lot of sense.  I knew enough at that age not to identify myself as a feminist because it was a dirty word.  The stereotype is so silly.  I studied Womanism at Hartford Seminary.  I think that some critics of mainstream feminists complained that it’s a movement for white, middle-class women and it overlooks the challenges faced by other demographics.  That’s a valid critique and I think even the early feminists who sprang from the abolitionist movement were women of leisure who had the time and money to devote to this very important cause, but were also looking particularly at their own lives and not necessarily to women on a different socioeconomic rung.  At this point, I don’t know what school of feminism I would say I belong to.  I’m a feminist, but I’m uniquely aware that the movement as a whole has sometimes not paid enough attention to everybody.  I think there have been time periods where a lot of people left off the bus.


Hello again, Girl w/Penners!  I’ve been sequestering myself this fall as I finish work on a book of my own but I am very glad to jump back into getting the word out about some of the amazing new books that explore the realities of contemporary women’s lives.

You know that feeling when you sense a new book, acquaintance, or connection is going to be deeply important to you and you’ve stumbled onto something that will be profoundly affecting? That’s how I felt when I first saw the title Mama, PhD— putting together two terms that aren’t usually seen in conjunction – which is, of course, the whole point of this collection. Its rich collection of essays explores how these two topics mesh (and more often crash and contort).  By the time I finished reading, my book had as many underlines, post-its and corner-turned-pages as any of my graduate school texts and I daresay had far greater an impact.

The contributors in this book, edited by Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans, break the seal of silence that suppresses the intense difficulties and institutionalized prejudice that academics who want to be more than just a “head on a stick” – but rather a whole person, including a maternal body – experience. And the pressures that result for women as their likely prime childbearing years meet squarely with the ticking of the tenure clock is intense.  The book’s contributors, from a range of academic fields and even generations, outline in often poignant and sometimes excruciating detail how they are forced to choose between career and family, or find creative, often exhausting, and most likely just plain lucky ways to tie the two together.


This morning, the debut of another of our new monthly columns, “Off the Shelf” by Elline Lipkin. Elline is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her first book, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland to receive the Kore Press First Book Award and was published in 2006. She’s currently working on a book about girls for Seal Press and will be a Visiting Scholar with the Center for Research on Women at UCLA in the fall. She recently taught at UC Berkeley where she was a Postdoctoral Scholar with the Beatrice Bain Research Group. And here she is! – GWP

Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul

Just six months ago I felt bombarded by my bedside stack of wedding guides. Each, under the guise of “must have to be happy on your Big Day,” proscribed things to wear, stuff to buy, favors to give, rituals to enact, details to watch, all apparently needed to fulfill the American wedding tradition. Without each one in place, they warned, The Wedding Dream just couldn’t be. Happily, I tossed most aside in favor of indiebride status (shared with you Deb! Mazel tov!), but the relentlessness of “to-dos,” all sheltered under the umbrella of “necessary for happiness,” was enough to make me question my every choice.

Moving quickly on to the next stage of later-in-life union, I was glad for journalist Pamela Paul’s preview warning about the lists of Stuff new parents are told they need — so I can know what not to do, or at least, to try to resist. The “new parents checklist” Paul is given before the birth of her first child starts her off on a consumer journey that exacerbates every anxiety, worry, and concern stewing about her impending parenthood.

In her new book Parenting, Inc., Paul fires back – by examining the multiple industries that launch both an avalanche of products at new parents (only sometimes aimed at their babies) and the landslide of guilt, obligation, and often enough, misinformation that accompanies these products. Paul outlines how confused, overwhelmed, and/or desperate parents feel and then how susceptible they become to overpriced wares and unnecessary “edutainment” programs that they’re told will give their babies a head start.

Paul’s research is thorough as she exposes the selling points of everything from Baby Einstein (experts can’t tell if a baby is really engaged or not and setting a tape on an endless loop often serves as a less guilt-inducing break for parents since their child is “learning”) to teaching signing to babies (results dubious) to exclusive NYC clubs tailored to well-heeled babies, nannies, and parents (tapping into peer pressure and celebrity allure). She visits “enrichment classes” that range from Little Maestros to Gymboree. It doesn’t take a critical eye to see most kids are actively disengaged and that often the only ones benefiting are the parents who are eager to be out of the house and connecting with each other.

Paul exposes the phalanx of consultants who stand at the ready to charge overstretched or just overly concerned parents, from sleep specialists to thumb-sucking experts to bike tutors to potty-training day programs. A through-line in the book is the loss of extended family for support and expertise and their replacement with a consumerist approach to parenting through a deluge of products each packaged with angst-inducing rhetoric: This will be the key to make your baby smarter, brighter, swifter in his or her head start to Harvard. Particularly revealing are Paul’s interviews with many of the business-savvy entrepreneurs (including some “mompreneurs”) who realized what a vulnerable and anxious customer the new parent can be and who are ready to market accordingly.

Paul’s writing is engaging, particularly as she candidly reveals her own needs and frustrations as a parent and partly researches the book while into her pregnancy with her second child. She uses her own experience as a measuring stick to look critically at what she finds.

One critique of the book is, in some sense, also its strength — its relentlessness. Paul reiterates the sheer velocity of products to buy, outsourced help to tap, and crushing sense of obligation that parents feel, but her point is made (and remade) as she debunks their necessity. There are “nameologists” who will provide naming packages, tot manner minders, expert baby-proofers; no corner of childhood is exempt from a product or expert to help a parent do it better. The sense of frenetic obligation is palpable.

After awhile, I would have found it more interesting to hear about alternatives – parents who resisted, consumer groups who called products out, DIY’ers who found a way around the monolith of consumer pressure. And while she makes it clear that the dilemma of too much stuff is a class-based issue, this seems a place to expand her argument. How many kids who had tutoring before age 2 really live up to the racing head start they were supposedly getting? How many geniuses came from humble beginnings where no educational accoutrements were available? And from what context do these parents feel “every opportunity” is truly necessary for a child?

The negative effects of “helicopter parents” are only touched on and I wondered from where and when did such class-based devotion to achievement spring? Towards the book’s end the text turns more reflective as Paul asks a range of experts what it even means to parent, never mind parent “well” and it’s a relief, finally, to tie together the economic and social forces that goad parents toward an ethos of inadequacy and a cycle of self-doubt that seem to make few happy, despite the consumerism that promises exactly that. A few startlingly refreshing voices practically sing through the madness, such as that of Elisa Sherona, a 63-year-old grandmother who raised five kids in the ’60s and ’70s and is unafraid to declare outright you just don’t need any of this stuff and questions how raising kids like this will affect them as adults. While the latter remains to be seen, at the book’s end Paul finally has determined that she doesn’t need these products or programs for her kids and that that doesn’t mean she’s a bad parent. She lets out a sigh of relief that echoes Sherona’s thoughts, and seems all the more relieved that she can finally release.

-Elline Lipkin

Heads up over here about another guest poster coming to you next week, one who I am thrilled (THRILLED!) to announce will be contributing regularly here at GWP with a column featuring reviews of newly released books, called “Off the Shelf.”

Elline Lipkin (pictured left) is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her first book, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland to receive the Kore Press First Book Award and was published in 2006. She is currently working on a book about girls for Seal Press and will be a Visiting Scholar with the Center for Research on Women at UCLA in the fall. She recently taught at UC Berkeley where she was a Postdoctoral Scholar with the Beatrice Bain Research Group.

Watch for Elline’s review next week of Pamela Paul’s latest,
Parenting, Inc, a book that investigates “the whirligig of marketing hype, peer pressure, and easy consumerism that spins parents into purchasing overpriced products and raising overprotected, overstimulated, and over-provided-for children.” Parents, yes, and especially, perhaps, mothers.

And with that, I am signing off for reals–to go get married!!!