Adapted from Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

In the early 1990s, I graduated from Barnard College, a women’s college in New York City. As a woman born in the 70s, who came of age in the 80s, I entered adulthood with a certain set of expectations. The ideals of feminism were not so much a crescendo that crashed through my life, but rather the steady beat to which I grew up. To me, feminism was evolution, not revolution. Many of the achievements that women only a generation ago might have viewed as groundbreaking, I took for granted. Of course, women could be doctors and lawyers, run governments and corporations. In college, these assumptions accepted during my youth were emphasized, underlined, spoken aloud; indeed, attending a single-sex college, in which our gender was treated as a glory, the opening up of opportunities for women appeared not so much as options but mandates.

We were, all of us on that graduation day so many years ago, poised to take over the world.

Over 10 years later, after I had married and had my first child and moved from the city to the suburbs, I returned to Barnard to take the same Feminism 101 class that I had taken as a 19 year old.  It was a particular moment in my life when I was craving guidance, struggling to reconcile feminism with motherhood, and–because I have always been an avid reader–I turned to books.

 If reading is a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it is also a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience. To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit. The act of rereading, as I have learned over the years, is an especially revealing one in its capacity to conjure up our previous selves. So for two years I immersed myself in the feminist texts that shaped me as a young woman and wrote a book about the experience. On the last day of class, as my feet moved closer to the iron gates surrounding campus, memory took me back…

It is the day I graduated from college. And after three hours of creaky metal chairs, the four glasses of champagne, and countless congratulatory hugs, I am back in my dorm room. The windows are open, and the soft, cool breeze of spring floats in and out, like a whispered conversation. I’ve already returned my rented graduation gown, and my possessions are packed away into cardboard boxes neatly labeled with a black Sharpie. Only the posters remain, but I’m not yet ready to take them down; there’s something too stark and final about bare walls in an empty room. Instead, I perch on the windowsill, dragging heavily on a cigarette and watching the smoke disappear into the sky as I slowly exhale, waiting until only the ghost of the scent remains before I take another puff. I enjoy the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the impression of toughness it imparts when I’m in a crowd, but alone, in my room, the cigarette is just an excuse to make myself stop for a moment and breathe. The air smells of ash and the damp of rain.

From where I’m sitting, I can look down on leafy treetops, the whoosh of traffic on Broadway, the sparkle of the Hudson River, a whole magnificent spread of New York City in miniature, and I experience the particular vertigo that occurs when one is passing through a life event so significant that it’s impossible to absorb entirely right then and there; one has no choice but to fall into the feeling. Looking down, the wild chaos of the city seems suitably tamed, split into squares and grids—manageable, conquerable even.

Stubbing out my cigarette into a Diet Coke can, I take a deep breath; the future awaits me. Anxieties branch out in my mind, but they are hung with hopes and dreams. Ready to go now, I slide off the windowsill and begin peeling the posters from my walls, trying not to rip them, although, of course, I do. I mean to take one last look at the view, but before I know it, my father is calling from the elevator, telling me to hurry up because he’s double-parked. So, without a backward glance, I hurry from the room, my posters rolled up and awkwardly tucked under my arm, the door clicking shut behind me.

I used to believe I left a version of myself behind that day, up in that dorm room on the sixteenth floor. Whenever I thought of her, I would feel a loss, an emotional lightning bolt flashing in my mind’s eye, and I would lament her passing. 

In the intervening years since then, however, I have learned that history leaves a unique pattern of kisses and bruises on each of us, but many of the fundamental issues raised by being a woman remain the same. Regardless of the gaps in time, place, and circumstance, women across the ages have all had to negotiate the borders of their identities; in this, we find a common ground. Certainly, our responses may differ, but the intrinsic worth in reading and rereading feminist writings is that, in doing so, we are given the precious chance to compare and contrast other women’s lives with our own, to liberate our imaginations from the predictable, the conventional, and thus gain greater insight into the various scripts assigned to us by our particular generation. Feminism gives us room to tell the unexpected story, and this, perhaps, is its greatest gift.

The girl I once was and the woman I am today, I see now, are simply points on the same line; she is me, and I am her, and together, with the map laid out by other women, other lives, we will continue to trace our route, both forward and backward to where we are now.

Here, in this place.

My Top 20 Feminist Books:

Adam Eve and the Serpent
By: Elaine Pagels

Diary of Lady Murasaki
By: Murasaki Shikibu

A Vindication of the Rights of Women
By: Mary Wollstonecraft

The Yellow Wallpaper
By: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Awakening
By: Kate Chopin

A Room of One’s Own
By: Virginia Woolf

The Second Sex
By: Simone de Beauvoir

The Feminine Mystique
By: Betty Friedan

In a Different Voice
By: Carol Gilligan

Gender Trouble
By: Judith Butler

Sexual Politics
By: Kate Millett

Fear of Flying
By: Erica Jong

Passing
By: Nella Larsen

Sister Outsider
By: Audre Lorde

Ain’t I A Woman
By: bell hooks

Women Race & Class
By: Angela Davis

Of Woman Born
By: Adrienne Rich

Global Woman
By: Barbara Ehrenreich & Arlie Russell Hochschild

Female Chauvinist Pigs
By: Ariel Levy

Stephanie Staal
Stephanie Staal is an attorney, writer, and proud member of The Woolfer newsletter team. She is the author of two nonfiction books, The Love They Lost and Reading Women. Her articles, essays, and books have been featured in Time, People, The Washington Post, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire, Guernica, Bust, and Bitch, among other publications.

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