Tonight is the inaugural meeting of the Classic Feminist Book Club. We’re reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and I can’t wait to hear the thoughts and reactions of the club members to the text. Below are my thoughts on why a Classic Feminist Lit Book Club is exactly what we need right now…
Feminism and gender equality are often seen as yesterdays issue, not pressing in the same way as say racism or poverty are.
Something in our psyche has us looking anxiously over our shoulders, particularly at the second wave feminists, a little perhaps as we might at a batty old aunt. We worry about the appropriateness of the term feminism – hasn’t it been outed, especially of late, as being something of a white middle class club, as much a tool of oppression as one of liberation?
And, embarrassingly, some of those old aunts are still saying politically challenging things about, for example, transgender people. Can we then in all honesty really afford to invest the precious little time and energy we have in revisiting their texts, seeing what they had to say? After all it might’ve been relevant then in the 1960s or 70s but it’s dated, out-moded, irrelevant in todays society…isn’t it?
Firstly we need to recognize that we are inescapably part of patriarchy – by which I mean our thoughts, words and actions are soaked to their very core in patriarchal oppression. Being able to undo our part in it without support is like asking a fish to step out of water and exist on land. It isn’t possible. The world of the fish is constrained, limited, boundaried by the water. It is so the fish believes, at this stage of its evolution however the only viable option for its ongoing physical survival. The fish will not therefore opt for a land and oxygen based life (even if it could conceive of such a thing) readily – no matter how many bikes you offer it.
Our reactions to terms such as feminism, to feminists of older generations, to what they have to say are affected therefore by the patriarchal waters we swim in. As the Black Lives Matter movement has enabled us to see – we are all the oppressors and our internalised oppressor is perhaps the most powerful one of all. That isn’t just true in terms of racial inequality, it is also true in terms of gender inequality.
For womxn – of all colours and creeds – we are oppressing ourselves and each other, however unconsciously. Including by excommunicating those ‘batty old aunts’ from our lives. Once we clear the hurdle of whether we’re comfortable calling ourselves feminist, we then have to face the reality that even the most strident among us have probably not read all (or any) of Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunach, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. All feminist classics. All potential gateways to helping us uncover the patriarchal frame we exist within.
Reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a couple of years ago when pregnant with my son, I found myself horrified at how much I identified with the stories of the women within its pages. Stories that had been collected some 50 or 60 years ago. ‘Have we really not moved on since then in how we live our lives?’ I found myself thinking.
It reminded me how emotional, grief stricken even, I felt with the advent of the #metoo movement. Story after story of woman being used and abused by men in power as a way of maintaining and reaffirming that power. I felt utterly beached and immobilized by the sickening realization that the stuff I’d been saying at university 20 years ago was still relevant. This despite being told to calm down, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, equality is basically here, etc., at the time. Some of my grief was for allowing myself to become so blinkered in my own sheltered and privileged white, middle class (and now middle ageing) existence. It was a call to arms. Albeit one I’ve been slow to respond to.
And my response is to set up the Classic Feminist Lit Book Club. To offer a space for womxn to come together, read and respond in community to the wisdom of the women who went before. Rather than accept the assumption that our ‘eccentric’ forebears have nothing to share with us, we’re meeting these books with an openness of heart and head, looking at their words to find out what they can tell us about our lives today, what work they did that can move the work we are here to do for ourselves and future generations of womxn forward.
We’re starting with Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider and there’s not one amongst us who’ve read through even just a few of her pages who haven’t in some way been enlightened and even transformed by the power of her thought and the clarity of her expression on the subject.
Her words from essay ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women redefining difference’ express far better than mine ever could the importance of not turning our backs on the past, especially on the past lessons of our mothers – by which I mean any and all of the women who have gone before us. As Audre says:
“By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat it’s mistakes. The ‘generation gap’ is an important social tool for any repressive society. If younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the important question, ‘why’? This gives rise to historical amnesia that keeps us working to reinvent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread.”
So the book club is here to do that – prevent historical amnesia. Join hands with the sisterhood across the ages. Reject the need to reinvent the wheel.
If you haven’t read Lorde’s work, and even if you have zero interest in any of the other Classic Feminist Lit texts, then I beseech you to get your hands on a copy of Sister Outsider. There is nothing dated, outmoded or irrelevant within those pages. You and your daughters and their daughters will be grateful that you did.