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The Salon: Reading Women

Reading Women

Stephanie Staal '93

Public Affairs, 2010, $15.99

As the mother of a toddler, Stephanie Staal ’93 found herself somewhat adrift. She’d stepped away from her busy career as a newspaper reporter to work from home as a freelance writer when she was pregnant and had just published her first book. When her daughter was a month old, Staal and her husband relocated from New York City to Annapolis, Maryland, to provide what they hoped would be a better environment for their daughter—unfortunately the move also proved to be isolating and alienating for the couple. In an effort to reconnect, Staal decided to return to Barnard and sit in on the “Feminist Texts” classes that made such a profound impact on her during her undergraduate years. The journey to revisit the work of writers such as Betty Friedan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Millett, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf is chronicled in her new book.

Do you think feminist texts tell us to question more?

I think having your first child can be a really vulnerable point for women. Suddenly it seems like all of these gender and cultural stereotypes kick in. For me, going back to the class was

a touchstone to help me remember that questioning mindset. It gave me the strength to challenge some of the expectations I felt were being imposed on me.

How did being around young, questioning minds influence you?

They brought such a great energy to the class. One thing I noticed that was so interesting to me is when I first took “Feminist Texts” as an undergraduate, it felt much more like everyone who was in the class was already very clearly a feminist. This time around there were certainly a lot of people like that, but there were also students who said, “I’m curious. I want to learn more. I haven’t really thought about this.” I loved the intellectual curiosity and openness. It was really moving for me to see a new generation of women getting excited by these ideas, debating them and giving their perspectives.

Do you see your book as “feminism live”—from theory to reality?

It’s definitely a personal book, so it’s very much central to my individual circumstances. Taking the course while at the same time figuring out these new roles of wife and mother was my way of trying to negotiate the line between theory and practice. I was immersing myself once again in the theory and seeing how it was stacking up against my real life. What things I could take into my real life and what things I couldn’t. But my goal with Reading Women was really to inspire other people to read these books and think about the issues they raise.

You wrote, “Mary Wollstonecraft is an imperfect heroine.” Isn’t that part of feminism—the willingness to be imperfect versus the notion of having to choose either career or motherhood in order to do one perfectly?

What does that even mean—to be the best at motherhood or your career? It’s such an empty term, and one that puts an inordinate amount of pressure on women. Not to mention that women have different economic realities or social pressures to deal with in making such a “choice.” Feminism provides us with the tools to break free from constraining cultural scripts, like the “supermom” or the “happy housewife,” to find our own individual course.

Is this your “unexpected story”?

We left Annapolis and moved back to New York. Reading about other women’s lives gave me the inspiration to make that change. It also allowed me to take on the roles of wife and mother in a way that felt more true to myself. Ultimately, taking “Feminist Texts” again reminded me of the passions I had as an undergraduate. After finishing the class I enrolled in law school, where I held several human rights internships and graduated last June.

- by Lois Elfman '80

Read an excerpt from the book Reading Women by Stephanie Staal ’93.