Political Flavors

Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Reality Bites Back

Posted in Book Reviews on July 19th, 2012

I don’t often disclose that I can occasionally be found watching reality television. I first started watching Tool Academy because of this withering critique of it in Bitch Magazine, but somehow I stayed a loyal fan through all three seasons. And while I knew there was something disquieting about the show’s sexual politics and the cartoonish way race relations were portrayed I didn’t give it much more thought than a few eye rolls. I didn’t expect a sophisticated or egalitarian view or sex, gender or racial politics from a VH1 reality show, so I didn’t bother getting upset. But maybe I should have.

Jenn Pozner’s book Reality Bites Back breaks down the dismissive argument that “it’s just television.” She not only critiques the harmful sexist and racist (and classist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist…) messages perpetuated by reality television, but she explains why it’s profitable for these shows to be made (constant product placement, to the point of surreality) and how networks consider themselves beyond reproach.

The things Pozner uncovers are truly shocking, even for people who are generally grossed out by reality television. For example, the women who auditioned for “Joe Millionaire” didn’t think they were trying out to win a marriage proposal from a wealthy man. They were told that they were going to a casting call for a Real World meets Sex and the City in Paris show. Instead they wound up fodder for water cooler gossip and national mockery for being “gold diggers.” This is unconscionable.

All hope is not lost, and Pozner encourages readers to take action and let networks know what kinds of programming they find objectionable and why, and what they would like to see more of on television. There’s an extensive appendix of resources for would-be activists, and an accompanying website with even more information.

What I liked most about this book was that while the issues of sexist and racist messages in reality shows are taken seriously to task, there’s still a genuine appreciation for the medium of television. Pozner isn’t telling us to kill our televisions, just that we should expect better.

Book Review: The Baby Trap by Ellen Peck

Posted in Book Reviews on March 19th, 2012

My husband just turned 30, and I’m on my way there as well by the end of the year. Sometime during this decade we will probably decide to have children. People who are childfree remind me that this is not my only option, and I want to discern my own desires from the cultural and social pressures that surround me. In part, I have been reading up on the childfree movement. Several times, I heard mention of a book, “The Baby Trap” by Ellen Peck. It’s out of print, but available for free online in several formats.

Published in 1971 – it was one of the first books to advocate not having children as a valid option. For that reason, I understand why it’s considered a classic and revered by childfree people. However, the book is so incredibly sexist that I don’t understand why anyone would encourage women to read it today.

Peck’s argument about the cultural pressures on women to have babies and the vapid consumerism that is selling maternity as much as it’s selling toys and clothes is worthy of praise. It was groundbreaking. But in praising her for that, people seem to overlook the overarching theme and argument she relies most heavily on in her book – directed entirely at women – which is that if you have children, you won’t be able to spend all of your effort on pleasing your husband and he will stop loving you and divorce you.

Other arguments made in the book are about the cost of having children, financially, socially and medically to the parents – and also ecologically. In the 1970’s many people believed that the world was so overcrowded as to be headed for an epic disaster, and so I can forgive her alarmist rhetoric on that topic. Despite that, an ecological argument for not having children is still valid today.

In fact, I think any reason for not having children is valid. People who don’t want to be parents should not be parents. Whether they are concerned about climate change, want to travel or just plain don’t feel like it – I would never impose my opinion on any other person’s reproductive plans.

However, where Peck’s book disappoints me is where she veers off into implying that no one should have children (just as silly as saying everyone should) and that grown men are incapable of adjusting to fatherhood, which is why I found the entire book so distasteful.

Lori is thirty and looks eighteen. She’s fickle, irresponsible, and inclined to fly off to the Azores for weekends, not, usually, alone. She dates married men, because most of the men she knows are married.

The last time I saw her I asked if most of the married men who took her out had children. Her answer was immediate.

“Are you kidding? All of them. In fact, when they pull out the kids’ pictures at a cocktail party, I know they want to get serious for the evening. Lots of times it’s an unmistakable signal. Almost code for, ‘Look, I’m married, honey, I won’t fool you, but it’s just because of these kids; my wife means nothing to me.’

“Sure, it’s the guys with kids,” she continued; “the ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.”

The ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.

That’s not a typo. Peck restated that sentence for emphasis, hoping to make the readers’ blood run cold. She also had an annoying habit of calling women “girls” throughout the book.

In her chapter on the consumerism of modern parenting (probably the best in the book) she included this vignette:

And the salesman was approached by a distraught- looking man, whom I’d seen wandering around the store for some time, come to think of it. In a barely audible voice, and with nervous glances at the other girl and me, he asked the salesman for a “a . . . a . . . do you have … a … a breast pump?” His embarrassment had made the last two words shrill. He glanced over his shoulder at us again, then the salesman led him cheerfully down the aisle.

What was wrong? That man’s wife had evidently needed a breast pump; he’d gone to buy one for her. What was wrong with that, I asked myself. Well, the fact that he had seemed so nervous about it— embarrassed would be more the word— that was what was wrong with it. He looked like a twelve-year-old boy looks when his mother sends him to the drugstore for Kotex. And I think Philip Roth has described that feeling well.

Yes, because the character of Alexander Portnoy is to be taken as representative specimen of healthy male sexuality. Perhaps we should do a case study on Humbert Humbert and responsible step-parenting next?

I wanted to figure this out. Why does a boy or a man feel embarrassed or humiliated at having to buy a woman things like Kotex or a breast pump?


They’re accoutrements to female reproductive physiology. In asking a man to get them, is there kind of an implicit subjugation involved? Is there?

A psychologist I’d interviewed the day before, Nathaniel Branden, had said, “To the degree that aspects of reproduction are overemphasized, aspects of sexuality are de-emphasized.” Would that man, that night, see his wife’s breasts as, well, alluring or romantic?

There is no way to tell, of course. But it is possible that wife-as-babynurse is not at all the same as wife-mistress.

Apparently fatherhood is demeaning, subjugating and emasculating to men, and motherhood makes a woman lose all sex appeal forever and ever. That’s why no one ever has more than one child!

The book continues with a much more coherent analysis of media and cultural messages about parenting, and how these pressure people into making choices they otherwise might not have. But these chapters are also littered with anecdotes about how great it is to be child free because you can buy other things with your money and go on vacations. Apparently materialism is okay if it’s not related to parenting. There are several times where this is stated explicitly,

I freely admit that spending nearly all your money on clothes seems a bit unjustifiable in this troubled world. But I would defend her doing so for two reasons. First, I see nothing wrong with self-indulgence if it doesn’t have any negative social consequences for anybody else. (There are, by contrast, brands of self-indulgence that are destructive. In case it hasn’t come across, I think that indulging yourself with a large family is a destructive kind of self-indulgence. But the surface materialism of fashion, while it does nothing particularly good for the world, doesn’t really hurt anybody, either.)

Her environmental analysis is way off if she thinks that rampant consumerism of any kind is okay.

Chapter Six, “Husbands and Babies” is the one where the sexism is the most egregious.

[A] wife who has no children to preoccupy her time and attention can give that time and attention to her husband. She is more of an attentive companion and a loving woman than a mother-of- two-or-three has time to be. And her husband thrives on this attention.

Nearly every man wants this kind of attention from a woman. I don’t think many men have enthusiasm at the prospect of offspring.

The adult male, it would seem, who has a clear and confident grasp on the world and on his life wants to live that life himself, rather than spend most of it “watching his young grow up.”

Now, there are husbands who want their wives to stay home, be “domestic,” have children. In the opinion of therapist Helena Lopata, “Such a husband is either not very wise, or inwardly he does not love his wife very much. Let’s look at such a situation in real terms. He wants her confined to the home, while he is out in the world of work. He gives her limited and routine tasks while he is out growing, learning, creating, being challenged and stimulated by conditions of competition within his field. He is, by asking for such a situation, creating marital incompatibility: first, in terms of conversation; then sexually. And there is virtually no way around that. Such a husband, in long-range subconscious terms, is aiming toward the dissolution of his marriage, denying future possibilities of relating to his wife as a companion. These men, you see, do not feel comfortable with emotional closeness and intimacy. This is their way out.”

I know in the 70’s there weren’t mommy blogs and all, but I’m pretty sure women who were stay at home mothers did things other than stay indoors all day cleaning and changing diapers. And while I am not a psychologist, I doubt “becoming a father is a passive aggressive way to divorce your wife” and “men are emotional children who need their wives to mother them” makes any sense at all as generalizations.

The chapter continues, and Peck gives several examples of men angry that when they became fathers…they were no longer men without the responsibilities of fatherhood.

“I used to break my neck getting home,” a taxi driver in Dallas told me. “I knew just how to get every green light and make it home in fifteen minutes flat after my shift. We’d have a beer; we’d put the steaks on; we’d talk about the kooks that turned up that day… Or go to this bar a few blocks away for a nightcap and dance… It was great. All the guys thought I had the greatest wife around. Now, I get home to a kid screaming, and a wife who doesn’t notice if I’ve come in the door or not half the time, she’s that busy with the kid. I take the longest way around I can find.”

If anyone was reading this book did not know that having children means that you can’t just randomly go out drinking on weeknights, Peck has done a public service. But I think everyone else on the planet who isn’t that guy is left puzzled.

Peck goes on to talk about the financial stresses of having children, and the way it limits one’s career choices. Again, this is something that should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds.

Then there is a bit on how parents have less sex than they did beforehand. Again, it makes sense that this is a source of stress to parents, but the way Peck frames the argument – we should sympathize with men who divorce their wives for that reason, as if women who become mothers maliciously withhold sex by definition.

As a British husband who had just left his wife explained to me, “There were few occasions when we could be free of the babies’ needs. There were fewer occasions of sex, it was as simple as that. And therefore there were fewer occasions when everything went right and was fulfilling. This led to some trouble in other ways. It was simply not the same. It was not the marriage I had bargained for; she was not the wife she had been before, not responsive to me …”

As someone who is not a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the demands of taking care of an infant. But what did he expect to happen? That all of Peck’s empathy is with him, and not his wife who now must take care of the demands of parenthood entirely on her own is astounding.

The next chapter, about how women change after becoming mothers is not much kinder.

Since a mother is with a baby all day rather than with her husband, she is more aware of that baby’s needs than she is of her husband’s needs. She knows the baby’s schedule for feeding, changing, cuddling, and check-ups. How can she possibly know that her husband has had such a terrific strain at work today that he needs one hour of complete silence between 6 and 7 p.m. How can she know that he just lost an account at 3 p.m. and could really use a night out as an ego boost? The baby’s needs are simpler, and she’s in more direct touch with them, and the baby is small and helpless, so it’s almost inevitable that baby’s needs come first.

Or perhaps if the husband needs something from his wife, he can open his mouth and ask for it, given that he is a grown man, and not an infant?

A husband can see his wife’s devotion to the baby, and it’s pretty for a while. (Usually for at least one month.) His wife exhibits new qualities: concern; motherliness; responsibility; maturity.

But there’s a catch. These new qualities may not be adding on to the qualities that attracted him to his wife in the first place. They may be displacing those prior qualities: freedom; humor; impulsiveness; youth. Before a husband’s eyes, the girl he married gradually disappears and is just as gradually replaced, by a mother.

Peck continues on, with examples of more men cheating on their wives because they became mothers, seemingly seeking to validate the madonna/whore complex of every man who has ever had one. She does give examples though of women who cheat on her husbands out of boredom – but these have a much less understanding tone.

I know that this book was written a long time ago, and I tried not to come down too hard on it for being dated. I concede that at the time, academic feminism was in its infancy. I have mixed emotions about criticizing so harshly the work of a woman who put so much effort into her marriage only to get divorced anyway and die alone. But that does not make this book a good one, and I cannot understand why childfree activists continue to recommend this book when so much other more egalitarian and coherent writing has been done since. There have been studies that marital happiness decreases after children are born. But suggesting that the only reason a man would want to be a father is because he wants a divorce is ludicrous. And fear mongering about divorce, based solely on an assumption of immaturity on the part of men, is not an argument.

Book Review: F’em: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts On Balls by Jennifer Baumgardner

Posted in Book Reviews on March 12th, 2012

F’em is an anthology of short essays by Jennifer Baumgardner about feminism, music, family, and politics. Baumgardner writes in such a personal style that the book reads like a memoir, even though not all of the writing is autobiographical.

Interview subjects include rock stars like Bjork, Kathleen Hanna, Ani DiFranco and Amy Ray, whom Baumgardner previously dated. The book covers issues like abortion, feminist critiques of popular culture, transfeminism, anti-rape activism and female sexuality. In her essays, she explores her own vulnerabilities, her romantic and family history and the ways her views about feminism have changed throughout her life.

F’em was a quick and pleasant read and ended with an essay sketching out the possibility that feminism has entered its fourth wave, or forth wave, as Shelby Knox dubbed it earlier in the book. I think that the book was organized to make this argument, but until I was done reading it, I often found myself wishing that the essays had appeared in chronological order. While many essays were very poignant and thought provoking others seemed repetitive. I think that organizing them by theme would have solved this problem as well.

Some reviewers have commented on their dislike of the title, but I like the inherent geekiness of it. Fem-inist, Femme, Fuck ’em… the word play is something I appreciate.

Although this book can be understood as one defining the current state of feminism as it transitions into the 21st century and potentially a new wave, it’s also a good resource for the history of the third wave and how feminists with different perspectives can form a coherent movement. As someone who found my feminism because of the feminist blogosphere, I like having a primer on the days of ‘zines and Riot Grrls.

The Jefferson Bible and its Implications

Posted in Book Reviews, Editorials on March 8th, 2012

Recently, I completed a very interesting book, entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, also known by the simpler title, The Jefferson Bible.

Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, undertook a very interesting project that most people would never contemplate: he edited the Bible. The Bible is a very hard read, in the final analysis. It has been translated and re-translated, it repeats itself, it contradicts itself, and it is full of events no one can corroborate. Jefferson, an avowed deist, was hostile to organized religion, yet believed in a creator. He decided to take several copies of the bible -written in Greek, Latin, French, and English- and literally cut and paste the Gospel passages that focused on Jesus and his teachings into another book.

The edited gospels are a much more coherent read. Jesus is born, he lives, he teaches, and dies. In this edition, he does not cure blindness, turn water into wine, or come back from the dead. Did I mention it is never implied or stated he is the son of God?

Now why is this important, today? It gives the lie to the idea that the founding fathers were a monolithic group of devout Christians. Additionally, any Christian who followed this pared-down version of the Gospel would enjoy freedom from the cognitive dissonance that plagues their faith. They might even wish to give the same treatment to the Old Testament, to remove the perplexing passages where God orders them to hate gays and masturbation, as well as avoid lobster and mixed fibers.

Jefferson’s project also is not without precedent. All widely-read printings of the Bible have been edited to some degree. His project is also not without imitators. The contributors at “Conservapedia”, a Far-Right-Wing Wiki, (I won’t link to their site) are editing the Bible in an on-going project to prove that modern Conservative thought is fully supported by the Bible. Of course, they are not as smart as Thomas Jefferson.

Just because something was written by a President does not automatically make it correct -that is an argument to authority, and a fallacy. However, The Jefferson Bible is a suggestion to all believers. Maybe scriptures really are a book of stories, but that wouldn’t make the lessons any less true. Maybe scriptures encourage cruel actions, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen, when you know the orders are unjust.

The Bible says men shouldn’t spill their seed on the ground, and wives must submit to their husbands. People really should trust themselves, and refuse to obey such commands, which they know can only cause suffering. What a depressing life you’d have to live, obeying the orders of a God that hates you.

Quick Takes On Books I’ve Read in 2011

Posted in Book Reviews on December 31st, 2011

My “to be read” pile of books is pretty darn big, and so I don’t always get to the newest books right away. However, I did get a chance to read these books fairly soon after their release dates. Here are my thoughts on some of this years books.

Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom
I heard an interview with Bloom on The Stephanie Miller Show promoting this book and my reaction was a bit confused. It’s important for people to call out how increasingly stupid our culture is becoming. But I was also wary of the tone of the subtitle – women don’t need someone else shaming them for being trivial. However, I think that the book was well done, especially in the first section which explains why it’s important for people, especially women to pay attention to world news and politics. The second section had some suggestions for how to educate yourself with a lot of resources for doing so. I especially admire Bloom’s promotion of this book which has included her now famous editorial imploring adults to ask little girls what books they are reading instead of merely telling them they are pretty, and her follow-up begging women to start building their self esteem by learning to accept compliments gracefully. My main criticism of this book is that I think Bloom may be preaching to the choir. I’ve found that people who are content to only consume media that is sensational and unchallenging are not likely to change their habits because they are happy the way they are. My few female friends who don’t vote see my interest in politics as the equal of any other hobby.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
For years I have been reading editorials from parents concerned about trends in children’s entertainment that have made princesses an obsession for many young girls. I’ve observed this from a far, not having any children of my own. But I was interested in a more in depth study of the topic, and Orenstein tackles the subject with relish. Her descriptions of a toy industry convention and a trip to the American Girl Store in New York City are especially interesting. I hope that the trend changes into something more egalitarian – shows like Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic can have aspects of traditionally feminine aesthetics without being insulting to girls (or boys.)

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
I’ve been a fan of Oswalt since his recurring role as a Dungeons and Dragons player on Reno 911! His interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast brought my attention to his memoir. It focuses on his adolescence and the beginnings of his career as a standup comic. Oswalt is a gifted storyteller and the tales of his life as a young nerd coming of age are poignant and funny. It reminded me in some ways of Wil Wheaton’s Just A Geek. Highly recommended.

Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office by Lynn Peril
I’ve read Lynn Peril’s other books – Pink Think and College Girls and was not disappointed with her third foray into the realm of kitsch and feminism. Peril documents the history of women in white collar corporate America through the role of the secretary with fascinating detail and plenty of wry humor.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, but I do love Tom Perrotta. His most recent novel details what the would would be like if The Rapture actually did occur. Perrotta’s portrayal of suburban America is spot on as usual and during a recent visit to New Jersey, I half expected to see his characters walking down the street. This novel is, I think, the saddest of the ones he has written and this is appropriate given the subject matter. The characters drift, trying to make sense of what has happened, and the whole thing feels so real. What I always loved about Perrotta’s writing is the ability to take something surreal that almost strained credulity (the lunch truck mafia in Joe College, or the underground football league in Little Children) and make me able to accept it and suspend my disbelief. The basic plot of the story already contains the fantastic and provides the grounding for the characters and plot to advance.

Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan
This book was one I simply had to read the week it came out. I read Nathan’s other book Satan’s Silence about the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and was amazed that she had exposed another horrific story as being mostly falsehood. Before I read this book, I read the original Sybil – which I found to be incredibly sensational, and extremely dated in terms of the way Sybil’s mental illness is explained – the explanation is entirely Freudian. Nathan lays out her case clearly and solidly, telling the story of not only Shirley Mason, but Dr. Wilbur and Flora Schriber – three very intelligent and ambitious women who became trapped in their own lies. Our modern understanding of Multiple Personality Disorder – that a person can become very good at self hypnosis fits the facts of this case entirely. The story is a sad one, and I think Nathan’s point that these women built up this deception because as women they had few other choices to gain success is a strong one. A full view of how limited their options were is important to understanding how and why this deceit took place. Nathan’s analysis that the story of Sybil was so popular because of how it fit with the gender norms of the time is spot on. I also re-watched the made for television movie based on the book, and while I now know the story to be absolute bunk, Sally Field and Joanne Woodward give performances that stand the test of time. This story is so entrenched in our culture, I doubt it will go away, but I do hope that Debbie Nathan will continue to write books that challenge us to rethink what we think we know.

Book Review: The Price Of Motherhood

Posted in Book Reviews on August 14th, 2011

The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job In The World is Still The Least Valued by Ann Crittenden

The Price of Motherhood was an alarming book, and an important one for anyone who is thinking of becoming a parent or who already is. I do not have any children, but I would like to one day. The idea of “mommy wars” always seemed too simplistic to be valuable, and my suspicions were correct – there seem to be few if any differences between children whose parents work, and those who are cared for at home.

Crittenden shows that no matter what choice women make, they’re in for a raw deal. It’s not just that a gap in employment could lead to lower wages and difficulty finding a job when returning to the workforce, there is a penalty for having children at all – even if they return to work very soon after giving birth.

The idea behind the Price of Motherhood is that our society undervalues child care, whether it is provided by parents or outside the home in day care centers. The most astonishing part of the book was that even husbands of working mothers face a penalty:

A survey of 348 male managers at twenty Fortune 500 companies found that fathers from dual-career families put in an average of two fewer hours per week – or about 4 percent less – than men whose wives were at home. That was the only difference between the two groups of men. But the fathers with working wives, who presumably had a few more domestic responsibilities, earned almost 20 percent less.

A 4% decrease in hours worked led to a 20% loss in income. For men.

This book is an important one for everyone to read. Crittenden presents a fascinating case of what a divorce settlement would look like for a family where the husband works and the mother stays at home with the children where the income is divided in such a way that keeps all people at the same percentage above the poverty line as they were when the marriage was in tact. The amount the husband has to pay is sizable, and the anecdote makes it clear why divorce often leads to poverty for women and children.

I felt an overwhelming sense of doom when reading this book. The truth is that no matter what, in the United States it is not easy to raise a family. I think that this book is valuable for answering questions that a lot of young women have before starting a family but are unsure where to look for answers. Many women were raised to believe that since motherhood is rewarding and natural, everything will work itself out in the end, and might feel that our financial concerns are not valid. They are. Securing resources is a part of taking care of children. I would recommend this book for anyone curious about or planning for the financial aspects of parenthood.

Elmer Gantry

Posted in Book Reviews on July 8th, 2011

After hearing many compare Glenn Beck to the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel Elmer Gantry, I was very curious to read it. It Can’t Happen Here is one of my favorite books, and so I was looking forward to another sharp political classic that has stood the test of time.

I was completely engrossed in this book from the start, when young Elmer is in college in Kansas in 1902. The first of many surprises in this book was that college kids haven’t changed much. The scenes describing the landmines of social interactions and the earnest piousness of college ministries could have come right from any campus in the 21st century. Throughout the novel, Lewis’ dialogue is realistic and does not sound dated at all, aside from a stray reference here or there. There is a running gag in the book which had me delighted every time it was used. The humor has not gone stale, and I found myself laughing out loud a lot.

The story follows Elmer Ganrty from avowed college atheist through his conversion, time in divinity school, and his work as a minister. His journey takes him to places unexpected but the narrative works; though there are several distinct stories that are much like acts in a play or episodes of a miniseries.

Elmer is conniving, but not quite evil. His womanizing and the liberties he takes with theology were enough to get the book banned when it was published. Like Brave New World, scenes and subtext that are not at all shocking today were scandalous when it was published, especially when concerning the life of a clergyman. Elmer is intelligent, but not as smart as he thinks he is. His charm and tenacity make him impossible to hate, though you get the feeling you probably should. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to say so, I found him nothing like Glenn Beck. Gantry is a gifted orator with the power to sway people. There are dozens of conservatives with more charisma than Beck. Beck’s talents are not in speech writing or delivery but in both subtle dog whistles and angry, paranoid ranting. Although there is one scene in particular where Gantry gets a bit carried away where I do see a slight resemblance, that they are both ambitious people who use religion to further themselves is where the similarities end. If anything, Gantry is part Roissy (without a blog), and part Ted Haggard (without the gay). Perhaps people are referring to the film adaptation for the Glenn Beck allusions?

Sinclair Lewis spent time in several churches researching this book, and so it’s no surprise he has something to say about many different denominations. A few of the stereotypes have been lost over the years, but he meant to critique all religions, not just one. The book sometimes strays in to Stranger In A Strange Land territory in that a short vingette seems only there to tell us Lewis’ opinion on a topic rather than to advance the plot, but these are few and brief.

We do see how life turns out for several of Elmer’s classmates and their endings are sometimes bittersweet. The women of this novel are more than a backdrop, they are as three dimensional as the supporting men are but we only really see them through Elmer’s eyes. As the book spans the course of decades we can see how his relationships or all kinds change over time, and this is a powerful device.

Elmer Gantry is such a good read. The humor and story have aged so well. In part it’s because Sinclair Lewis is a masterful storyteller. But it’s also because the strong influence that religion has in the United States has not left our politics or private lives. Elmer uses religion to influence both in all the ways we fear it can be used. This is why his story still resonates.

About Philandering Phil…

Posted in Book Reviews on March 16th, 2011

Back in January, when I reviewed Sex at Dawn, one of my criticisms of the book was:

[T]heir chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with this chapter. The paperback edition of the book will include an addenda to the story, addressing reader feedback:

First, many men report that they had affairs simply because opportunities arose, while women—for whom such opportunities tend to be more plentiful—generally report a more complex confluence of motivations…

A woman in her 40s may well approach a “friends with benefits” situation completely differently than she would have two decades earlier, for reasons relating both to hormonal levels and life experience.

In addition to these internal factors, women tend to be more responsive to external conditions (Are the kids grown and out of the house? Is she financially independent? What would her friends and family say? Does she suspect that he’s having an affair?). Men—even highly intelligent, otherwise cautious and calculating men—often blunder into these situations blinded by something that doesn’t seem to render women quite so helpless…

A similar assessment of women’s motivations and experiences of extra-marital affairs would require far more space than we have.

I think this is fair. Men are more straightforward about their reasons for having affairs than women. I’m interested to know what further research would say about this topic. When a tempting situation arises, do men stray more easily? Or is it just that men have a set of criteria that are met more frequently?

John and Abigail Adams: An American Love Story

Posted in Book Reviews on February 14th, 2011

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write about John and Abigail Adams. They have been called America’s first power couple, and it’s said they shared the great American romance. My sources for this post are from the musical 1776, the book by David McCullough and HBO Miniseries John Adams and the book Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey.

I read John Adams in anticipation of the HBO miniseries. Before that, I had only thought of them as characters in one of my favorite musicals. McCollugh is an amazing storyteller, and he makes it easy to lose yourself in history. The pictures he paints of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Paris of the late 18th century are so engaging. He quotes heavily from John and Abigail’s letters and personal diaries. They both had strong personalities which shone through in their writing.

The excerpts of the letters I have read are fascinating from a historical perspective, and so charming and moving. John and Abigail wrote to each other of their daily lives while he was away in Congress and later representing the United States to France, Britain and Holland. But the letters from their courtship are worth a read as well. They wrote to each other while John was traveling for his law practice, and when he went to be inoculated for small pox very soon before their wedding. The HBO miniseries really captures the trials of their marriage, and how much time they spent away from each other. This profoundly effected them and their relationship, and I think it’s what has captivated people about them. We romanticize separated lovers and John and Abigail’s story was not only true, it had a happy ending. They were reunited after years apart and spend their remaining years together.

I am currently reading Withey’s Dearest Friend which focuses on Abigail’s life. It’s very good so far and I would also recommend it.

Some have paralleled the pamphlets of the American Revolution with today’s blogosphere. The similarities are numerous. One of my favorites is that people in those days often took pseudonyms, like today’s screen names. Abigail went by Diana to some of her friends as a teenager and later as Portia. She often called John Lysander.

The thing I find most compelling about John and Abigail’s relationship is the deep respect they had for each other and that it was known to everyone that he valued her advice above all others. They were products of their time, but progressive on their ideas about the role of women. Of course, we only know of Abigail’s talents because of her husband. But that he was enthusiastic about her participation is remarkable for the time, and still admirable today.

The one thing I would really like to know about their story is whether of not there was a place called Cupid’s Grove in Massachusetts. Obviously in 1776, the term is used as a euphemism for having sex. It might very well have been… but John Adams referred to it with regard to both Abigail and her cousin Hannah, who he unsuccessfully courted before her. And in his memoirs he was adamant that he was chaste before marriage so I’m left wondering if it was a name he bestowed on a particularly scenic portion of countryside.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Liberal Feminism: A How To Guide

Posted in Book Reviews on January 18th, 2011

No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power – Tools For Leading An Unlimited Life
by Gloria Feldt

After hearing Gloria Feldt on the RH Reality Check podcast I decided to read this book. It’s not a typical feminist book, not theory, history or biography – Feldt lays out a solid plan for women to make their feminist values a part of their lives.

It has been said that reading gives women dangerous ideas, and this book certainly gave me a few. I’ve been telling people that “No Excuses” is my motto for 2011.

Very early in the book, Feldt tackles one of my favorite questions – why don’t more women run for office?The reasons are complicated and can easily be applied to any number of questions about why women have not achieved equality in a given field. But there are ways to work around whatever these obstacles are – be they lack of resources, or internalized sexism and self doubt. Women involved in Emily’s Listor The White House Project often say that given a man and a woman of equal qualifications, the man is more likely to take the initiative and run for office and the woman is more likely to say that she is unqualified. However, a survey of women politicans shows that women are more likely to run if someone asks them to than to spontaneously decide for themselves. Thus was born She Should Run a website where anyone can nominate and encourage women they know to run for office.

It’s interesting to speculate what the future would look like if more women took on positions of power in government and business. A study reported in Politico reported that women are more effective legislators than men. Feldt often references the 30% threshold – this is thought to be the number of women necessary in a leadership role in an organization when they can have a substantial impact. The US Congress is far away from this at 17% but many corporate boardrooms, and even the Supreme Court are trending in that direction.

Feldt also encourages women to apply these principles to their marriages and personal relationships with men if they feel they are being treated unfairly.

A lot of Feldt’s argument relies on a belief that all women share common goals and should work together to achieve them.

It’s heartbreaking to me that in our half-finished feminist revolution, women still tend to isolate themselves, to think that their problems are individual concerns that they must solve alone. We feel our lack of power to make change, because when one person tries to fight the system alone, she is, in fact, relatively powerless. It’s when we just think of ourselves as individuals rather than reaching out to our sisters and brothers that things are likely to stay the same for the next women that comes along. More than that, if we fail to recognize how our choices influence the world – either by reinforcing the status quo or challenging it – we’re doomed to live lives of diminished possibilities.

I can agree with that on paper. But sadly the feminist movement does have some history of racism, homophobia and classism in it’s past. Feldt does include women from a diversity of backgrounds as examples in her book. But I’m not sure what she would make of women who align themselves with all of the goals of feminism but refuse to take the label because of past wrongdoing. I do agree that some policies – equal pay, reproductive justice, and better daycare for example would benefit all women. But that has more to do with the systemic sexism/injustices (Patriarchy/Kyriarchy) that remain in our society than any inherent similarities that all women share. To argue otherwise would be arguing for a type of gender essentialism that I cannot accept.

Nevertheless, I really did enjoy this book, and I have been recommending it to women that I know. I had never thought about power before. When my Political Science professors would mention it, my eyes would glaze over. It was too theoretical a concept for me to be bothered with. I am a pragmatist at heart and this book does compliment that tendency. Feldt takes great care to explain exactly what she means by power, and calls her definition “power to.” As in the power to make change – in opposition to “power over” which is about hierarchy. Even so, there were a few instances of woo I could have done without. For example, I still do not understand what Feldt means by “live unlimited.” Unlimited from what? Patriarchy? Internalized sexism? Generic self-doubt? Gravity? Thetans?

Without a basic understanding of the concepts of modern day feminism, the book does sound more like the Law of Attraction than a way to put theory into practice. Take for example the idea that “power must be claimed.” I understand it to mean that if I want to start a blog or a new business or run for Senate, no one will do it for me but myself. Anyone familiar with Feldt’s amazing record of activism will know what she means. Without this background, the concepts are much more nebulous. It is also for these reasons that I prefer the more specific terms autonomy and intention (which are used in the book sometimes) than power and live unlimited.

This book is fundamentally liberal. In that I mean that it takes the position that women can take actions to improve their lives and the lives of other women. This philosophy is one I am firmly on the side of, and I admire the steps Feldt has taken on twitter and via other media to reach out to younger feminists to spread her ideas.

“No Excuses” is extremely valuable because many women struggle with the idea that they are powerful or have autonomy I wonder how much has to do with the kinds of stereotype threat described in Delusions of Gender. It’s something I struggle with and is much easier to confront when thinking of it as a part of feminist activism that most women struggle with than a unique personal insecurity.

Feldt summed it up best when she wrote:

Today our challenge is to value ourselves and demand that others do, too.