A few weeks ago, I brought up a topic that routinely pisses me off: sexism in books (and, especially, in the classics). The post was as depressing to research and write as the experience of daily life in a world subtly (and overtly) hostile to women.
So, this week, I decided to hunt through my Quote Collection for outstanding examples of literary push-back against sexism. The classics are far from having their fair share of feminist passages, so I tracked down empowering words from all kinds of literary sources.
Let’s start making them the rule instead of the exception, K? K.
Here’s James Baldwin telling it like it is, maybe on a mountain, in Go Tell It on the Mountain:
With the birth of Gabriel, which occurred when she was five, her future was swallowed up. There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. Her mother did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic: Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk, so that he would know how to be with women when he had a wife. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born.
Here’s Margaret Mitchell calling out #WomenAgainstFeminism, and all likeminded she-idiots, in Gone With the Wind:
How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them!
Next up is a magnificent pair of feminist rants from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White:
Who cares for his causes for complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man in heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.
If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun—a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman’s ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.
And then there’s this haunting passage from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!:
I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.
We also have Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook reminding us that words have the power to construct our reality:
The other day you were talking about how you fought, with your American friends, about the way language degraded sex—you described yourself as the original puritan, Saul Galahad to the defence, but you talk about getting laid, you never say a woman, you say a broad, a lay, a baby, a doll, a bird, you talk about butts and boobs, every time you mention a woman I see her either as a sort of window-dresser’s dummy or as a heap of dismembered parts, breasts, or legs or buttocks.
And we have Kate Chopin’s The Awakening deconstructing traditional notions of woman- and motherhood:
They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
Next we can turn to Henry James, in The Portrait of a Lady, for an exercise in freedom:
“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.
And to the peerless Toni Morrison, in Sula and Beloved, for an exercise in self-love:
“When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”
“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
You your best thing, Sethe. You are.
We wouldn’t dare leave out Úrsula Iguarán, the indestructible matriarch of the Buendía family in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“You have taken this horrible game very seriously and you have done well because you are doing your duty,” she told the members of the court. “But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.”
And, moving into the 21st century, we can give a collective cheer for Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go:
“The army your girl’s been talking about has been spotted marching down the river road,” Doctor Snow says. “One of our scouts just reported them as less than an hour away.”
“Oh, no,” I hear Viola whisper.
“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.
“What?” Doctor Snow says.
“What?” Viola says.
“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to anyone.”
Before we leave off, we’re obliged to acknowledge the viscerally satisfying and, now, infamous “Cool Girl” dismantling in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men—friends, coworkers, strangers—giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much—no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version—maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.
And, by that same token, we can high-five Sheila Heti for busting out the truth in How Should a Person Be?:
I’m through with being the perfect girlfriend, just through with it. Then if he’s sore with me, let him dump my ass. That will just give me more time to be a genius.
The entirety of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists could make an appearance here. But for purposes of time and space, a summary will have to do:
But by far the worst thing we do to males—by making them feel they have to be hard—is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is. And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.
Some men feel threatened by the idea of feminism. This comes, I think, from the insecurity triggered by how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not “naturally” in charge as men.
Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.
All hail Gloria E. Anzaldúa for finding her voice in Borderlands/La Frontera:
I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue—my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.
And, of course, Lindy West, for the body politics wake-up call that is Shrill:
Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.
With the very last word on bookish feminism, here’s Caitlin Moran in How to Be a Woman:
I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.
And, on that note, let’s go make the world better.