I love Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: a fictionalised account of the unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet in San Francisco in 1876. Donoghue’s strength as a writer is both the quality of her historical research and her ability to centre women within history. You can see this in her anthology Astray, Slammerkin, and The Sealed Letter.
Frog Music‘s heroine is Blanche Beunon – a former circus performer from France who became a ‘soiled dove’ in San Francisco working as a stripper and a prostitute. Beunon is both the archetype capitalist in search of the American Dream and a mother of questionable ability (or desire). She only discovers the tension between these two competing ideologies due to a chance encounter with Jenny Bonnet – a woman who wore men’s clothing and tried to live outside the expected social constructions of working class women. We only see Bonnet through the eyes of Blanche, who is not the most aware character caught in an abusive relationship.
Frog Music is about women’s friendships, motherhood, male violence, women’s sexuality and survival. Donoghue ends Frog Music with this:
There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves’ gang. Attractive though this image is, it seems to derive from one highly colorful article that was not published until three years after [her] murder (“Jeanne Bonnett”, Morning Call, October 19, 1879) and an equally unsubstantiated popular history from 1933 (Ashbury’s The Barbary Coast), and I have found no evidence to substantiate it.
Frog Music is a powerful testament to the history of women’s gender non-conforming behaviour. There should be no need for these types of statements since there is no evidence for Jenny Bonnet (or Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I) being ‘proto-trans’ because they predate the trans movement. This ‘transing’ of women’s history is ahistorical nonsense forcing a anti-feminist political agenda on the bodies of women who simply would not recognise queer theory or, indeed, see themselves as “men born in the wrong body”.
Queering history and literature can be quite fun – just take a look at the brilliant Lucy Allen’s breakdown of the new Anne of Green Gables films – but you can’t rewrite history in order to push a postmodern narrative of transgenderism onto women who have fought the gender straitjacket throughout history. Women have been gender non-conforming – at great personal risk – for centuries. And, we should be celebrating their accomplishments. Not erasing their activism or their bodies. After all, the Suffragettes learned JuJitsu not because they believed they were men – since fighting and self-defence was viewed as a male pursuit – but to protect themselves from male violence – sexual and physical.
The history of women’s gender non-conforming is an essential part of women’s history. Erasing women to claim them as ‘trans’ is misogyny. It is no different than the constant erasure of women from history by male historians.
Mark Zuckerberg has given a list of 14 books he thinks everyone should read this year. Since he’s so concerned about the general knowledge of random people on the internet, I thought I’d give Zuckerberg a list of books that he needs to read so he can stop putting survivors of domestic and sexual violence and abuse at risk with the deeply stupid ‘real names’ policy on Facebook.
1. Lundy Bancroft, Why Does he do that? Insides the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, (Berkly Publishing, 2003)
2. Aisha Gill, ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
3. Dee L.R. Graham, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence and Women’s Lives, (New York University Press, 1994) – a full PDF of this text is available here.
4. Lynne Harne, Violent Fathering and the Risks to Children: The Need for Change, (Policy Press, 2011)
5. Michael P. Johnson, A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance and Situational Couple Violence, (Northeastern University Press, 2008)
6. Lorraine Radford & Marianne Hester, Mothering through Domestic Violence, (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006)
7. Evan Stark’s Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Oxford University Press, 2007)
8. Liz Kelly, Surviving Sexual Violence, (Polity Press, 1988)
9. Nancy Berns, Framing the Victim, Domestic Violence Media & Social Problems (Transaction pub. 2008)
10. Nina Burrowes, The Courage to be Me, (2014)
11. Gavin De Becker, The Gift of Fear, (Bloomsbury Pub, 2000)
12. Marianne Hester, Who does what to whom? Gender and domestic violence perpetrators. (Bristol University, 2009)
13. Kimmel, “Gender Symmetry” in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review, Violence Against Women, vol. 8 No.11
14. Rachel Pain Everyday Terrorism: How Fear Works in Domestic Abuse, (University of Durham & Scottish Women’s Aid)
15. Jennifer Perry, Digital Stalking: A guide to technology risks for victims, (Pub, by Network for Surviving Stalking & Women’s Aid)
Granted my list has slightly more than 14 books, but I figure if Zuckerberg has taken the time out from running a multi-national corporation to give the general public a reading list, he has the time to make sure his corporation isn’t perpetuating violence against women and girls.
At the behest of a lovely friend, I have compiled my Top Ten Feminist Fiction Texts. Not all are necessarily Feminist although all are written by women and have beautiful women as characters.
2. Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night: Probably the first Feminist mystery book. Technically the main character is male, but Harriet Vane is brilliant, funny and her own woman.
3. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: It celebrates female friendships; there is nothing more Feminist than women loving and supporting other women.
4. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: I was a historian in a previous life and this is my favourite quote:
‘I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet, I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs – the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.’
So, it’s not the most feminist of texts but Jane Austen is brilliant [more so than V.S Naipaul in fact].
5. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: The story of the 4 daughters of an abusive “Christian” man; a story of love, family, racism, and truth. It is a classic.
6. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: Another story of the power of women’s love. It is beautiful, soul-destroying and incredible.
8. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: No explanation necessary for this one.
9. Andrea Levy’s The Long Song: It is a story of slavery but really the story of an incredible woman.
10. Charlaine Harris’ The Shakespeare Books: Harris is more well-known as the author of the True Blood books but this series is by far the most Feminist. It is, simply, about the systemic level of sexualised violence within our Patriarchal society. Many books deal with rape but very few deal with rape as a crime against all women; the way the threat of rape is used to control and punish women. And, just how common rape really is.
11. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club: Again, a novel about the power of women’s relationships.
12. Marian Keyes’ This Charming Man: Everything Keyes writes is Feminist. It is an utter travesty that she is frequently dismissed as “chick lit”.
13. Margaret Lawrence’s The Diviners: She only wrote 5 books about the same area of Manitoba. All are brilliant but this is my favourite.
So, this isn’t the most imaginative or creative Feminist blog post but it is a topic that comes up continuously on Mumsnet. And, for me personally, I do find it incredibly interesting what individual Feminists believe are the most important texts to read. Books are the windows to people souls: even if they just own copies of leather-bound classics which have never been opened. You just know that a man who owns everything ever written by Norman Mailer and has clearly read them multiple times is probably a nincompoop and undateable to boot. A man who reads nothing but mysteries but has never heard of Dorothy L. Sayers is probably a little bit on the serial killer/stalkery side of the not dateable material.
Some of these books were FeMNist Book Club choices on MN and I have linked to those threads where applicable. I also couldn’t limit myself to 10 but it’s my blog so I didn’t; despite the title.
1. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse: This is perhaps the most deliberately misread and misquoted second wave Feminist text. The question: “what intercourse is for women and what it does to women’s identity, privacy, self-respect, self-determination, and integrity are forbidden questions; and yet how can a radical or any woman who wants freedom not ask precisely these questions?” is central to her thesis but fundamentally deliberately misread. Read it and judge for yourself.
2. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. This book isn’t actually a “Feminist text” but the basic premise behind the book is that sex/gender differences aren’t biological but rather reflect socialization and cultural practises. Or, at least, there is currently no evidence that sex differences are biological and until the point that we can definitely prove otherwise, it is simply bad science to pretend otherwise. Fine argues that the differences we “see” are simply sexist myths dressed up as science. It also contains my favourite debunking of the theory that men need to be taught to be Daddies: the story of the Daddy Rat. You need to read it for this story alone.
3. Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. This book is 20 years old but basically could have been written yesterday. All you need to do is replace the chapter on kinder-whore fashion with BDSM fashion and replace the names of Right-wing reactionary Handmaidens of the 1980s with people like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, Amanda Platell, Jan Moir and Nadine Dorries. Faludi does this herself in The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America but Backlash remains as important a Feminist text now as it did 20 years ago. In fact, in many ways, the backlash of the 1980s was nowhere near as destructive as the current backlash which has taken its cues from the pornography industry.
4. Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism: Selling women and girls bodies as “empowerment”: the new Backlash. The real consequences of “choice” Feminism.
5. Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called it Rape: The Ms Report on Recognising, Fighting and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. The title is self-evident. This is one of those books which should be a required text in PSHE.
5. Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today: This is basically a catalogue of reasons why Feminism is more important today than it ever was. The fact that a teenage girl in South Africa is more likely to be raped than literate or that 2/3 of illiterate people are women and 2 women a week in the UK are killed by their current or former intimate partners are statistics that can not be denied; even by MRAs although they do try. It’s not theory but a manual on how to combat misogyny [or at least recognise misogyny]. This should be another mandatory text for PSHE.
6. Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. This is simply about just how damaging hyper-sexuality and the pursuit of physical perfection as the source of female empowerment really are; empowerment being one of those things that people with actual access to power don’t need to bother with. It’s the terrifying story of mass-consumerism and the destruction of girls. This should be required reading for upper primary children.
7. Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women: This should be another set text in school. There are far too many people running about claiming that men can’t be good at housework because they don’t “see” it. The real problem is that men benefit from this myth at the risk to women’s emotional and physical health. The idea that men need to be told what to do take live in their own house is misogynistic bollocks of the worst kind.
8. Sheila Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny: This is another deliberately misinterpreted book and one that you definitely need to read for yourself. The critiques of the fashion industry and the comparison with high heels and Chinese foot-binding are brilliant. Cultural relativism has a lot to answer for.
9. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue: This is one of the classic second-wave Feminist texts which is more relevant today than when it was first written due to the increase in discourse about women’s value being solely about their appearance and the idea that the only women who have value are “thin”.
10. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics: This is another classic second-wave text although one which feels a bit dated to those already interested in Feminism and Feminist theory. It was ground-breaking when it was first written and it’s a testament to the power of Millett’s work that we now consider her work “normative.”
11. Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room: This is the only fiction book on my list but it’s the one which demonstrates the true power of Feminism: women supporting and loving other women.
12. Susan J Douglas & Meredith W Michaels’ The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women: It’s exactly what the title says: why mothers are demonized and how that demonization destroys women. It should be given out as a mandatory text at the first midwife/ adoption/fostering appointment.
13. Gail Dines’ Pornland:How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality: This is an incredibly distressing book and one that needs to be read but it is triggering and horrifying and utterly depressing. Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity is worth reading in conjunction but only if you are feeling emotionally capable.
14. Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men: Another required text at PSHE. The ability to identify abusive men is a gift we need to give our daughters. We need to stop pretending Beauty and the Beast is a romantic film and that Norman Mailer is anything but a violent misogynist.
15. I Blame The Patriarchy: Technically, this is a blog not a book but I think it deserves to be considered under the rubric of “must-reads”.
I have to admit here that I never heard of Esther Freud before getting a freecopy of this book from the Mumsnet [non-feminist] fiction book club. I have vague recollections of thinking that I might enjoy watching a Kate Winslet movie called Hideous Kinky but I don’t think I ever got around to actually watching it.