Is It Ever Too Early for Feminism? || Blogmas Day 7

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We are 7 days in to this month and on the posting of this I have succeeded in one full week of blogmas! Today is another discussion type post and it is on picking books for children and what a minefield it can be. Also I’ve included a few kids books for children in your life (and also yourself if you want something fun to read!). This one is going to be lengthy, but I think it’s an important topic and I want to hear your opinions on it!

Recently, I had the experience of buying books for a friends daughter and it was a lot tougher than I was expecting. I had no idea that in this day and age, where we live in a (supposedly) equal society that children’s fiction is still so overrun with the age old idea of boys being heroes and girls sitting at home with no ambition waiting for a prince/hero/male to come and rescue them.

I’m not a parent, I have no intention of becoming a parent, and while I only have a small part to play in the childhood of my friends children, I absolutely do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes. I always tell her how smart she is, when we play she can be whoever or whatever she wants to be. I’m not her parent, but I adore her and I don’t want her to grow up with a skewed idea of what women are in society. I see this kid once a month and she is growing in to an amazing little girl – she’s a little firecracker, and bright as a button, and I will always encourage her to be that – but sometimes I worry that society, even in this modern day, will squash her down and shoehorn her in to a box of what she is expected to be by antiquated standards.

I was adamant I wanted to buy my friends daughter books for her 4th birthday as she loves reading. Now she’s starting to sound out words and read herself, I wanted to get her some picture books aimed at the 4-5 age group and it’s a minefield – so many of them are just not something that would build her confidence as a person. Books with female main characters often focus so much on things like beauty and innocence that is it any wonder that, subliminally, children get warped ideas about what they look like from such a young age?

The view of females in children’s books is something that is so dated and antiquated that I found myself getting frustrated – not only did I not want to impart that oh-so-gentle misogyny on to my friends 4 year old, I didn’t want it to then become okay for my friends 1 year old son when he inevitably read the same books in a couple of years. I wanted him to have positive representations of females too. If there is one thing I’m certain of it’s that the books you read when you’re first starting out stick with you – the stories, the underlying messages they have a profound impact.

So, on my mission to find Good Representation of Women In Children’s Fiction I found these two gems (below) and when I read them I could have cried. I was elated, because not only are they kickass girls, there’s representation of race, gender, and they’re not just ‘girls books’ – I know my friends son will get just as much out of them as her daughter. I certainly enjoyed them when I proof read them and I’d highly recommend them for any child in your life because they’re fantastic!

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I recently read an article which said something along the lines of 50-something % of children’s books have male protagonists, only 20-something % have female protagonists. The reason being a girl will read a ‘boys’ book, whereas a boy is unlikely to read a ‘girly’ book – there shouldn’t be genders in literature at any age in my opinion, but kids books are reinforcing stereotypes of men having all the action and girls having quiet, homey stories. Even books with animals as protagonists have primarily males at the core of them. Boys need feminism as much as girls do – male characters who cook, clean, are sole parents, are scared or cry – from my memory those things rarely happen in children’s books and that needs to change.

On to the topic of the day which is “is it ever too early to introduce a child to feminism?” – my answer is no. It doesn’t have to be shoved down a child’s throat, it can be subtle, but just simple things like books with female protagonists who don’t sit around and wait for a prince can have a huge impact on a child – male or female – and the same for male characters who aren’t always the hero.

My friends children are lucky – they have incredible parents who encourage them to be whoever and whatever they want to be, even at the ages of 4 and 1. They’re going to grow up to be wonderful human beings because their parents treat them equally and will teach both of them to respect themselves and other people, regardless of gender. I’m not trying to condition my friends daughter in to a “militant” feminist, she is only 4 after all, but I want her to see that she can be the superhero in her own story if she wants to be.

Review: Lumberjanes – Vol. 1 to 6 – Noelle Stevenson et al.

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Rating – 3* to 5*

Lumberjanes was my first foray in to a graphic novel – Volume 1 was available free through the Amazon Prime lending library and, having heard amazing things about this series, I decided it was very much a good place to start with the graphic novel genre. I wasn’t wrong because I am officially a convert to the form.

I was debating for a while about how best to review these – whether I should do individual reviews or just a bulk review – and as I recently finished the final volume currently in publication I decided to just do an overarching review of the whole series as it stands.

To summarise, the books follow a group of 5 friends (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) who are at a summer camp – Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types – I mean I think that tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the series! It’s fun, it’s funny, the girls get in to some Scooby Doo worthy situations with monsters and mermaids, and it’s about their friendship. It just filled me with joy reading it because all the girls are so, so different and each have their shining moments, and it is just a wonderful, wonderful series to read and one I think would appeal to so many different age groups – I love it and I’m nearly 24, but I’m pretty certain some of my friends younger sisters of 8 and 9 would love it just as much!

The first few in the series, I adored the artwork, however the primary artist changed and while I still loved the content I was quite sad to see the original art go because for me that was part of the charm of the characters. I got used to it but after going on a binge it was a bit of a shock to the system to see the characters all looking different! Thankfully the girls all kept their personalities so I eventually adjusted.

I could very easily read these over and over again, if only because I love Mal and Molly so much – my little gay heart could hardly handle it! This series completely NAILS representation, honestly, people come in all shapes and sizes, have different family dynamics, there’s exploration of sexuality and gender – but none of it is so in your face, or overtly ‘token’ – it feels natural and a lot more lifelike than many books aimed at an older audience.

This was a fantastic, fantastic, introduction to graphic novels and I can’t wait for the next two volumes to be released! One is due out in December and I’ma gonna get me that on preorder!

I leave you with a picture of Mal & Molly from (I think) the second volume, just to show you how darn adorable they are.

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Review: Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine

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Rating – 3*

After the horror show that was the representation of women in my previous read, I decided to clear my mind and read a book on gender theory/feminism. I needed to cleanse my soul with something just like this. I actually bought this book because 1) the title made me laugh and 2) the cover is gorgeous. I did briefly read the blurb and picked it up because it sounded right up my alley.

I’ve never read any of Fine’s work before, though after reading this I have since purchased Delusions of Gender, which I am already looking forward to reading as I feel it would give this book a little more meaning.

Testosterone Rex is a relatively short book which aims to debunk the gender myth, or more particularly the “boys will be boys” stance and the universal blame of testosterone for all male behaviours. It’s a good book, for the most part, and it conveys some really important information. For me though, and this is just an opinion, it could have been put across in a much more approachable manner. What could have been pretty straight forward, with real world examples was often over complicated for someone who doesn’t have a background in social sciences or gender studies. Often I found myself scanning through the information in front of me and not fully understanding what was going on until the end of a section.

There were some really, really good bits in this book which I really enjoyed, other bits not so much. The book itself is split in to three main sections – past, present, and future. I found the first 70 or so pages on the past really engaging; honestly those set the book up as a 5* read for me. I also really enjoyed the future section, albeit it was only one chapter but I found the look in on gendering of childrens toys interesting and actually something I’d have liked elaborated on further. For me, what let this book down, was the middle – the present – and it was just that it was so dense.

This is by far the most academic book I’ve read on feminism, and I’m glad it wasn’t my first as it would have put me off the genre of ‘feminist non fiction’ (if there is such a genre!) for life – it would have scared me away because it’s very in depth, and often I couldn’t make out the wood from the trees. The best way to describe this would be a dissertation on gender studies, but without a clear conclusion, rather an overarching sentiment throughout for you to draw your own conclusion.

It’s most certainly not a book for people new to feminist non-fiction, but I would say it’s a good book to pick up if you’re new to – or even wanting to try picking up for the first time – more academic non-fiction and essay collections, because it is most definitely an academic text opposed to a ‘popular non-fiction’ book.

As I said, I’m looking forward to reading Delusions of Gender because if Goodreads is to be believed, that book is a LOT more popular than this!

Review: No Surrender- Constance Maud

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Rating – 3*

No Surrender is a very rare find – an out and out suffragette novel. It is billed on the Persephone catalogue as just that, which doesn’t seem something outstanding but really, there aren’t any suffragette novels so this one is something special.

This book is something remarkable. It is a multi-faceted look at the suffragette movement of the early 20th century; from the mill workers to the upper levels of society. It looks at how the movement impacted on them and why they were passionate about it. It wasn’t just about gaining a vote as many people think, it was so much more than that and sadly so much more still needs to be done.

The primary character is Jenny, a young mill worker who wants so much and not just for herself, very little of it is for herself, but it is for the people she loves. She wants her sister to have rights to her children, her mother to have right to finances, and she wants equal pay for equal work. When Jenny meets Mary, a young, upper class girl, their joint skill-set proves powerful. Their different perspectives represent the cross section of women who fought for this change to the lives of women and children.

There is no doubting it, this book is powerful. It really brings home how determined and passionate these women were. Some of the passages in this book, particularly when the girls are subject to force feeding, are hard reading. But however uncomfortable it was, I kept reading because the fictional women in this book give voice to the hundreds of nameless women who fought for the freedoms that we, as women, have today. Sadly, there is a lot that needs to still be done even 100+ years on for equality, in both Britain and across the rest of the world. But this book really brings it home how lucky women today are.

However, this book wasn’t without flaws and while it really made me think I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing. I found it clunky, I found it hard to get through, when I put the book down I had to force myself to pick it up again. I am so glad I read this and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a brutal, albeit fictional, account of the early Suffrage movement in the UK. But it has to be 3* as I didn’t enjoy the writing all that much.

Buy this Book

Review: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World – Rachel Swaby

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Rating – 5*

I saw this book pop up in a magazine (Royal Society of Chemistry magazine) quite a while ago, since then it was on my radar. I knew it was a book that I wanted to, an needed to, own. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and it was about time to pick it up, I just waited until the right point to read it. A point when I needed motivation, inspiration, I needed to remind myself why I do what I do and this book, oh this book did just that. This book is amazing. These women, all 52 of them, were incredible. They make me proud to be a scientist, to follow the path that they essentially paved for me and my female friends to be able to do what we do! They gave us access. Every single woman featured in this book is a superhero and I wouldn’t be doing what I do without them.

This book was born from the author reading an obituary in the newspaper. Yvonne Brill made a “mean beef stroganoff”, she was a wife, a mother and there was over half a page of column dedicated to her. Why? She was an incredible rocket scientist. A rocket scientist who developed technology still used by NASA today (hydrazine jet propulsion if anyone cares!). And all the New York Times cared about was her “mean beef stroganoff”, that was more important than the work she did for over 50 years. After reading this, Rachel Swaby decided enough was enough and it was about time people heard about the amazing women who have changed science (and coincidentally, the world) but are little heard about, some even forgotten entirely from scientific circles (never mind the general public!).

There are women in medicine, biological sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics who have been overwritten in history. Some names remain, most people know who Marie Curie was, but her daughter Irene was equally as incredible and also won a Nobel prize to go with her mothers two. Many people have heard of Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale. But there are so many more amazing women out there; Rosalind Franklin identified the signature double helix of DNA. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of Vitamin B12. Inge Lehmann discovered the inner core of the Earth. Virginia Apgar developed the APGAR test which has saved countless of newborn babies. Helen Taussig revolutionised heart surgery. Alice Ball was a black woman in her twenties who treated leprosy. All of these women are incredible, inspiring too. And while they only get three or four pages each, their intelligence and determination comes across so clearly. I wish, oh I wish, I could have some of these women round for dinner and just thank them, talk to them, have some of their insight because they’re incredible.

These women inspire me. Everyone should know about these women. This book is something special, it has it’s faults, the writing is a bit questionable, and jumbled, at times but the reasoning behind this book and the overall presentation is faultless. I would love more on each of these women, but the idea of reading about one woman a week for a year that is put forward in the introduction I think is great for the non-specialist or the person who just wants to read about an awesome woman once a week! I devoured it in under a week, I read a couple of sections a day (the book is split in to seven scientific disciplines).

This is by no means a book for scientists only. This is a book that, I feel, could benefit anyone. If I had known about these women earlier on in my life it would have probably sparked my interest in science sooner! 

Naturally, this is a book about science and women and it is awesome. It was a 5* book before I opened it, if I’m entirely honest. How could it be anything else?

Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft

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Rating – 4*

Published in 1792 this book is worryingly still relevant. Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of the also incredible Mary Shelley, was very much before her time. This is considered to be the classic feminist text and I am so, so glad I finally got around to it.

At it’s core this is a criticism of discussion which was happening in the late 18th century (for much before and after, in all honesty) about what a woman’s place was in the world. Wollstonecraf is clear, concise, and passionate about the equality of the sexes in this book. Her main criticism is that sexism, the division between the sexes at least, begins from a very young age. At the point this was written it was still not common practice to send a daughter to school, instead teach her home crafts so she will make a good marriage material so, in the latter part of the book she puts forward the absolutely scandalous notion of both male and female children being schooled together to a certain level.

One of the biggest arguments put forward by her was that women are groomed to appeal to men; they aren’t allowed their freedom of choice, from a young age all they are expected to do is to become a wife, a good marriage is after all good for her and the best she can hope for in life. Women are expected to be mindless creatures who have the sole purpose of satisfying men, catering to their every need and whim. If a woman does not have looks or money she is not worthy. It’s disturbing that a lot of it is still highly relevant today. Popular culture still perpetrates the idea what women need to be ‘beautiful’ above all else, that being well dressed and sexually appealing to men is the biggest success a woman can hope for. It’s just heartbreaking that, ultimately, this is still an issue nearly 225 years later!

I downloaded this from Audible, narrated by the wonderful Fiona Shaw and it was fantastic; I’d highly recommend the audiobook to anyone who maybe finds a physical non-fiction book a bit too heavy going! Fiona has a great tone and it was actually a really soothing read, however passionate she got!

I happily gave this 4* and it is definitely one I’d like to read again!

Review: We Should All be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

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This is a very short essay that was written after Chimamanda’ s hugely successful TED talk on feminism. I haven’t seen the talk, but I have recently heard a number of good things about it, so it went on my to-read pile. It is only about 50 pages long and it seriously took me about half an hour to read before bed – it was very good food for thought!

Picking it up as an eBook for 99p for my kindle I couldn’t really complain. It was what I felt in the mood for and it is very rare I read on my kindle now but I wanted to read it, and I wanted to read it now! I’m really glad I succumbed to the desire because I really enjoyed this.

This is by no means an extensive text on the theory of feminism, it barely scrapes the surface but it is a very good introductory text on the subject. It covers pretty much all bases of gender equality from a personal perspective of Chimamanda herself, growing up in Nigeria and her experiences as a woman returning back to her roots.

It is, under no circumstances, perfect. There is casual cissexism, which may turn a fair few readers away but it is so well written. She is eloquent, she is unapologetic and I definitely liked this more than Americanah! As I said, it would be a really good introductory text to someone who is wanting to understand more about feminism and why, in 2015, we still need it. It was a solid 4/5.

Blog: Girls Do Science Too!

Recently I’ve been rather overwhelmed by the lack of female role models I have as a science student. In the chemistry department there are 5 female members of faculty, only one of which is a professor. There are more men with the initial J than there are women; these women are amazing, there just isn’t enough of them! It does seem that as a woman who is a scientist we have to work harder in what is considered a “man’s world” to get the equal recognition, we have to fight harder to be even seen, sexist jokes are common in the labs and, eventually, it comes down to a point that we have to choose – do we want a family or a PhD?

To do both as a female is hard; especially as a chemist. Working with chemicals can impact on fertility before you even try for kids, when you’re pregnant being in the lab is generally a no, then you take some time out to be a mother to a newborn and by the time you come back you’ve been out of the loop so long it’s hard to catch up. Recently in Chemistry World there was an article about women who have done this, but that’s only with a supportive institute and family behind you. This is generally a rarity as when it comes down to it, research is what brings institutions money whether they’re universities or companies like GSK or AstraZeneca.

From a young age girls are often told that science is for boys. They’re told that they should focus their energies on subjects like English and more ‘creative pursuits’ – this doesn’t come from schools generally, but sometimes from (somewhat antiquated in my opinion) parents or grandparents who think that girls should just ‘stick to the ‘soft’ subjects’. Recently LEGO announced that their Ideas Research Institute range, which was female characters in scientific settings, was limited edition. In saying that it was limited edition with female characters and continuing the range with male characters, they’re saying that females in science are a rarity. Kids notice these things and having female figures in something as simple as a LEGO set is a big thing, it gives a girl who likes science the chance to reach out and engage. Kids love paying pretend, they love playing houses and “mummies and daddies” – they enact their idea of a future through make believe and society is constantly putting pressure on young girls, giving the impression that being a scientist isn’t normal, it isn’t something they should even try to consider. It doesn’t stop them, but it does discourage them, simply because no-one – male, female or anywhere on the spectrum – want’s to be considered as an outcast at any time, never mind when they’re that young.

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Review: How To Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran

how-to-be-a-womanI’ve debated for a while whether to give this a 4 or 5 star rating on Goodreads. It was a hard decision, but ultimately, while it’s not the greatest literary work ever – it’s hit me in all the places that matter. My personal enjoyment, what I’m taking away from reading this book, far outweigh the little things that I didn’t like so much about it (it’s a bit shouty, and I’m not really a fan of lots of swearing). Let’s be honest it is not going to become a academic tome of feminist philosophy but underneath all the jokes is a ‘short, sharp feminist agenda’. It’s mainly for the humour with a healthy whack of feminism that I ultimately decided on 5 stars – I can overlook bad language and a stuck caps-lock key.

I had been wanting to read this for ages but it wasn’t until I found solace in reading through the universities Feminist Society page after a particularly awful incident on a bus that I thought “right, that’s it, enough is enough. I am reclaiming myself” or somesuch – the details are sketchy at best – that I actively went in pursuit of it.

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