I’ve been making my way through two excellent new books, Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating your Body and Jessica Valenti (of Feministing)’s Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Valenti’s book showed up three days before Martin’s, so I’ll review it first as well.
I’ll be honest. I was worried I wasn’t going to like Jessica’s book, which would be a pity, because I really dig Jessica. The title made me wince, and the cover (featuring a young woman’s bare torso, reminiscent of the cover of Brumberg’s Body Project) didn’t make me much happier. Jessica told New York Magazine, in defense of her cover, …letâ€™s face it, no young woman is going to pick up a book with the womanâ€™s symbol with a fist on it. She may be right, but “naked stomach” or “clenched fist” seems a bit of a false dichotomy. Never mind. You can’t judge a book and all that… (Note: Ilyka Damen has a strong reaction to the cover. Read it here).
As I’ve been mentioning ’round these parts, I’m hitting 40 this month. I am excited about it for any number of reasons, but I am very aware that my ageing means I need to adapt my teaching. I was 27 when I started teaching women’s history here at PCC, a full year younger than Valenti is now. My students were mostly about 21-24, so I was essentially a slightly older peer. Now, I teach classes where the average age has dropped about three years(fewer reentry students, more kids coming to community college straight out of high school), and I’m a baker’s dozen years older. I’m now at least two decades older than most of my students. I do have a couple of students now whose fathers are younger than I am, and that number will inexorably increase each year. The “young and hip” label is fading, and that’s not a bad thing.
But I came into my feminism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I did all my coursework in the second Reagan and Bush 41 administrations. I’m a “second wave” feminist through and through. And though I do try and “stay current”, it’s a much harder thing to do with seven classes of teaching and a regular life than it was when I was an undergrad or a beginning grad student. If I’m not careful, I risk teaching in a way that seems dated and antiquated. While ideas like “equality” and “parity” and “justice” never go out of style, the ways in which we talk about those ideas change regularly. And I’ve been acutely aware that I need to incorporate the voices of younger feminists in to my syllabus.
Full Frontal Feminism fits the bill perfectly. It’s a quick, easy read. Jessica’s style is much the same as it is on her blog: deceptively breezy. She writes conversationally and confessionally, as most good bloggers do; she uses profanity liberally enough to make me squirm just a little bit. But underneath this very accessible style, there’s a lot of depth. What Jessica does is lay out a powerful, impassioned polemic. She makes the case that not only is feminism still relevant to those born post-Roe, post-Watergate, and even post-Cold War — it’s still essential. The greatest single threat to women’s freedom is the widely accepted lie that feminism is no longer needed, that all of the important battles were won one (or now, two) generations ago. Jessica’s youth, her background, and her keen awareness of what matters to teen and twenty-something women make her the perfect messenger to update a message that goes back to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This is the right book at the right time to play an important part in spreading the good news of an ongoing feminist revival.
I’ve decided to assign Full Frontal Feminism to my women’s studies class, starting this fall. I’ll still assign the aforementioned Body Project, and I’m not ready, yet, to accept that The Handmaid’s Tale is too dated to be relevant to students born years after its 1985 publication. And I love my main text, Through Women’s Eyes. But Jessica’s book fills an important niche, and I’m guessing my students will find it compelling, useful, and above all, helpful in moving them to a place where they too can “claim the name” of Feminist for themselves.