The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing review – a powerful concept, frustratingly executed

As a tribute to vital work through the ages, Hannah Dawson’s anthology is more than welcome. But as a resource, it’s rendered hopeless

When I was a student, there was briefly a craze – if that’s the word – for rape alarms. Walking home nervously late at night, you held one tightly in your hand; should the worst happen, you were then primed to blast it in the ear of any attacker. If this sounds quite mad now, all I can tell you is that even then they were a source of (very) black comedy: mine was always without its batteries, usually because I’d “borrowed” them for my Walkman.

The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing is in most ways nothing at all like one of these devices. Where they were disposable, it eyes posterity. Where they only underlined what we were up against, it promises empowerment. What an excellent idea to put in one place some of the most inspiriting, vital and controversial writing about gender inequality you’ll ever read. This is long overdue. But there is a problem here: an own goal so enraging, it makes you wonder if women aren’t sometimes their own worst enemies. Having laboured to put this book together, its editor, Hannah Dawson, and whoever signed off the project at Penguin Classics have undone their good work at a stroke by making it close to impossible for the reader properly to use it. Not only does it have no general index, it does not even have one of its writers. Only by going painstakingly through the list of contents could I be absolutely sure that, no, nothing by Kate Millett is included; when I wanted to reread something I’d enjoyed by Susan Sontag, I ended up flicking through its 652 pages three times. However magnificent its selections, as a resource it is absolutely hopeless. Nothing in it can be found with any speed. No cross referencing may be done with ease. In this sense, it did indeed remind me of a rape alarm. In the heat of the moment, it’s totally inadequate, pathetic, no good at all.

There’s more. In her introduction, Dawson, a lecturer in the history of ideas at King’s College London, explains that she resolved not to include details of the lives of its authors. Potted biographies, she writes bafflingly, read like obituaries, “a genre [that] seems to bend inexorably towards sexism”. To which one can only reply: doesn’t it depend on who’s writing them? Seemingly, the fact that a lot of feminist writing draws explicitly on the personal only made her the more determined in this matter. But having duly freed her writers of the “peculiar rope” that ties a woman’s “words to her circumstances”, it’s the reader who’s left in a bind. Questions buzz, like bees. I was fascinated to see a piece from 1883 by a Japanese writer, Kishida Toshiko. This was a name unfamiliar to me and I longed to know more. Who was she? What courage might have been involved in her decision to rail against the keeping of “daughters in boxes”? All I could do was turn to Google. The fact is that potted biographies would be at least as useful to most readers as anything Dawson says in her long introduction, which is devoted to the importance of intersectionality. I also find it hard to imagine that a male editor would have taken such a decision. Whatever her intentions, it feeds into an old and depressing narrative, which is that while men are scholars and experts, women are only hobbyists.

None of this is to say that the book isn’t bulging with brilliant and exciting writing. Its vast sweep takes us from the 15th century, when Christine de Pizan, a court writer in medieval France, imagined a City of Ladies where women would be safe from harassment, through to the present day, with work by Maggie Nelson, Eileen Myles, Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy and Lola Olufemi (it is very modish – which is both a good thing and a bad). Here are black feminists (bell hooks, Angela Davis) and lesbian feminists (Adrienne Rich, Radicalesbians), Muslim feminists (Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi) and Jewish feminists (American theologian Judith Plaskow). Here are not only polemics (Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Mary Wollstonecraft) but poems (Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath), diaries (Sontag) and novels (Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook). Here are thoughts on housework (Italian scholar Silvia Federici), motherhood (Anne Enright) and the menopause (Adrienne Rich again). This list, I should add, is, by necessity, highly selective.

If Dawson is predictably, almost reflexively, hard on second wave feminism in her introduction – why do those women make people so cross when Virginia Woolf, equally privileged, does not? – I was happy to see she’d included an extract from Shulamith Firestone’s scorching The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Again, though, I felt the lack of a biography: not for myself, but for other, possibly younger, readers (the Gloria Steinem fangirls have barely heard of Firestone). In her introduction, Dawson writes of “the oppression of feminism”, a reference to those she feels it has often excluded. What she neglects to say is that, on occasion, it has turned round and bitten its own (mostly white and educated) leaders, too. If feminism did not kill Firestone, the movement certainly contributed to destroying her life (for more, I recommend Susan Faludi’s New Yorker essay of 2013). It is so hard to be a radical woman: to reject what others insist on and to insist on what others reject. Leaving the words of such brave hearts, however exhilarating, to float as free as clouds does them a grave disservice. It hobbles those who would be their heirs by telling only part of the story.

  • The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing by Hannah Dawson is published by Penguin (£25). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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