I’m a pretty shitty feminist.
I don’t ground my writing in feminism because I’m deeply afraid of doing the whole thing wrong. Like I’m not academic enough. I don’t see the stamp of patriarchy & oppression in places where it’s so obvious to other feminists.
But, look, I’m 45 years old. And I’m focused on building a world where women can thrive–not only for me, but for my 10 year old daughter. So, I figured it was time to dip my toe back into feminism. I started with Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. Good lord, y’all. I’ve not laughed that hard reading a book in a while. She also made my heart ache, and made me think, and suddenly I was like … OH, this is feminism, too.
Because Roxanne Gay is WAY smarter than I am. But she never once made me cry UNCLE! to her intellect. Not even once. And it opened me back up to really figuring out what a feminist worldview looks like.
When I cracked open Three Women, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I’d picked it for the Bookish 2021 Reading Challenge because come on, just read this:
Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “a riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics–and topped bestseller lists–worldwide. Based on eight years of immersive research, it is “an astonishing work of literary reportage” (The Atlantic) that introduces us to three unforgettable women–and one remarkable writer–whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.
Despite the last line in the blurb above, I didn’t expect to see myself in any of these women. But I found bits of myself in every one. I found myself completely mesmerized not only by the stories but by Lisa Taddeo’s wizardry with language. I stuck a post-it in the book to mark a passage that resonated deeply… like a tiny explosion of truth in my chest. Then I had to scrounge for another post-it. And another. Then I just went and got a whole bunch of damn post-its. And that’s when I knew: this was going to be one of those seismic shift books for me.
The theme that kept weaving it’s way around in my brain was about identity and desire. Each of the three women sought affirmation from the men they desired… but they also sought, and rarely received, affirmation from the women in their worlds as well.
It was as if they had nothing positive to attach their identity to–so their constructs became based solely on negatives, on subtraction, on being less.
If I seem too invested, he’ll leave.
If I show too much emotional desire, he’ll leave.
If I eat too much, he’ll leave.
If I draw boundaries, he’ll leave.
Desire–or at least the outward expression of it–had to be so measured, so careful crafted for the object of the desire, that at points it seemed like a complete descent into madness.
I have lived that life of reduction. It is madness.
And part of the madness–what really fuels it–is that while outwardly desire is measured, inwardly it rages on, out of control, until nothing else matters. Nothing. else.
I wanted to jump thought the pages, grab each of these women and take them for coffee somewhere quiet. Because surely, if they could just look at this objectively, they’d see…
But the cruelest cut, the reason the book give the reader so very much to think about regarding the construction of desire is encapsulated in an end-of-life exchange between the author and her mother:
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see that you are happy, they will try to destroy you (297).
Well, holy hell.
I sat with this exchange for a minute. I read it. And re-read it. The idea that women reflect off other women to create identity and to gauge their approval of the identity they have created (of their own selves), had appeared several times throughout the book.
But this one was a gut-punch.
Because as the narratives of the three women intertwined, it became evident that the cruelest cuts–the ones that undermined the women’s sense of self and pushed them toward a continued balancing act of trying to be just enough but, god forbid, not too much–happened at the hands of other women. Some were tiny cuts. Some were markedly more damaging. But all along, they were accumulating–so that when it counted, when desire swirled on the edge of madness, and when it wasn’t easy to locate a sense of self amid all the debris–what was left was a gaping wound, and nowhere solid to land.
Maybe the first step toward being a good feminist is making sure that women have a solid place to land. Even if we don’t agree with their decisions. Even if they’re outrageously happy. What if we just approved of and supported other women because… well… humans deserve that? Women, too. Especially from other women.
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