Perspectives on World War I

summer100 years ago today marks the end of the first world war. In the serendipity that is my library request list, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson appeared on my hold shelf about a week ago. So it was that I found myself reading a story about the outbreak of the war while my community prepared to commemorate its end.

In truth, I had placed my name on the waiting list for the book because it was on an “If you like Downton Abbey…” reading list. And it is indeed Downton Abbey-like in its exploration of the way the war affected a small English town. We don’t get a lot of details about what’s happening abroad. The story focuses on the personal rather than the political aspects of the war. It’s about lack of food in the shops, inability to travel, and changed career plans. But the part of the story that fascinated me the most is the portrayal of women’s lives at the time, especially the twenty-three year-old Latin teacher who struggles to be independent from the oversight of the trustees who manage her inheritance. It was another world in terms of how women were permitted to live, but it was a time of change.

If you like gentle stories full of historical details and wry wit, this is a good choice for you. If you are more interested in an account of the war itself, try Through the Barricades by Denise Deegan, which I wrote about here. Or if you want to read about the American home front, don’t miss one of my favorite books Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larsen.

Feminism, and what it means to me

Sexism and feminism have been major topics of discussion in the Proper Noun household lately.  It came to a strong head with ElevatorGate, and it continued through not-quite-small-talk conversation  after a performance at a recent block party that raised a few feminist eyebrows.

In the midst of the discussion, I happened to read a biography of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which had me thinking about the rights I take for granted and questioning whether I could have dedicated myself to the cause as completely as these women did.

My experience with feminism had less to do with history and civil rights and more to do with my own experience as a woman.  As I attempted to define what I wanted from my life, I read books like The Vagina Monologues and Woman: An Intimate Geography. Cunt by Inga Muscio shocked me and empowered me.  Words can mean something different to me than they mean to others? Yes! I can change my attitude and affect the change of others? Yes!!

This is where it all began  for me, and the past several weeks of discussion has been an opportunity to revisit issues that I don’t often think about. An opportunity to ask questions of my current self compared to my past self.  Is this still what I think?

Now matter what opinions or ideas change over time, I’m glad that I was able to explore femininity/feminism for myself as a young woman.  I have to express gratitude to the women who started the fight, those who revived it, and those of my own generation who have been articulating just what it means to be a feminist in the twenty-first century.  I was reminded of the words of a mother to a daughter in a teen novel I read recently–“No choice is stupid if it comes from you.”–as I read these words in the introduction of Sisterhood, Interrupted:

“Seventy-something Gloria Steinem–who is, many would argue, the most famous living feminist–often meets women admirers who say, with great urgency, ‘Look, I think feminism might have failed–my daughter (or son) doesn’t even know who you are!’

Gloria’s answer is warm but also philosophical.  She says, ‘It doesn’t matter if she knows who I am–does she know who she is?’

At the end of the day, feminism is expressed in individual women and men in unlearning pointless self-sacrifice, artifice, and self-suppression and believing that they, in fact, own feminism, too, and can contribute to social justice.”