memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice by Anita Diamant

I love Anita Diamant. How can you not? She’s the coolest person. She’s an author (likely best known for The Red Tent, but she’s written a zillion other books, including some amazing ones about Judaism; we used her Living a Jewish Life in my in-person, pre-pandemic class), she’s the founding president of a mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim in Massachusetts), she’s funny and smart and interesting (she follows me on Twitter!!!11!!!11111!1!!!), and now, she’s written a book about periods, Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (Scribner, 2021). Can I adopt her as my other mom? Because she’s seriously the coolest.

Period. End of Sentence. the film won an Oscar in 2019. This documentary showcased a group of girls working to help fundraise in order to provide machines that would make sustainable menstrual pads for a town in India. Around the world, menstruation is still a challenge for so many girls and women; they’re banished from their communities during that time, not allowed to take part in community rituals, told that their mere presence will cause food to spoil. Girls are forced to stay home from school due to lack of menstrual supplies; some are considered ready for marriage upon the arrival of their first period, effectively bringing their formal education to a halt. Even in the US, period poverty among girls and women is pervasive, and humiliation, including only allowing prisoners five pads per month, permeates our culture.

Anita Diamant has written the film’s companion book, illustrating the (human-created) problems surrounding menstruation and the fight to correct the course. All around the world, women and even some men have joined the fight to normalize menstruation (like, it’s something that happens to half the world; how is this still cloaked in mystery and taboo???) and bring justice and equality to those who menstruate. No one should have their education curtailed because of their period; no one should be kicked out of their home every twenty-eight days; no one should lose their life because they get a period.

This is truly an incredible book that will get you thinking about periods, equality, and what it means to exist in the world as a woman. It’ll get you thinking about what you can do to help, how you can even things up a little. While this would make an excellent mother-daughter read-aloud or mother-daughter book club read, I encourage you to think about making it a family read, too. There’s no reason why periods should be something secretive or embarrassing, and boys should know as much about periods as girls. Our sons should be allies and as dedicated to bringing justice to menstruation as girls and women are, and all that starts with learning and open conversation.

Two thumbs up for this book, and a big high five to Anita Diamant! I really enjoyed this one and will read it again with my daughter in a few years.

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

I no longer remember how Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford (Little, Brown & Company, 2020) ended up on my TBR, but the library turned out to not have the format I needed for my kindle, so once again, interlibrary loan saved the day!

In her second year at a private Episcopal boarding school in New England, Lacy Crawford is sexually assaulted by two male students. To compound the horror of the situation, she contracts herpes in her throat (deep enough that it’s obvious to medical professionals that there’s no way this could have been consensual), and the school not only learns of this years before Lacy does, they warn other students about her. And when Lacy finally breaks her silence, the school does everything it can to shut her up, including threatening to ruin her reputation by spreading lies about her.

In response, years later, Lacy Crawford wrote this book.

This is one of the bravest books I’ve ever read. It’s tragic, in the way that books are when their authors reveal so much personal pain, but there’s even more tragedy here: Lacy feels obligated to lay out all the details of every sexual encounter she had while at the school- some consensual, others not- in order to not only give a fuller picture of her experiences, but to get ahead of the officials from the school who may have tried to use her sexual history against her (because we all know how that goes. One consensual experience is all it takes to turn a girl or a woman into a raving slut in the eyes of the world. Consent to physical contact with a single man and that means you’re asking for it from everyone. What a disgusting society we’ve created). Women shouldn’t have to go through this in order to be believed, but Lacy knows exactly what she’s up against and bares her soul and her past in a raw, open way on these pages.

This is an emotionally difficult read, but it’s a story that will be familiar to every woman out there (men, I need you to step up and read this book and realize what we go through, what we’re subject to, what your daughters and sisters and mother and friends have lived under the shadow of our entire lives). The school officials threatening Lacy and passing along her private medical information- that SHE hadn’t even been told of- to the student body. The nastiness of the student body. Lacy’s desperation to reclaim some sort of agency over her life and her body. People constantly bringing up the STD Lacy contracted from the assault to her, decades later (on what PLANET is that an okay subject to broach with anyone but your closest friends who have made it known that this is acceptable to discuss?????) The way the school handled this is both utterly horrifying and humdrum at the same time- humdrum because this is how things work in this world. Men are allowed to hurt us, assault us, affect us, and walk free, and we shoulder the blame, the guilt, the costs.

Good for Lacy Crawford for finding her voice and shouting from the rooftops about the cesspool behind the administration at St. Paul’s of Concord, New Hampshire. It’s long past time that women started speaking out about the wrongs done to us and about the many ways these institutions will throw us under the bus in the scramble to protect their own reputation. The language used in this book is powerful and damning, and I’m in awe of Ms. Crawford’s bravery. If you have the emotional bandwidth of this book, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the finest examples of strength and bravery I’ve ever read.

Visit Lacy Crawford’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz

I don’t often review the books I read out loud to my daughter (though I do count them on Goodreads), but once in a while, a really great one comes up. I’m always on the lookout for great reads about strong, motivated girls and women for my daughter. She’s a bit of a spitfire and I’d like to ensure that one day, when she’s ready, she’ll use her powers for good, because there’s so much in this world that needs fixing. So when I stumbled across Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2018) on a library trip, I knew that was one that needed to go into her brain. And it was a great one.

In brief columns and write-ups, Rad Girls Can shares stories of young girls and young women who made a difference in the world, spotting a problem and taking action to solving it, or who persevered with remarkable courage when times were tough. Some of the girls featured come out of history, like Anne Frank, Elizabeth Cotton, and Maria Mitchell; others are modern-day rad girls, like Jazz Jennings, Egypt “Ify” Ufele, and Memory Banda. The girls come from many different countries and societies; they fight for an end to discrimination, racism, and misogyny; they work for fair wages, better opportunities, and more access to education. They start companies, forge global movements, compete, and perform. They’re the kind of girls we want our daughters to take courage from, and the kind of girls we look at in amazement and come away inspired.

This is a seriously great book. The writeups are short enough that if one doesn’t necessarily interest a reader (hey, not everyone is into rock climbing or stories about warriors), the next one very well may. The girls portrayed are varied and interesting, and there are enough topics covered that at least one should stand out to a reader and intrigue them enough to make them want to learn more. This would be a great jumping-off point for a larger project on an inspiring woman, and a great parent-child read. Heads up for some mentions of forced marriage and periods (this sparked a good discussion with my daughter).

Excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this to my daughter.

Visit Kate Schatz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic nonfiction

Book Review: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, translated by Montana Kane

Yet another example of how I shouldn’t be allowed unfettered access to the library when I already have books at home. But how could I resist? Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu (First Second, 2018), translated by Montana Kane, was just sitting there, begging me to take it home, and I was like, “It’s graphic nonfiction! It won’t take me long to read at all! It’ll be fiiiiiiiinnnnne.” And it was. : )

In short chapters, Ms. Bagieu tells the story of a woman from history- sometimes ancient, sometimes modern- who stepped outside of the lines society drew for her and created her own reality. Some you’ve likely heard of- Temple Grandin, Nellie Bly, Betty Davis, Hedy Lamarr- and others likely not- Naziq al-Abid, Frances Glessner Lee, Delia Akeley, Giorgina Reid. Each has a spark of something a little extra that allowed them to stand up against the restrictions society placed against women in their time and that inspired them to be a little more than what the world told them to be. The charming illustrations are perfect for Ms. Bagieu’s slightly snarky sense of storytelling; overall, this is a fabulous book of women’s history.

I learned a lot from this book; even at 41, there’s still so much I don’t know, and I was absolutely fascinated with every story in this book. That’s not to say I loved all the people portrayed; some were a little disturbing (but, as the author says, plenty of men act in similar ways and they’ve gotten away with it for centuries, which was, happily, something I also thought about when I was I reading this particular historical figure’s story. I love when my brain actually thinks intelligent things and not just things like, “Wait, why did I get up and walk into the kitchen again???”), but wow, there were just so many fascinating women portrayed in this book that I had never heard of. I would love to read anything else Pénélope Bagieu has written, because I enjoyed everything about the experience of reading this book.

It’s too late for the 2021 holidays, but this would make a fabulous gift for any young feminist (and that’s male or female!), even if they’re not much of a reader. The graphic nonfiction format makes it a quick read, but the format will also hold the attention of even the most reluctant non-reader, and the humor sprinkled throughout the stories keep the feel light. Pick up a copy for that niece that’s hard to buy for, or your feminist co-worker’s son. They’ll love it.

Visit Pénélope Bagieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

It’s been another busy week around here, so I haven’t gotten a ton of reading time, but I’m immensely glad I made some time to finish reading White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (Catapult, 2020). If you are lucky enough to have Black and brown friends who use their time, energy, and voice to share with you their experiences and their knowledge, listen and take to heart what they say. I have several of those women in my life and I’m deeply grateful for their presence and the way they teach in the hopes that things will get better. It was one of those friends who recommended this book (thanks, Jo!); I put it on my list immediately, because no matter how much work I’ve done to free myself from the racist messages I’ve absorbed simply by growing up and living in a culture as racist as ours, the work is never done. We can always do better. And white friends, we have to do better.

Ruby Hamad has written an incredible book about how white feminism leaves women of color behind, how white women continue to marginalize women of color. It’s not just our words and actions; it’s the way we cry, as though we’re the victims, when called out on our behavior. Instead of listening, considering, and realizing that what we said or did was wrong, we break down in tears (and not tears of regret, tears of anger) and lob “How can you SAY that? How can you be so mean?” at the woman or women who had pointed out our harmful behavior. And that’s the problem- unfortunately, we don’t always know our behavior is hurtful (again, living in a racist culture, we absorb messages and behaviors we don’t necessarily think of as racist, but they still are, and they’re still hurtful. It doesn’t matter that our intent wasn’t hurtful if it still harmed someone), and we react with anger, vitriol, and accusations, turning the person who was trying to prevent further harm into the aggressor.

Example by example, using history to back up her narrative, Ruby Hamad illustrates exactly how poorly white women handle matters of race, and the harm it inflicts on women of color. There can be no true sisterhood of women until white women understand the gravity of their harmful attitudes, and it’s up to white women to unlearn these attitudes, to listen and change their ways.

This is an incredibly necessary book. Women of color may benefit from it as well, having their experiences validated and feeling not so alone when they read that other women have gone through these things as well. But if your heritage is primarily from a European background and you check the box marked as ‘Caucasian’ on forms, you need to read this book. Because we HAVE to do better. We HAVE to be better friends, better allies. We need to stop the white woman tears, call out racism and bad behavior when we see it (even if that upsets other people- sorry, but it’s the right thing to do. The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, and really, if someone is hurting people and refuses to recognize that, you need to reexamine how much you want someone like that in your life). Tell your racist uncle to shove it at Thanksgiving dinner; cut off your best friend mid-sentence; and more than anything, when a Black or brown friend tells you something you said hurt her, SHUT UP AND LISTEN, AND THEN DO BETTER.

The future of our world depends on this.

While I don’t *think* I’ve white woman tear’ed (as the book refers to it) anyone, I am aware of several times in my life I didn’t speak up when family and friends, both in person and on social media, were saying racist things. Three specific incidents came to mind as I was reading this book, incidents that I didn’t think of at the time but that I now recognize I should have stepped in and said something. I’m saying this here because I’m guilty as well; so often as women, we’re taught that we need to keep the peace, we need to not rock the boat. But there are already people rocking the boat so hard that Black and brown women are being thrown overboard with reckless abandon. Perhaps by speaking up when we see other white women engaging in racist behavior and white woman tears, we’ll not be so much as rocking the boat but steadying it, making it a safer place for everyone.

This is one book I’m begging everyone to read. Read it, learn it, live it. Recognize your own shortcomings and racist attitudes. Be honest with yourself about when and how you’ve been wrong. Listen to your Black and brown friends, take their words to heart, and be the kind of friend and feminist they need you to be. Because we may all be in this together, but the stakes are a lot higher if your skin isn’t white, and for too long, white women have been okay with grasping for even miniscule scraps of power while throwing darker-skinned women under the bus in order to do so. No more.

Follow Ruby Hamad on Instagram.

nonfiction

Book Review: Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All by Laura Bates

If you’re a woman, you know. You know there are men out there who hate you simply because you were born (or became) a woman. They make shitty misogynistic jokes that they think are hilarious, they roll their eyes when you talk about the statistics that one in three women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, they talk about how men are the real victims in all of this. They grope. They harass. They assault. They abuse. They rape. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t come in contact with men like this; many of us are unfortunate enough to have them in our own families. And the problem is growing. The internet has made institutionalized misogyny widespread, and it’s cropping up in our schools, our workplaces, and our government policies. Laura Bates has chronicled this infuriating phenomenon in her outstanding book, Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All (Simon & Schuster UK, 2020).

Chapter by chapter, Laura Bates introduces us to the different types of misogyny that have become prevalent throughout the culture: the incels (short for involuntary celibate, this is a group of whiny men who feel that women owe them sex simply for being male, and they refuse to take responsibility for having lame personalities and zero decent personal grooming habits. Because of course it’s our fault and not theirs that they’re alone), the pickup artists (slimy, manipulative conmen who will go to any lengths to get women to sleep with them, and who think that rape is no big deal), the MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way; basically, dudes who are so done with women, they want nothing to do with them, which pretty much sounds like a giant favor to the rest of us, but which can have major affects on women if, say, your boss belongs to this group), and others, including red pillers and men’s rights advocates. These men spend their time on a portion of the internet collectively known as the manosphere, where they share degrading memes, make pathetic jokes, and egg each other on towards violence. More than a few mass shooters have been known to participate in these misogynistic communities; almost all of them have had prior convictions or accusations of some sort of violence against women.

This well-documented book illustrates the violence, fear, and extreme black-and-white thinking that goes on in the minds of the men who identify as members of these groups, and the real-life consequences and outcomes of such groupthink.

Once again, this is not an easy read. It’s an extremely disturbing exposé that shows the gradual creep of misogyny into nearly every corner of our lives, and how it’s very much not taken seriously. How many times has it come out that yet another mass shooter had been arrested for domestic violence or assault against a woman? Almost every time, and yet it’s barely a blip on the radar of most authorities that this alone is a major risk factor. Ms. Bates, who has received thousands of death and rape threats throughout her career as a journalist for exposing these cretins for who they are, makes the case over and over again that this line of thinking is dangerous- dangerous for women, dangerous for society, and yes, dangerous for men.

It’s a line of thought that doesn’t get enough mainstream press coverage, she argues (correctly!) that toxic masculinity (not men-are-toxic; strictly-enforced-ideas-about-masculinity-are-toxic would be the better way to frame it) hurts men. Women can be anything from a dancer to an engineer; why shouldn’t the same be true and acceptable for men? Why does society want to shove all men into one round hole of ‘tough; unemotional; strong,’ when that’s obviously unhealthy? Men should be able to create beautiful art, and to explain what they were feeling when they painted it (and to be taught from an early age how to understand what it is they’re feeling and TALK about it!). They should be able to become whatever it is they want, from teachers to librarians to engineers to dance instructors and no one should give a shit, because that’s what makes for healthy people and a healthy society. And men should be able (and expected!) to be good, nurturing parents to the kids they create and the kids they take on as their own. Society hurts men (which in turn hurts women) when we expect so little from them.

Will this book help create change? I don’t know. It’s a deep, wide problem that spans the globe, and Ms. Bates is well aware of that. But we have to do better, and being aware that these communities exist and of the damage that they inflict- on women, on our society, on themselves- is a start. At the very least, every parent should be reading this to understand what’s out there and what’s trying to rope your kids in, since most of this radicalization is taking place online (YouTube is especially bad at recommending far-right content; meme farms on Instagram are also a major problem). Be aware; read this book, and make sure you’re paying close attention to the language your teen boys are using (and girls as well; there are some women out there looking to rope in like-thinking young girls. The trad wife movement is a big nasty part of this).

Visit Laura Bates’s website, Everyday Sexism, here.

Follow Everyday Sexism on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

I’m right on the line between Gen X (mid 60s to early 80s) and Millennials (early 80s to early 00s), in what’s sometimes called The Oregon Trail generation. A lot from both generational descriptors applies to me, but I don’t fit in well with either group, so it’s kind of frustrating. But enough fits that I tend to pay attention when either generation is mentioned, especially the massive problems both face. That’s why I paid attention when my friend Sharon mentioned Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun (Grove Press, 2020). Onto my TBR it went, while I ruminated over the fact that I’m old enough to be having a midlife crisis. Hmph.

Gen X has had it hard, with a mountain of debt, sandwiched in between child care and elder care, grappling with the idea that because we as women can finally do everything (or, uh, most things *stares in President*), we should- until it turned out that we just had to do everything and do it all with no help or support. (Check out that email list for your kid’s class fundraisers or field trips- how many dads are in there? Yeah…) They come from a background of what my friend Alexis refers to as benign neglect- latchkey kids who were left on their own to figure things out, from how to make themselves a snack to how to deal with the emotional fallout from things like watching the Challenger explode, or their parents’ divorce. Some of this, explains Calhoun, may be the reason helicopter parenting has become so popular.

While Boomers broke down the barriers, they left Gen X women with all the options but with little support. Being able to have a career is amazing, and no one is complaining about having that choice, but childcare, housework, elder care, all the emotional labor, it’s all still left to the women to do, with fewer resources than men, who aren’t societally tasked with this kind of work. Women are still penalized for being parents in terms of salary and career projectory in a way that men are not. All of this has left Gen X women disillusioned, exhausted, and feeling like no matter how much they’ve done, they haven’t done enough.

This is a bit of a downer of a read, but if you’re a Gen X’er, you’ll feel seen. I was able to identify with some of it- the career stuff obviously doesn’t apply to me as a lifelong housewife, but the benign neglect that perhaps led to that being my only real option? Possibly. The focus on the middle to upper middle class led to the book feeling just a bit limited in scope. I would have appreciated hearing some of the struggles of women without college degrees, who are working several low-paid jobs and struggling to keep the lights on alongside the professionals who are worrying that the million dollars they have socked away for retirement won’t be enough (which is an absolutely valid worry, because this country doesn’t care well for its seniors and all signs point to this not getting better anytime soon). I also felt that she was a little dismissive of Millennials, who will likely have it even worse as they continue to age. Their attitude of, “Yeah, we’re screwed and we know it, thanks, guys!” is probably better, but that doesn’t change the realities of their situation. It’s cool, though, if it means Jeff Bezos is megasuperrich and can afford to pay to send himself to space. Totally cool. *eyeroll*

I did enjoy this. Ms. Calhoun has a sympathetic voice and immediately dives into the heart of the matter: feminism has been great to women, but society hasn’t made the necessary adjustments in order to fully admit them without some serious stress (and, once again, all signs point to nothing changing about this, other than certain people moaning about the low birth rate but then refusing to do anything to support families). Without support for the extra responsibilities that women carry along with their careers- children, taking care of elderly parents, that nasty second shift, the incidentals like the school bake sale and remembering to pick up coffee creamer and shoelaces- we’re doomed to feel like we can’t keep up, and that everything we’re doing is not and will never be enough. Lot of harsh reality in this book.

Visit Ada Calhoun’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron

“What’s your pronoun?”

She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.

Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.

English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)

While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).

Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.

Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:

‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.

Fascinating! I never knew that!

Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊

Visit Dennis Baron’s blog here.

Follow him on Twitter here.