nonfiction

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women- Jerramy Fine

Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.

Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).

There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.

I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)

There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.

I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.

So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂

Visit Jerramy Fine’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men- Caroline Criado-PĂ©rez

There have been so many great books on feminism and women’s issues that have come out in the past few years and I’ve wanted to read them all. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-PĂ©rez (Harry N. Abrams, 2019) caught my eye when a friend read a copy, although the subect scared me a little as well (and with good reason, as it turns out). Nevertheless, onto the TBR it went, and it took me a bit to finish, as I’m in the midst of a nasty pain flare thanks to (I’m hoping) the wild temperature swings we’ve been having lately.

Every woman understands women-centric problems in a deeply personal way- women’s pants pockets, AMIRITE???? But it turns out all those other annoyances we experience daily- some of them deadly- is because of the absence of our gender, or the absence of consideration for the ways women differ from men, as these products or methods are being researched and developed. Ever watched a man text one-handed and then you have to use both hands? Cell phones are designed for men’s hands. Ditto for standard piano keyboards, for those of you out there who have struggled to span certain octaves while playing. Seatbelt not fitting correctly across your breasts or pregnant belly? That’s because they’re designed for men’s flat chests; getting belts to accommodate women’s breasts would be “too difficult” (and thus, since car seats are designed based on men’s bodies- you guessed it, women are less safe and die at higher rates even in minor accidents). And don’t go expecting medication to work as the package states it will- even though we KNOW women metabolize medication differently, almost all medication (even medication for conditions primarily suffered by women!) is designed for and tested exclusively on men. These are problems that are quite literally killing women, yet the general consensus is, “Women are just too complicated, so we won’t bother.”

One of the most egregious examples Ms. Criado-PĂ©rez highlighted was the lack of women on the teams helping to rebuild after a tsunami that devastated southeast Asia- (forgive me, I can’t remember if it was Indonesia or Sri Lanka; I neglected to write it down. If you have a copy of the book or remember the specifics and have the time to correct me in the comments, I’m happy to amend this post!) Marisa has reminded me that it took place in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, so thank you Marisa!; this resulted in the teams of men building houses without kitchens. And lest you think this was a fluke, the same thing happened several years later after earthquakes devastated India- men rebuilt houses which lacked kitchens. And why not? They weren’t doing the cooking- food just magically appears for them- so houses having kitchens wasn’t in their frame of reference.

THIS is why the female perspective is vital, and Invisible Women presents the reader with example after infuriating example. No one is immune from the effects of women being left out- if it’s not you receiving ineffective medication or surgical procedures that do more harm than good, it might be your wife, your daughter, your mother- or it might be you sitting in a car when a woman flies through a windshield and then crashes through yours. Or maybe you’ll be waiting uncomfortably in an ER while the doctors work on that woman. Maybe it’ll be a woman whose finances you share who repeatedly drops her cell phone and needs a replacement because that phone is too big for her hands. In some way, this affects every person on the planet, and thus every last one of us should be putting up a major fuss.

Invisible Women is eye-opening and infuriating and should be read by every member of society. It’s opened my eyes to things I realized were problems but didn’t realize WHY (seatbelts, phone sizes, apps that require that we have our phones on our bodies but WHERE DO I PUT THIS THING WHEN I’M WEARING A DRESS OR IT DOESN’T FIT IN MY POCKET???). Ms. Criado-PĂ©rez is more optimistic about these problems being solved than I am; there are far too many people out there willing to roll their eyes any time half the population even opens their mouths, so I don’t look for any of these problems to be solved, possibly ever. If your take is different, I’d love to hear it. I’m feeling pretty cynical about a LOT of stuff these days…

Visit Caroline Criado-PĂ©rez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World- Melinda Gates

I’m struggling to remember where I heard about this book. If memory serves me correctly (and it doesn’t always these days!), I think I first heard about The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates (Flatiron Books, 2019) from an episode of the BookRiot podcast All the Books!, but I’m not entirely certain. It was the comparison to Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide that had me running to add it to my TBR. If you’ve read Half the Sky, this is an astute comparison; if you haven’t, go ahead and add it to your TBR right now, along with The Moment of Lift, because both are five-star books for me.

Melinda Gates is probably best known for being married to Microsoft’s principal founder Bill Gates, and for co-founding their private foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which does amazing work around the world to alleviate poverty, but before she married Bill, she worked as a manager at Microsoft and was (and still is!) passionate about getting more girls and women into STEM careers. Becoming a stronger voice in the foundation wasn’t an easy choice for her, due to her shyness, but after traveling and learning from women all around the world, Melinda realized that that was exactly what she needed to do.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so much money that, I remember learning years ago, they can’t actually give it away fast enough, and part of this is because they take their time making sure that they’re giving in a sustainable way, to projects that help the receivers grow and be able to produce on their own, instead of just throwing money at a problem (and thus being more harmful to an area when the money suddenly dries up). But what Mrs. Gates has learned from her travels, from women all around the world, some of whom live in the most dire circumstances imaginable, she shares in this book, and so much of what she’s written here resonated deeply with me. Her thoughts about human nature- sometimes our basest nature- are profound and beautiful, and I copied down two pages worth of notes and quotes.

For example, her claim that ‘there is no morality without empathy’ put into words something I’ve always felt very deeply, but never really had the wording to describe. She goes on to say:

“Morality is loving your neighbor as yourself, which comes from seeing your neighbor as yourself, which means trying to ease your neighbor’s burdens- not add to them.”

Two other paragraphs that struck a deep chord with me:

“It’s often surprisingly easy to find bias, if you look. Who was omitted or disempowered or disadvantaged when the cultural practice was formed? Who didn’t have a voice? Who wasn’t asked their view? Who got the least share of the power and the largest share of the pain? How can we fill in the blind spots and reverse the bias?

Tradition without discussion kills moral progress. If you’re handed a tradition and decide not to talk about it- just do it- then you’re letting people from the past tell you what to do. It kills the chance to see the blind spots in the tradition- and moral blind spots always take the form of excluding others and ignoring their pain.”

In story after story from women around the world, Mrs. Gates shows examples of how bias and the base human need to create outsiders in order to falsely empower ourselves can be overcome through education and understanding (though it might not be as simple as it first seems, in many cases). The Moment of Lift is a book that will have you examining your own biases and thinking deeply about what you can do to make yourself, your community, this world, a better place- for women, and not just for women, but because when we empower women, we empower everyone. Equality benefits every member of society, and Mrs. Gates shows this throughout the book in powerful examples.

This is a book I feel like I could reread over and over again throughout my life, and maybe I should, as a constant reminder to always check my biases and to always work to be more inclusive, not less. The Moment of Lift is beauty and wonder, along with tears and heartbreak (there are plenty of devastating stories, including stories of rape, child death, and child marriage), but with the message that pushes the reader to strive for growth and the creation of a better world. If you read one nonfiction book this year, let it be this one.

Visit Melinda Gates’s website for The Moment of Lift here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger- Rebecca Traister

Women’s anger- whether it be about inequality in its multitudinous forms, sexual assault, or our current rocky political landscape- has been making headlines for quite a while now, and for good reason. Most of the women I know are pretty angry about a lot of things these days, and I’m right there with them, so when I heard about Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister (Simon & Schuster, 2018), I knew I had to read it. One of the reasons I read so much is so that I’m always learning, always checking myself and my biases, always looking for ways to improve myself. Maybe reading this would help me feel so not alone in the anger and disgust that has become a constant companion these days.

Women’s anger has never been fully accepted in western society, and in the US, it’s mostly been brushed off, ignored, laughed at, and silenced, but throughout history, despite being denied equal pay, equal rights, the right to vote, the right to control her own fertility, even the right to obtain her own credit card or own property, women’s anger has been effective at initiating social change time and time again (and STILL we’re not taken seriously, wtf). Ms. Traister covers some of these incidents, but the bigger focus of the book remains on more modern issues.

Good and Mad focuses a lot on the outcome and aftermath of the 2016 elections and all the many, many issues raised because of them, and also the positive things that have come out of this anger. One of the benefits of our collective anger is that so many more women have become more politically activee and have run and are running for government office in unprecedented numbers (it’s about time!!!), and her portrayals of all the women who have found an outlet for their anger in political work is empowering.

Women’s anger has made clear, too, that we have a long, long way to go on racial equality in this country, and Ms. Traister gives space at the table to women of color who are fed up with not being heard by white women, especially those white women who benefit from the patriarchy and by doing so are happy to let women of color suffer (and I was very glad to see it; more intersectionality in all things, please!). I’ve seen this far too often online; we all need to do a better job of listening to each other, and especially listening and learning from women of color. When they say something is harmful to them, believe them and work to change your ways. It’s easy to get defensive and claim you didn’t mean anything by what you said, but it’s better to apologize, learn why what you said or did was wrong, and work to change your behavior. It’s the only way we’ll evolve as human beings, and it’s so, so necessary.

What I learned, and appreciated learning, most from Good and Mad is that our anger, women’s anger, isn’t unhealthy. It’s a valid emotion; it’s the system that insists we must oppress it for someone else’s benefit and comfort, and while I enjoy making life pleasant for those I love, I don’t need to make the world pleasant for those who don’t see me as an equal. Ms. Traister’s work has definitely inspired me to keep my anger burning in a productive way.

(And, just as a side note- check out the Goodreads reviews for this. Women AND men are reviewing it positively! In my review of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers & the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman, I noted how a friend had pointed out that only women were reviewing the book. When I scrolled down through the reviews of Good and Mad, my eyes nearly popped out to see the first handful of reviews were by men! Amazing!)

Visit Rebecca Traister’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership- Darcy Lockman

Another vacation book! Super relaxing beach read, right?

All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman (Harper, 2019) ended up on my TBR list not too long ago, and as luck would have it, another local library had a copy waiting for me on its New Books shelf the day we were there to play in its children’s department. After DNF’ing two other books I’d brought with me on vacation, I finished this one while stuck in traffic on our way home…and then had to contemplate the horror of either reading the car manual…or not reading at all. Life lost all meaning at that point. (Okay, not really, but it was close.)

Incorporating an enormous amount of data in one book, Darcy Lockman has written a book about Every (Straight) Woman’s Problem: the husband who doesn’t help. Study after study after study shows that men don’t help out around the house. Not with kids, not with food (the purchasing or the preparing), not with cleaning, not with any of the daily minutiae that makes the family work- dentist and doctor appointments, buying new soccer cleats, scheduling the vet appointment, sending birthday cards to Great Aunt Mildred. No matter if you’re a full-time housewife or employed full-time, if you were born with a uterus and live with a partner born with a penis, all these jobs and more are likely yours all the time, and the overwhelming odds are, Ms. Lockman shows, that you’re overwhelmed and angry about it, or as angry as you let yourself get- because at some point, the vast majority of us just become resigned to it, and the cycle continues.

Is there anything to be done about this? Probably not all that much, seems to be the conclusion of this book. While Ms. Lockman does portray one man who seems to understand that men as a whole have got to step up to the plate more, she does point out that, unfortunately, men have felt entitled to women’s labor (both physical and emotional) since the dawn of time, that our doing all of this work benefits them and there’s very little benefit to them doing their part to schedule the vet appointments and researching soccer cleats. And the culture backs them up, penalizing women monetarily at work for becoming mothers, while rewarding fathers with higher pay. Each of her claims is backed up with hard data; odds are that if you’re a woman, you’ll recognize far too much of this in your own life and be feeling all the rage while reading it.

So, yes, I was obviously able to identify with most of this book. My husband does take care of our daughter when he’s at home; he plays with her, gets her food, takes her to the park, supervises her while she’s in the tub so she doesn’t drown or flood the bathroom (the latter is much more likely these days). He puts his dinner dishes in the sink (I rinse them and put them in the dishwasher), he leaves his socks all over the living room floor, I can’t honestly remember him ever cooking a vegetable, and I would bet every cent in our bank account that he has zero idea what our daughter’s doctor’s name is. Dads generally get not only the fun jobs (outside play, cool school projects like baking soda volcanoes, teaching a kid to ride a bike), they get the jobs that are one-and-done or close to it: change the oil in the car and you’re done for another five or six months, maybe more. Dishes? Every day, sometimes three times a day. Cooking? Every night, at least; more often if you’re home with small children all day. Laundry? If you’re not a nudist, it’s never actually done. Women’s work is everyday drudgery; men get to kick back while we’re still scrubbing the crud out of the kitchen sink. Again.

My friend Sharon made the most excellent point about books of this genre, which seem to be popping up more often. Go look at the Goodreads reviews of this book. Check out the Amazon reviews. Look at the names of the people who reviewed the book. Scroll down, keep scrolling. Look for a man’s name. Did you find one? No, you didn’t. Because the only people who are reading this book, and books that discuss this very real problem (according to some studies, unequal division of labor is one of the top three reasons couples divorce), are women. Where are the men? Why aren’t they reading this book? Can we start shelving it in Men’s Self-Help? Most likely not; Ms. Lockman cited one example of a woman who told her husband she was ready to divorce him because of his lack of help with anything, including the kids. He sobbed, he begged…and afterwards, nothing changed, and he still didn’t help. Is it that most men just don’t value their marriages enough to wash the dishes a few nights a week and change their share of diapers? Why do they not feel as invested in their homes as women do? Why do they not feel invested enough in their marriages to lighten their wives’ loads, even when the wives beg for help?

All the Rage raises more questions than it gives answers. It’s still a worthy read, especially if you’re thinking it’s just you. “It’s every one of them,” my mom told me while we were on vacation, discussing a recent night out with her friends where they discussed their husbands’ lack of help around the house. “Every last one of them acts like that.” This book, sadly, backs that claim up, and neither Ms. Lockman nor I see much changing anytime soon without the catalyst of a massive cultural shift.

Visit Darcy Lockman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.