The Feminist Book Club

By David Michael Newstead.

When I told a woman in her forties that I went to a feminist book club recently, the phrase “long-winded, angry lesbians” came up in her response. And in general, that is the negative image regarding feminism even among some people who theoretically agree with it like this woman. She went on to explain that she resists being labelled and categorized and that when she was growing up in the 1980s the word “feminist” felt like it meant something angry, which she found so unappealing.

Skip ahead a few years to the present and those negative connotations obviously still follow around feminism in certain circles. But today, there’s a generational shift as more young people bring their own experiences and perspectives to the topic of equality.

Enter the Feminist Book Club.

In January, a friend of mine in D.C. started a feminist book club as a way to get together with her friends to talk about things outside of their personal lives. Even from the start though, they considered not using the word “feminist” to describe the group. Was it off putting to outsiders, they wondered? Too abrasive?

Eventually, the term stayed and the group began meeting once a month to discuss new material like Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Then by the time I stopped by in May, the subject matter was a little lighter. The book that month was Girl in a Band, a memoir by former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon that one woman in attendance described as having feminist themes, but not a book about feminism. Instead, Girl in a Band is about being a performer, going through a painful divorce, and coming up in a music genre largely dominated by men.

Those insights were interesting, of course, but to be honest, I thought of this as more of an opportunity to observe the book club itself: its vibe, its origins, and the dynamics at play. And really, whichever book they picked each month was just the anchor for a discussion that may begin with a book, but then naturally flows to other topics: what makes a feminist, the big picture versus individual experience, relationships, the workplace, the Spice Girls, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, women trying to join U.S. Special Forces. This was a group of women in their twenties and thirties, drinking tea and/or booze, eating a variety of snacks, and hanging out around the organizer’s kitchen table. The pleasantness and wholesomeness of the whole thing flew in the face of society’s residual stereotype about some fanatic burning a bra. And if feminists were supposedly bitter and angry, these women certainly weren’t.

As the evening progressed, they talked about possible things to read in the future and what they wanted the group to become. Then, one comment stuck out to me, while I sat there stuffing my face with gourmet cookies.

“If people are afraid of the word, why don’t we change the word?” one woman asked, referring to feminism’s popularity problem.

It was an interesting thought really. Brand management for a political concept. A marketing solution for an image problem. In America, there’s probably a lot of merit to that idea when you get down to it. After all, we’ve been inundated by ad campaigns our whole lives and feminism hasn’t exactly benefited from the same marketing budget as Coca-Cola or Verizon Wireless. At the moment though, I have no slogan or new catchphrase to offer. To me, progress and equality seem fragile at best and elusive most of the time. And maybe the real solution requires some discussion like the one I witnessed at the book club: people talking and listening and trading perspectives.

Later that night, I said my goodbyes and headed home, content in the knowledge that my friend wasn’t long-winded and that she didn’t hate me for being a man. To her credit though, I pretty much knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always nice to be sure! Honestly, going to the book club was fun. And the next item on their list? Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock.

Something to consider for your summer reading.