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March 13, 2018 by

What My Dislike of Book Clubs Taught Me About Feminism

reading-3088491_1920I’m not a book club kind of person. I love books, and I love clubs. I mean, I really love books. I read in the gym. I read in the bath (always have, as the history of sodden, fat books on my mother’s shelf attests). I read on my walk to work. I read at work. Sometimes I even read for work.

For some reason (who knows why?) book clubs just have not worked for me.

I’m lying. I know exactly why book clubs haven’t worked for me. It’s because I don’t work for book clubs. Basically, I turn into a raging asshole, the kind of know-it-all that everyone hates and rolls their eyes at. Even I hate myself and roll my own eyes at my when I happen to overhear myself pontificating on a book at—you guessed it—a book club. By this point, I know how it will go: after everyone has their opening say, informed by their own close readings or reflections or maybe the movie about the book or maybe what their friends said about it, I make my move. I draw a deep breath, set down the book with a bang, and tell everyone what the book is really about. In full pretentious Ph.D.-professor mode.

Basically, I suck. I’m your worst book-club nightmare. I’m my worst-book club nightmare. And I can’t seem to stop myself. As I’m talking, the inside of my head is shrieking: abort! Abort! Stop. Talking. NOW.

I don’t stop talking. Instead, I stop going to book clubs. Because I refuse to stop talking.

I know that voice inside my head. You—especially if you present as female, and even more so (I imagine) if you are a woman of color—might know it too. It’s the voice that piped up every time I raised my hand in class, every time I asked a question at a public talk, every time I asserted that I knew something and was proud of it and was going to make sure you knew it too. I heard that voice a lot.

On the one hand, it’s the voice that’s teaching me not to take up too much space; not to be a show-off; not to be insufferable and annoying and pretentious and a know-it-all. On the other hand, it’s the voice of all the powers in the world trying to tell me that I don’t have the right to speak; that even if I am an expert, I shouldn’t assert myself; that surely there are others who are better, more palatable, more clever than me who should have the platform. That even if I do know what I am talking about, no one wants to hear it. It’s the voice that’s telling me to just shut. the. hell. up.

I’ve spent a lot of time ignoring the fuck out of that voice.

I ignored it in high school, where I was enormously lucky to be in the kind of place that embraced quasi-athletic smart young women and encouraged them to answer every questions they could (en route to inevitable careers in teaching, social work, or medicine…but that’s another story.) I ignored it in university, where I was at a huge institution that made itself tiny for everyone who had the privilege and ability to show up and work hard and ask. And, after an initial and (I learned) utterly predictable bout of imposter syndrome, I ignored it in my fancy-pants elite Ph.D. program, where the only difference between me and the other women with their fancy-pants elite undergrad degrees is that they were better at ignoring that voice, or even talking back to it both in their heads and in the classroom, where men were still called upon more than women, and were treated more as colleagues than students. They were gilded as golden where we were a more tarnishable silver.

And let me be clear: I loved graduate school. I was surrounded by tremendously supportive peers and mentors, all of whom were aware of these dynamics and did their best not to accommodate them too much, and even to challenge them and call them out. But these structural dynamics are hard not to reproduce, and even harder to fundamentally change.

It’s hard for me too. I mean, I’ve been hearing that damn voice all my life. So have my students. Some of them are that voice. Others have never stopped listening to it. But in the classroom, I can be louder than that voice. I can—and do—make it a habit to make space in my classroom for all the voices, noticing who speaks and who doesn’t and who I call on and who (if anyone) I don’t. If there are patterns, I try to change them. If there are silences from certain voices, I create ways of helping them speak in traditional and sometimes non-traditional ways. I check myself and my internal (and sometimes external) eye roll at the student who “talks too much” when that student is a woman and her male counterparts seem not to hit the same nerve. I admit it: this has happened. But I can pay attention to it and fix it.

I’m subject to these same structural dynamics that favor men’s voices over women’s. But I don’t have to listen to them. I can push back. That’s one of the reasons I keep that voice around. It reminds me that it’s complete fucking bullshit. It reminds me to question my own practices in which voices I honor and which ones I help silence. I’m the first person to call out the person with the mic during public Q&As for only passing it to men. It still happens a lot. Probably unconsciously. Doesn’t make it better.

And I keep that voice around because, every once in a while (like in a book club), it’s right: the casual book club isn’t a space for an academic lecture or soliloquy. (For those curious, I eventually found a book club filled with other professorial women that I now enjoy attending.)  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at asking questions, and answering them. I’m a good public speaker. I don’t ramble. I condense my thoughts (often on the fly) and present them in a coherent framework that’s usually pretty easy to follow. Sometimes (not often) I’m even funny. Now, when I don’t talk, when I silence myself, it’s not because I’m listening to that voice that I’ve worked hard to ignore. It’s because I’m thinking about who else has that voice, and whether I can help her stop listening to it as well. Sometimes, to that end, I talk. Sometimes, especially in dominant male settings, (like, say, the academy) or settings in which the male voice is dominant (like, say, the world), having a woman speak makes the space necessary for other women to speak.

Not always.

The voice helps remind me that it is important to speak, but it is also important to know when to shut up. Not because of the power dynamics that are trying to silence me, but because of the power dynamics that cause me (a Jewish white middle-class woman) to silence others. That voice, I try to listen to. That voice, which allows the space to be filled by those we don’t often hear from, is to be respected and honored.

I’ve spent a lifetime ignoring the fuck out of the voice, and now I’m learning to listen to it. To remind me not to ignore the fuck out of other voices that have spent their lifetimes being ignored.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.  

  • Jen Tindell

    Oh my God, I love you. You’re just like me. We should start a Book Club together.

    • Sharrona Pearl

      That sounds terrific!