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Reading the Feminist Classics on the Street – 7.21.10

Jen reads Simone de Beauvoir

Jen reads Simone de Beauvoir

Inspired by one of those dinner moments where someone says “we should do this,” and then you do, some friends and I are doing street readings of feminist classics – the texts that shattered ways of thinking about women and men’s roles, gender, sexuality and the structures of the world that reinforce how we live out gender. These readings are taking place on the summer streets of Provincetown as a range of people walk or ride by every few minutes (more video excerpts are on my facebook page).

We started by reading from the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s epic The Second Sex. I love the confidence in de Beauvoir’s writing – it is unequivocal, authoritative, and funny. How do you read excerpts of an 800 page book and have it make sense? We settled for random readings from pages selected by passers-by, followed by spontaneous discussions. It was hard to get people to stand still and focus for more than 2 minutes, and the Bear weekend crowd just walked on by with smiles of benign curiosity. We enjoyed most the irony of shilling for de Beauvoir like she was a drag show – “Come on up folks, have a listen, new translation of the feminist classic by Simone de Beauvoir, read right here, FREE.

Next up we read Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, a far less known but explosive book from the early 1970’s which offered a materialist and biological analysis of women’s second class status in everything from family to art to politics. Firestone not only defined patriarchal structures of society, she attributed much of women’s oppression to our reproductive function and argued that freeing women from childbearing was the most significant change that the women’s movement and technology would enable.

She’s been criticized as “essentialist” — or too focused on biology and not enough on it’s social construction — but so what? Women’s bodies do create conditions for our experience of the world – violence is social and physical, childbearing and motherhood are actual physical experiences (as well as ones whose meaning is constructed) that have framed women’s choices. Re-reading Firestone is like having your ears cleared of wax – you may not like everything you heard, but you sure hear things more clearly!

Most recently, we read from Adrienne Rich’s classic collection of poems, The Dream of A Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. This book was the biggest street hit. As we stood there, 21 different people stepped up to read each of the sonnets in the 21 Love Poems – an amazing meditation on love and relationship from a feminist perspective that sits at the heart of the collection. Men and women read, straight and queer. And we cheered each passage and commented to each other on each provocative phrase.

What am I learning from this? That the ‘old chestnuts’ are still relevant to our lives. While much has changed over three decades, the ideas in these books are still relevant, fresh, bold and brave.

Poetry has a greater street resonance than prose because – proving again that imaginative re-framing, emotions and metaphor move people more than facts.

Men are quite curious and shy about approaching feminism, and women who are with them are even shyer when confronted with that term. A renewed feminist movement has to be multi-gender.

The conversation begun by feminism was derailed by legal success, counter-revolutionary attacks by the right, and women as window dressing – the fundamental demands of equity, equality, an end to violence against women, autonomy and liberty as human beings and sexual and reproductive freedom for women remain incomplete and urgent.

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