Stephanie Staal remembers her undergraduate work at Barnard College in the early 1990s with nostalgia. “Back then, I was on the brink of independence,” she writes in “Reading Women.” “Opportunity seemed to spread out before me like a pair of wings, delicate, but strong and broad enough, I hoped, to carry me into the future. Long cocooned in the classroom, bred on heady ideas, radicalized and politicized, I was impatient to swoop into what I saw as the real world. . . . I fantasized about becoming a foreign correspondent, writing the Great American Novel, basically nothing short of changing the world; any thoughts of marriage and motherhood trailed distantly behind.”
Staal viewed the whole human condition, in those days, through the dazzling prism of her own self. She seems to have been remarkably untroubled by any lack of self-esteem: “I worked like a dog in college, winning honors, awards, and coveted internships, then landed a fairly glamorous job upon graduation as a literary scout for foreign publishers and Hollywood producers. A few years later, I enrolled in a master’s program in journalism and then worked as a newspaper reporter, my stories regularly appearing on the front page of the features section.”
All this is a lovely, if standard beginning for an ambitious young woman in New York City, but it seems not to have occurred to the author that she was one of many, many girls who do well in school, collect awards and spend a few years in entry-level publishing jobs. Then, most of the time, these young women move aside, gracefully or resentfully, to make room for the next crop.
Often they get married, have some kids and settle down to raise their families. Staal readily acknowledges this. How familiar the plot: “And then I got married, had a baby, and everything changed.” She just didn’t think it would happen to her.
Part of this comes from her education, surely. Having given a couple of college commencement speeches myself, I’ve pondered saying, “Most of you will end up in a nice, unexceptional house, married to a nice enough spouse, having a couple of kids who tolerate you, working at a job that depresses you but pays the bills,” but that isn’t part of the brochure. Universities sell hope and intellectual elitism as their stock in trade — women’s colleges perhaps more than most. If these undergrads aren’t special, why are they there?
For all her intelligence, Staal appears to have bought right into this rhetoric, particularly the stuff about women being the equal — no, more than the equal — of men. Then she got married, had a baby, and, as she says, everything changed.
There’s nothing in the world more existentially demanding than a baby. When it’s hungry, it yells. Or, it yells for nothing. When it defecates, it smells — a smell you never get used to. A baby sweats and vomits. Other people don’t like your baby very much — though they pretend to. We all know these things, or we learn them, but like classes in personal finance and staying out of debt, they aren’t the most popular classes at Barnard or anywhere else.
This particular baby played hell with the author’s body, from birth on. Learning to nurse was a chore for both of them, and the husband, who had seemed an amiable enough chap when they married, all too soon developed situational deafness, neglecting to respond to her questions and comments, and took to leaving his dirty socks around the house as domestic decoration. (She dealt with this by throwing his laundry out the window.) Staal’s yelps of dismay are palpable but, perversely, a little amusing. What in the world did you think was going to happen, honey? That they’d give you a Guggenheim for having a baby?
The poor woman suffered some post-partum depression, a self-diagnosed identity crisis and then, true to the way she was raised and trained, decided to study her way out of this intellectual dead end. She went back to Barnard and took a popular undergraduate class all over again: Feminist Texts. Staal reads Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf; she revisits that damned short story about the yellow wallpaper. According to Staal, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” “promotes a simple plan: Women need to get an education and then get a job, whereupon everything will click into place.” I was a friend of Friedan, and upon her behalf, I experienced a strong desire to dropkick Staal through the nearest picture window. But everyone gets to read these classics in her own way, and certainly the author must think as she pleases.
Staal means to unlock and explicate the secrets of feminism vs. biology, and she chooses to use her own life to do it. But from my point of view, since she and her husband both work at home with a high degree of autonomy, she manages to leave the one big problem of feminism unaddressed: child care. Who will take care of those noisy little ones until they’re old enough to get their own juice boxes from the fridge? No one, to my knowledge, knows a good answer to that. Writing this memoir may have helped Staal though. At least she got a book out of it.
See reviews books monthly for The Post.
This Sunday in Outlook:
•The art of remembering everything.
•The way out of Afghanistan.
•Andre Dubus’s blue-collar childhood.
•Overcoming the first crisis of globalization.
•And the rise of the populist right.
How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life
By Stephanie Staal
PublicAffairs. 275 pp. Paperback, $15.99