Feminist non-fiction

All posts in the Feminist non-fiction category

Animal: The Autobiography Of A Female Body – Sara Pascoe

Published August 21, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Take a funny and illuminating tour of the female body with award-winning comedian Sara Pascoe.

Women have so much going on, what with boobs and jealousy and menstruating and broodiness and sex and infidelity and pubes and wombs and jobs and memories and emotions and the past and the future and themselves and each other.

Here’s a book that deals with all of it.

Sara Pascoe has joked about feminity and sexuality on stage and screen but now she has a book to talk about it all for a bit longer. Animal combines autobiography and evolutionary history to create a funny, fascinating insight into the forces that mould and affect modern women.

Animal is entertaining and informative, personal and universal – silly about lots of things and serious about some. It’s a laugh-out-loud investigation to help us understand and forgive our animal urges and insecurities.

What did I think?:

I am so happy that I finally got round to reading this book. I had it on my Amazon wishlist for so long, eventually bought it then it stared at me from my bookshelves for months before I gave in to its demanding “read me!” pleas and cracked it open. Now I had an inkling before I started that I was going to love this wonderfully funny piece of non-fiction but I couldn’t have anticipated just how much that would be. Sara Pascoe, a British comedian hits the nail on the head every single time when she talks about the female body, sexuality and gender inequality and I found myself nodding along on multiple occasions completely enamoured with every tidbit of information she shared with me, some of it incredibly personal things relating to her own experiences.

The tagline for this book is “Autobiography Of A Female Body,” and that’s the perfect way to describe it if you’re wondering what this book is about. After an entertaining, short and snappy little introduction about Sara and her reasons for writing the book it is divided into a few different sections – love, the female body and the very important issue of consent. Each section has a wealth of useful and often hilarious information, some of which Sara has researched for the purpose of the book and knowledge that she has amassed from her own life experiences. Filled with Sara’s trademark wit and down to earth approach it’s an honest, uplifting and at times, incredibly poignant look into what life as a woman is really like.

I honestly can’t believe it took me so long to pick up this book and I’m so glad it lived up to every single one of my (very high) expectations. I have seen Sara live before and really enjoyed it but felt I got to explore her personality at a much deeper and more intimate level with Animal. It was side-splittingly funny, sure – that’s to be expected from a comedian surely? However, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional it would also make me feel, particularly in the final section when Sara explores consent, rape and the (hugely flawed in my opinion) British justice system for rape victims. I finished the book filled with a strange sense of pride for being a woman and a tentative hope for the future where women will be on a more equal footing with men.

Please don’t shy away from this book thinking it might not be for you if you are a man as well, this book does not discriminate on gender (unlike the world we live in today!) and I think it’s a hugely important read for both men and women. I laughed my head off, felt instantly more empowered and learned a few things too. For example, did you realise that modern technology is leading to the death of the glow bug population? Apparently, the male glow bugs keep trying to mate with the street lights thinking it’s a female glow bug and are obviously unsuccessful! Thank you Sara Pascoe for that fantastic little nugget of information that I can pull out at random moments! Personally, I think this is such a vitally important book that needs to be read by as many people as possible and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has recently been announced by Faber that Sara will be writing a follow up book about masculinity and considering the brilliance that was Animal, I’ll be first in the queue!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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Banned Books 2016 – JANUARY READ – Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Published January 25, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Here, in one volume: Marjane Satrapi’s best-selling, internationally acclaimed memoir-in-comic-strips.

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.

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Logo designed by Luna’s Little Library

Welcome to our first banned book of 2016! As always, we’ll be looking at why the book was challenged, how/if things have changed since the book was originally published and our own opinions on the book. Here’s what we’ll be reading for the rest of 2016…

FEBRUARY – It’s Perfectly Normal- Robie Harris

MARCH – Saga Volume 1- Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

APRIL – A Stolen Life- Jaycee Dugard

MAY – Drama- Raina Telgemeier

JUNE -Captain Underpants- Dav Pilkey

JULY – A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl- Tanya Lee Stone

AUGUST – Bless Me Ultima- Rudolfo Anaya

SEPTEMBER – Bone- Jeff Smith

OCTOBER – The Glass Castle- Jeanette Walls

NOVEMBER- Gossip Girl-  Cecily Von Ziegesar

DECEMBER – My Sister’s Keeper- Jodi Picoult

But back to this month….

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

First published: 2007

In the Top Ten most frequently challenged books in 2014 (source)

Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions.”

Do you understand or agree with any of the reasons for the book being challenged when it was originally published?

BETH: For our first banned book of the year, Chrissi and I have chosen a graphic novel, partly because we have always wanted to try one and perhaps broaden our reading horizons and partly because the subject of this memoir fascinated us. It’s one of the more recent books that has been challenged/banned in schools and I don’t believe viewpoints (both political and religious) have changed that much since its publication in 2007 but I have to admit to being slightly taken aback at some points through the novel. I wasn’t necessarily shocked or disgusted however… it made me more intrigued to read on.

CHRISSI: Yes. I can totally understand why a book like this is banned in schools. I think I’m looking at that from a teacher viewpoint though. I don’t see how this book could be comfortably taught in a school. I mean, I’m all for challenging children’s thoughts and mindset and exposing them to a range of material and subject matter, but I’m not so sure I would feel confident to use this book if I taught teenagers.

How about now?

BETH: The fact that this book is still on the banned/challenged list as recently as 2014 is a dead give-away that the subject matter could be slightly sensitive depending on your own moral viewpoints or religious affiliation. As an agnostic myself, I did not find anything in it that alarmed me too much. I went into it knowing ashamedly very little about Iran’s tumultuous history and I did feel like I got a lot out of it educationally speaking. I think nowadays after everything that is going on in the world some people might find a book like this offensive, depending on your religious beliefs. Marjane is an independent, intelligent and forward-thinking woman who after seeing her country at war and having family members in jail/executed is stridently against fundamentalist regimes and not afraid of saying what she thinks. I found her a very brave and intriguing woman and enjoyed seeing how her life developed from childhood. Some of the graphic depictions did make my eyes pop out a little but this made me want to read on, if anything.

CHRISSI: Again, yes. I can see why it is challenged, even up to fairly recently. There is so much in this book that could easily offend. It of course, as Beth says, is very educational, but at the same time I think it would offend SO many people. Is it worth takng that risk in school? Perhaps put it in the library, where students and parents can make their own decisions, but to teach it as part of a lesson? No, I wouldn’t agree with it. I do agree with Beth that Marjane is a fantastically brave, intelligent women, so there is a lot to be learnt from it. I learnt a lot as an adult reading this book.

What did you think of this book?

BETH: It took me a little while to get into I have to be honest. At times, it’s quite political and the subject matter is heavy going. I found myself slightly confused at times with the politics of it all, but that’s a personal thing – politics has never been one of my strong points! As I got about halfway through I started to really get into it a lot more and found her life both in Iran and Vienna absolutely fascinating.

CHRISSI:  I found it incredibly heavy going. I know a lot of my friends turn up their nose over graphic novels, thinking that they’re light and fun or babyish, when in fact the subject matter of Perespolis is incredibly deep.

Would you recommend it?

BETH: Probably!

CHRISSI: Yes!

Beth’s personal star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Join us again on the last Monday of February when we will be discussing It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris.

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Fifty Shades Of Feminism – Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (Editors)

Published October 7, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The antidote to the idea that being a woman is all about submitting to desire. There are many more shades than that and here are fifty women to explore them.

Fifty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, have women really exchanged purity and maternity to become desiring machines inspired only by variations of sex, shopping and masochism – all coloured a brilliant neuro-pink?

In this volume, fifty women young and old – writers, politicians, actors, scientists, mothers – reflect on the shades that inspired them and what being woman means to them today.

Contributors include: Tahmima Anam, Joan Bakewell, Bidisha, Lydia Cacho, Nina Power, Shami Chakrabarti, Lennie Goodings, Linda Grant, Natalie Haynes, Siri Hustvedt, Jude Kelly, Kathy Lette, Kate Mosse, Bee Rowlatt, Elif Shafak, Ahdaf Soueif, Shirley Thompson, Natasha Walter, Jeanette Winterson – alongside the three editors.

What did I think?:

I attended a meeting recently in London for The Fawcett Society which campaigns for equal rights for women in the UK on issues such as pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. The meeting featured talks by popular authors Kate Mosse and Lisa Appignanesi, both of whom were truly inspirational and we had an opportunity to buy their books afterwards over drinks and nibbles, obviously an opportunity I jumped at! Fifty Shades of Feminism appealed to me immediately as it features short essays from fifty women all from different cultures, religions and professions on what feminism means to them personally.

Generally speaking, the book was fantastic although certain essays spoke more to me than others, but they were all interesting and it was fascinating to read all their points of view. It was only after I finished the book that I realised that feminism and equality for women is still such a real issue today obviously enough for some developing countries where religion and culture may be an issue, but certainly still today in Western society. Equality is STILL a huge problem in certain industries, some of which may be a surprise like in the literary world, but others like law and politics perhaps less so and where women are sorely under-represented.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a bit of a myth or stereotype about feminism in that we are all butch, angry man-haters. Yes, there will always be extremes of the scale but this book proves the stereotype completely wrong. There’s something for everyone in this book and it ranges in emotion from melancholy and serious to very humorous. Jeanette Winterson writes a very funny piece on the porn industry for example which had me chuckling and shaking my head in disbelief at the same time. Jane Czyzselska, the editor of Diva magazine wrote a wonderful piece about the stigma she receives for being a heterosexual-looking lesbian which proves that prejudice is rife even within the gay community. I was a bit shocked by this particular article and perhaps a bit naïve as I did not think that this sector (who are often subject to gross mistreatment themselves) would be so discriminatory.

Other favourites included Sandi Toksvig’s essay which explored the reasons why women continue to wear high heels that cause them pain and rip their feet to shreds and the final entry written by Alice Stride who won a competition to write a short piece for the book. She wrote a short rant about how she convinced her younger sister not to shave off all of her pubic hair just to make it more appealing to men. It was hilarious, poignant and very, very honest and I challenge anyone to read it on public transport while maintaining a straight face. I failed miserably of course!

This is a book I will definitely be keeping and it’s the sort of book that you can just dip in and out of at your own leisure. It was only after I had finished it that I realised that equality for women is still a contentious issue and we need to carry on fighting for the female sex not only here, but round the world so that we are no longer seen as “the second” and inferior sex. My only slight niggle is that I would have loved to see a few opinions from men for comparison and because I realise there are some wonderful male feminists out there who support the cause. Apart from that, it’s a brilliant read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic and for all young girls everywhere as a must read.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox

Published November 21, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Our dark lady is leaving us next week; on the 7th of March, 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, London, wrote to Francis Crick at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge to say that as soon as his obstructive female colleague was gone from King’s, he, Crick, and James Watson, a young American working with Crick, could go full speed ahead with solving the structure of the DNA molecule that lies in every gene. Not long after, the pair announced to the world that they had discovered the secret of life. But could Crick and Watson have done it without the dark lady? In two years at King’s, Rosalind Franklin had made major contributions to the understanding of DNA. She established its existence in two forms and she worked out the position of the phosphorous atoms in its backbone. Most crucially, using X-ray techniques that may have contributed significantly to her later death from cancer at the tragically young age of 37, she had taken beautiful photographs of the patterns of DNA.

What did I think?:

Rosalind Franklin is unfortunately probably best known for not achieving the recognition she should have got in life for unravelling the secrets of DNA. Instead, two scientists called Francis Crick and James Watson boldly used parts of her work to find out the secrets for themselves and published their findings which led to them winning the Nobel Prize. Personally, I was aware of the dis-service that had been done to Franklin but did not realise until reading this book exactly how much her work had contributed to the unveiling of “the molecule of life.” The book tends not to focus too much on the early part of Rosalind’s life as it is when she becomes a scientist, the true nature of this independent, determined and highly intelligent woman is realised. However, a couple of things sprang to my attention from her early life. Firstly, a letter written by one of her relations describes the young Rosalind as:

“alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure & invariably gets her sums right.”

Although the word “alarmingly” is probably meant as an endearment it resonates from a time when females were not expected to be clever as managing their household and pleasing their husbands was probably the best they could amount to. It is no wonder that Rosalind has become somewhat of a feminist icon. After all, being Jewish, female and a scientist in times which were not friendly to all three is a tremendous achievement. Being a bit radical also ran in her family as her Uncle Hugh, a pro-suffragist, attempted to attack Winston Churchill with a dog whip due to his opposition to women’s suffrage. Rosalind knew herself from the age of twelve that she wanted to become a scientist and certainly fit the criteria according to Einstein:

“a scientist makes science the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

Rosalind Franklin (picture from mysciencebox.org)

She first began to make a difference during the war where she was employed by the British Coal Utilisation Research Association studying the porous nature of coal and the density of helium. Her work there led to coals being classified, predicting their potential for fuel and for the production of essential devices i.e. gas masks. In 1946, she extended her CV and broadened her skills by studying X-ray diffraction with the French scientist Jacques Mering, a technique that would prove crucial and valuable in her later work with DNA. It was during her next post with Kings College that she finally made her mark, discovering that there were two forms of DNA and that they were helical in structure. Indeed, her X ray photographs of the molecule were pronounced by J.D. Bernal to be amongst the most beautiful X ray photographs of any substance ever taken.

Enter Watson and Crick, who were currently working on producing a model of the structure of DNA but were having a few technical problems with discovering exactly where each bit went. Papers and photographs belonging to Franklin were given to Crick on the sly causing them to pronounce that they had discovered “the secret of life.” Shockingly, they then went on to publish their paper in the journal Nature in the spring of 1953 with only a short footnote regarding the “general knowledge” of Franklin’s contribution. Franklin’s paper did follow but due to the order of publishing, it seemed only support for Watson and Crick’s amazing discovery, rather than revealing who exactly had done all the legwork. Unpublished drafts of her papers revealed that it was she alone who had discovered the overall form of the molecule with the location of the phosphate groups on the outside. Rosalind went on to carry out brilliant work on the tobacco mosaic and polio virus but tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1958 at just 37 years of age.

I found this book to be an absolutely fascinating read even if I did get carried away a bit at times with the injustice done to Rosalind Franklin and the tragic end to her life. She wasn’t particularly careful when using radiation and tended to just “get on with it,” neglecting to wear appropriate protective coverings or adhere to our now stringent safety requirements when dealing with such a hazardous substance. Could this have contributed to the development of her cancer? She was also a very interesting person, perhaps a bit prickly at first and difficult to get to know but she was immensely passionate about many things besides her beloved science – for example, travelling and climbing and was a fiercely loyal friend. For me, it was wonderful to read an interesting account of a woman that made such a difference even if it was sadly not recognised in her own lifetime.

Would I recommend it?

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine

Published October 3, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

A vehement dismantling of the latest pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes.

Sex-based discrimination is supposedly a relic of the distant past. Yet popular books, magazines, and even scientific articles increasingly defend continuing inequalities between the sexes by calling on immutable biological differences between the male and the female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education, Delusions of Gender rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. This book reveals the brain’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider “hardwired” is actually malleable, empowering us to break free of the supposed predestination of our sex chromosomes.

What did I think?:

In my other, non-blogging life, I work as a scientist and every so often you’ll see a review popping up on my blog about a non-fiction book I’ve read that has more than likely been science-y. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality and women’s rights so Delusions of Gender seemed like the perfect mix of science and feminism which encouraged me to pick it up. I found it to be a fascinating read which I learned a lot from and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between our two genders. The book is divided into short chapters with intriguing titles such as “Why You Should Cover Your Head with a Paper Bag if You Have A Secret You Don’t Want Your Wife to Find Out,” “Sex and Premature Speculation,” and “Gender Detectives.” With titles like these you may want to read this book already but let me assure you that the author backs up the humour in her writing with clear facts, possible theories and very strong evidence that lends a note of seriousness into why exactly we still have gender inequality in a modern, 21st century society.

You’d think we’d have come a long way in achieving more rights for women since say, the nineteenth century yet consider this point that the author makes in the introduction. An English clergyman called Thomas Gisborne wrote a manual called “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex,” and noted that things such as legislation, political economy and the conduct of government should be assigned to men as they have “the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intensive and continued application.” Whereas, females enjoy “powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.” Ladies, I hope you are extremely insulted right now. But then Fine encourages us to move forward 200 years and look at The Essential Difference written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist who states “the female brain is pre-dominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Hmm… sounds pretty much the same thing as what Gisborne was trying to say in the nineteenth century?

Throughout the book, Cordelia Fine investigates how different males and females really are. Are we all so hard-wired into our gender that there is no wiggle room in terms of qualities we should possess? Is it really a man’s world? Is it absolutely pointless for a woman to even consider a top level management job as it requires stereotypically more aggressive characteristics that for a woman is considered unattractive? I did enjoy the way that the author discredits work carried out by Baron-Cohen, and theories from the author of A Female Brain, Louann Brizendine that seem to want to put males and females in their own little boxes. For example, the assumption that a woman can use more areas of the brain than a man i.e. multi-tasking, was an experiment based on only 14 brains and the conclusions weren’t even statistically significant? In this way, a lot of experiments dealing with differences between the sexes have used just a few subjects, or made scientific “guesses,” depending on what their own stereotypical views were.

This is a brilliant and fascinating book, injected with a little bit of wit and sarcasm which I always appreciate in a non-fiction book and which I think is needed when dealing with this subject which can sometimes be a little bit touchy. I don’t think Baron-Cohen or Brizendine will be amongst her fans if they ever read it but I really enjoyed the way she picked apart neurosexism and shone a light upon the shadier areas of gender research. Oh, and you don’t need to be a scientist to read or enjoy this, it’s very accessible without being patronising.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

The Ascent of Woman – Melanie Phillips

Published May 12, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The story of the fight to gain the vote for women is about much more than a picturesque skirmish around the introduction of universal suffrage. It is an explosive story of social and sexual revolutionary upheaval, and one which has not yet ended. The movement for women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries prefigured to a startling extent the controversies which rage today around the role of women. Far from the stereotype of a uniform body of women chaining themselves to railings, the early feminist movement was riven by virulent arguments over women’s role in society, the balance to be struck between self-fulfilment and their duties to family and children, and their relationship with men.

What did I think?:

The reason I enjoy reading non-fiction primarily is to learn about new things or periods in our history that interest me. So when this book was picked by one of the GoodReads groups that I participate with, I was excited to get to it. Obviously I am aware of the Suffragette movement and their fight for women’s rights to give us the vote that we all take for granted nowadays in Western countries, but I hoped I would learn a little more about the famous names like Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst and what they stood for. Unfortunately, I have somewhat mixed opinions over what I read. Some parts made me feel quite furious with their anti-female statements – for example, a quote by Rousseau in 1762 where he states: “The woman is made specially to please the man.” Lovely, right? However, what riled me the most is when other women would also back up these kind of beliefs, for example, one Anna Barbauld who believed the best way to acquire knowledge for a woman was to have a conversation with their brother or father and to undergo a course of reading that these male relatives may recommend. What makes this comment even more shocking is that this woman was an essayist, a critic, a poet and a children’s author, so you could say quite a learned woman and it completely baffles me to think that such an obviously intelligent woman would make it harder to get respect for her own sex.

The author takes us back to one of the early feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft and her landmark text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to the development of the Blue Stockings literary discussion groups and building up to the height of the suffragette movement where she focused mainly on the Pankhursts – Emmeline and Christabel. I found some parts of this slightly dry and a bit hard to swallow, especially when some of the intricate details were fairly sketchy. The campaigners themselves seemed to have split into two different factions, those that went about their protests quite peacefully and the “militants,” die-hard suffragettes that would endure imprisonment, hunger strike and forced feeding, throw themselves under horses or chain themselves to buildings and would think nothing of using a spot of violence or threat to make their voices heard. However, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering if the author had some sort of issue with the Pankhursts as there did not seem to be one good thing she could say about the mother-daughter team. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone violence/threats in any way, shape or form but it just seemed at times the author was trying too hard to paint the Pankhursts as the “bad guys.”

There were parts of this book though that did draw a smile in regards to some of the beliefs that were held and propagated at the time. For example, women will ensure the racial superiority of the human race, 75-80% of men were infected with gonorrhoea and 20% with syphilis before the age of thirty therefore men are the source of all disease, and this particular quote which raised my eyebrows right off the top of my head:

“The human race is suffering from over-fertilisation and enforced reproduction. Man the destroyer has been at work, not woman the constructor. When man is continent the mysterious origin of cancer will be solved and cancer, with other kindred horror, will disappear. Sexual germs are not confined to the reproductive organs; they permeate the whole body. Assimilation and absorption by the female organism cannot divest them of their potential properties of stimulation and disintegration, of decay and corruption. Hence the terrible increase of cancer among the western races, who for so long have ignored the law.”

Frances Swiney – prominent suffrage speaker

Indeed, the most influential medical authority at that time, one Sir William Acton was very concerned about the waste of spermatic fluid which came with sexual excess for men and noted that many un-married men were also intellectuals. Sorry – what?

To sum up, as a reading experience I do have many mixed emotions about this book. I felt like I learned a few things (some of which I wish I could UN-learn now!) but my beliefs were a bit shaken at times although I will probably do a bit more reading around this subject as it is very interesting to get a balanced view on a movement that was vitally important towards equality for women. No, things still aren’t perfect, especially in some countries where women are still fighting to be recognised as an equal to man, but I think without the suffragette protests in our past, life would look a bit different today, and not for the better.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art