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Men Reading Women: Defining the Problem

Book with coffee and flowers
image via pixabay | CC0 1.0

Part 1 of a five-part series on why men may be reluctant to read women and how even well-intentioned men default to reading other men.

Several months ago, Relevant magazine posted an article by a male writer about his foray into reading books written by women. After realizing that neither he nor his friends read anything written by women, he decided that he would get recommendations from a helpful employee at Barnes & Noble.

He ended up reading Kim Harrison’s urban fantasy novel Dead Witch Walking, and after mocking the book/genre, he discovers that he gained a new perspective on life by reading a book with a female protagonist.

My short summary does not do justice to this article, but it was every bit as bad as you’re imagining. So bad, in fact, that after concerted pushback the article was taken down within a couple of hours.

But this article, and then a panel at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April on men reading women, keep coming back to me. After eighteen years studying and teaching English in colleges and after a lifetime as a woman, particularly a Christian woman, I have no difficulty believing that men don’t read nearly as many books by women as they do by men.

It’s still possible to receive at least a BA in English without reading more than a handful of women writers. I’m going to assume that if this is true in English — where the whole point of the major is reading many books by many authors — it’s equally true in pretty much every other field.1

Because of this state of affairs, I even have some sympathy for the writer of the Relevant article; I doubt that he intentionally avoided books by women simply because women wrote them. And when he became aware of the deficit in his reading, he did begin the process of addressing it.

But his reading experience shows just how pervasive the idea is that books by and about men are for everyone, while books by and about women are for women. Because that’s how a man can avoid books by women: he assumes that they are not relevant to him or his life experiences.

So much social weight lies behind this assumption. At perhaps the most obvious level, books by women often have clearly feminine covers: flowers, pastels, and flowing scripts visually signal a particular audience. (The author Maureen Johnson, back in 2013, initiated a widespread conversation about gendered book covers that led to these delightful gender-flipped covers).

As an example, I just started reading an advance copy of Fat and Faithful, by Nicole Morgan. Morgan writes about bodies and embodiment and incarnation and living as the image of God, topics that apply to men and women. But because a woman wrote this book about bodies, is anyone surprised that the cover is a lovely purple with the title in a fancy cursive script, indicating that it’s marketed towards women?

Covers and marketing alone, however, do not make up the entire problem. The problem behind the marketing problem? Ingrained patriarchy leads us to assume that men’s experiences and perspectives are universal in a way that women’s simply aren’t.

The roots of this assumption run deep in the history of western culture and emerge every time someone tells Shannon Hale that boys don’t read books about princesses and every time women’s books are presumed to be too fluffy for major literary awards.

Why is this attitude a problem? Does it actually matter whether or not men read books by and about women?

This attitude suggests that women are not quite fully human in the way that men are, not quite capable of speaking to or reflecting the human experience, not able to transcend the specific and achieve universality.

In this view, Harry Potter teaches us about what it means to be human; Rachel Morgan, the protagonist of Dead Witch Walking, teaches us what it means to be a woman — knowledge that may be interesting for men, but not necessary.

So yes, I think it is a problem when men don’t read books by women, or when they read books by women expecting to find difference rather than common humanity. They miss out on the rich fullness of the human experience and, at the same time, elevate their own experience into universal truth.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be diving into these problems in greater depth and also offering some suggestions on where to start reading women. Check back on Thursday for a new post on whether part of the solution involves women writing more like men.


  1. I imagine education and nursing are the exceptions here, given that they are historically female-dominated fields. Anecdotally, a friend in nursing confirmed that many of her textbooks are written by women.

Tagged: books | gender | humanities

What I Like: July

Cast of Agents of Shield
The cast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, season 5 | image via TVLine.com

I realized that I am currently immersed in narratives about humans with special abilities. I don’t know what that says about me right now, or about pop culture: wish fulfillment? Interest in the post-human, the next stage of evolution? The insidious spread of superhero narratives? A bizarre and ultimately meaningless coincidence?

Television:

I’ve been binge-watching my way through the most recent season of Agents of Shield, now available on Netflix. I’m a fan of the show, especially of the relationships that have developed amongst the characters, although I can tell that the writers are struggling at times to tell a compelling story that stays within the boundaries of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) without actually intersecting with the films.

I mean, here’s Phil Coulson and his team just time traveling to the future, as one does, foiling Hydra, as one does, and averting the literal tearing apart of the earth, as one does — while the Avengers are off battling Thanos. It’s a little bit much, you know?

But as always in the show, the best part lies in the very human struggles to find a place and to learn how to use abilities, inhuman or not, when life takes unexpected turns. Plus, I’m crossing all my fingers that Fitz and Simmons just might be the first happy and successful romance in a Whedon-run show.

Comics:

My second pop culture narratives of supernatural abilities come from Marvel as well. After watching Runaways on Hulu, I’ve started reading the comics, starting with Brian Vaughn’s run in the early 2000s. (Side note: you should definitely read his independent series, Saga and Paper Girls. Really, go find them now.)

I’ve quite enjoyed the comics. They differ some from the Hulu show, as I expected, and the differences have kept the story fresh even as it overlaps with what I watched. But I’m definitely a sucker for a coming-of-age series about a bunch of young people with emerging powers and complicated parental relationships. I’ve been enjoying Brian Vaughn’s writing, and I’m very excited to work my way up to Rainbow Rowell’s run as writer of Runaways.

(And another side note: I ❤️❤️❤️ Rainbow Rowell soooo much, and squee she’s writing another Baz and Simon book! If you have never read her novels, there’s still plenty of summer left to read at least Fangirl and Carry On. Do it. Do it now.)

Novels:

Moving away from Marvel, I just finished V.E. Schwab’s Vicious. The ExtraOrdinary humans in this novel (the EOs) gain their powers from near-death experiences, which raises the question of whether those who come back with super-human abilities are still, in fact, human. Schwab doesn’t answer the question, but each EO in the novel provides a different angle on the question of whether these gifted individuals are more, or less, than human.

Fair warning: it’s a dark novel. Whether “vicious” refers to EOs, regular humans, or particular individuals remains an open question, but the novel offers plenty of viciousness in a variety of forms. But throughout the viciousness winds a tiny thread of hope that second chances are possible, which is what hooked me in the narrative more than anything else.

The sequel, Vengeful, comes out in September, and I will definitely be reading it.

Podcasts:

To round out my theme of supernatural abilities, I’m very much enjoying The Bright Sessions. (It’s four-season run has just concluded, but I’m only about halfway through.) It’s about a therapist for “atypicals” — people with special abilities, like telepathy and dream walking — and the government agency that, er, helps them. (“Helps” them.)

The unfolding relationships between Dr. Bright and her patients forms the heart of the show, especially as Dr. Bright becomes more human, revealing more about herself. The show also manages to balance big stories about shadowy government agencies and ethically-compromised experiments with smaller stories about teenage romance and the quiet growth of confidence. This is what makes the show extraordinary (see what I did there?): not the special abilities or even the unfolding secrets, but the very human stories that anchor us in this alternate version of our world.

On a practical note, I also love that the episodes are relatively short. I can fit a whole episode in when I drive to and from the grocery store, for example, which is convenient.

Plus which, if podcasts aren’t your thing, the writer of the show has signed on with Tor Teen to publish three YA novels based on the show; the first is scheduled to release next year. I’m exited that I’ll get a chance to return to this universe even when I run out of podcast episodes — and I’m really interested to read a book when I already have the voices of the characters so firmly in my head.

Post-human:

I’m not sure why the stars in my entertainment life have aligned on the theme of supernatural / superhuman abilities. Thanks in large part to Marvel, we’re having a superhero moment in pop culture: their films and television shows range from solid to excellent, and their strategy of recruiting writers like Rainbow Rowell, Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the comics means that people like me who don’t really follow comics are more inclined to read them.

But Marvel isn’t just creating the moment; they’re also tapping into our hopes and fears about technology and medicine and the future of humanity. As V.E. Schwab wonders in Vicious, at what point do we begin to lose our humanity? And as we see in The Bright Sessions, how do people cope with being different? How do they cope when others want to take advantage of their special abilities?

And as Agents of Shield asks, what are we willing to sacrifice to gain power? To protect others from our own power? How far will we go to stop the power of others?

Thinking about these questions through the lens of super-powered characters provides plenty of entertainment. But the questions behind the narratives are real questions that speak to some of the dreams and nightmares generated by the technological advances of the modern world.


As you may have noticed, I’ve linked to the Amazon pages for the books I mention. These are affiliate links, which means that I earn a small percentage when you, dear reader, purchase a book through the link.

Patriotism and the Kingdom of Heaven

Declaration of Independence opening words
The Declaration of Independence | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

I like celebrating the 4th of July.

Sign me up for burgers on the grill and crimson watermelon, for cold beer and hot dogs. I love the fireworks especially: the anticipation as dusk begins, the showers of light and color, the walk back home with sleepy children smelling of bug spray and sticky from popsicles.

I enjoy the communal nature of the holiday, jostling for the best view of the Girl Scouts in the local parade and sitting with friends and neighbors at the park.

And I’m happy to celebrate the founding of our nation, to remember the imperfect but passionate men who risked so much on a form of government never before seen in the western world on such a scale.

Despite our flaws as a nation — and there are so many, from slavery and the Trail of Tears to police brutality and separating immigrant children from their parents — I think it’s worth celebrating our founding. The founding fathers imagined a new type of government, a new type of relationship between the people and their rulers, and their vision has proven to be remarkably durable.

Their conviction led them to take democracy from a footnote in Greek history roundly critiqued by both Plato and Aristotle to a viable form of government. And I’m grateful to live in a country where I have a voice in my government and in its laws.

But despite all the above, I believe it’s worth taking a moment to remind ourselves that if we call ourselves Christians, America is not our home.

We can appreciate our nation and participate in our democracy. We can vote and protest and run for office; we should care deeply about what happens in our country. The ability to have a say in government is a privilege that I don’t believe Christians should ignore or reject, even when Christians disagree about what to say and how to say it.

Yet we must always remember that the United States is not the kingdom of God. Our government is not our savior. Our loyalty is not to country but to God. Our hope is not in a political party but in Christ.

Sometimes, our work towards and within the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God aligns with our goals and values as citizens of the United States. When we as a nation work towards justice, towards caring for the marginalized, towards helping those in need, we also work towards the kingdom of God.

But other times, our national goals and interests conflict with our loyalties to the kingdom of God. These moments can be difficult to discern, but we must be vigilant and ready to oppose policies that are unjust, cause harm, or dehumanize others.

And whether the work of the kingdom aligns with national interests or not, we must always be wary lest patriotism become idolatry. We live in the world and it is good to care for that world, to seek forms of government that lead to human flourishing. Flawed though they were, the founding fathers sought to do this when they rebelled against their British rulers.

Yet we must also be willing to hold our political institutions loosely, to remember that we can pledge only secondary allegiance to our nation.

No matter how good our government is, it is not God’s rule on earth. No matter how much we appreciate our government and our history, we must not allow that to stand in for our faith in God.

And when we have less faith in our rulers, when we see evidence that those in power seek only power and not the well-being of others, we need not be surprised. Our vantage as citizens of heaven allows — even requires — us to name and resist the evils and injustices committed by our rulers.

So as we Americans watch fireworks blossom in the sky and eat potato salad with our neighbors, let those of us who are Christians remember that we are first of all God’s people, and only secondarily Americans.

Tagged: holiday | politics

The Thing with Feathers

Bluebird
image via pixabay | CC0 1.0

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul -

I have a confession: I don’t particularly like Emily Dickinson.

I know you’re wondering know how a real faculty in a real English department at a real university could have given me a PhD given such a personal failure. Life is full of strange surprises.

But this poem? This one about hope? These words that everyone knows? This one gets to me.

And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

I’m a glass-half-empty type of person. I catastrophize. I imagine the worst-case scenario, hopped up on the adrenaline of anxiety far too late into the night. I wait for the other shoe to drop, for the worst to just happen already.

Is it possible that I have hope perching in my soul? Is it possible that hope sings beneath the buzz of worry and fear?

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

I know the storm manufactured by anxiety. I have spent some time weathering the gales of pain and disillusionment and suffering. I don’t hear much when the storm is breaking over me. Perhaps I need to tune my ears to the quiet song of hope rather than the roar of the wind.

And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird

But if I can tune my ears to the quiet song rather than the raging storm, I might find that the song always continues. If I cannot hear it, perhaps I am not listening closely enough, carefully enough: the storm cannot end the song.

The song waits beneath the horror, beneath the pain and the suffering and the anxiety. Surely Pandora was overwhelmed by what flew out of the box, but she learned that the song of hope was there with the evils of the world all along.

We are all Pandora.

That kept so many warm -

When the storm rages, I crave soft blankets and hot drinks. I yearn for a warm body pressed against mine. A fire on the grate, the hot sun on my face: the song and the warmth twine together, amplify each other.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Hope waits for us to find it, to hear it. Hope never chides us for despair, but buoys us up against the waves and the winds. Hope catches us as we begin to fall, leads us out of darkness, reminds us that it was waiting for us all along.

Hope alights in our soul, and then invites us to fly upwards with it. Hope persuades us to hear the song, not the storm. Hope warms us when all around us is damp and dark and cold.

Some days, hope is hard to find. Its song is quiet. It lies buried under fear and anxiety, under evils both all-too-real and only imagined. But it is not gone. It waits for us to find it, it waits to warm our souls, it waits to remind us that life and happiness and goodness exist beyond the storm.

We need only listen for hope’s rustling feathers and quiet song.

Tagged: literature | personal

Women in Christianity: Pandita Ramabai

Portrait of Pandita Ramabai
Photo of Pandita Ramabai from her book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, 1887 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Born in 1858 to a devout, high-caste Hindu family in India, Pandita Ramabai spent her life defying cultural norms and working to better the lives of women in India. Ramabai’s father, going against tradition, believed that women ought to be fully educated; despite falling into poverty when Ramabai was young, he gave her a strong intellectual foundation and a thorough grounding in Hindu theology.

Ramabai’s parents died when she was only sixteen, but she continued her education and, at the age of twenty, she was invited to speak at Calcutta University. Impressed by her knowledge, the faculty gave her the title “Pandita” in recognition of her scholarship; she was the first woman to earn this title.

Continuing her defiance of social norms, in 1880 Pandita Ramabai married a man from a lower caste and a different region of India. Because of these social differences, such marriages had been illegal just a decade earlier. Ramabai and her husband seem to have been happy and they had a baby girl, but less than two years after their marriage her husband died, leaving her a widow.

In Indian society at the time, widows — and especially high-caste widows like Ramabai — were expected to seclude themselves, retreating from interactions beyond their families. However, marriage hadn’t made Ramabai any more likely to follow social norms; after her husband’s death, she spent some time continuing the social activism that the couple had become involved in, then in 1883 she left India to pursue a medical education in Great Britain.

In England, Ramabai spent significant time exploring Christianity and eventually converted. She had been introduced to Christianity during her brief marriage; disillusioned with Hinduism after the death of her parents and because of her growing awareness of social ills, Christianity held appeal for her as a religion that had at its heart a concern for the downtrodden. She wrote of her conversion process, “I realized after reading the fourth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour he claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India. … Thus my heart was drawn to the religion of Christ.”1

Drawing upon her experiences as an Indian woman and inspired by her faith, while in England Ramabai wrote a book in English titled The High Caste Hindu Woman. This book describes the painful realities of Hindu women’s lives, including child marriage, the isolation of widows, and the practice of sati — the ritual immolation of a woman on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Discouraged, however, by the difficulty of obtaining a medical education in England, Ramabai left for the United States, where she watched Anandibai Joshee graduate from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia as the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree. While in the United States, Ramabai published the book she had written in England; The High Caste Hindu Woman became popular, and Ramabai received a warm welcome in the United States. She spent the next few years traveling, speaking and studying across the continent.

As she traveled, she also raised funds for her dream project: a school for Indian women. She studied with educational and social reformers in America, developing plans that she could take back to India.

In 1889, back in India, Ramabai opened a school for Hindu widows called Sharada Sadan. At this school, widows were given an education, but Ramabai experienced resistance from both Hindus and Christians because she included Christian texts in her curriculum, but also used Hindu texts and did not require conversion. When her students began converting, however, Ramabai lost much community support for her educational project.

She was not deterred, however. When a famine hit her region of India in the mid-1890s, Ramabai began taking in many widows, orphans and victims of famine. She purchased land and founded a residential community called Mukti, which still exists today as a refuge for needy women.

Despite the pressures of running Sharada Sadan and Mukti, Ramabai became convinced that she needed to translate the bible into the regional vernacular, Marathi. She spent the last twelve years of her life on this translation, certain that this was a necessary ingredient in the transformation and empowerment of Indian women. Her legacy of her schools, her residential community, and her bible translation should impress us even today.

However, I had never heard of Pandita Ramabai until recently; I’m guessing that most of my readers are likewise unfamiliar with her. But her dedication to bettering the lives of women, and crucial role her Christianity played in that dedication, deserve wider recognition.

Ramabai began her activism for women before she became a Christian. And her conversion further fueled her activism, especially as she studied how Jesus interacted with women.

Additionally, her willingness to be counter-cultural extended to her faith. She saw no reason to give up Hindu culture entirely, preferring instead to develop a distinctly India theology. She also viewed church rituals with skepticism and the multitude of protestant denominations with dismay, focusing instead on scripture and on the ecumenism that was fast becoming a hallmark of Indian Christianity.

Ramabai’s willingness to defy culture and her desire to find the heart of the gospel led her to the creation of radically inclusive communities, dedicated to the welfare and uplifting of the lowest in Indian society and the creation of a community defined by its unity in diversity.

Although Ramabai has largely been forgotten, we have much to learn from her legacy: her passion for education, her dedication to social activism and her work to improve the lives of women should continue to inspire Christians and feminists alike.


  1. Quoted in Keith J. White, “Jesus was her Guru,” Christian History 87 (2005). Accessed April 13, 2018. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-87/jesus-was-her-guru.html

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