Think you know the f-word and the v-word? These two titles might change your mind.
Feminism has come a long way from the fight for suffrage, and in its current manifestation, it can be difficult for some to determine precisely what feminism stands for or, indeed, if it’s necessary at all. It seems like women have more freedom than ever, but, as these two titles emphasize, in both the political and personal spheres, there’s a lot of ground yet to cover.
Higgins’ Feminism: Reinventing the F-Word offers a comprehensive and stunningly up-to-date account of the history of feminism. She begins with the basics—key terms, long-held beliefs about the inequality of the sexes, the history of transactional marriage arrangements, legal limits on women’s rights, etc.—before launching into milestone moments from the last century, such as the Nineteenth Amendment and Betty Friedan’s earth-shaking 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique.
That historical coverage is relatively brief, however, because the meat of Higgins’ volume is the myriad ways feminism has changed in the past few decades, thanks to the ever-widening scope of the movement. Higgins expertly and clearly tracks the rise of intersectionality—the idea that feminism should focus on issues facing all women, not just those facing white, middle-class women—by following up descriptions of major beliefs or actions of feminists with criticisms raised by other women in the movement. It’s a remarkably effective tactic for tracing the splintering, spiraling growth of feminism while simultaneously showcasing perhaps the biggest concern of contemporary feminism: How do you construct a movement encompassing such a wide, varied range of issues facing more than half the world’s population?
Higgins invites burgeoning feminists to find
their own places among the vast movement.
Higgins’ answer, of course, isn’t a wholesale elimination of feminism; rather, her point seems to be that there’s a place for all concerns facing women—even if those concerns are contradictory, muddled, and far from perfect—and the best way to advocate for women worldwide is to empower them to stand up for themselves. With plenty of grassroots organizations listed in the back matter and photos of a diverse array of women, cis and otherwise, peppering the pages, Higgins invites burgeoning feminists to find their own places among the vast movement.
Although the empowerment at issue in Keyser’s The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex is far more personal, it’s a natural progression from the political angle presented in Higgins’ volume. Each of the broad range of contributors—gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, etc.—details the sometimes painfully awkward, sometimes blissful experience of choosing to have sex for the first time. The frank, sexually explicit (naturally) narratives cover a wide range of experiences—some are sweet and transformative; others are perfunctory or borderline forgettable—but the one thing they all share is the importance of sexual agency. One woman tells the story of waiting until her wedding night, while another describes a relationship with a man who respected her—a sharp contrast to the years of sexual abuse she endured before.
Each woman makes a choice to have sex, and choice is the key element here. The V in V-Word can be interpreted as “voice,” not “virginity,” and the takeaway is the importance of young women speaking up for what they want or don’t want and taking an active role in what happens to their bodies. While highlighting the importance of choice, moreover, the contributors’ accounts dismantle the idea that virginity is something to be revered as a mark of purity that, if lost, is a source of shame or mourning; rather, choosing to have sex is merely the first step down a path of new experiences.
Keyser follows the essays with in-depth, accessible advice for teens geared almost exclusively toward girls as well as extensive resources for further learning. Sexual empowerment is the name of the game here, and it’s a message not often doled out in today’s climate of abstinence-only sex ed. Vitally, some expert sex educators weigh in, which adds an air of credibility to the proceedings. Occasionally, the tone is overly sentimental, and teens allergic to sincerity might bristle, but, overall, this is an excellent resource for teens interested in sex that gives them not only meaningful and important tools for health, such as concrete advice about contraceptives and consent, but a supportive, sex-positive voice in a culture that’s still fairly uncomfortable addressing sexuality, in teen girls in particular.
This review first appeared in the February 1, 2016, issue of Booklist.