American Culture

For Women’s History Month – LSE book recommendations

The London School of Economics and Political Science calls the following ten books “must-reads” for Women’s History Month this year. I draw your attention to the review of Recoding Gender, which mentions the story of a very successful woman-owned American tech company that relied heavily on flexible scheduling and home-based work for women. When the company tried to expand into Denmark, however, it turned out that Danish women had little interest in working from home because of the well-developed child care system in that country. This leads me to wonder what the impact here might be if we actually offered child care like it is offered in Denmark and many other European countries. I am also especially interested in getting to my book shelf Gender, Agency, and Political Violence, which invites readers to reconsider the agency of female suicide bombers and also examines the masculinity and emotional depth of men imprisoned during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Actually, if money were not an issue, all ten of these books would be on their way to my bookshelf.

Recoding Gender by Janet Abbate

In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate explores the untold history of women in computer science and programming from the Second World War to the late twentieth century. Demonstrating how gender has shaped the culture of computing, she aims to offer a valuable historical perspective on today’s concerns over women’s underrepresentation in the field. Jennifer Miller recommends this book for both readers interested in an account of women’s participation and contributions in the field of computer science and to those seeking answers to the challenges in setting policy for the scientific and technical workforce….

A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Corrine Moss-Racusin and colleagues, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students ,” drew widespread attention to discrimination against women in science by speaking to scientists in their own language – that of the randomized controlled experiment. The study found that applicants identified as female were offered fewer jobs, lower pay, and less mentoring than identical applicants identified as male. The fact that male and female scientists themselves were the subjects under study only added to its impact.

As a field, computer science comes under particular scrutiny for both its low representation of women and a marked decline in their representation during a time when women have made considerable inroads in other scientific disciplines. In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate, an Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and author of the 1999 socio-cultural history Inventing the Internet, provides insight into women’s early and current participation in the field of computer science….

Chapter 3 provides a compelling account of the role of gender in the widespread claims that we face a critical labor shortage in IT. These claims of a shortage, which have had a strong influence on science and technology policy in the US, meet considerable resistance from IT workers who find their jobs outsourced, moved offshore, or otherwise eliminated. Abbate finds that “probing behind the rhetoric reveals that the labor shortage really referred to a specific, privileged category of workers—male programmers with traditional technical qualifications and no childcare obligations” (p. 91).  Adding youth to these aspects of privilege offers a possible explanation of this paradox, a simultaneous shortage and surplus of IT workers.

The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights by Minky Worden

Women’s rights have progressed significantly in the last two decades, but major challenges remain in order to end global gender discrimination. The Unfinished Revolution outlines the recent history of the battle to secure basic rights for women and girls, including in the Middle East where the hopes raised by the Arab Spring are yet to be fulfilled. Featuring essays by more than 30 writers, activists, policymakers and human rights experts, Natalie Novick concludes that the book’s thoughtful organization and structure make it easily accessible to anyone interested in human rights, women’s issues or global inequalities….

Edited by Minky Worden, the Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch, this text draws upon a remarkable selection of passages by some of the world’s most important and distinguished advocates for women and girls. With contributions from Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, former Irish President Mary Robinson, alongside work by academics, policymakers and other tireless campaigners, this text presents a multifaceted view of the current state of women’s inequality worldwide.

The word revolution, is used in the title in its most literal sense, as an effort seeking change from one power structure to another. The current systems of patriarchy and the structures that have maintained unequal rights for women worldwide are long standing. The goal of this book is to recognize how entrenched these systems are, but also to expose the cracks in the system and show how these systems can be dismantled. As Christine Amanpour relates in the introduction, this book aims to serve as a “road map” for solutions that can work to improve human rights all over the world. Taking a global approach, this text gives attention to all world regions and addresses some of the most pressing issues for women and girls worldwide, from domestic violence, to conflict, to economic inequalities, political constraints and the unequal consequences of medical care. Divided into eight sections and succinctly organized by theme, each chapter gives the perspective of a different campaigner or activist the opportunity to contextualize the systemic structures of inequality through narrative.

The Gendered Effects of Electoral Institutions: Political Engagement and Participation. Leslie Schwindt-Bayer and Miki Caul Kittilson (Eds)

Even with the growing focus on women in leadership positions, they continue to lag behind men in terms of representation in parliament as well as in business leadership positions. There has been a lot of research theorising why this is the case. Names that come to mind are Anne Phillips and Sylvia Walby as well as a wider variety of gender research looking at critical mass theory to assess the significance of women being physically present in decision-making bodies and board-rooms. In an attempt to add to this discourse, Kittilson and Schwindt-Bayer look at how the presence of women in legislative bodies affect the gender gaps among the public in terms of political knowledge, political interest and political involvement.

They do so through the use of quantitative data to analyse the effects of electoral institutions on mass attitudes and behaviour. The intent is to move away from previous research which has mainly focused on socioeconomic and cultural influences to bring another dimension into the study of gender and politics. The focus on empirical research works well to test and challenge some assumptions from both sides of the argument as to the effects of including more women in the legislature and making the electoral system more accessible to women.

The Becoming of Bodies: Girls, Images, Experience by Rebecca Coleman

The relationship between bodies and images has long occupied feminism, and this book offers an alternative framework for analysis. Thinking through her original empirical research with teenage girls, involving focus groups, individual interviews and image-making sessions, Rebecca Coleman moves from a consideration of media images – the focus of much feminist research – to examine images more widely; as mirrors, photographs, glimpses, comments, imagination. Nicole Shephard finds that the book is also of methodological interest in terms of bridging a perceived divide between theory and empirical work in cultural studies.

After the turn of a new year, it is virtually impossible to fail to notice the fervour with which personalised online advertising and magazines encourage new year’s resolutions including revolutionary diets, the latest fitness crazes and other methods on how to look young, slim and conventionally beautiful, in a cisgendered and heteronormative way, make the relevance of body images inescapable. What is the potential impact of these media images on the bodies and minds of women and girls?

In The Becoming of Bodies, Rebecca Coleman, currently a lecturer at Lancaster University’s sociology department, re-examines the ways in which this impact is conceptualized and investigated. She draws on her research with (white) British teenage girls to argue from a feminist Deleuzian perspective that bodies and images are entangled rather than separate entities and thus become through one another: “bodies and images are not inherently distinctive nor in need of distinction” (p. 49)….

The Becoming of Bodies, newly available in paperback, is structured into six substantive chapters. Chapter one discusses the theoretical (Deleuzian) underpinnings of the empirical study and the book as a whole, and chapter two discusses the methodology of the study. The subsequent chapters draw on the empirical material to explore the relations between young women’s bodies and images in terms of what images can do (three), looking at bodies as assemblages (four), affect (five) and the temporalities of becoming (six). The Deleuzian notion of becoming is the thread that runs throughout the book. It holds theory, methodology and empirical explorations together to lead up to the broader argument for an ontology of becoming as a way of overcoming the subject/object divide that feminist research maps too unquestioningly onto body/image.

To prepare the reader for the extensive exploratory discussion of the empirical material, out of which the argument for her ontology of becoming arises, Coleman introduces an impressive range of theoretical concepts. She works through the Deleuzian notions of assemblage, the fold, relationality, the virtual and the actual, as well as affect and intensity, to show how they become productive tools in re-thinking the relationship between bodies and images. The theoretical shift, from questions around being to what bodies might do and become, asks the researcher to understand a body as the very relation between “what philosophy has conventionally called a human subject and images” (p. 50) instead of being the subject that has a relation with images.

Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran by Tara Povey and Elaheh Rostami-Pove

This book examines the women’s movement in Iran and its role in contesting gender relations since the 1979 revolution. A fascinating insider’s look at the experiences of Iranian women as academics, political and civil society activists, this book counters the often inaccurate and misleading stereotyping of Iranian women to present a vibrant and diverse picture of these women’s lives, finds Olivia Mason. A welcome and unique addition to the vibrant and growing literature on women, Islam, development, democracy and feminisms.

Iran and the West have had a frayed history, and contributing to this is a lack of engagement from Western academics with those writing from Iran. In this unique new book, the authors present a counter argument to many Western assumptions of issues concerning women in Iran. This is the first time a book has been written by Iranian women in English, and it skilfully uses a wide range of narratives to present the different experiences of women in Iran (p194). The authors believe that work about Iranian women should be written by Iranian women, and so all chapters are written by female scholars and academics in Iran who have chosen research methodologies investigating the everyday experiences of women in Iran.

The authors argue that Orientalist ideas held by many in the West, stemming from the Colonial era, act as a means of domination over Iran (p7). Thus the media, politicians, and some academics in the West present Muslim women as passive victims of men and religion, and blame Islam for this. Povey and Rostami-Povey counter this by arguing that gender inequalities and female subordination in Iran can be traced to pre-Islamic societies, and that further to this there have been huge strides forward in the treatment of women in Iran since the 1990s. All the narratives in the book urge those who believe that progressive movements are purely Western to recognise their blind spot regarding movements in the Middle East (p190). The authors press scholars to read more literature from Eastern academics to avoid repeating orientalist views that do not accurately portray contemporary Iran.

Neurofeminism: Issues at the Intersection of Feminist Theory and Cognitive Science. Edited by Robyn Bluhm, Anne Jaap Jacobson & Heidi Lene Maibom

Neurofeminism is the first interdisciplinary collection of essays to address how recent neuroscience affects traditional feminist issues. Philosophers, psychologists, sociomedical scientists, and feminist scholars explore questions of ‘feminine’ ethics, feminist neuroscience, and overcoming unhelpful pop science books.

For unfamiliar readers, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, including the brain, the spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, throughout the body. Neuroscientists describe the human brain and how it functions, determine how the nervous system develops and maintains itself through life, and find ways to prevent or cure neurological and psychiatric disorders. Feminist reviews of neuroscience started with the questioning of modern scientific conclusions and methodologies in the 1960s, and have been going on in the fringes of mainstream academia ever since. Still, this is the first time that the provocative term neurofeminism appears in an academic book title. Rather than claiming the consolidation of a new research field, the aim of the authors was to put together interdisciplinary perspectives which follow the common goal of methodologically, epistemologically, and ontologically questioning mainstream neuroscience.

Several contributions point to the fact that the peer-review system favours the publication of experimental results showing gender differences rather than similarities in brain behaviour. In her chapter ‘The Politics of Pictured Reality: Locating the Object from Nowhere in fMRI’ Letitia Meynell criticizes the methodological over-reliance on machinery for observation and analysis. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and 3-D foetal ultrasound produce two objects, the female brain and the male brain, that come from nowhere; that is, that do not exist as physical realities outside the world of statistical averages. Ginger Goffman’s chapter ‘What, If Anything, Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Gender Differences?’ shows how basic axioms of statistics are not taken into account in a variety of neuroscentific studies. She presents a study published in Cognitive Science (Price & Friston, 2002) that illustrates how variation among individual brains is higher than differences between grouped female/male brains, suggesting that gender is an irrelevant discrimination factor from the statistical point of view. Additionally, the small number of subjects that are the basis for such fMRI studies make results unreliable, according to representation based on sample size. These same authors look into task-based experiments, such as Simon Baron Cohen’s famous study on gender and childhood games (2005), in which the choice of toys or games that the subjects are asked to play with responds to the researchers’ gender attributions of what is considered feminine or masculine. In all, social constructs derived from the researchers’ tools, stereotypes and experimental designs permeate neuroscience labs.

Gillian Einstein’s chapter on female genital cutting (FGC) escapes common reification and is a brilliant alternative to mainstream neuroscience. By undertaking situated neuroscience, that is, by combining the subjective accounts of Somali women that have gone through FGC, with objective physical exams of the genital area, Einstein argues that “the world writes on the whole body”. She looks at the interactions and reciprocal relations between the central nervous system and the whole body, which remains after the amputation. Because of the existence of phantom limbs in amputees, a possible neurological outcome of FGC is a phantom clitoris. “In trying to determine which body region is represented next to the clitoris, it becomes apparent that no one has actually mapped female body regions to their representative neurons in the brain (···). This is an astonishing area of ignorance to most neuroscientists when it is pointed out to them” (p.170). Moreover, her questions are not restricted to the amputation itself, but include the chronic experiences of pain, body mobility and skin oversensitivity. The neuroscientist constructs an interdisciplinary object and combines tools from the social sciences and neuroscience, re-defining her object of research and opening new directions of thought.

Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It by Mariko Lin Chang

How do we close the gender wealth gap? Mariko Lin Chang assesses the policy situation in the US, suggesting reasons as to why many women find it hard to escape debt anchors, and how barriers often prevent them from taking the wealth escalator. Joe Laking concludes that although Shortchanged fails to offer any radical solutions to wealth inequality, it does present a well-evidenced argument for addressing the gender wealth gap.

Chang uses data from the Survey of Consumer Finances to highlight that although things have improved in terms of the gender wage ratio (currently at an all time high of 77.8%) the ‘typical’ woman owns 36% of the wealth that her male peer does. The idea of the ‘typical’ woman is used throughout Shortchanged, in acknowledgement that Chang is comparing the median rather than the mean. The wealth gap is examined along various different variables, including race, relationship status (never married, married, divorced/widowed) and age. The main conclusion drawn is that, to varying degrees, there is a substantial wealth gap between men and women across most variables.

Shortchanged goes on to look at the policies in America that maintain and exacerbate this gender wealth gap. Policies that assist citizens in accumulating wealth are labelled as being part of the ‘wealth escalator,’ while policies that limit the accumulation of wealth are referred to as ‘debt anchors’. Policies listed as constituting the wealth escalator included tax breaks on mortgage payments, health care benefits that are predominantly accessible to full time workers and access to stock options. These policies disproportionately benefit men in more or less direct ways.

Chang suggests that a large reason that women are less likely to be able to access the wealth escalator is tied up with motherhood. The fact that women are more likely to reduce their working hours or take breaks in their employment to provide care prevents them form accessing policies aimed at full time employees and reduces their social security contributions. Further to this, women are more likely to have custody of dependent children if a relationship breaks down.

At the same time, women are more likely to be caught by the debt anchor. Whether this be through using credit cards to pay day to day essential expenses, being more likely to be offered subprime mortgages and loans or more likely to be employed part-time or have an interrupted employment history owing to caring commitments.

The Future of Feminism by Sylvia Walby

Sylvia Walby has long been a major figure in theorising feminism through a materialist perspective, most famously in her influential Theorizing Patriarchy (1990). In her 2011 book, Walby offers a broad overview of how gender inequality has been addressed and women’s interests articulated over the past four decades. She takes an inclusive definition of feminism which is usefully able to encompass both projects explicitly named as feminist, and those which advance women’s interests but do not claim an explicitly feminist affiliation. Walby is sensitive to the different perspectives and goals that emerge in the ‘global North’ and ‘global South’, and is concerned to supplement her overarching analysis with attention to specificities of place and time.

Her scope is impressive, and this book provides an enormously useful summary of recent feminist thinking and controversy. Feminist engagement with the state, the mainstreaming of feminist perspectives in policy making, the rise of anti-essentialism and the resulting loss of focus on power, the dilemmas over politics of redistribution or recognition, the changing context under the rise of neoliberalism, ‘post-feminism’ – these are all discussed and recent contributions referenced.

Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars by Katrina Gulliver

At the dawn of the 1930s a new empowered image of the female was taking root in popular culture in the West, also challenging the Chinese and Japanese historical norm of the woman as homemaker or geisha in the East. Through a focus on the writings of the Western women who engaged with the Far East, this book reveals the complex redefining of the self taking place in a time of political and economic upheaval. An appealing read for those interested in gender, cultural exchange and cultural borrowing, says Valentina Boretti.

How and from which vantage point does one define modernity? Cultural historian (and most influential historian on Twitter) Katrina Gulliver looks at how six expatriate and local women in China and Japan between the wars perceived, expressed and prescribed the state of being, becoming or acting modern, on a private and public plane. Her work is thus located within the growing body of scholarship that maps the multifaceted character of gendered modernities – and the significance of cultural encounters.

Gulliver focuses on the Modern Woman, an icon of “new” femininity whose disputed and varyingly defined characteristics included education, independence, public-mindedness for the sake of the nation, and whose non-wholesome other was sometimes constructed as the careless, self-indulgent and wasteful female. In order to detect whether the Modern Woman was culturally specific or transnational (p. 1), and to explore the “internationalism of interwar feminist discourse” (p. 2), she succinctly examines the life and work of writers and artists who crossed geographical or metaphorical boundaries while at the same time producing and disseminating knowledge, as they were, or felt, part of a (mainly textual) international community. In so doing they defined their identity, crafting and enacting their oft-ambivalent rendition of femininity, both in relation to the Modern Woman trope and against the backdrop of an-Other, namely “modern” or “traditional” foreign womanhood, be it East Asian or Euro-American.

Gender, Agency and Political Violence: Rethinking Political Violence. Linda Åhäll and Laura J. Shepherd (eds).

Considering the conditions, maintenance, and interpretation of political violence, the authors contributing to Gender, Agency and Political Violence analyse the multiple ways in which acts of violence, strategies of resistance, and efforts at conflict resolution are gendered. Featuring chapters on emotion and masculinity alongside The Troubles, and the political rationality of female suicide bombers, Megan O’Branski finds an intriguing and thoughtful contribution to critical theory scholarship.

Gender, Agency, and Political Violence is an edited volume by Linda Åhäll and Laura J. Shepherd that focuses on the ways in which violence, resistance, and resolution are gendered, through an examination of the constitution of gendered subjects and agents. The authors highlight the necessity for empirical evidence in the critical examination of these subjects, which they call “contextualized analysis”. The book is organized into three thematic sections: “Violent Subjects”, “Reason/Rationality”, and “Emotion/Emotionality”. This organization presents in its own right an interesting gender dynamic, as the second and third parts establish and then address both sides of the gender binary. Each section contains writings that seek to problematize this binary by inverting the anticipated subjects. For example, through an investigation into the political rationality of female suicide bombers, and a focus on the emotional experience of republican prisoners in the notorious men’s prison at Long Kesh in Northern Ireland.

In the introduction to this volume, Shepherd explores the themes of gender, agency, and political violence through a post-structuralist lens. She highlights what she calls “the common thematic concerns of all three concepts: power” (p.3). In keeping with Judith Butler, she argues that of these three concepts, gender is primary, “because conventionally foundationalist concepts of agency and political violence always presume a subject” (p.4). She warns in her introduction that the post-structuralist approach generates more questions than it answers but that I don’t think this is a bad thing” (p.4). I agree on both counts. The chapters of

“Reason/Rationality” is organized around concepts typically associated with masculinity. In her essay, “Power and Gendered Rationality in Western Epistemic Constructions of Female Suicide Bombers”, Tanya Narozhna argues that the Western discussion of women who engage in this type of political violence cements notions of power and gender through its ostensibly neutral and objective discussion (p.80). The constructions of female suicide bombers produced by this Western epistemological foundation disavow the agency of the women who decide for whatever reason to end their lives alongside the lives of others. Narozhna argues that women do not choose their martyrdom, but rather “have been so profoundly victimized prior to committing their final acts …[that] they are led into violence” (p.83). “Their agency being summarily dismissed”, she says, “these women are portrayed as desperate, powerless, confused and oppressed victims of non-Western patriarchy” (p.83).  This summary, she concludes, excludes female suicide bombers from rationality and reason as they are relegated to the corporeal, the emotional (p.85), and summary that she finds at odds with the recorded final statements of the bombers.

Narozhna does a thorough job of explicating the power dynamics that create the silence surrounding the agency of female suicide bombers, concluding that scholars need to “unveil alternative perspectives that are excluded by mainstream analyses” (p.86). it would have been interesting to see, however, what Narozhna felt were the motivating factors behind female suicide bombers, which she touches on by drawing the connection between the personal and the political but without really engaging with it as of itself a gendered concept. I would also have liked to have seen an alternative to the problematic “female suicide bomber” or “female martyr” epithet that Narozhna argues is inherently problematic. I found myself agreeing with her that the term “female suicide bomber” instantly raises questions about the exceptionalism of women in violence, but still not knowing what to say.

The final section tackles questions of emotion and emotionality. Lisa White engages with the tension between masculinity and the feminized notions of emotionality in “Masculinities, Pain, and Power: Gendering Experiences of Truth Sharing in Northern Ireland”. She introduces her chapter by identifying what she sees as a significant gap in the literature, that while there have been many contributions to the study of gender dynamics in Northern Ireland where the role of women is concerned, few studies have examined the impact of the conflict on men (p.184). She begins by problematizing the notion of masculinity, arguing that masculinity is itself a normative assumption divorced from the lived experiences of most men (p.185), and in fact prevents men from sharing experiences of pain and trauma. Her analysis is supported byi nterview evidence given by men imprisoned in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland who have, through interview, chosen to share their experiences, which itself challenges the assumption of men’s emotional illiteracy (p.190).

White engages with the tension inherent in the republican prisoners’ desire to “live up to” the normative assumptions of masculinity, in particular the hardened masculinity of the “Rough Tough Provo” (p.199). She does an excellent job of parsing out the ways in which masculinity was preserved, highlighting the interviewees’ emphasis upon the extreme nature of the violence they endured when they discuss their feelings of pain (p.193), as well as suggesting a new paradigm of masculinity that emerged within the prison, that of the “unbroken” prisoner (p.192). It is difficult to find new things to say about a conflict so widely investigated as the conflict in Northern Ireland, but White’s chapter breaks new ground in its demonstrating and then addressing of an interesting gap in a widely theorized field.

Gender, Agency and Political Violence raise many interesting questions that will intrigue scholars of gender, violence, and critical theory.