Thursday, February 16, 2006

Feminist Book Reviews: Selling Women Short and Sisters

(Cross-posted at What If No One's Watching.)

I just read a couple of great feminist books, so I thought I'd share my reviews with Avast!

Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart
by Liza Featherstone
282 pages
Basic Books, November 30, 2004

This excellent, interview-based book follows the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the gigantic class-action suit brought against Wal-Mart by its female employees. Journalist Featherstone talks to what have to be a hundred current and former Wal-Mart employees, managers, lawyers, etc. in her effort to get the whole story, and the story isn't pretty. The picture painted is one of institutional discrimination against women on a scale of over a million. The discrimination permeates all levels at Wal-Mart, with women making less than men for the same jobs, being sexually harassed, and all of the usual crimes. The thing that makes Wal-Mart different, though (or at least this is the case the prosecution will be making) is that the policy of discrimination is not limited to a given man, or a given store, but to the entire, huge company. As women fight their ways up the management ranks at Wal-Mart, things get worse rather than better, and eventually nearly all women top out. For all of its rhetoric about being woman-friendly and family-friendly, Wal-Mart does worse by women than any other company its size.

The strength of Featherstone's book is on two counts. The first is her persuasive rhetoric and extensive interviewing, the second is her focus. Featherstone largely allows the women involved in the case to speak for themselves as to their treatment at Wal-Mart, and their stories provide a very strong foundation for the institutional statistics she provides, but doesn't bore you with. Giving Wal-Mart management their say, she also talks extensively to current and former high level Wal-Marters, and quotes from the testimony that has already been heard in the pre-trial motions for the case. While her sympathy to the protestants is obvious, she seems a decent journalist in at least trying to get the other side of the story. Such as it is.

As opposed to other anti-Wal-Mart pieces, such as The High Cost of Low Prices, Featherstone focuses her work not on everything that is wrong with the company, but specifically on its sexism. While she does end up arguing that unionization will do more for Wal-Mart's female employees than this lawsuit or anything else that may come along, she spends most of the book focusing on the specific problems of female Wal-Mart workers, and given how much information is available just on that one subject, this is a good call. Though the discrimination of women at Wal-Mart does tie into other problems with the company (hypocritical conservative moralism, poor treatment of workers), it is refreshing to see a focus on women, and to see Featherstone's academic rigor in defining her subject.

Overall, this book is the best piece I've seen or read on the evil that is Wal-Mart. While it misses whole huge problems with what Wal-Mart does (like the conditions of overseas workers, for example), it does a wonderful job with the issue that it does take up, which is one of the ones that I'm most concerned with as a feminist. I'd highly recommend it.

Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists
by Jean H. Bake
288 pages
Hill and Wang, September 14, 2005

I picked up this book after watching the movie about Alice Paul and the end of the suffrage movement, Iron-Jawed Angels. I realized while watching the film that I didn't know enough about Paul, or about feminism's "First Wave" in general, to tell if the movie was giving her a fair portrayal or not. This book was a good introduction, I think, but more information will definitely be needed.

Sisters is divided into five sections, each dedicated to the life and work of one particular famous suffragist: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul. By her own admission, Baker focuses more on the women themselves than on the history of the work they did. In her mind, the women of the first generation of American feminism are largely forgotten by all us Second Wavers and beyond, relegated to images of uptight prudes in high-collared dresses, with no lives or histories of their own, and she seeks to correct that. Due to this focus, and to each section only being about 50 pages long, she doesn't get much into the politics and activism, so look for that elsewhere. What she does talk about is each woman's childhood (three of five were very bad), religion (two Quakers, two Christians, and one atheist), personal relationships (Stone and Stanton were married, the other three were not, and four of the five women may have had lesbian relationships), and general personality. So I came out of the reading knowing not a whole lot more than I had started out knowing about suffrage politics, but thinking that Susan B. Anthony was probably been a damn fun person to be around, while Lucy Stone was probably not.

Given what it is--a lightweight, biographical account of five tremendously important women in less than 300 pages--it's fantastic. And while I hunger for more information, I know at least know what and who specifically I want more information on. Alice Paul remains the most intriguing figure to me, and Frances Willard appeals even less than before. The earliest years of the suffrage movement, particularly those that eclipse the Civil War and Reconstruction, are unbearably depressing, and it's much more fun to focus on the 20th century part of the battle. The book gives me lots of starting points. It's also a very easy read, and I'd recommend it for others who, like me, are embarrassingly ignorant of the suffrage movement in the U.S., especially if it is something you want to know about and don't want to dedicate a lot of time to. Iron-Jawed Angels isn't bad on that count either, actually. I'm going to be trying to move on to something a bit more substantive next, so suggestions are welcome.


Blogger Yael - Ein Shem said...

Grace - do you think your books want to travel to Israel? I would love to read Sisters. I could send it back when I am finished. Books in English are so expensive here.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Grace said...

Sorry, Einshem. Normally I'd be glad to send them, but I had them from the library, I didn't buy them.

7:09 AM  
Blogger சினேகிதி said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:18 PM  
Blogger சினேகிதி said...

Hi Grace,
I was just looking for some info on this book;glad i found ur blog.

9:09 PM  
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6:06 AM  

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