Cheryl Strayed, Toughness and What is Feminism Now?


Loribeth and Esperanza had both mentioned they enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, and as we’ve begun the painstaking preparation for a family camping trip next month (WHY so much gear? Why so expensive?) we visited an REI store where I finally bought the book.

Wild is about a young woman’s quest to redeem herself and take back her life after a difficult young adulthood filled with injustice and tragedy. Like Pam Houston before her (one of my favorite writers), Strayed takes to the outdoors in an effort to save herself, and undertakes hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo. She quickly finds she is unprepared for the physical, gear and mental rigors this endeavor requires, but through sheer will and stubborness she always continues on, often by just counting her footfalls and channeling some strong inner resource that most of us would lack.

It is an inspiring and emotional book. A few things stood out to me:

1. Her forthright feminism, something that seems, unfortunately, out of style today. Can it be that the 90s (when the journey takes place) were something of a golden age of feminism?
2. An Adrienne Rich poem called “Power” which influences Cheryl’s quest. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Rich or poetry (that’s my mom’s domain), but I did look up “Power”, which is ambiguous.

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

I think Rich is using Marie Curie as an example of a woman who was both the architect and the undoing of her own power. I think Rich is saying when women deny our power, it is both foolish and fatal.

While the 90s might have been a “golden age” of feminism, the beginning of the long climb to women becoming increasingly more educated and closing the gap of salary disparity, I’m not seeing very many hopeful signs today. The word feminist seems to be a dirty word, there seems to be all sorts of backlash and slut shaming and increasing “man-splaining” demeaning women who speak up and are thought to be prudish for not enjoying rape-y songs like “Blurred Lines.”

I really think this sentence from Mel’s post today about Robin Thicke could explain not just this song and its popularity but an overall public sentiment that is scaring me.

The New York Times review of the song wrote: ‘He has the look of a man finally coming into the privilege he was sure was his all along.'”

Have you ever read Sarah Bunting’s essay on what it is to be a feminist?

Chery Strayed and “Blurred Lines” and Adrienne Rich…all of this is what I think about when I worry about my daughter’s future and whether women will be better off in the future or worse off.

I worry it will be the later.

What do you think? Have we seen the end of the golden age of feminism? Or do you think things will get better? Or do you not think feminism is a good thing for women?



Filed under Parenting After IF, What Say You?

12 responses to “Cheryl Strayed, Toughness and What is Feminism Now?

  1. Mo

    It’s way too late over here for me to leave a properly eloquent comment. I will say I worry about the very same things. Here’s hoping we’re wrong.

  2. First of all let me say that I adored Cheryl Strayed’s book. My best friend from graduate school told me I had to read it because it so reminded her of me (Incredibly flattered by that) It is true that some of her life felt so uncomfortably familiar to my own that I had a difficult time reading it… other times I was blindingly jealous because it was memoir I wanted to write and in ways It was the kind of journey that I wanted but that I was never brave enough to go on.

    I think there are two interwoven threads in that memoir: class and feminism… And her speaking truth to class still seems striking and somehow daring to me though I don’t know why that is. I don’t think there’s enough diversity in terms of class in literature. I recognize the feminism in her as similar to my own –We were the first generation of children born to the second wave feminists really… When I taught in the early 2000s I was always shocked by the young women’s response to the question how many of you are feminists? Almost uniformly no one raised their hand or the rare woman or man would admit to it. With the third wave of feminism there came this conflation of the idea of sexual power and true power… As if somehow the objectification of women could be separated and removed from the centuries that came before it and somehow removed and rebranded as power. If women had control of the lens of their objectification the argument went … then it is actual power… But others suggested couldn’t it be that women had just become completely immersed in their own oppression?

    I am truly shocked at so much of the behavior that I see surrounding young women these days. It really makes me disheartened for Zoe, of course, and for all of us. One last thought… another big book this year — Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In — I think you can see the evolution of modern feminist thinking. I may be way off base but the way I read it was that in order to succeed we should really follow more of a male model. Not that women’s ways of doing and being were different and have inherent positive outcomes but rather in order to succeed we should be like men.

    Again sorry for the novel!



    • Sorry if I sound like a blowhard here… I clearly don’t get enough adult conversation;)

      • I’ve been thinking about this. This comment and that’s part of the story I was devastated by. The fact that so many Americans come from severe disadvantages, and those people have to climb Everest to have a good life, a common life. And some people, myself included, have a golden path all laid out for them. It’s so incredibly unfair. And it’s a discussion we rarely have.

  3. Did you see the Upworthy post today?… heartbreaking. Because we clearly still need feminism for these teens, and because feminism is so villified, by both boys AND girls. I worry for our future, and for our daughters.

  4. That is a heartbreaking story. Sadly, I don’t think that this is an outlier situation.

    In the UK, is any woman more admired than Princess Kate, the thin, pretty, quiet, complaint fertile princess? She’s not my idea of a role model for my daughter.

  5. Esperanza

    I LOVED Strayed’s book. I admire her for her honesty, candor and bravery. I would never have the guts to do what she did. Maybe I would start, but I’d never see it through.

    I think it’s really upsetting (and detrimental) that feminism has gotten such a bad rap of late. I don’t think most younger girls (and even younger women) really even know what it means. I remember reading a quote once on FB or somewhere, I can’t say it verbatim but it was something along the lines of, “Do you have a uterus? Do you not want anyone telling you what to do with it? Congratulations, you’re a feminist.” I really loved that quote because in the end, it’s about us, fundamentally, as women, protecting ourselves from those who are trying to control us, which is pretty much everyone.

    The problem is that our ideas of women–what we’re capable of, what we should do with our lives, what we should look like, how we should act–have been around for SO LONG that it’s hard for people to even recognize them as being wrong. And with psuedo-science (and sometimes real science) claiming that there are inherent differences in men and women, people can hide their sexism behind contrived notions of what women can and can’t do, what they are inherently like or not like. It’s much more insidious and therefore harder to combat.

    I too worry for our daughters. What will the world be like for them? What will they be expected to overcome? What impossible standards will they be asked to meet? What horrible wrongs will those who don’t respect them, just because they are women, inflict? It’s truly terrifying to think about.

  6. Ana

    I, too, worry about the future of women’s rights. I actually think we experienced a back-slide in the past 20 or so years…we got complacent, thinking the rights our fore-mothers fought so hard to achieve for us were here to stay. I remember myself thinking feminists were all man-hating, power-hungry, wanna-be CEO types that freaked out when I man tried to open a door for them. I really didn’t see the point of needing “feminists” anymore, because didn’t everyone know that men & women were equal? Well, that complacency (that was common in my generation, I think) has resulted in the erosion of our rights & dignity these days…with WOMEN allowing and even agreeing with the blatant sexism and misogyny in the name of religion, politics, “science” (men and women are BIOLOGICALLY different, ya know?). Women make up more than 50% of college grads and way higher percentages in certain post-grad fields, yet, so many are stalled by the glass ceiling, the nonexistent family-friendly policies, and the deeply ingrained cultural belief about gender in family/parenting/housework. My current department is 60% female, yet 90% of the leaders are male. I totally whole-heartedly consider myself a feminist now and will get on my soap box when I hear any young women grumbling about “not needing feminism”. And I fully intend to teach my sons to fight on the side of women, because we need some help from within.
    Also, I need to read Cheryl Strayer’s book…just put it on my wish list…

  7. I need to read her book too. I like to hope the current situation is just a blip in the history of feminism. I think the momentum may be too great and that ultimately, eventually feminism will prevail. I can’t imagine humans looking back at this time 100 years or so from now and not shaking their heads at how silly everyone was. But that won’t necessarily help your daughter or others coming up.

  8. Gawd, I hope not, because I’m just getting started.

  9. Great post and discussion here. I am reading/ typing on my phone and don’t think I can formulate the type of comment I would like to here. But I want you to know I read this and will be thinking about it for awhile. I believe in feminism and have mixed feelings about so much of this. I don’t have many answers, but agree we need to continue the conversation.

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