Emma Watson's feminist book club, reviewed.

What I Learned From Joining Emma Watson’s  “Feminist Book Club”

What I Learned From Joining Emma Watson’s  “Feminist Book Club”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 2 2016 10:27 AM

What I Learned From Joining Emma Watson’s  “Feminist Book Club”

485360238-english-actress-emma-watson-poses-during-the-photocall
Emma Watson, UN Goodwill Ambassador and book club founder.

Photo by GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Emma Watson announced that she launching a book club called Our Shared Shelf: “As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on. There is so much amazing stuff out there!” she wrote on Goodreads. "Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering! I’ve been discovering so much that, at times, I’ve felt like my head was about to explode… I decided to start a Feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too." Her feminist book club, she declared, would convene on Goodreads during the last week of every month. What would a feminist book club "run" by Emma Watson be like, I wondered? How would it be different from a book club not involving Emma Watson? So I joined.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

I've now lived though 120 hours of Our Shared Shelf. It is Friday as I write these words, I am 200 pages into January’s title (the club’s inaugural selection: My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem). I admit I was skeptical when I first heard that Hermione Granger was launching a feminist book club. There is, of course, the inevitable yet eyeroll-y enmeshment of Watson’s laudable beliefs with her personal brand. (“As part of my work with UN Women...”) But also: What is a feminist book club, and how is it unlike a regular book club? We know that women read more than men. That our culture conditions women to express themselves, discuss, and collaborate more than men. Already the act of consuming literature and then chatting about it, Merlot in hand, seems to be coded feminine, despite the considerable number of male book clubbers that exist. So would a feminist book club be, like, an anti-book club? A book club in which ladies shout their opinions as loudly and obnoxiously as possible while overturning the cheese plate?

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I kid. Feminism, of course, encourages discourse, people talking and listening, ideas germinating. It feels built into the concept of a book club. So what does it mean to make that connection explicit?

Perhaps it just means you talk about feminism. Our Shared Shelf definitely succeeds on that front: Atop the shelf I share with Emma Watson is a folder titled “Feminism,” filled with such threads as “What is Feminism?”, “Why did YOU become a feminist?”, and “The Problem with Feminism—A Man’s Outlook.” The entries, numbering in the hundreds, add up to a genuinely powerful crowdsourced art project, a performance that transcends its smoky-eyed puppet master. “Feminism is an ideology that helps to reduce the obstacles in the path of complete equality of opportunities at home, work space and the larger society,” a reader posts from India. Offers a Pennsylvania resident: “Feminism is the appreciation of beauty, ability, intelligence, capability, and potential in all people.” Also, important topics get hashed out in sub-threads, from sexual assault to intersectionality to how employers can close the wage gap. You will notice, though, that there’s not much here about books.

Maybe a “feminist book club” is simply a book club in which the members are feminists. A lengthy Introductions” thread (more than 1,400 entries) reveals the diversity of the Shared Shelf fellowship: men and women from Canada, Singapore, the United States, Germany, France, and Ghana; in high school, middle-aged, elderly, and—especially—in their early-to-mid twenties. Karlie Kloss has joined. It’s overwhelming. “Umm… guys?” posts one reader. “Hello! I have no idea what to do right now. Can anyone please help?” Also overheard on the threads: “I’m concerned people are going to say they love this book just because Emma suggested it.” But feminism seems at least as trendy as Watson right now, and OSS participants come across as more than mere fans of the actress; the dominant tone is equal parts social activism, January renewal/self-betterment, groupie enthusiasm, and pure curiosity. Writes one woman, lacing these strings together: “I joined this book club because I’m a proud feminist, and I absolutely adore how Emma has used her fame to bring equality to all, so I really wanted to support her, all while discussing two things that are important to me (feminism and literature) with others."

My Life on the Road is indeed an ardently feminist text, attuned to how gender permeates every nook and cranny of its characters’ lives. In the first few chapters, for instance, Steinem examines the social expectations that shaped her childhood at home. She compares her mother’s hesitancy to try her luck as a reporter to her waggish father’s failures as an antiques dealer: “At least my father had been able to choose his own journey,” she writes.

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The discussion works best when it doesn’t treat Steinem's text like a scarecrow on which to hang ideological arguments. When moderators don’t, for instance, jump in to scold Steinem for romanticizing the pull of the wayfarer’s life. “We’ve been a migratory species for nearly all of our time on earth,” Steinem says, trying to account for her wanderlust. The moderator’s critique—that such a statement fails to acknowledge Steinem’s privilege as a person economically and physically able to move from place to place—scanned to me as pandering, a willful misreading of the author’s attempt to root her desires somewhere mysterious and deep.

Compare the fascinating (and self-consciously feminist) back-and-forth about whether Steinem came down too hard on her mother, given the constraints of Ruth Nuneviller’s era. Some readers felt that the book unfairly faulted Nuneviller for choosing family over career; others replied that Nuneviller wouldn’t even have perceived that decision as a choice (and that Steinem, who knew that, was faulting midcentury America). Unlike the “migratory privilege” rumbles, this conversation wasn’t about performing the correct response. Even better, it had a firm foothold in the memoir itself, in Steinem’s vivid characterization of her diffident, driven, mentally ill mom.

That grain-of-sand perspective matters. Feminism exists to elevate individual stories. Reading around on Our Shared Shelf made me realize that a real “feminist book club,” one profoundly animated by feminism’s ideals, doesn’t have to talk about feminism all the time. It just has to talk about men and women. It has to understand the inextricability of gender and identity, so that when Steinem graduates from college with a Phi Beta Kappa key and her father sends her a Variety ad calling for “smart” babes to dance in a Las Vegas chorus line, that highly specific moment doesn’t reduce to Steinem being female. Instead, Leo Steinem’s sexism remains one strand in an intricate father-daughter dynamic, because being female and being Steinem are too deeply interfused to separate out.

In that spirit, my favorite part of the Shelf were the personal reactions posted by book club members. They felt like bizarre arrivals from a locked journal, weird pulses of Internet intimacy from all over the world. “Gloria has kind of made me feel as though I’m living an unfulfilled, lackluster life by not having travelled so far or made plans to in a somewhat nomadic style,” one reader confided. “I feel quite unambitious, defensive, and dissatisfied at the moment.” Someone else: “What I didn’t like about the first chapter was the mother’s unfulfilled dreams. One of my greatest fears is the inability to achieve my dreams.” Emma, did you expect strangers to be filling the shelf with their darkest anxieties when you started this group? Do you know what you tapped into?

Watson might not, but Steinem does. In the introduction to My Life on the Road, she invokes the “magic of people telling their own stories to groups of strangers. It’s as if attentive people create a magnetic force field for stories the tellers themselves didn’t know they had within them.”

As of now, the club has over 96,000 members and more than 500 topic threads, some with thousands of posts and tens of thousands of views. But the biggest question I have so far is: Where is Emma? Waiting in the wings to bless our perambulations like a feminist fairy godmother? Giving another speech at the UN about gender equality and her HeForShe campaign? Prepping for her upcoming gig as sure-to-be-feminist-role-model Belle (a strong, smart bookworm) in the live-action Beauty and the Beast? She disappeared from the fray after announcing early Monday that she would be interviewing Steinem upon a London evening in late February, seems to be biding her time/reading remedially/still crafting the perfect, inclusive, politic response to the itinerant activist’s long-awaited memoir. And yet, by some sorcery, it appears that Watson has marshaled a huge group of “attentive people” into an absolutely credible feminist book club, without even showing up at all.