Emma Watson Book Club | Sojourners

Emma Watson Book Club

We're a couple, taking on the star's #feminist reading list together. Here's what we're learning.
Image via UN Women/Flickr

Long-distance relationships mean a lot of traveling. Since August, when we moved to different states, both of us (Olivia and Kurt) have spent many long hours on the highway for weekend visits. So on the rare occasion that we are traveling in the same vehicle, we trade reading and headphones for discussion, singing duets to the radio, and — because when you’re in the car, you can’t escape — many conversations debating the deeper questions of life and having “arguments” over whose position is more theologically, philosophically, and morally sound.

One of our favorite topics is feminism. I (Olivia) am a card-carrying feminist, who asserts — even while in relationship — to be a “strong, independent woman who don’t need no man.” I defend my identity as a feminist, even while challenging aspects of its current monolithic trends.

And I (Kurt) am a religion and philosophy type with a desire to find greater meaning in life, who holds concerns that activist movements need a deeper, constant grounding. I continue to challenge the movement itself, though not necessarily its values.

On one recent drive from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., one of our discussions (read: debates) of the pros, cons, limitations, and exciting directions of the women’s liberation movement resulted in Olivia declaring that we needed to sit in silence for five minutes because Kurt was driving her insane with his rebuttals and refusal to wave the feminist flag.

Emma Watson’s new virtual feminist book club, “Our Shared Shelf,”  was announced the week after that drive. The Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women, first made famous through her role as the bookish and brave Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, is living into her fictional character and sharing the books that are inspiring to her with readers of the world.

For two millennials who have plenty of time to read on the road, in a relationship that perhaps needs a shared shelf of knowledge to deepen discussions and provide a mutual starting point, this book club is an exciting way to start the new year together. We’re reading these books together, and we’ll be sharing our thoughts with you as we read and discuss together!

Our first charge, thanks to Emma Watson, was to read Gloria Steinem’s newest memoir, My Life on the Road (fitting for a long-distance relationship, right?), which Watson rated 4 out 5 stars. Here’s what we learned about feminism, intersectionality … and eachother.

Kurt Houwen: I think one of the major themes from My Life on the Road is that people are far too multifaceted to dichotomize into either/or categories. It’s a lesson Gloria Steinem learned from her life traveling and living on the road. The reality is that human lives exist on a spectrum, where things are never simply right or wrong, real or unreal—there is always more to the issue.

Steinem, in a line that Emma Watson highlights as one of her favorites, jokes, “The only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two, and those who don’t.”

Olivia Whitener: Right. Even in the feminist movement, the question, too often, is, “Are you in or are you out?” With little room for discussion in between or outside of the label of “feminist.” I think in many ways that is limiting, and why reading about Steinem’s stories of the ‘60s and ‘70s are important to current trends.

For her, feminist ideals were entirely integrated with her observation of and participation in the Civil Rights movement and rights for North American native cultures. Women’s liberation is integrally connected to liberation from race restrictions, religious barriers, and the negative effects of colonialism.

Kurt: There’s the one anecdote from one of Steinem’s law school talks that can represent the nature of our Western “either/or” mentality. The discussion at hand was, shouldn’t laws be universally binding? And Steinem argues for the necessity of flexibility, asserting that situations and perspectives must be taken into account when making decisions about the law.

Steinem acknowledges the “slippery slope” argument — that flexibility with the law leads to inability to enforce law — but shares how a woman at that talk rejected that rebuttal by telling of her pet snake. The woman said she used to receive frozen mice from a professor to feed her pet boa constrictor, but, when a new professor was hired by the school, the new professor denied her the mice, saying, “If I give you frozen mice, everyone will want frozen mice!”

Clearly not everyone wants a frozen mouse! Justice is not the case that either everyone gets a mouse, or no one gets a mouse; it is not a universalizing leveling down or leveling up. Wants and needs are not universally the same.

Olivia: I love that story, because, though kind of silly, I think it can be applied to so many conversations regarding the difference between equality and equity, fairness and justice.

It’s relevant, I think, to not only the importance of removing dichotomies but also the key of hearing specific stories from diverse groups, especially those that have been silenced.

Steinem says that from traveling so much, she had an opportunity to hear from so many different groups of people — proving that, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.’” And that’s one of the theories of social change, right? Hearing personal stories brings a better sense of understanding that can get more people on board and connected.

But we must sit down together to have those conversations and see another point of view. I think we are lucky in the United States — because we have so many diverse groups, we don’t have to travel across the world but just down the street.

My other favorite quote, which Emma Watson brought up in a discussion board, is “Laughter is a rescue.” When we work together against injustices, or just exist in relationship together, I think it is so important to laugh a lot when we can. It wears you down to work in social justice spheres, and so to hear such an assertion from one of the famous leaders was encouraging.

Our Ratings of My Life on the Road:

Kurt: 3.7 out of 5. Through the stories she tells, that focus on diversity not dichotomy, Gloria Steinem explains how she, “discovered a whole world of and” instead of “either/or,” which I greatly appreciated. Her book is a mostly-chronological jumble of an unpacking of her life’s “and’s.” I’m not the biggest fan of memoirs, but thought it was a good introduction to the history of U.S. feminism — one I didn’t have before.

Olivia: 4 out of 5. As someone growing up in third-wave feminism, My Life on the Road taught me a lot about the second wave of feminism, and turned my view from looking at what we need to create anew, to looking at models from the past. To hear especially that intersectionality is not particularly a new topic, as much as something that desperately needs to be brought to greater attention, was really helpful. I loved learning more about Gloria and her insecurities, challenges, and hopes, as well, and cannot wait to read Alice Walker, one of Steinem’s longtime partners-in-crime, up next!

We’re excited to continue sharing a bookshelf alongside 100,000 other celebrities, academics, old-time feminists, and others like us! To join us — a philosophizing emerging feminist and a born-and-bred feminist gaining some historical knowledge — begin this month with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.