The Soul of a Woman, latest book from literary legend Isabel Allende, is being described as a “meditation on power, feminism and what it means to be a woman”. With an introduction like that, there was no way I could not pick up a copy.
The Message Behind The Soul of a Woman
Isabel Allende is believed to be the most widely read Spanish-language author and yet, she still faces struggles to be recognised in the same way that her male peers are. In this book alone, she exposes the fact that it took the collaboration of several Chilean leaders for her to be awarded the National Literature Prize. This prestigious prize has been awarded to just a handful of women since it was launched in 1942, but why?
This isn’t just about a literary prize however, but about the way that women still feel oppressed throughout the world.
When Isabel was growing up in Latin America during the 1950’s and 60’s, females were seen as subordinates in all ways. They were seen as victims of the time; they didn’t have a voice. They were not expected, in fact, to have a voice or an opinion. It was a man’s world, but has it really changed all that much?
Latin America’s feminist movement was always slower on the uptake then other countries so it’s only fair to assume that there may still be a long way to go before women are seen in the same way as their male counterparts.
“Feminism often sounds scary because it seems too
radical or is interpreted as hatred of men.” (Page 9)
Isabel highlights that it would be easy for someone of the feminism generation to comment saying that the older women should have fought harder but, across the world during this era, women were often happy with their chosen paths in life. Therefore, to challenge this was often never a consideration. It is only, years later, that we realise how their inaction has slowed down our progress.
How does Isabel Allende view feminism?
“And what is my definition of feminism? It is not what we have
between our legs but we have between our ears.” (Page 10)
Perhaps it is the lack of clear understanding over the definition of feminism that leads some to be that this is a radical movement of females. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate that some are more vocal than others, some rise to action in a more prominent way, but all women and many men whether quietly or not are fighting for equality for all.
“Feminism is a philosophical posture and uprising against male authority. …
a way of understanding human relations… It’s a commitment to justice
and a struggle for the emancipation of women… anyone oppressed by the
system, including some men… ‘ (Page 10)
Isabel highlights that a feeling of invisibility and inequality is infuriating for all, not just women, but it does seem that females are less likely to be seen than men. She also stresses that some countries are further forward then others with their treatment towards all genders, highlighting that in Chile, especially when she was growing up, was light years from the advances in Feminism in Europe and the United States, and is therefore still behind many nations today.
“The world changes constantly and humanity evolved, but the changes
are only obtained after much struggle.” (Page 17)
In fact, as a young woman, she honestly believed that because her views were so progressive she was destined for a life of spinsterhood. She stood out from the crowd and was often seen in a less than positive light because of her thoughts.
For example, Isabel walked away from the church at fifteen not because she didn’t believe in God but because she couldn’t be part of something that limited the feminine role. She struggled with the inherent machismo of religious organisations and openly disagreed with the way that females were treated as second-class members of the congregation. The fact that men were always going to remain as figures of authority without women ever truly being seen as equal was something she felt she could not be a part of. He views were so strong and unmoveable on this matter that she simply couldn’t stay.
In 1967 she started working as a journalist for Paula a newly launched feminist magazine which defined a change for her. She was struggling with the boredom that marriage and motherhood offered her and she honestly thought at the time that they could change the world and its views on women in just ten to fifteen years. However, as she observes, it is a fight we are still trying to win today.
However, she wouldn’t want to change who she is. She is glad to be a woman and feels that men are limited by ‘the straightjacket of masculinity’ that suppresses their emotions. Many have an increased sense of competition, aggression and often supremacy and although it is wrong to make such sweeping statements if you look back in history you can see how this conclusion has come about.
The Soul of a Woman goes further however, then just Isabel Allende’s personal beliefs. It also looks into the inconsistencies of today and how the sexes are unfortunately treated very differently at times.
The Battle of the Sexes: How are Women and Men seen differently?
In most of the world, a woman’s value is tied to her youth and beauty and the objectification of women is still very much an issue. On top of that, take a moment to reflect on how men and women are viewed differently on the subject of sex. Men are almost praised for having multiple sexual partners whereas women are vilified.
This is inequality at a basic level.
Let’s also consider how females are treated in their working lives.
Isabel Allende herself was once told, if you succeed you will be judged harshly for achieving as a woman. Why? If you are as good as a man, why should this thought have ever even crossed someone’s mind? She goes on to highlight that even in the writing world, it has taken decades to get recognition that male authors simply take for granted. Even now she is not popular with Chilean critics and one male author has made the claim that she “wasn’t a writer simply a typist”. When challenged about whether he had read any of her books, he replied by saying “over my dead body”. This is an author that has been read by many more readers than most other Spanish-language authors and yet her male colleagues cannot see her as an equal. Add to this the discrepancies in pay between the sexes and the fact that many senior positions still go to men, it is fair to say that we still have a long way to go to make our working lives comparable.
Even outside of work our lives are still not equal.
Very few women are completely fearless. It seems that it is in our DNA to fear men. Think about it, as a woman you see a group and you panic; we can’t help ourselves. Instead to compensate we are told to change our behaviours in order to avoid becoming victims of harassment. We are asked to change our appearance, the way we act, who we social with – just in case. Are men told the same? Why should we be hold responsible for the fact that men cannot behaviour, and yet it seems that we often are.
For example, let’s look at one reason why women are asked by their husbands and fathers to wear a burka. The idea is that by covering up completely it will avoid sparking male desire. Therefore women are being punished for male weakness if this is the main reason they use for their dress.
“’Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that
men will kill them,’ wrote Margaret Atwood.” (Page 91)
Isabel also explores ideas that cover literacy, child brides and females solid as a commodity for men.
However, she also highlights that the world has progressed further and that there has been significant progress in the last few decades. However, in order for this to continue we need to seize all the opportunities thrown at us and to remember that you need to go out and fight for success – no-one will simply give you what you want.
My Thoughts on The Soul of a Woman
The Soul of a Woman does not radicalise feminism but highlights that females deserve an equal chance in life. Feminism is not something that only a few hardcore radicals fight for. As a female, anyone facing oppressing needs to go out and on a daily basis and fight for their rights – this is what feminists are truly about.
“Like the ocean, feminism never stays quiet”. (Page 11)
Years ago, a successful woman would have hidden behind a male pseudonym (e.g. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot) and even today females often hide their gender by using only their initials (e.g. J.K. Rowling) making them non-gender specific in the hope that they will appeal to a wider audience.
It is also a book that fundamentally highlights that all females want just one thing:
“This is what women want: to be safe, to be valued, to be valued, to live
in peace, to have their own resources, to be connected, to have control
over their bodies and lives, and above all, to be loved.” (Page 85)
In short, it is one of the most insightful books I have read on the topic and rather than reading my thoughts on it, I strongly suggest you read it for yourselves. Never have I felt such a strong desire to fight for what should rightly be mind after reading a book. I don’t believe that Isabel Allende’s intention was to cause an uprising, but to provide more information on the subject and whilst I don’t intend to start marching in the streets, it has made me realise that perhaps I do let others walk over me more than I should and that I do need to take my future into my own hands.
Ultimately as women, if we want to succeed we all have a responsibility to our gender to fight for our equality and what should be automatically accepted now. It is a book that empowers you to strive for change and to challenge when needed in order to achieve it.
Have you read The Soul of a Woman or any other feminism books that you feel others should read?
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