Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Gender and Sexuality

Iron John

Iron John
Robert Bly

Iron John was resoundingly attacked by feminist scholars when it appeared in 1990, and Bly himself associated in many circles with pseudo-intellectual anti-feminist backlash. In this discussion of myth and gender, social psychology and the nature of strength, the well-known poet lamented the disappearance of manhood and the tendency to consider masculinity a four-letter word, and argued the time was long overdue for a movement by, for, and about men. The response was massive. A men’s movement did indeed begin to emerge with the conversation Bly initiated; or, more accurately, several men’s movements emerged – some of them thoughtful, reflective, and entirely consistent with the project as Bly himself understood it, but some articulating exactly the misogynist politics that feminist critics feared. Continue reading “Iron John”



Marquis de Sade

“The most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” – Napoleon Bonaparte sure took note of this little book by Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, written during a stint in jail in 1787, edited into various shapes (some more graphic than others) and finally ordered destroyed in 1815 after its author died in the jail/ insane asylum that had been his home for a number a years. The legacy? C’mon. The guy gave us the term sadism. That is some impact.

Continue reading “Justine”

The Symposium

The Symposium
385-380 BCE

If you are looking for an entry point into Greek philosophy but worried that nothing could be more dull, this short little book is not a bad place to start. Philosophy as so much philosophy happens – with intellectual sitting around, drinking and talking about sex. Continue reading “The Symposium”

History of Sexuality

History of Sexuality, vol. 1
Michel Foucault

Such a small little book. Such a huge, huge impact. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is a tremendous work, not only profoundly impacting thinking on sexuality, but deepening his style of critical work on social institutions generally and introducing, in particular, the notion of bio-power – the processes and practices by which states regulate populations and control bodies.

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume work, but it is volume 1 that is most-read and most-noted. Against the conventional wisdom that that the modern state sought to repress expressions of human sexuality and deny the centrality of sex to life, Foucault explores the myriad ways sexuality was re-thought, re-articulated, deployed by agencies of the state to monitor, manage and exploit human populations. Sex is not ignored let alone erased in the nineteenth century; sex is everywhere, and becomes a matter of state interest as general populations are re-cast as citizenry, people as instruments of national production, communities as collections of human beings to be studied, managed, deployed for or against various ends.

A communist and structuralist thinker until the mid to late 1960s, Michel Foucault became one of the central figures in what was called post-structuralism, though he himself rejected the term, defining his work instead as a critique of modernity. Whatever you call it, it is important, it is influential, and there is scarcely a field in the social sciences untouched by Michel Foucault. Plus he didn’t bother nearly so much as most academics with endless footnotes and sources that just make stuff hard to read. For that, alone, I’m thankful.

Read The History of Sexuality, even if you’re not into the academic stuff. Or read Madness and Civilization, or read Discipline and Punish. This is work that not only changes academic discourse, it profoundly changes the way we see social institutions and our complicated relationships with them.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft

One of the earliest of feminist political statements, Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the political rights of women and investment in women’s education sought to extend the principles of republican democracy associated with the French and American revolutions to the question of gender relations, and proved a foundational text not only of early feminism but of democratic theory more generally.

Much of the basis of Wollstonecraft’s argument is the common good – women, excluded from education and public life, can not adequately educate their own children nor contribute fully to the society at large; indeed, to not educate women poses a fundamental danger, weakening their ability to reason and making them a problem men must manage rather than a citizenry capable of managing its own affairs. But a moral argument is provided as well – that women and men are equally human in the eyes of God, both endowed with the capacity for rational thought, and therefore subject to the same moral laws.

An active player, with her husband William Godwin, in the debates around democracy and republicanism that raged at the time, Mary Wollstonecraft was well-placed to influence some of the leading liberal thinkers and politicians of the day. And her book was indeed well-received at first, becoming a central reference point in the wider debate around sex and gender that was a regular part of political discussion. Following her death, however, Godwin published his own memoirs of life with Mary Wollstonecraft, celebrating (he thought) her unorthodoxy and revealing in the process her multiple love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her struggles with depression. The result was a backlash against Wollstonecraft’s work as the revelations of her personal behaviour overshadowed the arguments she had put forward. For decades Vindication remained out of print, and it was only in the twentieth century, as the suffrage movement grew and writers such as Virginia Wolfe began returning to Wollstonecraft for inspiration, that her memory was rehabilitated and her historical importance recognized.

Fear of Flying

Fear of Flying
Erica Jong

A classic of the second-wave of feminism, Fear of Flying is Erica Jong’s first and best-known novel. The story of Isadora Wing’s self-discovery, in-marriage sexual frustrations and exploration of fantasy with another man, the book struck a chord with married women and made Jong a household name. What is more, it made Fear of Flying not only an important book in American literature, but a major text of the 1970s women’s movement.

Hugely controversial and hugely popular for its explicit treatment of a woman’s sexuality and extensive pornographic episodes, the book introduced the term “zipless fuck” – a purely sexual encounter between strangers – which remains in usage in popular culture today. It is not, though, merely or even predominantly a novel about sexual escapades; likely based upon Jong’s sister – who has vocally condemned Jong for exploiting the story of her marriage – Fear of Flying is more generally about a young woman struggling to make sense of love, sex, freedom, and what it means to be a woman.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A piece of fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper is also an important sociological text and a major contribution to the development of feminism. Based upon her own experiences, Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes her story as a series of journal entries. Confined to her room by a doctor-husband who has diagnosed her as hysterical, a woman cut off from work and social activity, forbidden even to read, descends into madness as the “cure” imposed upon her is only exacerbates her feelings of powerlessness. The exact nature of her initial illness, if indeed it is that, is never clear – there are allusions to a recent child, which may imply post-partum depression, but also the the distinct possibility that the “illness” was no more than emotional and psychological damage resulting from domestic isolation and patriarchal control. A reflection on mental health, a reflection on gender relations, a reflection on the infantilization of women by the medical profession – The Yellow Wallpaper is all these as well just a damn fine story.

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