Review of Feminism: Issues & Arguments by

Book cover for Feminism: Issues & Arguments

If a book's merits are judged based on whether or not it achieves the goal its author intends, then Feminism: Issues and Arguments has great merit. Jennifer Saul explicitly states that she is not out to provide a final say on any of the issues she discusses in her book; rather, it's an introduction to contemporary feminist thought by focusing on several issues key to feminism. The only remaining question is one of quality; how well has Saul presented her overview of feminism?

For the most part, I would agree with the book's somewhat hyperbolic summary: this is an accessible text, especially when one considers the amount of academic references Saul packs into her discussions. Saul carefully defines the terms she uses and mentions when the terms are particularly controversial—for instance, feminists who oppose pornography often operate under a very definition of "pornography" that differs from more conventional definitions. This helps the feminist newbie stay afloat in what is really an intense conversation. With each theme, Saul tries to cover as much territory as possible, citing as many opposing view points, sorting them, analyzing their merits, and injecting some of her own opinions where appropriate. Since each theme deserves (and has) entire books devoted to it, this makes for a whirlwind pacing that can leave a reader gasping for breath.

I'd particularly praise Saul for her attention to detail when analyzing or criticizing the various viewpoints discussed in the book. In addition to her focus on definitions, Saul employs logical reasoning to test the validity of arguments and analyzes their premises individually before summarizing her opinion of the argument as a whole. So when mentioning that some feminists oppose legal codification of sexual harrassment because it portrays women as frail and in need of protection, Saul devotes a good section of her chapter on sexual harrassment to an analysis of this claim, and just this claim, before going on to talk about the various legal and philosophical approaches to what constitutes sexual harrassment. Her methodical approach ensures that the reader not only understands what the viewpoint is saying but also the viewpoint's stance relative to all the other perspectives on a particular issue.

While "overview" does not immediately translate into "shallow" or "lack of depth," at times this approach inevitably leads to oversimplification or overgeneralization. Saul mostly avoids this, for she chooses to discuss very concrete themes that have well-entrenched or highly-differentiated positions: pornography, abortion, feminine appearance, language in relation to feminism, feminism in science, etc. The first and last chapters are probably the weakest in the book and also the most nebulous in terms of subject matter. In the first chapter, "The Politics of Work and Family," Saul discusses feminism in the workplace, how the workplace influences women's roles in society and in the family, and possible solutions that make the workplace and the family better for both women and men. In the last chapter, "Feminism and 'Respect for Cultures'," Saul discusses how feminists have approached cultural inequity (particularly when women seem disadvantaged due to "cultural traditions"). In both chapters, Saul tries to gather several related but disparate topics under a single subject heading, and the result is not as cohesive as the more monolithic chapters on "Pornography" and "Abortion."

I suppose I should mention that I read this book as part of a university course I took online, "Philosophy and Gender." It was assigned as a textbook along with Multiculturalism without Culture, and we did not discuss every chapter. As an introductory textbook (apparently its primary purpose), Feminism: Issues and Arguments works well: it saturates its reader with various feminist perspectives without overwhelming its reader. That's about as much as an introductory textbook can offer. Saul continually recommends further reading, both throughout each chapter and then in lengthy sections at the conclusion of every chapter. These recommendations further enhance the value of the book; they provide credible sources for readers interested in continuing their research. Beginners in the field of gender studies will find Feminism: Issues and Arguments helpful; those familiar with the field would do well to recommend this text to their uninitiated friends.

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