Philanthropist Hikari Yokoyama on five books that changed her thinking on gender and the balance of power.
The Mists of Avalon
Marion Zimmer (1983)
When I was a kid, adventurous and dreamy, I often indulged in fantasies about taming dragons and riding on horseback through forested ravines with streaming locks of auburn hair. My place of freedom was a patch of woods in my subdivision that was later bulldozed to build more houses. One summer, while browsing the annual library sale of old books, a thick navy book with no dust jacket and gold leaf embossed writing fell off the shelf in front of me. I took this as a sign. I bought the book for probably 25 cents and then and there, swore I would read it no matter what. The book happened to be the tales of King Arthur told through the perspective of his half-sister, Morgan le Fay. Rather than just being portrayed as an evil witch, she was a woman with unique skills who was fighting to protect her indigenous matriarchal Celtic way of life against the onslaught of violent patriarchal Christianity.
I had read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tolkien, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl and my share of fairy tales, but never had I encountered a female protagonist who carried such a heavy responsibility on her shoulders navigating a course through history. Plus, as an eleven-year-old, I was intrigued because Morgan le Fay was the only woman I had read about who actually had multiple lovers rather than just settling down with the first prince who brought her flowers. I got so into it that I made my six-year-old sister complicit, forcing her to take a vow of silence on a camping trip so she could prove her allegiance to the high priestess.
The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
The Second Sex is the bible of 20th-century feminism. I first read it as part of a required freshman year course and kept it nearby ever since. I had grown up identifying as a feminist and not wanting to be limited by gender roles—I auditioned for the role of Macbeth at the age of nine. I suggested that since Shakespearean male actors used to play the female leads, it could go the other way around, but my logic was ridiculed. At least I got the role of Lady Macbeth.
When I read The Second Sex, I was an impressionable college student. I was coming to terms with my own sexuality and simultaneously trying to imagine some kind of future career through the misty haze of a yet-to-be determined liberal arts degree. The book blew me out of the water. The assumption that marrying well could be a cure for identity crisis wasn’t just a hokey story put forward by romance writers nor was it a result of so-called inherent maternal instinct; it was a systemically spoon-fed to both men and women through countless narratives found in religion, myths, advertising and all forms of storytelling. De Beauvoir was the first writer I read who wasn’t afraid to delve into the givens surrounding menstruation or prostitution or housework—ideas that I had never questioned before. For the first time, I felt like I could see myself through a lens that wasn’t shaped by the male experience.
Women, Race & Class
Angela Davis (1983)
After dubbing myself a feminist and being surrounded by intelligent women and all the studies of science and psychology, I began to ask: Why are women still oppressed? Why has history not yet corrected itself? Someone pointed me to this book. Angela Davis basically says that the women’s emancipation movement has been hindered by its own internal divisions of race and class. If all women banded together, we would be a lot better off. She argues that the history of women’s emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the United States are two interrelated processes that informed one another, and both were cut through with a heavy dose of economic class division. In other words, slavery could mean working 12 hours a day in a factory where you could get your arm chopped off or it could mean marrying a man who didn’t like it if you left the house.
Davis notes witheringly that neither of these examples are as bad as real slavery and she makes the argument that the white middle- and upper-class movement of suffragettes accepted the capitalist professional class without accounting for other women who exist outside of this rubric. Whether they knew it or not, they propped up racism to defend their rights within a narrow scope of their own reality, rather than seeking rights for women worldwide. Women’s empowerment hasn’t been able to take hold universally to the point where it’s not an issue anymore.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009)
In my work for women’s rights worldwide, I’m often asked, “Isn’t it pretty good now? I mean women are 47 percent of the workforce in the US, we have access to birth control, we can choose a career beyond a teacher or a secretary.” It’s true that we’ve come a long way since my grandmother’s generation, but reading this book shows you that just viewing women’s rights as the rights of the Western, educated, careerist women could be a dangerous illusion.
Half the Sky sheds light on the often shocking situations that women face in developing countries–whether they are trying to own land, have a baby, borrow money, get health care or an education. We learn that in our globalized world, if women anywhere are systemically oppressed due to their gender, then women everywhere are not free. Though the stories heart-wrenching, the overall tone is upbeat and positive, using the argument of economic gain for all as a reason to enact social change. When women entered the work force en masse, whether in the US or China, economic prosperity and political stability soon followed.
Maggie Nelson (2015)
It took me a little while to get into this genre-defying and gender-bending book. It’s a personal account of an academic who falls in love and has a baby. Only she has fallen in love with a gender fluid artist named Harry Dodge, who embarks on a transition to become more like a man to achieve gender neutrality. Maggie Nelson explores the thrills and mundanities of a long-term monogamous relationship and the classic story of a woman balancing professional ambitions with personal desires with the added perspective of being queer.
Somehow by being queer (and an exceptional writer), Nelson dances beyond common assumptions and delves into the very essence of love. As a dog owner, one of my favorite passages has her pondering interspecies love. Painstaking personal storytelling is interspersed with rigorously researched excerpts from iconic theorists including Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bruce Benderson and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This book changed the way I think about what it means to be a woman today.
This story is part of a weekend-themed series in celebration of Kinfolk Issue 23: The Weekend Special.
Read a profile story on Hikari Yokoyama from Kinfolk Issue 21 here.