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Posts tagged ‘feminism’

Mistress: A History of the Other Woman


by: Elizabeth Abbott

I was really excited when I found this book.  A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long.  There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered.  It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.

I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good.  Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth.  I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.

Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted.  There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.

One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman.  She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people.  The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.

I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful.  But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women.  I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.

I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom.  It was truly eye-opening.  It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.

Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s.  All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.

If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.

Feminist Sundays!


Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

Hi guys and welcome to my first Feminist Sunday! (I probably won’t participate every week, but I’m participating this week.)

I thought I would tackle a phrase that drives me up the wall.  It’s often seen in, but not limited to, romance novels. And it goes like this, “Any other woman would’ve X, but she Y’ed.”

Why does that phrase make me so annoyed? I’ll grant there are times when it is true: Any other woman would not have been able to relate to my experience as an unmarried European monarch, but Elizabeth I truly got me. Or: Any other woman would have not been able to follow my dissertation on the physical properties of radium, but Madame Curie helpfully critiqued my experimental design.

And there are times when its hyperbolic use seems appropriate, in that there probably are other women who would share the response, but they are few and far between: Any other woman would have called the police and run far away when she realized my psychopathic murderous hobbies, but Lila was completely into it. Or: Any other woman would’ve divorced me after I caused an international scandal with my affairs, but Hillary stayed with me through the entire ordeal. 

But unfortunately, most often the sentence runs like this: Any other woman would have freaked out/cried/become emotional and therefore useless, but Heroine remained calm, assessed the situation and utilized her abilities to best help the situation OR remained calm and did nothing so I could rescue her. And this is quickly followed by romantic navel-gazing ending with the conclusion that this is why the hero loves the heroine.

That’s not super flattering, now, is it?  Most women are apparently incapable of handling any tense or dangerous situation (because EMOTIONS!) and so, boys, when you find one who doesn’t act like a woman in these situations, you should marry her.

I am going to point out here that I know plenty of women who remain calm in tense or dangerous situations and end up being quite helpful.

It’s also weird that a heterosexual man finds himself falling in love with a woman because she doesn’t act like he thinks a woman should act.  Let’s run through that logic, shall we? 

A) I am attracted to women, presumably because they look and act like women. I have very defined views on how women should act; this is part of my attraction to them.  B) But the only woman who is worthy of my love is one who acts like a man.  Which brings us to C) women are inherently inferior to men and therefore not worthy of my manly love unless they D) act like men, which makes them worthy of my manly love.  But E) I am not attracted to men.  Only women.  Just not women who act like women.

Setting aside all inherent problems with how  women are viewed in that particular train of logic, it doesn’t make much sense, does it?

I don’t have a problem with that trope when it’s as such: Most other women would not have shared my interest in restoring classic Chevy trucks.  That is a) probably a fairly true statement and b) does not imply negative things about most other women.  It is not a character judgment to say someone does not share your interests and hobbies. (Assuming you don’t murder people for fun, that is.)

And as an ending point, I do occasionally see this trope used against men, usually in a domestic sense, as in: Any other man would have run screaming from the sight of the baby, but he stayed and played with it. Which has many of the same problems as above.