They wrapped up Michelle Obama’s Becoming and moved on to a novel that’s been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale
On a recent Sunday afternoon, women encircled a table in the center of the sunny upstairs room at Moderation Brewing Company in Brunswick, most with a hardback copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming in front of them. The weather was foul, the roads treacherous, but the fourth meeting of the Brunswick Feminist Book Club included about a dozen women, most in their 20s and 30s, a few in middle age and a couple of retirees.
Most women who have been in a book club know that even with a scintillating read, by the time the Chicken Marbella and first two bottles of wine have been consumed, discussions devolve (or evolve) from the plots of the books to the plots of the participants’ lives. Often these include topics that dovetail with feminism. But at this book club, there is no Chicken Marbella, instead of wine there is beer, brewed downstairs, and the conversation goes straight to feminism.
Becoming covers Michelle Obama’s modest but loving childhood in Chicago, her years at racially-divided Princeton University and her early career back in Chicago, where she fostered dreams of having that “hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore.” Then Barack Obama enters her life, and together they embark on a journey from parenthood to politics that leads all the way to the White House. (As she mentions in the dedication, he always promised her, their journey would be “interesting.”)
Not surprisingly, the book was a hit, and not just in terms of narrative—everyone seemed to enjoy the pillow talk scene where then Michelle Robinson notices Barack Obama lying awake, asks him what he’s thinking about and he tells her “income inequality”—but because of the former First Lady’s ability to advocate for herself, especially around gender issues in the workplace. Like the time she went for a job interview with newborn Sasha and told a potential boss how essential flex time would be for her. “I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs,” Obama writes.
For book club member Sara McGrath, this was familiar territory. McGrath doesn’t have children yet, but she’s been watching friends with them negotiate the work-life balance. She knows how hard it is to coordinate flex time and part-time with employer expectations, especially without ending up working full time for less pay. “The scene where she kind of took control,” McGrath said. “When she said, ‘When I need to leave, I will leave.’ It just struck me as an incredibly powerful moment.”
“But how do you get to that?” asked Kira Bennett Hamilton, the founder of the group, opening up a discussion of issues from trying to interview for a job while breast-feeding, to being open to what Obama calls life’s “swerves” in Becoming or following a partner for a job.
Bennett Hamilton, 32, moved to Maine about 18 months ago from Worcester, Massachusetts after her husband took a job at Bowdoin College, She has two small sons and kept her job, working remotely for the Carrot Project, a nonprofit which coordinates loans and business advising to farms. As she settled in, she found she missed the feminist book club she’d gone to in Boston, and before that, one she’d been in Berkeley, California. She called the group the Brunswick Feminist Book Club for Facebook group purposes only; anyone can come.
“It’s a really nice way to meet like-minded people,” Bennett Hamilton says. “The books are an important part of it, but it often just sparks conversations about women’s lives.” She connected with Brunswick politician Mattie Daughtry, co-owner and co-founder of Moderation Brewing Company and a voice for women’s issues in Augusta, representing the 49th district in the state House of Representatives. Daughtry offered the brewery as the group’s base. Bennett Hamilton was happy to see some older feminists at the March meeting. “It had been predominantly people of around my age and my demographic,” she says. “I’m excited to have some people from other generations.” And experiences, she adds. “It is too bad when feminism comes across as monolithic.”
As they wrapped up the conversation about Becoming Bennett Hamilton put a stack of books on the table and asked for consensus on what they should tackle next. They picked Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which Barack Obama, among others, had deemed one of the best books of 2017. (It’s science fiction, set during a future where women can generate electricity from their hands and the matriarchy has overtaken the patriarchy.) The club doesn’t always read books, Bennett Hamilton says. They read a lengthy Baffler article by Laurie Penny about “false idols of neoliberal self-care” one month and listened to a podcast about vocal fry and uptalk another month. “The more important thing is really that connection around feminist issues,” she says. “Rather than just discussing the texts themselves.”
For more information about the May book, check out the group’s Facebook page, Brunswick Feminist Book Club.
Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine.