Two Book Nerds Talking Presents

THE LITERATURE
FOR EQUALITY
PROJECT

8 Books. Discussions. Interviews. In-Class Activities.

Ep 4: The Unsung Heroism of Women’s Labour

Listen to the full episode here:

Episode Notes:

A summary of the podcast discussion is based on Circe by Madeline Miller, published 2018.

  • Circe is a retelling of a myth that gives a woman’s perspective to a very male-oriented narrative, it brings to the forefront the issues that women face in their day-to-day lives. 
  • An exploration of traditional roles for women i.e. domestic labour and motherhood and how often it is unseen and unvalued.
  • In Homer’s Odyssey Circe is portrayed as a scheming witch. Throughout most of recorded history, women were mostly accused of witchcraft as a way to condemn and control those who had any knowledge or authority. The fear of being accused of witchcraft was a powerful way to keep women in line.
  • How many of us take it for granted what our mothers do for us. The economy, the efficiency, the sheer multi-tasking of it all.

  • While you’re teaching your daughters to girlboss, don’t forget to teach your sons to malewife.

  • In Asia, women do 2.5 times more unpaid care work than men such as cooking, cleaning and looking after their dependents
  • In Malaysia differences in unpaid care work and formal work (mostly dominated by men) are deeply rooted in gender roles. How women and men spend their time can be attributed to the default assumption of women being carers and differences in domestic responsibilities.

  • In Malaysia, 67 percent of women cite care and other familial and personal responsibilities as the reason for not being in the labour force, versus only two percent of men. This directly and negatively impacts women’s participation in the labour force in Malaysia.
  • An article from The Atlantic proclaimed the pandemic a “disaster for feminism” as much of the increased workload of stay-at-home orders has fallen on women.
  • Despite its centrality to any functional society, socially reproductive labor is rarely celebrated or well compensated. Why? Because historically this work was performed by female family members, servants and, in many cases, enslaved women.
  • While men contribute more to housework today than they did 100 years ago, studies repeatedly show that women nonetheless continue to take on the majority of these responsibilities, even as they also manage successful careers.

  • In countries where women are better educated and have the ability to earn their own money, they are also choosing to marry later in life and have fewer children.
  • Women are wising up to the fact that “having it all” is a myth, especially when getting married and having children means women end up having to make most of the sacrifices in life.
  • The way to have the best success for everyone in the family – the father, the mother, and the children, is to work together and to share the burden of raising the family.
    And it is a *lot* of work. Invisible, unpaid work.
  • Circe is a story written by a woman, about a woman, and for women. This is a feminine narrative not only because it’s from a woman’s perspective, but also because it’s a story that doesn’t fit into the usual ‘hero’s journey’ narrative. The story concentrates on what Circe thinks, the things that she worries about, her little successes and disappointments, and spends very little time on her actions, the way her character develops. 
  • Some men complain about action movies that feature female protagonists as movies that they “don’t get”.

    To quote one screenwriter: The Heroes journey fantasy for men is always starting at the bottom and coming into your own, so you are the complete bad ass at the end. The heroes journey fantasy for women is to be acknowledged for the power they already possess. 

Book Summary:

Circe, Madeline Miller (2018)

Genre: Greek Mythology, Fantasy

Circe, the witch of Aiaia’s claim to fame has always been a bit part in The Odyssey where after turning Odysseus’ men into pigs, he tames her with help from Hermes the god of Heralds. Such is the role of women in most of Greek mythology- relegated to wife, mother, witch, goddess.

In Circe, Madeleine Miller gives her resonant voice taking us through a journey of her life and exile. Born as a child of the nymph Perse and titan sun-god Helios, Circe has never really fit in the halls of the gods. Quietly defiant, teased mercilessly for wanting to please and having the ‘voice of a mortal’ she realises that she has witch-powers when she transformed a mortal into a lesser god and Scylla, a nymph into a monster out of jealousy.

For this, she is exiled on the island of Aiaia for all eternity. Zeus, the king of Olympians fears her magical powers and this was a good way to contain her. Through her eyes we see the quarrelsome gods and titans, their petty squabbles and eternal games. Left alone, Circe gradually grows into her powers, not from divine entitlement but rather from sheer hard work and practice. We go through familiar stories within The Odyssey reframed in her narrative such as the story of the Minatour, Medea and Jason of the Arganouts, her relationship with Daedalus and then later Odysseus. From Odysseus she has a son Telegonus and Circe has to learn how to be mother.

Even though a goddess, Circe is still a woman living alone, having to learn ways to protect herself from predatory men (and gods), relishing self-reliance, experiencing heartbreak, single motherhood, immortal ennui and eventually understanding her own heart.

Content warnings (for the book): Short passages containing a few instances of sex, murder, torture, rape (none of which is graphic), minimal swearing. The violence and sex in Circe is told in a matter-of-fact manner (the narrative focuses on Circe’s emotional and physical response and does not describe the act in detail).

Buy the book:

Lit Books

Kinokuniya Malaysia

Google Play Books (ebook  / audiobook) 

Listen to our episode on feminist retellings where we discuss Ariadne, The Witches Heart and Sistersong in Season 5 Episode 3

Classroom Materials:

1. What are your impressions of the character of Circe through this pdocast discussion and the excerpts you heard? 

2. What are some themes explored in Circe’s life that you can relate to / identify with?

3. Think of all the witches from classic stories that you know. List down as many witches as you can. How often are witches given negative / disgusting characteristics? How many are positive / beloved characters? Compare this to the impressions of male magical users in old stories. 

4. Describe the term “witchhunt” and what you know about the origins of the word. Throughout history many women were put on trial and executed for being witches. Can you think of any similar persecution that men were subjected to? Was this treatment justified?

5. This is a meme quoted in the podcast: “While you’re teaching your daughters to girlboss, don’t forget to teach your sons to malewife.” What did you understand about this statement, and what is your response to it?

Book excerpt 1

I had a little pride, as I have said, and that was good. More would have been fatal.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

By rights, I should never have come to witchcraft. Gods hate all toil, it is their nature. The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills, and there is no drudgery to them them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain. No fingers ever chafed, no muscles strained.

Withcraft is nothing but such drudgery. Each herb must be found in its den, harvested at its time, grubbed up from the dirt, culled and stripped, wahsed an prepared. It must be handled this way, then that, to find out where its power lies. Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again. So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind?

6. In this passage, Circe describes her sorcery, the work she does to discover the power of each plant. What are some real powers that plants can confer? Research plants such as the Blood Flower, Hyssop, Sage, Feverfew, Evening Primrose Flower. 

7. Circe says of her toil, “So why did I not mind? Why did none of us mind?” Like Circe, mothers and homemakers have traditionally worked equally as hard, if not harder, as the fathers and heads of households, but women’s domestic labour is generally less valued. Discuss some ways in which domestic labour is often unseen and unvalued. 

8. Is domestic work acknowledged, valued and appreciated enough? Should homemakers be paid for the work that they do? Maids are paid.

9. Should fathers/ boys contribute in domestic labour (i.e. cooking, cleaning) Why? Do you agree that cooking, cleaning and taking care of the house is actually a life skill that should be learnt by all and not divided according to gender?

Book Excerpt 2

I did not go easy to motherhood. I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows. Yet all my preparations were not enough. In those months I had spent with Odysseus, I had thought I’d learned some tricks of mortal living. Three meals a day, the fluxes, the washing and cleaning. Twenty swaddling cloths I had cut, and believed myself wise. But what did I know of mortal babies? Aeetes was in arms less than a month. Twenty cloths for me only through the first day.

Thank the gods I did not have to sleep. Every minute I must wash and boil and clean and scrub and put to soak. Yet how could I do that, when every minute he also needed something, food and change and sleep? That last I had alwasy thought the most natural thing for mortals, easy as breathing, yet he could not seem to do it.

We did find some moments of peace. When he finally slept, when he nursed at my breast, when he smiled at a flight of birds scattering from a tree. I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to the bone, if only he would be happy and well.

10. “I did not go easy to motherhood. I faced it as soldiers face their enemies, girded and braced, sword up against the coming blows.” What does Circe mean by this sentence? 

11. What do you know about your own infancy? Does the passage that begins: “Thank the gods I did not have to sleep” sound familiar to the person who cared for you?

12. Circe describes looking after her baby as endless work but yet she finds it worthwhile when he sleeps and is happy and well. Do you think of parenting as a rewarding job? 

 

Book Excerpt 3: 

‘It is funny,’ she said, ‘that even after all this time, you still believe you will be rewarded, just because you have been obedient. I thought you would have learned that lesson in your father’s halls. None shrank and simpered as you did, and yet great Helios stepped on you all the faster, because you were already crouched at his feet.

She was leaning forward, her golden hair loose, embroidering the sheets around her.

‘Let me tell you the truth about Helios and all the rest. They do not care if you are good. They barely care if you are wicked. The only thing that makes them listen is power. It is not enough to be an uncle’s favourite, to please some god in his bed. It is not enough even to be beautiful, for when you go to them, and kneel and say, “I’ve been good, will you help me?” They wrinkle their brows. Oh sweetheart, it cannot be done. Oh darling, you must learn to live with it. And have you asked Helios? You know I do nothing without his word’.

She spat on the floor.

‘They take what they want, and in return they give you only your own shackles. A thousand times I saw you squashed. I squashed you myself. And every time, I thought, that is it, she will cry herself into a stone, into some croaking bird, she will leave us and good riddance. Yet always you came back the next day. They were all surprised when you showed yourself a witch, but I knew it long ago. Despite your wet-mouse weeping, I saw how you would not be grounded into the earth. You loathed them as I did. I think it is where our power comes from.’

 

Activities:

1. After listening to the podcast, respond to the idea that Circe is a ‘feminine narrative – a story that is centered around a woman’s thoughts, feelings and experiences’. Chose a story that has a male hero and consider how you would retell it from a perspective of a girl  / woman.  

2. Look for a meme about motherhood that your mother would agree with. Describe the meme’s sentiment and meaning to your class. 

3. In small groups, chose one sentence or idea that you heard about in the podcast, and discuss that topic in the group. Do you agree with what was said? Do you think it is something that is relevant in your life? What have you seen  / experienced in your own life that pertains to this issue? (Refer to Episode Notes for a written summary of the podcast discussion). 

For more Feminist Retellings, Check out these books: 

© All rights reserved – Renegade Radio PLT