This novel, first published in 1906, is considered part of the very early canon of feminist literature. Sibilla Aleramo was married off to a man who worked in her father’s factory, and had raped her when she was 15. She found work and fulfillment writing for magazines, and raising a son. Meanwhile her own mother battled severe mental illness, and her siblings were in constant conflict with their father. Through her writing she met a variety of intellectuals which made her husband feel threatened. Her feminist sensibilities evolved and were expressed through her work.
Although classified as fiction, A Woman is more like a memoir. I struggled with the intellectual tone of this book at first, wanting something more literary. When I realized it was essentially Aleramo’s life story and began reading it as such, its searing emotion was evident. And when I placed myself back in its time of publication, I realized how radical some of Aleramo’s ideas would have seemed to European society. At about the halfway point, Aleramo hits her stride as she examines traditional ideals such as motherhood:
But a good mother must not be simply a victim of self sacrifice, as mine had been: she must be a woman, a human individual. But how could she possibly become an individual if her parents handed her over, ignorant, weak, and immature, to a man unable to accept her as an equal, a man who treated her like a piece of property, giving her children and then abandoning her to perform his social duty, leaving her at home to idle away her time – just as she had done as a child? (p. 114)
And later, as she contemplates taking a dramatic step in search of happiness:
What if mothers refused to deny their womanhood and gave their children instead an example of a life live according to the needs of self-respect? … Perhaps if we realised that relationships founded on domination and seduction originate in selfishness, we would put more emphasis on the responsibilities involved in parenthood. (p. 194)
Aleramo’s sad life and limited options made this book difficult to read. It took longer than expected simply because the emotional content forced me to take breaks more often than usual. However, it’s a thought-provoking book and, I think, an important one for those who value equal rights and appreciate feminist literature.