‘It’s more than just a book club’

Feminist Book Club founder Renee Powers
Feminist Book Club founder Renee Powers in her Regina neighborhood home. Photo by Jim Walsh

Renee Powers spent the week of Donald Trump’s visit to Minneapolis doing what she’s done much of her life — resisting and reading.

“I’m not surprised we have a President Trump now,” said Powers, sitting in the dining room of her Regina neighborhood home. “Yes, I’m fired up about it, and angry and disappointed about it, but this is not new. His vitriol is not new; it’s just a bigger megaphone. I think white folks, especially, think, ‘Oh no, I forgot we were racist,’ but for people of color, this has not gone away, it’s just on a grander scale. And I think people are really angry that one of the biggest reasons why Trump is in the White House is because we’re all so inherently sexist, and we didn’t want to elect a woman.”

That anger was part of the impetus for Powers launching Feminist Book Club, an offshoot of her podcast by the same name, in the summer of 2017. At a time when the president of the United States has mocked women and worse, and when the #MeToo movement has galvanized a few new generations of feminists, Feminist Book Club shines a light on brilliant writers and progressive thought.

“It started as a dozen of my friends picking the same book and chatting about it on Facebook, and it just organically grew to almost 200 members worldwide now,” said Powers, a 33-year-old “proud PHdrop-out” who earned her degree in Women’s Studies from Saint Mary’s College in her hometown of South Bend, Indiana. “The book club is community-driven, meaning our members are the ones who suggest the titles, and then we vote on them. It’s been really interesting to see what is on the mind of this group of progressively minded, politically active, educated women.

“It’s more than just a book club. Every month, members receive a box of goodies: the book itself, and two to four products from women- and queer-owned businesses. It’s democratic and non-hierarchical, and so I have no say in what goes into each box, which is really fun for me. We donate 5% to a different feminist organization each month, and we meet online on video chat, and we invite the authors if they’re around and alive.”

This month, The Oprah Magazine named Feminist Book Club one of the “20 best book subscription boxes.” Past titles include Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” Lindy West’s “Shrill,” and Kristen Sollee’s “Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive.” This month’s title? “The Bluest Eye,” by the pioneering African-American novelist Toni Morrison, who passed away last month.

“We read classics, like [Sylvia Plath’s] ‘The Bell Jar’ and Toni Morrison, and those stories are still relevant. Revisiting those stories, we’re reminded that this inherent misogyny and patriarchy and white supremacy — none of this is new. This has been happening for decades for women, and I think that identifying with that creates a community and a system of support in a time that does feel helpless and hopeless for a lot of people.”

Speaking of which, what titles would Powers recommend to the rest of us?

Powers: “We just announced our November book of the month, Chanel Miller’s ‘Know My Name’; she was the Jane Doe of the Stanford rape case. We have a sexual predator in the White House, so I think a book about sexual assault will be incredibly difficult for a lot of people but timely, as well, and hopefully really healing.

“[We read] ‘Women and Madness’ by Phyllis Chesler, which is the germinal text of women’s mental health, and then a couple months later we read ‘The Bell Jar,’ which is about a young woman’s mental breakdown. It was fun to get the historical component of it and then see it in narrative storytelling.

“We read ‘Pachinko,’ which was one of Obama’s short-listed books last spring, about a Korean family over a span of 100 years or so. Fantastic, and not necessarily an easy, fun read, but escaping into a world unlike your own, I think it flexes the muscle of compassion, which is something we so deeply yearn for right now, when everything else feels so bleak.

“‘F Bomb: Dispatches From The War on Feminism’ by Laura McKeon, resonates in light of Trump’s visit. She’s a Canadian journalist who has stood at the frontlines of the anti-feminist movement and talked with anti-abortion activists and pro-gun activists and women who wanted to take away women’s rights to vote.

“‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo is the new classic by a white woman for white folks to talk about holding and leveraging whiteness responsibly, and I think it’s a must read for any white person.

“I loved ‘Lead From The Outside’ by Stacey Abrams. It’s a great primer on politics, especially if you’re a minority, or a woman, or a millennial — those are exactly who she outlines as her audiences. People want to change the political system, and after we read the Stacey Abrams book, especially, we had a couple of members say, ‘You’re the first to know, but I’m planning on running for something,’ and we all said, ‘How can we help you? Where can we throw our dollars in your support?’”

Powers notes that “feminism is weirdly generational” and that the bulk of subscribers to Feminist Book Club are “young millennials, who seem to be the group most open to identifying as feminists.” The club — whose membership draws mostly from the Twin Cities and as far away as New Zealand — celebrated its first birthday in July at Irreverent Bookworm, the new women-owned bookstore in the Hale-Nokomis neighborhood.

“Reading a book is opening up your mind, expanding your perspective, and putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” Powers said. “That can feel like escape, but it can also feel like you’re doing something productive and progressive, and like you’re making a difference, even if it’s only in your own mind and heart.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].