Review: Shrewed by Elizabeth Renzetti

Tuesday, 24 July 2018
This review was originally published at the Hamilton Review of Books

Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls
by Globe and Mail columnist and award-winning novelist Elizabeth Renzetti is dedicated to “my mother, the light at one end of the tunnel, and my children, the light at the other.” This affectionate tribute is a fitting introduction to a fierce and insightful collection of essays that draws on the heartbreaking injustices women have faced in the past, while looking toward a future that only sometimes looks bright.

In nearly thirty years as a journalist, Renzetti has written about the challenges, failures, and triumphs of the women she has profiled. This, of course, doesn’t make her an expert on all women, and in Shrewed, she’s careful not to make generalizations, noting the diversity of women’s experiences, especially among those in marginalized communities. However, as a woman in a male-dominated field, Renzetti has amassed insight into the many barriers women face in the workplace, in politics, online, and in the streets, forcing her to ask herself why and how the world is so inhospitable to women.

With pithy titles like “The Voice in Your Head is an Asshole” and “Weddings Are Satan’s Playground: A Letter to My Daughter,” Shrewed is conversational and funny, even when dismantling the cultural, social, and historical inequalities women are confronted with daily. While relying heavily on her own experiences and observations, Renzetti also shares the stories of remarkable women she has interviewed or admired who have “refused to be bound by convention,” including Germaine Greer and P.D. James.

What makes this collection spectacular is how nuanced it is, looking at the complexities of what it means to be a woman in a time of #MeToo and the persistent wage gap. This is no truer than when Renzetti talks about the "useless concept" of fearlessness that is drilled into the heads of young women everywhere, giving them just one more unattainable standard. “Of course young women will fear, and should not be ashamed of it. The structures of the world were not built for their comfort,” she writes.

Women of all ages will delight in Renzetti’s wisdom, and, often nod at her astute observations. This is especially the case when she writes about the ridiculous prices attached to gender and the $32-billion dollar women’s intimate apparel industry. In her chapter, “You’ll Pay for Those Breasts, or the Cost of Being a Lady,” Renzetti tracks her own spending, which included a $43 tube of lipstick, nearly $50 on waxing, and a $107 night treatment.

In Shrewed, Renzetti writes a letter to each of her children, and in the one addressed to her son, Griff, she tells him that, “Boys have been just as crushed and exploited by institutional sexism as girls have.” Neither letter is overly hopeful; however, there are shreds of optimism in Shrewed, especially when Renzetti writes about her mother, a former nurse, revealing how far society has come.

“As women demand more space, the backlash will continue. Enemies of our freedom will attempt to drive us inside; enemies of our power will attempt to silence our voices. We can answer the threat any way we choose. We can answer the threat with more freedom,” writes Renzetti in one particularly hopeful moment.

Shrewed isn’t eye opening. We already know the anxieties, complexities, and inequalities of being a woman in a male-dominated world; however, it’s Renzetti’s ability to capture these lived experiences with wit and candour that is exceptional. “The world would be a better pace if women had more say in the running of things. At the very least it would be less fucked up,” she writes.


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