Author Playlists

Regan Penaluna’s Playlist for Her Book “How to Think Like a Woman”

“If I were in a club today with some of the historical women I write about in my book, people who would have no idea what a synthesizer is let alone the hipster cocktails I would serve them, here are the tunes each woman would choose from a list of female-forward pop songs from the last decade or so.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Regan Penaluna’s book How to Think Like a Woman brilliantly melds memoir with biographies of influential female philosophers. A book as important as it is fascinating and incisive.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

Incisive…Penaluna skillfully captures the thinking of these four women in impassioned prose as she challenges sexism in the canon…Lucid and frank, this blend of memoir, biography, and criticism makes a solid case for why representation matters.

In her own words, here is Regan Penaluna’s Book Notes music playlist for her book How to Think Like a Woman:

When I was writing my book a memoir-biography hybrid, I sometimes felt as if I was misbehaving. I was mindful of the many ways I was violating a tacit rule of biography that I leave my personal self behind. But I don’t think it’s a universal law that the more a person inserts herself into the past, the more obscure the past becomes.

It’s certainly not how I experience knowledge of history. We are blended beings. My specific place in the universe is enmeshed with the specificities of the lives, ideas, and sentiments of those I study. I carry them with me to the grocery store, when I’m consoling a sick relative, or dancing with my children on a trampoline, and I am with these past figures in their moments as I learn of them. I write toward this phenomenon and see what truths emerge. Some are illuminative and grand and others small and obscure. Although my research is deep and meticulous, my writing introduces a playful experimentation that is unacademic, odd, and even inappropriate.

In this spirit, I offer this especially playful playlist.

If I were in a club today with some of the historical women I write about in my book, people who would have no idea what a synthesizer is let alone the hipster cocktails I would serve them, here are the tunes each woman would choose from a list of female-forward pop songs from the last decade or so.

“Dance Around It” by Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow:
Diotoma (5th century BCE)

Was Diotoma a real person or an invention of Plato? In graduate school we’d assumed she was fiction, this woman with so much charisma and insight that she captivated the brightest men of Athens, and taught ur-philosopher Socrates. But what if she did exist and Socrates was educated in philosophy by a woman? Some scholars think so. This song is Diotima hitting it hard on the dance floor, wondering how long we’ll dance around the issue, not taking her seriously as an actual flesh and blood person.

Waiting for the right time
Will it ever be the right time?
Is it ever gonna feel right
To say it anyway?

All the little white lies
Just keeping up the good times
It’s weighing down on my mind
Every single day

“Don’t Call Me Up” by Mabel:
Mary Astell (1666-1731)

Astell is your badass precocious friend. She realized early on she didn’t need a man in her life to be fulfilled. She would study and write instead. She also realized she didn’t need to adopt the ways of being or the theories of men’s texts to have a rich intellectual life. She was revolted that so many of them espoused sexist views. So she told herself, and then all women, to get over them. There was no solace to be found, or strength to be derived, from the patriarchal views of the great thinkers. She proposed an all-women’s retreat, where they could study and thrive in a community of brilliant women, and reach near-orgasmic pleasure in thinking through ideas together beyond the influence of women-hating culture.

As Mabel says, “I’m over you, and I don’t need your lies no more / ‘cause the truth is without you, boy, I’m stronger.”

“Juice” by Lizzo:
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard wrote many treatises, mining topics she’d never had a formal education in, including music, philosophy, and biology. She was the first writer to describe the female orgasm. She also proposed she be the head of her own convent, and justified it, along with all her other activities normally off-limits to women, as God’s wish. It’s not her fault. The “living light” made her do it. Blame it on the juice.

“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani:
Im Yunjidang (1721-1793)

By day she took care of her husband and daughter, and after she lost them both at age twenty-six, she remained a devoted daughter-in-law. By night she was a scholar, a Confucian sage-in-the-making. Fellow villagers on evening walks observed a single candle burning in her home, softly illuminating her studying books and writing. She was adamant that her soul was no different from a man’s. It didn’t matter that custom didn’t agree with her lifestyle. She ain’t no hollaback girl.

“Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” by Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson:
Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708)

Damaris is heartsick in the center of the dancefloor. We crowd around. John Locke (yes that John Locke) doesn’t want to marry her, though he’ll keep her around because she’s young and hot and smart. Philosophy, her favorite field of study, (unless she’s counting religion, which is sometimes conflated with philosophy, sometimes not), is insensitive to her female experience. It, too, breaks her heart. But such lovesickness will give rise to a powerful, unique philosophical vision in which love plays a central role. Until that moment, it’s Damaris with this song and her whalebone corset spinning under the lights.

“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish:
Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

She painted her tits red and crashed the Royal Society in London. Legend has it.

“No Scrubs” by TLC:
Rabia al-Adawiyya (@714-801)

Rabia is marrying God. She says something like this to the men who approach her with proposals. On days she’s feeling cruel, she tells her suitors she doesn’t even see a man before her. But her marriage to God is very special. It’s sophisticated, metaphysical, and involves a dissolution of her very self into God’s divine essence. Rabia is becoming part of God. She is God. No time for scrubs.

Well a scrub checkin’ me
But his game is kinda weak
And I know that he cannot approach me
‘Cause I’m looking like class, and he’s looking like trash
Can’t get wit’ a deadbeat ass

“Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift:
Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679-1749)

Catharine Trotter Cockburn just got word that a play hit the stage that mocked her and her playwright friends. She was a dull, overachieving nerd. Delariviere Manley a slut. Mary Pix a glutton. The truth is they were a triple threat to the male-dominated world of 1690s London theater. Their plays took on sexism and misogyny and these women hoped to transform the opinions of the masses through their art. But the haters were hating and the women took it personally. Manley slinked away for a decade and then turned on her friends. Cockburn and Pix switched theaters and their production slowed. Cockburn eventually left it all behind for good, which led to an incredible turn as a philosopher. But first there was this devastating experience, and the need to shake it off.

“Pluie Fine” by Corinne (Polo & Pan Remix):
Margery Kempe (1373-1438)

She’s known for wailing through the streets of late Medieval England and Europe. And for writing the first autobiography in English. But honestly, thanks to Robert Glück’s incredible novel Margery Kempe, I can’t help but see her as a nympho for Jesus. This is her song. No. Their song.

“Alarm Call” by Bjork:
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

The French Revolution is in its early days, before the bloodshed of the Reign of Terror. British aristocrats, like Edmund Burke, are terrified the Revolution will inspire an uprising at home. Burke writes a conservative treatise against it. But another brit, this one living in Paris, was for revolution. She, Mary Wollstonecraft, defends it in her Vindication of the Rights of Men, and follows this up with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She saw this as a crucial moment in history—frightening in its singularity, but necessary for freedom and happiness. Wake up! Don’t be afraid! Or in Björk’s words:

It doesn’t scare me at all
I’m no fucking Buddhist
But this is enlightenment

The less room you give me
The more space I’ve got

You can’t say no to hope
You can’t say no to happiness

I want to be on a mountain-top
With a radio and good batteries
And play a joyous tune and
Free the human race
From suffering

This is an alarm-call
So wake-up, wake-up now

“Green Light” by Lorde:
Cleobulina (6th century BCE)

The night is coming to an end, the beat is slowing down, and it’s Cleobulina closing down the house. All us ladies on the dance floor know who she is. She composed philosophical riddles that were classics for centuries in the ancient Greek world. (We’ve lost nearly all of them today). She learned about philosophy from her father’s guests, whose feet she scrubbed while they talked about intellectual matters. We imagine Cleobulina cleaning between their toes, absorbing their ideas, looking askance through the door to the horizon. Waiting for the green light of inspiration to click, her thoughts coalescing, big new things, sounds and words coming together in her mind, while she’s working over a water basin. None of us were there with her in those early days of western civilization, but we all get it.

Regan Penaluna is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn. Previously, she was an editor at Nautilus Magazine and Guernica, where she wrote and edited long-form stories and interviews. A feature she wrote was listed in the Atlantic as one of “100 Exceptional Works of Journalism.”

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