• WCW Co-Hosts Inaugural Women of Color Conference at Wellesley College
    NEWS

    WCW Co-Hosts Inaugural Women of Color Conference at Wellesley College

    June 2018

    Presenters focused on self care, rejuvenation, creativity, and empowerment throughout the Women of Color Conference held in partnership by WCW and The Home for Little Wanderers in June at Wellesley College.

    Keep reading>>
  • Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse?
    BLOG

    Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse?

    June 2018

    "When you look through the lens of neuroscience there is no debate -- ripping children from parents is extraordinarily traumatizing," writes WCW's Amy Banks, M.D., in a blog looking at the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" border policy.

    Keep reading>>
  • Family Equality Council Honors Dana Rudolph ’88 for LGBTQ Parenting Blog
    NEWS

    Family Equality Council Honors Dana Rudolph ’88 for LGBTQ Parenting Blog

    May 2018

    Last month, Family Equality Council honored WCW's Dana Rudolph ’88 for her writing and advocating for LGBTQ parents on her blog Mombian, in media outlets across the country, and through organizing the annual #LGBTQFamiliesDay.

    Keep reading>>
  • Read our Research & Action Report
    NEWS

    Read our Research & Action Report

    June 2018

    Keep up with all of the ways we are advancing social change through research and action in our newest Report. It features highlights from our panel at the United Nations, new research findings, publications, and recent presentations.

    Learn more>>
  • Five Ways to Create Fun Summer Learning for Kids
    NEWS

    Five Ways to Create Fun Summer Learning for Kids

    June 2018

    Georgia Hall, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, shares tips for using summer as a time to help close the achievement gap and empower youth to succeed in the classroom.

    Learn more>>
Previous Slide Next Slide
The

Wellesley Centers for Women

is a premier women- and gender-focused, social-change oriented research-and-action institute at Wellesley College.
Our mission is to advance gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing through high quality research, theory, and action programs.

PROJECTS

Give

A World That Is Good for Women Is Good for Everyone TM

GO TO GIVE

By Linda Gordon


lindagordonrosbaxandallcropRos Baxandall (left) and Linda GordonRosalyn Fraad Baxandall, who died on October 13, 2015, at age 76, was my co-author and close friend. Even more importantly, she was one of the founders of the women’s liberation movement, an activist for a range of social justice issues, and a historian of gender and women.

Ros’s death leaves feminists of my generation bereft, not least because she was so youthful. She embodied the spirit of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a historical moment both painful and blissful. With one friend from my small part of that movement, Boston’s Bread and Roses, we joked about wanting a “consciousness lowering” group, because our raised awareness of the injuries of gender was so frustrating and angering. Yet it was the best of times, for the movement brought us the exhilaration of solidarity, the deepest of friendships, and an unmatched hopefulness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Mandira Sen
Protesting the murder of M.K. KalburgiProtesting the murder of M.K. KalburgiThe recent avalanche of protests in India against intolerance and attacks on free speech was triggered by the late-September lynching of Muhammad Ahklaq, a Muslim, in the village of Dardri, because his Hindu neighbors had heard a rumor that he had eaten beef. The murder followed years of right-wing attacks on writers and intellectuals, including Narendra Dhobalkar, an antisuperstition activist, assassinated in February 2013; Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician and writer, killed in February 2015; and most recently, M. K. Kalburgi, a former university vice chancellor, murdered in September 2015.

By Beth Holmgren
 alexievichI’ve long been addicted to Svetlana Alexievich’s writing, books that I cannot help but reread and re-experience. Alexievich’s winning of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is far more thrilling to me than the same honor bestowed on Aleksander Solzhenitsyn—the Russian-language writer whose work hers somewhat parallels—in 1970. Solzhenitsyn’s fictional and nonfictional reconstructions of the Soviet Gulag conveyed urgent information; they inspired awe. Yet Alexievich is an original. In contrast to Solzhenitsyn, the first-person testifier and judge, or Boris Pasternak,

By Sue Y. Wang



I had a terrible outcome giving birth the first time, and five years after, I got mysteriously, chronically ill. I healed and wrote a memoir, Messages from the Black Recliner: A Memoir of Healing Body and Spirit about it.

I was raised in Taiwan and came to the US at age thirteen. I have plenty of cultural and familial baggage to stop me from sharing my tale. I knew the rules. Do not broadcast family ugliness (a Chinese proverb). Do not bring shame to the family. Be quiet, conform, suck it up and endure—that’s the righteous, humble way.

My given name is Sue-Yi, “ladylike-propriety” in Mandarin. My family and loved ones still call me that. A name in the Taiwanese/Chinese culture represents the parents’ hopes and intentions for their child. As an extroverted, bright-eyed girl, I was not at first the demure being I was supposed to be. But I was scared into obedience and silence, as I witnessed and experienced domestic violence. My father, a product of a patriarchal society, took out his frustration from a traumatic World War II childhood on his family. There was no jail time for hurting a spouse, and my relatives chalked it up to a woman’s bad luck if her husband hit and scolded her. In both of my parents’ families, girls had been given away due to poverty and superstition. The birth of a girl was often a disappointment. When I came, my father lost a bet that his firstborn would be a boy.

Imagining Alternative Worlds

Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture
By Adrienne Shaw
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015, 317 pp., $25.00, paperback

Reviewed by Carmen Maria Machado

The video game industry is both in its prime and at a crossroads. It is a growing market filled with artistically ambitious, envelope-pushing projects in both the corporate and indie arenas, an increasing number of available gaming platforms, and an ever-expanding audience. This fact, combined with its relative newness compared to other media (younger than cinema, television, and literature), you might reason that diversity is, at the least, an active goal.

But Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge opens with a grim anecdote that seems to condemn gaming culture as salted earth as far as diversity is concerned: Anita Sarkeensian, a feminist media critic, ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund a project titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. She aimed to explore the limited roles for female characters in video games, a hardly unheard-of critique of the industry. The result was a horrifying avalanche of digital harassment, from the release of a free game in which the player could beat Sarkeensian “to a bloody pulp,” to threats of rape and murder. This reaction, “troubling yet, perhaps, expected,” says Shaw, drew public attention to the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual nature of the gaming world. Heavily occupied by a “militarized [masculine]” demographic, gaming culture has resulted in aggressive harassment campaigns like that against Sarkeensian and the more recent #GamerGate, in which personal information about women critics of gamer culture was posted on social media, and they were threatened with violence and driven from their homes.

In Gaming at the Edge, Shaw offers an astute critique of some of the common wisdom about video games, their players, and representation. Through a series of ethnographic interviews with gamers across the diversity spectrum, Shaw arrives at some of the same conclusions as other scholars about the importance of presenting diverse images in games, but she rejects oft-cited reasons why. People assume video games are different from other types of media, Shaw says, and this is often tied to the issue of representation; however these assumptions—of gaming’s uniqueness and why representation in it matters—are false. Scholars have made the mistake of looking at video games as discrete texts to be analyzed in a vacuum and at identity as immutable. But both identity and games are changeable and context dependent. She writes,

Part of what scholars (and game makers) must be more willing to embrace is that the text alone does not define how the player interacts or connects with the characters or avatars. Subjective reasons for play and personal preferences drive the very personal experiences of identifications much more than the textual elements can.
In other words, if your goal is to figure out how marginalized players relate to game characters (pre-set persons with names, physical characteristics, and plotlines out of control of the player) or avatars (customizable stand-ins for the player, which players can design to look like themselves), simply tallying up numbers of images is inadequate.

 

The responsibility for creating diverse images has been foisted upon the marginalized players themselves, for example, in the case of games in which players choose their own avatars and storylines. Shaw calls for “a rejection of that burden,” writing that “[t]he industry, as well as scholars, must treat diversity as a goal in its own right, rather than an exception to the rule or the sole domain of those who are marginalized.” She is deeply critical of what she calls “market logic”: the mantra that if consumers want more diversity in games, they’ll “vote” for it with their dollars. This is both difficult, as diversity is by definition fragmented, and short-sighted: why is diversity the responsibility of marginalized groups and no one else?

Shaw examines the history of representation in certain games, from the infamously offensive Custer’s Revenge, in which the prize for dodging arrows is being able to rape a Native American woman, to the Mario franchise, whose Italian-American plumber protagonist is almost entirely the result of design limitation and happenstance. She tracks sexual and gender identity through the three iterations of the Fablegames, the ever-changing state of Lara Croft and her infamous chest, and the problematic racial content of Resident Evil 5 and a handful of other games. But the book is not meant to be an assessment of bad (or good) representation in video games. Rather, Shaw uses these games to illustrate her points regarding problems with representation.

When games include racially and ethnically diverse characters, she says, they are “selective even when … not necessarily distortive.” As an example, she discusses Madden NFL, a football game. While the game’s adherence to reality cannot be argued—after all, its characters are actual players from the National Football League, which is heavily African American—only games about sports, or urban violence and war, include a significant number of characters of color (and those are almost always men). “Being represented can pose problems as well,” Shaw points out. “Invisibility is usually replaced by a ‘a kind of carefully regulated, segregated visibility.’ Who gets to ‘count’ as a member of a particular group is limited, even as popular representation is made more diverse.” This is true, too, of queer characters, among others: when they do appear, they’re often male, white, and upperclass.

Shaw draws a careful distinction between identifying as and identifying with. Most of her interview subjects did not identify as their avatars, even when the avatars superficially resembled them. They did identify with certain characters—but their identification went beyond simple demographic matching. Furthermore, whereas much gaming scholarship has focused on the idea that games with customizable avatars do more for diversity than set, diverse characters, Shaw believes the opposite. She points out that the customizable games make diversity optional: players who do not choose characters or avatars who are of color, queer (which in gameplay usually manifests simply as having same-sex relationships), female, etc., will rarely encounter them. In contrast, games with set characters could manifest diversity no matter who is playing. However, in reality, these kinds of games, Shaw says, have “less diversity and thus are rich sites for interrogation and intervention.”

One of the most fascinating subtopics of Gaming on the Edge—which is potentially an entire line of inquiry and academic study in its own right—is the way that reality (the idea that the game reflects “how things are/were”) and fantasy (the idea that the game is “just a game”) are wielded as weapons against marginalized players. One the one hand, Shaw cites the example of Fable II, a fantasy role-playing game in which a player can use a magical potion to permanently change gender. However, if he or she does this, the other players inevitably ask about it: “Didn’t you used to be a man?” Shaw dryly notes,

Although transphobia is an everyday reality for many in real life, I doubt that the game designers were trying to highlight and critique its pervasiveness. Given that this is a fantasy game, one of the few places where gender transition might not be bound to “real-life” violence, why is it not celebrated? In other words, whose fantasy are we working with, here?
(Similarly, people who criticize the misogynistic, sexualized violence in the Game of Thrones television series are told that violence against women was a reality “back then”—as though the show were history instead of a fantasy complete with magic, dragons, and the walking dead.)

 

On the other hand, the character design in the hockey game NHL 2K5 is exasperatingly specific—players even choose the width of characters’ muscles—yet it does not permit women or dark-skinned characters, even though “both women and racial minorities have historically been players in the National Hockey League,” writes Shaw. In Fable II, transphobia intrudes even in a fantasy world, where the rules of reality could easily be thrown out; while in NHL 2K5, reality is no match for the notion that it’s “just a game.” “The trouble is,” writes Shaw,

that even in representing worlds that might be, games and much of mainstream media represent very homogenous worlds. Players/audiences are not always given or forced into a space that allows them to escape into, aspire to, or imagine worlds where marginalized groups are not defined by their marginalization.

 

Shaw concludes that previous scholarship has failed to interrogate the market logic that assumes marginalized people “want to see people ‘like them’ in the media they consume,” and that consumers can use their purchasing power to influence media images. This logic has resulted in a plethora of niche games, including the singularly awful girl games of the 1990s, which were usually pink and involved Barbie, fashion, shopping, and other deeply gendered gimmicks. Shaw points out that “those targeted as a ‘different kind’ of player often see themselves as excluded from both the primary game market and the targeted niche market.” Mainstream players are never confronted with new, different images, and marginalized players are forced into painfully narrow understandings of their demographic and presented with inferior, niche games supposedly designed for them. There’s a difference, Shaw says, between pluralism and true diversity: “[W]hile pluralism further differentiates between norm and other, diversity promotes difference without fetishizing it.”

Shaw’s research does not support the theory that gamers are searching for characters “like them.” Rather, the “understanding of representation as broadly important, without assuming it defines consumption practices, is much more in line with the complex relationship interviewees had with identities, texts, and how they understood representation to matter.” Marginalized people don’t necessarily need to see themselves on the screen, although it may be “nice when it happens”; they want “others to see diverse experiences and identities on-screen.” Representation is important, Shaw says, because “it provides evidence of what could be and who can be possible.”

One of the most satisfying elements of Shaw’s argument is that although she rejects the notion that marginalized people want games to include images “like them,” she then shows why diversity can and should be encouraged anyway. “If marginalized players learned to enjoy games that did not represent them, it is likely heterosexual, white, cisgendered men could, too,” she points out. Experiences such as Gamergate warn that this process may be painful for some of those in the majority—and their resistance could result in harassment as ugly as any we’ve yet seen—but Shaw argues that the change would ultimately be beneficial. “It is not game play that stands to benefit from, or even be dramatically transformed by, more diverse representations but rather culture more broadly.” Considering the youth of the medium and the current state of its diversity disrepair, this is an ambitious goal—but if Shaw is correct, it’s an achievable one.

Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

A Family Recipe

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
By Sally Mann
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 481 pp., $32.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Trish Crapo

Photographer Sally Mann may be best known for the images she created of her children between 1985 and 1991. For the photos in her show Immediate Family, which opened at Houk Friedman Gallery in New York in the spring of 1992, Mann used her three children as models. But hers were not romantic depictions of childhood. Mann photographed her daughter Jessie, her face swollen with hives from insect bites; her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, his expression a dark glower; her daughter Virginia nude, hands on her hips, another little girl in a white dress in soft focus behind her.

The photographs caused a stir. That the children appeared nude was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only thing the critics found unnerving. These kids were not smiling. They didn’t seem innocent or particularly tender. In one photo, all three children, naked from the waist up, look at the camera with level gazes that one critic read as “mean.” In a nutshell, these were not kids in the way people felt comfortable thinking about kids.

Critics accused Mann of exposing her children to pedophiles or of taking advantage of them. In a New York Times article entitled, “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann” (September 27, 1992), Richard B. Woodward asked, “Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if—especially if—the artist is their parent?”

The controversy spurred by these photos is the primary way I had known of Mann before reading her new book, Hold Still.

Here, Mann relates that she began as a writer, filling stacks of diaries and notebooks from early childhood until her early twenties, when photography took over as her means of expression. Her father gave her his “travel-scarred Leica” in January of 1969, when she was seventeen, and Mann developed her first roll of film while at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, that spring. Like many photographers, she describes as life-changing the experience of holding those first negatives up to the light, and she began to throw herself earnestly into what she describes as her “True Calling(s), writing and photography.”

Going to boarding school in the North removed Mann from her home in Lexington, Virginia, and the separation kindled what would become a life-long love affair with the southern landscape. Over the years, Mann, born Sally Munger in 1951, took many photographs at the farm along the Maury River where she had spent time as a child, and that she and her husband, Larry Mann, later bought from her family.

The pull of place, memory, and the sense of rootedness in the region’s history are currents that Mann returned to again and again in her work. Often working with large-format cameras and older techniques such as the wet plate collodion process, in which the photographer exposes the image directly onto glass plates, she created black-and-white photographs that ended up seeming both haunting and direct. It was as if staring at something through her camera produced not clarity, in the sense of unveiling her subject, but rather a deeper sensation of its mystery.

In Hold Still, Mann presents small reproductions of many of her photographs, along with thoughts about her creative process and stories of how they were made. And though the book is already a hefty $32.00 in hardback, I longed for a larger format to do justice to these photographs, as well as to the old letters, childhood drawings, snapshots, and other memorabilia that Mann includes as she recounts the history of her parents’ families.

In her writing, as in her photography, Mann is unafraid to expose her own vulnerabilities. In addition to presenting the finished versions of some of the images that were exhibited in Immediate Family, Mann provides unusual insight into her process by including some of the “duds” and “losers” that she made along the way. One example is a photograph taken in 1987 of her son Emmett, waist deep in a river, the flow of the water smoothed to a dark gloss by a slow shutter speed. Tracing her progress toward the final image, Mann shows seven attempts and points out what’s wrong with them: a mask and snorkel calling too much attention to themselves; Emmett standing too far out of the water; an out-of-focus light meter strap falling into the foreground; a strip of reflected clouds that she doesn’t like; and various exposure problems or compositional awkwardness.

“Then, eureka.”

In the final photo, the boy seems to have been captured midstride, stepping forward into the current. His fingers are splayed, his hands resting lightly but confidently on the water’s surface. His chin is tilted slightly down, his mouth set in a firm line, and his eyes cut up at the camera with a ferocity that Mann admits may have resulted from having been submitted to repeated takes in a cold river in October, over the course of seven or eight days. Mann insists that her children participated in the photographs of their own accord. She writes,

Children cannot be forced to make pictures like these: mine gave them to me.…The children, picture after picture, had given of themselves when the dark slide was pulled, firing off a deadly accurate look into the lens; a glare, a squinty-eyed look, a sad expression, whatever I asked for, as professional as any actor.

 

Mann attributes the misinterpretation of the motives behind her project to a profound divergence between southern and mainstream culture. To illustrate, she recounts the story of a “leather-elbowed, goatee-sporting PhD candidate” who once asked Mississippi writer Eudora Welty about a marble cake that appeared in one of her short stories. How had she come up with that “powerful symbol of the marble cake, with the feminine and masculine, the yin and the yang, the Freudian and the Jungian all mixed together like that?”

Welty paused, then replied in what I love to imagine as a quiet southern drawl, “Well, you see, it’s a recipe that’s been in my family for some time.”

Mann writes,

As critics, journalists, and the curious public bore down on our family, we began to understand that our family recipe was not from the cookbook of mainstream America. The ingredients in our work were exotic and the instructions complex. But in the end, as our own marble cake has emerged, swirled with dark confusion and light with angel food transcendence, the answer is Yes. Yes, and yes, resoundingly, absolutely, we would do it all over knowing what we know now.
Chapters on her mother, her black nanny Gee-Gee, and her father are presented in ways that open out to explore not just an interest in the forces insofar as they shaped her as an individual, but also in their broader implications. Using her own history as the trail on which to start walking, Mann explores race, class, family inclinations, and—insistently—death.

Late in the book, in a chapter entitled, “The Sublime End,” Mann tells of the photographs she made at the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, popularly called the Body Farm, where human bodies are left to decompose so that scientists may study the stages of decay and the factors that affect it. Sent there on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, Mann hauled her cameras and wet plate collodion darkroom to Knoxville and set about photographing bodies in various stages of decay. The photographs are difficult to look at. They are gruesome, even sickening, such as the one that shows “wasps and yellow jackets … drowning in the spreading brown pond of goo beneath what used to be a face.” For the first time in 400 pages, I found the images in the book to be quite large enough!

But I mean “gruesome” and “sickening” as description, not judgment. I admire Mann’s ability to push past her first squeamishness and keep on looking. And I am moved by her compulsion to understand the mystery of death—which haunts me, too. Her photographs answer questions that, when push comes to shove, I don’t seem to really want answered. I turned away from the marbleized patina of dead flesh, bones laid out in skeletal outline on the earth, corpses lying clothed or nude upon the ground as if rolled from the back of a pick-up and abandoned. But though I found the images unsettling, I knew from everything that came before this chapter, that Mann’s close attention to the decaying physical body is not gratuitous. She is chasing a larger truth. She writes,

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory—the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field—and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest—when someone dies, where does it all go?

 

Whether she is photographing the effects of her husband Larry’s advancing muscular dystrophy on his body, Civil War battlefields, or African American men, Mann is always focused both on the specifics of her subject and on a larger question that resonates beyond it. In a chapter entitled, “Who Wants to Talk About Slavery?” she writes,

What I want to do is find out who those black men were that I encountered in my childhood, men that I never really saw, never really knew, except through Gee-Gee’s eyes or the perspective of a racist society. It’s an odd endeavor, and the remarkable thing is that my models are willing to help me try.
And she writes:
In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. These days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little bit of both.

I appreciated these moments when I got a glimpse beneath the black cloth Mann drapes over herself and her large format camera, and into her mind. Not all good photographers are also good writers. Mann is both. For example, this description of what it is like for her to “really see”:

Certain moments in the creative process, moments when I am really seeing, are weirdly expansive, and I develop a hyperattuned visual awareness, like the aura-ringed optical field before a migraine. Radiance coalesces about the landscape, rich in possibility, supercharged with something electric, insistent. Time slows down, becomes ecstatic.

 

Hold Still is a book not just for lovers of photography but for anyone who has struggled to create, or felt a deep love for a landscape—whether it is the one she was born to or one chosen later—or for anyone who has tried to untangle the knots of family lineage in order to understand herself.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer. She has completed two volumes of The Leyden Portrait Project, a series that, through photographs and interviews, documents the lives of residents in her small town of Leyden, Massachusetts. She also covers writers and the visual arts for The Recorder, an award-winning newspaper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She recently completed a book, Dune Shack, a compilation of photographs and written musings about her artist’s residency in a dune shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photographs from Dune Shack were exhibited at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston from mid-May to mid-August. Trish has been awarded a second residency in the dunes in September.

Becoming Children

South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration
By Marcia Chatelain
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $23.95, paperback.

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans
By LaKisha Michelle Simmons
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 282 pp., $29.95, paperback.

Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are impressive historical examinations of black girlhood during the early twentieth-century period of de jure and de facto racial segregation in the United States. What makes these critical contributions to girls’, migration, and youth studies, as well as to black and women’s studies, is the authors’ twofold claim: one, that black girlhood holds epistemological importance to these fields; and two, that historians can recover and reconstitute the lives of black girls, despite the silences and absences imposed on youth without gender, race, or class privilege.

The two studies share many commonalities in terms of focus, point of departure, and method. South Side Girls explores the experiences of black girl migrants to Chicago between 1910 and 1940. Crescent City Girls centers on the ways black girls in New Orleans came of age during the latter decades of Jim Crow, from 1930 to 1954. Of interest to both investigations are the actual lived experiences of black girls, not just constructions of their girlhood. The authors push against what the historian Darlene Clark Hine termed the “culture of dissemblance” that has long constituted black womanhood—enveloping within layers of silence much of black women’s lives as migrants and clubwomen in the first half of the twentieth century. In order to provide themselves some psychological protection from emotional and physical exploitation at the hands of whites and black men, black women engaged in elaborate forms of masking, guardedness, and impression management. Recent work in the social sciences—such as Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden’s Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (2003); Kamesha Spates’s What Don’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger: African Americans and Suicide (2014); and my own Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009)—demonstrate the continued relevance of dissemblance. It is the foundation of black women’s demonstration of invulnerability and independence—that is, their strength and respectability—within both the black community and American society at large.

Both authors seek to examine black girls in terms of their subjective experiences of struggle and pleasure. However, if dissemblance defines respectability among generations of black women, if archives are largely indifferent to existence of what Simmons calls “marginalized and sometimes invisible citizens,” and if, as Chatelain writes, “many girls’ footprints are subsumed within the giant steps of adults,” then how is one to access their voices? Doing so requires the utilization and deployment of a “disciplined imagination,” a tool of cultural studies and social history that fosters “new ways of looking at and using sources and scraps that might otherwise be discarded by historians” lacking a focus on black girls and girlhood, explains Simmons. The disciplined imagination constitutes not only a guide for searching for black girls but a challenge to represent them as full human beings. By locating girls’ voices in their responses to social science interviewers, educational and religious institutions that inadvertently recorded their existence, their short stories and essays about romance, and photographs taken of their leisure in safe spaces, both authors refuse to present the black girls of their investigations as flat or simply reactive historical figures.

Migration from the South to Chicago was an intentional effort to give black girls access to the privileged space of childhood. Black families hoped that daughters would “escape domestic service, feel safe at work, and for the first time enjoy being a child,” writes Chatelain. Black northbound girls encountered a childhood constructed through protective work legislation, compulsory education laws, and new choices in consumer and religious “markets.”

Despite relative improvements in their material status, black girls often struggled against powerful constructions of their girlhood. Reviewing the institutional records of the first African American orphanage in Chicago and the black nationalist Moorish Science Temple of America, a precursor to the Nation of Islam, Chatelain reveals how maternalist, racial-uplift rhetoric sharply circumscribed black girls’ experiences of childhood. By insisting that they accept “their eventual roles” as dutiful wives and mothers, the claims of racial respectability denied the existence and independent needs of black girls as children and indeed “accorded with the prevailing notion that black girls were not necessarily children,” Chatelain writes.

Despite the predominance of maternalist rhetoric, however, black girls and women, often working together, did challenge its premises. Chatelain captures a particularly poignant example in the vocational philanthropy undertaken by the black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). During the 1920s, members of AKA—who were often educated at area majority white institutions—made “scientific” rather than simply moralistic arguments about social progress. They utilized their outreach to urban black girls to introduce them to “such esoteric fields as ‘bacteriology, creative writing and forestry,’” declaring that “all girls had the potential to use professions [rather than motherhood] to uplift the race.” Although advocating young urban girls’ pursuit of these careers might have been idealistic in already deeply segmented, racialized, and gendered employment markets, these professional ambitions significantly refuted the prevailing discourse of racial uplift that permitted black women’s efforts as long as they did not threaten the larger racial project of “restorative patriarchy,” in Chatelain’s words, operating in communities and households.

In their embrace of girlhood as a space of possibility and freedom, black women community leaders mobilized to make the leisure activity of camping accessible to black girls. Established in the early twentieth century as “an unquestionable pleasure of childhood,” camp culture was originally founded to foster the racial superiority and fitness of white children, Chatelain explains. However, with regard to the Girl Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the YWCA Girls Reserves, “black women leaders adapted their instructions and ideas to make them relevant and accessible to black girls,” she says. By financially supporting the operation of camps and pressuring integrated settlement houses to honor their commitments to inclusivity, these black women insisted that black girls be provided with access to recreational activities, contact with nature, and exposure to the “rehabilitative impact” of the outdoors.

Like the politics of respectability, however, the politics of play required good and bad race representatives. Virtuous girls involved in outdoor activity and public events were counterposed against those who were excluded from this image of the “representative girl citizen: teenage mothers, juvenile delinquents, and poor girls.” Summarizes Chatelain, “When civic-minded girls arrived at children’s hospitals to distribute toys during the holidays, wore carefully stitched badges on their uniform sashes, or posed for pictures for the [African American newspaper] Defender, they symbolized the best of African American parents and communities.” In such venues, black girls demonstrated to both white and black audiences that “they too embodied the highest of American ideals and values.”

After exploring both problematic and supportive constructions of black girlhood within the black community, Chatelain exhibits a particularly deft reading for the girls’ voices. She utilizes a disciplined imagination to reread the interview transcripts with girls and their families that led to the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in Chicago (1932), which argued for the existence of a regressive black matriarchy among migrants, which threatened the patriarchal rights of black men and boys. Moving past the narrative of pathological black femininity, Chatelain interprets the girls’ openings, hesitations, themes, and allusions to argue that their early sexual activity was often the consequence of “naiveté, curiosity, loneliness, and ignorance.” She reveals their lack of knowledge about sex, the peer pressure they experienced to engage in sex, and their revelations of “coercive sex and sexual abuse,” often within their homes. Thus, what Frazier viewed as parents’ inability to control their daughters, Chatelain reads as evidence of adults’ failure to protect them from harm. She concludes that these girls were not bad citizens or negative examples of the race but rather victims of the “gender dynamics, social barriers, and inequalities” that fell especially harshly on the poor.

Simmons calls Crescent City Girls a “cohort biography.” Because it covers a more recent period than South Side Girls, it has an immediacy, much of which emerges through the life-history interviews with New Orleans women that supplement Simmons’s archival evidence. Focused on “the gendered violence of segregation,” she conceptualizes black girlhood within the “double bind of white supremacy and respectability.” The brutality of the first combined with the learned constraints of the second “were the two lenses through which girls came to understand themselves and their place in the world,” writes Simmons. With her explicit attention to sexualized violation and its impact on the psyches of black girls, Simmons reminds us of a point that Ida B. Wells made forcefully in her antilynching treatise, Southern Horrors (1892): black girls were key, yet often overlooked, witnesses to southern violence. Because a major aspect of their subjectivity was constituted through “unwanted sexual contact,” many came to womanhood by internalizing the “peculiar silences” of Jim Crow, writes Simmons.

The still-underappreciated parallel to the “public spectacle” of black boys’ and men’s experiences of lynching were girls’ and women’s ongoing exposure to “meddling,” their term for a range of unwanted sexual advances. As one oral interviewee recollected, “You got hardened to it,” given its ubiquity and the lack of redress, within the white legal system and the male dominant norms of black culture. Although Simmons places most of her focus on girls’ experiences of white-male sexualized violence, she also attends to the lack of bodily safety black girls experienced within their own neighborhoods and homes. Catcalls, touching, and insults were regular threats and encroachments that they were expected to tolerate and accept in the course of growing up. Attending to the “geographies of exclusion and harassment” that included commercial centers, play areas, and residential streets and their affective impact on girls, Simmons captures many of the “small violences of the spirit” that constituted black girlhood.

Despite the magnitude of exclusion and violation in these girls’ lives, Simmons instructively asserts that “without making an effort to recover pleasure, black girls’ lives are narrated only by the trauma of Jim Crow. To consider black girls as full human beings, we need to understand their pleasures just as much as their pains.” She pushes her disciplined imagination most dramatically and importantly in the service of finding, documenting, and reconstituting what she calls black girls’ “pleasure centers.” In these spaces, typically in protective segregated environments, black girls were able to voice their aspirations, forge friendships, and represent themselves in their own words. Simmons examines three examples of such “critical black respatialization” in the lives of New Orleans girls: popular romance reading and writing cultures, YWCA productions, and black Mardi Gras. Each of these pleasure cultures foregrounded “life behind the masks” where, even temporarily, black girls “fought geographic dispossession …. [and] “oppos[ed] traditional geographies of domination.” As they “constructed[ed] alternative subjectivities around enjoyment, intimacy, and fantasy,” they afforded themselves freedom and asserted dignity in a city literally mapped on making those elusive if not impossible for them.

Crescent City Girls and South Side Girls are significant scholarly contributions. Not only do they attend to the role of black girls—both as real persons and imagined figures—in the larger processes of migration and segregation, they also boldly and instructively reject silence and invisibility as the final words on black girls and girlhood. In writing that is accessible and conceptually generative, both books demonstrate not only that black girls existed, but that they mattered—an important challenge to the implicit and ongoing view that girlhood is a whites-only space.

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant is professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at DePauw University and author of Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Race and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (2009). Her current research project examines the rise of new womanhood as an alternative femininity and its impact on the visions of key feminist Progressive Era social reformers.

Add These to Your Queue

Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms
By Patricia White
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Erin Trahan

I’ll confess to an easy rapport with Patricia White, who quips that Netflix has pegged her as a lover of “dark dramas with female leads.” There’s the fact (me too!), and then there’s the politics of including this information in what is also an ambitious and compelling assessment of global women’s cinema. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema would be a worthy nucleus to a course syllabus, or as I took it, an expertly curated film festival with exclusive bonus material.

White’s previous book, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), is treasured by lesbian and queer advocates and considered a must read within media studies. She has also collaborated with Timothy Corrigan on foundational texts such as The Film Experience (2014) and edited essays and lectures by the film scholar Teresa de Lauretis in Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (2007). Just as significant are White’s many decades of on-the-ground advocacy for the distribution and exhibition of women’s cinema.

Because of this, her latest is peppered with the personal (she cites the marquee of her favorite Philadelphia art house to make a point) and grounded in both the practical (how women’s films are made and circulated) and the theoretical (how they are perceived). White has assembled a book that has applicability beyond the academy and could be read, in part or whole, by an array of people working in independent film production and exhibition. Certainly it’s relevant to, if not vitally needed by, feminist cinema-goers in North America.

Nonacademics like me may get lost in some of White’s rhetoric—films’ “enunciation and address” and “accented style” could receive pages of discourse—but her larger effort triumphs: her book expands and shifts how cineastes consider both women’s and world cinema, separately and together. Even more to the point: the films she studies are brilliant. Add them to your queues.

White’s book arrives at a time, she argues, when “women’s cinema as a concept seems to have fallen off the map, even as the field of film studies has taken on the world.” The flourish of support earmarked for women filmmakers by government and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Australia, and Europe in the 1970s has all but disappeared. The great women’s film festivals in North America have folded or morphed beyond recognition.

Even with the fortification of those prior decades, along with the simultaneous expansion of film studies toward what the film scholar Lúcia Nagib calls “a positive definition of world cinema” (in contrast to uses of the term that sanctioned “the American way of looking at the world, according to which Hollywood is the center and all other cinemas the periphery”), White observes that the “political and epistemological motivations of women filmmakers…seem to have been absorbed by market categories.” Consumer labels like “foreign film” or “chick flick,” used wittingly or not on the circuit of North America film exhibition, can unnecessarily abridge film content and limit films’ range of public debate. This process has imprinted, too narrowly, how women’s films from “there” are situated “here.” The dismal, flat-lined statistics of women-made films and their lack of awards across the international board, for example, tell us that troubles remain.

White points out that, like feminism itself, such troubles are neither simple nor singular. Nor is trouble the entire story. Globally, women are making films in greater and greater numbers, and new forms of distribution are opening up more channels of circulation. Likewise, the need for more women media makers has garnered increasing coverage in mainstream North American media, in Oscar speeches, and in social awareness campaigns such as #AskHerMore or #DirectedByWomen. With all of this in mind, White embarks on an ambitious global journey to create a canon of emerging women directors within a few key parameters. She focuses on feature-length, fiction films made in the 2000s—what she also calls “entertainment films”—and she by and large looks at films that have been vetted by esteemed European film festivals and US art house theaters. Still, I’d neither seen nor heard of way too few of these gems.

In her findings, which refreshingly reference not just theorists but also large- and small-scale critics, trade publication interviews, box office sales, and film ephemera such as press kits, posters, and DVD extras, White urges fellow academics (and presumably the rest of us too) to move beyond lenses of our own, monocultural nation states when considering women’s cinema. The category is dear to her (she published an elegiac essay, “The Last Days of Women’s Cinema,” in 2006) and she wants it redeployed. “New critical practices are needed,” she says. Her strategy is to expose the limitations and possibilities of the “terms of visibility” women directors from all nations face today.

For White, those terms include auteurism, cultural authenticity, women’s genres, regional networks, and human rights. She devotes a chapter to each. The terms do not represent White’s ideals; rather she is naming the current points where women’s and world cinema intersect. (To illustrate: imagine an Oscar-nominated foreign language film in which bridesmaids suffer war crimes, and in which the director, who is telling her life story, also stars.) Given that the dim stats about women filmmakers also apply to women film programmers, critics, and jurors who bestow prizes and prestige here, there, and everywhere, it’s worth noting that only one of White’s fields of critique, human rights, has a likelihood of having women in leadership roles and in that way influencing public dialogue.

In keeping with world cinema scholarship, White does not let geography alone dictate the organization of her case studies; she nimbly crosses borders to compare and contrast films based on her own criteria. Thus, the book hops from Australia to Argentina to Iran to India to Lebanon, and moves on to South Korea and China. Filmmakers from continental Africa are missing, as is an accounting for their absence. The few references to African films focus on North Africa; the one comment on sub-Saharan cinema, in the introduction, leaves me curious and wanting more. White writes,

While strong central female characters are signature features of the films of fifth-generation Chinese film directors and recent sub-Saharan African cinema, women directors working in these movements are much less well known internationally and receive less support at home.

As White is keen to remind readers, women directors set their own terms and, in her case studies, act as “harbingers of new film culture.” That is, women are shifting and innovating the form itself. At least a dozen of the films I watched in preparation for reading the book include images, locations, or storylines that were wholly new to me—and unforgettable. And I watch a lot of movies. (Netflix has me pegged as someone who should read more!)

Indelible are two films by Peruvian-born Claudia Llosa: Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009). Both feature the stunning Magaly Solier as protagonist, in one case as the town virgin for a religious celebration in which sin does not exist, and in the other as an enigmatic young woman who keeps a potato in her vagina to protect herself from sexual violence. In both films the actress’s Andean background is part of the storyline; the films trade on convincing indigenous folklore that Llosa—with Solier as what White reads as “coauthor”—concocts from scratch. With Llosa as part of Peru’s cultural elite and with her family’s involvement in Peruvian politics (an uncle ran for president in 1990), it’s not surprising to learn that critics outside of Peru have failed to fully grasp the class and race debates stirred by the films.

Further complicating matters, in White’s view, Llosa grasps that North American audiences have a propensity for “foreign” films with female characters who overcome unimaginable hardship. Yet her main characters veer off scripts that typically garner sympathy. This transnational self-consciousness “turns the internationally circulating art film’s anticipated display of the signifiers of the exotic national identity and trauma into a performance,” says White. Not only do The Milk of Sorrow’s two women leads become entangled in an exchange of art and commerce (a professional singer promises pearls to Solier, her maid, for songs), but Solier now has an off-screen singing career because of her roles in Llosa’s films. White spells out what happens when a European-identified cultural producer uses indigenous talent for personal gain: “the two women’s power-saturated alliance at the very least indicates a scenario of collaborative female creativity.” She is shading the nuances between The Milk of Sorrow’s leads, but the point, that there’s something generative about women joining forces, is also made for the give and take between Llosa and Solier. White’s discussion of this film is one of few into which she incorporates crew beyond the director or principle actor.

White is at her best, and seems especially comfortable, when closely reading Llosa’s films and those by Argentina-born Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga [2001], The Holy Girl [2004], and vThe Headless Woman [2008]); Korea-born Jeong Jae-eun (Take Care of My Cat [2001]); and Taiwan-born Zero Chou (Spider Lilies [2007] and Drifting Flowers [2008]). In these sections she factors in the filmmakers’ biographies and their nations’ filmmaking milieus, all the while offering deep analysis of the films themselves. You could take a weekend, binge-watch all the films by one of these filmmakers (if you can find them: I recommend interlibrary loan and a lot of patience), and then sit down and read what White has to say.

Which filmmaker to choose? There is no wrong turn. White unleashes her full arsenal of examination, including a reading of lesbianism that most critics have failed to acknowledge, on Jeong Jae-eun’s foresighted Take Care of My Cat. The discussion occurs as part of White’s chapter on women’s genres, which includes another recommended section on Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki (Caramel [2007] and Where Do We Go Now? [2011]); Labaki’s well-deserved homeland celebrity has curiously not crossed into North America.

Take Care of My Cat is about five female friends who try to stay connected as they transition from school age to adulthood. (Think Sex and the City meets Girls, but with class consciousness and set in South Korea.) White’s analysis disrupts two chick-flick tropes by defending “girlhood as a subjective social position” and “the strength of affective bonds between women, including erotic ones.” Girls and their modes of communication are too often dismissed; yet when this film was made in 2001, girls in South Korea were on the cutting edge of cell phone use and texting. White shows how Jeong celebrates their innovation as well as their “tender yet skeptical perspective” at this unsettled time in their lives. She makes particularly effective use of frame captures (which differ from the still photographs offered in press kits by film distributors). In one, Jeong splits the screen into four panels, showing all five friends talking on their phones; two others show text messages being composed and received as title overlays. “With its mobile style,” White sums up, “the film intimately signifies the effects of globalization on girls, even as its narrative shows how, as girls, they are likely to get stuck.”

This section is important for several reasons: South Korea is a “full service” cinema hotspot; the region has integrated academic and political communities into its film culture—and that goes for feminists, too; and Take Care of My Cat is one of the few films discussed that depicts girl culture. The overall creative environment is a source of hope for women’s cinema, and even better, as White points out, this film “is not an isolated example of feminist feature filmmaking in South Korea.” Still, it was disheartening yet not surprising to learn that despite strong critical reception, Jeong has struggled to earn a living as a filmmaker. It’s as if White anticipated my cautious optimism with a reminder that feminists need to celebrate the small victories while always pushing for the big ones.

Women’s Cinema, World Cinema is a substantial victory in terms of scholarship and the ripple effect it could have on the far-flung communities of people who care about women’s cinema. In my research I found companion books such as Krista Lynes’s Prismatic Media, Transnational Circuits: Feminism in a Globalized Present (2013), but no single volume completely echoes White’s endeavor. Reading it reminded me why I considered pursuing an academic career and then, weighed down by I thought would be too narrow a scope, I ventured in a different (possibly also too-narrow) direction. My work in independent film journalism and exhibition has been held back by the very terms White describes. After several conversations about the films in this book with like-minded colleagues—the people I count on to be familiar with world and women’s cinema—I realize I’m not alone.

Erin Trahan has worked in film exhibition, production, and journalism for more than 10 years. She currently edits The Independent (www.independent-magazine.org) and writes regularly about movies for radio station WBUR in Boston. Before that she worked as a program officer for a private women’s foundation and as a staff member at the Girls’ Coalition of Greater Boston.

Building Radical Bridges

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
By Sherie M. Randolph
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 328 pp., $30.00 hardcover

Reviewed by Benita Roth

In Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph, an associate professor of history and Afroamerican studies at the University of Michigan, has done an important service for anyone who cares about fashioning a complete and complex record of post-World War II feminist activism. Flo Kennedy was a vivid television presence in the 1970s, and remembering her image, I looked her up on YouTube. I expected to find a lot, but came up with very little: a clip of her profanely leading the chorus of one of her signature protest songs, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a precious, audio-only sound-bite from her speech at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.

This kind of paltry digital legacy confirms the need for biographies of important and heretofore understudied feminist figures such as Kennedy. It takes nothing away from Kennedy’s seriousness of political purpose to say that she was a media-savvy gadfly, someone who understood how to inspire would-be activists and how to garner attention from the halls of established power. As Randolph shows, Kennedy was a relentlessly political person, a constant organizer who was nonetheless better at catalyzing organizations than sustaining them.

Randolph begins her biography with an examination of Kennedy’s origins, focusing on the family dynamics that led to her radical politics. Born in 1916 to a lower-middle-class black family in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy early on received messages about confronting white racism from her family, whom she described as “political in the sense that we never took any shit.” In 1925 Kennedy’s mother, Zella, took her three daughters to Los Angeles to visit family, leaving behind her husband, and decided to stay, joining the many blacks seeking a freer life in southern California. In Los Angeles, Kennedy, then nine years old, experienced a reprieve from harsh winters and harsh racism.

After two years, Kennedy’s father came to reclaim the family—possibly because Zella was ill—and they returned to Kansas City. The Depression foreclosed on black women’s few options for employment, and both Zella and Flo worked as domestics for a time. Randolph notes that Zella taught her daughters to reject the silences required by the black community’s “politics of respectability,” and to own their sexuality. In Kansas City, Kennedy got to know NAACP officers and, in 1942, at the age of 26, she and her sister Grayce staged a two-woman sit-in at a whites-only bus stop café. During a struggle with angry whites, Kennedy was yanked off a stool so hard that she suffered a spinal dislocation, the effects of which would be with her for the rest of her life.

In 1943, Kennedy took a vacation to visit her sister in New York City and stayed, attracted by the opportunities the city offered. She attended Columbia University’s Program of Undergraduate Studies (later the School of General Studies, a program aimed at working students), where she was often the only black woman in her classes. The gender issues raised by her courses inspired her. She explicitly rejected the roles of wife and mother, and explored the implications of the analogy, popular at the time, of women’s situation being like that of “Negroes.”

She was working at exactly the kind of “good government job”—as a researcher for the Veterans Benefits Administration—that she had hoped to find in New York, when her socialist sympathies got her fired. Though she was not one for party discipline, she had connected with radicals in the city, which landed her on the FBI’s radar. She wanted to become a lawyer, but was initially rejected from Columbia Law School. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, she confronted an assistant dean, telling him that her rejection was unacceptable, since less-qualified white men had been admitted, and she used the school’s perception that she had ties to influential radicals to have the decision reversed.

Kennedy’s path as a black woman practicing law was never easy, and it was rendered more difficult by her marriage to a possibly abusive, alcoholic writer, and to her dishonest law partner, who literally took their firm’s money and ran. Kennedy left her husband and never married again—committing herself to activism instead. Despite these personal and professional losses, Kennedy began to make a name for herself as an attorney. She defended the singer Billie Holiday against narcotics charges and developed “a reputation as an entertainment lawyer willing to battle the industry on behalf of artists and their families,” writes Randolph, who argues that Kennedy eventually become cynical about the law, but was never willing to relinquish its strategic power as she fought for radical causes.

To build an activist voice in the 1960s black community, Kennedy began writing a weekly column for a local black newspaper, the Queens Voice, entitled “Once Upon a Week,” and hosting a radio program for station WLIB on Sunday nights called Opinions. She held parties and salon-like events in her apartment for left-wingers like herself, who believed that racism, classism, and US imperialism were linked. Her arrest in her own neighborhood in 1965 by police suspicious of her as a black woman only hardened her radical principles.

In view of this political background, Kennedy’s involvement throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both the black power and feminist movements makes a great deal of sense, and Randolph’s narrative really takes off in the latter part of the book, as she covers Kennedy’s contributions. With her view of linked oppressions, Kennedy argued that the nascent National Organization for Women (NOW) should ally itself with the black power movement—but not surprisingly, she was rebuffed. That didn’t stop her from continuing to attend New York NOW meetings, nor from bringing the white NOW members Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan to the Black Power Conference in July of 1967, where they were decidedly unwelcome.

Such rejections did not stop Kennedy from continuing to advocate what we would now call an intersectional view of liberation. However, she and others who sought a politics of coalition faced a pervasive left ethos of what I called (in Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave [2004]), the anti-coalitional politics of “organizing one’s own.” Left organizations in the 1960s and 1970s were concerned with authenticity and self-determination; as racial/ethnic lines hardened, so did the sense that one’s community was determined along racial/ethnic lines. Given this activist milieu, Kennedy was seldom successful in making the links among organizations that she wished to see. Rather, Randolph sees her as what the sociologist Belinda Robnett (in How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights [1997]) calls a “bridge leader.” Randolph argues that Kennedy moved back and forth between movements and brought to feminists the ideological lessons of Black Power. Randolph writes that Kennedy, “[l]ike many other radicals…saw the emerging women’s movement as a logical extension of Black Power’s emphasis on liberation and self determination.” And in bringing white women’s liberationists to the Black Power Conference, Kennedy clearly wanted the black movement to address sexism within its ranks.

Kennedy was not exactly the kind of bridge leader that Robnett envisioned: she was both a behind-the-scenes go-between and a very public spokesperson. In 1970, she paired with Gloria Steinem on a speaking tour that took them to college campuses and local feminist groups; she was also instrumental in establishing grassroots support for the insurgent Feminist Party, which supported Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for president. However, despite her high profile as a black feminist, Kennedy ultimately came to feel that white feminists were not ready for true coalitional politics. In a battle over NOW’s leadership structure—Atkinson had put forth a proposal for rotating the presidency of the group, to counter what she saw as Betty Friedan’s moderating power—Kennedy resigned from the organization. She did not turn her back on feminist politics, however; in fact, she played a catalyzing role in the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973—although her involvement in that group was short lived, and she soon moved on to other political projects.

You can’t come away from Randolph’s biography without great admiration for Kennedy; whatever her shortcomings as an organizer, she was clearly devoted to her causes, and she constantly sought to inspire, educate, and connect with others. Randolph’s research was truly Herculean: she organized and cataloged Kennedy’s papers at the Schlesinger Library; sifted through other collections; conducted interviews; listened to audio recordings; watched archived video; read court cases, newspaper articles and scholarly sources; combed through FBI files; and spoke with family members. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the activist.

Still, aspects of Kennedy’s life, most notably her private life after her marriage, remain elusive. That may be by Kennedy’s design, but it is hard to know, and I wish that Randolph had broached the topic. I would also have liked to learn more about Kennedy’s life after the 1970s; Randolph fleshes out Kennedy’s early years but leaves her later ones underexplored. A growing literature shows that, contrary to the pop-culture stereotype, radical activists maintain their radicalism over time. It would have been instructive to know more about what Kennedy thought of the aftermath of 1960s and 1970s protest mobilizations.

I also wish Randolph had considered, in theoretical terms, why Kennedy was such an individualist in her activism, so unwilling to be beholden to any one group, so accepting, it seems, of being a perpetual outsider to the organizations that she touched. I mostly missed this theoretical consideration of the relationship between individual activists and organizational trajectories in Randolph’s narration of the “fall” of the NBFO, which she more or less blames on Kennedy’s failure to stick around and guide the group. Just as a “great woman/man” theory of history won’t fly in accounting for historical successes, a great woman, even one as vital as Kennedy, can’t be held responsible for an organization’s failure. Randolph argues that the NBFO faltered from a lack of resources, especially compared to a group like NOW. Others, however, including myself (in Separate Roads) and Kimberly Springer (in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 [2005]), argue that resources were only part of the organization’s problems. Springer identifies homophobia, activist burn-out, and factionalism in accounting for the NBFO’s demise, while I argue that its New York City-based leadership failed to capitalize on grassroots support for black feminism by trying too hard to emulate NOW’s centralized control of local chapters. Kennedy helped to start the NBFO, but she wasn’t a central player in that organization after its first year or so, and its demise should not be traced to her influence or the lack of it.

All in all, Randolph has written an extremely useful biography for those seeking to understand the bundle of energy, style, humor, and smarts that was Flo Kennedy. The book is also a good entry into understanding the tumult of left protest politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Randolph’s work contributes to the leaky dam we scholars of that era are always trying to build against cultural forgetting. I’m grateful for both Kennedy’s and Randolph’s efforts on behalf of the ongoing struggle for progressive change.

Benita Roth is an associate professor of sociology, history, and women’s studies at Binghamton University. She is the author of Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (2004), and of The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s (forthcoming, 2016).

The Woman You’ve Never Heard of Who’s the Reason You Practice Yoga

The Woman You’ve Never Heard of Who’s the Reason You Practice Yoga
By Michelle Goldberg
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 352 pp., $26.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Heather Hewett

You don’t have to own a mat to know that yoga has transformed from a countercultural interest into a multibillion dollar “growth industry.” A 2012 Yoga Journal survey found that more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and that practitioners spent more than $10 billion a year on yoga classes and products. Most gyms and community centers offer yoga. In both hip and no-so-hip communities you can seek out a studio tailored to your particular preferences, whether that’s hot, rock ’n’ roll, prenatal, or aerial yoga. (My local studio describes the last as a “heartfelt connection to Yoga with the use of aerial hammocks suspended from the ceiling.” I haven’t worked up the courage to try it.) Alternatively, you can download a podcast, pull on your tights, and do some yoga at home. At bookstores, plenty of how-to guides shed light on pranayama breathing and side-crow pose and which chant goes with which of the body’s chakra energy nodes. And next to those shelves are a growing number of books that cast a skeptical eye on the practice, including histories of individual scandals and recent investigations into yoga-related injuries and deaths.

Yoga cynicism is on the rise, and for good reasons. Today’s Yoga Industrial Complex can trigger second thoughts, even among students who have done yoga for years and have experienced multiple benefits from the practice (I count myself in this group). It’s easy to conclude that yoga has been fully commodified and corrupted by western capitalism. But this isn’t the full story. In The Goddess Pose, the journalist Michelle Goldberg argues that yoga was never pure or uncorrupted. It has always been a “hybrid of ancient and contemporary ideas, an East/West fusion.” Long before its discovery by the Bohemians and beatniks of the 1960s or its more recent entry into mainstream American culture in the 1990s, yoga was being reinvented by a dizzying array of teachers and popularizers, Indian and western. Goldberg’s biography of Indra Devi, a Russian-born aristocrat who ended up in Hollywood, where she “taught yoga to stars and leaders,” as her New York Times obituary put it, suggests how complex and surprising the history is.

Goldberg’s biography—the first of Devi in English—provides a fascinating look at a woman who opened studios in Shanghai, Hollywood, Mexico, and Buenos Aires; introduced yoga to the Soviet cosmonauts during the cold war; and taught figures such as Greta Garbo, Yehudi Menuhin, and Panamanian Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera. Devi deeply influenced the yoga many of us practice today, and yet, unlike many other yogis, she doesn’t have much name recognition. Goldberg’s well-written and impressively researched biography begins to correct the record.

The author approaches her subject as a “complicated, audaciously modern, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes maddeningly irresponsible woman, not as a spiritual exemplar.” She draws together materials scattered throughout several different countries—archival documents, old newspapers, government files, and several books penned by Devi herself—to assemble the story of this elusive and peripatetic woman. Because Devi changed her name multiple times, Goldberg divides her biography into four parts, each titled with her subject’s name during that period. In each section, she places Devi in her cultural and historical context, which is no small feat. Born in imperial Russia at the tail end of the century to an aristocratic mother and a Swedish banker, Devi—originally Eugenia Vassilievna—found herself in the middle of many of the next century’s major historical events and befriended an astounding array of individuals from many different countries. This situation presents advantages and challenges to her biographer. When material on Devi isn’t available, Goldberg fills in the picture with information about that particular place and historical moment; sometimes, though, Goldberg must bring in so many different events, social movements, and people that the details threaten to derail the story. That they never quite do is a testament to Goldberg’s skills as a journalist and a storyteller.

When Eugenia was eighteen, the Bolsheviks staged their coup and the country plunged into civil war. Her mother, who was separated from her father, lost everything. As Goldberg observes of Eugenia, “All around her, the country was turning into hell—and she was learning a lesson that would serve her for the rest of her long life: how to survive her world’s collapse by reinventing herself.” After her mother joined a theater troupe, they traveled throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Along with many other White Russian immigrants, they ended up in Berlin in 1923—the year Hitler first tried to overthrow the Weimar Republic. It was a time of chaos and hyperinflation in this “artistically vibrant” city, writes Goldberg, where Eugenia and her mother joined a Russian cabaret and continued to travel. During these years, Eugenia experienced various hardships—hunger, jail, anxiety, and heartbreak—but Goldberg can only imagine how her subject must have felt. The historical record is thin, partly because Eugenia’s lifelong cultivation of “relentlessly positive thinking” and a “buoyant, ingenuous approach to life” led her to downplay misfortunes in her own memoirs and writings.

A trip to Holland to attend a weeklong Theosophical camp (a precursor to contemporary retreats such as Omega or Esalen) fueled Eugenia’s interest in this movement, which had become popular during the last days of the Russian Empire and was attracting many Europeans interested in eastern religions, the supernatural, and the occult. Eugenia later called this camp a “turning point” in her life, an experience that fed her youthful desire to travel to India and would lead her far from traditional marriage and motherhood.

With “her charm and her aristocratic bearing,” Eugenia possessed a knack for forming friendships with powerful and influential elites; personal connections helped her realize what for many would remain pipe dreams. A friendship with a British feminist and Theosophist with ties to India, plus money from her banker-fiancé, enabled her to visit India. She was enchanted. After her trip, she broke off her engagement, sold her belongings, and sailed back, with enough money for only a few months and no concrete plans. After a short career in Indian cinema, acceptance into fashionable Indian society, and marriage to a Bombay-based Czech diplomat, she began to suffer from depression and severe anxiety. Unwittingly, she had traded a carefree existence for convention, and enlightenment for evening soirées.

Eugenia’s next metamorphosis, from society wife into yogini, proves no less fascinating. Here, Goldberg skillfully weaves in the story of yoga’s evolution, showing how Eugenia holds a rightful place in the lineage of this culturally hybrid and endlessly evolving art. From its origins in classical Indian yogic philosophy and the physical yoga developed by medieval Hindu ascetics, modern yoga underwent reinvention during the late nineteenth century. Western ideas about the spiritual value of physical fitness, American transcendentalism (itself shaped by “romantic conceptions of Indian thought”), and the growing Indian nationalist movement all shaped yoga’s evolution. For those who sought independence from their British colonizers, hatha yoga presented an authentically Indian form of physical culture, and several notable figures helped to foster a hatha yoga renaissance in India, including Sri Krishnamacharya, an innovator who drew from Indian philosophy, Nepalese yoga, and the gymnastic tradition of Mysore Palace (as well as, most likely, the Danish) in his development of a dynamic and flowing form of yoga intended for young boys.

After several failed attempts, Eugenia finally persuaded this “brilliant synthesizer” to teach a western woman, and as the months went by, she found herself transformed by the practice and freed from her anxiety attacks. When her husband was transferred to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya charged her with bringing yoga to the rest of the world—providing the seed for her incarnation into Indra Devi, the teacher who began her career instructing expats during the Japanese occupation of China and continued, after World War II and her marriage ended, in Los Angeles.

In the US, Devi started over—without a job, family, or connections. Yet she could not have picked a better place than southern California, ground zero for the emerging New Age culture. Devi opened the first yoga studio in Los Angeles, and her fame began to build. She was invited to teach at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine spa, and she gained a following among Hollywood stars; she soon befriended Gloria Swanson, who penned the forward to Devi’s bestselling 1953 book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy. The yoga in this book and in her classes represents what Devi had learned from her teachers, a moderately challenging mix of exercise and relaxation combined with “elements of New Thought and nature cure and even a light sprinkling of feminism,” as Goldberg describes it. While other yoga teachers share credit for introducing yoga to the US, Goldberg notes that Devi was instrumental in spreading a version of it that was both “resolutely free of religion” and particularly appealing to women, even “respectable bourgeois ladies.” Goldberg observes that this may be one of the “ironies” of hatha yoga in the US: “rich housewives discovered it well before it became the avant-garde enthusiasm of beats and hippies.” (In keeping with this history, in its 2012 survey, Yoga Journal identified 82 percent of practitioners in the US as women.) For Devi and the women who studied with her, yoga wasn’t about self-acceptance but rather self-help.

Goldberg’s insights about gender and class suggest a range of complex reasons for yoga’s prominence today. In keeping with New Age beliefs, yoga links health and salvation: by assuming certain physical poses, one can transform both body and soul (“clearer skin and clearer thoughts,” Goldberg quips). When stress entered the cultural lexicon in the 1950s (as in, “I’m so stressed out”), yoga provided a drug-free alternative to tranquilizers. However, the main goal was adjustment to the status quo—an objective, Goldberg points out, that’s in keeping with contemporary business applications of mindfulness meditation in workplaces. (This all changed during the next decade, when Devi became convinced that the world was in the midst of a “spiritual crisis” in need of yogic religious teachings.)

Goldberg does not shy away from exploring Devi’s internal contradictions. Over the course of her life, Devi developed a detachment that looked, to some, like callousness; after her second husband, Sigfrid Knauer, suffered from a series of strokes, she refused to care for him. “Her freedom was too important to her, her antipathy to quotidian domestic obligations too deep,” explains Goldberg. Contrary to Hindu and Buddhist disciplines, Goldberg notes, Devi hadn’t truly dissolved her ego; instead, she had used “eastern spiritual techniques” to deepen her own form of individualism. Yet Devi’s detachment kept her moving forward, and she remained vital for decades into old age. When she was 85, a rock star invited her to Argentina, and she moved to Buenos Aires, where she founded a yoga school; for years after this, she continued to travel. As global interest in yoga exploded, she became known for her youthful spirit and energy. She died in 2002, at age 102.

Most yoga today is far more physically challenging than what Devi taught; it originates from the teachings and innovations of other yogis. Yet Goldberg argues that Devi’s spirit continues to “animate” modern western yoga: It’s part of the same “cultural matrix as organic food, holistic spas, and biodynamic beauty products—things that seem to go together so naturally that it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always linked.” Goldberg convincingly suggests that Indra Devi transformed a male discipline into an “uplifting ritual for cosmopolitan, spiritual-but-not-religious women.” While there’s certainly more to be said about this cultural shift, Goldberg makes a strong case for viewing yoga as a flexible and adaptable cultural form that has constantly changed to meet the needs of the current moment. Whose needs it meets, and whose it does not, may be its as-yet unwritten story.

Heather Hewett is associate professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy