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    Longtime Editor Says Farewell in New Women's Review of Books

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Getting in Formation: Story in the Service of Social Justice

By Angela Ards

Using story in service of social justice is a founding principle of African American literature. The slave narratives, personal stories of servitude and escape that advocated for sisters and brothers yet in bonds, epitomize the tradition. That animating impulse still infuses much black cultural production. For instance, in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998), Angela Davis writes that singers such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday riffed on love gone wrong as a metaphor for social struggle. After slavery, for those exploited as studs and breeders, the ability to choose a lover symbolized a collective sense of freedom as much as previously denied access to literacy and travel. Davis argues that the blues, the predominant postslavery black musical genre, are consequently replete with themes of romantic love “linked with possibilities of social freedom in the economic and political realms,” with black women often focusing on themes of “betrayal and abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; … infidelity” to articulate the civic disappointments and aspirations of an emerging nation within a nation.

However, as legacies of oppression morph from one historical period to the next—slavery, segregation, the historic election of the first president of (visible) African descent—some artists and scholars contend that contemporary black literature and cultural production need new narratives and new functions. In “The End of the Black American Narrative” (in American Scholar, Summer 2008), for instance, the novelist and philosopher Charles Johnson argues that future black writing should leave slavery in the past. And the scholar Kenneth Warren, in What Was Black American Literature (2011), declares that African American literature is simply no more, since it emerged to protest Jim Crow and thus was made obsolete by Jim Crow’s legal end, not to mention a black president in the White House. But now that Barack Obama has bid the nation farewell, and we brace for the return to an old order, or a new authoritarian one, those statements seem as premature as the triumphant declarations of a postracial America when Obama was first elected.

Recent offerings suggest that, indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter, African American literature and cultural production carry on the tradition of story in service of social justice. In her introduction to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016), editor Jesmyn Ward reveals that the collection emerged from an impulse similar to that which launched African American literature, beginning with Phillis Wheatley’s eighteenth-century poetry: to validate the humanity of black life. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Ward first took to social media for comfort and community but soon discovered she “needed words”—sustained narrative all in one place rather than “the ephemera of Twitter”—to “satisfy [the] need for kinship in this struggle.” She instinctively turned to James Baldwin, reading first “Notes of a Native Son” (in Notes of a Native Son [1955]), then The Fire Next Time (1963). “Like a wise father, a kind, present uncle,” she writes, his frank, elegant words reminded her of her worth: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.”

At the time, Ward was a new mother who had just published a memoir about five black men she’d known and loved, all of whom had died violent deaths. Thinking of Trayvon Martin and her dead brother and her own young child, she envisioned a cadre of contemporary writers updating Baldwin’s classic text. The “your black life matters” message would be the same, but rather than a lone voice exhorting a namesake nephew, The Fire This Time would be a chorus of fictive kin speaking to a generation of African Americans who were raised to identify beyond race, only to find themselves judged yet again by—and, in recent high-profile cases, executed because of—the color of their skin. To a great extent, it was this rude awakening from a postracial fantasy to the reality of antiblackness remaining at the core the American national project that precipitated the transformation of #BlackLivesMatter, the social-media hashtag created in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, to a social movement against state violence.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) reflects this zeitgeist. Much of the volume’s success was admittedly due to timing. As the poet and scholar Evie Shockley has noted (in “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric,’” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, January 6, 2016) Citizen hit bookstores

within the five-month period that saw Staten Island’s Eric Garner, Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Cleveland’s Tamir Rice all killed at the hands of police, Citizen entered a national conversation already politicized by the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the formation of Black Lives Matter a year earlier.

However, Rankine’s canny use of personal story played a part as well. In an interview with Lauren Berlant in Bomb magazine (Fall 2014), Rankine acknowledges that she consciously decided “to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book,” an award-winning, experimental work that describes the slips of tongue and sometimes intentional slights that characterize our daily interactions around race. Yet Citizen is not written in the first-person that we have come to associate with autobiography. The bulk of the book consists of second-person, lyric prose poems. And through that “lyric-You,” Shockley writes, Rankine “achieves a full-throated polyvocality…that thrusts every reader into the position of speaker and addressee simultaneously.”

In “Speaking in Tongues,” the theorist Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s essay in African Literary Theory: A Reader (2000), she famously argues that this kind of “discursive diversity,” which is also seen in Ward’s collection, structures black women’s cultural expression. The effect, as Audre Lorde describes in Sister Outsider (1984), is “to remind you of your me-ness as I discover you in myself.” Citizen’s polyvocal “lyric-You” challenges not only conventional ideas about the lyric subject’s singularity, as Shockley argues, but also popular notions of autobiography as “true” and “real”—transparent. For instance, Rankine’s ambiguous pronouns sometimes leave readers wondering where her “I” ends and the “you” begins, and whose story is whose, which forces them to inhabit unfamiliar perspectives and experience citizenship anew.

Sophisticated audiences appreciate that autobiography, which essentially constructs a fictive self on the page or screen, is, like all identities, a performance. Of course, each text is necessarily as unique and varied as its individual author. Yet cultural context matters, too, with place and time shaping personal circumstance and experience. In the nexus where autobiography intersects with shared cultural memories and metanarratives, which have embedded within them assumptions about agency and identity, one can see the political interventions of the personal story. A case in point is Lemonade (2016), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s sixth studio and first audiovisual album. The hourlong avant-garde film addresses rumors of her husband’s infidelity, with the singer’s on-screen persona progressing through a Kübler-Ross-like parade of emotions as she works through the betrayal: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, loss, reformation, hope, forgiveness. The opening song, “Pray You Catch Me,” gestures to autobiography’s performative nature. Beyoncé’s character sings of her gnawing suspicions—“Pray I catch you whispering,/ Pray you catch me listening”—while kneeling on stage, a dark-red curtain in the background, a front row of lights glimmering like candles. The scene suggests a private moment, either before or after a show, and appeals to the sense of transparency audiences associate with autobiography, even as the theatrical setting signals that the story being shared is itself a fiction.

What’s at stake in the telling becomes clearer as this personal story intersects with contemporary and historical narratives. Throughout this opening sequence, the visuals shift from the bare stage to the fields surrounding Fort Macomb, a decaying nineteenth-century fortress occupied by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. In both scenes, the singer’s persona wears a hooded robe, conjuring not only the memory of Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement his death launched but also their inextricable relationship to the slave past. In Sites of Slavery (2012), Salamishah Tillet argues that contemporary artists incorporate the antebellum past to work through discourses of citizenship, democracy, and African American political identity. Like #SayHerName (http://www.aapf.org/sayhername/), the campaign launched to include “black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives and policy demands around policing,” Lemonade works to make space for black women’s lives in communal stories and agendas that too often exclude them. And despite its Kübler-Ross, pop-psychology frame, Lemonade is not a self-help manual about getting over betrayal, but rather a meditation and manifesto about black-female political formation.

In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011), Melissa Harris-Perry argues that legacies of oppression, from slavery and segregation to patriarchy, “have created a specific citizenship imperative for African American women—a role and image to which they are expected to conform. We can call this image the ‘strong black woman.’” (Harris-Perry’s critique joins a large body of black feminist thought, from Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman [1978] to Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down [1999] and Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narratives of Black Women in America [2015]). As several critics have noted, Lemonade charts a different model of black female agency through the staging of groups of women in various “formations”: the marching band and dancers of Edna Karr High School; the women swaying in mourning on the bus; the little girls playing circle games in a parlor; the dance squad practicing a routine in an empty pool; the “mothers of the movement”—Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr—holding pictures of their slain sons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, respectively.

The film’s signature hook and call to action—“Come on, ladies, let’s get in formation!”—comes in the final track, “Formation.” However, all that precedes it focuses on what it takes to achieve such alignment and empowerment: an embrace of vulnerability, the very opposite of the strong black woman, as a prerequisite for political action. The message correlates with the larger movement’s prevailing ethos. Whereas the Black Power era is known for its raised fist symbol, for #BLM, the central image is the raised, open hands of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” The former suggests militant defiance; the latter, an acknowledgment of human vulnerability.

Many wonder whether Beyoncé’s embrace of Black Lives Matter is just a savvy business move that exploits the renewed public interest in social movements, alongside a public obsession with personal narrative stoked by today’s reality-TV, selfie culture. Whether one trusts her motivations, or even likes her sound, as critics such as Greg Tate and Nalia Keleta-Mae have noted, it is undeniable that this modern-day blueswoman’s mastery of the cultural pop machine crafts Afro-Futuristic worlds where fantastic black bodies get free. Indeed, the mastery of the body that the film’s performers exhibit counters Afro-Pessimist notions seen, for instance, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), in which the black body is always in an antagonistic relationship to the state, whether coffled, lynched, incarcerated, or executed in the streets. As Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Rather, in Lemonade, the black body is adorned, nurtured, self-disciplined, and ultimately self-possessed, suggesting the possibility of future agency. One of the final scenes of the film has Beyoncé’s character atop a police car, sinking it with her body into Katrina flood waters. It is a moment as fabulist as that of the hoodie-clad boy, dancing as if Trayvon Martin incarnate, in front of a squad of officers who surrender in the face of his “choreography of freedom.” In this moment, Beyoncé’s brings her personal story to bear on the stakes of our current fight against state violence, recalling the almost-mythic story of free-speech activist Mario Savio defying officers during a Berkeley sit-in and (as quoted in Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives [2012]) declaring, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious … you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus”—whether in an airport demonstration or highway shutdown—“and you've got to make it stop!”

Angela Ards is an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and author of Words of Witness: Black Women's Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (2016)

UN2014Each year, the writer and poet Margaret Randall writes a commentary on International Women’s Day, March 8. This year, her words seem more relevant than ever.




By Kyle Lynes and Beth Richards

On the evening of February 4, 2017, we, like many in the University of Hartford community, received an email that began, “We are the American Vanguard, White America is under attack.” Choosing to ignore the comma splice, we read on. The email continued with talk about “ethnic replacement” and its role in the supposed decline of the white race. It included sweeping terms such as “the enemy,” “the corrupt System,” and “true revolutionaries.” The writer warned (in boldface) that “The White race will be a minority in this country by 2044”—and blamed that event on too few “traditional values” and too many influences from “the forces of Marxism.” The writer also referred to the “white race” as “the ones who built this country in the first place” and ended with a quotation from the book of Psalms. It would be easy to shrug this off as a poorly written (not to mention historically bizarre) rant. But let’s be real. This is white supremacy hate speech. The writer told readers to “expect our posters on campus SOON,” although we have yet to see any.

By E.J. Graff

It seems so long ago now, that innocent time when the nation’s pundits were agitated about oversensitive college students who wanted “safe space” and freedom from “microaggressions”—which to the uninitiated sounds like being stabbed with a toothpick. Could it have only been a year ago that commentators were wringing their hands about attacks on freedom of speech by overprivileged kids who had tantrums when mean professors disagreed with them?


By Ellen Feldman

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“Dare to struggle, dare to win!” The rallying cry from the sixties has become my personal refrain. So naturally I went to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, with my college roommate and her grown daughter. We got nowhere near the mall, but we were still jammed in crowds—with occasional bursts of open space.

Women's Review of Books - 2017 Issues


January/February 2017

BUY ISSUE>> wrobcover01 01 17



Gender, Race, and Generations: A Roundtable Discussion 

Roundtable Reading List

Essay Getting in Formation
Story in the Service of Social Justice
No Throwaway Children By Angela Ards

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools
By Monique W. Morris
Reviewed by Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant

Surveillance VS Care Holding On: African American Women Surviving HIV/AIDS
By Alyson O’Daniel Reviewed by Jennifer Brier

Race and Sex at the UN Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations
By Sylvanna M. Falcón Review by Catia C. Confortini

Weaving Stories LaRose By Louise Erdrich
Reviewed by Trish Crapo

Comic Strip the Writers’ Jubilee By Ajuan Mance

Seek Justice Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment and the Struggle for Identity By Lora Bex Lempert
Reviewed by Andrea Grimes

The Inward Journey Voyage of the Sable Venus And Other Poems By Robin Coste Lewis
Reviewed by Kate Daniels

Computing While Black Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped to Win the Space Race By Margot Lee Shetterly
Reviewed by Evelynn M. Hammonds

Growing Up Biracial Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity By Sil Lai Abrams
Reviewed by Layli Maparyan

Baby and Child Care Know the Mother By Desiree Cooper; Eleven Hours By Pamela Erens
Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer

The House of Difference
Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies Edited by Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck
The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde By Gloria I. Joseph
Reviewed by Jan Clausen

What Are You Wearing?
Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking By Anne Elizabeth Moore and the Ladydrawers
Reviewed by Wendy Gamber

Trouser Roles
Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema By Laura Horak
Reviewed by Erin Trahan

Stories Matter
Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi; Under the Udala Trees By Chinelo Okparanta; The Book of Memory By Petina Gappah
Reviewed by Heather Hewett

Bringing the President to the People and the People to the President
A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America’s Culture Wars By Doreen Mattingly
Reviewed by Ruth Rosen

Poetry
By Jan Freeman

Photography

Born in Chiapas By Janet Jarman

Putting a Ring on it
Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality: How African Americans and Gays Mistakenly Thought the Right to Marry Would Set Them Free By Katherine Franke
Reviewed by Amber Moulton

Field Notes

In Memoriam, 2016 By Robin Becker

The Heisenberg of Feminism
The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary
Reviewed by Paula Rabinowitz

Testing the Human Spirit
Forty Rooms By Olga Grushin
Reviewed by Jessica Jernigan

The Less-Than-Scientific Science
Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict By Heather Boushey
Reviewed by Kate Bahn

House Love and Human Love
A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations By Juliet Nicolson
Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein

Reproductive Rights, Human Rights
Reproductive States: Global Perspectives on the Invention and Implementation of Population Policy

Edited by Rickie Solinger and Mie Nakachi
Reviewed by Mindy Jane Roseman

This Place Needs a New Language
The Bones of Grace By Tahmima Anam
Reviewed by Mandira Sen


March/April 2017

BUY ISSUE>> wrobcover03 01 17

Gender, Race, and Generations: A Roundtable Discussion 

Roundtable Reading List

Essay Getting in Formation
Story in the Service of Social Justice
No Throwaway Children By Angela Ards

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools
By Monique W. Morris
Reviewed by Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant

Surveillance VS Care Holding On: African American Women Surviving HIV/AIDS
By Alyson O’Daniel Reviewed by Jennifer Brier

Race and Sex at the UN Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations
By Sylvanna M. Falcón Review by Catia C. Confortini

Weaving Stories LaRose By Louise Erdrich
Reviewed by Trish Crapo

Comic Strip the Writers’ Jubilee By Ajuan Mance

Seek Justice Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment and the Struggle for Identity By Lora Bex Lempert
Reviewed by Andrea Grimes

The Inward Journey Voyage of the Sable Venus And Other Poems By Robin Coste Lewis
Reviewed by Kate Daniels

Computing While Black Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped to Win the Space Race By Margot Lee Shetterly
Reviewed by Evelynn M. Hammonds

Growing Up Biracial Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity By Sil Lai Abrams
Reviewed by Layli Maparyan

Baby and Child Care Know the Mother By Desiree Cooper; Eleven Hours By Pamela Erens
Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer

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May/June 2017

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Unbought, Unbossed, and Unelected The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency
By Ellen Fitzpatrick Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

No Hiding Place Feminist Surveillance Studies
Edited by Rachel E. Dubrofsky and Shoshana Amielle Magnet Reviewed by Cindy Cohn and Christine Bannan

The Lexicon of Labor From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines
Edited by Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls Reviewed by Christine Byl

Purity Vs. Virtue Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth- Century America
By April R. Haynes Reviewed by Rachel Hope Cleves

Doing it Takes a Village Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality
By Sarah Barmak; I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris By Elizabeth Hall Reviewed by Gina Ogden

State Violence Against Black Women No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity
By Sarah Haley Reviewed by Jill A. McCorkel

Photography Becoming Bella
By Lauren Smiley Photos by Preston Gannaway

Writer, Housewife, Witch Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
By Ruth Franklin Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein

Good Reads Difficult Choices
By Trish Crapo

The Lesbian Hero’s Journey Romaine Brooks: A Life
By Cassandra Langer Reviewed by Abe Louise Young

Beckoning with Dream Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack
By Mary Cappello Reviewed by Charlotte Holmes

Poetry By Virginia Gilbert

Home to Oneself The Little Red Chairs
By Edna O’Brien Reviewed by Valerie Miner

Dilemmas of Infertility The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood
By Belle Boggs; Avalanche: A Love Story By Julia Leigh Reviewed by Ashley Nelson

Figuring Out Gender Balance What Works: Gender Equality by Design
By Iris Bohnet Reviewed by Anne Michaud

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns By Valerie Traub Reviewed by Carla Freccero

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July/August 2017

 

The Infinite ER  Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady By Susan Quinn; Loving Eleanor: The Intimate Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok By Susan Wittig Albert
Reviewed by Blanche Wiesen Cook

A Friendship with National Implications The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice By Patricia Bell-Scott
Reviewed by Dayo F. Gore

Admired and Beloved, Scorned and Reviled Eleanor Roosevelt: World War II and Beyond, 1939-1962 By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Reviewed by Brigid O’Farrell

Intra-Intersectionality The Crunk Feminist Collection
Edited by Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn
Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan

Architect Barbie Where are the Women Architects? By Despina Stratigakos
Reviewed by Kathryn H. Anthony

Ms. MacDonald Had a Farm The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture
By Carolyn E. Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathryn J. Brasier, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Anna Rachel Terman
Reviewed by Grey Osterud

Independent Women in the Economy of God A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Reviewed by Claudia Bushman

Field Notes Dreaming Switzerland By Robin Becker

Poetry
By Priscilla Long

Comic Strip
By Katie Fricas

Repairing the Mind-Body Split This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture By Fay Bound Alberti
Reviewed by Susan Zimmerman

The Territory of Human Disappointment Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist By Anne Boyd Rioux; Miss Grief and Other Stories By Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux
Reviewed by Linda Simon

Marital Rifts Three Ways Over the Plain Houses By Julia Franks;
Natural Wonders By Angela Woodward; Problems By Jade Sharma
Reviewed by Anca L. Szilágyi

September/October 2017

 

Determinedly Optimistic Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene By Donna J. Haraway
Reviewed by Kelly Alexander

Women’s Movements Without Feminism Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening By Ellen Anne McLarney; Resistance, Revolt, and Gender Justice in Egypt
By Mariz Tadros Reviewed by Marilyn Booth

The Woman Who Broke the Comedy Club Cellar Ceiling Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers By Leslie Bennetts
Reviewed by Kate Clinton

Not Quite Gone The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture By Bonnie J. Morris
Reviewed by Jen Manion

The Persona That Became a Reality Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier By Joanne Passet
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis

Coerced “Choice” China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy By Kay Ann Johnson
Reviewed by Lihua Wang

Good Reads Those Who Wait Outside the Door By Trish Crapo

Courage and Fierce Love The Complete Works of Pat Parker Edited by Julie R. Enszer
Reviewed by Kate Rushin

Failure to Launch Swing Time By Zadie Smith
Reviewed by Natania Rosenfeld

Poetry By Jennifer Markell

The Journey into the Unknown The Dark Flood Rises By Margaret Drabble
Reviewed By Valerie Miner

Does the Sex Offender Exist? Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent By Joseph J. Fischel
Reviewed by Sara Matthiesen

Masked Avengers Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour By Donna Kaz, aka Aphra Behn
Reviewed by Debra Cash

Building up and Knocking Down Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why By Sady Doyle
Reviewed by Erin Matson

The Glacial Pace of Change Equality on Trial: Gender Rights in the Modern American Workplace By Katherine Turk; Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work By Gillian Thomas
Reviewed by Karen Pastorello

Transitioning and Transitioning In the Darkroom By Susan Faludi
Reviewed by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild

November/December 2017

The Theater of Paternalism Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves By Marie Jenkins Schwartz
Reviewed by Martha Saxton

“Coeds” Come to the Ivy League “Keep The Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation By Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Reviewed by Susan McGee Bailey

Retrieving the History of the Gay & Lesbian Left Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left By Emily K. Hobson
Reviewed by Margaret Cerullo

Their Own Wars The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II By Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Reviewed by Beth Holmgren

The Most Important Event Nobody Knows About Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics By Marjorie J. Spruill
Reviewed by Ruth Rosen

Neither Fish, nor Peacocks, nor Elephant Seals Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society
By Cordelia Fine
Reviewed by J. Goodrich

Women2drive Daring to Drive : A Saudi Woman’s Awakening By Manal al-Sharif
Reviewed by Persis Karim

Field Notes Artists Together
By Robin Becker

Poetry By Mary Meriam

The Genius Octavia Butler Octavia E. Butler By Gerry Canavan
Reviewed by Nisi Shawl

I am a Writer. Am I a Writer? The Invention of Angela Carter By Edmund Gordon
Reviewed by Jessica Jernigan

Is Law the Solution or the Problem? Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Opinions of the United States Supreme Court Edited by Kathryn M. Stanchi, Linda L. Berger, and Bridget J. Crawford
Reviewed by Sandra F. VanBurkleo

Healing History Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 By MK Czerwiec
Reviewed by Ajuan Mance

Is Transformation Possible? Abandon Me: Memoirs By Melissa Febos; Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life By Yiyun Li
Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey

The Women's Review of Books receives support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

MCC

By Joycelyn Moody and Tisha Brooks

 

Crystal J. Lucky joins the numerous scholars investigating nineteenth-century black women’s writings with her reprint edition of A Mysterious Life and Calling: From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina, by Charlotte S. Riley—and as scholars ourselves, we were pleased to have the opportunity to talk with each other about Lucky’s discoveries. Lucky restores what Riley produced: a published account of Riley’s life as a worker, wife, and minister, which resonates across black archives and both amplifies and enriches diverse literary traditions. Our conversation centered on the ways Riley’s and Lucky’s projects represent mindful critical determination to rewrite the national narrative by including black women.

 

 

When Is a Girl Not a Girl?

Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports

By Lindsay Parks Pieper

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 250 pp., $22.50, paperback

Reviewed by Laura Pappano

An e-mail arrived recently from a college student I had met several times. Embedded in the electronic signature below the year of graduation, residential college, and major was a quick line of text: “Pronouns: he/him/his.”

It surprised me. Not because the pronouns were different from what I had expected—I had perceived this student as male—but because he chose to include them. He was proclaiming don’t assume you know what I am. He was reminding me, and everyone else he e-mails, that gender identity is neither fixed nor obvious.

Ambiguity is a hallmark of our time, from confusion over the sources of extremist danger to the state of race relations, the future of the planet, the purpose of a college degree, or the true healthfulness of so-called healthy foods (must we eat kale?). When it comes to gender and biological sex, we are getting used to a fluid view of “male” and “female,” and overturning old norms. This is not simply a nod to surgery and hormone therapy, or the rising profile of transgender people, but the recognition that biological sex is more complicated than many once believed.

This wiggly reality has been a stubborn adversary for Olympic and international sport officials, who insist on dividing competition into neat categories: male and female. The desire for certain sex identity—for dichotomy, where nature offers a spectrum—has spurred a costly, complicated, and fraught process to “prove” that female athletes are, indeed, female. (Males require no such proof).

Questions of why, how, and for what purpose athletic associations have so fervently sex tested female athletes is at the heart of Lindsay Parks Pieper’s Sex Testing. In it, she digs into the history, politics, and mangled logic for sex testing elite female athletes, particularly in Olympic competition. She argues that the process is more about enforcing western ideals of womanhood than about procuring that elusive “level playing field” for competition. Top sport officials, she writes, “found it inconceivable that strong, muscular women could be authentic or natural,” and attempted to enforce a “vision of appropriate female athleticism.” They seemed to believe “that any man could don a wig or a skirt and defeat all women in athletic competition.”

On-site sex testing was officially instituted during the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and suspended just this year: there was no sex testing in Rio. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), founded as a governing body for track and field, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought sex verification as early as the 1920s. Questions arose most often in track and field when an athlete was taller, more muscular, or faster than was deemed possible.

At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, when Hitomi Kinue of Japan came in second in the 800-meter event behind Lina Radke of Germany, some in the press speculated that Kinue was a man. The race became famous because six runners fell exhausted to the ground, prompting the cancellation of women’s distance events for years. “Based largely on Hitomi’s athletic success and her unmarried status,” writes Pieper, one reporter “deduced that she was ‘40 or 50 percent male and 50 or 60 percent female.’” Years later, in a 1936 article in the New York Times, reporter Grantland Rice alluded to the 1928 games in which “the investigating committee was out two hours before it decided predominant sex” of a Japanese woman competitor.

The requirements of femininity have long been at odds with sport. Female athletes who didn’t appear classically feminine fed the myth that sports such as track and field weren’t appropriate for women and, worse, could have a masculinizing effect. The brash, all-around athlete Babe Didrikson was criticized as unladylike. She and the track stars Helen Stephens and Stella Walsh were “lambasted [for] their muscular physiques, unfeminine appearances, working-class backgrounds,” observes Pieper. “Mannish” female athletes threatened a gender order in which men were powerful and women lithe and delicate. “Calls to implement sex testing,” writes Pieper, were not about fair play but about ensuring heterofemininity.

Over the years, the testing has taken different forms. In the 1920s and 1930s, the only way to tell if an athlete was female was to look. Whenever there was “a definite question as to sex,” explains Pieper, the IOC and IAAF called for an exam. This created problems. For one thing, only muscular women were singled out. Then there was the exam itself. Here Pieper is less than clear. How extensive were the exams? Who performed them? The allusion to the Japanese athlete who left examiners puzzled for two hours is intriguing: visual inspection had limitations. Pressure to verify all female competitors—not just suspicious ones—led the IAAF in 1947 and the IOC in 1948 to require certificates signed by a doctor. Yet these could be easy to obtain.

During the cold war, Soviet and eastern-bloc female athletes were encouraged to train more aggressively than American women, who feared “unsightly” muscles. This made Russians and Eastern Europeans—excluding the “pixie-like” child-gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci—suspect. And indeed, some of this suspicion turned out to be justified: East German female swimmers were subjected to a horrific doping program that led to illnesses and ruined lives.

As with the East Germans, the separate issues of sex testing and doping are often conflated, writes Pieper. Sports authorities first tested for steroids in 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand—although none who failed were penalized—and then at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At the time, it was acceptable for male athletes, particularly weightlifters, to take steroids: the drugs enhanced their masculinity. “The most serious and dangerous use of drugs by females,” one journalist warned, “is the taking of male hormones.” The press erroneously reported that a “new infamous sex test”—sex chromatin testing, developed in the late 1940s and used at the 1968 Olympics—would offer an ideal scientific solution. But it did no such thing.

In the chromatin, or Buccal smear test, a small amount of DNA, usually from a scrape inside the cheek, is amplified to reveal an athlete’s chromosomal makeup. The test is difficult to read: in a medical journal, two scientists pointed out that even the scientist who invented it, Murray Barr, read some tests incorrectly. And in a 1956 article in the British medical journal, the Lancet, Barr himself begged “physicians to act with ‘caution and diplomacy’ when labeling sex and to use the chromosomal check sparingly.” He was ignored.

Biological sex simply cannot be clearly categorized. The chromatin test has humiliated women born with chromosomal differences, such as those with mosaicism, who have cells containing both XY and XX chromosomes, and those with androgen insensitivity, who have Y chromosomes and test as male, yet have many female physical characteristics. These and other intersex states have been common enough to raise questions about the test’s validity or usefulness—but not before many female athletes were publicly shocked by results they never anticipated. The chromatin test also results in a fair number of false positives, reports Pieper:

From a sample of “normal appearing males,” the Barr body test labeled one out of seven hundred as female. The test also identified one out of two hundred women as male, which was of particular significance for the Olympics.

Yet, rather than question testing itself, the IOC medical commission in the 1990s embraced a new test: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which seeks out a specific DNA sequence—the sex-determining region or SRY—to identify the presence of a Y gene, a sign of “maleness.” Because the test was susceptible to contamination, female workers were assigned to take the samples from female athletes.

In 1999, the IOC announced an end to official sex testing—yet in a nod to old fears, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, officials required inspectors to visually scrutinize athletes’ genitalia during the urination required for antidoping exams. Such scrutiny, argues Pieper, marks yet another instance of the troublesome conflation of doping and sex testing.

Pieper makes a powerful case for the folly and pain of sex testing, sharing the case of the Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño. When Patiño forgot to bring her verification card to international competition in Japan in 1986, she underwent and failed a chromatin test—stunning herself and the world. Pieper chronicles the controversy in detail, as Patiño, with the help of a Finnish physician, sparked doubts about the value of sex testing, and its hold began to unravel.

Although Sex Testing is thorough and well documented, we need more science. Chromosomal abnormalities are explained early on, but later, as we hear about Barr’s doubts about his sex chromatin test and about limitations of PCR testing, we need more. What, precisely, are the tests’ weaknesses? Why do intersex conditions go undetected and unsuspected, even by those who have them?

The strength of Sex Testing is its detail, though at times the structure seems weak; the book is more a jumble of gems than a necklace. Still, because it is chock full of terrific research from primary sources, it will be useful for academics. And Pieper’s message comes through loud and clear: sex testing is a political act. It is about enforcing gender norms, not ensuring fair play.

In Pieper’s epilogue, she notes that although sex testing has officially ended, sports authorities have not let go. Instead, they’ve raised a new question: what is biological fairness? Should women with hyperandrogenism, or higher-than-average levels of androgenic hormones––be allowed to compete?

Just prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was pulled aside, tested, and deemed ineligible. Although she had always thought of herself as female, the tests showed higher-than-average testosterone levels. Chand was offered medical “treatment,” which she refused. Instead, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration, which decides sports cases. On July 24, 2015, the court permitted Chand to return to competition, ruling that the IAAF had failed to prove the benefit of higher testosterone levels: “There is presently insufficient evidence about the degree of the advantage,” the court wrote, as it suspended the hyperandrogenism regulations for two years.

“Fairness,” observes Pieper in her conclusion, “is an abstract concept that does not exist in elite sport.” The fact is, birth advantage helps many athletes excel. The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a longer-than-average arm span, an elongated torso, short legs, size 14 feet, and double-jointed ankles that enable him to bend fifteen degrees farther than most swimmers. At 6́́ 5́́́́ ́, the sprinter Usain Bolt has a height advantage. While abnormalities and variations give many athletes an edge, women have born an unfair share of scrutiny. As Pieper reminds us, “only sex/gender differences resulted in disqualification.”

Laura Pappano is writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women. A journalist who writes on education and gender and sport, Pappano is co-author of Playing With The Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport (2007), was a varsity college athlete, and continues to be an avid sports participant (though has never been sex tested).

 

By Lila Abu-Lughod

Fida Adely, Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith, and Progress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rebecca Meacham

A friend of mine met the love of her life in a public library.

        “His daughter’s arms were full of books,” she says. “The girl was tiny, and he was helping her. When I saw no wedding ring, I introduced myself, right there at the checkout counter.”

        “A library meeting is straight-up nerdery,” I say.

        “I know,” she agrees.

        “But it’s even better than meeting a man in church,” I say. “In a library, there are no hypocrites. No one goes to a library to score Heaven points or look good for the neighbors.”

        “Exactly,” she agrees.

My friend and I have met bad men in bars, through friends, at parties. Our romantic histories are knitting wounds; our trust is tender to the touch. But a relationship that begins at a library? That’s nearly guaranteed to thrive. A public library confers its own credential of goodness and sincerity.