By Susan Ware
The idea for the web exhibit Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution originated in a moment of generational angst. The creative team, all women’s historians whose lives had been enriched by participation in second-wave feminism, feared that the history of this life-changing social movement was being lost to younger generations and forgotten by the culture at large. So we decided to use our historical training to answer the challenge. Five years later we proudly launched our creation, named, in the spirit of 1970s consciousness-raising, Click!—for the moment when women discovered the powerful ideas of modern feminism as well as the computer keystroke that connects us all to the powerful tools of the Internet.
New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 245 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by: Farah Jasmine Griffin
Following Maya Angelou’s death in May 2014, sales of her always-popular first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), soared. That book and those that followed introduced readers to a talented writer who, as a young girl named Marguerite Johnson, had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, became mute as a result of the abuse, and developed an intense and intricate interior life fueled by her voracious appetite for books. Marguerite grew up to be Maya Angelou, Renaissance woman: a formidable storyteller who used language to create herself anew. As much Angelou’s subsequent memoirs (there are eight in total) tell the story of a life, they also embody the act of self-creation. During her lifetime, Angelou also published several volumes of poetry, essays, and aphorisms. She wrote screenplays and plays, and penned inspirational greeting card messages. However, all of these exist in the shadow of the memoirs, which presents a challenge to any would-be biographer who attempts to chronicle a life so well documented by the person who lived it.
A conventional biography requires the writer to establish distance between her project and the memoirs. In fact, the biographer needs to view autobiographical writings with a bit of skepticism, seeing them as but one source, and possibly an untrustworthy one, among many. This kind of project requires extensive investigation of the subject’s archives as well as the archives of those who knew and worked with her. If there are members of this latter group who are still alive, the biographer needs to conduct lengthy interviews with them. Armed with this material, she must then separate the myths of the memoir from the flawed, if gifted, subject of her research. Because Maya Angelou looms so very large, and because the myths of her life are her own creations, such a biography, necessarily years in the making, is warranted. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Maya Angelou is not that biography.
The first book-length treatment of Angelou’s life and work to appear since her death, Wagner-Martin’s text is instead an in-depth literary study of Maya Angelou’s body of work. In her Preface, Wagner-Martin writes:
How does the author of an academic book capture the radiant and effulgent mind, attitude and sound that was Maya Angelou?... [H]ow does an author capture the far-reaching effects of Maya Angelou’s eight memoirs and as many poetry collections, as well as her countless essays, letters, interviews, and even more personal writings?
The subject here is not Maya Angelou’s life per se, but her mind: her ideas and how she expressed them in writing. The subject is the oeuvre. The greatest contribution of Maya Angelou is the seriousness with which it takes Angelou as a writer. Wagner-Martin is the author of a number of books about writers, including Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison, which belong to the genre of literary scholarship whereby the author illuminates aspects of her subject’s life based on her body of work.
Wagner-Martin performs a great service to Angelou’s legacy by including her among the subjects to whom she has devoted her keen analytical abilities, for Angelou’s reputation as a writer is often dwarfed by her reputation as inspirational public figure and a cosmopolitan woman of the world. Some of this is a consequence of the snobbishness of academic literary criticism and some a response to Angelou’s own choices. The popularity of her writing, the anthem-like nature of some of her poems—the most famous of which are recited at graduations, beauty pageants, rites of passage, and funerals—make many academic critics suspicious of their literary merit. Angelou’s books of catchy aphorisms and verses on Hallmark greeting cards also contribute to the overall devaluation of her writing project. Wagner-Martin notes these challenges, asserting, “In both her poetry and her memoir, then, Angelou forged her own directions—and as a result her aesthetic achievements were sometimes unappreciated or overlooked.” She reminds us that Angelou first came to public attention as an original literary voice, telling a story that had not been told: that of an impoverished, brainy black girl in a world that did not wish to see poverty and saw no value in the life of a black girl child.
Wagner-Martin’s contextualization and explication of that first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is extraordinary. By now the book is so ubiquitous it is difficult to remember a time before its existence. As with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (published a year after Caged Bird, in 1970), it became a kind of founding text for the outpouring of work by black women writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Morrison’s work, it is often credited with breaking the silence about the intraracial sexual abuse of black girls, while at the same time chronicling, in beautiful prose, the inner lives of young subjects thought to have none.
Wagner-Martin recreates the sense of excitement that Caged Bird generated, and she explains its distinctiveness. Although some readers have placed it in the context of writings by black men such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, or of white women such as Erica Jong and Marilyn French, Wagner-Martin suggests that Lillian Hellman’s serial autobiographies may be better comparisons for Angelou. However, unlike Hellman, who by the time her books were published was already a widely regarded literary figure, Angelou was unknown outside of an elite circle of black writers, artists, and activists. Caged Bird served as her calling card to a broader public. Once they discovered her, readers felt a sense of empathy and a longing to know more:
[Maya Angelou] had no celebrity status, though she had appeared on stage and in clubs: the heart of her memoir writing was, in fact, the commonality of her life…She also wrote, without apology, about the bleak events in the early years of her life—and she did so without blaming mainstream culture—that is, white culture—for those events. I Know why the Caged Bird Sings was an unanticipated kind of book. Its politics [were] comparatively mild; its energy was devoted to expressing the family love that had saved Maya and her brother; its narrative patterning alternated the serious, and the chilling, with the tranquil and exuberant.
This concise description is an apt one, which delineates elements that Angelou’s book shared with a generation of black women writers. However, rather than letting white people and white supremacy off the hook for black suffering, these women’s books instead devoted themselves to demonstrating the existence of black complexity, humanity, dignity, and love under the conditions of white supremacy. They are not outward looking, directed at white men in anger; they allow for interiority, for anxiety, and for psychological depth. This is a political project, though one that is perhaps not apparent to mainstream readers.
While Wagner-Martin’s readings of Angelou’s writings are indeed valuable and give us a way to better appreciate the work, particularly the poetry, the book falls short in its failure to explore the veracity of some of Angelou’s claims. Wagner-Martin seems to take the memoirs at face value—or perhaps, as a literary critic, she assumes the fictional nature of the autobiographical project. She suggests that Angelou’s memoirs may be more accurately described as “autobiographical novels,” but she does not develop this provocative and interesting assertion. Perhaps her critical methodology does not require a search for truth but instead an illumination of craft. If this is the case, however, she ought to have given greater attention to the inconsistent quality of the later works. Was it a consequence of market pressures? Did Angelou grow bored with the character she had created?
Wagner-Martin engages with a number of other analysts of African American women’s fiction to build the critical framework with which she reads Angelou’s work. That a number of these scholars are black feminist or womanist theorists creates an intellectually rich and nuanced context for her discussion. While we learn no new details of Angelou’s life, Wagner-Martin gives us a way of reading that life. Her final chapter focuses on Angelou as a “spirit leader,” which seems a most apt description of the role she plays in the lives of many readers, including that of her most famous admirer, Maya Angelou herself.
All in all, Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit is an important early contribution to studies of Angelou’s life and writing. By focusing on the literary Angelou, it reminds us that she first came to our attention as a writer of compelling prose and a gifted storyteller who wrote her way into existence.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. Her most recent book is: Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013).
By Peter L. Laurence
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Renée Loth
When US Senator Patty Murray was a thirty-something citizen-activist in Washington state, a legislative opponent dismissed her as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” Murray wielded the insult to her advantage throughout her political career, showing up to campaign events in tennis shoes, using them as props at rallies—and winning every time.
A similar mythology has followed the famed urbanist Jane Jacobs; opponents in her time dismissed her, often to their grief, as just a mom with a typewriter. Her prescription for vibrant urban life, epitomized in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was so straightforward and free of cant that it’s easy to believe she sprang full-grown from a Greenwich Village sidewalk, an American Primitive of urban planning. No less a figure than the developer Robert Moses burnished this myth, when he complained at a public hearing about the resistance Jacobs had organized to his plan to blast a roadway through Washington Square Park in the late 1950s. As Jacobs herself remembered it years later, he sputtered before a municipal committee in disbelief, “There is nobody against this…Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!”
In Becoming Jane Jacobs, the architectural historian Peter Laurence aims to counter the notion that Jacobs was just a spunky naif who stumbled onto her theories about city planning and urban renewal. Instead, he argues, her views were shaped by years of careful study working as a writer and editor at publications such as Architectural Forum, and by her encounters with great thinkers of the field such as Lewis Mumford and William H. Whyte. “If it seems improbable that a canonical book like The Death and Life of American Cities emerged spontaneously from the typewriter of a housewife who had previously written nothing but a few captions, that is because it is improbable,” Laurence writes in his introduction. Critics of Jacobs’s politics and ideas, he writes, “quickly stereotyped her as someone with little prior experience, let alone credentials, in her subject matter, and they dismissed her important contributions, in often gendered terms, as obvious or naïve.”
As a corrective, Laurence traces in minute detail the development of Jacob’s thinking, from her arrival in New York City at age eighteen through the publication of Death and Life, which is perhaps the most important (and certainly the most readable) book on urban planning ever written. She did not come upon her fierce defense of organic, complex urban vibrancy—what she called “the sidewalk ballet” of cities—just by gazing out her brownstone window, he says, but though a combination of careful observation, writing, and “interacting with the architectural press, academy, and profession.”
Laurence shows Jacobs fully engaged in the roiling intellectual arguments of her time—New Empiricism, New Palladianism, functionalism, modernism, and other isms—debating not just urban theory but the ideas of prominent philosophers (Karl Popper) and economists (F.A. Hayek). Her career coincided with a golden age of magazines, when publishing giants such as Henry R. Luce—the founder of Time, Inc., and editor of Architectural Forum—were remaking American journalism. Luce and his editorial team were determined to forge a new kind of architectural criticism and willing to attack building projects and their designers by name—a practice long avoided because of developers’ propensity for libel suits.
Jacobs, whose centenary was observed earlier this year, in May 2016, wrote presciently about the issues that architects, planners, and city officials grapple with today: suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, racially segregated housing, the benefits of density and mixed-use neighborhoods, and—prefiguring Sherry Turkle’s critique of distancing technology by fifty years —the importance of unmediated personal interactions. In an article for Architectural Forum about New York City’s office boom in 1957, Jacobs wrote that there is “no substitute for face to face, for the peek at figures not to be broadcast, the shared Martini, the subtle sizing up, the chance to bring the full weight of personality to bear.” Although Jacobs was steeped in the era’s debates about urban planning, ultimately she had little patience for any critical theory that lacked a conscience or a beating heart.
Laurence traces Jacobs’s lifelong suspicion of authority and planning orthodoxy to an early tangle with the government, in 1948. Despite having written propaganda for the Office of War Information during World War II, she was investigated by the FBI and the Loyalty Security Board for possible Communist sympathies. Her case, Laurence says, was personally overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, because she and her husband had once applied for a visa to the Soviet Union. (At the time the USSR was still an ally of the United States, but never mind!) Jacobs, he writes “opposed top-down, paternalistic, utopian, and statistically driven social and economic planning” at least partly in reaction to the excesses of state control she had experienced first-hand.
It is a fascinating idea, but overall Laurence does little psychoanalyzing of Jacobs in what he calls “an intellectual biography” of the urban planner. His focus is more on the great book than on the author herself. Time and again, Laurence connects the dots for the reader, showing Jacobs meeting the people, reporting on the developments, and “rehearsing passages” that will later appear in the volume. If a book can be said to have a biographer, Peter Laurence is the Boswell of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jane Butzner showed an early aptitude for writing, publishing her first works at age eleven in the local newspaper. The eldest daughter of a doctor and school teacher, she abjured college for a quick course in stenography, which she hoped would be her ticket to a life in the big city. In Depression-era New York, however, jobs were hard to find, and she supplemented her mostly part-time wages with freelance writing assignments that took her deep into the city’s many diverse neighborhoods. Her keenly observed portraits of workers in the leather, flower and diamond districts—published in Vogue, of all places—were some of her first experiences as what she later called “an urban naturalist.” Laurence writes admiringly of these early essays, which were unusual because “there was no hint of condescension in her discussion of the ethnic, working-class districts, which others saw as the home of the unwashed masses.”
When she was 28, Jane married Robert Jacobs, an architect—and it would be unfair to both of them not to recognize his contribution to her education. They shared a close relationship as colleagues, parents, and activists. Bob Jacobs taught Jane how to read architectural drawings and introduced her to many of those who would become her mentors and champions.
Importantly, Laurence shows that Jacobs was not always a fierce opponent of urban renewal schemes, for which she is now best known. Like most of her contemporaries, she was initially swept up in postwar enthusiasms for technical, almost scientific, solutions to urban problems. Although she rejected the “garden city” concept emblemized by suburban development and its attendant sprawl, she did think that inner-city slums could benefit from new housing developments, with their promise of self-contained parks, sunlight, and healthful recreation.
Perhaps because of her orientation as a journalist, however, rather than as an academic or theorist, she soon observed where these utopian ideas went wrong. She began to grow wary of urban renewal while reporting on redevelopment projects in East Harlem. Laurence quotes from a letter she wrote to a close friend, explaining the evolution of her thinking: “I saw that many people in East Harlem were of true importance in their circles and had the dignity that comes of having some influence and mastery, however little, on their environment.” In contrast, urban renewal schemes usually wiped out a community’s self-determination and replaced it with a “buffer principle” designed to keep both uses of buildings and classes of people apart.
Although Laurence doesn’t draw the reference, Jacobs came to abhor the “Tobacco Road” mentality of urban renewal, where, as in the song, the solution to a blighted neighborhood was to “blow it up and start all over again.” Her genius was to recognize the value in the messy, noisy, informal social structures of city neighborhoods and the civic glue provided by their institutions.
In the same letter, Jacobs lamented the development of Charles River Park, the walled community that followed the razing of Boston’s teeming West End, because its designers believed it would be “unsafe unless the strangers are kept out.” On the contrary, as she noted in Death and Life, it is precisely the close interactions among a city’s inhabitants and the self-policing “eyes on the street” that keep it safe.
Laurence recounts all this dutifully, with sometimes plodding prose. The book is deeply researched and helpfully illustrated, but it is not a jargon-free zone. Describing the debates that engulfed an international group of modernist architects and critics calling themselves Team 10, for example, he writes: “Team 10 members and others advanced the metabolist and megastructural movements of the 1960s and 1970s with a persisting ambition for ‘total architecture.’” Happily, the book includes ample passages by Jacobs herself, where the language is vivid, the pace picks up, and the book breathes.
Because it is mostly about the formative period leading up to the publication of Death and Life, Laurence’s biography gives relatively short shrift to the years just after, when Jacobs reached the peak of her fame and influence over the city she loved. There is little focus on her epic battles with Robert Moses, which pitted the builder against the preserver. For that, one has to read other accounts, such as The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (2010) by fellow urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz; Wrestling with Moses (2009), by the former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint; or perhaps Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel, forthcoming in September.
Even Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Moses, The Power Broker (1974), scants the relationship with Jacobs. Years after its publication, Caro admitted that chapters about Jacobs ended up on the cutting-room floor, an editing decision he came to regret. As well he should. “The great virtue of the city, the thing that helps make up for all its disadvantages, is that it is interesting,” Jacobs said in a 1957 speech. By fighting to keep it that way, Jacobs and her ideas were at least as influential in shaping urban America as the most powerful men in wingtips. Becoming Jane Jacobs provides a crucial rebalancing of the public record.
Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine, the quarterly “ideas” publication of the Boston Society of Architects, and a former senior editor at the Boston Globe.
By Andi Zeisler
New York: PublicAffairs, 2016, 304 pp., $26.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Paula Kamen
In her new book, We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler is as adept as one can get in capturing—and contrasting—specific moments in pop culture. In one chapter she looks back at the landmark 1977 international women’s conference in Houston. “The brainchild of Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink” and funded by the US government “to the tune of $5 million,” writes Zeisler, it drew between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees. The keynote was by Texas Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan, and the conference’s resulting political action plan focused on such substantive issues as sex discrimination, wage inequality, childcare, abortion, and the rights of minority women.
Then she fast-forwards to describe what such an event would like today: “I’d like to think it can have the same galvanizing spirit,” Zeisler writes,
but I’m also 99.9 percent sure it wouldn’t be funded by the government, but by a slate of multinational corporate sponsors: Verizon, Estee Lauder, Gucci. It would be held not at a convention center but at an extremely posh spa, all the better to pop out for a quick seaweed detox wrap if needed. Paparazzi would be camped out to get snaps of celebrity attendees Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Amal Clooney.
Zeisler goes on to imagine that the event would feature a “special conversation between Hayek and Jolie that adds $175 to the conference ticket price but does include a gift bag containing chia-seed energy bars, a luxury skin mask, and a coupon for Activia yogurt.”
Zeisler’s fantasy reveals the mixed blessings—and strange bedfellows—created by today’s “bizarro world” of “marketplace feminism”: the intersection of capitalism and feminism. “It’s decontextualized,” she writes. “It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.” With wit and imagination, she traces the evolution of marketplace feminism during the past twenty years, and its assimilation into mainstream society, for better and for worse.
Zeisler writes for both an academic audience and the rest of us; all may appreciate her big-picture perspective, as she connects the dots across decades and political movements, while she provides critical tools to enable even the most dedicated Entertainment Weekly subscriber to navigate the perplexingly mixed media messages that surround us. After reading this book, no reader will ever hear the words “empower” or “choice” the way she did before.
As a co-founder of the widely respected Bitch magazine (its tagline, “feminist response to pop culture”), Zeisler has long been at the forefront of delivering brainy and entertaining cultural critique. Bitch, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2016, has accomplished the impossible, surviving as an indie publication with minimal advertising. It has even expanded: the magazine is now a part of Bitch Media, which includes online-only content, a blog, and the Bitch on Campus partnership. This year, for the first time, Bitch Media offered fellowships to four diverse writers from across the globe.
Zeisler’s book reflects a major engaging feature of the magazine: a healthy dose of informed irony. You can see it right away in magazine headlines like “When the Dove Tries: The Latest ‘Real Beauty’ Gimmick” (about a Dove soap ad campaign) and “Of Woman Borg” (about female robots). Humor is almost unavoidable in analyses of the contradictions in today’s pop culture—such as in Zeisler’s discussion of the promotion of Spanx “shapewear” as “empowering” to women.
In its media focus, this book is in many ways the successor to the nerve-hitting 1991 blockbuster Backlash, by Susan Faludi (1991), which exposed often subtle media attacks on women’s progress. Even some of these books’ content overlaps: both cite notorious media instances of blaming feminism for the woes of single women—such as in the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which Michael Douglas is stalked by the homicidal, bunny-boiling Glenn Close; and in the 1986 Newsweek report, “The Marriage Crunch,” which warned young, single women that their odds of marrying dropped to minuscule the older they got, so that by the time they were 35, it claimed, they were more likely to be attacked by terrorists. “This narrative not only had legs, it had control-top hose and running shoes,” Zeisler says, describing how wildly popular and quoted the article became.
But Zeisler’s book has key differences from Faludi’s, notably, what Zeisler calls a “constant game of Good News/Bad News.” Her book both celebrates progress and notes setbacks, often within a single sentence. This is so fundamental to Zeisler’s worldview that her book is organized into two parts: the first, The Embrace, about advances; and the second, The Same Old Normal, about gains yet to be made. This rhythm is useful for describing today’s complexities, such as Nike’s 1995 advertising campaign, “If You Let Me Play,” which took feminism for granted, instead of seeing it as a novel trend. Beauty industry ads are especially full of contradictions: “A key feature of marketplace feminism is its earnest dialogue about broadening beauty standards,” writes Zeisler. She cites as an example Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which depictions of “real women” of various body sizes were posted in splashy venues, including on a billboard in Times Square. But, “Oh yeah,” Zeisler reminds us, “those beaming women on Dove’s groundbreaking billboards were shilling a line of lotions and creams meant to smooth out cellulite.”
She observes other drags on apparent progress. News outlets widely covered the actor Emma Watson’s November 2014 speech to the United Nations on gender equality, which helped to demystify feminism to a new audience. Yet Zeisler finds bias in the angle of the coverage. Headlines commended Watson’s “bravery” in identifying as a feminist, as they often do when celebrities take a stand. But this moves the focus away from the issues to the stars’ supposed “revelatory lack of fear and disgust about aligning themselves with the word [feminist].”
We Were Feminists covers the major media development since the publication of Backlash: the Internet, and its feminist blogs, websites, and “listicles.” Zeisler herself has a blogger’s sensibility and casual voice, as she makes reference to both high and low culture. She sets the pattern on page one, describing “Twitter feeds that mashed up Judith Butler and the Incredible Hulk.” Doing something like that herself, she follows her description of a lingerie ad as “batshit nonsensical” with a cogent critique of neoliberalism and gender essentialism that employs such words as “reify” and “ineluctable.”
Pop culture may be light, but to analyze it, Zeisler relies upon a deep understanding of global social issues and the diversity of feminist activism. Reflecting the cumulative result of decades of consciousness raising, We Were Feminists (more than Backlash) focuses on international, racial, generational, and transgender issues.
Zeisler’s wide point of view informs one of her most original contributions: her analysis of the evolution of the word “empower.” She traces its emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s to grassroots campaigns for women’s self-sufficiency in the global South and in US minority communities. Barbara Bryant Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social World in Oppressed Communities (1976) was apparently the first book to use the word in its title. It was widely embraced in the 1990s by Third Wave feminists, reflecting the movement’s “expansive goals,” such as in Rosalind Wiseman’s 1992 Empower antibullying program.
Then came what Zeisler coins “empowertising.” Corporate America began using the word everywhere; it appeared perhaps most egregiously in Walmart’s 2011 Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which Zeisler describes as “an ass-covering PR campaign,” as the company faced the largest-ever sex-discrimination suit against a private company. By 2012, even Forbes was calling the word “the most condescending transitive verb ever.”
While Zeisler reports on generations of feminists, her work will have a special appeal to perennially media attention-starved, Generation X readers (like me!). Bitch magazine (along with the more celebrity-oriented Bust, founded three years earlier, in 1993) was a major “gateway feminist” source for us, raising our consciousnesses about our particular cultural influences. For Zeisler herself, the galvanizing event, when she was in college, was Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to Congress, during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas:
If there was one event that was poised to refute the lie of postfeminism, it was the televised hearings that found Hill recalling her treatment by Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking the hearings were in the understanding of sexual harassment: they marked the first time many viewers—myself included—realized there was a name of behavior that we were expected to laugh off or be flattered by in our school and work environments.
We Were Feminists rejects mainstream feminism as it is popularly defined: as women making choices. Instead, it dares to assert that some choices are better than others:
As an ideology, feminism…holds that some things—say, social and political equality and physical autonomy—are better than other things, like inequality, domestic and sexual violence, and subservience based on gender. It makes no sense to argue that all choices are equally good as long as individual women choose them. And it’s equally illogical to put a neoliberal frame around that argument and suggest that a woman’s choices affect that woman and only that woman.
Zeisler’s call to high ideals is most evident in her last chapter, “The End of Feel-Good Feminism.” In it, she challenges consumers to not forget the “unfun” and “uncommercial” parts of feminism:
The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues that feminism confronts—wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism—are deeply unsexy.
Feminism is a demand for social change. Some of her critics, such as two recent New York Times reviewers (who were generally positive), have said this means she is ideologically rigid. But I opine that, in the end, she provides a much-needed, independent voice—countering a much better funded corporate one.
Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the ‘Twentysomething Generation’ Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement”, which was noted as the first post-boomer feminist book when it was published in 1991. She is the author of the play, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been a popular fundraiser on college campuses. Her website is paulakamen.com.
by Cathleen Schine
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 304 pages, $29.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do…..”
—From “This Be the Verse”
By Philip Larkin
Eighty-six-year old Joy Bergman, the spirited protagonist of Cathleen Schine’s tenth book, substitutes “son and daughter” for “mum and dad” in Larkin’s sardonic poem. Joy is the dynamic materfamilias in this tender, hair-raising, funny novel about three generations of an Upper East Side Manhattan clan.
Joy and Aaron have enjoyed six decades of marriage. “They were as one,” writes Schine.
They held hands when they walked down the street, they fed each other tidbits like lovebirds. It was embarrassing for the children, having such lovey-dovey parents. And reassuring. Like the trumpeters and singers in the Bible they were as one.
But now, as the book opens, Joy struggles to balance a demanding job and a taxing husband whose dementia is so severe he keeps tearing off his colostomy bag in the middle of the night.
When loving, sentimental and fiscally hopeless Aaron plummeted the family into bankruptcy, Joy got a job, earned a PhD, and became a conservation consultant at a small Jewish museum. She usually enjoys her work; lately, however, home and office demands are overwhelming. (If this seems far-fetched, remember that the number of older workers in the US is rising. According to the Pew Research Center and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next five years, more than thirty percent of people aged 65-74 will be employed. And after that the percentages keep rising.)
Everyone offers her advice. Joy’s college sorority sisters, still her best friends, urge her to send Aaron to a senior day care center. Her daughter Molly and son Daniel recommend in-home help. Yet who knows Aaron as well as she? He’s lucid, sometimes; even funny. They walk to Central Park together. He relishes chats with his friend Karl.
Schine celebrates the devotion that graces a long, good marriage:
He called her darling, asked what the hell the colostomy pouch was, apologized for it, thanked her for putting up with it and him. Then they fell asleep. That was how it went most nights. Sometimes when she lay down on the bed with Aaron, her faced pressed against the back of his head, she would cry.
Although Aaron is the frailer of the two, it’s Joy who lands in the hospital with a minor stroke and a serious intestinal infection. When she comes home, an army of hired helpers invades, destroying any hope of continued intimacy with Aaron:
The apartment was full of voices, all timbres, tones and accents. It was like an orchestra. The cushions of the sofa cradled her aching body. She listened to the voices: a deep, male, harsh African musicality; the free-for-all vowels of Portuguese English; the clatter of female Spanish. And Aaron, his intermittent wailing reaching back to the Middle Eastern chanting in its cadences, as if all his ancestors were crying out at once.
Schine portrays old age with dignity and idiosyncrasy. Meanwhile, her description of well-meaning but patronizing younger relatives is drawn with sympathetic humor.
Daniel visits from the Lower East Side, and Molly flies in from Los Angeles; both are eager to help. Their energy, ideas, and resources, though, are no match for Joy’s force-of-nature independence. And middle-aged Molly and Daniel have their own fraught families. They are alternately frustrated and relieved when their help is declined.
Schine adroitly depicts the city of New York—on chilly afternoons in Central Park, in posh restaurants with sterling silverware and pressed pink tablecloths, and at tawdry bodegas. Joy leans on a shopping cart in “the kind of grocery store in which half the children were probably not vaccinated against measles.” Schine evokes the sounds, odors, and tastes of Manhattan, even in the briefest moments: “Daniel emerged from the subway and smelled the overripe fruit from the fruit stand.”
Although Aaron’s death is expected, the loss wracks his family with heartache and alarm. Frantic Molly and Daniel offer endless suggestions to make Joy more comfortable, safer, happier. Molly brings her to California, where Molly and her partner Freddie offer ceaseless, exhausting diversions, which heighten Joy’s anxiety. The breaking point is their surprise present to Joy of an adult tricycle.
“It’s red,” she said. She did not know what else to say.
“You can ride on the boardwalk. It’s great exercise.”
“You can do errands.” Freddie added.”
Clearly it’s time to return to New York. The one gift Joy carries back from painfully sunny Los Angeles is a small dog named Gatto, who becomes the most reliable of companions.
Molly phones regularly. Daniel drops by each evening. But Joy’s children have their own predicaments. Who knows how elaborate and expensive Daniel’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah will be? Molly’s distracted son Ben is cited for public urination. Molly is also helping Freddie navigate her own crazy family and their father’s dementia.
Joy finds solace and cheer in a renewed acquaintance with Karl, Aaron’s Central Park friend and, as it happens, her old college flame. The children grow suspicious. They argue about whether Karl can come to the Bat Mitzvah. They want Joy to be happy, but …
We need more literary characters like Joy: smart, quirky, strong older people. While the family worries about her fragility, they still rely on their mother and grandmother. Joy even winds up facing the police citation, changing “Ben” to “Bea” in court.
Cathleen Schine’s novel—sad, painful, heartening and hilarious by turns—is a dazzling tapestry about an ordinary family with an extraordinary matriarch. Like all wise weavers, Schine leaves a few threads hanging. Will the “kids” force Joy into an assisted living center? Will she have a future with Karl? Will she be convicted of Ben’s faulty bladder/judgment?
Valerie Miner is the author of fourteen books including the novel Traveling with Spirits (2013) and the family memoir The Low Road (2002). She teaches at Stanford University. Visit her website at www.valerieminer.com.
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
By Rosemary Sullivan
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 752 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lesley Rimmel
Rosemary Sullivan’s subtitle says it all: Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life was “extraordinary and tumultuous.” This is a hefty volume about a remarkable woman who seemed both familiar to me yet also sui generis. She endured countless tragedies, especially deaths and separations, partially relieved by interludes of relative happiness. She famously defected to the United States in 1967. But, as Alliluyeva complained, “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.” To the end of her life, she had to contend with the burden of being the only daughter (and only surviving child) of one of history’s “most brutal dictators,” writes Sullivan.With the help of Alliluyeva’s published writings, her voluminous correspondence, and interviews with many of those who knew her personally, Sullivan has crafted a solid biography that is nearly impossible to put down.
This monumental book begins with a preface outlining the arc of Alliluyeva’s eventful life, and it includes an extended family tree, helpful for keeping track of relatives and relationships. An expanded list of Alliluyeva’s most important friends, relatives, and other associates is appended to the main text.
The book unfolds as an almost Shakespearean drama, with Alliluyeva’s defection as the central dramatic point. Following the preface is a prologue that details the first days of her defection to the US Embassy in India, where she had gone to scatter the ashes of her would-be husband, Brajesh Singh, whom the Soviet government had refused to allow her to marry. Alliluyeva suddenly decided to take the opportunity to escape her treatment as a “national relic.” It was International Women’s Day, and she knew the Soviet Embassy staff would be too preoccupied with their libations to notice her absence until it was too late. This is an exciting and suspenseful chapter—but it does not spoil Sullivan’s extended treatment of the defection midway through the book, as I had feared it might. Instead, this device helps fortify readers for the tragedy-filled times to come.
The book next retraces Alliluyeva’s earliest years, “that place of sunshine,” as she called her childhood, to which she would “always turn … for solace.” What made those years so beguiling in Alliluyeva’s memory was the presence of her extended family, including the Svanidzes, Stalin’s in-laws through his late first wife Ekaterina, who had died shortly after the birth of their son Yakov, in 1907; and Stalin’s in-laws from his much younger second wife, Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva. In addition, members of Stalin’s circle often functioned as doting “uncles.”
There was only one missing link in this warm, “Chekhovian” household (as Sullivan describes it): Alliluyeva’s mother Nadya. She was a serious, even austere woman, devoted to being a good Communist and always endeavoring to upgrade her education and qualifications (a trait Alliluyeva would share), a disciplinarian who was often away from home because of work obligations. The only letter Alliluyeva ever received from her, at age six, was one admonishing her to behave better. It was 1932, a time of extreme stress in the country, with the first Five-Year-Plan of rushed industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture creating violence, starvation, and resentment among the population. At a celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution for Kremlin leaders and their families in November, Stalin and Nadya suddenly had strong words, after which she returned to her apartment and shot herself to death.
Alliluyeva, at six-and-a-half, could only register her mother’s death as abandonment. She could not help identifying with her father, who (in his way) coddled her and made believe that she was his “little hostess,” manipulative as this was. Not until ten years later did Alliluyeva—under orders during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) to polish her English and study American history—find out the truth about her mother’s suicide, in a British newspaper. Along with the deaths of many of her relatives in the Great Terror of the late 1930s, for which she was discovering her father was largely responsible, the revelation was “shattering,” writes Sullivan. It led to her gradual break from her father and identification with the long-gone and ever-mysterious Nadya, although learning of the suicide did not remove Alliluyeva’s feeling of abandonment.
By the time Alliluyeva was a teenager, she was trying to pull away from the family confines in the Kremlin. Stalin was, like most parents, concerned about the men she dated. But unlike most teenaged girls, Alliluyeva had to put up with a bodyguard always tailing her, secret police agents rifling through her belongings and listening in on her phone calls—as well as the sentencing of one of her lovers to a labor camp. Life in this gilded cage brought her additional loneliness, which she tried to assuage through marriages: she had a great capacity and need for love. In both her personal and professional lives, she yearned for partnerships—but Stalin and his successors were always trying to thwart them. Her first marriage at eighteen to a Jewish friend of her brother’s did not win the blessing of the anti-Semitic Stalin, whose reactionary sexual politics led him to see Alliluyeva as “damaged goods” in any case. The marriage of these two young people lasted three years and brought them a son. Two more Soviet husbands (and one daughter) followed, with each union a year shorter than the previous one. There were numerous romances, all with top literary intellectuals, who appreciated Alliluyeva’s depth of thinking. When at last Alliluyeva—free of her father, who died in 1953—found the man she considered her “soulmate,” Brajesh Singh, he was already dying. The aftermath of Singh’s death set the scene for her hasty decision to defect. She did not even have time to consider how leaving would affect her son and daughter.
Alliluyeva’s life was almost evenly divided between the Soviet Union and the United States, and her life, work, and loves were equally turbulent in both countries. Her defection to the US was a huge media event, and the previously private Alliluyeva handled press conferences with aplomb. She published her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967), a memoir in epistolary form of her family in the USSR; it achieved great success and, as her American handlers had hoped, helped to ensure that she was not dependent on US government financial support. She made many friends, including with literary figures and senior American specialists on Soviet affairs, such as the US diplomat George Kennan. His warm correspondence with Alliluyeva reveals an unexpected side of the usually distant Kennan, who helped set her up in Princeton, where she lived for a few years, until the late 1968 break-up of her tempestuous relationship with the author Louis Fischer, her neighbor.
The break-up left her feeling humiliated and betrayed, and her behavior was extreme. One evening she drove to Fischer’s house while his editorial assistant/new inamorata was with him. Alliluyeva banged on the door and demanded that he return the letters she had sent him. After an hour with no response, she broke the glass panels framing the door. The police found her “bleeding and hysterical,” writes Sullivan. Enraged by the ensuing gossip swirling around her, Alliluyeva later drove her car into Fischer’s house. Sullivan does not merely recount such events; she comments on them with sympathy and sensitivity. She also stands back and asks difficult questions. Was Alliluyeva mentally unstable? Was she paranoid? Her angry letters later in life to those who had earlier helped her, such as Kennan, were vindictive, and the relationships did not fully recover. As for paranoia, no one who lived in Stalin’s time or even afterward could survive without a certain dose of fear and caution, and it could be difficult to turn off that sense of watchfulness, as many émigrés can attest. And the KGB still had Alliluyeva in its sights.
Once she settled into the US, people from all over the world began writing to her, which she appreciated. Not long before she left Princeton to tour America by car, she received a life-changing letter from Olgivanna Wright, the third wife and widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Olgivanna, a Montenegrin whose mother had once ridden to battle on horseback against the Turks, was now the head of Wright’s architectural movement, the Taliesin Fellowship, members of which spent summers in Arizona. Olgivanna—a self-styled mystic who had built up her own “cult of personality” (the term Nikita Khrushchev famously applied to Stalin)—insisted that Alliluyeva visit on her way to California. Olgivanna had lost a daughter, also named Svetlana, in an accident, and she believed that she and Stalin’s daughter were destined to meet. Alliluyeva took the bait, imagining that Olgivanna might resemble the late Nadya.
Alliluyeva found Taliesin strange, but she stayed on, and in three weeks she was married again, to Wesley Peters, Taliesin’s chief architect and the widower of the late Sveltlana. Olgivanna Wright had blamed Peters for her daughter’s death, and his guilt made him easy to manipulate. Furthermore, Wright believed the false rumors that Stalin had hidden gold in Switzerland for his daughter—and the foundation’s leaders intended to obtain that money for Taliesin, to maintain its opulent lifestyle. While the wedding she had engineered was taking place, her agents quietly maneuvered to get Alliluyeva’s financial resources for the Fellowship. In an unfortunate coincidence, not long after the marriage, Alliluyeva asked to have her own money transferred from a trust to her personally, so she could access it without having to go through lawyers and trustees, which she found demeaning—but which her advisers had felt (with good reason) was prudent. Stalin had taught his daughter to live frugally, so until then, she had barely touched the $1.5 million in her account. But once married, she believed that it was in her interest as a wife to pay off Peters’s debts; because of his out-of-control shopping sprees these had mounted to half a million dollars.
Alliluyeva then learned that the Foundation had contacted her lawyers and requested that her charitable trust make annual contributions of $30,000 to the Foundation. Infuriated, she denied the request, but the Foundation managed to find other ways of obtaining at least one payment of $30,000 (it charged Alliluyeva for apartment repairs that architectural apprentices had performed for free). Finally, Alliluyeva realized that Wright was using her for her money and fame. She moved out of Taliesin and into an apartment fifteen minutes away, leaving open the possibility that Peters might wean himself from Wright and move in with her—although she was also pushing for a divorce. Peters tried to delay it, primarily because he was still spending Alliluyeva’s money. Marathon efforts by Alliluyeva’s lawyers produced a divorce in 1972. The marriage had been doomed from the start. The two could not even agree on what they disagreed about. Alliluyeva asserted that she could not stand Taliesin because it was too communal, saying, “I believe in private property … that’s why I left Russia.” Yet Peters feared that “her mind had been conditioned by years of Communist training to the point she rejects the highly individualized life.”
Wright, in taking advantage of someone still learning her way around the American financial system, engineered probably the worst betrayal of Alliluyeva’s life. Sullivan describes Wright’s machinations in the passive voice, but it is obvious that she was behind the dealings, with Peters acquiescing. In the end, the money Alliluyeva spent to pay off Peters’s debts and those of his grown son was wasted on luxuries and the son’s failed farm. Alliluyeva would spend the rest of her life trying to keep herself and Olga, her daughter with Peters, afloat—whether back East, in England, or in the USSR. Olga became the great love of her life.
Both the Soviets and the Americans sometimes alleged that Alliluyeva was a “princess.” In the USSR she had always had food and shelter, which was not a given for millions during the Stalin years. She had attended an elite school. Later, she had access to (relatively) safe abortion, when it was outlawed for other women. For a short time, she even had possession of her passport, which was how she managed to leave the USSR legally. But unlike her brother Vasily, who expected to be treated like a crown prince, Alliluyeva rarely pulled rank, and then usually for a just cause. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty, and preferred to do her own work, even when that included scrubbing floors.
Stalin’s Daughter ends beautifully: I was sobbing in the library. It rarely hits a false note. There are few errors and little in the Soviet section that I would dispute, while I learned a lot in the American part. I strongly urge readers to choose the full version of the book (rather than the abridged paperback). Alliluyeva would have liked it—except perhaps for the title.
Lesley Rimmel teaches Russian and Eurasian History at Oklahoma State University, where she is also a core faculty member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program. Her research interests focus on political and social violence in the Soviet Union.
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
By Katherine Zoepf
New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 258 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lila Abu-Lughod
Katherine Zoepf introduces Excellent Daughters by telling us that as an aspiring young reporter, she had to overcome her fear that “women’s issues were somehow unserious.” And like many of us who have lived in the Arab world, she found herself cringing at the views “back home.” Deploring the gap between “reputation and reality” Zoepf sets out to show that Arab women’s lives give lie to the simplistic narratives of victimhood that circulate in American media and minds.
Zoepf is thoughtful, modest, and open. Her writing is uncluttered. She has a good eye for social trends and a sensitive ear, and she tells vivid, believable stories about the young women she met in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. She shows not a trace of the self-promotion, polemic, or prejudice that colors so much popular writing on this subject. Even the way she defines her subject sets her apart. Zoepf is concrete and specific. This is partly a function of her book’s origin—in stories she filed as a reporter from particular places at particular times between 2006 and 2011. But it is refreshing, given how many other popular writers pronounce on the generic figure of the American imagination that miriam cooke, professor of Arabic literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University, has called the “Muslimwoman.”
Wanting to know more after 9/11, Zoepf went to London to study. Then she headed off to the region to study Arabic. She didn’t go to Cairo or Beirut, where she might have been tempted to surround herself with other Americans. She went to the great historic Arab city of Damascus which, in 2004, was on the cusp of gentrification. A sense of calm prevailed, maintained, as Zoepf points out, by the (not so) secret police. Dissidence was kept in check, but it was there for a curious stringer to search out, whether in women’s Quranic study groups or nongovernmental human rights organizations. It is hard now to think back to that other moment, that other Syria.
Zoepf is at her best in the later chapters, like the 2010 story about the debates about women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. She captures the density of the political terrain through the variety of opinions she encountered. She talks to women whose supportive husbands had taught them to drive. She talks to activists who insist that fighting for civil rights is more important than driving. She explains women’s enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey, who assures women that they can overcome their circumstances and create lives of value. And she interviews many women who oppose radical change, ending the chapter with a campaign run by an activist in stiletto-heel sandals whose friend explains, “The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love.” She tells us this book is about the “remarkable women” who are transforming the Arab world. This is a hopeful message-in-a-bottle tossed onto the sea of gloom about Middle Eastern women as victims, in which most American journalism is swimming. Yet the message is mixed.
US policies have been devastating for people living in the Arab world. Zoepf mentions that she reported from Baghdad. Unfortunately she does not include any of those articles in this book. The consequences of US intervention in Iraq—from sanctions to “shock and awe,” regime change, and the legislation of sectarianism—continue to unfold from Palmyra to Paris like some slow motion nightmare. Nothing about young Arab women’s hopes or despair can be understood outside this context, about which Zoepf is silent.
Her book opens instead at a garden party in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007. A group of young women, former high school classmates, giggle and pass around cellphone photos while eating marshmallows roasted by Filipina servants. They are excited about the first of their cohort to get engaged. Zoepf mentions in passing that some of them are studying law. Later in the book, she will tell us that across the Arab world (just as in the US) more women than men are pursuing higher education. She concludes the chapter with a moment of self-doubt.
When, in 2014, I heard the news that a Saudi woman had opened a law firm for the first time, I reread my notes from the evening in Reem’s garden and was disappointed at how many pages I’d devoted to Disney World honeymoons and how few I’d written about the first cohort of Saudi women students.
However, instead of going on to rectify the imbalance by telling us more about these students (as does Amélie le Renard, a French ethnographer and the author of A Society of Young Women (2014), about how Saudi Arabia’s women university students are reshaping social norms and formations), Zoepf simply says, “Sometimes, I reminded myself, this is what a vanguard looks like: ponytailed and giggling and eating marshmallows.”
Zoepf confesses that some of the young women she interviewed felt betrayed, even angry, when they read her stories. All of us who write about others struggle with how to represent them, especially when we translate across contexts and write for different publics. Should we brush aside their reactions? Or should we take them to heart and correct for what we may have inadvertently missed? Here is where the pressures of the market in the context of American journalism about the Middle East make themselves felt, despite Zoepf’s good intentions.
Zoepf’s publisher, Penguin, probably bet that this book would be as well received as her reporting, since the public has an apparently insatiable appetite for “glimpses behind the veil.” Where would the pressure come from to substantially rethink what she had written years earlier? Who would have asked her to ferret out the stubborn remnants of accepted wisdom that lurk in her account? If Zoepf had been challenged, she might have reconsidered the sexual undercurrent that runs through her stories. Feminists insist that respecting women means not reducing them to sex. But western portrayals of the Arab and Muslim world have long been infused with sexual fantasy, and unfortunately this lives on in western media. Virgins make their first appearance on page four of Excellent Daughters. From then on, we can’t escape sex. Zoepf uses as a chapter title the sexist remark of an old Lebanese professor who told her that young Beiruti women are “the most promiscuous virgins in the world.” How would he know? Why make lingerie sales the fulcrum of a story about women’s employment in Saudi Arabia? And why open a peephole into the marital chambers of the Prophet Muhammad?
Even Zoepf’s good coverage of the January 25, 2011, uprising in Egypt ends up turning on sex. The Egyptian women activists who protested in Tahrir Square were some of the first to analyze the political failings of a regime that was one of American’s best friends in the region. I would have liked to learn more about the substance of their critiques of a regime that had impoverished its citizens with the encouragement of US development experts and international financial institutions, stripping away social welfare policies and labor rights. Instead, the chapter’s focus is on the virginity examinations conducted by the military on some women demonstrators. Public outrage and women’s courageous protests against these despicable arrests and torture indeed altered the debates about women in Egypt. Still, this was only one moment in Egyptian women’s long and varied political struggles.
Had she been challenged, Zoepf also might have managed to resist writing about the hijab/niqab/abaya/chador/burqa. To her credit, she tries. More winningly than any writer I have come across, she domesticates these items of clothing by telling us how she felt wearing them: not a big deal. But expectations must be fed. She excuses her capitulation by explaining that veiling is a subject of discussion and debate among young Arab women themselves. However, the sentiments and the effects are radically different in the American context. A second lesson of feminism—that we should not define women by their clothing or looks—apparently does not have permission to travel East.
Zoepf’s sensible reporting also occasionally gets derailed by standard clichés and double standards. A US reporter covering, for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign would be laughed out of town if she presented a lesson about the life of Jesus to explain the sexism Clinton encounters. Yet Zoepf inserts a potted history of seventh-century Islam to explain the dilemmas faced by flight attendants on major Gulf airlines and the legal maneuverings of a fractious criminal family in Syria. She drags out the “clash of modernity and tradition” to explain what she saw in the prisons, malls, and protests of the Arab world.
New York Times columnists have gone far with this rubbish, but Zoepf should know better. In the twenty-first century, no traditional society anywhere is suddenly encountering modernity. People’s material lives in the Arab world have been as deeply marked by the major global transformations of the last couple of centuries as have Americans’. Yet in US journalism and politics, Arabs—especially women—are represented as imprisoned in a world of tradition—thus justifying interventions to bring them into modernity, by force if necessary.
We need journalists. I admire them for saying so much in so few words, and I don’t envy them the pressures they live with to write to short deadlines. But their practice of setting up a separation wall against the world of scholarship is unfortunate. Zoepf’s apparent loyalty to the standard operating procedures of her profession prevents her from considering the extraordinary feminist scholarship that exists now on the very topics she covers.
A bit more sheltered than journalists from the imperatives of the market, scholars enjoy more of the “right to tell people what they do not want to hear” that George Orwell defended in the preface he wrote to Animal Farm (1945). As I read Excellent Daughters, I kept thinking how interested Zoepf would have been in the books that I read and teach about women in the Arab world. Not everyone need be fluent in Arabic. Not everyone has the temperament or resources to spend years researching a subject. But we can all learn from those who do.
With these academic studies to hand, Zoepf might have been better able to resist the demands of American political interests and publics. For example, Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (2013) reveals surprising facts about “underground sisterhood” of the Qubaysiyat—an organization of pious Muslim women—that Zoepf was frustrated not to be able to penetrate. Grewal spent a year in Damascus just before Zoepf arrived. For her research on transnational Muslim education, she met American women converts who were pursuing their religious studies with the Qubaysiyat. The shadowy sisterhood suddenly appears less foreign, less inaccessible.
What might Zoepf have written about young Lebanese women had she read Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (2006)? Deeb writes about Shi’a women who live in Dahiya—a very different neighborhood of the divided city of Beirut from the area of nightclubs and the American University campus that Zoepf visited. Deeb explores the lives of religiously committed women who are challenging gender expectations through charity work, religious study and debate, and public piety.
An Enchanted Modern was published a year before Zoepf filed her story from Beirut, just as Israeli warplanes terrorized the Hizballah neighborhood in which these women live, turning it into a mess of bodies, rubble, and tangled rebar. Her second ethnographic study would have been even more relevant. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut (2013), co-written with Mona Harb, an urbanist, is about how the “excellent daughters” of the Shi’a community are negotiating moral norms now that their neighborhood has risen from the ashes to become a vibrant leisure destination, bursting with cafés and restaurants that cater to the young, fashionable—and pious.
We need scholars most when we find women transforming their world in ways that challenge American expectations or interests. Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (2015) came out too late for Zoepf to read. [WRB’s review of Soft Force is forthcoming in 2017.] Its author, Ellen McLarney, like Zoepf, grew up in a religious family in the Midwest, but took a different path. Her meticulous translations from Arabic and respectful analysis of an influential body of Arab women’s writing is enlightening. She enables us to understand the ways some Arab women are trying to think through the social and spiritual responsibilities of being Muslim. Philosophical, intellectual, and political discussion about the proper relationships between Islam and democracy, citizenship and virtue, or motherhood and leadership, is as much a part of the “secret lives” of young women in the Arab world as roasting marshmallows and dreaming of Disney World.
Why should journalists deny themselves access to this scholarship? Journalists and scholars need each other, especially if we hope, as Zoepf rightly does, to persuade people that ordinary women everywhere are transforming their worlds.
To see Lila Abu-Lughod’s list of “Ten Great Academic Books to Read on Women in the Arab World,” see www.wcwonline.org/women=books.
Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University where she teaches anthropology and women’s studies. Her most recent book is Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013), and the thirtieth anniversary edition of her first ethnography, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, with a new afterword, was just published in September 2016.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith
Edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, with Barbara Smith
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, 324 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reads with the definite tone and portraiture of a documentary film. Subtitled, Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, the book constitutes a significant historical document as well as an intertextual biography of Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and collective builder; a one-time elected official in Albany, New York; and a contributor to progressive and feminist causes as a scholar, publisher, and author. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around collects primary documents—including interviews, campaign posters, photographs, reproductions of broadsides, and impressively contextualized statements from some of the collectives and groups Smith either participated in or founded. Smith, well-known among feminists and lesbians and writers of the 1970s and beyond, has a definite place in history and herstory. This documentary text proves her agency, her initiative, and her mettle.
Smith’s is not a household name, but her work fits alongside womanist activists such as Alice Walker, feminist organizers such as Gloria Steinem, and radical lesbian theorists such as Cherríe Moraga. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reveals and re-establishes Smith in her rightful place, at the vanguard of the progressive, feminist, and black feminist movements. Like any original, and like many activists, Smith worked with energy and a keen sense of innovation. The book chronicles black feminism and lesbian activism almost from their recorded beginnings. Depending on the organization and the task at hand, Smith changed hats: she could be an architect, a general contractor or, in the trenches, a construction worker. As an organizer, a pioneer, and a collective member, an agitator and dreamer, Smith was important because she was willing to wear a hard hat, in revolutionary times.
Smith’s activist story begins in the 1970s, an era characterized by civil rights struggles that continued from the 1960s, and legislative advances that were hard-fought and not completely successful. In historic civil rights negotiations, black women often played supporting roles. As feminism was being formulated and advanced, black women’s issues were, in the main, excluded. Smith involved herself strategically, founding organizations and participating in actions designed to increase black women’s visibility and the viability of black women’s causes.
Probably her most well-known work was with the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group active between 1974 and 1980, whose statement of principles is still widely read and taught in women’s studies courses as a foundational feminist document. The statement was written in 1977 and first published in Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, in 1979. It broke a trend of erasure and silence.
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” it explained, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. When people like black women (and men) face multiple oppressions, their struggles combine geometrically, not arithmetically. Multidimensionality creates struggles that are vaster and more complicated than a simple sum of their parts.
Reflecting on the founding of the Combahee River Collective, Smith writes, We were very clear that we were building something really, really important. The Combahee River Collective was originally a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, so we knew we were part of something bigger than just what we were doing in Boston. We were networked with Black feminists in different parts of the country: up and down the East Coast, and also in Chicago and California. Wherever we could find each other by phone or by letter. … I always knew we were changing history with the work that we were involved in. Most of us had been involved in other Leftist movements, so we had a sense of historical meaning and how organizing develops and moves forward. We knew we were not operating in a vacuum.
She goes on to explain that
Understanding your own identity and making connections with others who don’t share that identity is part and parcel of the same work. We were much more able as Black women and Black lesbian feminists to connect to others because identity politics gave us that confidence, it gave us that grounding … . We were less easy to intimidate, and because we an an analysis, we understood how the isms and the oppressions connected to each other.
The Combahee River Collective promoted a mode of analysis that we would now call “intersectionality.” The statement also helped to popularize the notion of “identity politics.” Smith explains that together, these ways of thinking
assert that it is legitimate to look at the elements of a combined identity that included affiliation or connection to several marginalized groups in this society. There is meaning in being not solely a person of color, not solely Black, not solely female, not solely lesbian, not solely working class or poor. There is a new constellation of meanings when those identities were combined… Black politics at that time, as defined by males, did not completely or sufficiently address the actual circumstances of real, live Black women.
In 1977, when the statement was formulated, identity politics was new. It provided a platform for women of color to become part of the political dialogue. The statement astutely identifies the suspicion with which people viewed identity politics. In the 1970s, black women, long relegated to subservience and subjected to notions of inferiority, presented themselves more assertively and more collectively as whole human beings, defined by common characteristics and unquiet humanity. Barbara Smith was a voice in the cadre of black women who stood up and spoke up and eschewed subservient silence. The Combahee statement noted that feminism must create space for both white and black women to articulate their needs and advocate for their rights. That black women would demand to be seen, considered, named—this was revolutionary, even though from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the general confusion around this notion seems mildly, if not wholly, ridiculous. The statement explained the collective’s process:
We empowered ourselves by looking at our situation, making observations about it, drawing conclusions, and saying, We’re here, we deserve to be here, and understand that when we talk, we’re talking from all these different experiences.
In the winter of 1979, the active and energized Combahee Collective turned its attention to the murders of several young black women in Boston. Smith reports that the initial six murders—ultimately the total rose to thirteen—were reported in the back of the Boston Globe, along with the racing results. Smith reports that she was “steaming” with outrage that the murders happened, that the women’s bodies were found in garbage bags near a shoe factory, that the press did not handle the murders as urgent or significant. The question, Smith writes, was “bandied about”: Who is killing us? At first, Smith aptly and insightfully reports, the question was handled as if it was rhetorical. Then, the Combahee Collective joined with CRISIS, an organization led by Marlene Stephens, an activist from Boston’s South End neighborhood, to organize around the unsolved murders. Smith identifies the work the two organizations did together to publicize and demand a solution to the Boston murders as an active expression of solidarity, built through practice.
Smith presents a sad coda to the organizing—although it does, in a way, testify to the power of feminist activism. She points out that the coalition’s campaign against the murders is not generally remembered, and that “[t]he reason I think the analysis and the response diminishes or disappears is because we don’t have these organizations, these little cells of radical women of color, to keep that stirred up and to keep that consciousness uppermost and going.”
In 1980, Smith and other black feminist activists founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, whose mission, unique at the time, was to publish and preserve stories by women of color. It was, Smith wrote in her essay “A Press of Our Own” (in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies ), “to be both an activist and a literary publisher.” Probably the press’s most significant titles were This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (second edition, 1983); and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith (1983). The press published poetry and short stories by women of color such as Cheryl Clarke, Mitsuye Yamada, and Gloria T. Hull, as well as the Freedom Organizing Pamphlet series, which included works such as Barbara Omolade’s The Real Lives of Black Single Mothers (1985). Through Kitchen Table, Smith and her colleagues promoted discussion of the issues facing black women, across the spectrum of marital status, standing as a mother, and sexual preference.
In 1982, Smith, together with co-editors Patricia Bell Scott and Gloria (Akasha) T. Hull, published the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. With its eye-popping green cover, it enlivened and invigorated black women’s studies in a way that cannot be overstated, as it helped to “create, validate and institutionalize black women’s studies,” writes Smith. The book practically shook the shelves of women’s bookstores—institutions that were beacons and havens in those days.
Smith’s work on intersecting oppressions has inspired and influenced new generations of activists. One such organization, the Black Feminist Working Group, created a twelve-point plan based on the examples of the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panther Party. Smith explains that the Crunk Feminist Collective—founded in 2010, as “a women-and-men-of-color scholar activist group,” according to Crunk’s Facebook page—is “in the historical continuum” of the kind of feminist work she has devoted much of her energy to. Crunk’s mission says that it aims to “create a space of support and camaraderie for the Hip Hop generation.” According to Smith, the women in Crunk are individually involved in political work, but unlike Combahee, the Crunk collective as a whole is not politically involved. Nonetheless, the Crunk Feminist Collective’s “Letter to Patriarchy” is well-known and influential among women’s studies scholars.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is full of primary documents, with minimal interpretative language and maximum historical presentation of fact: it’s an amazing web of Smith’s connections and involvements and alliances and innovations and essays and speeches and activist outcomes. This is why the documentary format suits. The moments need capturing, with the same kind of functionality as photographs. The interviews here function something like still images: they reveal voices and contributors to the work, much as portraits recall the people who stood in the trenches, who fought the good fight. Smith’s commentary in interviews and notes on the primary sources provides insight into her progressive and activist work, developed during a time when feminism was evolving, when progressive causes were sprouting and becoming critical and urgent, and when the contributions of black women were definitely needed to augment the feminist argument. Jones and Eubanks’s editorial transitions bridge two eras: a past that was devoid of black women’s concerns, and a future that—thanks in part to Smith’s energy, intellect, and commitment—contains both woman-centered ideas and strategies for black women’s involvement in emergent feminism.
Smith performed her work in good company. Many feminists and scholars were involved in the groups she founded and in which she participated. One of the real benefits of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around is encountering the voices of so many black feminists. Cited throughout are Smith’s partners and co-activists, including editors Eubanks and Jones; scholars Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Alexis Pauline Gumbs; and progressive activists Elsa Brown, Deborah King, Barbara Ransby, Vera Michelson, and Jooh-Hyan Kang. The book’s inclusive format expresses Smith’s collectivist and inclusive politics and approach to organizing.
Activism requires work and insight and effort, and plain dogged persistence. It requires timing, acumen, and charisma. An effective activist must possess the communication skill and drive to see the need for change and to advocate for transformation, revolution, adjustment, forward motion. She must have the charm and the wherewithal to convince others to join the effort. She can’t quit. Activists who make widely observable change are rare—but Smith is one of them. She has worked consistently over decades to acknowledge the struggles of black women and to establish a black feminist critique, insisting that progressive and feminist conversations include black women’s realities and that black power is not only about black men. As an elected official in Albany, New York, Smith worked in multiple communities, beyond those of identity.
The offerings in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around will attract eye-witnesses: women who were directly or tangentially involved in the organizing the book documents and who want to see how history has registered their activities. The documentary form will also engage students, the studied, and the curious—those who want to learn how a historical transition evolved. And the book contextualizes, explicates, and answers basic, urgent questions: who did what, when, and why? How were ideas developed, how did they become interconnected, and how did black feminists like Smith make change happen? Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around ensures that Smith will be rightfully embedded in the history of the causes she worked for so diligently and unceasingly. The work continues, a reality to which the building and release of this book attests.
A.J. Verdelle writes novels, essays, and reviews books. She teaches creative writing to undergraduates at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema
By Laura Horak
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016, 311 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
Clothing offers a visible and sometimes even measurable marker of gender and sexuality. That makes it ripe for study within the visual medium of film. The film scholar Laura Horak makes an impressive debut with Girls Will Be Boys by looking at how clothes relate to gender roles during cinema’s formative years, from 1908 to 1934. That’s before commercialization, consolidation, and the star system cemented Hollywood as one of the United States’ most potent cultural exports. It’s also before those influences narrowed Hollywood’s depictions of what supposedly makes a girl a girl, a woman a lesbian, and so forth.
Horak wants readers to know that gender rigidity, and the negativity associated with lesbians in particular, hasn’t always been cinema’s norm. The forgetting of film history is one of the book’s top concerns, and it’s a legitimate one. Cross-dressed images of the international stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn (who are discussed at length in chapter five) could jar even an educated cinemagoer into thinking, “Wow, she dressed as a man and kept getting roles?” Yet their films are in circulation and frequently studied. Girls Will Be Boys offers an explanation.
Horak’s research singlehandedly increases the record of silent-era films known to include crossed-dressed women from 37 to more than 400. Sadly, only some 200 of the films still exist. Horak tracked them down and provides scene analyses that in some cases measure down to the second. Throughout the book she effectively deploys this research, using quotes from film reviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, film ephemera, and more to illuminate and bolster her case. Moreover she includes a list of films and their archival locations in the book’s appendix.
Horak’s two-part book opens with an explanation of why females were so frequently cast as male characters in early American cinema. It wasn’t to pander for laughs or incur moral scorn. Rather, during the boom era for “female boy performers,” from 1908 to 1921 (a majority of the 476 total films Horak considers are of young women in boy roles), it was thought that only a girl actor could embody the ideal of boyhood on screen. “Female boys were considered more expressive, more beautiful, more innocent, and more vulnerable than boys played by male actors,” Horak explains. She ties this to a shifting appraisal of youth in general: “In contrast to Puritan and Enlightenment conceptions of the child as fallen or flawed, the Romantic child was innocent, spiritual, and wise. The child’s beauty attested to its goodness.”
Moral heft was exactly what the burgeoning form of cinema sought in its early years. That’s why casting girls in boys’ roles was a common practice among film companies like Vitagraph, Biograph, and Thanhouser, among others. The intent and result, according to Horak, was to improve cinema’s reputation and brand film companies as respectable. After all, they were borrowing the cultural cachet from the theater, where cross-dressing goes back centuries. (While Horak provides scant discussion of cross-dressed male performers, she maintains that those roles were limited to comedy. She observes, “While men’s clothing could make women more attractive to both men and women on-screen, women’s clothing most often made men undesirable to everyone.”)
So it was that the adolescent Marie Eline, who strikes an androgynous pose in tuxedo and top hat on the book’s cover, became the star of Thanhouser Company by playing both girl and boy roles. An exemplar of the era, Eline played boys “in at least thirty-seven films between 1910 and 1914, when she was between the ages of eight and twelve,” writes Horak. What’s more, Eline was dubbed the Thanhouser Kid and dressed in both boy and girl garb in publicity photos. In a similar case, Edna “Billy” Foster played boys in fourteen D.W. Griffith films and was marketed predominantly as a boy. She and Eline set the scene for Horak’s deeper plunge into the complicated ways in which female boys predominated in the films of the 1910s and how studios and critics accepted and even embraced cross-gender casting.
(As a comparison, it’s hard to imagine the gender-neutral billing of a contemporary child actor, especially when The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (1989 – 1994) delivered Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera; and Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus got their starts in cultural machines like the Disney Channel. One could argue that in adulthood these celebrities are gendered—and heterosexualized—to the point of parody.)
Horak maintains a respectably studious tone, so she does not dramatically leap from the Thanhouser Kids to the Mickey Mouse Club, but she does situate herself within contemporary scholarship. For example, in chapter two, when she shifts into a discussion of the frontier “gender disguise” roles of cross-dressed cowboy girls, girl spies, and plots involving female ranch takeovers, she points to other scholars who, she says, have oversimplified these roles as “embodiments of the ‘New Woman.’” (I will oversimplify an explanation of the New Woman by defining it as a turn-of-the-century embodiment of feminism. New Women typically had political intentions.)
Horak wants readers to see that female bodies were, and thus are, significant in both the evolution of American cinema as it moved from East to West Coast, and to the formation of American masculinity. At times, these bodies were apolitical. A female driving a team of horses was as much of a spectacle to early cinemagoers as Alaskan glaciers or the Rocky Mountains. When a female evades a band of male pursuers, as they commonly do in cross-dressed chase sequences, her female status (evident to the audience despite the male disguise) ups the anxiety of those watching, and thus the narrative tension.
Horak notes that most such chases were initiated by the cross-dressed character herself, and the films “stressed the dynamism of the chase” rather than the male characters’ failures or the resolution of homoerotic attraction through heterosexual coupling (after the woman reveals her true gender). What’s more, Horak did not find a single cross-dressed chase sequence in which a girl gets caught. In other words, cross-dressed women were not punished or deemed pathological. Instead, most of these films “legitimized female masculinity as a necessary expedient.” The producers of frontier films hoped to draw in audiences already accustomed to cross-dressed characters “from the periodical press, dime novels, memoirs, elaborate stage shows, and Wild West performances.” Cross-dressed women crossed in and out of many forms of American entertainment.
Horak focuses the remaining three of her five chapters on the “detection of sexual deviance” and the “emergence of lesbian legibility.” The disapproving cultural turn is likely more familiar, and aggravating, to feminist and lesbian readers than the discovery and celebration of cross-dressed females in Horak’s earlier chapters. Yet she comes up here too with an abundance of original scholarship. Her fascinating examination of A Florida Enchantment, about women who swallow seeds that change their sex, turns the clock back the 1890s, when it came out as a novel (1892) and then a play (1896), the latter to a mixed critical reception. Elitist critics pointed out the play’s sexual pathology by using coded references, whereas populist critics “resisted these interpretations and insisted that even the most literal representation of gender inversion was innocent of immorality.” This marks a turning point, writes Horak: whether you perceived deviance depended upon where you stood in a hierarchy of cultural sophistication.
That may sound baffling to modern ears. Isn’t educated open-mindedness part of being sophisticated? Not to the critics of that time, Horak explains, with a synopsis of how the word “sophisticated” entered the popular lexicon. Theater critics were keen to moralize, and in the case of film critics, hungry—like the form itself—to establish themselves as legitimate. These cultural shifts are subtle and complicated, especially given that critics embraced the 1914 film of A Florida Enchantment as a wholesome comedy. It is to Horak’s credit that she hones in on such an ideal case study, presenting macro- and micro-level analyses that span high and popular culture and resist a modern-day lens.
With the visibility of sexual deviance in A Florida Enchantment questionable, Horak points out that “lesbian filmgoers could see some version of themselves on screen precisely because no one else recognized them there.” That changed in the mid 1920s, around the time when American women embraced the unequivocally masculine garb of trousers. Similar to her resistance to equating all cross-dressed females with New Women, as she had in chapter two, Horak resists equating all masculine (or trouser-wearing) women of 1920s films with protolesbians, as other scholars have. “I recognize them as belonging to a wide-ranging genealogy of gender nonconforming people,” she writes. And in keeping with her multidepartmental credibility (her book is applicable to Film and Media Studies, LGBTQ Studies, Gender Studies, and American Studies), she looks across multiple media and fields to track lesbianism’s entry into popular culture.
To accomplish this, Horak reminds readers that the presence of cross-dressed women in American movies falls into two waves: 1908 – 1921, averaging 26 films per year; and 1922 – 1928, averaging ten films per year and almost universally featuring slim, young flappers. Film critics, even those of the time, apparently forgot about the first wave and treated trouser-wearing female characters as if they were brand new, despite the more than 300 qualifying films made before 1923. Horak suggests this might have been a marketing strategy, to capitalize on a supposedly exotic trend, but it may also be attributed to the burgeoning field of film criticism. Those writing in the 1920s may not have had knowledge of prior films, because before then it was uncommon for newspapers to have film critics on staff.
Nevertheless, on its second go, cross-dressing was more likely to be questioned, due to the public’s increased association of it with lesbianism. Horak spends more than two-dozen pages discussing the play The Captive (1926) and the novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Awareness of their same-sex storylines, she argues, galvanized film critics into writing, for the first time, that “an actress’s masculine clothing could have ‘pathological suggestions.’” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America added sex perversion to the long list of movie subjects to avoid, and by 1933 Warner Brothers had banned women from wearing men’s clothing in its pictures.
All was not lost. Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn are just three examples of women who successfully wore mannish styles on and off-screen. And pants have prevailed in women’s daily attire. As it was, and is, in Hollywood, contentious symbols are opportunities. Horak closes with the observation that on the one hand a journalist
could use the phrase “ladies who prefer pants to petticoats” to mean lesbians. One the other, fan magazines could endorse trousers as a charming fashion statement available to all women.
The leeway women have in front of or behind the camera today feels similarly limited and likewise on the cusp. What seems certain, at least to me, is that Laura Horak is exactly the kind of scholar that feminists and queer advocates want in the academy. She brings rigor, curiosity, and originality into fields that can only benefit from her close observations, analyses, and research.
Erin Trahan writes regularly about movies for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station, and teaches film journalism at Emerson College.
A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations
By Juliet Nicolson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 326 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein
A middle-aged student of mine once shared with me the most memorable event of her family life: the moment when, as she described it, “I watched my grandmother hold my newborn granddaughter.” I recalled that vivid image as I began to read Juliet Nicolson’s deeply engaging history of seven generations of Sackville-West/Nicolson women (and several men). Nicolson, the oldest daughter in the fifth generation of an aristocratic British family, traces her maternal legacy from her grandmother’s grandmother, Pepita, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1830, to her own first granddaughter, born in 2013. She effectively taps her skills as a historian to extrapolate from documents, photos, and artifacts—some recently discovered in the family attic—in addition to biographical accounts written by others. She describes key events through the decades, traces changing social mores, reveals several family secrets, and assesses the effects of the virtues and flaws that shaped each mother’s legacy to her daughter.
The Spanish gypsy Catalina—the unmarried mother of Pepita, the illustrious “Star of Andalusia”—would now be termed a smothering mother: a parent so possessive of her only daughter that Pepita ultimately was compelled to sever their bond to save herself. When, at the age of nineteen, Pepita married her dancing teacher, her meddlesome mother hovered over her life to the point of wrecking her marriage. Their troubled relationship marks the trailhead, as it were, for complicated emotional pathways navigated by successive mothers and daughters. Patterns of ambition and failure, possessiveness and aloofness, estrangement and reconciliation repeat from one generation to the next.
When Pepita was 25 and already a star dancer in European capitals, she fell in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a young attaché to the British legation in Germany, who was equally smitten. They could not marry because Pepita was still legally married to her estranged husband, and Spanish law then (and until 1932) prohibited divorce. With Lionel, Pepita bore five children. Since his diplomatic assignments made him an occasional visitor rather than a live-in spouse and father, she was derided as a woman of “ill repute.” The children were socially ostracized. Eventually, Lionel, despite his devotion to Pepita and their children, drifted away, fearing that scandal might stain his diplomatic career.
Admirers of Virginia Woolf’s fiction will recognize Pepita as the Spanish dancer whom Orlando marries in Orlando (1928), Woolf’s unique “love-letter” to Vita Sackville-West. The actual Pepita died in childbirth at the age of 41, when her eldest daughter Victoria was only eight years old. The children were cared for in Paris by Pepita’s friends until, belatedly, their father conveyed them to England. Only then did they learn of their illegitimacy. When Lionel became British minister to the US legation in Washington, DC, he brought Victoria—nineteen years old and strikingly beautiful, with hip-length hair like her mother’s—to be his social hostess. During seven years in Washington, Victoria met such luminaries as Henry James and Henry Adams, and inspired numerous suitors. While attending a White House reception soon after she arrived, she received a marriage proposal from the widowed president, Chester Arthur, and was so flabbergasted that she burst out laughing.
Juliet Nicolson’s intent is not only to retrace her maternal heritage, fascinating though it is, but also to ponder its influences on her own life. As she observes, her foremothers made necessary compromises; legal powerlessness, gendered moral and social codes, and emotional dependencies decisively shaped destinies. Pepita and her daughter Victoria
made patriarchal bargains, agreements that were to remain fundamental to the practical and emotional structures of their lives. For most of my life I regarded this arrangement with suspicion. It is only recently that I have begun to realize that it is not perhaps an arrangement from which other women, myself included, are immune.
Along with maternal-filial and romantic relationships, A House Full of Daughters highlights a bond that might be termed house-love: for Victoria and her daughter Vita, attachment to the ancestral country mansion, Knole; for Vita and her granddaughter Juliet, Sissinghurst. As Juliet phrases it, “the next suitor to claim Victoria was not a person but a place.” When Lionel Sackville-West’s only brother died without heirs, Lionel became the sole inheritor of Knole, one of the grandest historical houses in England. Situated in a 1000-acre park in Kent, the pedigreed house dates back to the fifteenth century and possesses unique calendric features, including “365 rooms, fifty-two staircases, [and] seven courtyards.” Not long after Victoria fell in house-love with Knole, she became enamored of her first cousin, Lionel Sackville-West, who shared her father’s name. She was decades ahead of the Victorian era in which she lived: once Lionel the younger freed her from “long-held inhibitions,” writes Juliet, the newlyweds discovered “a mutual exhilaration for uninterrupted sex.”
Victoria gave her first child her own name, though from birth her daughter was known as Vita. She is the best-known of the Sackville-West women whose lives Juliet retraces. Perhaps because more has been written about her, Vita is the subject of only one of the book’s twelve chapters, while two focus on each of the other women in the author’s maternal history. Nonetheless, Vita stands out. From an early age, her relationship with her mother, Victoria, was, like Pepita’s relationship with her mother, fractious. Both daughters asserted their independence in ways that threatened their mothers.
The young Vita was also torn by guilt that she was not born male, a fact that carried not only emotional but also legal consequences. When her father, Lionel the younger, died, Knole passed to Vita’s uncle rather than to her, because the British laws of primogeniture precluded women from inheriting property. The loss of the ancestral home broke Vita’s heart. In an unpublished diary comment, she expressed her attachment to Knole as one so profound that it “transcended her love for any human being.”
Vita was courted by Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, even though at the time she was secretly conducting a passionate affair with a woman who would later serve as her bridesmaid. Juliet devotes few words to Vita’s most celebrated liaison—her brief but intense relationship with Virginia Woolf—which she places in the context of Vita’s frequent love affairs with perhaps as many as fifty women while she was married to Harold. As has been well documented by Vita’s younger son, Nigel Nicolson, in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), for more than forty years Vita and Harold maintained an unconventional relationship that encompassed tolerance of each other’s same-sex liaisons. Vita also discovered her house-love for Sissinghurst, initially a crumbling Elizabethan manor, which she and Harold lovingly restored. Thanks to Vita’s horticultural skills, writes Juliet, the garden at Sissinghurst Castle became “one of the most famous, most visited, most copied and most loved gardens in the world.”
Vita and Harold had two sons but no daughters. Thus, the story of Juliet’s foremothers diverts from the Sackville-Wests to her mother’s line, and she introduces the attractive but shallow Philippa d’Eyncourt, the daughter of high-bred snobs. Nigel calculatingly married Philippa to advance his diplomatic career. After his death, years later, Juliet discovered in his diary his admission that “I never loved her.” From the inauspicious start, both mismatched partners regarded sex as “disgusting,” though they produced three children. Juliet, their first child—revealingly, her name was inspired by the name of the couple’s adored dog, Romeo—describes her mother as self-preoccupied, remote, and neglectful. Juliet and her siblings grew up in an “emotionally broken” home, she says, where the housekeepers were more affectionate than the parents. When Juliet and her younger brother were only seven and four, they took the school bus daily with no adult supervision apart from the driver; when they returned, their mother was “seldom at home to greet us,” she writes. Disaffected from her mother, Juliet was deeply attached to her father, and through him came to love Sissinghurst as much as Victoria and Vita had loved Knole.
A recurring family pattern of self-medication is also part of Juliet’s heritage: several of her female predecessors—including both Vita, prompted in part by Harold’s frequent work-related absences, and Philippa, trapped in a loveless marriage—sought solace in alcohol. Philippa, who died of liver damage at the age of 58, was also addicted to antidepressants. These facts are important in Juliet’s own story, for she, too, turned to alcohol while unsuccessfully juggling the competing demands of marriage, children, and her husband’s and her careers in the United States. By the time she had given birth to two daughters, acknowledged the failure of her marriage, and returned to England, she had already developed severe liver damage. At the time, she felt as if she were “genetically woven into repetitive surrender and did not know if [she] had the courage or the strength to snap the thread and interrupt the pattern.” Through the intervention of her siblings, she sought treatment and ultimately overcame her addiction. Pondering whether to share details of her private struggle, she chose to follow the model of her father, Nigel, who had addressed in his book the difficult subject of his bisexual parents’ partnership.
The final chapters of A House Full of Daughters turn away from personal struggle to a more positive denouement: Juliet, pondering her ambitious but emotionally flawed female predecessors, forgives both them and herself. Having found great joy as a mother and grandmother, she anticipates that her first grandchild—Imogen, whose name means “beloved daughter” in old Irish—is part of a generation that is “not afraid to learn from the mistakes of the past and is determined not to repeat them. . . possibly the entire point of this book.”
Honest and absorbing, A House Full of Daughters deserves a wide readership, not only for Nicolson’s compulsively readable exploration of her maternal legacy but also for her clear-eyed focus on the emotional and psychological patterns that reappear in women’s lives—not only in the author’s unique family—with significant consequences across generations.
Roberta Rubenstein, professor of Literature at American University, is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (2009) and Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef (2014).