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).
Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies
Edited by Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, 250 pp., $28.95, paperback
The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde
by Gloria I. Joseph
New York: Villarosa Media, 2016, 352 pp., $20.00, paperback
Reviewed by Jan Clausen
“I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now,” writes Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2010), responding to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the subsequent killing of officers in Dallas. The comment recalls Audre Lorde’s work, with its relevance to our historical moment—for Lorde always knew that “something more” was required, and she galvanized her publics to rise to the occasion. A prophet within the “house of difference”—her name for the fraught but promising terrain of the marginalized and multicultural—she called out with terrifying clarity the endemic strain of white supremacist violence in American life.
In “Power” (in her 1978 collection The Black Unicorn), a poem about the fatal police shooting of a ten-year-old black boy, Clifford Glover, in 1973, she included both the words of the cop who said, “I didn’t notice the size or nothing else/only the color,” and the outline of “the destruction within me [emphasis added],” forecasting further acts of seemingly senseless mayhem. In a voice whose range spanned the oracular and the earthy, she warned of and mourned the cycles of devastation fueled by local injustices and globe-spanning imperial wrongs (Undersong: Chosen Poems ): “…you who hear tell the others/you are drowning in my children’s blood/ without metaphor.” Those cycles have only intensified since her death in 1992 at the age of 58.
When she turned her attention to Europe, in the late 1980s, Lorde nailed that continent’s failure to rethink its exclusionary self-definitions, in language that now reads like prescient commentary on an unfolding saga of traumatized displacement (a.k.a. the “refugee crisis”) and xenophobic backlash. She informed the audience at a 1988 Berlin writers’ conference,
I believe it is the hyphenated people of Europe who represent a last chance for Europe to learn how to deal with difference creatively, rather than pretending it does not exist, or destroying it....Our survival means learning to use difference for something other than destruction. So does yours.
These remarks, reprinted in Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, exemplify that volume’s significant insights into the activism of Lorde’s final years, fueled by the urgency of her core belief that her own struggles as a US-born woman of African and Caribbean descent resonated with and could dynamically inform the fates and futures of justice-seekers worldwide.
The cover of The Wind Is Spirit identifies the book as “a bio/anthology by Gloria I. Joseph.” Joseph, a noted scholar and activist, became Lorde’s life partner in the mid-1980s; the couple made their home in St. Croix, the birthplace of Joseph’s parents. Joseph’s introduction explains that the volume originated as the fulfillment of her promise to write the dying Lorde’s biography. A “call and response” structure intersperses an overview of major life events with brief reminiscences by many who knew Lorde. There are homey anecdotes from relatives, among them Lorde’s sister, Phyllis Blackwell, and assessments of her personal impact and public significance by sister poets, public intellectuals, and movement leaders such as Kate Rushin, Angela Y. Davis, and Assata Shakur. We hear from male friends in St. Croix with whom she pursued local projects (beekeeping, mounting a protest against the first Gulf War) and from a group of Afro-German women whose mutual support and activism she helped catalyze during a series of sojourns in Berlin.
Issued by the fledgling independent publisher Villarosa Media and illustrated with plentiful photographs (sadly, the reproductions are often of poor quality), The Wind Is Spirit is best approached as a charming, idiosyncratic personal album, to be sampled rather than read from cover to cover. Among my favorite pieces is Cherríe Moraga’s electrifying dual tribute to Lorde and Pat Parker, the poets who, along with Judy Grahn, she credits with giving “lesbianism a body: a queer body in the original, dangerous, unambivalent sense of the word.”
Another gem is “Meeting Audre Lorde,” by Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, a wry and beautifully balanced look back at being the teenaged daughter of a structure-loving mom whose poetry and fame felt ancillary to a household seemingly ruled by “Ozzie and Harriet. Or Harriet and Harriet.” A craggy-voiced, unsparing meditation on the ravages of “colonizer culture” by the poet Chrystos (Smith) includes this note of gratitude: “No part of Audre was afraid of me, which is an ocean of relief.” The book’s intimate glimpses into Lorde’s choices about health, pleasure, and activism in years marked by intensifying illness offer a poignant coda to The Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde’s pathbreaking self-portrait as a wounded but unyielding feminist opponent of cultural silencing and medical arrogance.
Taken as a whole, The Wind Is Spirit feels like a printed archive, sprawling and uneven. Contributions by such key figures as Barbara Smith (who provides an overview of Lorde’s role with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press) and Michelle Cliff (Joseph reproduces a found poem, using snippets from Lorde’s writing, that Cliff sent her following Lorde’s death) seem perfunctory, oddly chosen. There are careless lapses, such as the listing of a publication date of 1995 (instead of 1978) for Lorde’s pivotal poetry collection The Black Unicorn, and an unglossed comment that Lorde could be seen as a “forerunner” of the Black Arts Movement. (Although her early career unfolded in tandem with that movement, she related warily to its masculinist leadership.) Joseph’s effort to convey the entire arc of Lorde’s life leaves her in the awkward position of trying to present dispassionately such aspects of her late beloved’s experience as the latter’s relationships with other romantic partners. While the bio/anthology makes a useful companion volume to Alexis De Veaux’s illuminating, carefully researched 2004 biography Warrior Poet: A Life of Audre Lorde, it is no substitute. I grew impatient with Joseph’s rhetoric of uplift and her efforts to cement Lorde’s status as an icon: “[She] surely belongs alongside the great leaders, the humanitarians and the philosophers whose words of wisdom and deeds remain alive throughout the world.” All these years after Lorde’s death, I thought, isn’t it time for celebration and gauzy endorsements to give way to a sturdier edifice of interpretive frameworks?
Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck, editors of Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, suggest some reasons why that level of critical engagement often remains elusive. Citing the lack of “an existing comprehensive scholarly archive” of Lorde’s transnational interactions with diasporic communities, they announce their goal to produce an “alternative archive”—despite the problems presented by a necessary reliance on nontraditional sources such as oral histories. In an introduction that models the searching analytical work such an archive could make possible, they comment thoughtfully on some of Lorde’s specific theoretical contributions—for example, on the perils of constructing an undifferentiated “black” transnational subject.
The anthology itself offers an eclectic combination of reminiscence, reflection, and engaged scholarship centered on a range of Lorde’s international involvements, including the solidarity network Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (SISA). However, the book’s center of gravity rests in Lorde’s European sojourns, anchored by her time in Germany, where she made annual visits for alternative cancer treatment. (This period is also the subject of a recent documentary film, Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992.) The “archive” of Lorde’s interactions with European women of African descent offers important insights into transnational movement building. In dialogue with Lorde—but also, crucially, with each other—these women forged solidarity as “hyphenated people,” reared in circumstances that frequently obscured the implications of their racialization. For example, “Naming Ourselves as Black Women in Europe: An African American-German and Afro-Dutch Conversation,” by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dueck and Gloria Wekker, not only considers Lorde’s centrality as the “wind beneath the wings of Black German women’s political activism and feminism,” but also delves into disparities across national borders, pointing out the need for a “comparative social and political history of the black presence in Europe.”
Despite the clear value of this material, the European focus creates a sense of imbalance, given the sweeping promise of the book’s title. To quote Alexis Pauline Gumbs, one of a handful of contributors who explicitly tackle Lorde’s deep engagement with the global South (and whose probing essay is titled “‘But We Are Not the Same’: Generating a Critical Poetics of Diaspora”),
critical work on Lorde’s impact as a theorist has rarely treated her articulations of solidarity, difference, intimacy, and accountability as a US-born woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage, who navigated her relationships with majority-black spaces that had been (and continue to be) directly harmed by US imperialism. Why not?
In essays grouped under the heading “Connections,” we find useful analytical perspectives on both Lorde’s texts and her activism; crucially, this section pays the most sustained attention to her poetic legacies. In addition to Gumbs’s look at diasporic poetics, I especially appreciated the critical perspectives in Tamara Lea Spira’s “The Geopolitics of the Erotic: Audre Lorde’s Mexico and the Decolonization of the Revolutionary Imagination,” which mines Lorde’s writing for insights into “the force of her thinking as it developed at the fringes of US empire.” In “‘I Cross Her Borders at Midnight’: Audre Lorde’s Berlin Revisions,” Paul M. Farber attentively tracks the poet’s response to that famously divided city, reading the ways she approached its physical and social geography as objective correlatives for her perennial concern with connections across lines of difference.
In an afterword to their volume, Bolaki and Broeck reflect that their project has been a venture in “meaning making” but also an effort at “opening up material to wider audiences, a way of starting a conversation.” In the interests of doing just that, I will say that my own thoughts about Lorde’s bequests return again and again to the question mark that hovers over her poetic legacy. Among the contributors to these two volumes, Chrystos is especially emphatic about what she considers the shameful neglect of Lorde’s poetry. Although The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde appeared in 1997, to date there has been a dearth of critical work that closely examines the stages of her development as a poet or that centers an understanding of her work on her effort (in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ) to position poetry itself as foremost among “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.” Instead, her poems are mined for quotable quotes and insights into the substance of her views on difference, anger, blackness, sisterhood. It is not that these approaches are wrong, but we also need to absorb and reassess her lyrical body of work in its totality, even as we ponder the implications of her claim that poetry elevates “[t]he quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives.”
Over and above the work the commentators in both of these anthologies do to clarify some contours of Lorde’s prismatic achievements as seer and activist, the books powerfully demonstrate that legacies, like texts, are not inert. They are fashioned and transformed in intimate, strenuous dialogue with oncoming generations. As we near the 25th anniversary of Lorde’s death, something more is indeed required, on multiple fronts.
Jan Clausen’s most recent book is the poetic hybrid text Veiled Spill: a Sequence (2014). In 2017, Seven Stories Press will reissue her 1999 memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. She teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University.
The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary
By Ann Snitow
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 364 pp., $26.95, paperback
Reviewed by Paula Rabinowitz
Ann Snitow is a hero of late twentieth-century radicalism, in its many guises: a founding mother—an honorific she might balk at—of radical feminism, an architect of consciousness raising as a political practice within such groups as Redstockings and New York Radical Women. During the early 1970s, she hosted Womankind, a radio show on New York’s WBAI about women’s diaries, and published her own “gender diary” as an intervention into the “divide”—her word for the central contradiction within feminism, namely, how to identify and organize as women while at the same time undoing gender. The divide splintered feminists in many directions, in struggles over issues such as motherhood, pornography, sexuality, race, and class during the years Snitow chronicles in The Feminism of Uncertainty, her new collection of essays. The book provides insight into the thinking that went into Snitow’s various life choices—her ambivalence about maternity, both for herself and as an ideology; her political activism; her exploration of teaching in universities and a medium-security prison—and concludes with her co-founding, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, of the Network of East-West Women (NEWW).
Snitow was a major presence in the controversy over the 1982 Scholar and the Feminist IX conference on sexuality, sponsored by the Barnard Women’s Center, at which tensions between “pro-sex” and “antipornography” feminists burst into open, intra-movement conflict. The conference, which had been organized by Snitow and other Redstockings veterans, was vilified and picketed by the antipornography contingent, who pressured the Barnard center into confiscating a “diary of the conference” that the organizers had created for distribution to the participants; it’s now a treasured rare book. The pro-sex feminists later presented their views in two path-breaking anthologies: Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, co-edited by Snitow and Christine Stansell (1983), and Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance (1984). Looking back at the anthologies’ significance in a special issue of the feminist academic journal Signs devoted to Pleasure and Danger (Autumn 2016), the historian Alice Echols argues that they defined a politics and aesthetics that opened feminism to queerness and its current theories and practices. Echols writes, “In my view, the emergence of queer studies is among the most important legacies of Pleasure and Danger.” Of course, at the time the anthologies also intensified the debates over pornography, s/m, and censorship.
The Feminism of Uncertainty is a form of memoir (Snitow also co-edited, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation )—an armature against backlash and forgetting. It demonstrates, however, the limitations of any compilation, especially of works written for diverse venues and varied purposes, even more so when the author’s signature methodology is to tell us about her private approaches to books, activism, desires, work. How does one engage the world through the self without collapsing foreground and background, political and personal—even if this is the point of one’s writing and activism, as it is with feminism? Virginia Woolf tackled this problem, of the first person and its tendency towards narrative dominance, with her usual ironic finesse in A Room of One’s Own (1929):
But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I.” One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it.
Woolf soon tires of this “I” (in this case, the “I” of a male writer) and longs to discern “something beyond, behind it… what is it? … a woman. But she has not a bone in her body.” This is the gist of The Feminism of Uncertainty: how to detail the woman, in this case not a figure but the writer herself, as she recedes behind, beyond, the “I”—but here it is not a male novelist obliterating the landscape, but rather the woman herself, who, trying as hard as she can to undo gender, cannot escape the particular woman “writing, imagining, theorizing, doing” feminism and collecting these pieces. Snitow imagines essayists in general grappling with this problem, while also speaking for herself: “́́‘This is the way I, I, I could find to do it, hence this tells about my mind at work.’”
Caught in the web of one of the great problems of twenty-first-century America—the problem of stuff, of choice, of the too-muchness of it all—history, memory, diaries, books, leaflets and on and on—the feminist teacher/activist/scholar must figure out how to cope with “the primitive urge to record and save.” This compendium of published briefs—pages from a long-kept “gender diary,” notes and journalism, book reviews and think pieces—is a kind of archive. It collects and records images and thoughts, codifying them into memory, leaving a residue that might enter history.
Woolf commented in her diary that “Orlando  was the outcome of a perfectly definite, indeed overmastering, impulse. I want fun. I want fantasy. I want (and this was serious) to give things their caricature value.” The process of writing Orlando: A Biography, Woolf’s probing—and fun—dissection-through-caricature of gender trouble across three centuries, leads her to an odd wish: “I want to write a history, say of Newnham [College] or the women’s movement, in the same vein.” History (and its writing) must entail fantasy and fun, both power and desire, a novel as biography, a fantasy history, which for Woolf meant that when a woman penned history or biography or even fiction, she transformed its form: how else realize its undoing, if one is a woman, a feminist, who lives “between the acts,” who writes? Snitow’s answer is to insist on the “I,” albeit an uncertain one, an “I” who covets a way across the “divide” she sees endlessly cropping up, who can be collected, even collective, in a formal way.
The essays in this volume—many of which first appeared in The Nation, Dissent, the Voice Literary Supplement, and this publication—were written as immediate responses: to a book, a death, an action, an event. As a whole (along with a bibliography and a publication history), they comprise a valuable resource for the ambitious future scholar/activist digging into feminism’s past. Still, reading 27 briefs stitched together with prefatory comments, and even a few prefaces to the prefaces, borders on tedium. As a totality, it is not fun, not fantasy, even if certain essays—“The Poet of Bad Girls: Angela Carter, 1940-1992)”; “Occupying Greenham Common”; “The Peripatetic Feminist Activist/Professor Spends One Day in a Small City in Albania” (and its terrific title); and “Certainty and Doubt in the Classroom: Teaching Film in Prison”—are meaty and give full voice to the thinking political subject animating them. But it is difficult, as Woolf noted, for a reader to sustain an interest in an overarching “I.”
As Snitow suggests (and as many feminists discovered while reading Anais Nin’s copious pages), the archival fever of the diary, the drive to preserve an ephemeral instant after the fact, is both heady and corrupting, at once solipsistic and sacrificial: a hoarding and a giving of one’s self. No matter how significant—and no one can doubt feminism’s significance in 2016, when a woman runs for US president on a major party ticket, and Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sues Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, to grab just two examples—the project of memoir is about “a small personal voice,” as Doris Lessing put it in her 1957 essay on the realist novel’s power to communicate ideas and feelings from author to reader, which Snitow quotes in reference to her memoiristic pieces. It is crucially fascinating because it is a voice, a singular one—and if feminist consciousness raising and political organizing taught us nothing else, it taught us that singularity is housed and embedded within many, and thus is also collective.
The Feminism of Uncertainty shines brightest when Snitow’s uncertainty politics clash with the realities of action (and for Snitow, thinking, reading, and speaking are all actions). Thus, her skepticism about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp of the early 1980s, with its mobilization of gendered images of women as peacekeepers, is upended by the campers’ brazen wackiness, as they nightly cut the wire fencing and parade through the militarized zone. For Snitow, Greenham becomes “a source of fresh thinking about how to be joyously, effectively political in a conservative, dangerous time.” As she puts her body on the line along with the Greenham women, her prose sings along with them too.
The volume is less successful when Snitow resorts to lists and timelines to anatomize movements and debates, as she does in the section “Continuing A Gender Diary,” and the chapters “Changing our Minds about Motherhood, 1963-1990,” and “Feminist Futures in the Former East Bloc.” These interventions into feminist history and political debates—the evolution of US feminism since the 1970s; surrogacy and the desire for the mother and the desire to mother; the state of post-1989 women’s organizing in East Central Europe—are concise and useful catalogues. But they feel programmatic, even prescriptive.
In contrast, Snitow’s evocations of literature—of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976); of Doris Lessing’s and Angela Carter’s uses of fantasy and speculative fiction; of Shulamith Firestone’s strident vision of a posthuman world in The Dialect of Sex (1970)—to reimagine gender and sexual malaise are keenly observed, deeply involved in the forms of political narrative as well as attentive to the materials being narrated and theorized. This is not surprising: Snitow is trained as a literary critic, having produced a dissertation of more than 800 pages on Ford Maddox Ford, which became the scholarly monograph, Ford Maddox Ford and the Voice of Uncertainty (1984). For sure, she’s been voicing uncertainty over the long haul and this volume fixes it for her future indeterminate readers.
Paula Rabinowitz is professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota. Her recent monograph, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) won the 2015 DeLong Prize for Book History In 2015, she co-edited two volumes: Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald and Red Love across the Pacific: Political and Sexual Revolutions of the Twentieth Century. Her many books and essays consider the interlocking roles of cinema, photography, labor, gender, literature, space, and objects in the formation of twentieth-century American modernisms. During 2016, she is a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.
Romaine Brooks: A Life
By Cassandra Langer
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015, 288 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Abe Louise Young
Romaine Brooks’s most famous paintings depict solitary female figures in masculine clothes. Their subjects are serious and unsmiling, brimming with sexual power and emotional untouchability. The color palette is strict: tonal black, white, and gray, with occasional shocking touches of red. More often than not, the figures focus on something in the distance, outside of the frame. Born in 1874, Brooks inserted a lesbian gaze and radical new examples of gendered self-invention into portraiture.
Romaine Brooks, by Cassandra Langer, is a book with a dual mission. The first is to forge a positive narrative about an artist described by her previous biographer, Meryle Secrest, as a product of “lesbian personality disorder.” The second is to stake a claim for Brooks as a major modernist painter whose genius has been overlooked due to sexism, miscategorization as a symbolist, and exaggeration of her fascist sympathies.
Using new research, Langer makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Brooks’s character and concerns. She describes Brooks’s life as one enacted almost entirely outside of traditional romantic structures and with zero concern for feminine ideals. Langer uncovered a French biography of Elizabeth (Lily) de Gramont—known previously as the lover of the lesbian writer Natalie Barney, a wealthy American who lived most of her life in Paris—that radically expands what we know about Brooks’s sexual and love relationships. Langer reveals for the first time the details of the extraordinary open marriage shared by Brooks, Barney, and de Gramont—some forty years of polyamorous intimacy in a form they invented privately and let evolve organically.
Langer also draws upon previous biographies, archival material, letters, journals, memoirs, and a stunning 44 years of her own research to present Brooks anew. According to Brooks’s memoirs and letters, she survived a loveless childhood with a detached, mentally ill mother and brother, and without secure attachments. She was married briefly and had a child whom she gave up to a convent. After her short marriage, Brooks, who inherited an enormous fortune, kept company with many different women, including Winnaretta Singer, the Singer Sewing Machine heiress, and later, Barney. Together, she and Barney, with a combined fortune of about $300 million in today’s dollars, owned multiple properties and lived lives of luxury. Brooks insisted that they maintain separate residences, which she believed kept their passion alive—although they rode out World War II together in their villa in the Italian countryside. Barney helped Brooks in innumerable ways, including (unsuccesfully) working to get Brook’s memoir, No Pleasant Memories, published and ensuring that her major works were secured in the Smithsonian collection.
Both the admirable and challenging aspects of Romaine Brooks’s personality are rendered clearly: she was a highly sensitive, elitist, contrarian individualist. She held anti-Semitic views despite the fact that her lifelong partner had Jewish roots. She lived for high art and style, forging a distinctive look in both her paintings and home environments. She never compromised. Her love affair with Barney flourished intensely for four decades until Brooks, at age 96, abruptly ended all contact. Barney was heartbroken and distraught until her death.
The strength of this biography is its deep examination of Brooks’s intimate relationships. However, it is on less steady ground in handling motivation and intention. For example, Langer attributes Brooks’s choice to end her relationship with Barney to her desire to remain forever loved:
She decided to cut off relations with Natalie so that she would never lose the love of a lifetime … By breaking off all communication at the age of ninety-six, Brooks reasoned that she could now let go of all that still tied her to life and prepare herself to die assured of Natalie’s eternal desire, devotion and love.
Without original source material suggesting this interpretation, it’s hard to accept; it would have been more satisfying if Langer had admitted, We don’t exactly know why. As a reader, I became restless with the way Langer tries to dissolve questions about Brooks’s motives and beliefs before they arise. She is invested in defending Brooks against potential negative judgments. This presents a formidable challenge, since biography may serve best when it allows contradictions to exist without trying to solve them.
Much has been written about the American expatriate Parisian writers and artists of the 1920s and ̓30s, whose anti-Semitism and loathing of the underclasses must be digested alongside their bodies of work. Langer argues that although Brooks identified with the right wing and admired Mussolini, she was less of a fascist than Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, or the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio—a close friend—and that we should see Brooks’s bigoted beliefs as predictable products of her upbringing. She calls Brooks “politically immature.” This may be the case, but not acknowledging Brooks’s responsibility for her negative views of poor people and Jews risks giving them the shine of validity.
Langer writes, “[Brooks] misread Fascism as a nationalistic movement in support of social elites, not military dictators, whose aim was to restore peace through imperialism through prioritizing culture.” She insists that Brooks’s views should not influence her reputation or significance as an artist. In the current American climate of rising hate crime and debate over nationalism and oligarchy, however, such rationalization feels dangerous. Langer argues,
The United States … is perhaps unique in insisting that the personal is political. Romaine Brooks and the European society she lived in would not agree that being tolerant and politically correct, both in private and in public, define civilized people.
If I were to read this biography again, I would read it backward. A rush of new ideas about camp and dandyism is compressed into Langer’s conclusion, which also includes information that it would have been helpful to hold in mind while reading, such as this:
For a lesbian to portray a criminalized subculture and make it fashionable and desirable was no mean feat, and Romaine Brooks was kind of a rock star of her era, accomplishing this feat with a flare that remains unparalleled. How did she manage it? The answer may simply be fashion.
I hope that at some point a queer theorist will take up Brooks’s life, using this text as a stepping stone toward analyzing the transgressive gender codes that are at the core of Brooks’s aesthetic, with its focus on androgynous, even masculine female figures. Langer points to the exciting investigative work that remains to be accomplished, since at least eight of the paintings described in Brooks’s letters and notebooks, as well as her many journals and sketchbooks, have not yet been found.
Langer explores Brooks’s emotional attachments and the cultural landscape she both contributed to and sought refuge from. She describes both Brooks’s unwavering monochromatic style and her creative process, which flourished best within a small, protective circle of relationships. She expands our knowledge of the Parisian salon scene with a portrait of a significant personality who hovered uneasily at its edges. The swirling lesbian expat culture in France and Italy is endlessly fascinating, as are the many ways community connections were both forged and broken. In the end, Romaine Brooks redeems its weaknesses by making a major contribution toward correcting the graver view of Brooks insisted upon in previous biographies.
Langer writes, “Brooks deliberately created the role she intended to play in the narrative of her own life: the role of female hero.” Langer analyzes that role and ultimately inscribes Romaine Brooks more solidly in both U.S. art history and lesbian/queer history.
Abe Louise Young is an author and educator whose work focuses on creativity, social change, and the lives of women and girls. Her recent chapbook is Heaven to Me (2016).
From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines
Edited by Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016, 317 pp. $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Christine Byl
Franz Kafka famously called books “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” while William Carlos Williams called the poem a “machine made out of words.” By metaphoric extension, it’s no stretch to consider the essays in this anthology tools as well. In 23 pieces on “women and their machines,” the authors wield prose in pursuit of a specific task: to think carefully and deliberately…in order to understand what our machines mean—why we need them, or if we do; where they came from, or what they might signify; and what the future holds for further integration of body and contraption.
Organized in five thematic sections—Hearth and Home; Bedroom and Birthing Room; Farm, Lawn, Hill and Wood; Stage and World; and The Writer’s Studio—the entries showcase a broad swath of female lives..
Essays throughout describe familiar experiences, the details tweaked just enough to counter stereotype. In her beloved Dodge Dart, the young Karen Salyer McElmurray teaches her mother how to drive and discovers, “She dreamed of one long highway, the way out she never took.” Emily Rapp’s typical teenage questions—“What was my body? What was its purpose?”—are complicated by her relationship with her prosthetic leg. The collection deftly expands both the terrain of women’s experience and the concept of a machine in interesting ways.
If the essays are devices for thinking, the collection itself is a tool shed, each piece hung on its hook, taken down to perform a specific duty. To plumb race and gender as they entwine in the kitchen, reach for “If You Can’t Stand the Heat,” Psyche Williams-Forson’s homage to the gas cook stove. For pushing back against the masculinization of power equipment and power itself, select Mary Quade’s standout about tractors, “Old Iron: A Restoration.” Perhaps it’s the construct of a modern self that interests you: see essays on the iPhone, the camera, the microphone. As with any collection of tools, some essays are sharper than others. But universally, they are crafted with intent.
Befitting a collection that encompasses gender and mechanization, power is a recurring theme, which makes sense to anyone who has felt confounded by an unfamiliar machine—or emancipated by learning to use one well. The book opens with a section on familiar domestic contraptions—sewing machine, washer, iron, cook stove—and rightly reclaims the status of machine for objects that have been historically “feminized” out of that category. “Maytag Washer, 1939” is a well-placed opener, and Norma Tilden’s observation refracts over the rest of the book: “we would learn what it meant to be born a woman: the intricate mechanics of beauty and use.” Joyce Dyer’s wide-ranging essay “My Mother’s Singer” beautifully explores the braided history of feminism as it is expressed in the push-pull of home-making, balancing the political (the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire) with the personal (“for [my mother], domesticity was a ruse”). My fondness for this essay is high praise, in light of how much more times I have run a chainsaw than a sewing machine. My own seamstress-mother shakes her head that at 43, I still ask her to patch my Carhartts.
In their introduction, the editors nod to the genre-as-tool conceit when they state, to write—to be a woman writer—is, in one way, to be both mechanical and a mechanic. We still call punctuation and grammar the “mechanics” of writing, and even language itself is a technology.
When I read this, my mind lit straight to the word’s origin, which is from the Greek techne—meaning “art,” “craft,” or “skill” (related to tekton, meaning “carpenter”)—and logos—“word.” Thus, “technology” can be roughly translated as “words about craft.” It’s fascinating to track a word’s path and find at the end a revelatory surprise: writer unionized with carpenter. Each uses craft in pursuit of an end, and the differences in their products only underscore the point that technology is various. Machines—abacus, vibrator, laptop—enhance human effort, whether physical (build house), philosophical (deconstruct race), personal (give orgasm), or artistic (write book).
Tools require specialized language that arises from their use. “The part of a hit-and-miss engine that regulates speed is called the governor,” explains Mary Quade. My own childhood vocabulary was textured by my parents’ machines—my mother’s Singer, thimble, and treadle; my surveyor-father’s theodolite and plumb-bob. In my early twenties, when I started as a rookie on a trail crew, I cradled my sore muscles in bed and fell asleep to the cadence of the new words running through my mind—mattock, Swede hook, Dolmar, pulaski. My lifelong career in labor has in part been fueled by a love for the lexicon of labor, and a highlight of this anthology was the technical diction enfolded in its pages.
Its sentences show women in motion—mowing, sewing, driving, sawing, eating, typing, birthing, writing, shooting—and many pieces carve out their own linguistic territories. In Rebecca McClanahan’s “Sad Iron, Glad Iron,” the act of pressing shirts becomes incantatory: “Iron and sing, iron and sing, the world falls away, placket and pleat, collar and yoke, ruffle and pocket, bodice and sleeve. Steam, release.” Maureen Stanton, in a riff on the scythe, the ancestor of her beloved lawnmower, lists its “poetically named parts: snath, toe, tang, ring, beard, heel, grips and chine.” The essay’s immediate concern is the history of a gas engine, but underneath lies a shadow story of losing a beloved to cancer. Like the best essays in the collection, Stanton’s weaves two narratives, examining impotence from opposite angles: how tools grant manual power, and how unexpected loss reinforces our powerlessness.
Learning how machines work is captivating stuff, and I admire the essays that pull back the narrative curtain and stride into the repair shop. In “Swingline Nine,” Jen Hirt illuminates the physics behind a desk-based contraption whose mechanics usually get little notice: “The stapler is a simple machine, in the same category as pulleys and axles ... Even when staplers went electric or morphed into heavy-duty staple guns, it was always just fulcrum, load, effort.” Essays in every section delve into nuts-and-bolts terrain, and I littered the margins of my book with stars and exclamation points next to mechanical and historical insights: who knew that World War I-era Lansing, Michigan, was the birthplace of the lawnmower and home to a minor-league baseball team called the Lugnuts?
Williams followed his line about the poem as machine with these words: “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” From Curlers to Chainsaws isn’t academic per se, but many essays carry a load of scholarship, often with agility, sometimes more woodenly. I was grateful for the lyric pieces in the collection, their “perfect economy” balancing the academic default. I get it—many of the authors here are professors, whose most familiar tool is argument—but the more sinuous essays provide a welcome stylistic variety and tonal counterpoint. Notable is Joy Castro’s taut and haunting lyric essay, “Grip,” about a Ruger GP .357 handgun. She places a bullet-riddled paper target above her infant son’s crib, a bulwark against the domestic abuse of her childhood—“the violence of our years with [our father], knifed into us like scrimshaw cut in living bone.” To her the target represents a hope for safety, “a sort of oath I swore over your quiet sleep.” The poet Nikky Finney’s essay on the pencil closes the book, with an intellectual coming-of-age narrative that stays light on its feet:
A pencil could be said to have a mind of its own. The dark, sweet mind of a pencil had to be nurtured and lured out into sunshine ... You could sign your life away with a pen and never know what happened to your life.
Every tool can fail, of course. Pencil tips break. Engines bog down. Vibrators run out of batteries. The breadth of machines covered here is wide, but the collection would have benefitted from even more angles, whether indigenous, international, or otherly gendered. Perhaps because of the demographic uniformity, the emotional range of the essays in aggregate was a bit uniform—part nostalgic, part activist, mostly redemptive. Though individual pieces skirted rough edges, I craved more consistent complication. Don’t useful tools sometimes cause harm? What about the costs of mechanization? What of apprenticeship that ends in disempowerment?
The inconsistency shared by most edited volumes also occurs here. Some essays feel too thematically determined—the word “plodding” arose often in my reading notes—and others that succeed in content don’t vault the high bar of the stand-alone essay, lacking a through-line or a subsurface story to anchor the obvious one. Despite these flaws, the majority of essays use specific machines to build scaffolding from which to interrogate larger ideas. The very best ones do so with aplomb, moving from musical lines to nuanced thoughts that double back on themselves in fruitful ways.
Perhaps the volume’s greatest accomplishment is how effortlessly it puts to rest the notion that a woman who loves a machine is an anomaly, or worse, something to be fetishized. Any woman who expresses an iota of mechanical aptitude has heard patronizing comments: Wow, you change your own oil? This book doesn’t bother to defend its premise: of course women use machines, and of course we love them. While these essays include men—fathers, lovers, neighbors—and allude to the male gaze, here the most prominent watchers are women, seeing themselves. Karen Outen puts it well in her engrossing essay on typing: “In the end, our lives, our work, are all about sight—foresight, hindsight, insight, salvaged sight.”
The next book I yearn for is an anthology about tools where women appear equally alongside men—where we shed our identity marker and join the ranks of all those humans whose lives are made better, worse, complex, or interesting by the tools to which we apply our hands and minds. As Ana Maria Spagna writes in “More Than Noise,” about her years on a trail crew: “A woman running a chainsaw might surprise hikers or strangers at picnic-table dinner parties ... But after fifteen years, my gender made little difference.”
Intention well applied becomes effort, and any task bears its evidence: a dug hole is surrounded by heaps of dirt. Sawdust covers the floor after boards are cut. A haircut leaves an itchy film on apron and neck. By this book’s close, there is also residue. A litany of machines, scenes, and terms circled my mind, prodding further questions, notes jotted in margins. If the writer’s task is completed, the larger job is still unfinished. I’d guess that this anthology will prompt readers to write, think, and tell machine stories of their own.
Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and designer, and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods (2013). She lives in Interior Alaska.
Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
By April R. Haynes
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $27.50, paperback
Reviewed by Rachel Hope Cleves
Between 1835 and 1840, more than 50,000 women gathered in small rooms across New England and upstate New York to confess their past histories of masturbation, or “the solitary vice,” as it had recently been dubbed by Sylvester Graham. According to the tenets of “reform physiology,” a nineteenth-century sexual-health movement, admitting to masturbation was a critical first step on the path to self-discipline. Through such testimonials, the women sought absolution and refashioned themselves as virtuous citizens, capable of restraining their erotic appetites. The experience of shared confessions also bound the women together as a community, laying the foundation for future advocacy around women’s issues.
This unlikely scenario of Victorian women holding consciousness-raising sessions, where they sought power in public discussion of masturbation, uncannily foreshadows the 1970s encounter groups, where newly awakened feminists masturbated together. April Haynes draws this analogy in the opening pages of her history, Riotous Flesh. The two groups, separated by nearly a century and a half, took oppositional approaches to masturbation itself. Antebellum women resisted masturbation as a path to empowerment, while counterculture women embraced masturbation as source of personal autonomy. However, both groups saw developing a correct approach to masturbation as critical to women’s assertions of ownership over their sexualities and their common interests as women. At this pro-sex moment in the long history of the feminist sex wars, the notion that women might gain power through limiting their sexual expression seems illogical. But Haynes expresses equal skepticism about the present notion that the vibrator can be an effective tool for dismantling patriarchy. From her critical perspective, there are limitations to using sexual reform of any variety as a main avenue toward feminist advancement.
Riotous Flesh overturns the conventional historiography of masturbation, which has focused almost exclusively on men. Canonical works by Thomas Laqueur (Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation ) and G. J. Barker-Benfield (The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America ) focus on male medical practitioners who, they argue, made masturbation into a health crisis during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as on young men, whom they depict as the primary targets of medical concern. However, Haynes argues that it was evangelical women, not male doctors, who made masturbation a prominent social issue in the United States, and that these women initially saw the female sex as being as susceptible to self-abuse as the male sex. Rediscovering evangelical women’s contributions to the antimasturbation movement leads Haynes to challenge the conventional historical explanations of the reasons behind their alarm. Their concerns about masturbation cannot be attributed to “political democratization and the secularization of morality,” as Laqueur claims. “It is simply not the case,” Haynes asserts strenuously, that early texts like Onania (1716) “inaugurated a democratic pattern of thinking about sex.” Americans cared little about masturbation during the initial spread of democracy in the age of Revolution. “All that changed in 1833,” Haynes argues, “when women became central subjects rather than marginal characters” in reform physiology. It was debates over women’s rights, not democracy, that made masturbation an issue of national significance.
Despite Haynes’s focus on women actors, her choice of 1833 as a turning point hinges on the actions of a man whom many readers will be familiar with, the dyspeptic minister Sylvester Graham. Graham is a historic character so peculiar that he has made the leap from specialist volumes to popular consciousness, owing in large part to the crackers named after him. An all-around reformer who preached the doctrines of vegetarianism, temperance, and clothing reform to New England audiences, Graham turned to the problem of masturbation in 1833. Although his message was not original, his method was—in particular his choice to preach to audiences of women as well as to men. The innovation enraged local men in Providence, Portland, and Boston, where they mobbed him.
Masculine opposition to Graham’s talks to women ultimately drove the reformer from the public stage. He abandoned the project of addressing women on the subject of masturbation and later retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he devoted himself to perfecting a recipe for whole grain bread. Reformist women, however, did not give up on the subject of masturbation. They took over where Graham left off, organizing meetings to address each other on the subject of reformist physiology. They promoted the antimasturbation addresses of women reformers such as Mary Gove. Soon, they gathered together in small groups to speak to the subject themselves. Why did reformist women embrace antimasturbation so eagerly? Haynes argues that they saw value in a discourse that addressed women as “rational beings capable of mastering their own passions.” By admitting to their susceptibility to masturbation, reformist women highlighted their rational capacity to resist temptation. They exchanged an older model of purity, which viewed good women as passive and passionless, for a new model of virtue, in which good women’s sexual self-restraint proved their capacity for citizenship.
Reformist women had many reasons to want to move away from the fiction of passionlessness. In popular culture the ideology served as a license for male sexual violence. The image of the passionless lady produced a dark counterpart in the fallen whore; any woman who did not rise to the standard of passionlessness became a fit subject for exploitation. And placing the onus on “pure” women to place the brakes on sexual expression in turn naturalized male sexual aggression. The erotic “flash” newspapers that exploded onto the American scene during the 1830s cultivated the fantasy that male libertines possessed the power to awaken women’s passions, turning them from virgins into whores, where upon they became dispensable. “In the shadow of passionlessness,” Haynes argues, reformers saw “a bleak world filled with fallen, ruined, murdered prostitutes.” Breaking away from passionlessness, and laying claim to a sexuality independent of men, gave women a position from which to criticize the sexual double standard.
Abolitionist women, in particular, African American abolitionist women, saw an opportunity in antimasturbation discourse to protest against the racialized dimensions of the double standard. Women of color were frequent targets of sexualized violence in a culture that viewed them not as passionless but as hypersexual. By hitching their wagon to physiological reform, African American women cultivated a new antislavery argument. If reformers truly wished to restrain licentious male behavior, they needed to oppose slavery, which rewarded slaveholding men’s sexual assaults on enslaved women. To achieve the new standard of virtue, rather than purity, white women had to cease being passive observers and become active opponents of slavery’s licentiousness. White antislavery women responded positively to this argument. At least at first.
The window of cooperation between women of color and white women reformers proved remarkably short lived. As soon as antimasturbation discourse picked up popularity among New England women, that very popularity transformed the movement. As the movement spread from the cities to the rural hinterlands of New England and New York, the cause of reform physiology moved further and further away from the center of antislavery activism. White rural women reformers soon shifted back to emphasizing female purity—for example, petitioning state legislatures to pass criminal seduction laws that resurrected ideas about feminine passionlessness. Abolitionist reform discourse also proved to have a double edge, as rhetoric focusing on black women’s sexual exploitation at times reinforced characterizations of black women as “jezebels.” As early as 1840, interracial cooperation began to fracture. And by 1845, white women’s-rights advocates split sharply from women abolitionists.
One of the great strengths of Riotous Flesh is Haynes’s intersectional analysis. The book draws on critical race theory and African American history to explore the complex interweaving of sex, race, and power in the antebellum era. A less attentive scholar could have written a much whiter book.
But Riotous Fleshem> is less successful at explaining the rapidity of the shift in women’s antimasturbation discourse away from interracial cooperation and the critique of passionlessness, and toward a more restrictive vision of gender and race that re-embraced the doctrine of women’s purity and abandoned the abolitionist cause. The whole arc of the book’s narrative takes place over no more than twelve years, from 1833 to 1845. The window of progressive antimasturbation reform that Haynes anatomizes is so brief, one almost wonders whether it happened at all. Is it possible that the sources would make more sense arranged synchronically than diachronically? Could progressive and regressive antimasturbation discourses have coincided and competed during the first half of the nineteenth century, rather than succeeding each other in such short order? Haynes also leaves questions about the erotics of the women’s antimasturbation movement less well explored than I would have liked. When antebellum women gathered together in small parlors to share their stories of past sexual self-enjoyment free from the aid or hindrance of men, did no one’s heart rate speed or pupils dilate? Haynes emphasizes how testimonial-meeting culture politicized women. One would imagine that it sexualized women as well—by which I mean that the antimasturbation movement’s incitement to discourse helped create sexuality as a thing that women, in the movement and out, shared. Antimasturbation gatherings produced female sexuality in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings would. It seems likely that antimasturbation gatherings also produced arousal in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings did.
Haynes does argue that the recognition of female sexual pleasure within antimasturbation discourse was ultimately channeled into the foundation of heteronormativity. Author Frederick Hollick, a British immigrant to the United States, fused physiological reform discourse and male sexual privilege into a “philosophy of amative indulgence” that promised mutually orgasmic heterosexual intercourse as the best remedy for masturbation. Again, I wonder whether the diachronic organization of the evidence forecloses the possibility of synchronic counterdiscourses. Was antimasturbation discourse, which acknowledged the possibility of a female sexuality independent of men, also channeled into a foundation for same-sex sexual culture? The linkage between masturbation and lesbianism—in texts from Onania, through Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers” (1833), to postbellum sexological texts like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)—suggests that possibility. Haynes discusses one female couple, Mary Grew and Margaret Jones Burleigh, who attended Hollick’s talks together and may have drawn a lesbian lesson from his heterosexual instructions. Surely they were not alone. Readers who are curious to learn more won’t find the answers in Riotous Flesh, but they will find a great jumping off point for further inquiry.
Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is the author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014).
The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency
By Ellen Fitzpatrick
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, 318 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Context can be everything. Had Hillary Clinton beaten Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, The Highest Glass Ceiling would read as a delightful primer on the long road to electing a woman president. But that didn’t happen. If “In 2008, Hillary Clinton mounted the most successful campaign of any woman presidential candidate in American history,” yet “still lost a very close race for the Democratic nomination,” in 2016, she mounted an even more successful campaign, won the nomination, won the popular vote—and still lost the election. As I write these words, just over a month later, pundits and politicians are still arguing about why, as they likely will for years, if not decades, to come. Alas, in this context, The Highest Glass Ceiling, while still delightful in many ways, is not the book we want. Though it offers a good story well told, its hopeful narrative of incremental progress now seems inadequate to our circumstances.
The Highest Glass Ceiling is an old-fashioned kind of book, a collection of mini-biographies like the anthologies of great Jewish women and famous explorers I used to read as a child. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tracks the progress of women toward the presidency through three main figures: the nineteenth-century spiritualist, stockbroker, and free love advocate Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to be nominated at a major party’s convention; Democratic Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be so nominated—and, in a briefer Epilogue, Clinton. Clinton’s story is a by-now-familiar rehash of Wellesley, lawyering in Arkansas, tea and cookies, standing by her man, and diligent accomplishment in the Senate and as secretary of state. But even those readers who have heard of Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm are unlikely to know the details of their careers, which Fitzpatrick synthesizes in engaging, readable accounts.
These biographies are contextualized in a five-page Prologue that begins with Clinton laughing off sexist hecklers in New Hampshire in 2008, and climaxes with an unassailable yet nonetheless anodyne thesis:
As citizens who defied constraints on their political participation, rights, and liberties, [Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm] seized historical moments they believed were rife with possibility. In defeat, each imagined a successor who would eventually reach the presidency. Each was supported and challenged by political forces, historical conditions, particular constituencies, and, of course, character traits that remain visible elements in the landscape of presidential politics today.
The individual biographies play out these statements, albeit with little in the way of analysis. Woodhull announced her candidacy in 1870, midway through the brief progressive interlude of Reconstruction, in the wake of abolitionism, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Smith ran in 1964, four years after the election of the first Catholic president, just as the twentieth-century women’s movement started to emerge. Chisholm’s candidacy took place in 1972, as the civil rights, women’s, welfare rights, and antiwar movements were in full flower. And yet, none of these historical openings were large enough to admit a woman.
In each case, sexism was clearly at issue, but as Fitzpatrick notes, so were the candidates’ individual characters and political circumstances. Woodhull is one of the more flamboyant characters in nineteenth-century US history. The daughter of an abusive grifter and a mentally ill spiritualist, she worked as a seamstress, actress, and medium, eventually making it to New York, where she hooked up with Cornelius Vanderbilt, became the nation’s first female stockbroker, joined the women’s movement, and decided to run for president, though she was not yet 35, the minimum age for the presidency, and women did not yet have the vote.
Woodhull’s “symbolic” candidacy, as Fitzpatrick terms it, never had a chance, yet she approached it at full bore. Indeed, she sometimes resembled no one less than Donald Trump. “Her riches opened the door to even larger ambitions,” and “She made the candidate—in this case herself—the central offering,” writes Fitzpatrick. Woodhull bombastically announced herself as the exemplar of her political vision in the 1870 letter to the New York Herald in which she declared her candidacy: “I happen to be the most prominent representative of the only unrepresented class [women] in the republic, and perhaps the most practical exponent of the principles of equality.” Unlike Trump, however, Woodhull was progressive to the extreme, advocating not just for women’s rights and suffrage, the primary goal of her campaign, but for labor, the poor, prison reform, and free love—the cause that ultimately brought her down.
Woodhull’s rise was as fast as her fall. Operating outside of the political apparatus, she received copious press, much of it positive; lectured to significant crowds; started her own newspaper; and was the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee. But in May 1871, a criminal complaint filed by her mother against Woodhull’s second husband revealed, among other “salacious details,” that Woodhull’s first husband lived with the couple. Scandal ensued, and Woodhull ended up in jail on obscenity charges, rather than in the White House. The double standard for women’s moral conduct was clearly at play, as her feminist contemporaries angrily acknowledged. Yet gender was not her only impediment, for a man of her politics running outside of the party machines would certainly have failed as well. Still, Woodhull kicked open the door for women presidential candidates.
It’s tempting to focus on the similarities between Woodhull and Smith: as well as being women, both sought the support of women, supported labor, garnered significant press coverage, and were the subject of wild rumors: Smith was accused of being a Communist, a French Canadian, and a “woman of loose morals.” But if Woodhull stood for vice, Smith was all virtue. She entered politics by the conventional route for women of her day: running for the House seat of her deceased husband. Active in women’s clubs and the Republican party in her home state of Maine, she ran shoestring, shoe-leather campaigns that accepted no contributions and built on her close relationships with constituents. A moderate Northeastern Republican known for her “independence” and “political…principles,” she was promilitary but progressive on social issues, supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s war bills, and spoke out against McCarthyism.
Sticking to her practices and principles, Smith was the first woman elected on her own to the Senate, the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate, and the longest-serving woman senator of the twentieth century. Still, her goal was not that women—or any voters—should “support some candidates just because they are women,” as she put it in a speech, but “that no one should be barred from public office just because she is a woman.” She claimed that “ability and proved performance, rather than sex, are the best standards for political selection…[and] I like to think that I am a symbol of this.”
Smith’s decision to campaign for president in 1964 would have been the obvious next move if she were a man, and she approached it as if she were a male politician, though the press, albeit largely supportive of her politics, was mainly interested in her appearance, age, and gender. Again, it would be easy to say that she lost because of gender, as “the prospect of a woman president produced a chaotic mix of excitement and bafflement,” writes Fitzpatrick. But, as Fitzpatrick makes clear, Smith also lost because she stuck to her campaign principles. She refused to raise money or miss a vote in the Senate, she had no support from the Republican party, and she campaigned only in New Hampshire and Illinois. One might argue that those principles were rooted in gendered norms, but they were nonetheless untenable in the mid-twentieth-century electoral arena.
Like Smith, Chisholm rose through party ranks (although in her case the ranks were of Brooklyn Democrats); operated on her own principles rather than party pieties (one of her campaign slogans was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed”); and had nowhere near enough money to run a competitive campaign. Like Woodhull, she was a full-on progressive, opposing the Vietnam War and military spending, and cosponsoring House bills for “an expanded jobs program, increased affordable housing, protection for the rights of organized labor, health insurance coverage for household workers, expanded day-care centers, welfare reform, and a rise in the minimum wage” (I’d vote for her!). But as a black woman, the determinedly intersectional Chisholm, who helped found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, faced two additional obstacles to her political climb: racism and black men, who worried that she would support women over the black community. They consistently proffered black male candidates in her place.
Chisholm started volunteering for Brooklyn’s 17th Assembly District Democratic Club in the 1940s, when she was an undergraduate and the club was still run by Irish-American men. Frustrated by the secondary role of women in the club and allied with the black men who eventually took it over, she gained increasing prominence in the club and in Brooklyn politics. However, her candidacies were resisted on the grounds of gender in both 1964, when she ran for the New York Assembly, and 1968, when she ran for the House. She nevertheless persisted, winning the votes of the women and Puerto Ricans in her district, and becoming the first black woman in Congress.
In 1972, when Chisholm decided to run for president, she had to deal with those who thought a black man’s candidacy should have precedence over a black woman’s; white woman who professed support for her but chose to endorse George McGovern; and the perpetual lack of funds—not to mention the chaos of her own campaign. But the New York Times directly named the insurmountable “two strikes against her—her sex and her race.” Running a symbolic campaign that she knew she would not win, she nevertheless received more delegates than any woman candidate until Hillary Clinton.
If Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm were women who couldn’t have won, Clinton appeared, in her second presidential campaign, to have overcome the obstacles they faced. Several consistent themes emerge over the course of the book—though Fitzpatrick offers little analysis of their persistence—including: the novelty of women candidates and politicians; political competition between black men and white women; lack of party support; and, as Elizabeth Dole put it after her brief 2000 presidential run, “the bottom line, money.” But by 2016, women were ensconced throughout the American political system, albeit in numbers still unequal to men’s, and more than 200 had run for president. Meanwhile, Clinton had the full support of the first black president and the Democratic National Committee, not to mention plenty of money. And yet she still lost.
It would be easy to conclude that America will simply never accept a woman president, though that raises the question of why we are so different from Israel, India, the Philippines, England, Germany, South Korea, and other countries that have voted in women leaders. And yet that conclusion leaves out the mayhem that was the 2016 campaign. The Highest Glass Ceiling ends with Clinton’s email server and the Benghazi hearings, foreshadowing some of her campaign’s subsequent difficulties. It appeared in February 2016, which means it was sent to press months earlier, when Trump was little more than a joke (his name does not appear in the book). Gender and sexism were key to Trump’s win, along with FBI and Russian interference; class, racial, and regional antagonisms; and more. Still, Clinton won the popular vote, which suggests that the majority of Americans who vote were ready for a woman president.
I hate to criticize a book for not being a different book, yet Fitzpatrick, an esteemed historian and television commentator, has done herself a disservice by stopping on the cusp of the next stage of her narrative. Had Clinton won, she could have written the definitive account of why. Now that Clinton has lost, one misses her analysis of why, along with her predictions of what will happen next for women presidential candidates. Will gender be the eternal thumb on their scales? Or will gender become just one among many fraught factors, and eventually not the one that matters? Given the presence of so many women politicians in the generation below Clinton, I’m putting my money on Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Nikki Haley, or Susana Martinez to finally blast through that glass ceiling. But I wish I knew what Fitzpatrick thinks now.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. She is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (2011), a relic of her previous life as an English professor.
Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady
By Susan Quinn
New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 404 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Loving Eleanor: The Intimate Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok
By Susan Wittig Albert
Bertram, TX: Persevero Press, 2016, 322 pp., $27.15, hardcover
Reviewed by Blanche Wiesen Cook
At last! After decades of silence and tedious denial, two splendid books have arrived to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt, Lorena Hickok, and their love for one another. Written with style and verve, and vigorously researched, both are filled with delightful details and provocative musings.
To add to our arsenal of hope in these hard times, they are by “straight”—and as far as we know—happily married women. I was fortunate enough to meet Susan Quinn and her husband Dan Jacobs at the Tucson Book Festival in March 2017. Aware of her important work on the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA), I asked her how she decided to write about ER and Hick. She replied that she thought learning about them might enhance her understanding of her lesbian daughter—and it did.
Eleanor And Hick is basically a dual biography that covers the antecedents and details of the women’s lives and changing friendship across the decades. Since ER was a serial romantic who never stopped growing and changing as she encountered new friends and confronted new situations, I quibbled with Quinn’s subtitle, The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady. Hick enhanced ER’s writings and activism in many ways: she suggested that ER write her My Day newspaper column—which ER published daily from 1935 – 1962—and hold press conferences for women journalists only. But ER’s influences ranged from her high-school mentor Marie Souvestre; to her life-long friend and advisor Esther Lape (who began campaigning for a national, single-payer health-care plan as part of the l935 Social Security Act and did not stop until she died at the age of l00 in l982); to Lape’s partner Elizabeth Read, a noted international lawyer who became ER’s financial adviser; and ER’s secretary and traveling companion Malvina Thompson, known as Tommy. As another ER friend, Joseph Lash, frequently said, “ER is infinite.” Until there are biographies of Souvestre and Lape, as well as of Joseph Lash and his wife Trude Lash, we have only a partial sense of the many who influenced the ever-evolving ER.
Such differences are minimal, however, and one is delighted by Quinn’s impressive research and the new information she uncovers, such as the details of Hick’s five year relationship with Judge Marion Harron. Harron was profoundly in love with Hick, writing, “[Y]our mirth is as light and bright as sunshine and as warm.” According to Quinn, Harron was “the pursuer,” who longed for more than Hick was prepared to give. After they spent a happy time together in January l944, Harron compared herself to a devoted puppy: “My name is Butch—or Bo—and I always come when you whistle—lie flat when you say ‘flat’—and lick your cheek.” They separated in l945, when Hick rejected an exclusive relationship.
In addition to Harron, Hick had lifelong friendships with such political leaders as Mary Norton, the first woman Democrat to serve in Congress; Gladys Tillet, Democratic Party chair and US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women; and Helen Gahagan Douglas, congressional representative from California whose political career was essentially destroyed by a red-baiting Richard Nixon when she ran for Senate in 1950. These friendships give us a new understanding of Hick, as do her friendships with young people—including the Roosevelt grand-daughters. Moreover, Quinn’s research into Hick’s writings illuminates her deeper legacy, and the reason for her many lasting friendships. Her unsigned articles in the Democratic Digest include, for example, a December l943 column about FDR’s meeting at Tehran with Stalin and Churchill. They “met on a spot which had played a role in the lives of empire builders of ancient times—Alexander, Darius, Xerxes and Genghis Khan, and there mapped out destruction for those who dreamed of world empire in our time,” Hick wrote, with appropriate drama.
While Quinn’s work follows ER and Hick separately through their lives, Susan Wittig Albert’s Loving Eleanor is a vivid “fictional interpretation,” written from Hick’s perspective as her relationship with ER unfolded and endured. Albert’s novel, which is rooted in the women’s correspondence, is so skillfully told that I found her “enhancements” believable and profoundly moving. For example, there’s the mystery of Earl Miller’s lost papers. Miller was ER’s bodyguard and possibly her lover; we know that ER and Miller wrote to each other regularly, much as Hick and ER did. Lash revealed that the letters mysteriously disappeared. Why and how? Read this book: Albert has a theory.
Both Quinn and Albert credit Hick’s reports to presidential adviser Harry Hopkins and ER for many of the New Deal programs that saved lives and promoted hope during the worst years of poverty and decline during the Depression. In Hick’s reports from the mining camps of West Virginia, she unburdened her heart to ER—and demanded, writes Albert, “Listen! Something has to be done. Pay attention!” Immediately, ER set off to meet Hick and a contingent from the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, directed by Clarence Pickett. Together with Pickett, who later became an official in the Interior Department, ER helped to develop Arthurdale, (originally called Reedsville), a “homestead” project that provided housing for the families of displaced miners.
Albert imagines Hick’s feelings about Thompson, Miller, FDR, Lash—and the many other folks in ER’s life. And she delves into Hick’s intimate life: her youthful relationship with the contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink and above all, her deep commitment to ER, which curtailed her relationship with Harron. Like Quinn, Albert concludes that Harron wanted more than Hick could give. Evidently, for several years Hick juggled her love for Harron, while, Albert concludes, her “heart was reaching out for Eleanor, loving her still, loving her always.”
In this mean moment of backlash and bigotry, Quinn and Albert offer healing pleasures and political reminders: two women changed history while enveloped in passion and love. They created programs for the poor and disenfranchised; they fought for democracy, freedom, and justice against rule by the careless and greedy. These books fortify us as we proceed into the unknown, shoulder to shoulder with ER and Hick, Quinn and Albert, hearts open, fists high!
Blanche Wiesen Cook is a distinguished professor of History and Women’s Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of a three-volume, award-winning, best-selling biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, and her other books include Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (1978) and The Declassified Eisenhower : A Divided Legacy Of Peace and Political Warfare (1981). a frequent contributor of reviews and columns to many newspapers and periodicals as well as a popular television commentator. Cook is the former vice-president for research of the American Historical Association; former vice-president and chair of the Fund for Open Information and Accountability (FOIA, Inc.); and co-founder and co-chair of the Freedom of Information and Access Committee of the Organization of American Historians.
By Blanche Wiesen Cook
Reviewed by Brigid O’Farrell
“Admired and beloved, scorned and reviled, influential, controversial, and timeless, Eleanor Roosevelt changed history.” Thus begins Blanche Wiesen Cook’s much awaited third and final volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography. Neither Roosevelt nor Cook disappoints. No matter how much has been written by and about ER (as she frequently signed her name) there is always more to learn about one of the most admired and most vilified women of the twentieth century. Indeed, her life story remains a source of fascination for many, as well as a guide and inspiration for those committed to human rights and social justice. In 2016 alone, Cook’s volume follows Patricia Bell-Scott’s work exploring ER’s relationship with the activist, civil rights lawyer, and minister Pauli Murray, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice, and Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. [See reviews in this issue]
The first volume of Cook’s biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years, 1884-1933 (1992) covered ER’s difficult childhood, marital challenges, and early political career. The second volume, Eleanor Roosevelt: The Defining Years, 1933-1938 (1999), explored her first five years in the White House. While the previous volumes comprehensively covered a multitude of issues, ideas, and people, in this one, Cook, a professor of history at John Jay College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, focuses on how ER was—and was not—able to influence public opinion and policy in two areas during World War II: race discrimination at home and the plight of war refugees around the world.
In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt was 55 years old and had been married to Franklin D. Roosevelt for 34 years. They had raised a daughter and four sons, whose various wives, husbands, and grandchildren were all part of life in the vibrant, often-tense, and ever-changing world of the Roosevelt White House. The Roosevelts’ complex marriage allowed them both a great deal of independence which meant that an array of intimate friends joined the family circle. ER had become well known for her indefatigable schedule, prolific communications, and concern for others. During the Great Depression many came to her for help, and she responded both publicly and behind the scenes. She was accused of being a Communist, attacked by members of Congress and fellow journalists, and placed under surveillance by the FBI. She was the target of multiple death threats. In a Gallup poll in 1939, however, her approval rating with the public was 68 percent, while her husband’s was just 51 percent.
From this starting point, Cook’s final volume covers the years of World War II in depth, moving back and forth between ER’s public and private lives. While supporting US allies and troops, the first lady spoke out forcefully regarding many of the issues raised by the war: the slaughter of Jews in Europe, the lynching of African Americans at home, race riots in defense industries, race segregation in the military, restrictions for women in war work and the armed forces, the internment of Japanese American citizens, and the endless, isolationist, racist, and anti-Communist resistance from Congress, the State Department, and much of the public. At the same time, in letters, newspaper columns, and other venues, she shared her thoughts about plays seen, concerts heard, books read, grandchildren visited, and, always, Democratic politics. Central to her influence and her moods was her relationship with her husband.
Cook uses a wealth of primary and secondary sources to supplement ER’s own My Day columns (she published more than 8,000): her talks, books, articles, radio shows, television broadcasts, press conferences, and voluminous correspondence—especially with a group Cook calls ER’s “steadies,” to whom she revealed some of her inner feelings, frustrations, and joys. This core group included Esther Lape and Elizabeth Read, early activists and mentors from New York City; Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, ER’s long-serving personal secretary; Earl Miller, her handsome, fun-loving bodyguard; and the influential reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. While the relationship with Hick was no longer as intimate as described in Volume II, she remained ER’s dear friend and continued to live in the White House. As this volume begins, Joe Lash, a leader of the American Youth Congress, enters this close circle with his future wife, Trudy Pratt. There were tensions among all these people, others came and went, but ER sought emotional and political support, advice, and counsel from her steady confidantes, and they’re central in this biography.
Cook writes that “ER believed union rights, civil rights, and human rights would help create a peaceful world defined by economic security, housing, health, and freedom for all humanity.” She was passionately committed to these goals. Her 1940 book, The Moral Basis of Democracy, articulated the philosophy behind much of her activism. As war raged in Europe, ER called on fellow citizens to decide what democracy means, “to clarify in our minds the standards by which we live.” Equality was the basis of democracy, she argued, both political and economic. Within this framework ER addressed racial discrimination and the plight of war refugees. Cook skillfully shows how she educated the public, helped individuals and groups, and influenced her husband’s administration.
In the summer of 1940 alone, ER helped establish both the Committee for the Care of European Children and the Emergency Rescue Committee. Together with the journalist Varian Fry, she worked to save the lives of more than 2,000 Europeans. At the same time she pushed FDR and the State Department to do more not only for those being attacked in Europe by Hitler and Mussolini, but also for the Chinese suffering under Japanese occupation and, starting in 1942, for the Japanese Americans being sent to internment camps. Many of her efforts, however, were not successful. When the steamship SS St. Louis cruised the East Coast with 926 refugees, the US refused them entry. “To date,” writes Cook, “not one word about the St. Louis has been found in ER’s writings.” Her husband placed certain topics off limits for strategic and political reasons, and she complied.
From ER’s perspective, Cook effectively shines a light on the anti-Semitism of the US State Department. The strong resistance and obstruction that ER met with were experienced by others in the administration. When Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s efforts to rescue Jewish refugees were thwarted, he initiated a review of the State Department. Finally, in 1944, he took FDR his report, “On the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” According to Cook, the report detailed the complicity of people like Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a friend of FDR’s who was, in ER’s word a “fascist.” Long left the department, and an independent War Refugee Board was established, but rescue efforts were slow, and few doors were opened in the United States. ER later wrote “We let our consciences realize too late the need of standing up against something that we knew was wrong. We have therefore had to avenge it—but we did nothing to prevent it.” She carried this lesson to the United Nations.
In addition to helping refugees, civil rights was a second key part of ER’s social justice platform. She believed that racism must be eliminated, and that “[i]f democracy is to survive, it must be because it meets the needs of the people.” Cook details ER’s work on many issues with African American leaders including Walter White of the NAACP; A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Mary McLeod Bethune, director of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration; and Pauli Murray, the civil rights activist and lawyer. ER focused on ending the wage differences and deplorable conditions in defense plants faced by black and women workers. She fought for an end to racial segregation in housing and employment, and lobbied for the full integration of black and white women in the military. Cook documents several cases in which ER and her allies were successful in shifting policies, as well as helping individuals. The combat missions of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen and improvements in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), for example, are attributed in part to her support for their corps. She was unsuccessful, however, in other cases, such as the fight to save Odell Waller, a Virginia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his white landlord in self-defense. Although the case drew national attention and repeated interventions by ER, and eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, Waller was executed in 1942.
With her own four sons on active duty in the war, ER brought comfort to hundreds of thousands of US troops. In 1942, FDR asked her to go to England and Cook describes her task: “to use her personal warmth and diplomatic magic to fortify the Anglo-American alliance, encourage troop morale, and keep the United Nations together.” While often in disagreement with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, she successfully toured bombed-out sections of London, met with women’ s military organizations, visited factories, and talked with the troops. In 1943 she traveled from Hawaii to New Zealand, Australia, and seventeen Pacific Islands, visiting hospitals and recreation centers. In 1944, FDR asked her to go to the Caribbean and South America to visit military bases and diplomatic installations. She wrote columns for the public and reports for government officials about her travels, and of course maintained regular contact with the president.
When FDR excluded her from the war discussions, including from his trips to Teheran and Yalta for meetings with foreign leaders, she felt sidelined and angry. Yet, Cook argues, FDR’s 1944 message to Congress guaranteeing education, training, job security, and health care for returning veterans in what became known as the GI Bill reflected ER’s positions. The bill renewed her faith, and she was hopeful as plans for the United Nations moved forward.
Cook writes that ER was often lonely. She experienced periods of depression and longed for the kinds of loving relationships that she had experienced neither in her childhood nor her marriage. As Cook writes, Eleanor and Franklin had a strong partnership: supportive, respectful, affectionate. Yet their complex relationship also led to strong disagreements and even emotional damage. ER could not be uncritical of her husband—in fact, she came to feel she was the only person who would disagree with him and remind him of the values they had fought for together during the New Deal. While FDR sometimes felt frustrated with her, on a rare occasion in 1943, he gave a New Year’s toast “To the person who makes it possible for the president to carry on,” and raised a glass to his wife.
Cook covers the last seventeen years of ER’s life, after FDR’s death in 1945, in an epilogue. Yet, ER accomplished much in this period, from helping to create the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to chairing President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. Cook’s discussion of ER’s focus on race and refugees during the war makes an important contribution to our understanding of US history and Roosevelt herself, but this is not the full biography that those looking for more insight on ER’s late-life positions on education, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and politics may be looking for. Because of her evolving role in advancing women’s rights, this period in her life is of particular importance to historians of women.
ER brought a unique energy, self-discipline, skills, compassion, and love to those last years that deserve their own in-depth historical analysis. Cook has taken us through one more phase of this amazing woman’s life, illuminating her basic humanity, her many activities, her relationships, policies, and emotions. But the story isn’t over. The final volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography is still to come.
Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University. Her research and writing focus on women’s labor history and sex segregation in blue-collar employment. Her most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (2010).
The Firebrand and the First Lady:
Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
By Patricia Bell-Scott
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, 464 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Dayo F. Gore
On December 6, 1938, the lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray wrote to Franklin Roosevelt seeking to draw the second-term president’s attention to the widespread discrimination faced by African Americans. “Have you time to listen to the problem of one of your millions of fellow citizens, which will illustrate most clearly one of the problems of democracy in America?” she inquired. “I speak not only for myself but for 12,000,000 other citizens … I am a Negro, the most oppressed, the most misunderstood and the most neglected section of your population.”
Murray penned a companion letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the hope that ER would “try to understand” even if her husband did not. This proved a successful gambit, as Eleanor Roosevelt sent a reply some two weeks later assuring Murray that “I understand perfectly,” but cautioning her that “the South is changing, but don’t push too fast.” The scholar Patricia Bell-Scott explains that Murray’s two letters, which detail her frustration with Jim Crow segregation, mark the beginning of a more than twenty-year friendship and epistolary exchange between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bell-Scott’s exploration of the intriguing relationship between Murray, a young radical, and Roosevelt, a popular first lady and influential political figure more than twenty years Murray’s senior, provides the frame for her engaging history, The Firebrand and the First Lady. Murray’s lengthy correspondence with Roosevelt is not wholly unique, given both women’s letter-writing practices. Murray had numerous epistolary relationships, some with notable figures such as the NAACP legal activist and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and others with close friends and political allies such as the labor organizer Maida Springer Kemp. Recently, Murray’s forty years of correspondence with her mentor Caroline Ware was culled into an annotated collection by the historian Anna Firor Scott.
The Firebrand and the First Lady adds a new wrinkle to Murray and Roosevelt’s often-cited epistolary friendship by examining their extensive personal letters alongside oral interviews, recollections, published writings, and voluminous archival records to tell a broader and more expansive story. In so doing, Bell-Scott provides a richly textured portrait not only of the women’s evolving friendship but also of their individual lives and a selective but engaging history of post-1930s civil rights organizing and US race and gender politics.
Bell-Scott’s narrative opens with a Prelude describing Murray and Roosevelt’s first encounter at Camp Tera in 1934, when Murray is 33 and the first lady is in her fifties. (Camp TERA—Temporary Emergency Relief Assistance—was part of a federal camp program organized as a kind of counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps—the CCC—which offered work to men. Camp TERA and others were meant to offer respite to poor, sick, starving women.) Bell-Scott’s Prelude briefly outlines the formative aspects of each women’s childhood, family circumstances, and expectations—those that shaped each one’s sense of herself and led her to Camp TERA, Murray as a resident and Roosevelt as a celebrated visitor and champion of the program.
The story unfolds in brief chronological chapters that trace the development of the women’s friendship and activism from the 1930s until Murray’s death in 1984, providing valuable historical context for the brief biographical sketches that anchor the narrative. Readers receive a complete accounting of Murray’s adult life, but learn about only the last three decades of Roosevelt’s, who died in 1962. Murray’s eclectic and expansive life path is clearly the center of most of the chapters, although the narrative also provides a new entry point into Roosevelt’s more familiar biography.
Bell-Scott sketches Murray’s life, from her shifting career opportunities and ambitions, deep family connections, and expansive political affiliations and investments, to her struggles with her gender identity, same-sex desire, and health. She examines similar issues in Roosevelt’s life, including her husband’s affairs and illness, her own ambitions and passion for teaching, as well as her intimate friendships with women, including the journalist Lorena Hickok, a lesbian. Yet, although Bell-Scott acknowledges Murray’s struggle with gender identity and sexuality, and Roosevelt’s rumored lesbian relationships, neither is given full analysis it deserves.
Bell-Scott’s circumspect treatment of the women’s shared queer affinities and rejection of dominant gender norms submerges what was perhaps an important aspect of their friendship. For example, in a 1955 exchange, Murray includes a photo of herself in “pants, galoshes, a beanie cap and sweater” that she felt represents her “most natural self.” Roosevelt declares the picture “delightful.” Bell-Scott does not comment on how Murray’s desire for a more masculine presentation—and Roosevelt’s support for the practice—informed their friendship, even though it was Roosevelt’s “unpretentiousness” and rejection of the gendered expectations that caught Murray’s attention in their initial meeting.
The friendship was not just epistolary. Murray visited Roosevelt at her New York City apartment; in her upstate New York home, Val-Kill; and at the White House. Bell-Scott writes that Murray felt their simpatico was informed by the fact that both had lost parents at an early age and were raised by older relatives. Murray also found it significant that she and Roosevelt shared “Anna” as a rarely used first name, and that Roosevelt’s birthday fell one day after Murray’s mother’s.
Bell-Scott outlines the ways Murray and Roosevelt’s quite different personal experiences of oppression and privilege informed their friendship and particular investments in social justice. In their letters, they debated the pace of social change, institutional segregation, and the limits of liberal politics as well as their similar life experiences. They turned to each other for insight around a host of issues. Both supported economic, racial, and gender equality. In fact, Roosevelt confessed, if it hadn’t been for her husband, she would have joined Murray in voting for the socialist candidate Norman Thomas in the 1932 election. The first lady was a powerful supporter for the young and politically ambitious Murray, at times even willing to champion Murray’s causes to the president—although her efforts were not always successful. For example, at Murray’s urging, Roosevelt made “a personal appeal to the governor [of Virginia]” and to the president to spare the life of Odell Waller, a black sharecropper who had killed his white boss. But Waller was executed.
In turn, for Roosevelt, Murray represented an authentic voice of black America, whom Roosevelt often quoted in her weekly newspaper column. Murray defended the first lady in print and was a helpful listener as Roosevelt negotiated “her personal feelings” in the midst of her very public life, writes Bell-Scott.
This study illuminates the debates and differences between Murray and Roosevelt regarding “the struggle for social justice,” which they saw as concerned mainly with racial justice and women’s equality, although it could also extend to international politics. They often clashed over the pace of change, and Roosevelt came to view Murray as a “firebrand” who was at times guilty of “foolish things” such as Murray’s sharp critiques in both letters and writings of liberal officials’ (including the Roosevelts) acquiescence to racial segregation. Indeed, Murray herself was under no illusions that Roosevelt was anything other than “a regular Democrat,” writes Bell-Scott.
In her challenge to Roosevelt, Murray represented a younger generation of African American and women thinkers. Emerging from a US radical milieu shaped by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Depression, she was well versed in a range of communist thought and organizing. Her stay at Camp Tera, though significant, was curtailed: she was expelled after the director found her copy of Marx’s Das Kapital. She briefly joined the Jay Lovestone Communist Party (Opposition), and throughout her life was affiliated with the Socialist Party and its leading members, such as A. Philip Randolph.
Such political investments provide an alternative vision and useful contrast to Roosevelt’s more cautious liberalism. This is particularly striking as Bell-Scott traces their debates over the federal government’s refusal to intervene in Jim Crow segregation and Roosevelt’s urging for patience regarding demands for racial equality. It’s also visible in their discussions of World War II and postwar politics; the cold-war red scare, which had a devastating impact on Murray’s career; and the NAACP’s successful efforts to challenge segregation, which culminated in the Brown v Board of Education decision invalidating the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which Roosevelt celebrated vicariously through Murray, who was overjoyed by the court decision. Bell-Scott also draws on their political lives to detail Roosevelt’s involvement in the founding of the United Nations, which Murray championed and followed closely; both women’s roles in the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), which Roosevelt chaired; and Murray’s key activism in addressing race and gender discrimination in her support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and her role in the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) two years later.
Ultimately, Murray’s longstanding political identity as a self-described “revolutionary pacifist” with “an independent inquiring mind” made it difficult for her to find common cause with Roosevelt and other mainstream liberals—yet she was also marginalized in the male dominated, heteronormative civil rights movement. She was antagonistic to the militant politics emerging from the left even as she was still tainted as communist and un-American by cold-war red-baiting. Bell-Scott sidesteps this lifelong tension in Murray’s left-liberal politics, as she acknowledges but minimizes Murray’s longstanding connection to socialism. Bell-Scott’s narrative is unabashedly progressive: she depicts Murray moving away from her youthful radicalism and toward mainstream liberal politics and the Democratic Party. Thus, in the book’s final section Bell-Scott writes, “Murray had come a long way from voting socialist …to embracing the southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964” as a “registered but independent Democrat.” The shift, Bell-Scott notes, would have “delighted Roosevelt,” and she presents it as the natural culmination of their friendship and Murray’s maturity. While this framing makes for a seamless narrative, it minimizes Murray’s ideological investments and elides the ways McCarthyism and cold war anticommunism foreclosed not only Murray’s career but also her brand of left-liberal politics.
Overall The Firebrand and the First Lady is a vivid, detailed, and compelling history. In delineating Murray and Roosevelt’s deep friendship, and in its attentiveness to both their personal biographies and their political activism, the book provides a much-needed, fuller account of Murray’s life than we’ve had before, as well as a useful reading of Roosevelt’s politics and personality. While greater attention to the nuances of Murray’s left politics, and Roosevelt and Murray’s common ground in challenging dominant gender and sexual norms, would have provided a fuller picture of their political vision and a more powerful lens into their friendship and shared investment in the struggle for social justice, the study nevertheless provides important details concerning these issues. Moreover, the centering of the women’s own voices produces an absorbing portrait of these two individuals and the era in which they lived and worked.
Dayo F. Gore is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011) and co-editor of Want to Start of Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (2009).