Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
By Rosemary Sullivan
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 752 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lesley Rimmel
Rosemary Sullivan’s subtitle says it all: Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life was “extraordinary and tumultuous.” This is a hefty volume about a remarkable woman who seemed both familiar to me yet also sui generis. She endured countless tragedies, especially deaths and separations, partially relieved by interludes of relative happiness. She famously defected to the United States in 1967. But, as Alliluyeva complained, “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.” To the end of her life, she had to contend with the burden of being the only daughter (and only surviving child) of one of history’s “most brutal dictators,” writes Sullivan.With the help of Alliluyeva’s published writings, her voluminous correspondence, and interviews with many of those who knew her personally, Sullivan has crafted a solid biography that is nearly impossible to put down.
This monumental book begins with a preface outlining the arc of Alliluyeva’s eventful life, and it includes an extended family tree, helpful for keeping track of relatives and relationships. An expanded list of Alliluyeva’s most important friends, relatives, and other associates is appended to the main text.
The book unfolds as an almost Shakespearean drama, with Alliluyeva’s defection as the central dramatic point. Following the preface is a prologue that details the first days of her defection to the US Embassy in India, where she had gone to scatter the ashes of her would-be husband, Brajesh Singh, whom the Soviet government had refused to allow her to marry. Alliluyeva suddenly decided to take the opportunity to escape her treatment as a “national relic.” It was International Women’s Day, and she knew the Soviet Embassy staff would be too preoccupied with their libations to notice her absence until it was too late. This is an exciting and suspenseful chapter—but it does not spoil Sullivan’s extended treatment of the defection midway through the book, as I had feared it might. Instead, this device helps fortify readers for the tragedy-filled times to come.
The book next retraces Alliluyeva’s earliest years, “that place of sunshine,” as she called her childhood, to which she would “always turn … for solace.” What made those years so beguiling in Alliluyeva’s memory was the presence of her extended family, including the Svanidzes, Stalin’s in-laws through his late first wife Ekaterina, who had died shortly after the birth of their son Yakov, in 1907; and Stalin’s in-laws from his much younger second wife, Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva. In addition, members of Stalin’s circle often functioned as doting “uncles.”
There was only one missing link in this warm, “Chekhovian” household (as Sullivan describes it): Alliluyeva’s mother Nadya. She was a serious, even austere woman, devoted to being a good Communist and always endeavoring to upgrade her education and qualifications (a trait Alliluyeva would share), a disciplinarian who was often away from home because of work obligations. The only letter Alliluyeva ever received from her, at age six, was one admonishing her to behave better. It was 1932, a time of extreme stress in the country, with the first Five-Year-Plan of rushed industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture creating violence, starvation, and resentment among the population. At a celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution for Kremlin leaders and their families in November, Stalin and Nadya suddenly had strong words, after which she returned to her apartment and shot herself to death.
Alliluyeva, at six-and-a-half, could only register her mother’s death as abandonment. She could not help identifying with her father, who (in his way) coddled her and made believe that she was his “little hostess,” manipulative as this was. Not until ten years later did Alliluyeva—under orders during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) to polish her English and study American history—find out the truth about her mother’s suicide, in a British newspaper. Along with the deaths of many of her relatives in the Great Terror of the late 1930s, for which she was discovering her father was largely responsible, the revelation was “shattering,” writes Sullivan. It led to her gradual break from her father and identification with the long-gone and ever-mysterious Nadya, although learning of the suicide did not remove Alliluyeva’s feeling of abandonment.
By the time Alliluyeva was a teenager, she was trying to pull away from the family confines in the Kremlin. Stalin was, like most parents, concerned about the men she dated. But unlike most teenaged girls, Alliluyeva had to put up with a bodyguard always tailing her, secret police agents rifling through her belongings and listening in on her phone calls—as well as the sentencing of one of her lovers to a labor camp. Life in this gilded cage brought her additional loneliness, which she tried to assuage through marriages: she had a great capacity and need for love. In both her personal and professional lives, she yearned for partnerships—but Stalin and his successors were always trying to thwart them. Her first marriage at eighteen to a Jewish friend of her brother’s did not win the blessing of the anti-Semitic Stalin, whose reactionary sexual politics led him to see Alliluyeva as “damaged goods” in any case. The marriage of these two young people lasted three years and brought them a son. Two more Soviet husbands (and one daughter) followed, with each union a year shorter than the previous one. There were numerous romances, all with top literary intellectuals, who appreciated Alliluyeva’s depth of thinking. When at last Alliluyeva—free of her father, who died in 1953—found the man she considered her “soulmate,” Brajesh Singh, he was already dying. The aftermath of Singh’s death set the scene for her hasty decision to defect. She did not even have time to consider how leaving would affect her son and daughter.
Alliluyeva’s life was almost evenly divided between the Soviet Union and the United States, and her life, work, and loves were equally turbulent in both countries. Her defection to the US was a huge media event, and the previously private Alliluyeva handled press conferences with aplomb. She published her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967), a memoir in epistolary form of her family in the USSR; it achieved great success and, as her American handlers had hoped, helped to ensure that she was not dependent on US government financial support. She made many friends, including with literary figures and senior American specialists on Soviet affairs, such as the US diplomat George Kennan. His warm correspondence with Alliluyeva reveals an unexpected side of the usually distant Kennan, who helped set her up in Princeton, where she lived for a few years, until the late 1968 break-up of her tempestuous relationship with the author Louis Fischer, her neighbor.
The break-up left her feeling humiliated and betrayed, and her behavior was extreme. One evening she drove to Fischer’s house while his editorial assistant/new inamorata was with him. Alliluyeva banged on the door and demanded that he return the letters she had sent him. After an hour with no response, she broke the glass panels framing the door. The police found her “bleeding and hysterical,” writes Sullivan. Enraged by the ensuing gossip swirling around her, Alliluyeva later drove her car into Fischer’s house. Sullivan does not merely recount such events; she comments on them with sympathy and sensitivity. She also stands back and asks difficult questions. Was Alliluyeva mentally unstable? Was she paranoid? Her angry letters later in life to those who had earlier helped her, such as Kennan, were vindictive, and the relationships did not fully recover. As for paranoia, no one who lived in Stalin’s time or even afterward could survive without a certain dose of fear and caution, and it could be difficult to turn off that sense of watchfulness, as many émigrés can attest. And the KGB still had Alliluyeva in its sights.
Once she settled into the US, people from all over the world began writing to her, which she appreciated. Not long before she left Princeton to tour America by car, she received a life-changing letter from Olgivanna Wright, the third wife and widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Olgivanna, a Montenegrin whose mother had once ridden to battle on horseback against the Turks, was now the head of Wright’s architectural movement, the Taliesin Fellowship, members of which spent summers in Arizona. Olgivanna—a self-styled mystic who had built up her own “cult of personality” (the term Nikita Khrushchev famously applied to Stalin)—insisted that Alliluyeva visit on her way to California. Olgivanna had lost a daughter, also named Svetlana, in an accident, and she believed that she and Stalin’s daughter were destined to meet. Alliluyeva took the bait, imagining that Olgivanna might resemble the late Nadya.
Alliluyeva found Taliesin strange, but she stayed on, and in three weeks she was married again, to Wesley Peters, Taliesin’s chief architect and the widower of the late Sveltlana. Olgivanna Wright had blamed Peters for her daughter’s death, and his guilt made him easy to manipulate. Furthermore, Wright believed the false rumors that Stalin had hidden gold in Switzerland for his daughter—and the foundation’s leaders intended to obtain that money for Taliesin, to maintain its opulent lifestyle. While the wedding she had engineered was taking place, her agents quietly maneuvered to get Alliluyeva’s financial resources for the Fellowship. In an unfortunate coincidence, not long after the marriage, Alliluyeva asked to have her own money transferred from a trust to her personally, so she could access it without having to go through lawyers and trustees, which she found demeaning—but which her advisers had felt (with good reason) was prudent. Stalin had taught his daughter to live frugally, so until then, she had barely touched the $1.5 million in her account. But once married, she believed that it was in her interest as a wife to pay off Peters’s debts; because of his out-of-control shopping sprees these had mounted to half a million dollars.
Alliluyeva then learned that the Foundation had contacted her lawyers and requested that her charitable trust make annual contributions of $30,000 to the Foundation. Infuriated, she denied the request, but the Foundation managed to find other ways of obtaining at least one payment of $30,000 (it charged Alliluyeva for apartment repairs that architectural apprentices had performed for free). Finally, Alliluyeva realized that Wright was using her for her money and fame. She moved out of Taliesin and into an apartment fifteen minutes away, leaving open the possibility that Peters might wean himself from Wright and move in with her—although she was also pushing for a divorce. Peters tried to delay it, primarily because he was still spending Alliluyeva’s money. Marathon efforts by Alliluyeva’s lawyers produced a divorce in 1972. The marriage had been doomed from the start. The two could not even agree on what they disagreed about. Alliluyeva asserted that she could not stand Taliesin because it was too communal, saying, “I believe in private property … that’s why I left Russia.” Yet Peters feared that “her mind had been conditioned by years of Communist training to the point she rejects the highly individualized life.”
Wright, in taking advantage of someone still learning her way around the American financial system, engineered probably the worst betrayal of Alliluyeva’s life. Sullivan describes Wright’s machinations in the passive voice, but it is obvious that she was behind the dealings, with Peters acquiescing. In the end, the money Alliluyeva spent to pay off Peters’s debts and those of his grown son was wasted on luxuries and the son’s failed farm. Alliluyeva would spend the rest of her life trying to keep herself and Olga, her daughter with Peters, afloat—whether back East, in England, or in the USSR. Olga became the great love of her life.
Both the Soviets and the Americans sometimes alleged that Alliluyeva was a “princess.” In the USSR she had always had food and shelter, which was not a given for millions during the Stalin years. She had attended an elite school. Later, she had access to (relatively) safe abortion, when it was outlawed for other women. For a short time, she even had possession of her passport, which was how she managed to leave the USSR legally. But unlike her brother Vasily, who expected to be treated like a crown prince, Alliluyeva rarely pulled rank, and then usually for a just cause. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty, and preferred to do her own work, even when that included scrubbing floors.
Stalin’s Daughter ends beautifully: I was sobbing in the library. It rarely hits a false note. There are few errors and little in the Soviet section that I would dispute, while I learned a lot in the American part. I strongly urge readers to choose the full version of the book (rather than the abridged paperback). Alliluyeva would have liked it—except perhaps for the title.
Lesley Rimmel teaches Russian and Eurasian History at Oklahoma State University, where she is also a core faculty member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program. Her research interests focus on political and social violence in the Soviet Union.
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
By Katherine Zoepf
New York: Penguin Press, 2016, 258 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lila Abu-Lughod
Katherine Zoepf introduces Excellent Daughters by telling us that as an aspiring young reporter, she had to overcome her fear that “women’s issues were somehow unserious.” And like many of us who have lived in the Arab world, she found herself cringing at the views “back home.” Deploring the gap between “reputation and reality” Zoepf sets out to show that Arab women’s lives give lie to the simplistic narratives of victimhood that circulate in American media and minds.
Zoepf is thoughtful, modest, and open. Her writing is uncluttered. She has a good eye for social trends and a sensitive ear, and she tells vivid, believable stories about the young women she met in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. She shows not a trace of the self-promotion, polemic, or prejudice that colors so much popular writing on this subject. Even the way she defines her subject sets her apart. Zoepf is concrete and specific. This is partly a function of her book’s origin—in stories she filed as a reporter from particular places at particular times between 2006 and 2011. But it is refreshing, given how many other popular writers pronounce on the generic figure of the American imagination that miriam cooke, professor of Arabic literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University, has called the “Muslimwoman.”
Wanting to know more after 9/11, Zoepf went to London to study. Then she headed off to the region to study Arabic. She didn’t go to Cairo or Beirut, where she might have been tempted to surround herself with other Americans. She went to the great historic Arab city of Damascus which, in 2004, was on the cusp of gentrification. A sense of calm prevailed, maintained, as Zoepf points out, by the (not so) secret police. Dissidence was kept in check, but it was there for a curious stringer to search out, whether in women’s Quranic study groups or nongovernmental human rights organizations. It is hard now to think back to that other moment, that other Syria.
Zoepf is at her best in the later chapters, like the 2010 story about the debates about women’s driving in Saudi Arabia. She captures the density of the political terrain through the variety of opinions she encountered. She talks to women whose supportive husbands had taught them to drive. She talks to activists who insist that fighting for civil rights is more important than driving. She explains women’s enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey, who assures women that they can overcome their circumstances and create lives of value. And she interviews many women who oppose radical change, ending the chapter with a campaign run by an activist in stiletto-heel sandals whose friend explains, “The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love.” She tells us this book is about the “remarkable women” who are transforming the Arab world. This is a hopeful message-in-a-bottle tossed onto the sea of gloom about Middle Eastern women as victims, in which most American journalism is swimming. Yet the message is mixed.
US policies have been devastating for people living in the Arab world. Zoepf mentions that she reported from Baghdad. Unfortunately she does not include any of those articles in this book. The consequences of US intervention in Iraq—from sanctions to “shock and awe,” regime change, and the legislation of sectarianism—continue to unfold from Palmyra to Paris like some slow motion nightmare. Nothing about young Arab women’s hopes or despair can be understood outside this context, about which Zoepf is silent.
Her book opens instead at a garden party in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2007. A group of young women, former high school classmates, giggle and pass around cellphone photos while eating marshmallows roasted by Filipina servants. They are excited about the first of their cohort to get engaged. Zoepf mentions in passing that some of them are studying law. Later in the book, she will tell us that across the Arab world (just as in the US) more women than men are pursuing higher education. She concludes the chapter with a moment of self-doubt.
When, in 2014, I heard the news that a Saudi woman had opened a law firm for the first time, I reread my notes from the evening in Reem’s garden and was disappointed at how many pages I’d devoted to Disney World honeymoons and how few I’d written about the first cohort of Saudi women students.
However, instead of going on to rectify the imbalance by telling us more about these students (as does Amélie le Renard, a French ethnographer and the author of A Society of Young Women (2014), about how Saudi Arabia’s women university students are reshaping social norms and formations), Zoepf simply says, “Sometimes, I reminded myself, this is what a vanguard looks like: ponytailed and giggling and eating marshmallows.”
Zoepf confesses that some of the young women she interviewed felt betrayed, even angry, when they read her stories. All of us who write about others struggle with how to represent them, especially when we translate across contexts and write for different publics. Should we brush aside their reactions? Or should we take them to heart and correct for what we may have inadvertently missed? Here is where the pressures of the market in the context of American journalism about the Middle East make themselves felt, despite Zoepf’s good intentions.
Zoepf’s publisher, Penguin, probably bet that this book would be as well received as her reporting, since the public has an apparently insatiable appetite for “glimpses behind the veil.” Where would the pressure come from to substantially rethink what she had written years earlier? Who would have asked her to ferret out the stubborn remnants of accepted wisdom that lurk in her account? If Zoepf had been challenged, she might have reconsidered the sexual undercurrent that runs through her stories. Feminists insist that respecting women means not reducing them to sex. But western portrayals of the Arab and Muslim world have long been infused with sexual fantasy, and unfortunately this lives on in western media. Virgins make their first appearance on page four of Excellent Daughters. From then on, we can’t escape sex. Zoepf uses as a chapter title the sexist remark of an old Lebanese professor who told her that young Beiruti women are “the most promiscuous virgins in the world.” How would he know? Why make lingerie sales the fulcrum of a story about women’s employment in Saudi Arabia? And why open a peephole into the marital chambers of the Prophet Muhammad?
Even Zoepf’s good coverage of the January 25, 2011, uprising in Egypt ends up turning on sex. The Egyptian women activists who protested in Tahrir Square were some of the first to analyze the political failings of a regime that was one of American’s best friends in the region. I would have liked to learn more about the substance of their critiques of a regime that had impoverished its citizens with the encouragement of US development experts and international financial institutions, stripping away social welfare policies and labor rights. Instead, the chapter’s focus is on the virginity examinations conducted by the military on some women demonstrators. Public outrage and women’s courageous protests against these despicable arrests and torture indeed altered the debates about women in Egypt. Still, this was only one moment in Egyptian women’s long and varied political struggles.
Had she been challenged, Zoepf also might have managed to resist writing about the hijab/niqab/abaya/chador/burqa. To her credit, she tries. More winningly than any writer I have come across, she domesticates these items of clothing by telling us how she felt wearing them: not a big deal. But expectations must be fed. She excuses her capitulation by explaining that veiling is a subject of discussion and debate among young Arab women themselves. However, the sentiments and the effects are radically different in the American context. A second lesson of feminism—that we should not define women by their clothing or looks—apparently does not have permission to travel East.
Zoepf’s sensible reporting also occasionally gets derailed by standard clichés and double standards. A US reporter covering, for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign would be laughed out of town if she presented a lesson about the life of Jesus to explain the sexism Clinton encounters. Yet Zoepf inserts a potted history of seventh-century Islam to explain the dilemmas faced by flight attendants on major Gulf airlines and the legal maneuverings of a fractious criminal family in Syria. She drags out the “clash of modernity and tradition” to explain what she saw in the prisons, malls, and protests of the Arab world.
New York Times columnists have gone far with this rubbish, but Zoepf should know better. In the twenty-first century, no traditional society anywhere is suddenly encountering modernity. People’s material lives in the Arab world have been as deeply marked by the major global transformations of the last couple of centuries as have Americans’. Yet in US journalism and politics, Arabs—especially women—are represented as imprisoned in a world of tradition—thus justifying interventions to bring them into modernity, by force if necessary.
We need journalists. I admire them for saying so much in so few words, and I don’t envy them the pressures they live with to write to short deadlines. But their practice of setting up a separation wall against the world of scholarship is unfortunate. Zoepf’s apparent loyalty to the standard operating procedures of her profession prevents her from considering the extraordinary feminist scholarship that exists now on the very topics she covers.
A bit more sheltered than journalists from the imperatives of the market, scholars enjoy more of the “right to tell people what they do not want to hear” that George Orwell defended in the preface he wrote to Animal Farm (1945). As I read Excellent Daughters, I kept thinking how interested Zoepf would have been in the books that I read and teach about women in the Arab world. Not everyone need be fluent in Arabic. Not everyone has the temperament or resources to spend years researching a subject. But we can all learn from those who do.
With these academic studies to hand, Zoepf might have been better able to resist the demands of American political interests and publics. For example, Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (2013) reveals surprising facts about “underground sisterhood” of the Qubaysiyat—an organization of pious Muslim women—that Zoepf was frustrated not to be able to penetrate. Grewal spent a year in Damascus just before Zoepf arrived. For her research on transnational Muslim education, she met American women converts who were pursuing their religious studies with the Qubaysiyat. The shadowy sisterhood suddenly appears less foreign, less inaccessible.
What might Zoepf have written about young Lebanese women had she read Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon (2006)? Deeb writes about Shi’a women who live in Dahiya—a very different neighborhood of the divided city of Beirut from the area of nightclubs and the American University campus that Zoepf visited. Deeb explores the lives of religiously committed women who are challenging gender expectations through charity work, religious study and debate, and public piety.
An Enchanted Modern was published a year before Zoepf filed her story from Beirut, just as Israeli warplanes terrorized the Hizballah neighborhood in which these women live, turning it into a mess of bodies, rubble, and tangled rebar. Her second ethnographic study would have been even more relevant. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut (2013), co-written with Mona Harb, an urbanist, is about how the “excellent daughters” of the Shi’a community are negotiating moral norms now that their neighborhood has risen from the ashes to become a vibrant leisure destination, bursting with cafés and restaurants that cater to the young, fashionable—and pious.
We need scholars most when we find women transforming their world in ways that challenge American expectations or interests. Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (2015) came out too late for Zoepf to read. [WRB’s review of Soft Force is forthcoming in 2017.] Its author, Ellen McLarney, like Zoepf, grew up in a religious family in the Midwest, but took a different path. Her meticulous translations from Arabic and respectful analysis of an influential body of Arab women’s writing is enlightening. She enables us to understand the ways some Arab women are trying to think through the social and spiritual responsibilities of being Muslim. Philosophical, intellectual, and political discussion about the proper relationships between Islam and democracy, citizenship and virtue, or motherhood and leadership, is as much a part of the “secret lives” of young women in the Arab world as roasting marshmallows and dreaming of Disney World.
Why should journalists deny themselves access to this scholarship? Journalists and scholars need each other, especially if we hope, as Zoepf rightly does, to persuade people that ordinary women everywhere are transforming their worlds.
To see Lila Abu-Lughod’s list of “Ten Great Academic Books to Read on Women in the Arab World,” see www.wcwonline.org/women=books.
Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University where she teaches anthropology and women’s studies. Her most recent book is Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013), and the thirtieth anniversary edition of her first ethnography, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, with a new afterword, was just published in September 2016.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith
Edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, with Barbara Smith
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, 324 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by A.J. Verdelle
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reads with the definite tone and portraiture of a documentary film. Subtitled, Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, the book constitutes a significant historical document as well as an intertextual biography of Barbara Smith, a feminist activist and collective builder; a one-time elected official in Albany, New York; and a contributor to progressive and feminist causes as a scholar, publisher, and author. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around collects primary documents—including interviews, campaign posters, photographs, reproductions of broadsides, and impressively contextualized statements from some of the collectives and groups Smith either participated in or founded. Smith, well-known among feminists and lesbians and writers of the 1970s and beyond, has a definite place in history and herstory. This documentary text proves her agency, her initiative, and her mettle.
Smith’s is not a household name, but her work fits alongside womanist activists such as Alice Walker, feminist organizers such as Gloria Steinem, and radical lesbian theorists such as Cherríe Moraga. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around reveals and re-establishes Smith in her rightful place, at the vanguard of the progressive, feminist, and black feminist movements. Like any original, and like many activists, Smith worked with energy and a keen sense of innovation. The book chronicles black feminism and lesbian activism almost from their recorded beginnings. Depending on the organization and the task at hand, Smith changed hats: she could be an architect, a general contractor or, in the trenches, a construction worker. As an organizer, a pioneer, and a collective member, an agitator and dreamer, Smith was important because she was willing to wear a hard hat, in revolutionary times.
Smith’s activist story begins in the 1970s, an era characterized by civil rights struggles that continued from the 1960s, and legislative advances that were hard-fought and not completely successful. In historic civil rights negotiations, black women often played supporting roles. As feminism was being formulated and advanced, black women’s issues were, in the main, excluded. Smith involved herself strategically, founding organizations and participating in actions designed to increase black women’s visibility and the viability of black women’s causes.
Probably her most well-known work was with the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group active between 1974 and 1980, whose statement of principles is still widely read and taught in women’s studies courses as a foundational feminist document. The statement was written in 1977 and first published in Zillah Eisenstein’s Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, in 1979. It broke a trend of erasure and silence.
“We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,” it explained, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. When people like black women (and men) face multiple oppressions, their struggles combine geometrically, not arithmetically. Multidimensionality creates struggles that are vaster and more complicated than a simple sum of their parts.
Reflecting on the founding of the Combahee River Collective, Smith writes, We were very clear that we were building something really, really important. The Combahee River Collective was originally a chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, so we knew we were part of something bigger than just what we were doing in Boston. We were networked with Black feminists in different parts of the country: up and down the East Coast, and also in Chicago and California. Wherever we could find each other by phone or by letter. … I always knew we were changing history with the work that we were involved in. Most of us had been involved in other Leftist movements, so we had a sense of historical meaning and how organizing develops and moves forward. We knew we were not operating in a vacuum.
She goes on to explain that
Understanding your own identity and making connections with others who don’t share that identity is part and parcel of the same work. We were much more able as Black women and Black lesbian feminists to connect to others because identity politics gave us that confidence, it gave us that grounding … . We were less easy to intimidate, and because we an an analysis, we understood how the isms and the oppressions connected to each other.
The Combahee River Collective promoted a mode of analysis that we would now call “intersectionality.” The statement also helped to popularize the notion of “identity politics.” Smith explains that together, these ways of thinking
assert that it is legitimate to look at the elements of a combined identity that included affiliation or connection to several marginalized groups in this society. There is meaning in being not solely a person of color, not solely Black, not solely female, not solely lesbian, not solely working class or poor. There is a new constellation of meanings when those identities were combined… Black politics at that time, as defined by males, did not completely or sufficiently address the actual circumstances of real, live Black women.
In 1977, when the statement was formulated, identity politics was new. It provided a platform for women of color to become part of the political dialogue. The statement astutely identifies the suspicion with which people viewed identity politics. In the 1970s, black women, long relegated to subservience and subjected to notions of inferiority, presented themselves more assertively and more collectively as whole human beings, defined by common characteristics and unquiet humanity. Barbara Smith was a voice in the cadre of black women who stood up and spoke up and eschewed subservient silence. The Combahee statement noted that feminism must create space for both white and black women to articulate their needs and advocate for their rights. That black women would demand to be seen, considered, named—this was revolutionary, even though from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the general confusion around this notion seems mildly, if not wholly, ridiculous. The statement explained the collective’s process:
We empowered ourselves by looking at our situation, making observations about it, drawing conclusions, and saying, We’re here, we deserve to be here, and understand that when we talk, we’re talking from all these different experiences.
In the winter of 1979, the active and energized Combahee Collective turned its attention to the murders of several young black women in Boston. Smith reports that the initial six murders—ultimately the total rose to thirteen—were reported in the back of the Boston Globe, along with the racing results. Smith reports that she was “steaming” with outrage that the murders happened, that the women’s bodies were found in garbage bags near a shoe factory, that the press did not handle the murders as urgent or significant. The question, Smith writes, was “bandied about”: Who is killing us? At first, Smith aptly and insightfully reports, the question was handled as if it was rhetorical. Then, the Combahee Collective joined with CRISIS, an organization led by Marlene Stephens, an activist from Boston’s South End neighborhood, to organize around the unsolved murders. Smith identifies the work the two organizations did together to publicize and demand a solution to the Boston murders as an active expression of solidarity, built through practice.
Smith presents a sad coda to the organizing—although it does, in a way, testify to the power of feminist activism. She points out that the coalition’s campaign against the murders is not generally remembered, and that “[t]he reason I think the analysis and the response diminishes or disappears is because we don’t have these organizations, these little cells of radical women of color, to keep that stirred up and to keep that consciousness uppermost and going.”
In 1980, Smith and other black feminist activists founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, whose mission, unique at the time, was to publish and preserve stories by women of color. It was, Smith wrote in her essay “A Press of Our Own” (in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies ), “to be both an activist and a literary publisher.” Probably the press’s most significant titles were This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (second edition, 1983); and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Smith (1983). The press published poetry and short stories by women of color such as Cheryl Clarke, Mitsuye Yamada, and Gloria T. Hull, as well as the Freedom Organizing Pamphlet series, which included works such as Barbara Omolade’s The Real Lives of Black Single Mothers (1985). Through Kitchen Table, Smith and her colleagues promoted discussion of the issues facing black women, across the spectrum of marital status, standing as a mother, and sexual preference.
In 1982, Smith, together with co-editors Patricia Bell Scott and Gloria (Akasha) T. Hull, published the anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. With its eye-popping green cover, it enlivened and invigorated black women’s studies in a way that cannot be overstated, as it helped to “create, validate and institutionalize black women’s studies,” writes Smith. The book practically shook the shelves of women’s bookstores—institutions that were beacons and havens in those days.
Smith’s work on intersecting oppressions has inspired and influenced new generations of activists. One such organization, the Black Feminist Working Group, created a twelve-point plan based on the examples of the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panther Party. Smith explains that the Crunk Feminist Collective—founded in 2010, as “a women-and-men-of-color scholar activist group,” according to Crunk’s Facebook page—is “in the historical continuum” of the kind of feminist work she has devoted much of her energy to. Crunk’s mission says that it aims to “create a space of support and camaraderie for the Hip Hop generation.” According to Smith, the women in Crunk are individually involved in political work, but unlike Combahee, the Crunk collective as a whole is not politically involved. Nonetheless, the Crunk Feminist Collective’s “Letter to Patriarchy” is well-known and influential among women’s studies scholars.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is full of primary documents, with minimal interpretative language and maximum historical presentation of fact: it’s an amazing web of Smith’s connections and involvements and alliances and innovations and essays and speeches and activist outcomes. This is why the documentary format suits. The moments need capturing, with the same kind of functionality as photographs. The interviews here function something like still images: they reveal voices and contributors to the work, much as portraits recall the people who stood in the trenches, who fought the good fight. Smith’s commentary in interviews and notes on the primary sources provides insight into her progressive and activist work, developed during a time when feminism was evolving, when progressive causes were sprouting and becoming critical and urgent, and when the contributions of black women were definitely needed to augment the feminist argument. Jones and Eubanks’s editorial transitions bridge two eras: a past that was devoid of black women’s concerns, and a future that—thanks in part to Smith’s energy, intellect, and commitment—contains both woman-centered ideas and strategies for black women’s involvement in emergent feminism.
Smith performed her work in good company. Many feminists and scholars were involved in the groups she founded and in which she participated. One of the real benefits of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around is encountering the voices of so many black feminists. Cited throughout are Smith’s partners and co-activists, including editors Eubanks and Jones; scholars Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Alexis Pauline Gumbs; and progressive activists Elsa Brown, Deborah King, Barbara Ransby, Vera Michelson, and Jooh-Hyan Kang. The book’s inclusive format expresses Smith’s collectivist and inclusive politics and approach to organizing.
Activism requires work and insight and effort, and plain dogged persistence. It requires timing, acumen, and charisma. An effective activist must possess the communication skill and drive to see the need for change and to advocate for transformation, revolution, adjustment, forward motion. She must have the charm and the wherewithal to convince others to join the effort. She can’t quit. Activists who make widely observable change are rare—but Smith is one of them. She has worked consistently over decades to acknowledge the struggles of black women and to establish a black feminist critique, insisting that progressive and feminist conversations include black women’s realities and that black power is not only about black men. As an elected official in Albany, New York, Smith worked in multiple communities, beyond those of identity.
The offerings in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around will attract eye-witnesses: women who were directly or tangentially involved in the organizing the book documents and who want to see how history has registered their activities. The documentary form will also engage students, the studied, and the curious—those who want to learn how a historical transition evolved. And the book contextualizes, explicates, and answers basic, urgent questions: who did what, when, and why? How were ideas developed, how did they become interconnected, and how did black feminists like Smith make change happen? Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around ensures that Smith will be rightfully embedded in the history of the causes she worked for so diligently and unceasingly. The work continues, a reality to which the building and release of this book attests.
A.J. Verdelle writes novels, essays, and reviews books. She teaches creative writing to undergraduates at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, and in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema
By Laura Horak
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016, 311 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erin Trahan
Clothing offers a visible and sometimes even measurable marker of gender and sexuality. That makes it ripe for study within the visual medium of film. The film scholar Laura Horak makes an impressive debut with Girls Will Be Boys by looking at how clothes relate to gender roles during cinema’s formative years, from 1908 to 1934. That’s before commercialization, consolidation, and the star system cemented Hollywood as one of the United States’ most potent cultural exports. It’s also before those influences narrowed Hollywood’s depictions of what supposedly makes a girl a girl, a woman a lesbian, and so forth.
Horak wants readers to know that gender rigidity, and the negativity associated with lesbians in particular, hasn’t always been cinema’s norm. The forgetting of film history is one of the book’s top concerns, and it’s a legitimate one. Cross-dressed images of the international stars Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn (who are discussed at length in chapter five) could jar even an educated cinemagoer into thinking, “Wow, she dressed as a man and kept getting roles?” Yet their films are in circulation and frequently studied. Girls Will Be Boys offers an explanation.
Horak’s research singlehandedly increases the record of silent-era films known to include crossed-dressed women from 37 to more than 400. Sadly, only some 200 of the films still exist. Horak tracked them down and provides scene analyses that in some cases measure down to the second. Throughout the book she effectively deploys this research, using quotes from film reviews, newspaper articles, advertisements, film ephemera, and more to illuminate and bolster her case. Moreover she includes a list of films and their archival locations in the book’s appendix.
Horak’s two-part book opens with an explanation of why females were so frequently cast as male characters in early American cinema. It wasn’t to pander for laughs or incur moral scorn. Rather, during the boom era for “female boy performers,” from 1908 to 1921 (a majority of the 476 total films Horak considers are of young women in boy roles), it was thought that only a girl actor could embody the ideal of boyhood on screen. “Female boys were considered more expressive, more beautiful, more innocent, and more vulnerable than boys played by male actors,” Horak explains. She ties this to a shifting appraisal of youth in general: “In contrast to Puritan and Enlightenment conceptions of the child as fallen or flawed, the Romantic child was innocent, spiritual, and wise. The child’s beauty attested to its goodness.”
Moral heft was exactly what the burgeoning form of cinema sought in its early years. That’s why casting girls in boys’ roles was a common practice among film companies like Vitagraph, Biograph, and Thanhouser, among others. The intent and result, according to Horak, was to improve cinema’s reputation and brand film companies as respectable. After all, they were borrowing the cultural cachet from the theater, where cross-dressing goes back centuries. (While Horak provides scant discussion of cross-dressed male performers, she maintains that those roles were limited to comedy. She observes, “While men’s clothing could make women more attractive to both men and women on-screen, women’s clothing most often made men undesirable to everyone.”)
So it was that the adolescent Marie Eline, who strikes an androgynous pose in tuxedo and top hat on the book’s cover, became the star of Thanhouser Company by playing both girl and boy roles. An exemplar of the era, Eline played boys “in at least thirty-seven films between 1910 and 1914, when she was between the ages of eight and twelve,” writes Horak. What’s more, Eline was dubbed the Thanhouser Kid and dressed in both boy and girl garb in publicity photos. In a similar case, Edna “Billy” Foster played boys in fourteen D.W. Griffith films and was marketed predominantly as a boy. She and Eline set the scene for Horak’s deeper plunge into the complicated ways in which female boys predominated in the films of the 1910s and how studios and critics accepted and even embraced cross-gender casting.
(As a comparison, it’s hard to imagine the gender-neutral billing of a contemporary child actor, especially when The All-New Mickey Mouse Club (1989 – 1994) delivered Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera; and Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus got their starts in cultural machines like the Disney Channel. One could argue that in adulthood these celebrities are gendered—and heterosexualized—to the point of parody.)
Horak maintains a respectably studious tone, so she does not dramatically leap from the Thanhouser Kids to the Mickey Mouse Club, but she does situate herself within contemporary scholarship. For example, in chapter two, when she shifts into a discussion of the frontier “gender disguise” roles of cross-dressed cowboy girls, girl spies, and plots involving female ranch takeovers, she points to other scholars who, she says, have oversimplified these roles as “embodiments of the ‘New Woman.’” (I will oversimplify an explanation of the New Woman by defining it as a turn-of-the-century embodiment of feminism. New Women typically had political intentions.)
Horak wants readers to see that female bodies were, and thus are, significant in both the evolution of American cinema as it moved from East to West Coast, and to the formation of American masculinity. At times, these bodies were apolitical. A female driving a team of horses was as much of a spectacle to early cinemagoers as Alaskan glaciers or the Rocky Mountains. When a female evades a band of male pursuers, as they commonly do in cross-dressed chase sequences, her female status (evident to the audience despite the male disguise) ups the anxiety of those watching, and thus the narrative tension.
Horak notes that most such chases were initiated by the cross-dressed character herself, and the films “stressed the dynamism of the chase” rather than the male characters’ failures or the resolution of homoerotic attraction through heterosexual coupling (after the woman reveals her true gender). What’s more, Horak did not find a single cross-dressed chase sequence in which a girl gets caught. In other words, cross-dressed women were not punished or deemed pathological. Instead, most of these films “legitimized female masculinity as a necessary expedient.” The producers of frontier films hoped to draw in audiences already accustomed to cross-dressed characters “from the periodical press, dime novels, memoirs, elaborate stage shows, and Wild West performances.” Cross-dressed women crossed in and out of many forms of American entertainment.
Horak focuses the remaining three of her five chapters on the “detection of sexual deviance” and the “emergence of lesbian legibility.” The disapproving cultural turn is likely more familiar, and aggravating, to feminist and lesbian readers than the discovery and celebration of cross-dressed females in Horak’s earlier chapters. Yet she comes up here too with an abundance of original scholarship. Her fascinating examination of A Florida Enchantment, about women who swallow seeds that change their sex, turns the clock back the 1890s, when it came out as a novel (1892) and then a play (1896), the latter to a mixed critical reception. Elitist critics pointed out the play’s sexual pathology by using coded references, whereas populist critics “resisted these interpretations and insisted that even the most literal representation of gender inversion was innocent of immorality.” This marks a turning point, writes Horak: whether you perceived deviance depended upon where you stood in a hierarchy of cultural sophistication.
That may sound baffling to modern ears. Isn’t educated open-mindedness part of being sophisticated? Not to the critics of that time, Horak explains, with a synopsis of how the word “sophisticated” entered the popular lexicon. Theater critics were keen to moralize, and in the case of film critics, hungry—like the form itself—to establish themselves as legitimate. These cultural shifts are subtle and complicated, especially given that critics embraced the 1914 film of A Florida Enchantment as a wholesome comedy. It is to Horak’s credit that she hones in on such an ideal case study, presenting macro- and micro-level analyses that span high and popular culture and resist a modern-day lens.
With the visibility of sexual deviance in A Florida Enchantment questionable, Horak points out that “lesbian filmgoers could see some version of themselves on screen precisely because no one else recognized them there.” That changed in the mid 1920s, around the time when American women embraced the unequivocally masculine garb of trousers. Similar to her resistance to equating all cross-dressed females with New Women, as she had in chapter two, Horak resists equating all masculine (or trouser-wearing) women of 1920s films with protolesbians, as other scholars have. “I recognize them as belonging to a wide-ranging genealogy of gender nonconforming people,” she writes. And in keeping with her multidepartmental credibility (her book is applicable to Film and Media Studies, LGBTQ Studies, Gender Studies, and American Studies), she looks across multiple media and fields to track lesbianism’s entry into popular culture.
To accomplish this, Horak reminds readers that the presence of cross-dressed women in American movies falls into two waves: 1908 – 1921, averaging 26 films per year; and 1922 – 1928, averaging ten films per year and almost universally featuring slim, young flappers. Film critics, even those of the time, apparently forgot about the first wave and treated trouser-wearing female characters as if they were brand new, despite the more than 300 qualifying films made before 1923. Horak suggests this might have been a marketing strategy, to capitalize on a supposedly exotic trend, but it may also be attributed to the burgeoning field of film criticism. Those writing in the 1920s may not have had knowledge of prior films, because before then it was uncommon for newspapers to have film critics on staff.
Nevertheless, on its second go, cross-dressing was more likely to be questioned, due to the public’s increased association of it with lesbianism. Horak spends more than two-dozen pages discussing the play The Captive (1926) and the novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). Awareness of their same-sex storylines, she argues, galvanized film critics into writing, for the first time, that “an actress’s masculine clothing could have ‘pathological suggestions.’” The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America added sex perversion to the long list of movie subjects to avoid, and by 1933 Warner Brothers had banned women from wearing men’s clothing in its pictures.
All was not lost. Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn are just three examples of women who successfully wore mannish styles on and off-screen. And pants have prevailed in women’s daily attire. As it was, and is, in Hollywood, contentious symbols are opportunities. Horak closes with the observation that on the one hand a journalist
could use the phrase “ladies who prefer pants to petticoats” to mean lesbians. One the other, fan magazines could endorse trousers as a charming fashion statement available to all women.
The leeway women have in front of or behind the camera today feels similarly limited and likewise on the cusp. What seems certain, at least to me, is that Laura Horak is exactly the kind of scholar that feminists and queer advocates want in the academy. She brings rigor, curiosity, and originality into fields that can only benefit from her close observations, analyses, and research.
Erin Trahan writes regularly about movies for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station, and teaches film journalism at Emerson College.
A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations
By Juliet Nicolson
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 326 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Roberta Rubenstein
A middle-aged student of mine once shared with me the most memorable event of her family life: the moment when, as she described it, “I watched my grandmother hold my newborn granddaughter.” I recalled that vivid image as I began to read Juliet Nicolson’s deeply engaging history of seven generations of Sackville-West/Nicolson women (and several men). Nicolson, the oldest daughter in the fifth generation of an aristocratic British family, traces her maternal legacy from her grandmother’s grandmother, Pepita, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1830, to her own first granddaughter, born in 2013. She effectively taps her skills as a historian to extrapolate from documents, photos, and artifacts—some recently discovered in the family attic—in addition to biographical accounts written by others. She describes key events through the decades, traces changing social mores, reveals several family secrets, and assesses the effects of the virtues and flaws that shaped each mother’s legacy to her daughter.
The Spanish gypsy Catalina—the unmarried mother of Pepita, the illustrious “Star of Andalusia”—would now be termed a smothering mother: a parent so possessive of her only daughter that Pepita ultimately was compelled to sever their bond to save herself. When, at the age of nineteen, Pepita married her dancing teacher, her meddlesome mother hovered over her life to the point of wrecking her marriage. Their troubled relationship marks the trailhead, as it were, for complicated emotional pathways navigated by successive mothers and daughters. Patterns of ambition and failure, possessiveness and aloofness, estrangement and reconciliation repeat from one generation to the next.
When Pepita was 25 and already a star dancer in European capitals, she fell in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a young attaché to the British legation in Germany, who was equally smitten. They could not marry because Pepita was still legally married to her estranged husband, and Spanish law then (and until 1932) prohibited divorce. With Lionel, Pepita bore five children. Since his diplomatic assignments made him an occasional visitor rather than a live-in spouse and father, she was derided as a woman of “ill repute.” The children were socially ostracized. Eventually, Lionel, despite his devotion to Pepita and their children, drifted away, fearing that scandal might stain his diplomatic career.
Admirers of Virginia Woolf’s fiction will recognize Pepita as the Spanish dancer whom Orlando marries in Orlando (1928), Woolf’s unique “love-letter” to Vita Sackville-West. The actual Pepita died in childbirth at the age of 41, when her eldest daughter Victoria was only eight years old. The children were cared for in Paris by Pepita’s friends until, belatedly, their father conveyed them to England. Only then did they learn of their illegitimacy. When Lionel became British minister to the US legation in Washington, DC, he brought Victoria—nineteen years old and strikingly beautiful, with hip-length hair like her mother’s—to be his social hostess. During seven years in Washington, Victoria met such luminaries as Henry James and Henry Adams, and inspired numerous suitors. While attending a White House reception soon after she arrived, she received a marriage proposal from the widowed president, Chester Arthur, and was so flabbergasted that she burst out laughing.
Juliet Nicolson’s intent is not only to retrace her maternal heritage, fascinating though it is, but also to ponder its influences on her own life. As she observes, her foremothers made necessary compromises; legal powerlessness, gendered moral and social codes, and emotional dependencies decisively shaped destinies. Pepita and her daughter Victoria
made patriarchal bargains, agreements that were to remain fundamental to the practical and emotional structures of their lives. For most of my life I regarded this arrangement with suspicion. It is only recently that I have begun to realize that it is not perhaps an arrangement from which other women, myself included, are immune.
Along with maternal-filial and romantic relationships, A House Full of Daughters highlights a bond that might be termed house-love: for Victoria and her daughter Vita, attachment to the ancestral country mansion, Knole; for Vita and her granddaughter Juliet, Sissinghurst. As Juliet phrases it, “the next suitor to claim Victoria was not a person but a place.” When Lionel Sackville-West’s only brother died without heirs, Lionel became the sole inheritor of Knole, one of the grandest historical houses in England. Situated in a 1000-acre park in Kent, the pedigreed house dates back to the fifteenth century and possesses unique calendric features, including “365 rooms, fifty-two staircases, [and] seven courtyards.” Not long after Victoria fell in house-love with Knole, she became enamored of her first cousin, Lionel Sackville-West, who shared her father’s name. She was decades ahead of the Victorian era in which she lived: once Lionel the younger freed her from “long-held inhibitions,” writes Juliet, the newlyweds discovered “a mutual exhilaration for uninterrupted sex.”
Victoria gave her first child her own name, though from birth her daughter was known as Vita. She is the best-known of the Sackville-West women whose lives Juliet retraces. Perhaps because more has been written about her, Vita is the subject of only one of the book’s twelve chapters, while two focus on each of the other women in the author’s maternal history. Nonetheless, Vita stands out. From an early age, her relationship with her mother, Victoria, was, like Pepita’s relationship with her mother, fractious. Both daughters asserted their independence in ways that threatened their mothers.
The young Vita was also torn by guilt that she was not born male, a fact that carried not only emotional but also legal consequences. When her father, Lionel the younger, died, Knole passed to Vita’s uncle rather than to her, because the British laws of primogeniture precluded women from inheriting property. The loss of the ancestral home broke Vita’s heart. In an unpublished diary comment, she expressed her attachment to Knole as one so profound that it “transcended her love for any human being.”
Vita was courted by Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, even though at the time she was secretly conducting a passionate affair with a woman who would later serve as her bridesmaid. Juliet devotes few words to Vita’s most celebrated liaison—her brief but intense relationship with Virginia Woolf—which she places in the context of Vita’s frequent love affairs with perhaps as many as fifty women while she was married to Harold. As has been well documented by Vita’s younger son, Nigel Nicolson, in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), for more than forty years Vita and Harold maintained an unconventional relationship that encompassed tolerance of each other’s same-sex liaisons. Vita also discovered her house-love for Sissinghurst, initially a crumbling Elizabethan manor, which she and Harold lovingly restored. Thanks to Vita’s horticultural skills, writes Juliet, the garden at Sissinghurst Castle became “one of the most famous, most visited, most copied and most loved gardens in the world.”
Vita and Harold had two sons but no daughters. Thus, the story of Juliet’s foremothers diverts from the Sackville-Wests to her mother’s line, and she introduces the attractive but shallow Philippa d’Eyncourt, the daughter of high-bred snobs. Nigel calculatingly married Philippa to advance his diplomatic career. After his death, years later, Juliet discovered in his diary his admission that “I never loved her.” From the inauspicious start, both mismatched partners regarded sex as “disgusting,” though they produced three children. Juliet, their first child—revealingly, her name was inspired by the name of the couple’s adored dog, Romeo—describes her mother as self-preoccupied, remote, and neglectful. Juliet and her siblings grew up in an “emotionally broken” home, she says, where the housekeepers were more affectionate than the parents. When Juliet and her younger brother were only seven and four, they took the school bus daily with no adult supervision apart from the driver; when they returned, their mother was “seldom at home to greet us,” she writes. Disaffected from her mother, Juliet was deeply attached to her father, and through him came to love Sissinghurst as much as Victoria and Vita had loved Knole.
A recurring family pattern of self-medication is also part of Juliet’s heritage: several of her female predecessors—including both Vita, prompted in part by Harold’s frequent work-related absences, and Philippa, trapped in a loveless marriage—sought solace in alcohol. Philippa, who died of liver damage at the age of 58, was also addicted to antidepressants. These facts are important in Juliet’s own story, for she, too, turned to alcohol while unsuccessfully juggling the competing demands of marriage, children, and her husband’s and her careers in the United States. By the time she had given birth to two daughters, acknowledged the failure of her marriage, and returned to England, she had already developed severe liver damage. At the time, she felt as if she were “genetically woven into repetitive surrender and did not know if [she] had the courage or the strength to snap the thread and interrupt the pattern.” Through the intervention of her siblings, she sought treatment and ultimately overcame her addiction. Pondering whether to share details of her private struggle, she chose to follow the model of her father, Nigel, who had addressed in his book the difficult subject of his bisexual parents’ partnership.
The final chapters of A House Full of Daughters turn away from personal struggle to a more positive denouement: Juliet, pondering her ambitious but emotionally flawed female predecessors, forgives both them and herself. Having found great joy as a mother and grandmother, she anticipates that her first grandchild—Imogen, whose name means “beloved daughter” in old Irish—is part of a generation that is “not afraid to learn from the mistakes of the past and is determined not to repeat them. . . possibly the entire point of this book.”
Honest and absorbing, A House Full of Daughters deserves a wide readership, not only for Nicolson’s compulsively readable exploration of her maternal legacy but also for her clear-eyed focus on the emotional and psychological patterns that reappear in women’s lives—not only in the author’s unique family—with significant consequences across generations.
Roberta Rubenstein, professor of Literature at American University, is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (2009) and Literary Half-Lives: Doris Lessing, Clancy Sigal, and Roman à Clef (2014).
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).