Reviewed by Marlene Fried
For years, Katha Pollitt has brought her wit, clarity of moral vision, and passion to the abortion debate. Building on years of astute commentary, Pro is a compellingly argued, comprehensive, and thoroughly accessible treatise offering a reframing of abortion. “I want us to start thinking about abortion as a positive social good, and saying this out loud,” writes Pollitt.
She reminds us to place abortion in its full human setting; to go beyond narrowly crafted defenses of abortion and to engage instead with the many elements involved in the abortion decision—sex, sexuality, love, violence, class, race, privilege, work, school, health care, family troubles, the lack of power that women experience in sexual relationships, and the scarcity of resources for single mothers. As Pollitt makes clear, this is not a “single issue” issue.
Pro is an unabashed call to affirmatively reclaim abortion rights. Terminating a pregnancy, she writes, is not a tragedy, not an evil, not even a necessary evil. “Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self knowledge.” This captures the book’s central importance. Abortion opponents have shaped our perceptions, cloaking women who have abortions in shame and stigma, and rendering invisible the fact that abortion is not the act of a “beleaguered, isolated, and confused woman.” One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetimes, yet the silence surrounding their decisions is deafening. Instead, writes Pollitt, “We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal event in the reproductive lives of women.”
For those who share Pollitt’s views, Pro’s message, and the truths it reveals about women’s reproductive lives, will be inspiring and emboldening. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Pro is only preaching to the choir. As the co-founder of the reproductive justice organization SisterSong, Loretta Ross, observes, “We don’t have a choir all singing the same song.” Too few proponents of abortion rights are singing Pollitt’s tune.
While unsparing in her criticisms of the opposition, she also takes the prochoice movement to task for its complacency, defensiveness, and tolerance of restrictions. Of course she does not hold both camps equally accountable, but she does emphasize that changing how advocates frame abortion is a crucial step toward stopping the damage to women’s fundamental rights. The popular prochoice mantra, that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” perpetuates the stigma, silence, and general negativity that pervades today’s abortion battles.
Pro is directed at those “middle of the road more or less pro choice voters, those millions of Americans who don’t want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.” This “permit but deplore” position is widely reinforced in the mainstream media. But by revealing the logical consequences of the antiabortion position, Pollitt hopes that some people in the middle will realize that they actually support legal abortion.
To this end, Pro raises and responds to virtually every anti-abortion claim imaginable. An impressive chapter is devoted to the question, “What is a person?” which directly confronts the bedrock argument of the antiabortion movement. Pollitt meticulously sets out the implications of taking the position that personhood begins at conception and challenges those who hold this view to accept all its consequences: no exceptions for any reason—not rape; not fetal anomaly; not your fourteen-year-old daughter, niece, or sister; and not to save the life of the pregnant women.If zygotes are persons, then we should be equally upset by a fire that killed as many embryos as workers in a factory, or young people at a nightclub. For Pollitt, these consequences are so unthinkable, so illogical, that they are not really accepted, even by most of those who consider themselves anti-abortion. “Abortion opponents are trapped by their reliance on personhood, a concept that forces them into impossible positions and arguments that few believe and fewer live by. And if they themselves don’t follow their own logic, why should anyone else?” Like Pollitt, as a long time abortion rights advocate I am troubled by the hypocrisy, lack of careful thinking, and disregard for women implied by the zygote-as-person arguments. But this does not mean that abortion rights advocates should expend much energy in refuting them. Taking such claims seriously erases women and concedes too much to the fetus-centered, anti-abortion framing that Pollitt so eloquently opposes throughout her book. “Abortion opponents have been very effective at shifting the focus of moral concern onto the contents of women’s wombs—even an un-implanted fertilized egg is a baby now,” she points out. The abortion rights position does not rely on a particular view about the status of fetal life. As Pollitt points out, even if the fetus were considered a person, it would not have the right to use a woman’s body against her will.
Pro argues that supporters of abortion rights must insist on putting women at the center of the abortion issue. That’s why Pollitt begins the book by reflecting on her own mother’s illegal abortion, kept secret from her husband and daughter. While much has changed since her mother’s time, Pro forces us to confront what has not. The relentless efforts to restrict abortion and contraception reveal that we are still fighting about women’s place in the world. Women continue to be defined by their sexuality but not trusted to make their own reproductive decisions, thus denied the chance to shape their own lives. Ultimately, Pollitt concludes that this is still a world that treats women as “potting soil,” rather than controllers of their own destiny.
There are two crucial issues I wish Pro had dealt with differently: the importance of self-induction, and the continuing divisions between prochoice and reproductive justice advocates.
When abortion was illegal in the US, dangers included untrained providers, lack of knowledge among women, and desperate efforts to self-abort that included ingesting poisons and inserting sharp objects into the uterus. As a result, some women died needlessly and many others suffered terrible complications.
In the face of current attempts to restrict abortion and close clinics, the abortion rights movement warns of a return to those days. Pro, too, invokes this narrative: But now with clinics disappearing, more and more women will have no choice but to turn to pills, as women do in Ireland and other countries where it is illegal for a woman to end a pregnancy. Some will end up in emergency rooms. Some will be injured. Some may die.
Indeed, as access to clinics is increasingly diminished, some women will resort to unsafe methods. However, there are now safe alternatives for those who either cannot get to a clinic or choose not to. Today, the majority of women who do not go to a clinic are choosing to obtain abortion pills (mifepristone plus misoprostol, or misoprostol alone). Self-induction with pills (misoprostol) should be seen neither as a sort of coat hanger nor as a method of last resort.
For years, women in other countries have been using misoprostol outside of a medical context to safely end their pregnancies. There are dangers, but as before Roe, they arise because the law makes safe methods inaccessible. Because these pills are so highly regulated in the US, people are more at risk for prosecution than for being harmed by the method itself.
Putting a safe and effective tool of fertility regulation directly in the hands of women is part of the feminist project; something to be celebrated and supported by advocates, not feared. Pollitt can make an important contribution to this effort by using her pulpit to help bring this issue to the forefront of discussions in the US.
Pro ends with a short section analyzing the weaknesses of the prochoice movement and pointing toward change. Pollitt’s assessment: the movement has for too long been complacent or defensive, tailoring its agenda and vision toward what can be won in the short run, allowing abortion to be separated from health care and sexuality, and focusing solely on the right not to have children, while ignoring the right to have children and families. By so doing, she writes, “It let its mostly white leadership age in place, pursuing their tired Beltway-focused strategies, and then wondered why young women and working-class women and women of color didn’t connect with its organizations.” Her hope for the future lies with new, younger, and bolder leaders in mainstream organizations, and the broader, holistic, reproductive justice movement.
However, moving from choice to justice is a slow and difficult process. The historic divide along lines of race and class persists. As Miriam Zoila Pérez, the writer and founder of RadicalDoula.com, tells us, we still have a tale of two movements. While sometimes using the language of reproductive justice, the mainstream prochoice movement remains primarily focused on abortion and contraception. It has not yet placed the right to have and parent children at the forefront of its agenda. For example, the prochoice movement has not been visible in the recent campaign to stop the sterilizations of women in California prisons.
The tensions and fragility of alliances was recently highlighted when a 2014 New York Times article about Planned Parenthood’s abandonment of prochoice terminology . failed even to mention the concept of reproductive justice, or to acknowledge the longtime leadership of women of color in advocating for this paradigm shift. In her Open Letter to Planned Parenthood, Monica Simpson, SisterSong’s executive director, wrote Planned Parenthood did not inform the reporters of the long-term work of scores of reproductive justice organizations, activists, and researchers that have challenged the “prochoice” label for 20 years. This is not only disheartening but, intentionally or not, continues the co-optation and erasure of the tremendously hard work done by Indigenous women and women of color (WOC) for decades.
Among other things, Simpson calls on Planned Parenthood to examine the role it and its affiliates play in either obstructing or supporting reproductive justice. Here too, given her broad outlook, Pollitt can play a significant role by providing a platform for reproductive justice leaders to bring their messages to a wider audience.
Despite these gaps, the book is a major achievement. In Pro, Pollitt puts it all together—the erosions, the anti-abortion fallacies, the weakness of the abortion rights defense, and prescriptions for the future. She exposes the underlying agenda of the antiabortion movement, its “anti-feminism, shaming of sexually active girls and single women, fears of white demographic decline and conservative views of marriage and sexuality, or outright misogyny.”
Pro’s much needed call to action is especially timely, given Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. Pollitt catalogues the many ways that opponents of abortion have stepped up their legislative efforts to further restrict abortion access—and there have been many more since the book was published last fall.
Opponents of abortion are doing their own reframing. At January’s Law of Life Summit, young speakers talked about reclaiming the language and co-opting the label of feminism. The group hopes to “take feminism back from those who have corrupted it and make the new feminism, the feminism of the future, pro-life feminism.”
In the face of this ongoing, anti-abortion onslaught, Pollitt’s goal is critically important. She hopes to ignite those prochoice supporters who remain uninvolved and complacent by showing the full extent of the devastation caused by losses in access and the threat posed to all women by the antiabortion movement’s worldview. Pro makes an overwhelming and powerful case for action. It speaks fundamental truths that can help to guide our vision and advocacy. If this does not awake the “sleeping prochoice giant,” it is hard to see what will.
Marlene Gerber Fried is professor of Philosophy and faculty director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College. She was founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds and a board member for 21 years. She continues to serve on the board of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts. Marlene wishes, as always, to thank her writing posse: Bill Fried, Loretta Ross, Stephanie Poggi, Susan Yanow, and Carolyn Eisenberg.
Edited by Malka Marom Toronto, Canada: ECW Press, 2014, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Joanna Weiss
Joni Mitchell is not well. In early April, she was found unconscious in her California home and rushed to intensive care—prompting some early retrospectives, outpourings of love, and new attempts to define her career. There are plenty of Americans, after all, who missed her glory days, and imagine her a relic of folk history. To Mitchells’ biggest fans, this is untenable. “Joni Mitchell,” griped one headline, on the music website Cuepoint, “is not a 60s folk singer.”
Enter the new oral history Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, in which Mitchell, now 71, attempts to define herself. This book is not memoir or an autobiography; it’s a transcription of three long interviews about Mitchell’s life and art, conducted by the Canadian singer and novelist Malka Marom. (It also serves as a collector’s item for Mitchell devotees, filled with Mitchell’s artwork and her lyrics laid out lovingly, like poems.)As a guide, Marom is probing but uncritical, a stand-in for fans who view Mitchell’s songs as the soundtrack to their lives. Marom felt this way from the beginning. In 1966, she was part of a folk duo called Malka and Joso—a local celebrity, reeling from a personal crisis—when she wandered into a Toronto coffeehouse and spied a young Mitchell performing “I Had a King” and “Both Sides Now.” Marom realized she had stumbled onto something great.
They spoke briefly that night, then lost touch. Mitchell became a star. Years later, Marom contacted her to request an interview for Canadian radio. Thus launched a friendship and this trio of sprawling conversations, which trace the arc of Mitchell’s career. The first came as Mitchell was recording Court and Spark (1974), her biggest commercial and critical hit. When she gave the second, she was about to release Mingus (1979), an album that represented her sense of experimentation and confirmed that her place in American music was firmly outside the mainstream.
The third interview hits Mitchell at a melancholy point, in 2012: she hasn’t performed in years, lives largely in isolation, and struggles with a debilitating skin condition that some doctors believe is in her head. She’s contemplated her career, endured the critics’ barbs, grappled with the cost of remaining undefined.
“America loves beginners,” she tells Marom. “In the honeymoon, when I was a new artist, they always say nice things but after that, the longer I’m at it, the higher I raise the bar…You’re too different, therefore you’re dangerous, kill it.” This is an overstatement, from someone who is widely admired and still graces magazine covers (including the February 2015 issue of New York magazine); she’s not a hit machine, but she’s an icon. But Mitchell has always been a prickly figure, as an artist and a would-be role model. She says provocative things about gender and race. She criticizes other musicians. (Her take on Lady Gaga is dismissive: “I don’t know. It’s pageantry.”)
And though she has been seen as a female pioneer, she has always disavowed feminism. She tells Marom that to her, the movement’s calls for group action always felt like “emulating men.” But she has also chafed, in a personal way, at the constancy of female competition. In the 1973 interview, she talks about a street musician who told her that I didn’t pay any dues and his girlfriend was better than me and she was going to dethrone me. I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. There’s another throne waiting for her. Why do you have to kick me out of that chair? Get yourself your own chair.”
It’s hard not to love that attitude, regardless of how you feel about her music. And for many Americans, Mitchell’s temperament and image precedes her work. Here’s where I make a confession: I’m not a fan like Marom is, following her career, hanging on every word and tune. I’d known Mitchell mostly as…a sixties folk singer. So I found it useful, while reading this book, to have YouTube at my side, to match lyrics with music and learn, in a sense, what the fuss was all about. To a fresh ear, Mitchell’s work is deep and ambitious and jarring, especially compared to what female pop singers are doing today. My daughter is ten and demands the Top 40 whenever we drive in the car. And while there’s nothing to make you feel old like complaining about your kids’ music, here goes: I’m constantly struck by how meaningless most of it is. The worst are the factory-produced songs sung by former Disney Channel stars, soulless sub-clichés about some impersonal form of love. Even Taylor Swift, who pours authentic feelings into songs she wrote herself, is turned almost completely inward; her songs capture youthful drama and dreams, but they don’t often dig much deeper. Mitchell has been famously dismissive of the idea that Swift would play her in a biopic. “All you’ve got,” she told the Sunday Times of London last fall, “is a girl with high cheekbones.”
Granted, Mitchell’s life, by the time she was Swift’s age, was filled with far more grit and sadness: she’d been in and out of a bad marriage, placed a child up for adoption, and struggled with poverty as an unwed mother. She had more depth to mine. But Mitchell also aimed higher; she was chronicling society and culture, trying not just to capture emotional moments, but to understand them. There’s another difference, too. Swift—for now, at least—clearly wants to be popular, to be loved. Mitchell professes not to care. In the 1979 interview, she dismisses the notion that her songs should have those whistle-able tunes: “For me to go on creating whistle songs, I would bore myself to death. I’m exploring something else now. I’m trying to find something fresh.” But while her confidence and clarity has thrilled some of her fans, it has pushed many others away. She told Marom that “my accomplishment as a woman is intimidating, both to other women and to men.” It may be, though, that she was most intimidating, not as a woman, but as a musician. Self-taught, she never learned to do what’s technically correct. She devised a way of holding a guitar that got the sounds she wanted, but made Eric Clapton stare. She filled her songs with suspension chords—she calls them “chords of inquiry”—that jazz musicians are taught to use far more sparingly. She was disdainful of session players who resisted her precise instructions: “These people,” she griped to Marom, “they think you’re after something invisible.”
Still, Mitchell reserves her most bitter complaints for producers and record executives—those she describes as “sexual tourists in my business.” It’s hard to tell which parts of her struggle for acceptance stemmed from gender, from being a strong-willed woman in a male-dominated industry, and which came from her fierceness as an artist. At one point, she recounts how Bob Dylan likened her to a man, because “she gets to tell the band what time it is.” “So basically I’m like a man because I lead a band,” she tells Marom. Well, why does that make me like a man? Because I’m not like a man, but I’m a thinking female, and I’m not a feminist. So what am I, then? Real freak, right? I’m a person outside every box there is.
The best musicians admired that iconoclasm: the vision and the results. “You have to be a very good musician to play her tunes,” the drummer John Guerin notes, in one of several extra interviews Marom sprinkles throughout the book. The jazz great Charles Mingus, dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, asked Mitchell to collaborate on a project. He wrote melodies for her, and she, in turn, wrote songs about him, including “Chair in the Sky,” which Mitchell explains is about “being stuck in this wheelchair in a skyscraper in Manhattan.” If there’s a revelation in this book, that song title sums it up: Mitchell’s lyrics are full of rich and memorable images, but their origins are sometimes endearingly prosaic. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” the name of a song and album about the emotional bankruptcy of suburban life, refers to the sound lawn sprinklers make. She came up with “Both Sides Now” when she was sitting on an airplane, reading a Saul Bellow book and looking down at…clouds. And “Big Yellow Taxi”? She wrote it in 1967 in a hotel room in Hawaii, after looking out a window at a vast parking lot. Mitchell says she wants to be cryptic, but not muddy. Yet her images always spin off into something larger. They pour out of her involuntarily, poetically, though she gripes that her lyrics aren’t recognized as poems. Here’s how she explains, in 2012, why she always set her ideas to music: “The song gives me a corset. When you take the corset off, I’m overwhelmed.” It’s an interesting idea, and a gendered one; it’s hard to imagine Dylan using those words. It’s also a sort of a metaphor for Mitchell’s public life. Most of us want to place our artists in corsets, lock them in amber, force them to fit a simple definition. It’s the artist’s job—sometimes a lonely one—to break free of the boundaries, come what may. The real Joni Mitchell is overwhelming, to be sure. That’s part of her difficult charm.
Joanna Weiss is a columnist and editor at the Boston Globe, and the author of the novel Milkshake (2011).
How to Be Both
New York: Pantheon Books, 2014, 373 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Meacham
Ali Smith’s How to Be Both opens with an epigraph by the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, the point-of-view character for half of the novel—and I can’t translate it.
In a bright box, I type: Et ricordare suplicando a quella che io sonto franchescho del cossa il quale a sollo fatto quili tri canpi verso lanticamara:
The box replies: “And remember to suplicando what I Francescho del Cossa discount which in fact only tri qu[i]li canpi towards lanticamara.”
The translation is a mystifying blend of languages. Italian and English. Both.
Because How to Be Both is not a novel of easy answers. Its themes of love and loss, expression and repression, history and simultaneity, introspection and surveillance create an experience for readers at once revelatory and exploratory. Moreover, Ali Smith’s inventiveness exceeds the boundaries of language—or at least my paltry vocabulary and its six synonyms for “wow.”
In a word, How to Be Both is extraordinary. The novel has been honored with several literary awards, including the UK’s Goldsmiths Prize. According to judge Francis Spufford, the novel confirms “that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure… [It’s] a renewal of the writer’s compact with the reader to delight and to astonish.”
Innovation and pleasure. Delight and astonishment. Both.
Pluck the book from a shelf and you’ll see how this novel literally is both. Your copy opens with a torrent of words rushing from the mind of a Renaissance painter-turned-ghost. Now, read these pages aloud to a friend and watch her puzzlement.
No, your friend will say, pointing to her own copy. This novel opens with a modern-day girl remembering a conversation with her deceased mother. The mother is dead.
No, you’ll chuckle. The painter is dead. His spirit attaches to a modern-day boy.
No, not a boy. A girl, your friend will insist. The girl is on a trip with her mother.
Dead painter and dead mother. Boy and girl. Historical and modern-day. Both.
Indeed, there are two editions of How to Be Both. Each edition includes two self-contained stories connected by common threads. One edition begins with the story of the Renaissance painter del Cossa, whose charming voice chronicles the painter’s experiences as its spirit tries to understand its sudden appearance in the life of a teenage boy. The other edition begins with the story of George, a British teenage girl (mistaken by del Cossa for a boy) by turns bitter and vulnerable, stuck in the past yet immobilized by the present, grieving the loss of her wise and candid mother.
Such packaging leads to two wholly different reading experiences. Begin with George, the teenage girl, and your path through the novel offers a fairly clear sense of event and consequence. While working through the “three, five, or seven stages of mourning,” George befriends a classmate, and for a school project, the two Google the work of del Cossa— a favorite of George’s mother. George is a creature of modern Cambridge, England, with iPads, text messages, and parents bewildered by the internet’s capacity to inform and traumatize their children.
Book-smart but naïve about relationships, George sifts through memories of her mother and observations about her father and younger brother, and questions about the story she’d assumed they’d created together. Smith masterfully conveys the profound dislocation of bereavement:
How can it be that there’s an advert on TV with dancing bananas unpeeling themselves in it and teabags doing a dance, and her mother will never see that advert? How can the world be this vulgar?
How can that advert exist and her mother not exist in the world?
She didn’t say it out loud, though, because there wasn’t a point.
It isn’t about saying.
It is about the hole which will form in the roof through which the cold will intensify and after which the structure of the house will begin to shift, like it ought, and through which George will be able to lie every night in bed watching the black sky.
It is last August. Her mother is at the dining room table reading out loud off the internet.
Meteor watchers are in luck tonight, her mother is saying.
What her mother is saying (“said,” George revises) comprises much of George’s story. In memories, she corrects her mother’s grammar, alternately sniping at and delighting in her mother’s reactions. On a trip, George and her mother view del Cossa’s frescos in Ferrara, Italy, where George marvels at the
layers. Things happen right at the front of pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind that, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles.
Separately and connectedly. Happening and happened. Both.
“I made things look both close and distant,” says del Cossa, narrating the creation of the work in the 1400s. Should your edition of the novel open with del Cossa’s story, as mine did, your path through the novel is less plotted, more playful and earthy— this is a dead great artist, after all. In del Cossa’s story, we’re along for the ride, as is the painter’s ghost, who is dragged by a boy from a museum “like one foot’s caught in a saddle of a horse,” into a world full of people carrying “these votives the size of a hand…staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons.”
Launched into the modern world, del Cossa tries to interpret human behavior— including the boy’s despair:
This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life.
However, the boy is actually a girl—“I knew it,” the painter says. Likewise, Smith’s del Cossa is really a woman, although the author avoids obvious cues; del Cossa’s identity generates tensions, but that’s not the point of the story. Instead, as del Cossa’s ghost follows the teenaged girl through a perplexing series of mundane actions, it reflects upon a fifteenth-century life full of family, friendship, and artistic rivalry. Echoing George’s story, there’s a wise and candid mother who dies too soon—but not before engaging her child’s intellect. When a seed dropped into a puddle of horse piss creates a ring of ripples, del Cossa’s mother says:
It’ll never stop going or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard. And the brickpiles…. And imagine it circling the fields and the farms we can’t see from here. And the towns beyond those fields and farms all the way to the sea. And across the sea. The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that, too. Nothing can stop it.
At times, Del Cossa’s voice seems similarly unstoppable, but it also winks with puns and subtle jokes. This is a painter’s world, drawn in potent colors, where “art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding.” Del Cossa’s voice always subverts the established order and authority. In giant frescos, feminine boys loom large; royal courtiers are reduced “army of babies”; and the word “Justice” is blackened, and then painted over— a message for a corrupt boss, that will reveal itself over time.
Smith has said that her novel was inspired by the layers of a fresco: “Every great narrative is at least two narratives, if not more—the thing that is on the surface and then the things underneath which are invisible.” While each story here is a discrete pleasure, together the narratives of George and del Cossa create another layer of story. The ripples connecting del Cossa’s town to field to farm reverberate through George’s history. George’s interest in del Cossa inspires her to solve a mystery. Together, the stories of George and del Cossa engage in new dialogue and invite us to join in.
To paraphrase George’s mother, this novel is a work of art “so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art.”
Warm and artful. Of course, Smith’s novel shows us how to be both.
As well as how to be more.
Rebecca Meacham is the author of the award-winning story collections Let’s Do (2004) and Morbid Curiosities (2013). She directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India
By Amrita Pande
New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, 272 pp., $28.00, paperback
Reviewed by Rajani Bhatia
As the first in-depth, ethnographic study of labor within a commercialized, transnational market for gestational surrogacy, Amrita Pande’s Wombs in Labor is foundational. Pande began her research during an extraordinary moment, at the inception of the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) in the global South and across borders. In 2006, when she started her study, there had been only ten surrogate births at her field site, a clinic in a small Indian town. However, the phenomenon was poised to become a media spectacle in the West. Ten months after Pande’s first visit, an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s television show oversimplistically portrayed would-be parents from the US as “brave missionaries” and surrogates from India as lucky lottery winners. Prompted by this distortion, Pande returned to the field twice more to gather data, in order to tell a different, more nuanced and grounded story. Eventually, she conducted extensive interviews with “52 surrogates, their husbands and in-laws, 12 intending parents, three doctors, three surrogacy brokers, three hostel matrons, and several nurses,” during three visits between 2006 and 2011. These conversations revealed the mundane, everyday aspects of this form of labor, which were absent in media stories about “renting wombs.”
Pande’s narrative covers the experience of surrogate labor from recruitment through the establishment of pregnancy; day-to-day life in a hostel during gestation; and birth. Conducting follow-up interviews with several surrogates years post-partum enabled her to assess long-term effects. On its own, a scholar’s exceptional access to the lives of women serving as gestational surrogates, from the market’s inception to its current boom, would promise a richly descriptive account—but the book’s real strength rests with Pande’s analyses. She contextualizes details, invoking meaning in relation to scholarship on surrogacy stemming from global North contexts such as the US and Israel, as well as from feminist theorizations of reproduction, inequality, and globalized regimes of labor, power, and resistance.
Pande frames her study using the concept of labor, but not in a way that automatically condemns surrogacy as objectifying women as wombs or babies as commodities. Rather, she views surrogates as laborers and producers, which enables her to transcend a binary that would cast her study subjects either as agents or victims. Like other recent ethnographers of reproductive practices, she distances herself from the morally definitive condemnations of surrogacy in previous feminist theorizations. For Pande, such arguments assume children are priceless and childbearing is sacred, and ultimately reinforce what she calls “gender-based dichotomies—private/public, nature/social, reproduction/production, and non-market/market.” Instead, she focuses on “how a labor market for wombs is created and how laborers experience this market.” However, she in no way ignores the exploitative aspects of surrogacy across divisions of race, class, and national citizenship.
Attuned to the ways in which some feminist critiques of surrogacy reinscribe an orientalist discourse of “third world women” victims, Pande depicts the surrogates’ everyday resistance strategies, as well as their multiple effects: what she calls “the puzzling dual nature or the aporias of resistance,” which “complicate notions of domination and subversion.” For example, surrogates counter their “disposability,” as workers and as mothers, by resisting the idea that they engage in immoral, “dirty labor”—distinguishing surrogacy from sex work or selling one’s children. Pande points out, however, that this kind of boundary work relies on hegemonic ideas about “women as selfless, dutiful mothers whose primarily role is to serve the family.” This kind of analytic scrutiny, which simultaneously identifies and critiques minute and multiple forms of resistance by the surrogates, who must negotiate layers of oppression within the family, the clinic, and the state, stands out as the strength of this work. Indeed, the surrogates’ resistance, in both body and mind, constitutes the “work” or “labor” at the heart of Pande’s study. It is the glue that binds the story together.
Pande contextualizes surrogacy against the backdrop of an aggressively antinatal state characterized by high surveillance of women’s fertility combined with a low rate of medicalization of pregnancy, especially for poor women, whether they are rural or urban. She characterizes the recent boom in ART as a paradox, given India’s history of population control. Yet, I wondered whether the assumption of paradox might inhibit the apprehension of structural mechanisms that reveal compatibility (rather than irony or contradiction) between pro- and antinatalist mechanisms of reproductive control. After all, during the latest phase of population control in India, the already low average age of sterilization continued to fall from 27 years (in 1992-1993) to 25 years (in 2005-2006), according to National Family Health Survey data (reported in International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2012). Hypothetically, during a woman’s reproductive lifespan, she could first comply with her family duty to produce children, then with the state’s imperative of permanent family planning—yet still be young enough to provide viable eggs or a womb to the commercial market. Furthermore, the lack of medicalization of childbirth for poor women aids rather than conflicts with the clinic’s informal mandate of cesarean section for childbirth, since most first-time surrogates have likely never had one.
Thus, my interpretation of Pande’s research differs somewhat from hers. Egg donation and surrogacy brokers who have served (or also serve) as sterilization motivators for the state, or nurses who encourage women after undergoing abortion or sterilization to try surrogacy are, in my view, actors within a neoliberal mode of population control—which serves both the state and the commercial market. But my disagreement does not detract from Pande’s perception of paradox; indeed, it highlights the richness of her study, which provides a reliable foundation for a variety of perspectives.
Pande draws on her participant observation at surrogacy hostels, and interviews with doctors, counselors, and hostel matrons, to enumerate the disciplinary mechanisms in force to construct what she calls “the perfect mother-worker.” This figure, Pande argues, is “constantly aware of her disposability and the transience of her identity as a worker and yet loves the product of her transient labor (the fetus) as her own.” The domination of the women’s bodies and minds through counseling and hosteling mold them into perfect surrogates. Throughout the book, however, Pande complicates the view of the hostel as a restrictive, disciplinary space of surveillance. It also serves as shared space among the surrogates, where they form bonds and may even make collective demands for changes in their working conditions.Drawing helpful comparisons with gendered work in global factories, Pande describes mechanisms that naturalize skills (such as positive images of the nurturant mother) and stigmatize labor (such as what Pande calls the “surrogate-prostitute analogy”). These disciplinary techniques keep the women’s labor cheap and under management’s control. Surrogates cannot demand higher wages without facing the stigma of becoming bad surrogates, who are both unfit as mothers and similar to prostitutes.
Ethnographic studies of surrogacy in the global North find that surrogates there often see themselves as angels engaged in divine labor to give the gift of a child. In contrast, surrogates in India tend to view themselves as needy recipients of a God-given opportunity to improve their family’s welfare, while intended parents from abroad see themselves as charitable donors of aid. The extreme gaps in race, class, and national citizenship between global North clients and global South surrogates, Pande surmises, account for the differences in these narratives.
In the conclusion, Pande lays out her conviction that there is nothing inherently immoral about surrogacy, but that surrogacy as it is currently practices exploits and reinforces inequalities, making it undesirable. She rejects the notion of a ban, however, because she believes that would only drive the practice underground. Instead, to improve the rights of surrogates as workers, Pande envisions a national regulatory framework that places the welfare, health, and rights of the surrogate, rather than the interests of the clinics and intended parents, at the center. However, she understands that an improved regulatory framework would not on its own address the huge disparities that lead to exploitation. She reiterates a call for international regulatory principles, as put forth by Casey Humbyrd in a guide to “fair trade” surrogacy (published in Developing World Bioethics in 2009). Pande extends Humbyrd’s vision to demand transparency on three fronts—payment structures, medical processes, and social interactions—to improve the rights and respect the dignity of surrogates and children born through surrogacy.
Pande ends her book with a poignant question: “Do the lives of surrogates, in fact, get transformed?” Her epilogue tells the stories of a few women years after their surrogacy. Comparing their initial aspirations with actual experiences, Pande answers bleakly, if unsurprisingly, that surrogacy is hardly like winning a lottery. Often, surrogacy payments must be used to pay down debts or cover medical emergencies, leading to a repeat cycle of surrogacy for the women and in some cases, for their daughters as well—whose welfare they had intended to improve.
Pande’s extensive research and analysis is poised to have a large impact in both policy and scholarly circles. As she notes in her conclusion, policy proposals to regulate surrogacy seem, thus far, uninformed with respect to the actual working conditions and needs of surrogates in India. Her access to this highly visible site of transnational surrogacy will undoubtedly serve as a foundation for emergent scholarship on reproductive technologies in global South settings. Forthcoming studies on surrogacy from other regions of India, such as one by Sharmila Rudruppa, are already anticipated to diversify this area of literature. However, the value of Pande’s work stems not merely from her extensive and careful research nor even from being at the right place at the right time. Rather, by insisting on labor as a frame for reproductive activity, Pande has skillfully refused to allow the so-called production/reproduction dichotomy to limit her interpretation, as she extends theorizations of globalized regimes of labor as well as of reproduction.
Rajani Bhatia is an assistant professor at the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York-Albany. Her research interests lie at the intersection of reproductive technologies, health, bioethics, and biomedicine, with recent work on the transnational dynamics of sex-selection practices.
Alice & Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
By Alexis Coe. Illustrations by Sally Klann
San Francisco: Pulp, an imprint of Zest Books, 2014, 223 pp., $16.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis
Shortly after I started reading Alice & Freda Forever, the old murder ballad, “Banks of the Ohio,” surfaced in my mind. It hasn’t gone away. In the song, young Willie sings,
I asked my love to take a walk
To take a walk, just a little walk
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.
He proposes, his love declines; he stabs her to death, despite her entreaty, “Don’t you murder me / I’m not prepared for eternity.” Soon afterward he comes to his senses, crying, “Oh God, what have I done? / Killed the only woman I love / Because she would not be my bride.”
Like most old ballads, this one has multiple versions, including a unconvincing modern one in which a female narrator kills the man who won’t marry her.
On January 25, 1892, near the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee, nineteen- year-old Alice Mitchell murdered seventeen-year-old Freda Ward for a reason similar to Willie’s: Freda had broken off their engagement and thus put an end to their plans to elope to St. Louis and there set up housekeeping as man and wife. Mitchell did the deed in public, and in spectacularly bloody fashion: with her father’s razor, which she had been carrying around for some time waiting for the right moment. The eyewitnesses included Ward’s sister Jo, who tried to fend off Mitchell and was wounded herself.
Mitchell may have intended to kill herself as well, but it didn’t work out that way. She was arrested at her family’s home a few hours later. The trial that followed was a nationwide sensation, and it is the trial and the attendant publicity that Alexis Coe focuses on in her well- researched book about the case. Court documents, medical reports, and newspaper accounts furnish most of the primary source material, along with Mitchell and Ward’s love letters. These, not surprisingly, were a sensation in themselves. Two young women considered themselves engaged? They planned to run off together? Unheard of!
This is what drew Coe to the story. “While I offer historical context in the pages that follow,” she writes in the introduction,
this is very much about Alice and Freda’s short-lived romance. To tell that story—with so few primary sources, and even fewer trustworthy ones among them—I have strained to hear their voices in the archives, newspapers, medical journals, school catalogs, courtroom proceedings, and of course, their love letters.
Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward were close companions at the Higbee School for Young Ladies, a finishing school for the daughters of white, well-to-do Memphis. Here, as elsewhere, intense relationships between young women weren’t unusual. “Chumming” was the word Memphis used to describe such liaisons.
Both young women loved the theater, especially Ward, who wanted to go on the stage, though with little hope of ever getting there. They played with different names and different parts. Gradually a plot grew between them: they would marry and move to St. Louis, where Mitchell, dressed as a man, would support Ward, and Ward would be her wife. It’s not clear how serious Ward ever was about the plan, but Mitchell built her whole future around it. Then, Ward’s family found them out. Ward returned the engagement ring Mitchell had given her and, worst of all, apparently went on with her life as if the breakup was no big deal. Mitchell couldn’t do likewise.
After Alice Mitchell was arrested for murder, George Mitchell, her father, moved quickly. The Mitchells didn’t belong to the local aristocracy, but they were well-off and well- connected. He engaged two of Tennessee’s most eminent lawyers. Since there were several eyewitnesses to the crime, and Alice had confessed, the strategy was to plead “present insanity,” meaning in effect that Alice Mitchell was incompetent to stand trial. Formidable legal and medical forces were marshalled to make the case.
Among the factors supporting the plea was heredity: George Mitchell had institutionalized his wife, Isabella, several times for what was probably postpartum depression, and she was widely considered unstable. (In a too-literal reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Coe writes that “the story speaks . . . to Alice’s mother, Isabella.” But the story is not just about institutionalized women; it’s about the way in which all women are institutionalized: confined to one room and denied access to the rest of the house. The house can be taken as a literal place, but it’s also a metaphor for the wider world. Confinement can stunt one’s growth and even drive one crazy. A case might be made that this is what happened to Alice Mitchell. The story, coincidentally, was published in January 1892, the same month that Alice killed Freda.) The legal team prepared a capsule biography for Alice, emphasizing her disinterest in “those childish amusements and toys that girls are fond of,” her proficiency at activities considered better suited to boys, and—a sure sign of abnormality, if not outright lunacy—“she was sometimes rude, and always indifferent to young men.”
And of course there was the plan to elope with Ward, and the love letters that confirmed it.
The trial was delayed while the judge ordered his courtroom expanded to accommodate more spectators. Reporters flooded into Memphis and spent their time buttonholing any “local” who would talk to them. They got it wrong as often as they got it right, but whatever they got, the nation ate it up and demanded more.
Readers in 2015 are likely to want something a little different. Despite Coe’s best intentions, the voices of Mitchell and Ward are often drowned out by the period sources that were shocked and appalled by things that don’t shock and appall us. Coe seems to have been influenced by this as well. Standing against the flood of rhetoric condemning “same-sex love” as unnatural and even insane, she speaks in its defense, but in doing so she loses sight of two significant points: first, that in this case the “same sex” was female; and second, that a “love” that leads to the murder of the beloved might be something more, or less, than love.
The night of the murder, Mitchell’s lawyers interviewed her in her jail cell. According to an article published at the time in the Memphis Appeal Avalanche, she recounted how devastated she was when Ward broke off the engagement:
I could not bear to think of her living in the company of others. Then, indeed, I resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me, and when she did die I know she loved me better than any human being on earth. I got my father’s razor and made up my mind to kill Freda, and now I know she is happy.
Coe notes, of this passage:
Today’s readers are likely to interpret this confession as the unfortunate saga of a troubled, teenage romance turned deadly: Alice believed she had found her one true love, and that their commitment could withstand any challenge—or be immortalized by death. . . . If any part of her statement casts a doubt on Alice’s sanity, it is the conclusion, in which she claims to know Freda is happy to have been murdered.
“I resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me”? Perhaps my twenty-first-century sensibility is getting in the way here, but this doesn’t strike me as the resolve of a completely sane person. What kind of love justifies murder to keep the beloved from leaving? Why can’t I get “Banks of the Ohio” out of my mind?
Ann Jones wrote, in the introduction to the 2009 reprint of her landmark 1980 book, Women Who Kill:
The typical woman who kills a husband or boyfriend does so in self-defense, usually after repeated attacks of increasing violence, and without intending to cause death. But the typical man who kills a wife or girlfriend does so deliberately when he thinks he is losing control over her —when she asks for a divorce, hires a lawyer, goes home to her mother, or even when she merely gets a job or goes back to school.
Mitchell’s murder of Ward is closer to the scenario of the typical male murderer than that of the typical female. Does this suggest that Mitchell was a man, or mannish, or a man wannabe? Of course not. It suggests that a closer look at Mitchell’s situation is called for. In Coe’s eagerness to claim Mitchell as a pioneer of same-sex love, she tends to overlook the fact that Mitchell was also a young woman who had a compelling reason to resist the limited options available to her.
As Jones and others have pointed out, in the United States, the nineteenth century was a period of rigidly demarcated gender norms, especially for white women of Mitchell and Ward’s class. As the century went on, the norms came under increasing, and increasingly effective, attack. As a result, those whose worldview and privilege rested on those norms became more vociferous in their defense, and more intransigent. In Women Who Kill Jones explores in detail the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts—which also happened in 1892 but which, unlike the story of Alice and Freda, has lived on in cultural memory. She makes a persuasive case that Lizzie Borden was acquitted mainly because judge and jury couldn’t admit that a woman of Lizzie’s social station could possibly have done the deed.
Against this backdrop, imagine young Mitchell, much happier playing physical games and working around horses than sewing and cooking. Under the same roof lives her mother, institutionalized after almost every childbirth, fragile both physically and mentally, and clearly not happy living the life that is supposed to be the fulfillment of her nature. In a different city, 6 Mitchell might have glimpsed other possibilities, but in Memphis she probably saw only one way out: play the man’s part, marry her beloved Ward, and escape.
Did the plan have the slightest chance of succeeding? No, for a host of reasons, but Mitchell was wholly invested in it. It might have been the only livable future she could imagine. It’s not unlikely that Ward realized how impractical it was, and was more than a little relieved when she was forced to withdraw from the fantasy. But once she withdrew, the fantasy collapsed. Mitchell could no longer see any future for herself—or for Freda.
After the “present insanity” plea triumphed in court, Mitchell was institutionalized at the Western Hospital for the Insane in Bolivar, Tennessee. There she died less than six years later, on March 31, 1898, possibly of tuberculosis, possibly a suicide. The cause of death remains uncertain. She was 25 years old.
Coe has done us a service by bringing Alice and Freda’s story to the attention of modern readers and by documenting so thoroughly the reactions of the legal system, the medical authorities, and the popular press. What is missing here are the responses of those familiar with the ways in which law, medicine, and conventional wisdom restricted women’s options. In the early 1890s, many veteran women’s-rights pioneers were still active. Younger generations, represented by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others, were coming up behind them. Their writings might not have reached Mitchell’s world, but news of the case almost certainly reached them. What did they have to say about it? Whatever they did say may well be buried in letters, journals, and publications of limited circulation—dissertation topic, anyone?
The tragedy of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward might pique the interest of a novelist or playwright as well. Since reading Alice & Freda Forever, I’ve been hearing a subtext in “Banks of the Ohio” that I’d never considered before. If Willie killed his girlfriend, I assumed, it must have been because his ego couldn’t handle the rejection. But perhaps that wasn’t the whole story. Perhaps when she said no to his proposal, his whole future collapsed. By killing her, he effectively ended his own life—as Alice Mitchell did hers in January 1892.
Susanna J. Sturgis is a freelance editor and writer. Her first novel, The Mud of the Place, was published in 2008. She is currently working on her second. She blogs about writing and editing at Write Through It (http://writethroughitblog.com).
Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman
By Joan Rothfuss
Cambridge, MA, MIT Press , 2014, 448 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Debra Cash
Up on the fourth floor of the new Renzo Piano-designed consolidation of the Harvard University Art Museums, an unstrung cello hangs on the wall. On either side of its wooden curves, two forty-inch Sony monitors display a collage of grainy video footage from decades ago that, upon close inspection, shows a musician in a black bra playing a stack of three television screens with a bow. Her face is screened behind large dark sunglasses; it’s hard to know what she is thinking beyond the evident concentration of her effort.
Cello Memory is a work from 2002. The stringless fingerboard is signed, in English and Korean, by the artist Nam June Paik. The woman in the video, and the inspiration for this recursive evocation of a cello being played between two female breasts, was Charlotte Moorman.
Cello Memory is installed in a slightly out of the way corner of the museum complex. Below it are two sets of grey metal lockers where students can store their belongings. It seems apt that they will encounter Cello Memory while they peruse the university’s vast teaching collection on the history of the visual arts, because Moorman, with her voracious, try-anything- more-than-once curiosity, was always celebrating the present.
Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) made a name for herself as “the topless cellist.” She played her instrument, as well as a number of faux-cellos made of carved ice, television monitors, and a man’s naked back, in settings as diverse as art-house theatres, a Venetian gondola, a vat of water, and in the sky over Linz Austria suspended by a bouquet of helium balloons in what the writer Jill Johnston called “a cross between Lady Godiva, the Pied Piper, a female Orpheus, and a host of winged mermaids. She’s really just Charlotte being superbly and supremely ridiculous.” (There’s footage of the 1982 version of Sky Kiss on the internet.)
She didn’t start out as a rebel. In Joan Rothfuss’ sympathetic and beautifully researched Topless Cellist, she was a dutiful daughter of Little Rock, Arkansas. The book includes a picture of her as “Miss City Beautiful” of 1952, during the town’s Cleanup, Paintup and Fixup Parade. Coquetry was second nature to her, Rothfuss writes, and she never lost and artfully deployed her accent and ladylike manners when they suited the occasion.
Moorman did not understand herself or her work as feminist, but Rothfuss explains that
classical music concerts, tea parties, and beauty pageants are all, fundamentally, performances. Each involves costumes and codified rituals of behavior, and each is enacted before a critical audience. The power of Moorman’s work as an artist lies in her fusion of these three old-fashioned modes of performance, all of which are associated with genteel Southern womanhood.
Given that avant-garde antics would become Moorman’s calling card, it’s worth noting that from early on, she was a serious orchestral musician. Never at the top of her class, she practiced conscientiously; pursued demanding teachers, including Julliard School of Music cellist Leonard Rose; went on auditions; and was a union member available for pick-up gigs and small ensembles. Chronically broke, she played for television jingles and answered phones to make money.
In late 1960, she encountered the New York avant garde, which forever changed her direction as a performer and presenter of concerts and events. She informally apprenticed herself to a local impresario, Norman Seaman, and started helping a Julliard friend, the violinist Kenji Kobayashi. She had an epiphany in the spring of 1961, when she attended a series of New Music performances in which, for instance, Kobayashi tied a violin to a kitchen stool “like a sacrificial victim” and kicked a metal wastebasket, and Yoko Ono performed a “dramatic poem” to the amplified sound of a flushing toilet.
Moorman was off to the races. She continued to play classical gigs when she could get them, but increasingly concentrated on a “vast new sound world,” playing works by John Cage, La Monte Young, Frederic Rzewski, and even a piece written for her by the free-jazz multi- instrumentalist Ornette Coleman. She called in favors in order to present concerts by herself and her friends; she scrounged resources. Some of the concerts were played straight, but an increasing number were full of subtle or raucous stage business: she might blow a whistle, pop some balloons, or throw things on the floor. Rothfuss is honorable enough to include the information that John Cage hated Moorman’s grandstanding theatrics, in which such liberties were “in favor of actions rather than sound events.” She started to get publicity, including a Movietone short and an article written by the young journalist Gloria Steinem.
In 1964, Moorman met the Korean pianist-composer-visual artist Nam June Paik. Like Moorman, Paik bowed to the altar of John Cage. Paik was a dyed-in-the-wool provocateur. Rothfuss is good at placing him in the context of his creative milieu, a blend of Dadaism, Antonin Artaud, and an interest in juxtaposing objects and actions in ways at once shocking and hilarious. Most specifically, Paik wanted to introduce sexuality into classical music. He wasn’t subtle about it: he wrote Moorman a musical strip tease where she ended up flat on her back with her cello on top of her in a parody of missionary position. He knelt between her legs, his torso naked, while she plucked a single cello string laid across his back. He designed a six-pound “television bra” and electronic pasties. Over the decades of their collaboration, her breasts were disclosed, masked, and transformed into transmission devices. Breasts were a synecdoche for Moorman, while Paik remained invisible, associated not with her breasts but with video art and the televisions she was wearing.
Rothfuss is careful to distinguish between Paik’s aesthetic voyeurism, Moorman’s game willingness to reframe her voluptuous femininity in the service of avant-garde exploration, and the reception of their collaboration by insiders (members of the small but distinguished contemporary art world, many of whom would later become superstars); the critical press, which wavered between dismissiveness and avidity; the befuddled general public; and ultimately the vice squad.
Moorman was an artist who, knowing she was breaking boundaries, often pointed to Paik’s—and other composers’—objectification of her with disingenuous innocence. She was, she said, simply following the composer’s score. When does another’s permission become the vehicle of personal agency? When does acting as a “muse” warrant redefinition as a collaboration between equals? Rothfuss poses questions that Moorman waved off. She was making boundary-pushing art, and she was having fun doing it, even if more than occasionally she bolstered her courage with shots of scotch.
She made headlines in 1967, when plainclothes police officers busted her performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique on misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure. Rothfuss is inspired in her description of the cultural moment in which Moorman was hauled offstage into the freezing winter street, a time when there were lawsuits over topless waitresses, and the Guinean dancers of Les Ballets Africains added tops to their traditional costumes just to be safe. Should public nudity be regulated, and if so, how? (It goes almost without saying that the nudity being debated was typically female.) The accounts of Moorman’s arrest vary, but the night ended with a raid and the dispatch of eight carloads of police in riot helmets to control the booing audience. Moorman spent the night in jail, and when she was released the next morning faced the possibility of a year in prison.
Briefly, Moorman became a household name. She went on talk shows—Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin. Famous artists signed petitions. Found guilty that May, she received a suspended sentence from a judge who said that Pablo Casals would not have been as great a cellist if he had performed without his pants.
While Moorman’s performances are what makes for the best copy, this biography indicates that her expansive thought about how to generate a public for unfamiliar art may be her more lasting legacy. She wanted, she said, to make art be less of a “snobbish, mysterious thing.” As a presenter, her increasingly flamboyant, multimedia Avant Garde Festivals moved from cabaret clubs and concert halls to huge public venues, including Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, and Grand Central Station. Rothfuss reports that by 1980, when she staged her fifteenth and last festival at the Passenger Ship Terminal on the Hudson River, 650 artists participated, and she received an official proclamation from New York Mayor Ed Koch. The events were more Woodstock than Carnegie Hall at a time when New Music usually attracted a tiny coterie, primarily within academic settings. The feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann noted,
She was treated like a wild, improvisatory, penniless, entrepreneurial girl. Had she been a guy, this would have had such authority and weight to it, because through her will and crazy vision she created the avant-garde community, the most extensive one that we have. But she did it like a crazy girl.
Moorman died as she lived, considering even her illness a performance and an opportunity for a combination of obsessive preparation and will power. When she found the first lump that signaled breast cancer in 1979, it was inevitable that many of her friends would surmise that her illness had something to do with the TV Bra and its ionizing radiation. Rothfuss tracked down Moorman’s doctor and then a physicist to gather evidence and reports that Moorman would have had to wear TV Bra five times more often than she did to receive the equivalent of even one mammogram’s worth of X-rays. Moorman’s breasts may have been her professional calling card, but that profession did not kill her.
Charlotte Moorman was a packrat— one who was so convinced of her own historical significance that on her deathbed in Roosevelt Hospital she was reported to have told her husband, Frank Pileggi, “Don’t throw anything away.” Rothfuss, a former Walker Art Center curator who now works independently, had access to the entire archive, now at the Northwestern University Library, and Topless Cellist is lavishly illustrated with photographic documentation. Charlotte Moorman’s journey from Southern belle to avant-garde impresario may have been improbable, but it is no longer unconsidered.
Debra Cashis executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance and scholar in residence at the Bates Dance Festival.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman
By Jill Lepore
New York: Knopf, 2014, 432 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948
By Noah Berlatsky
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2015, 264 pp., $25.60, paperback
Reviewed by Joan Hilty
Good charlatans convince everyone of their fraudulent skill; the very best ones believe it themselves. P.T. Barnum was a perpetrator of elaborate hoaxes who insisted he wasn’t duping audiences and went on to debunk spiritualists; Joseph Smith was a small-time treasure hunter who became convinced he was a prophet. William Moulton Marston, the pop psychologist turned creator of Wonder Woman, was neither a pure entertainer like Barnum nor a religious figure like Smith; he was a bit of both.
The Amazon superheroine is one of the most recognizable superhero characters of all time, part of DC Comics’ “trinity” of iconic heroes, the other two being Superman and Batman. At the height of her popularity in 1944, she had 10 million readers. And yet the stories and themes from that original run were anything but conventional, reflecting Marston’s obsession with bondage, rituals of dominance and submission, and the superiority of women over men; in the words of his widow, “The Marston psychology of living…was injected into every page of WW.”
This paradox is at the heart of new works by Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, and by blogger Noah Berlatsky. These are very different approaches to Wonder Woman as a force in US cultural history, yet the books are surprisingly complementary. Lepore has done a terrific job of digging out Marston’s history, providing long-needed context for his life and work that previous writers have hidden or glossed over. For his part, Berlatsky does a dazzling and remarkably accessible reading of the 1940s Wonder Woman comics against some of the heavyweights of modern feminist theory—Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Shulamith Firestone, Julia Kristeva, Susan Brownmiller. Both books share the problem of constructing ambitious hypotheses they cannot quite prove, but the journey is well-worth the bumps in the road.
Broad details of Marston’s unconventional professional and personal life have been fairly common knowledge among comics historians and aficionados, and the bizarre Marston-era comics have always remained in print; DC Comics published them as a series of archive editions with authoritative forewords by Gloria Steinem and various leading comics historians. But nobody has tackled the granular, peculiar detail of the comics and their creators the way Lepore and Berlatsky do.
Marston was a talented eccentric whose career path had been spotty prior to breaking into comics; he consistently failed either sideways or upward, as one could do in the early twentieth century as long as one was white, male, and well-connected. Big, boisterous, and passionate, he took up screenwriting during his second year at Harvard and won a talent search contest sponsored by Edison Films. The resulting film, released two days before the Lusitania sank, was quickly forgotten, but he used the experience to parlay his storytelling talent into work as a psychological consultant to Hollywood studios. He rose to head the American University psychology department as the self-proclaimed founder of the science of lie detection (he is often incorrectly credited as the inventor of the lie detector, but the polygraph machine was developed and patented by others, and Marston himself always claimed a machine could never do what a human expert could). Then he staked that academic reputation on US Supreme Court attention to a legal case he’d supported that instead died in the DC Court of Appeals. Shortly thereafter, Marston was sued by a business partner in the third of three failed businesses he’d founded, arrested for fraud, and fired from the university. Nevertheless, he scrabbled on to teach at Tufts and Columbia.
His career struggle was colored by his penchant for ideas that were both conceptually risky for the period and deliberately sensational in execution. He became increasingly convinced, for example, that there were natural norms of psycho-neural behavior that fell outside cultural norms, and that the particular strengths of female psychology were not being properly recognized. But he chose to prove and publicize these beliefs by means such as hooking six chorus girls up to blood pressure cuffs in the front row of New York City’s Embassy Theater to measure their response to the Greta Garbo film Flesh and the Devil (1926). This naturally attracted attention, but it made his benefactors uncomfortable. Then, at Tufts, he met a bright young student named Olive Byrne, who became part of a live-in polyamorous relationship with Marston and his legal wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, that yielded four children and spanned decades. And it was Byrne’s article on comics for Family Circle, featuring an interview with Marston, that inspired DC Comics to hire him as an editorial advisor—and, eventually, to accept his pitch for “Suprema, The Wonder Woman,” as long as the subtitle became the real name.
Much has been made of Lepore’s discovery that the early twentieth-century reproductive- rights activist Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. Lepore also makes a point of locating the first Wonder Woman artist, Harry G. Peter, within the suffragist movement of the Progressive Era. But the most remarkable feminist stories here are those of Marston’s domestic partners Holloway and Byrne. Without them, he might have been nothing. Even before Olive Byrne pitched that article and put her lover on DC Comics’ radar, Elizabeth Holloway—herself a law school graduate and psychologist who worked with Marston on his dissertation—had been that rare thing for the times, a “career woman,” going back to work right after her children were born. As an editor and executive assistant, she supported the large family throughout Marston’s many bouts of unemployment, while Byrne raised the children.
A close circle of friends, family, and colleagues were aware of this highly unorthodox arrangement—including Marston’s DC editors and Sanger—but the trio kept it a secret from the larger world, and, for a long time, even from their own children. Byrne’s children by Marston were told their father had died from WWI-related illness and were adopted by him and Holloway. For all his love of the spotlight and desire for respect and fame, Marston was never radical enough to openly stake his gender privilege against his ideals.
But the real protagonist here is Wonder Woman. Leaping across the cover of All Star Comics #18 in 1941, she was an instant hit, enthralling kids with her origin story. Raised on Paradise Island as the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the all-female Amazonian nation, she entered and won a tournament staged to find the “strongest and wisest Amazon.” The prize was mainly to return a military pilot, Steve Trevor, who’d crash-landed on the island, to his American homeland. But she was also appointed to “help fight the forces of hate and oppression” in the country she would adopt as her own. That directive was aimed at patriotic sentiment as America entered World War II, but it was more broadly based on the history of Marston’s Amazons; the race had once been enslaved by Hercules, and only the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite had freed them. Ever since, they had worn the bracelets fashioned by their captors, as reminders “to always keep aloof from men,” and the new Wonder Woman was now charged with paying that lesson forward: “At last, in a world torn by the hatred and wars of men, appears a woman to whom the problems and feats of men are mere child’s play.”
Nobody could have imagined, though, exactly how Marston would depict that play. His Wonder Woman comics are mind-bogglingly focused on images of bondage, punishment, and quasi-sexual imagery; there is barely a page that doesn’t feature chains, gags, or spanking. Men and women are victimized in nearly equal measure, but the women always dominate and prevail. After years of toil on the margins of respectability, Marston had found the perfect vessel for his views.
That’s where Berlatsky’s analysis comes in. Exploring these comics frame by frame, he is meticulous about pointing out power dynamics and symbolism, whether it’s expressed through the “childish” sorority antics of Wonder Woman sidekick Etta Candy or the “mature” thrashing of Nazis by our heroine (or some weird combination of both, as there is actually a storyline that shows Wonder Woman being spanked by toddlers). In Marston’s worldview, women are as empowered as men to initiate and even enjoy violence and domination, but are ultimately better equipped to enforce a “loving submission” that subverts established notions of masculinity and femininity by challenging established norms about both.
Berlatsky ends on a weak note as he loops the current Wonder Woman monthly comic book into his analysis, hauling a few writer-artist creative teams over the coals for failing to match the “visionary” work of Marston and Peter. This is pointless; there has been a fundamental power shift in comics publishing over the last half century. Whatever you may think of comics writers Brian Azzarello’s or Gail Simone’s takes on Wonder Woman, they did not enjoy a creator's power to mold the character, as Marston did; and DC Comics is no longer an independent publisher, but a division of a media empire. Regardless of their talent, its storytellers are now charged with maintaining the marketability of its main icons. They no longer have free rein to translate their beliefs into something that resonates with a mass audience.
But also, Berlatsky’s theorizing is somewhat anachronistic. He argues that Marston and Peter were feminist, pacifist, and queer, or at least that the material they created was. At the very least, this is an overly generous characterization of Peter as an author, let alone an activist: he was a professional but middling draftsman who spoke little and advanced no known personal philosophy. Marston’s loyalty to him was likely grounded in Peter’s willingness to draw every detail Marston asked for. More significantly, it is simply too reductive to award work created prior to an activist framework for modern queerness and feminism with authority in those fields.
Marston’s personal actions don’t count. While his living arrangement may have “queered” the boundaries of midcentury nuclear family dynamics, the sexual and power dynamics were likely full-on heterosexual. Berlatsky suggests that Holloway and Byrne were involved with each other, but there’s no concrete proof, or even strong circumstantial evidence, of this. Holloway did sign herself “Sappho” once, but she was a big fan of the poet’s work. She and Byrne continued to live together for decades after Marston’s passing, but when he died in 1946, only one of their four children was college-age, and they had all been raised together; separating the family would have made no sense. And Holloway insisted, in private letters to her grown children, that the arrangement was grounded in the trio’s strong beliefs in Marston’s psychology of emotions and in notions of “love bindings” that dated from the first meetings between Byrne and the Marstons in the late 1920s. Even if that was the mentality of the closet speaking, the fact remains that these freethinkers maintained strict limits on preaching what they practiced.
Ultimately, both authors’ characterization of the Marston comics and their creator as feminist doesn’t hold water. To be fair, it’s a characterization of Wonder Woman that many fans and cultural historians use to this day, including feminists. But as the journalist Janelle Asselin has pointed out, in a July 2, 2014, blog post on comicsalliance.com, Marston was not, strictly speaking, feminist in his core beliefs; he believed not in gender equality, but in female superiority.
There may have been something to his absolutism, though. Lepore’s thesis—that Wonder Woman is the “missing link” in the struggle for gender equality—doesn’t quite pan out, even though she meticulously traces Wonder Woman’s decline throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. After Marston’s death, just as working women were being driven back into the domestic sphere following peacetime, the character became and remains a cypher; she was vilified by conservative commentators and the radical Redstockings alike for being a bad influence, as a progression of DC editors tried to tame her either by scaling back her aggression to focus on the relationship with Steve Trevor or by shoehorning her into broadly acceptable “women’s-lib” narratives.
Neither book is able to find the rationale for how this extraordinarily ahead-of-her-time character in a conservative era could have become so antiquated even as society grew more liberal. But it may simply be too difficult a question to resolve because the reality is so frustratingly difficult to accept. Putting the adult themes aside, the original Wonder Woman was unique and potentially transformative because she expected “man’s world” to live up to her expectations, and not vice versa. Once that pendulum swung, the character lost and has never regained a certain fundamental power.