Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
By Sherie M. Randolph
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, 328 pp., $30.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Benita Roth
In Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph, an associate professor of history and Afroamerican studies at the University of Michigan, has done an important service for anyone who cares about fashioning a complete and complex record of post-World War II feminist activism. Flo Kennedy was a vivid television presence in the 1970s, and remembering her image, I looked her up on YouTube. I expected to find a lot, but came up with very little: a clip of her profanely leading the chorus of one of her signature protest songs, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a precious, audio-only sound-bite from her speech at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.
This kind of paltry digital legacy confirms the need for biographies of important and heretofore understudied feminist figures such as Kennedy. It takes nothing away from Kennedy’s seriousness of political purpose to say that she was a media-savvy gadfly, someone who understood how to inspire would-be activists and how to garner attention from the halls of established power. As Randolph shows, Kennedy was a relentlessly political person, a constant organizer who was nonetheless better at catalyzing organizations than sustaining them.
Randolph begins her biography with an examination of Kennedy’s origins, focusing on the family dynamics that led to her radical politics. Born in 1916 to a lower-middle-class black family in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy early on received messages about confronting white racism from her family, whom she described as “political in the sense that we never took any shit.” In 1925 Kennedy’s mother, Zella, took her three daughters to Los Angeles to visit family, leaving behind her husband, and decided to stay, joining the many blacks seeking a freer life in southern California. In Los Angeles, Kennedy, then nine years old, experienced a reprieve from harsh winters and harsh racism.
After two years, Kennedy’s father came to reclaim the family—possibly because Zella was ill—and they returned to Kansas City. The Depression foreclosed on black women’s few options for employment, and both Zella and Flo worked as domestics for a time. Randolph notes that Zella taught her daughters to reject the silences required by the black community’s “politics of respectability,” and to own their sexuality. In Kansas City, Kennedy got to know NAACP officers and, in 1942, at the age of 26, she and her sister Grayce staged a two-woman sit-in at a whites-only bus stop café. During a struggle with angry whites, Kennedy was yanked off a stool so hard that she suffered a spinal dislocation, the effects of which would be with her for the rest of her life.
In 1943, Kennedy took a vacation to visit her sister in New York City and stayed, attracted by the opportunities the city offered. She attended Columbia University’s Program of Undergraduate Studies (later the School of General Studies, a program aimed at working students), where she was often the only black woman in her classes. The gender issues raised by her courses inspired her. She explicitly rejected the roles of wife and mother, and explored the implications of the analogy, popular at the time, of women’s situation being like that of “Negroes.”
She was working at exactly the kind of “good government job”—as a researcher for the Veterans Benefits Administration—that she had hoped to find in New York, when her socialist sympathies got her fired. Though she was not one for party discipline, she had connected with radicals in the city, which landed her on the FBI’s radar. She wanted to become a lawyer, but was initially rejected from Columbia Law School. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, she confronted an assistant dean, telling him that her rejection was unacceptable, since less-qualified white men had been admitted, and she used the school’s perception that she had ties to influential radicals to have the decision reversed.
Kennedy’s path as a black woman practicing law was never easy, and it was rendered more difficult by her marriage to a possibly abusive, alcoholic writer, and to her dishonest law partner, who literally took their firm’s money and ran. Kennedy left her husband and never married again—committing herself to activism instead. Despite these personal and professional losses, Kennedy began to make a name for herself as an attorney. She defended the singer Billie Holiday against narcotics charges and developed “a reputation as an entertainment lawyer willing to battle the industry on behalf of artists and their families,” writes Randolph, who argues that Kennedy eventually become cynical about the law, but was never willing to relinquish its strategic power as she fought for radical causes.
To build an activist voice in the 1960s black community, Kennedy began writing a weekly column for a local black newspaper, the Queens Voice, entitled “Once Upon a Week,” and hosting a radio program for station WLIB on Sunday nights called Opinions. She held parties and salon-like events in her apartment for left-wingers like herself, who believed that racism, classism, and US imperialism were linked. Her arrest in her own neighborhood in 1965 by police suspicious of her as a black woman only hardened her radical principles.
In view of this political background, Kennedy’s involvement throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both the black power and feminist movements makes a great deal of sense, and Randolph’s narrative really takes off in the latter part of the book, as she covers Kennedy’s contributions. With her view of linked oppressions, Kennedy argued that the nascent National Organization for Women (NOW) should ally itself with the black power movement—but not surprisingly, she was rebuffed. That didn’t stop her from continuing to attend New York NOW meetings, nor from bringing the white NOW members Ti-Grace Atkinson and Peg Brennan to the Black Power Conference in July of 1967, where they were decidedly unwelcome.
Such rejections did not stop Kennedy from continuing to advocate what we would now call an intersectional view of liberation. However, she and others who sought a politics of coalition faced a pervasive left ethos of what I called (in Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave ), the anti-coalitional politics of “organizing one’s own.” Left organizations in the 1960s and 1970s were concerned with authenticity and self-determination; as racial/ethnic lines hardened, so did the sense that one’s community was determined along racial/ethnic lines. Given this activist milieu, Kennedy was seldom successful in making the links among organizations that she wished to see. Rather, Randolph sees her as what the sociologist Belinda Robnett (in How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights ) calls a “bridge leader.” Randolph argues that Kennedy moved back and forth between movements and brought to feminists the ideological lessons of Black Power. Randolph writes that Kennedy, “[l]ike many other radicals…saw the emerging women’s movement as a logical extension of Black Power’s emphasis on liberation and self determination.” And in bringing white women’s liberationists to the Black Power Conference, Kennedy clearly wanted the black movement to address sexism within its ranks.
Kennedy was not exactly the kind of bridge leader that Robnett envisioned: she was both a behind-the-scenes go-between and a very public spokesperson. In 1970, she paired with Gloria Steinem on a speaking tour that took them to college campuses and local feminist groups; she was also instrumental in establishing grassroots support for the insurgent Feminist Party, which supported Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run for president. However, despite her high profile as a black feminist, Kennedy ultimately came to feel that white feminists were not ready for true coalitional politics. In a battle over NOW’s leadership structure—Atkinson had put forth a proposal for rotating the presidency of the group, to counter what she saw as Betty Friedan’s moderating power—Kennedy resigned from the organization. She did not turn her back on feminist politics, however; in fact, she played a catalyzing role in the formation of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973—although her involvement in that group was short lived, and she soon moved on to other political projects.
You can’t come away from Randolph’s biography without great admiration for Kennedy; whatever her shortcomings as an organizer, she was clearly devoted to her causes, and she constantly sought to inspire, educate, and connect with others. Randolph’s research was truly Herculean: she organized and cataloged Kennedy’s papers at the Schlesinger Library; sifted through other collections; conducted interviews; listened to audio recordings; watched archived video; read court cases, newspaper articles and scholarly sources; combed through FBI files; and spoke with family members. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the activist.
Still, aspects of Kennedy’s life, most notably her private life after her marriage, remain elusive. That may be by Kennedy’s design, but it is hard to know, and I wish that Randolph had broached the topic. I would also have liked to learn more about Kennedy’s life after the 1970s; Randolph fleshes out Kennedy’s early years but leaves her later ones underexplored. A growing literature shows that, contrary to the pop-culture stereotype, radical activists maintain their radicalism over time. It would have been instructive to know more about what Kennedy thought of the aftermath of 1960s and 1970s protest mobilizations.
I also wish Randolph had considered, in theoretical terms, why Kennedy was such an individualist in her activism, so unwilling to be beholden to any one group, so accepting, it seems, of being a perpetual outsider to the organizations that she touched. I mostly missed this theoretical consideration of the relationship between individual activists and organizational trajectories in Randolph’s narration of the “fall” of the NBFO, which she more or less blames on Kennedy’s failure to stick around and guide the group. Just as a “great woman/man” theory of history won’t fly in accounting for historical successes, a great woman, even one as vital as Kennedy, can’t be held responsible for an organization’s failure. Randolph argues that the NBFO faltered from a lack of resources, especially compared to a group like NOW. Others, however, including myself (in Separate Roads) and Kimberly Springer (in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 ), argue that resources were only part of the organization’s problems. Springer identifies homophobia, activist burn-out, and factionalism in accounting for the NBFO’s demise, while I argue that its New York City-based leadership failed to capitalize on grassroots support for black feminism by trying too hard to emulate NOW’s centralized control of local chapters. Kennedy helped to start the NBFO, but she wasn’t a central player in that organization after its first year or so, and its demise should not be traced to her influence or the lack of it.
All in all, Randolph has written an extremely useful biography for those seeking to understand the bundle of energy, style, humor, and smarts that was Flo Kennedy. The book is also a good entry into understanding the tumult of left protest politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Randolph’s work contributes to the leaky dam we scholars of that era are always trying to build against cultural forgetting. I’m grateful for both Kennedy’s and Randolph’s efforts on behalf of the ongoing struggle for progressive change.
Benita Roth is an associate professor of sociology, history, and women’s studies at Binghamton University. She is the author of Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (2004), and of The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s (forthcoming, 2016).
The Woman You’ve Never Heard of Who’s the Reason You Practice Yoga
By Michelle Goldberg
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 352 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Heather Hewett
You don’t have to own a mat to know that yoga has transformed from a countercultural interest into a multibillion dollar “growth industry.” A 2012 Yoga Journal survey found that more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and that practitioners spent more than $10 billion a year on yoga classes and products. Most gyms and community centers offer yoga. In both hip and no-so-hip communities you can seek out a studio tailored to your particular preferences, whether that’s hot, rock ’n’ roll, prenatal, or aerial yoga. (My local studio describes the last as a “heartfelt connection to Yoga with the use of aerial hammocks suspended from the ceiling.” I haven’t worked up the courage to try it.) Alternatively, you can download a podcast, pull on your tights, and do some yoga at home. At bookstores, plenty of how-to guides shed light on pranayama breathing and side-crow pose and which chant goes with which of the body’s chakra energy nodes. And next to those shelves are a growing number of books that cast a skeptical eye on the practice, including histories of individual scandals and recent investigations into yoga-related injuries and deaths.
Yoga cynicism is on the rise, and for good reasons. Today’s Yoga Industrial Complex can trigger second thoughts, even among students who have done yoga for years and have experienced multiple benefits from the practice (I count myself in this group). It’s easy to conclude that yoga has been fully commodified and corrupted by western capitalism. But this isn’t the full story. In The Goddess Pose, the journalist Michelle Goldberg argues that yoga was never pure or uncorrupted. It has always been a “hybrid of ancient and contemporary ideas, an East/West fusion.” Long before its discovery by the Bohemians and beatniks of the 1960s or its more recent entry into mainstream American culture in the 1990s, yoga was being reinvented by a dizzying array of teachers and popularizers, Indian and western. Goldberg’s biography of Indra Devi, a Russian-born aristocrat who ended up in Hollywood, where she “taught yoga to stars and leaders,” as her New York Times obituary put it, suggests how complex and surprising the history is.
Goldberg’s biography—the first of Devi in English—provides a fascinating look at a woman who opened studios in Shanghai, Hollywood, Mexico, and Buenos Aires; introduced yoga to the Soviet cosmonauts during the cold war; and taught figures such as Greta Garbo, Yehudi Menuhin, and Panamanian Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera. Devi deeply influenced the yoga many of us practice today, and yet, unlike many other yogis, she doesn’t have much name recognition. Goldberg’s well-written and impressively researched biography begins to correct the record.
The author approaches her subject as a “complicated, audaciously modern, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes maddeningly irresponsible woman, not as a spiritual exemplar.” She draws together materials scattered throughout several different countries—archival documents, old newspapers, government files, and several books penned by Devi herself—to assemble the story of this elusive and peripatetic woman. Because Devi changed her name multiple times, Goldberg divides her biography into four parts, each titled with her subject’s name during that period. In each section, she places Devi in her cultural and historical context, which is no small feat. Born in imperial Russia at the tail end of the century to an aristocratic mother and a Swedish banker, Devi—originally Eugenia Vassilievna—found herself in the middle of many of the next century’s major historical events and befriended an astounding array of individuals from many different countries. This situation presents advantages and challenges to her biographer. When material on Devi isn’t available, Goldberg fills in the picture with information about that particular place and historical moment; sometimes, though, Goldberg must bring in so many different events, social movements, and people that the details threaten to derail the story. That they never quite do is a testament to Goldberg’s skills as a journalist and a storyteller.
When Eugenia was eighteen, the Bolsheviks staged their coup and the country plunged into civil war. Her mother, who was separated from her father, lost everything. As Goldberg observes of Eugenia, “All around her, the country was turning into hell—and she was learning a lesson that would serve her for the rest of her long life: how to survive her world’s collapse by reinventing herself.” After her mother joined a theater troupe, they traveled throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Along with many other White Russian immigrants, they ended up in Berlin in 1923—the year Hitler first tried to overthrow the Weimar Republic. It was a time of chaos and hyperinflation in this “artistically vibrant” city, writes Goldberg, where Eugenia and her mother joined a Russian cabaret and continued to travel. During these years, Eugenia experienced various hardships—hunger, jail, anxiety, and heartbreak—but Goldberg can only imagine how her subject must have felt. The historical record is thin, partly because Eugenia’s lifelong cultivation of “relentlessly positive thinking” and a “buoyant, ingenuous approach to life” led her to downplay misfortunes in her own memoirs and writings.
A trip to Holland to attend a weeklong Theosophical camp (a precursor to contemporary retreats such as Omega or Esalen) fueled Eugenia’s interest in this movement, which had become popular during the last days of the Russian Empire and was attracting many Europeans interested in eastern religions, the supernatural, and the occult. Eugenia later called this camp a “turning point” in her life, an experience that fed her youthful desire to travel to India and would lead her far from traditional marriage and motherhood.
With “her charm and her aristocratic bearing,” Eugenia possessed a knack for forming friendships with powerful and influential elites; personal connections helped her realize what for many would remain pipe dreams. A friendship with a British feminist and Theosophist with ties to India, plus money from her banker-fiancé, enabled her to visit India. She was enchanted. After her trip, she broke off her engagement, sold her belongings, and sailed back, with enough money for only a few months and no concrete plans. After a short career in Indian cinema, acceptance into fashionable Indian society, and marriage to a Bombay-based Czech diplomat, she began to suffer from depression and severe anxiety. Unwittingly, she had traded a carefree existence for convention, and enlightenment for evening soirées.
Eugenia’s next metamorphosis, from society wife into yogini, proves no less fascinating. Here, Goldberg skillfully weaves in the story of yoga’s evolution, showing how Eugenia holds a rightful place in the lineage of this culturally hybrid and endlessly evolving art. From its origins in classical Indian yogic philosophy and the physical yoga developed by medieval Hindu ascetics, modern yoga underwent reinvention during the late nineteenth century. Western ideas about the spiritual value of physical fitness, American transcendentalism (itself shaped by “romantic conceptions of Indian thought”), and the growing Indian nationalist movement all shaped yoga’s evolution. For those who sought independence from their British colonizers, hatha yoga presented an authentically Indian form of physical culture, and several notable figures helped to foster a hatha yoga renaissance in India, including Sri Krishnamacharya, an innovator who drew from Indian philosophy, Nepalese yoga, and the gymnastic tradition of Mysore Palace (as well as, most likely, the Danish) in his development of a dynamic and flowing form of yoga intended for young boys.
After several failed attempts, Eugenia finally persuaded this “brilliant synthesizer” to teach a western woman, and as the months went by, she found herself transformed by the practice and freed from her anxiety attacks. When her husband was transferred to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya charged her with bringing yoga to the rest of the world—providing the seed for her incarnation into Indra Devi, the teacher who began her career instructing expats during the Japanese occupation of China and continued, after World War II and her marriage ended, in Los Angeles.
In the US, Devi started over—without a job, family, or connections. Yet she could not have picked a better place than southern California, ground zero for the emerging New Age culture. Devi opened the first yoga studio in Los Angeles, and her fame began to build. She was invited to teach at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine spa, and she gained a following among Hollywood stars; she soon befriended Gloria Swanson, who penned the forward to Devi’s bestselling 1953 book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy. The yoga in this book and in her classes represents what Devi had learned from her teachers, a moderately challenging mix of exercise and relaxation combined with “elements of New Thought and nature cure and even a light sprinkling of feminism,” as Goldberg describes it. While other yoga teachers share credit for introducing yoga to the US, Goldberg notes that Devi was instrumental in spreading a version of it that was both “resolutely free of religion” and particularly appealing to women, even “respectable bourgeois ladies.” Goldberg observes that this may be one of the “ironies” of hatha yoga in the US: “rich housewives discovered it well before it became the avant-garde enthusiasm of beats and hippies.” (In keeping with this history, in its 2012 survey, Yoga Journal identified 82 percent of practitioners in the US as women.) For Devi and the women who studied with her, yoga wasn’t about self-acceptance but rather self-help.
Goldberg’s insights about gender and class suggest a range of complex reasons for yoga’s prominence today. In keeping with New Age beliefs, yoga links health and salvation: by assuming certain physical poses, one can transform both body and soul (“clearer skin and clearer thoughts,” Goldberg quips). When stress entered the cultural lexicon in the 1950s (as in, “I’m so stressed out”), yoga provided a drug-free alternative to tranquilizers. However, the main goal was adjustment to the status quo—an objective, Goldberg points out, that’s in keeping with contemporary business applications of mindfulness meditation in workplaces. (This all changed during the next decade, when Devi became convinced that the world was in the midst of a “spiritual crisis” in need of yogic religious teachings.)
Goldberg does not shy away from exploring Devi’s internal contradictions. Over the course of her life, Devi developed a detachment that looked, to some, like callousness; after her second husband, Sigfrid Knauer, suffered from a series of strokes, she refused to care for him. “Her freedom was too important to her, her antipathy to quotidian domestic obligations too deep,” explains Goldberg. Contrary to Hindu and Buddhist disciplines, Goldberg notes, Devi hadn’t truly dissolved her ego; instead, she had used “eastern spiritual techniques” to deepen her own form of individualism. Yet Devi’s detachment kept her moving forward, and she remained vital for decades into old age. When she was 85, a rock star invited her to Argentina, and she moved to Buenos Aires, where she founded a yoga school; for years after this, she continued to travel. As global interest in yoga exploded, she became known for her youthful spirit and energy. She died in 2002, at age 102.
Most yoga today is far more physically challenging than what Devi taught; it originates from the teachings and innovations of other yogis. Yet Goldberg argues that Devi’s spirit continues to “animate” modern western yoga: It’s part of the same “cultural matrix as organic food, holistic spas, and biodynamic beauty products—things that seem to go together so naturally that it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always linked.” Goldberg convincingly suggests that Indra Devi transformed a male discipline into an “uplifting ritual for cosmopolitan, spiritual-but-not-religious women.” While there’s certainly more to be said about this cultural shift, Goldberg makes a strong case for viewing yoga as a flexible and adaptable cultural form that has constantly changed to meet the needs of the current moment. Whose needs it meets, and whose it does not, may be its as-yet unwritten story.
Heather Hewett is associate professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Revealing Ourselves to Ourselves
By Sandra Cisneros
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 400 pp., $28.95 paperback
Reviewed by Miroslava Chavez-Garcia
In A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros chronicles her journey toward building a true home. Honest and unapologetic, this collection of creative works, lectures, and introductions to books allows the reader to peer into the bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and closets where Cisneros has stored her personal treasures and the memories accumulated over a lifetime. Stories, she reminds us, “allow us to reveal ourselves to ourselves” and to others. She is herding these stories—the “stray lambs that have wandered out of sight”—and gathering them “under one roof.” “Where are you, my little loves, and where have you gone? Who wrote these and why?” she asks. “I have a need to know, so that I can understand my life.”
A nationally and internationally acclaimed, award-winning novelist and poet, Cisneros is one the most celebrated Latina authors of our time. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the only girl among seven children, living in close and cramped quarters, Cisneros says she has spent much of her life searching for and crafting a house of her own, literally and figuratively. For her, home-sweet-home is a safe and familiar place for friends and family but also a space where she can write without interruption, preferably with only her typewriter and her dogs for companions. A house, she explains, provides nourishment and refuge to the spirit, and protects the physical and intellectual self; it is a haven for daydreamers, night dreamers, and dreaming. Homes have souls and spirits that should not be trampled. The Mexican adage “Mi casa es su casa,” as she describes so poignantly in her final essay, does not mean help yourself “to more than what is intended.” Rather, it is a generous offer of hospitality, even when you have little to provide. A home is like a story, Cisneros writes, for it is ultimately about becoming and knowing yourself, and about the self and the self-making process.
Cisneros’s experiences as a girl growing up in her large Mexican American family in a relatively small space figure prominently here. She explains that to finish The House on Mango Street (1984), a coming-of-age story that eventually became her most well-known novel (today, it is assigned in elementary school and college-level classrooms across the country, has been translated into many languages, and has sold more than 6 million copies), she made her way to the nearly deserted yet enchanting island of Hydra, Greece. The simplicity of the “Hydra House,” she explains, gave her clarity of mind, body, and spirit, as well as “infinite pleasure, and this pleasure allowed me to write.” To recognize a space as a home, she writes, you “have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own.”
Cisneros searches not only for home and self but also for a genuine literary voice. In “No Place Like Home” and “The House on Mango Street’s Tenth Birthday,” she chronicles the shame—the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual alienation—she experienced in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For Cisneros, the experience was one of exile: we are displaced, she writes, from our “real homes, from the blood kin we have honored on our pages . . . when we have drifted away from them on that little white raft called the page.” To protect herself, she unleashed her writing. “I needed shelter. Maybe I was never more homeless than during those two years in graduate school,” she reflects. By coming back to ancestors, immediate family, friends, and neighbors—as well as some of the students and teachers she encountered—Cisneros developed characters who represented the collective experiences of young and old, poor and working class, who managed to survive and thrive in their social and cultural contexts. Their stories—“all our stories,” she says—emerge in The House on Mango Street, and form a collage of sorts, depicting the “shame of being poor, of being female, and being not quite good enough.” Through writing, she could “examine where [the shame] had come from and why, so [she] could exchange shame for celebration.” In the process, she discovered a fierce voice.
The fierceness comes through in “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work,” an essay whose title is inspired by the nineteenth-century painter Mary Cassatt, who declared, “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.” The essay affirms Cisneros’s identity as an independent, single woman, and a creative writer—a vocation that was not easy for her to discover. She struggled to find a place in a Mexican American, working-class culture that emphasizes family, marriage, and motherhood, and devalues female sexuality—as she chronicles in “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.” “I don’t want be nice/quedar bien . . . I want to be una brava, peleonera, necia, berrinchuda,” she writes, that is, a fierce woman, fighter, stubborn, and ill-tempered. She also had to fight the isolation that comes with writers’ need to “lock ourselves in a room and work.” No fretting, crying, or complaining about the process, she says; just get moving and working. Finish, because “[n]obody’s going to do the work for you.” Creative workers need to find ways to spin “straw into gold,” she explains in the essay of that title—whether that involves making corn tortillas out of masa harina (corn flour) when we have no clue how, or whether we are weaving words into stories. Ultimately, she concludes, writing is “resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women.”
Devoting space not only to the search for self, voice, and home, but also to celebrating the artistic creations, friends, and family members who inspire her writing, Cisneros acknowledges sculptor José Luis Rivera-Barrera, Chicano poet Luis Omar Salinas, novelist Marguerite Duras, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Catalan novelist Mercé Rodoreda, composer Astor Piazzolla, political activist and writer Eduardo Galeano, and queer ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, among others. The friends who refigured her consciousness include Jasna Karaula, whom she met in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and who was later caught up in the war and rape of Bosnian women in the early 1990s, and Mariana Yampolsky, a photographer whose images capture the simplicity and splendor of humble houses in Mexico City. These and other friends’ unconventional artwork inspired her own, allowing her to “redefine beauty on more generous and astonishing terms.” Thus, the essay “Tapicero’s Daughter” is more than an homage to her father, an upholsterer, who led his life with dignity and pride; it also honors her mother’s collections from thrift stores, and garage and liquidation sales, which gave rise to Cisneros’s own interest in cultural artifacts.
The collection offers a range of personal and political insights into death and personal loss, in “An Ofrenda for My Father on Day of the Dead,” “An Ofrenda for My Mother,” and “Resurrections”; overcoming despair, in “Only Daughter”; listening with your heart, in “A White Flower”; the struggle to claim public space and history in “¡Que Vivan Los Colores!” and “Tenemos Layaway, or, How I Became an Art Collector”; and the takeover by foreigners of Mexican communities, in “Epilogue: Mi Casa Es Su Casa.”
A House of My Own is thought provoking, introspective, and engaging, especially relevant for anyone in the middle or muddle of writing or other creative process. By sharing the challenges of writing and idiosyncrasies of successful writers, Cisneros provides relief, humor, and insight into the craft. And though with the exception of a small handful these narratives have been previously published, they have been updated, revised, and polished—revealing the evolution of Cisneros’s writing and thought processes over the years. The pieces are brief—between two and twelve pages; they engage you quickly and invite you to read on.
With this work, Cisneros joins a small yet growing pantheon of distinguished Chicana, Latina, and other writers of color who have one-volume collections of significant work, including the late Tejana, queer, writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa (The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ); Chicana, queer, indigenous activist and scholar Cherríe Moraga (A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness ); Dominican American novelist and poet, Julia Alvarez (The Woman I Kept to Myself  and Something to Declare ); the late African American Pulitzer prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks (Selected Poems ); and the late African American poet and activist Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ).
The publication of A House of My Own comes at a time when we continually see men and women, children and elderly from across the globe leaving their homes, often forcibly, and searching for safe and stable places they can call their own. Cisneros reminds us that a home, literal or figurative, is a precious space that needs cultivation and protection. It is not fixed in time or space but can be transported in the heart and the mind over vast landscapes and terrains. Ultimately, she has given us new tools for constructing, utilizing, and interpreting “home.”
Miroslava Chávez-García is professor in the Chicana & Chicano Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is the author of States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (2012) and Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (2004). She is currently working on a history of migration, longing, and gender as told through 300 personal letters exchanged among family members in the 1960s across the US-Mexico borderlands.
Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information
By Eva Hemmungs Wirten
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt
Why not the Age of Curie? Citing polls and other evidence of the persisting fame of Marie Curie throughout the twentieth century to the present day, Eva Hemmungs Wirten responds that Curie, because gender intervenes, is not as easily generalizable as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a few other men whose names designate an era. Puzzling over that exclusion alongside the very evident fame of a woman whose name inevitably leads polls naming women scientists results in a highly focused account of how the persona of Curie and her intellectual property intertwined—what Wirten terms the cultural construction of Marie Curie. With two Nobel Prizes in hand (in 1903 shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and independently in 1911), Curie was seldom out of public view. How she managed her celebrity, working to balance privacy with the very strategic use of her visibility for particular causes, frames Wirten’s account; she often finds that persisting interest in not only the persona but also her personal life was a distraction difficult to ignore.
In the early twentieth century, intellectual property (whether operating through the legal regulation of patent, trademark, or copyright) was widely discussed, as rules were put in place and later manipulated within and across national boundaries. For scientists educated in the nineteenth century, like the Curies, the academic norm to embrace “science for science’s sake” and to welcome open exchange of information was pervasive—but the principle became less tenable in a competitive environment of publishing priority and corporate secrecy. Thus, at the turn of the century, the academically oriented Curies chose not to patent radium and even readily shared information about its preparation and effects. In Marie’s biography of her husband, Pierre Curie (1923), she takes appropriate credit for the “general scientific movement” in the dissemination and application of their work and emphasizes that the couple refused to draw any profit from the discovery of radium. She wrote, <div class="wrbciteblock">We took no copyright and published without reserve all the results of our research, as well as the exact processes of the preparation of radium. In addition, we gave to those interested whatever information they asked of us.</div>
Academic scientists in the early twentieth century valued such disinterestedness and open intellectual exchange—although, as Wirten points out, according to property law in France at the time, because Marie was a married woman, her property rights would have accrued to Pierre. According to Helena M. Pycior, in her article “Reaping the benefits of collaboration while avoiding its pitfalls: Marie Curie’s Rise to Scientific Prominence,” (in Social Studies of Science ), Curie was astute about demonstrating her independent intellectual achievements and published some results in her own name, even as Pierre’s results on radium were always published with joint authorship. The decision to be open about their work was mutual, and indeed “I” and “we” occur quite interchangeably in Marie’s discussion of lives that were intimately intertwined. Nonetheless, their informal possessiveness with regard to radium would remain evident throughout their careers and become more complicated as an elaborate industry grew up around the discovery and its applications.
One counterpart to the selfless sharing of information about radium was the problem of acquiring that valuable substance for further research. Thus when the journalist Missy Meloney offered to coordinate a US trip in 1921 for Marie, by this time widowed, with the promise of securing from admirers a gram of radium for her research, a new alliance was created. Publicizing the significant and generous openness of the famous physicist, Meloney stressed both the exceptional intellectual achievements of the two-time Nobel Prize winner and the petites curies, mobile x-ray units that had been deployed at the front lines during World War I, with Curie herself involved in training soldiers how to use them. The previously reclusive Curie emerged as a woman of multiple dimensions and intentions, even as she tried to keep her personal life private.
The challenges in an “age of information” proliferated, and in the 1920s Curie engaged closely with two specific, interrelated issues regarding intellectual property. One was providing open access to scientific ideas and data through an international bibliography, and the other was establishing the rights of those who made creative discoveries. In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations sought to disestablish arbitrary and incompatible laws with more universal principles. Curie, along with eleven other scholars and diplomats, including Albert Einstein, was named to the League’s International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation in 1922.
The group identified a number of concerns. Perhaps the most agreed upon, although difficult to implement, was that of the creation of a scientific bibliography that would be consistently maintained, complementing other bibliographical efforts already in place, often on the national level. Updating access to publications throughout the world would minimize duplication and establish individual priority. More challenging was the issue of scientists’ right to benefit from their discoveries. French intellectuals such as the physicist Paul Langevin believed that scientists’ creative work was similar to that of artists in its moral and practical value. The French government had already recognized that artists often did not reap the profits from the resale value of their work, and established the droit de suite—an extended right to benefit from such sales. Recognizing how much corporations, including the radium industry, benefited from scientific discoveries, some scientists sought a similar solution. Members of the international commission, however, had several concerns about how to apply such a right and what it would mean for the field.
In what Wirten presents as a curious reversal of the early decision by the Curies to share their research results relating to radium, Marie Curie advocated more protection of scientific intellectual property. Wirten ponders the question of what motivated Curie’s shifting position, given her longstanding interest in the intellectual commons. Certainly her struggle to gain adequate research support, which led her to the American tour, might have been a factor. French law did more than the British and American systems to protect individual rights, so the precedents Curie knew best may also have contributed to that position. Even in France, however, there was not a uniform stance, and some colleagues did not support Curie’s direct request for support before the Academy of Medicine in 1931. What Wirten calls Curie’s “impossible notion of scientific property” was not achieved in France or by the commission, and thus the outcome remains a kind of enigma in the biography of Curie.
The role of patents changed in the twentieth century, as industrial leaders positioned themselves to take advantage of scientific discovery. Moreover, scientists often patented instruments, if not their discoveries, as had Pierre Curie, providing important income to his wife and daughters after his death. Thus, creating mechanisms to gain financially for personal needs or additional research was an idea scientists themselves put in play. Counterarguments were strong, however, given the longstanding norm of sharing research outcomes evidenced in the publication activities of scientific societies, the cumulative and collaborative nature of much scientific work, and the complexity of how and whom to charge for use of a scientific discovery. Curie’s support for some better acknowledgement of scientific innovation is clear, but how she debated these issues during the meetings of the commission is not recorded.
This book is not a biography. Susan Quinn has already written the most authoritative account to date, Marie Curie: A Life (1995), and there are numerous other essays and books that examine Curie’s life and times. Wirten provides an extensive and useful bibliographical essay as a guide through that literature. What this volume offers is insight into how Curie herself took charge of her intellectual property, including her own persona—both shaping and reflecting a rapidly changing world, in which a new capacity for celebrity raised fresh challenges about the management of information. It is the interweaving of the persona Curie cultivated, together with the conscious role she played on the international stage through her participation in the International Commission, Wirten argues, that established Curie’s prominence in the historical record of twentieth-century science. Those wanting to learn more about Curie’s scientific achievements will need to read one of the longer biographies, but this account offers a fresh perspective on Curie’s strength as an institution builder, a networked collaborator, and a woman quite aware and protective of her own intellectual property. In sum, her intellectual achievements and career contributions together offer a profile that indeed justifies thinking of the early twentieth century as the Age of Curie.
Sally Gregory Kohlstedt is a historian of science at the University of Minnesota. She studies on science as it intersects with various publics in museums, schools, and the media and recently published an edited volume with David Kaiser, Science in the American Century (2013).