The Gendered Politics of Seriousness

Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered

By Cynthia Enloe

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 242 pp., $29.95, paperback

Seriously! is an engaging contribution to debates over globalization, gender, international politics, and feminism that tackles head on the questions of who and what get taken seriously, why, and why these matter. Or as the author asserts, it is about “the gendered politics of seriousness.”  Cynthia Enloe is the author of several groundbreaking books on gender, globalization, and militarism—subjects that most would definitely label as “serious.” But in this book she weaves her personal experiences together with case studies (such as one on the banking crash of 2008) and conversations with other feminists (such as with Cynthia Cockburn on peace movements) to illustrate how difficult it is to get women’s experiences and feminist analysis taken seriously, and why the omission has “significant consequences.”

Enloe grabs our attention with a startling confession: “I spent a long time—too long—not taking women seriously.  That means I did not think I would gain anything analytically by paying close attention to women.” As one of the first female political scientists of her generation working on international relations, Enloe delineates both the overt and subtle pressures on her and other women not to focus on gender, for fear of becoming tainted by feminism, or femininity, which connote unserious matters. She chronicles her own journey from studying how men of various backgrounds shape politics in Malaysia, to waking up to the absence of women’s voices in her field, to realizing that female experiences are profoundly important to every political, economic, and cultural question. This process changed her scholarship and her teaching, making her more of an activist and pushing her to write in a lively manner accessible to many audiences, something she has mastered here and elsewhere.

Enloe’s experience is of course both personal and political, both specific to her and common to many women as they encounter feminist ideas and movements. Many feminists will recognize her process and recall their own frustrations as they sought to be taken seriously, especially when they crossed over the line from discussing “women’s issues” to developing feminist perspectives on “larger issues” of global politics. Watching Enloe’s thought process as she learns and creates ways to bring women into discussions of “non gender-specific” topics—often with women activists overseas—gives depth as well as integrity and often humor to the story.  We see her struggle to do this in her first feminist book on women and militarism, Does Khaki Become You? (1983), and her mastery of it in her classic Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (1989). Her description of her process is itself a primer on how to do it.

One of Enloe’s key methodological conclusions—that “the mundane matters”—constitutes her third chapter, “Why Feminists Take Daily Life Seriously.” Here, she shows how the power and dynamics in so-called private, trivial interactions, in sites from the family and community to multinational factories in free trade zones, is causally connected to power in national and interstate public spheres.  The book comes alive with her use of detailed examples.  “Diving deep into the particular, I gather the most valuable clues about the elusive big picture,” she explains.

Enloe argues that the lives of women matter in and of themselves, and that we must learn to understand the role of gender—of masculinity and femininity—in each specific cultural context. If we don’t understand this, not only will we not understand women, we will also fail to fully understand what men do—because male behavior, too, is shaped by gender and various forms of masculinity.

One of the book’s key chapters is “Masculinities in the Banking Crash of 2008,” which is based on feminist case studies that explore this theme.  It looks at the accusation of sexual misconduct against the French economist and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund, and also compares the responses to the 2008 crash on Wall Street in the US, the United Kingdom, and in Iceland, to discover the role gender played in the crisis. Carefully avoiding biological determinism, Enloe cites feminists’ research on varying expressions of masculinities in different national cultures and workplaces—such as rewards for hyper-risk taking, and environments that are hostile to women. “The genderings of politics inside institutions cannot be fenced off from the politics outside those institutions,” she writes. Thus, the forms of masculinity in different workplace cultures—along with other factors such as attitudes toward government regulation—contributed to the evolution of the crisis and to how it was handled in each country. 

The failure to take gender into account has major, real-life consequences, Enloe says: “[T]he results can be inadequate explanations, poor decisions, flawed policies, failed efforts, and perpetuated injustices.” Such an assertion—that for the UN and governments to improve the lives of women and to implement positive solutions to world problems, feminist analysis and women’s experiences must become part of its policy-making debates—has also been at the core of feminist efforts to influence global debates through the UN over the past three decades. This is as true globally as it is locally.

My experience in the Global Campaign for Women’s Rights as Human Rights bears out Enloe’s analysis.  Our feminist strategy was to have the violations women experience, at the everyday level of domestic violence or the withdrawal of state social services, taken more seriously, by placing them in the context of human rights—which the world views as important. By utilizing the “serious” mechanisms for state accountability set up by the UN and regional human rights bodies, we aimed to pressure governments to pay attention to women’s lives and problems. Feminism brought new questions and approaches to human rights theory and practice: the idea that “women’s rights are human rights” brought women into a “serious” framework and in turn made that frame evolve and change, in order to produce more accurate documentation and more effective remedies and policies, for both women and men. Feminist understanding of the public-private split has brought greater attention to how to implement due diligence and other forms of accountability for nonstate actors, especially regarding violence against women and sexual rights, but also in relation to food security, employment, housing, and other socioeconomic rights.

In an insightful conversation recorded in Chapter 7, Enloe and Nadine Puechguirbal, an adviser on gender to the UN, discuss Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, as well as gender and peace keeping in Haiti. I wished for more of this kind of reflection; I would have liked to hear about how SCR1325 is linked to the larger picture of feminist work at the UN, in particular, to the UN World Conferences on Women during the 1990s.  Breakthroughs in the inclusion of feminist perspectives in UN discourse, in areas such as development, health, and human rights, have created pressure on the Security Council to act on SCR1325 and follow up resolutions since 2000. (That I want more of Enloe’s insights in this area is a sign of just how good the book is.)

In Chapter 8 Enloe creates an imaginary dinner party that brings together contemporary Egyptian feminists with women’s rights advocates from previous revolutions in Egypt, as well as from those in Algeria, Russia, France, the US, Turkey, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, and China. Through their interactions, Enloe examines a number of timely and timeless issues feminists face when seeking to make women’s rights part of national agendas: when and how do we best push forward women’s specific demands as women within the overall struggle? How can we ensure that the women who are mobilized for the revolution are not then asked to step back when the new powers and state structures are consolidated? How can we build transnational alliances in the midst of unequal power, and when national conflicts and global structures of colonialism and/or imperialism distort these relations? How can we ensure that changes are not just shifts in which patriarchies and masculinities are dominant? Enloe wisely does not try to answer these questions but instead provides insightful reflections on how these issues are culturally and historically specific, yet at the same time almost universal in their recurrence.

Other important strategic issues for contemporary feminism are introduced in various contexts throughout the book. For example, Enloe makes a clear and passionate case for the importance of gender-disaggregated data and why it matters to making effective change—something feminists have been pushing hard for both in the UN and in individual countries. She also alerts us to the danger of using “instrumentalism” alone to put women on the agenda, as in this cogent example:

If we argue that our research on war-related domestic violence should be taken seriously … because the military’s effectiveness is jeopardized … then we imply that women’s experience of domestic violence ... does not matter for its own sake.

This is indeed a major challenge, as more mainstream attention is being paid to women but often in a reductionist or limited way. As we demonstrate that paying attention to women can help policy makers reduce other problems, too—which it often does—we must make sure that we do not lose sight of the fact that “women’s well being matters for its own sake,” writes Enloe.

Enloe also touches upon the tension between women-specific work and autonomous groups, and coalition building and engagement with men and mostly male dominated groups. This discussion takes various forms, including debates over terminology, such as whether to say “violence against women” or “gender-based violence,” and how men can be “feminist.” Too often our feminist debates over strategy consume much energy, become academic and bitter rather than informative, and turn off potential allies, both female and male.  But as Enloe shows here, we need a respectful and productive fusion of the alternatives—a “both/and” relationship—even as we passionately debate the issues. 

Enloe challenges us to think about how to apply feminist gender analysis to global crises and elucidates many of the roadblocks along the path.  This book should be read by all who care about international issues as they affect our lives locally and globally. It will make you want to read more of Enloe’s work (if you have not already) and to sit down with friends, family, and colleagues for a very long and spirited conversation.

Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, has been an activist, writer, and organizer in the feminist and human rights movements for more than four decades. A Board of Governor’s Distinguished Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies, she is on the board of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development and a member of the Global Civil Society Advisory Group to UN Women.  She has written numerous influential essays, edited nine anthologies and authored Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action (1987) and Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights (1994).

A Medical Sea-Change

Polio Wars:

Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine

By Naomi Rogers

New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 456 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Patricia Kullberg

In the spring of 1940, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a snowy-haired nurse from the Australian outback, landed on US shores, determined to sell her radical new concept of polio treatment to America’s medical men (and they were, in large majority, men). To her mission she brought a shrewd intelligence, a brash personality, and a letter of introduction from the premier of her home state to Basil O’Connor, a close confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt and the powerful director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP).

Within a few years, Kenny and her supporters had not only overturned the orthodox system of polio therapeutics but sparked a polarizing debate over the nature of scientific inquiry in medicine. Her detractors attacked her as a liar and a fake, ignorant and unschooled, even unhinged. The public, whose children were spared the worst of the crippling effects of polio through her innovations, hailed her as a hero. In a Gallup poll of 1952 she was named America’s most admired woman. Kenny succeeded within the highly gendered world of medicine despite her outsider status and abrasive personality. Or perhaps that’s what it took to succeed.

In her meticulously researched and detailed history, Naomi Rogers, professor in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale, charts the course of this remarkable woman through more than a decade of skirmishes with some of America’s most powerful men. Kenny’s career was notable, Rogers writes, “[for] crossing boundaries, breaching professional and social mores, a nurse claiming the authority of a scientist, a discoverer, a healer, and a celebrity.”

It was a rare moment in history, when the accepted concept of a disease was radically overthrown. Victor Cohn tells the story in an earlier biography, Sister Kenny: the Woman Who Challenged the Doctors (1975). However, in her account, Rogers adds a wealth of detail and analysis, particularly in her discussion of medical science, which illuminates the “disturbingly messy” history of therapeutic change within midcentury medicine. It was a highly contested process, bound up with the race, class, and gender politics of polio, as well as with social changes within nursing, physical therapy, and disability rights. What emerges in Rogers’s book is the complex and fascinating history of one of the first challenges to the stranglehold of money and power on the science of medicine and the ways of thinking they imposed.

At the center of this story was the larger-than-life Sister Kenny, whose title was a nursing rather than religious designation, a confusion Kenny played to her advantage. Rogers reveals Kenny as a physically imposing and opinionated character, who harbored suspicions of her opponents that verged on the paranoid. She fought bitterly with the very doctors whose respect and admiration she most craved. She presented herself as a nurse investigator and innovator at the same time that she denigrated nurses as resistant to innovation. She was a publicity hound who shaved six years off her age and favored strands of pearls, fresh corsages, and large, outlandish hats. She did not shun alliances with conservative, anti-Communist, or anti-Semitic elements when it suited her purpose.

By the 1940s, medicine, in alliance with big business, had left behind the era of blistering, bleeding, and purging, and grounded itself in scientific investigation, driving out the quacks and charlatans (a history documented by Paul Starr in The Social Transformation of Medicine [1979] and E. Richard Brown in Rockefeller Medicine Men [1982].) It was a so-called golden age of medicine, when doctors asserted and won their authority as technical experts and molded the profession into an exclusive hierarchy, at the bottom of which lay the patient—passive, obedient, and ignorant.

Medical orthodoxy taught that polio was a neurological disease that effectively severed the connection between nerves and muscles, causing a flabby paralysis. The afflicted muscles were then pulled out of place by the healthy muscles around them. Eventually the diseased muscles atrophied and the victim was left twisted and paralyzed. Early splinting could prevent the deformities. Arms and legs were forcibly straightened and immobilized in plaster casts or steel splints for weeks to years, a treatment that withered the limbs. Because the muscles were considered dead, acceptable appearance was the object, not restoration of function.

Kenny did not see it that way. The muscles the doctors insisted were strong and healthy, shortened only because they lacked the opposing force of their diseased partners, she perceived as hard, tender, and contracted, their tendons stretched taut: muscles in spasm. She believed the principle cause of crippling was this painful spasm, which she said caused a “pseudo-paralysis” in the opposite, unaffected muscles—those the doctors saw as polio-afflicted. Splinting, she believed, only made things worse. She further theorized that polio was a systemic disease that affected not only the nervous system but the skin and muscles as well.

Kenny’s treatment consisted of prompt relief of spasm with moist hot packs, followed by intensive physical therapy, in which the patient worked the muscles herself. Kenny’s practice was, as Rogers points out, “optimistic, energetic and patient-centered”—in contrast to what many observers saw as the therapeutic nihilism of the orthodox approach. The Kenny treatment often resulted in what appeared to be miraculous cures of the hopelessly paralyzed.

At stake in this argument was nothing less than the nature of scientific inquiry in medicine. To men of medicine, such as Basil O’Connor, and their powerful allies, research was a laboratory-based activity conducted by an elite corps of (male) physicians and financed by private foundations under the thumb of big business. Spasm, doctors contended, could not exist in polio, because it had no basis in the known pathology of the disease.

Kenny argued for a place for clinical signs and symptoms as clues to underlying pathology. Later investigations would unearth the scientific evidence that supported Kenny’s concept of spasm and systemic infection, and significantly advanced the understanding of polio.

Many questions were raised during this dispute, among them: what constitutes scientific evidence? Which evidence can be used to formulate theory? Who should conduct research? How should investigations be funded? Who decides what to investigate?

Rogers pursues this years-long and multilayered debate (which eventually included congressional hearings, at which Kenny testified) with such clarity and detail that those unschooled in the clinical sciences can easily follow the narrative. However, Rogers never adequately explores the most intriguing question: what personal characteristics enabled Kenny to perceive the muscle spasms that generations of physicians had missed? And further, how were these characteristics related to Kenny’s environment? How social conditions shape scientific conceptualization is a critical question to anyone who seeks to understand science. Kenny’s story offers a rare opportunity for investigation.

Rogers notes that Kenny’s observations were unprejudiced by orthodox theories, and that she was a brilliant examiner of the human body. But these factors, however important, are not alone a sufficient explanation.

The 1946 biopic Sister Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) told what Rogers dismisses as a “safely domesticated story of scientific discovery”:

Kenny’s understanding of polio comes from her heart and from her clinical experience…Her hands, her knowledge of sick bodies, and her ability to use tools of the domestic environment…build on her “natural” understanding of healing.

Rogers is right about the movie. It romanticizes the Kenny saga and confines her to a standard, nonthreatening narrative of female achievement. Still, Rogers offers no alternative story to explain Kenny’s unprecedented perception. In contrast to her detailed account of Kenny in America, she offers few clues about the conditions that shaped Kenny’s imagination at that moment in the outback of Australia in 1911.

To her work, Kenny brought a worldview honed out of a life of independence and hardship in a rugged and remote land: a belief in self-reliance and positive thinking; an emphasis on physical capacities; and a reverence for the body and its ability to heal itself. Her theories emphasized a hands-on reading of the body with the imperative to maximize physical function. Other influences were surely at play. Kenny was not merely a more skilled or open-minded observer. She saw things differently.

Kenny spent a decade battling for her ideas in Australia before coming to the US. An investigation of her practice, commissioned by the government of Queensland, was issued in 1938. The scathing report roundly damned her methods. Despite a huge popular following, Kenny’s ideas failed in her native land.

The later acceptance of her concepts in America was, like Kenny’s perception of spasm, an historically specific phenomenon. Rogers details many of the contributing social currents, which were not present during the earlier era in Australia, for example, pressure from World War II veterans for a more aggressive approach to physical disability, a striving among nurses for more authority and independence, and popular resentment of the medical neglect of pain and suffering in favor of laboratory investigations.

Kenny died in 1952, two years before the first trial of the Salk polio vaccine. Rogers documents the attempts made following Kenny’s death by NFIP and others to erase her achievements from history. By bringing this buried story to light, Rogers makes a grand contribution to the history of medicine.

Patricia Kullberg, MD, MPH, is a former primary care and public health physician who has written numerous articles on the politics and practice of medicine for both the academic and lay press. She is currently working on a novel that features Sister Kenny.

I Am His Other

Know the Night: a Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours

By Maria Mutch

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 204 pp. $25.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Kelly Davio

Form mirrors content in Know The Night, Maria Mutch’s lyrical, debut memoir. The story of a mother’s experience parenting a boy with a range of special needs, Know the Night traces the years in which Mutch spent many seemingly endless nights awake with her sleepless son. Part chronological, part cyclical, and part freely associative, Mutch’s reflections on her relationship with her son Gabriel progress through chapters named for the hours between midnight and dawn. Across these small hours, Mutch’s story unfolds, from a tragic miscarriage in her first attempts to become a parent to the joy of Gabriel’s birth, and from Gabriel’s diagnosis with Down syndrome and autism through his loss—or perhaps abandonment—of the ability to speak. The narrative moves as though through snapshots of memory that are by turns clear and blurry: now exhausted and hazy, now cogent and forceful.

The repetitive nature of the late nights during the two years when Gabriel rises in the dark for his own inscrutable but deeply felt purposes finds its mirror in the book’s cycle of internal chapter breaks. Throughout the memoir, chapters are broken into subsections repeatedly titled “The Ice,” “provisions,” and “figments,” which follow, in fluctuating and evolving patterns, Mutch’s reflections on her domestic life, her dreamlike visions of the natural world, and her fixation on Admiral Richard Byrd, the famed Antarctic explorer.

The inclusion of Byrd’s story is one of the most striking features of Know the Night; Mutch weaves her own life story together with events from Byrd’s solo attempt to overwinter in a sunless Antarctic hut during the year 1934. From his radio transmissions and lists of provisions to his brushes with death in the Antarctic cold, Mutch lays down Byrd’s story alongside her own, leaving it to the reader to draw emotional relevance from their points of similarity; rarely does she explain confluences between their stories. Instead, she suggests, through these side-by-side juxtapositions, that Byrd in his loneliness knew the same isolation she experiences in her work as a parent, and often the parallels between the mother’s and explorer’s stories have a poetic resonance:

350 candles, 10 boxes of meta tablets, 3 flashlights…(t)he means, Byrd says, of a secure and profound existence…clutching the bag full of diapers, wipes, clothing, juice, snacks, picture symbols, storybooks, the spoon with the fat handle…I have felt, for a moment or even two, invincible.

Some threads of Byrd’s narrative are flattened by Mutch’s loose paraphrases of his memoir, Alone (1938), and of his biographers. While we learn of Byrd’s actions, diet, and routine, Mutch does little investigation into his internal life or even his motivations for his six-month stint in the Antarctic. He never emerges as a fully delineated and relatable character but remains a shadow figure. Though Mutch devotes a great deal of time to Byrd, the fact that he appears only in broad, paraphrased sketches makes him appear more like a device than a character.

But whether the effect of Byrd’s story is as satisfying as it should be, what is clear is that Mutch’s foreshortening of characters is a conscious stylistic choice that extends throughout the book; even characters in her own life story appear, at times, as through a haze. Mutch’s husband—Gabriel’s father—and their second-born son are both referenced only by first initial rather than by name, and they enter and exit the narrative only insofar as they impinge upon the central story of Mutch’s parental relationship to Gabriel. The other family members feel rather like planets that orbit and exert a slight gravitational pull on Mutch and Gabriel; they don’t influence the narrative directly. So too is the presence of anyone outside the family unit relatively small: special educators, friends, and social workers make appearances notable primarily for their brevity.

If Mutch’s decision to focus so intently on a single relationship runs the risk of obfuscating others, it is that same quality of close attention that gives the book its tension. Mutch’s highly curated selection of scenes from life freights each incident and image with an obsessive quality. For example, many of the words Mutch deploys in the memoir focus on her son’s lack of words. A masterful wordsmith herself, Mutch not unexpectedly circles again and again around the problem of Gabriel’s inability to communicate verbally. She meditates on Gabriel’s silence and on utterances that are not silent but are also not speech: “the sound emanating from him seemed ancient, fermented, something dug up.” She ascribes communicative meaning to her son’s behaviors “of extension: how to place the urges in his body into the atmosphere and see the consequence in the people around him.” At times, the reader becomes keenly aware that the inner life Mutch assigns to Gabriel is tremendously like her own: both are possessed by an intense and frustrated desire to communicate through words. Her invention of her child’s unknowable life is at once beautiful and unsettling, as when Mutch says, “I go to write I am his mother, except that what I write is I am his other.

If this intense attention to a single topic is unnerving it also casts beautiful detail in high relief; out of Mutch’s close observation of the smallest images arise moments of truly exquisite prose, enriched with inventive and precise language, as in her report of an unsettling dream:

I tumbled briefly into dreams, and an old man met me there. He drove a crooked finger into my abdomen and stirred. When I gasped awake, there was the static of people whispering, the shifting of the boat. I watched a moth extinguish itself on a bulb. I was two months pregnant.

In such moments, when Mutch’s full lyrical powers express themselves, the incidents she reports have the stand-alone quality of flash fiction and the sensory quality of poetry. It is here that Know The Night is at its best, for these moments of beauty give the reader a clearer window into the intimate details of Mutch’s world than do her reflections on Byrd or the minutiae of daily life.

These lyrical and inventive scenes gain particular poignancy when Mutch picks up yet another thread in the memoir: Gabriel’s passion for music. Mutch describes him as experiencing a kind of catharsis when attending live jazz performances or listening to records on the turntable in his room. Mutch writes of playing a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth for her son:

[A]s the first movement proceeds to the second, (Gabriel) starts to rock. I imagine Beethoven composing, the pen’s scratches and the ringing in his ears.…He forges a trail for the musician or the listener to follow, even the ones two centuries later. He says, follow me or be lost in this place; he knows how to endure the deficits of the body, lovers who slip away, fury that bolts through him and necessitates his apologies.

Just as appreciating music provides Gabriel with a way of engaging the world outside himself, so too do Mutch’s riffs, not unlike musical experimentation themselves, connect Gabriel’s story and her own experience to the world outside their family’s orbit. Often in Mutch’s narrative, people outside the family appear as an undifferentiated and threatening mass, as when, on a crowded ferry ride, Much reports, “I want to shrink from…the gaze of the nearby strangers who will not realize the dark of the secret society that’s just been revealed.” Yet when music provides Gabriel with a means of connecting with others, so too does that connection and the empathy it generates allow Mutch’s narrative to open outward.

In these moments, the memoir enfolds the possibilities of others’ unique experiences into a story that began as one of isolation. If memoir is an exercise in finding connection between one’s own story and the world, Mutch succeeds not only in allowing the reader access to her story and Gabriel’s, but also in imagining the possibilities of other lonely worlds, from Byrd’s to Beethoven’s, and perhaps even to our own.

Kelly Davio is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (2013) and the forthcoming novel-in-poems Jacob Wrestling. She is the poetry editor of the Tahoma Literary Review and the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Review.


An African American Prima Donna

American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World

By Anita Reynolds, with Howard Miller.  Edited by George Hutchinson

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, 333 pp. $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson

Anita Reynolds, born in 1901 in Chicago, came of age in Los Angeles, California, during the heyday of silent films. She was a smart, clever, and vivacious teenager, who, as she says, early on “relished the role of prima donna.” She and her brother, Sumner, were encouraged in their interest in the arts by their exuberant family, both the bevy of kinfolk in California and the numerous far-flung peripatetic relatives who circled back to visit from time to time. School dropouts and Harvard graduates, their professions ranged from mail sorter at a post office to well-placed member of the foreign service.

The family story was that Anita was named for the hard riding, pistol shooting revolutionary, Anita Garibaldi, wife and companion-in-arms to the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. As a child, Reynolds’s grandmother, Medora Thompson, had supposedly met her in Boston. Handed one of those stories so good that it should be true even if it isn’t, no one in the family admitted that Anita Garibaldi, a Brazilian, never visited North America (only her husband did). (Medora’s other great political hero was Senator Charles Sumner, who served from 1851 to 1874, and who was famously beaten almost to death on the Senate floor because of his antislavery views. His name was also incorporated into the family.)

As a girl, Reynolds loved to dance, and her mother was able to arrange for her to take classes with Ruth St. Denis who, admiring her lithe and exotic looks, taught her East Indian dance. With a subsequent teacher, who was a devotee of Isadora Duncan, Reynolds was often costumed as an Egyptian or even a Mexican. Her looks and talent soon caught the attention of scouts from the film studios. She was a dancer in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), performing with Pedro Valdez, who had taught Rudolph Valentino to tango. During that film shoot she learned to ride horses, a skill that served her well when she became a rising star in African American cinema. She got to know Douglas Fairbanks, when she worked with him in the role of a servant to the princess in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and his wife, Mary Pickford, and she befriended Charlie Chaplin and attended the “anarchist” meetings held at his home.

To look at her, Anita Reynolds (one of the handful of names she went by over the years) was a woman of curiously indeterminate race or ethnicity. She was brought up to considered herself solidly African American. But the opportunities she and many of her relatives had to live more fully when they kept that information quiet were often too good to pass up. Among themselves, there was a rich and abundant stream of ironic, often bawdy, humor about which cultivated, multilingual cousin was frequenting which grand salons. At the same time, Reynolds’s mother and grandmother were dedicated “race women”—knowledgeable, outspoken black women respected for their activism.

Reynolds was separated by only a few degrees from a startling number of prominent black Americans. Langston Hughes was a cousin. The diplomat Ralph Bunche was a suitor. One uncle, Noah Thompson, was both secretary to Booker T. Washington and publicist for Marcus Garvey, and he eventually married into the family that owned the Baltimore Afro-American, a nationally influential newspaper. Uncle Clarence Bertrand Thompson was a successful businessman in France who was awarded a knighthood in the Legion d’Honneur for his service to the government.

The upper-middle-class Reynolds home was one of those, found in all major American cities in those days, where visiting black dignitaries often stayed, both as welcome guests and because hotels refused them. The family entertained such notables as poet and activist James Weldon Johnson, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, beauty product millionaire A’Lelia Walker, and both W.E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The children would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to intense talk of all aspects of “the Negro problem,” from education to lynching to political strategy and more.

An invitation to be a bridesmaid in a black high society wedding took Reynolds to New York, and there was no turning back. She lived in Greenwich Village for a while, where she befriended Edna St. Vincent Millay, although she found the poet, known for burning her candle at both ends, rather tame. And she lived in Harlem for a while, where she paid for her keep on elegant Strivers Row by working as a dancer in the black musical Runnin’ Wild, the show that gave the world the dance sensation, the Charleston. Reynolds brushed up her hoofer skills with lessons from the tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. A chorus girl by night, she took classes at Columbia Teachers College during the day.

Back in Los Angeles, Reynolds’s parents were not amused by her life on the stage. She agreed to enroll at Wellesley College, but when her father sent her the first tuition payment, she immediately used the money to buy a ticket to Paris. There her adventures reached new heights. The title she gives her memoir, American Cocktail, was the way she sometimes described herself in Europe to those who inquired about her background. She was not dissembling; she enjoyed letting others project an identity on the screen of her racial ambiguity. Her self-mocking subtitle, A “Colored Girl” in the World, makes it clear that she was her own woman, neither passing nor feeling racially untethered. She had no investment in maintaining a façade, and socialized in Paris with the Harlem Renaissance poets Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, as easily as with the white artists and writers Man Ray, Max Ernst, Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and Louise Bryant—and sometimes with all of them at once. Her exuberant and inclusive cosmopolitanism is one of the great strengths of this singular memoir.

In recovering the African American past, there are few things as difficult as discovering the personalities of significant figures. So many black icons who lived prior to the mid-twentieth century seem trapped in historical amber; their deeds, their writings, their achievements may be well-known and honored, but they are far from multidimensional beings. It is only quite recently, with the publication of massively researched biographies, that Frederick Douglass, or Zora Neale Hurston, or Harriet Tubman, or W.E. B. DuBois, or even relatively contemporary figures such as Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, are becoming knowable in their daily lives and wider social contexts as friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues, parents—inhabiting the many roles one assumes over the course of a lifetime or a public career. Even those who wrote at length about themselves seldom shared much of their private lives. To commit a black life to paper was to set out to edify audiences both black and white. Throughout centuries of black struggle, the autobiographical and biographical goal was to present the outstanding individual as representative of the race—a woman or man whose character, intellect, talent, and ultimate achievement would foster white respect and black pride and emulation.

Anita Reynolds leaves that approach to telling her story in the dust. If there has long been a scarcity of insight and gossip about friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in most early black life-stories, if one looks in vain for details and private opinions about encounters with the famous and infamous, with household names in politics, the arts, commercial enterprise, and sports, Reynolds all but single handedly makes up for it. Famous names are not simply dropped here and there, they are scattered about like handfuls of confetti, from the first chapter to the last. Reynolds readily shares brusque evaluations and anecdotes about Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Paul Robeson, Salvador Dali, Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Jean Patou, and dozens more. She tells about modeling for Coco Chanel and wearing the designer’s castoffs; about writing for spicy French journals, and as the war escalated, about being a Red Cross nurse securing safe passage for refugees, while contending with the anti-Semitism of Annie Petain, first lady of the collaborationist Vichy government, who scolded her for helping “the rats who were deserting the sinking ship.” It’s easier to name celebrities Reynolds did not know; she mentions that she never met Florence Mills or Josephine Baker, and that she chose not to call upon Ezra Pound when she was staying in Rapallo, Italy, because although they had met in Paris, she “didn’t care much for his admiration and support of the fascists.”

Reynolds conjures a life between the wars in which denizens of the circles she frequented in France, Italy, Spain, North Africa, and England were both stunningly imaginative and creative, and self-involved and sybaritic, veering from Freud to Dada to surrealism and modernism, until no amount of amused disdain or witticism could deflect the onslaught of fascism.

In the 1970s, thirty years after her return to America, Anita Reynolds had completed training as a psychologist, married for a fourth time, and was living in the Virgin Islands, when she visited Europe for several weeks. In Paris, her old friend Man Ray implored her to “talk” her autobiography. Back home, she drew upon journals, letters, and enduring memories to dictate fifty tapes into a recorder. Her voice is wry, knowing, occasionally arch, sometimes sympathetic, but never sentimental. Her approach is consistently clear-eyed and direct. At her death, in 1980, she left transcribed typescripts, not a finished manuscript.

Reynolds was seldom without romance in her life, and she is comfortably candid about her sexuality. Looking back from the vantage point of the 1970s, perhaps with a nod to the growing openness of the time, the intimate experience she describes in greatest detail is her teenage sexual initiation, a mutually satisfying splash and frolic in a bathtub with a somewhat older woman. Their friendship endured, but the affair fizzled.  Her first experience of male penetration, in her early twenties, she writes, was “far less agreeable, brutal in fact.” She fell, she admits, for the “ludicrous line” delivered by an “intellectual giant”—the one name she does not drop—that “virtue is its own and only reward.” Following that seduction, she says, she “retreated from experimentation” for a while.

And here is a prime example of a remarkable structural aspect of this book. There is a deep, although posthumous, collaboration between the author and George Hutchinson, professor of English and American Culture at Cornell University, who happened upon the typescripts after Reynolds’s death, and edited and annotated them. Reynolds carries the reader along with a lively tale brimming with places, eras, family history, political movements, art, music, literature, and the people who created them, while throughout, Hutchinson provides discreet endnotes with his wonderfully researched and beautifully wrought amplification. Some of the notes are brief nuggets of clarification, while others are elegant miniature essays. All answer questions and expand upon things that Reynolds, in sketching her vivid self-portrait, does not stop to explain.

More than endnotes, Hutchinson has crafted a running commentary, available to consult as one wishes, often pulling the reader into a bit of collusion with the editor. Thus, for instance, one feels somewhat less hostile toward that seductive mystery man upon learning that the “intellectual giant” was in fact W.E.B. DuBois, and that upon his return to the east coast, he and Reynolds carried on a correspondence. While DuBois was circumspect with her and with his other conquests, Hutchinson describes Reynolds’s letters as “particularly passionate.” She hardly knew any other way to be.

Marilyn Richardson writes about art and history. She has recently had a plaque installed at the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, Italy, honoring nineteenth-century African American abolitionist and physician, Sarah Parker Remond, who is buried there.  (See

Women's Review of Books

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