Household Politics: Conflict in Early Modern England
by Don Herzog
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, 209 pp., $38.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Mary S. Hartman
Don Herzog’s new book, Household Politics, presents a lively and iconoclastic romp through mounds of literary sources. Herzog explains that when he set out in search of domestic squabbles in this period, he unearthed a huge cache of funny, snide, and hostile exchanges from plays, trials, songs, jokes, poems, diaries, and more. While most were unknown, many of these sources were familiar in their day, and some—the stage comedies, for instance—were wildly popular.
Herzog, who holds a joint appointment in the University of Michigan’s law school and political science department, notes that most of his sources were published from 1650 to 1750. “But I roam,” he warns, “from the fifteenth century to the later eighteenth century, as the argument demands.” That he does. Still, it is well worth climbing aboard for this quirky but captivating guided tour of his findings.
While plainly fascinated by the prickly clashes he has discovered, Herzog is not pursuing domestic conflicts for themselves alone. Beyond their voyeuristic (bawdy and scatological) appeal, they offer “a social world full of ornery, funny, sickening, and lethal controversies about gender, patriarchy, misogyny . . . and more,” he writes. These household disputes, in fact, supply the bulk of evidence for his book’s wider thesis: that most people in the early modern era, contrary to still-prevalent views, were not knee-jerk champions of patriarchal government, either in households or in states.
In a period before households themselves lost their public functions and came to be seen as private entities set apart from other social institutions—a development not complete until the modern era—domestic conflicts, among (mostly) husbands, wives, and servants, were, says Herzog, “shot through with controversies about legitimate authority,” as well as being “richly political, full stop.” What is more, he argues, these conflicts demolish the stubborn idea that English people at this time “imagined that male power was natural or necessary, part of the woodwork of the world, not a contingent social practice that could be reformed, or even abolished.”
Herzog blames his academic colleagues, political theorists who focus on “canonical” authors such as Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, and even John Locke, for perpetuating what he calls the “big sleep thesis”—the idea that the early modern English “slumbered, blissfully unaware that patriarchy might be thought controversial.” Not so, says Herzog, who counters that people in early modern England routinely treated patriarchal views with eye-rolling skepticism, rude laughter, and even open hostility. He concedes that social historians, who study how ordinary people navigate their daily lives, are likelier than political theorists to accept his thesis, but he chides them, too. For instance, he derides the eminent Keith Thomas for stating that there was then “a universal belief in [the] inferior capacity” of women”—a view Herzog brands “a mirage.”
I will return to Herzog’s thesis, but first a word about his style. He presents his evidence with dramatic flair. Those who have problems with his book—and I count myself among them—will still appreciate his formidable erudition. They may be amused, too, by his success, through chatty, confidential asides, in enticing his audience to imagine themselves in cahoots with him as he unfurls each telling new remnant of literary evidence. He even invites readers to reject his own analysis of a poem here, or a joke there—reckoning, I suppose, that the profusion of intriguing examples on offer frees him to allow readers to snub one or two of his verdicts without imperiling his overall thesis.
Turning from style to substance, I will quote more than I otherwise might from the vivid voices we hear in the conflicts Herzog turns up. This is not because I agree with his view that household conflicts over what he labels patriarchal “blather” show that most people found patriarchal ideals disputable at best. I don’t. It is because anyone interested in early modern England should not miss the feast of literary examples Herzog has dug up—nor should they miss the many insightful comments he provides, regardless of whether they agree with him or accept his wider thesis.
Herzog’s focus is on conflicts between the sexes, and in his preface he launches his case splendidly with a comedy by John Fletcher called The Noble Gentleman, from 1626. Staged often thereafter, it depicts the struggles between a “not-quite-noble” French gentleman tired of hanging around the royal court, and his wife, who adores life there. Learning that her husband plans to move them back home, she protests that their patient currying of favor at court is about to pay off. He fumes:
Wife talke no more, your Retoricke comes too late,
I am inflixible; and how dare you
Adventure to direct my course of life?
Was not the husband made to rule the wife?
His wife is ready for this jibe, and catches her pompous mate off guard:
’Tis true, but where the man doth misse his way,
It is the womans part to set him right . . . .
Swiftly the gentleman is outmaneuvered, as his wife’s friends crowd around, lavishing him with praise and fake aristocratic titles. Flattered, the new “duke,” changing into fancy new clothes, literally lets his old trousers fall down as he kneels before his wife:
And here in token that all strife shall end
‘Twixt thee and me, I let my drawers fall
And to thy hands I do deliver them:
From this time forth my wife shall wear the breeches.
Herzog says that what interests him is not whether the author wished to convey that women should “wear the breeches.” Nor is it the opposite message, that nothing good can come of women’s efforts to usurp men’s rightful authority. What matters, he says, is that the drama elicited from audiences a range of reactions revealing their own conflicts and quandaries over legitimate authority and the proper roles of the sexes.
[The husband’s asides] are not bombshells of bold radicalism exploding on the playgoers’ dazed imaginations. They’re reminders of everyday platitudes, likely to provoke wry snickering and rueful wincing. … If chortling, not chagrin, is in order, we have a husband puerile in his high-handed assertion of dominance, which helps make him the butt of an extended joke.
After this rousing preface, in which Herzog celebrates how focusing on less well-known writers and works (such as The Noble Gentleman) challenges the notion conveyed in the canonical sources that early modern England was a bastion of patriarchal fealty, I was taken aback by the theme of his first chapter. Without skipping a beat, Herzog turns, in “A Tale of Two Poems,” to linked pieces by Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, is located squarely among the era’s canonical writers. Montagu, an aristocrat and poet later known for her epistolary account of life in Turkey as wife of the British ambassador, was friendly with intellectuals and court figures including John Gay; Mary Astell (often cited as England’s first feminist writer); Sarah Churchill; and Alexander Pope. True, the poems Herzog examines are among each writer’s lesser works. Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” appeared in 1632, and Lady Mary’s stinging riposte appeared anonymously two years later.
Herzog tells us that Swift’s poem, which lightly camouflaged its author as “the Rev. Dr. S----t,” recounts the disillusioning visit of young “Strephon” to the dressing room (in her absence) of his lady love, Celia. Aware that she often spends five hours on her toilette, he is still unprepared for the sickening filth and stench that await him.
No Object Strephon’s eye escapes,
Her Pettycoats in frowzy Heaps;
Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish’d o’er with Sniff and Snot.
The Stockings, why shou’d I expose,
Stain’d with the Marks of stinking Toes;
Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a Week in?
Worse follows when Strephon finds that his “careless Wench” has stuffed her unwashed undergarments into a “reeking chest,” from which they “Send up an excremental Smell”
. . . Thus finishing his grand Survey
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Herzog remarks that critics wasted no time in labeling Swift a frightful misogynist, although the woman he describes as the “fiendishly talented” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu later offered an even more personal attack on Swift in her own poem: The Dean’s Provocation for Writing The Lady’s Dressing Room. She fancies that Swift’s motive was a mortifying prior encounter with a prostitute, whose body odors and functions had rendered him impotent.
The “disappointed Dean,” in Montagu’s telling, vows to get revenge by writing a poem describing his tormenter’s dressing room in all its malodorous detail, to which she coolly replies, “I’m glad you’ll write, You’ll furnish paper when I Sh[it]e.” Decades later, Herzog adds, Lady Mary had a commode built that was backed with the works of Swift, Pope, and Bolingbroke, giving her the satisfaction, she joked, of shitting on them daily.
One can appreciate why Herzog chose to stretch his category of household conflicts to feature this dazzling exchange. (He exempts Swift from the misogyny charge along the way, admitting, though, that it was a close call.) By his last chapter, Herzog has enlisted not just the promised “noncanonical” writers, but Samuel Butler, Jonathan Swift (again), Daniel Defoe, William Congreve, and more—in the end laying claim to William Shakespeare himself, a mighty proponent for his thesis. In remarks on The Taming of the Shrew (1592), Herzog rejects all the critics who keep finding misogyny in the play, and proceeds to present Katherina’s final speech of submission to Petruchio not as one of a chastened vixen spouting blather, but of a calculating heroine who now “grasps her subordination” as part of an “explicitly political” compact. As she declares to Petruchio:
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
By this time, however, Herzog’s project has begun to raise awkward questions. If his aim is to debunk what he sees as the fixed but wrong-headed notion that most English people from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries clung to the “rule of the fathers,” why, on the one hand, are readers who take his case in good faith likely to be asking themselves how Herzog’s veritable avalanche of sources challenging “official” patriarchal dogma managed to elude scholarly attention for so long? On the other hand, for readers who suspect (as I do) that patriarchal sentiment in early modern England was strong, but hardly the item of near-universal blind faith that has begun to look like Herzog’s straw man, a further problem remains. Admitting that in this era patriarchal dogma and antipatriarchal pushback were real developments, we still require better explanations for both these items than Herzog presents.
Why were so many men in high places back then so anxious to champion male sovereignty over women, households, and society? Why were so many women declared to be (and often were!) headstrong, insolent, and insubordinate? Herzog doesn’t say. To the extent that he addresses these key questions at all, his answers amount to an appeal not to specific historical developments but to something closer to a universal human nature. For example, while he cites, without explaining, fervent patriarchal posturing on behalf of husbands and monarchs, he contends that this posturing by itself prompted the widespread, reflexive, antipatriarchal reaction on the household front that is his book’s subject. Here is how he summarizes this case on his concluding pages:
Husbands are sovereign: so some insisted, triggering others’ defiance. The king is father of his people: insistence triggered defiance. In both cases, defiance triggered insistence, too. Again, people insist on principles when they think others reject them.
Especially for an author wary of glib explanations, this won’t do. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to, since an existing, historically based account has more to offer here than this robotic one. That account draws on the still too-little-known discovery in the 1960s that a pattern of late marriage and single-family households (as opposed to the multifamily household structure that had dominated in agricultural societies for thousands of years) was already fully in place in England and northwestern Europe by 1600—with some of its features present as early as the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. This “streamlined” pattern was believed until then to have turned up only in the modern era, in response to demands for a more mobile workforce. Discovered by economist John Hajnal, and dubbed “the western family pattern” by the historian Peter Laslett and his Cambridge Group for the Study of Population and Social Structure, the pattern caused great excitement among then-new social historians in the 1970s and early 1980s, although they were interested mainly in its possible causal influence on the two major extra-domestic developments in the Western world—industrialization and democratic systems of government—rather than in the internal domestic conflicts among the denizens of these households, which captivate Herzog. (See Hajnal’s “Western European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in Population in History, Essays in Historical Demography, edited by D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley(1965); and Hajnal’s “sequel” in “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System,” in Population and Development Review, Vol. 8 . Full disclosure: In my book The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past , I pursue a case that the late marriage system was “the single vehicle most responsible for generating novel political structures, transformed means of livelihood, and fresh social, cultural, and intellectual systems in the period known as the early modern era.)
The features of this unique “western family pattern” are two: a high age at marriage, especially for women; and many people, ten to twenty percent, who never marry at all. In more typical, early marriage-multifamily settings, by contrast, marriage is nearly universal. Teen-aged brides marry men up to a decade older and move directly from their natal households into those of their new in-laws. In the England Herzog describes, however, save for the socioeconomic elite, who continued to marry younger, brides were in their midtwenties and grooms in their late twenties. Adolescents of both sexes usually left parental households to seek waged work, often as live-in servants negotiating annual contracts. Instead of having marriages arranged by parents, then, they ordinarily met their future mates in workplaces. Engaged couples postponed marriages until their pooled savings allowed them to launch new households of their own.
Scholars in the nearly half century since the discovery of this pattern have found household dynamics that appear, among other things, to have fueled the domestic conflicts Herzog features. Take sex and courtship. Women in late-marriage settings had a role in choosing their future husbands. However, as females on their own, they were exposed to new risks, including seduction and rape by fellow workers and employers—which were less likely to befall the inexperienced, more sheltered women in the more common, gender-segregated early marriage settings. Yet over time, these older, more independent women developed a readiness to confront such risks, often seeking support through outsiders as well as extrafamilial institutions.
Here’s one example. More typical if less amusing than the wife who outwitted her mate in Fletcher’s play is a case from a recent study featuring one of her less privileged, real-life contemporaries, Alice Wheeler. Importuned by her spouse-to-be to have sexual relations with him, on the grounds that their engagement meant they were “already husband and wife,” Wheeler testified tartly in a consistory court: “I know . . . that I am your wife and you my husband, yet until such time as we are married [in church] you shall not have the use of my body.” (See my review of Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720, by Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford , in the Journal of Social History [Spring 2000].)
Strikingly, when the wife was one of only two resident adults in these late marriage households, the husband became increasingly dependent on her to keep the household afloat. Yet husbands were uncomfortable with wives’ new authority as “deputy husbands,” and Herzog’s finding of strong antipatriarchal sentiment in these households owes something to husbands’ dependence on their wives in the late-marriage system. (Indeed, thanks to late marriage, the sexes were embarked on a slow boat to equality.) The upshot was a long, often painful struggle, continuing in many guises and disguises to this day, as men sought to retain the upper hand in day-to-day governance through compliments, cajoling, insults, and violence. A husband could still count on the common-law right of coverture, which gave him control of any property his wife brought into a marriage. Husbands also had a legal right to beat their wives (which Herzog mentions), as well as to name their own or others’ wives, or widows, as witches (which he doesn’t).
The men may have enjoyed hearing the Protestant minister hail them on Sundays as household monarchs, but none appears as a full-time, full-throated champion of female inferiority. Indeed, in tacit recognition of women’s enhanced authority as surrogates for their husbands, Protestant clerics began to tout women’s spiritual equality with men and praise their status as mistresses of households—while still insisting vigorously on their divinely ordained subservience to their husbands.
A familiar voice here was that of the Protestant minister William Gouge, the author of the popular household manual Of Domesticall Duties (1622), which aimed at once to elevate the husband as “king in his owne household” and to chastise the “many wives, whom ambition hath tainted and corrupted within and without: they cannot endure to heare of subjection: they imagine that they are made slaves thereby.” Revealingly, Gouge remarks that whenever he instructs his parishioners in “the doctrine of female submission and inferiority,” he senses a degree of “squirming” and “murmuring” among the women (see http://www.hull.ac.uk/reforum/v4n1/marshall.htm).
The historian Susan Amussen, in An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988), reports that after the revolution in the midseventeenth century, when King Charles I was executed, the endlessly repeated analogies between fathers as kings in their families and kings as fathers of their people became ever more strained. Ordinary households began to lose their prior functions, such as collective village policing of the poor and disorderly, to local notables who were recognized as exercising what were now acknowledged as more “official” or public roles. She notes that it was not until the late seventeenth century that discussion of the family as distinct from other social institutions even became possible—but adds that by the eighteenth century, households came to be seen as ever more private realms, increasingly perceived as entities separate from the state.
By then, most households were operating less like the benevolent “miniature monarchies” of patriarchal fantasy and more like messy, still unequal, but functioning partnerships between women and men. Family units steadily came to resemble not “natural” associations but voluntary (if increasingly unstable) units—small-scale models for future, more participatory, and less authoritarian national governments. In settings where the day-to-day experiences of the sexes continued to converge rather than diverge, the two adult partners created ways to use their households as a base to support and advance their individual and mutual fortunes. These “voluntary compacts,” as John Locke described them in the seventeenth century, in turn, helped enable men, and then women, to transform themselves into citizens of new democratic states.
There is yet no consensus among scholars on the precise influence of the single-family system on either domestic or extradomestic developments. Herzog himself never mentions this system—which I have just argued often explains his own subjects’ cantankerous behavior more satisfactorily than the “tit for tat” he suggests. Yet awareness of a unique household formation system that promoted some behaviors, such as women’s enhanced authority, while suppressing others, such as men’s patriarchal allegiances, would have offered insights into how macro changes in household structure affect what happens both within and beyond those households.
More attention to the grassroots origins of the late marriage system might also have prompted Herzog to showcase a more representative set of domestic conflicts—fewer drawing rooms and more court rooms. (His footnotes make clear that his examples are taken almost exclusively from urban—London—households, and disproportionately among those, from households that could afford at least one servant.)
Herzog devotes much attention to patriarchy among the political and religious elite in early modern England, and even more to antipatriarchal sentiments among diverse householders. In the end, though, it turns out that his real passion in this odd but riveting book is conflict itself, more than its changing subjects. He says that he values conflict not because it leads to consensus—which he grants is “a venerable staple of liberal and democratic theory”—but because “conflict itself qualifies as social order.” He celebrates conflict in domestic contexts, in particular, because he views households as more enduring sites than governments, and claims domestic conflict as the universal behavioral model for any government or state that would be recognized as legitimate.
The present moment is of course a parlous one to be publishing a book celebrating the virtues of political conflict. Even Herzog himself, who is eager to swim against most tides, concedes that there needs to be minimal shared ground between adversaries in disputes, so as to distinguish admissible conflict from hard-core enmity. (He even speaks admiringly of what he calls “the liberal democratic category loyal opposition”).
Other scholars, however, are now rejecting altogether the primacy of conflict that Herzog embraces in human affairs. Scientists and humanists alike are expressing concern about mounting tensions between proclaimed loyalties to democratic ethics and institutions on the one hand, and the silent perpetuation of patriarchal privilege and power on the other. Ever more critics, in fact, are describing what makes societies run in terms Herzog would ban from the political lexicon—terms such as consensus, and even love.
For example, in her new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters For Justice (2013), the esteemed Aristotelian philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls for building societies that promote “public emotions” to expand the individual citizen’s “circle of concerns.” The learned primatologist Frans de Waal, in his 2009 book The Age of Empathy, cites the urgent need for “a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature,” which have been distorted by an emphasis upon competition and aggression dating back to the discredited ideas of social Darwinism. Praising de Waal’s book, esteemed psychologist Carol Gilligan says in her own latest book, Joining the Resistance (2013),
[deWaal’s] research provides extensive evidence of the empathic nature of primates including humans, and scientists more generally now speak of “emotional intelligence,” the “relational self,” and the “feeling brain.” The old gender binaries are coming undone.
Mary S. Hartman taught European and women’s history at Rutgers University from 1968, was dean of Douglass, the college for women(1981-1994), and founded and directed the Institute for Women’s Leadership (iwl.rutgers.edu), from 1995 to 2009, where she is now a senior scholar. Her publications include Clio’s Consciousness Raised, co-editor and introduction (1974); Victorian Murderesses (1977); Talking Leadership: Conversations With Powerful Women, editor and introduction, (1999), and The Household and the Making of History (2004).
Qualifying Times: Points of Change in US Women’s Sport
By Jaime Schultz
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014, 304 pp., $26.00, paperback
Reviewed by Susan Ware
Is there a more ubiquitous symbol of the contemporary female athlete than the ponytail? And yet step back, as Jaime Schultz does in her spirited and thought-provoking Qualifying Times, and consider how “something as seemingly mundane as a ponytail is actually shot through with substantial and varied cultural significance.” Not only does it reinforce a vision of heteronormative femininity in the context of athletic endeavor, but it privileges white athletes. As she concludes, “[T]hat tidy coiffure is one messy bundle.”
Looking critically at things like ponytails and sports bras is only part of Schultz’s agenda. Her subtitle was inspired by a quote from feminist historian Gerda Lerner, who asked, “What are the points of change in women’s historic experience by which we might periodize the history of women?” Lerner is a tough act to follow, and quoting her sets a high bar: can Schultz tell the story of women’s sport according to points of change specific to women’s experiences rather than the traditional markers used to delineate the history of men? And does this revisioning dramatically change the picture?
It may be helpful for readers to think of this book as a sort of collective biography, except that instead of highlighting individual women, each chapter focuses on a specific topic or element of women’s physical culture. The narrative moves chronologically from the 1880s all the way to the 2012 summer Olympics in London. The intention is for the chapters to build a cumulative momentum that is more than just the sum of the individual parts. But as anyone who has ever tried to write a collective biography knows (and I speak from experience), pulling this off is a tricky business.
The “points of change” profiled offer a wide-ranging and often entertaining survey of various aspects of women’s sporting history over the past century. Schultz begins her story in the 1880s by asking, “[W]hat shall we wear for tennis?” Corsets still reigned, but it wasn’t possible to play tennis or ride a bicycle (another popular craze of the time) encased in whalebone stays. So gradually, almost inexorably, the dresses got shorter, constraining undergarments were loosened and then shed, and limbs were uncovered, showing the links between dress reform and social change, specifically women’s emancipation. In turn, the tennis-playing woman became the model for the modern ideal of the female athlete: attractive, elite, and usually white.
These athletic women didn’t want to sit on the sidelines when they had their periods; plus, as Susan Brownmiller memorably put it, “It’s not easy to play the jock with a bloody cloth between one’s legs.” Enter the tampon—“the world on a string”—first introduced in 1936. Drawing in part on ads from the 1930s through the early 1950s, many of which featured active sportswomen, Schultz charts the increasing acceptance of this new menstrual product, which had the dual outcome of making play possible at all times of the month and making this bodily function disappear from sight.
Whether women should play sports while menstruating was part of a larger discussion about the role of competition in women’s sport, a battle played out from the 1920s through the 1960s in the women’s athletic organizations. As part of Schultz’s larger point that a lot was already changing before the passage of Title IX in 1972, she pays special attention to a series of National Institutes on Girls’ Sports held between 1963 and 1969. She also makes a link, as other historians have done, to the postwar Olympics: specifically, how the all-important medal count spurred initiatives to increase American women’s participation in the service of cold-war politics.
While Schultz explicitly writes that she is interested in women’s actual athletic experiences rather than how sport is gendered, it is impossible not to talk about gender in the context of sex testing, which is premised on the idea that there is a clear and unambiguous correspondence between women’s appearance and athletic ability, and their chromosomal makeup. And yet there is far more variation than the two-sex athletic binary can readily account for. The recent case of the South African sprinter Caster Semenya shows that exceptional women athletes are subject to challenges and penalties that would never be meted out to male athletes.
Schultz does an especially interesting job of juxtaposing the dramatic growth in sports for girls and women as a result of Title IX in the 1970s with the Reagan backlash of the 1980s, which slowed progress practically to a halt. But she tells a more complicated story, simultaneously linking the stalemate in women’s sports to the rise of a new ideal of beauty culture typified by the rise of aerobics and physical fitness. Now women were supposed to exercise in order to achieve a certain kind of physical perfection and fitness rather than to experience the rewards and challenges of competitive athletics. Making this link between beauty culture and the slowdown in women’s sports is an especially important contribution to our understanding of the 1980s.
Schultz’s discussion of the commercialization of fitness segues nicely into a history of the sports bra, which is almost as much a symbol of women’s athletics as the ponytail. The image of Brandi Chastain in her black sports bra at the 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer championship plays a starring role in this chapter (and graces the cover of the book), precisely because a woman athlete in a bra is still seen as inherently sexual and erotic in a way that a shirtless male athlete rarely would be. But there is more to the story than that. Since the sports bra’s “uniboob” effect defied cultural expectations about women’s voluptuousness, even sports bras began to include more definition. What should have been a purely functional piece of athletic clothing became part of the imperative to look good and look feminine at all times, even when playing hard at sports.
The last chapter on so-called competitive cheer surveys a comparatively recent development that has not yet been the subject of much scholarly treatment. Here, Schultz inserts herself into the narrative, telling of watching competitions of team acrobatics and tumbling, a label that puts the focus on athletics, unlike “cheerleading” or “competitive cheer,” with their connotations of women on the sidelines rooting for men. The stunts involve real athletic ability, Schultz explains—but whether they should count toward Title IX compliance remains an open question.
Schultz handles her material well, but in the end the “points of change” she defines do not dramatically reshape how we see women’s twentieth-century sporting history. This isn’t simply a failure of imagination or perspective on the author’s part, but rather a reflection of the state of the historiography of the field as well as the challenges of writing a story that is still unfolding all around us.
What might a new sports history of US women look like? Schultz has provided some clues, even if she doesn’t pull them all together. First, and most obvious, women’s sporting history is social and cultural history. If the recitation is merely of games won and lost, leagues founded, and individual records and moments of glory (which may not be a fair description of traditional male sportswriting but is not that far off the mark), then women and their experiences will continue to be marginalized. But if the history of sport is seen as part of larger cultural and social trends, then women will be central to the story, a goal Gerda Lerner would certainly have endorsed.
This new, cultural approach to women’s sporting history would also foreground questions of gender, sexuality, and the body—because it is impossible to understand the experiences and accomplishments of individual female athletes without addressing the impact of those variables. Foremost is the ongoing tension between femininity and athleticism, with the companion pattern of unease at the undercurrent of lesbianism in sport. A cultural approach would stress change over time, often dramatic, but would also recognize the continuities that still make the juxtaposition between the words “woman” and “athlete” problematic or fraught. And it would link developments in women’s sporting history to developments in the culture at large, such as the emergence of the New Woman in the 1880s and 1890s and the backlash against feminism in the 1980s and 1990s.
Whatever the contours of the new sporting history, the field is certainly likely to grow and expand, as will women’s athletic aspirations and opportunities, which is why books like Qualifying Times are so welcome. Schultz ends her book with the image of watching the London Olympics with her infant daughter, admitting in the last sentence, “I’ll be honest: I hope she plays sports.” So do I, but I also agree with the sentiment tucked away in the final footnote: “But it’s okay if she doesn’t.”
Susan Ware is the general editor of American National Biography. Her most recent book is Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (2011).
Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and their Children in the United States Since the Second World War
By Daniel Winunwe Rivers
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013, 312 pp. $32.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Dana Rudolph
Lesbian- and gay-headed families are increasingly common in mainstream television shows, sometimes with titles that make them sound like a newfangled twist on family life: Modern Family and The New Normal. But out gay and lesbian parents and their children have been part of US society since the midtwentieth century, as Daniel Winunwe Rivers shows in Radical Relations, the first book to offer a broad history of these families from their earliest years of visibility.
Rivers, an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University, himself grew up in a lesbian feminist community in the 1970s. The book, based on his 2007 Stanford doctoral dissertation, draws on numerous LGBT historical archives and 130 personal interviews.
The title, Rivers explains, uses “radical” not in the sense that the history of these families has a primarily political character, but rather in the sense of “root.” In other words, the lesbian and gay struggle for parental rights has transformed the basic definition of family in America, and lesbian and gay parents have helped to give the LGBT movement its current focus on domestic rights such as marriage and parenting.
This is not a unique observation—Michael J. Klarman says as much in From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (2012). Rivers focuses on the experiences of families with children, however, revealing both their personal lives and the legal, social, and political changes they precipitated. He offers the perspectives of the children as well as the parents, and he is sensitive to the currents of class, race, and gender that weave through this history. He does not explicitly include bisexual or transgender parents, and he misidentifies at least one bisexual activist (ABilly Jones-Hennin) as a gay father.
Rivers begins his account immediately after World War II, when lesbian and gay parents tended to have their children within heterosexual marriages, then divorced or led double lives. They almost always lost custody if their sexuality became known.
From the 1970s through the 1980s, more parents came out, triggering an increasing number of custody disputes. Courts gradually began to rule that being lesbian or gay was not a reason automatically to deny custody—even though they did not specifically protect the rights of gay and lesbian parents. Rivers views the parents who engaged in these custody battles as “part of a larger resistance movement that challenged heterosexist, racist, and misogynistic attitudes about the proper structure of the American family.” While he is right to view these cases in the context of other social changes, he almost makes it sound as if these parents set out to be part of this resistance. It seems equally if not more likely that their first concern was simply to keep their children.
There was deliberate resistance, however, by groups that arose in the early 1970s to help lesbian mothers in custody battles. These groups evolved out of broader lesbian-feminist communities, but some of the mothers, he says, felt that those communities “were unsympathetic and hostile to lesbian mothers” because motherhood reflected a traditional role for women.
Rivers may overstate the friction here, for lesbian mothers were a part of many lesbian communities, and many community events were expected to provide free childcare. Regardless, by the late 1970s, and encouraged in part by the visibility of the lesbian mothers fighting for their children, “radical lesbian politics often embraced the cause of lesbian mother rights,” writes Rivers. He shows how several of the broader-based lesbian and gay rights groups, such as the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights) were in contact with the mothers’ groups and drew upon their work as they themselves took up the cause of lesbian and gay parents.
Gay fathers’ groups followed a different path, focusing on support for members negotiating relationships with ex-spouses. At a time when even straight fathers were less likely than mothers to gain custody, many gay fathers had only visitation rights (if that), and wanted to retain contact with their spouses in order to see their children. This made the gay fathers’ groups “less politically radical” than those of lesbian mothers, in the sense that they “did not articulate the sort of broad, anti-capitalist, antiracist, feminist platform” that the mothers groups did, writes Rivers. By the late 1970s, they “were largely white, middle-class, and politically centrist,” and their “economic strength and mainstream political expertise” gave them greater success than lesbian mother groups in using mainstream media forums, such as television talk shows, to gain visibility, Rivers explains.
The AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980s, however, hit these groups hard. Gay father organizing was largely brought under the umbrella of the national Gay Fathers Coalition (later Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International, GLPCI), founded in 1979. GLPCI began “making contact with” broader gay rights organizations, says Rivers, although he is vague about what that means.
By the 1990s, the broader LGBT organizations had firmly taken up the cause of parents. Rivers asserts, though, “It would be the gay fathers’ groups of the 1970s and 1980s that would be directly responsible for the focus on gay and lesbian parental rights in the mainstream LGBT civil rights struggle” of the 1990s and 2000s. He never quite shows clear proof of that, however, even though those groups undoubtedly had an influence. Fathers founded two of the mainstream LGBT organizations (the National Gay Task Force—now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—and the National Coalition of Black Gays), making it likely that parental rights would have been in the mix in any case. Rivers seems here to downplay his earlier, more substantiated explanation of the impact of lesbian mothers groups on the broader LGBT organizations. In fact, lesbian mothers were also leaders in early LGBT organizations, including NGLTF.
Not surprisingly, given his upbringing, Rivers also includes a chapter on the culture of lesbian feminist households and communities of the 1970s, which he describes as “resistance communities” that “actively questioned patriarchal and heterosexual values” and raised their children in “woman-centered, avowedly feminist environments.” These communities included both white lesbians and lesbians of color, although racial tensions sometimes motivated lesbians of color to start their own communal living arrangements.
Lesbian feminist families “were a crucial part” of the shift toward acceptance of lesbian parents within the larger lesbian community, he says—although again, he seems to have overstated the opposition to lesbian mothers within all but the most separatist lesbian communities. They provided fertile ground, so to speak, for early discussion of assisted reproduction and the formation of grassroots donor-insemination networks. Rivers never makes clear what the proportion of lesbian mothers was in such households, however, and we should not assume they represented all lesbian parents of the time.
The 1980s saw the beginning of the “gayby boom,” as an increasing number of gay men and lesbians choosing to have children through insemination, adoption, or surrogacy. Rivers gives examples of the various types of court cases this engendered, including donors suing for paternity rights and nonbiological mothers suing female ex-partners for child custody.
In the 1990s services arose to meet the needs of children with lesbian and gay parents, such as special summer camps and lesbian- and gay-inclusive children’s books. Rivers explains the opposition these books faced in conservative circles, but his coverage is less than satisfying in other areas. He claims there was “a flood of books” followed the 1989 publication of Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, but that seems an exaggeration, as the genre is small even today.
Rivers also errs in stating that Alyson Publications published Heather in 1989. Newman in fact self-published it with a friend (and lesbian mom) that year, with Alyson relaunching it in 1990 to kick off its children’s imprint (see http://www.lesleanewman.com/happy_birthday_heather.html, or http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/16/1989/leslea-newman.) He makes no mention, either, of the very first children’s book in the US clearly to depict same-sex parents, Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away, published by the small feminist collective Lollipop Power in 1979. He thus misses an important aspect of the genre’s history—the grassroots efforts needed to bring it to life. (In this vein, we should note the 1978 comic for adults, Mary Wings’s Dyke Shorts, from underground comics publisher the Print Mint, which included a storyline about a lesbian trying to get pregnant via assisted insemination.)
Rivers’ dissertation covered the years 1945 to 2003, and the post-2003 section of his book—an eight-page epilogue—seems like a hastily done addition. He covers the invitation to LGBT families from President Barack Obama to attend the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll, the increasing recognition by courts of parental rights for lesbians and gay men, and how both sides wielded arguments about children in the battle over California’s Proposition 8 ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Rivers neglects to note other states where similar arguments have been used—opponents of Maine’s marriage equality law who sought to repeal it in 2009 claimed it would encourage exploitation of children, for example. He does, however, observe that the rights of children with same-sex parents were used to argue for marriage equality in Iowa and Vermont, and that children of same-sex parents testified on behalf of their families in all of the above states and in Massachusetts.
He overlooks, however, several important events, including the headline custody case between the former partners Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller, which starting in 2004 pitted the laws of Vermont and Virginia against each other and highlighted the effect of the patchwork of state and federal laws on same-sex relationships and parenting. (The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Jenkins, the nonbiological mother, should have primary custody, since Miller had repeatedly ignored court orders to share custody. Miller then fled the country with their child and remains in hiding.) He does not touch at all on the growing number of lesbian and gay parents on television (starting with the 1972 television movie That Certain Summer), or the fact that large mainstream publishers are now putting out LGBT-inclusive children’s books—further examples of how the visibility of gay and lesbian parents is changing “core cultural beliefs” about family. Nor does he mention the growing amount of social science research finding that children of lesbian and gay parents are, on the whole, as well-adjusted and happy as any others.
Some omissions are inevitable in any historical survey. More troubling, however, is Rivers’s conflation of marriage and parenting rights. While he is correct that lesbian and gay parents helped push the LGBT movement as a whole toward a greater focus on domestic rights, there is an important difference between marital rights and parental rights. Even married same-sex parents are advised that the nonbiological/nonadoptive parent should do a second-parent adoption (in states where that is legal), in which she adopts the other’s legal child, in order to protect her parental rights if they travel to a state that does not recognize her marriage.
Furthermore, as Carlos Ball explains in his excellent 2012 legal history, The Right to be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood, marriage-equality litigation has dealt primarily with wide constitutional issues. LGBT parenting cases, however, have focused on gaining “legal recognition and protection” for a single family or parent-child pair. Parenting cases, Ball explains, have thus largely been handled “by private attorneys rather than by movement lawyers working for organizations such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal.” Questions of marriage are also more likely than ones of parenting to be taken up by state legislatures. As much as lesbian and gay parents may have contributed to broader LGBT organizations’ focus on domestic rights, therefore, they have also advanced the cause in their own way.
Despite these shortcomings, Radical Relations opens up a largely unexplored history and helps put to rest the idea that lesbian- and gay-headed families are a new and untested departure from “traditional” ones. If more about their history (and that of bisexual and transgender ones) has yet to be written, Rivers has nevertheless given us a tantalizing look at what a rich and textured story theirs is.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and associated newspaper column for lesbian moms and other LGBT parents. She is also the online content manager for the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice
By Daisy Fried
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013, 75 pp., $15.95, paperback
By Robin Becker
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, 67 pp., $15.95, paperback
Reviewed by Alicia Ostriker
When Daisy Fried’s Women’s Poetry isn’t making me laugh out loud it’s making me cry. The book’s opening poem, “Torment,” is a seven-page, tongue-in-cheek account in loose blank verse of some “gorgeously exhausted,” privileged Princeton seniors returning from failed Wall Street interviews. Brianna with her “interview hair” announcing, “My mom will go crazy/ Deutsche bank didn’t offer,” needs one of the narrator’s “self-pity tissues.” Justin “grabs a Norton Anthology/ out of his five-hundred-dollar briefcase,” can’t speak a sentence without “fuck” in it (as in “Fuck. / What are we supposed to read for tomorrow?”), and has written a seven-page poem improbably entitled “Torment.” As for the pregnant narrator, she wishes she could hate her students, wishes she could like them, is pissed off by them, sympathetic to them, and has her own problems:
The woman interviewer looked at my belly.
“As a new mother would you have time to be
literary mama to your students?” So I could sue
when they don’t hire me for the job I don’t want.
One of Fried’s strengths is her command of speech patterns high and low. Another is her command of the squabbling schools of lit-crit. The book’s final section, “Ask the Poetess,” is a hilarious double send-up of the poetry business and of advice columns. All women poets are aware that “poetess” is code for “drippy, sentimental, female poet.” Here, however, “the Poetess” explains in her column that in the interest of equality she “applies the term poetess to men and women, good poetesses and bad.” Who is her favorite poetess? The infamous Charles Bukowski, in his stained undershirt waving a beercan in a poem called “The Slob.” Here is the first of a round of Q and As:
DEAR POETESS—I graduated from [Name of Famous Writing School deleted] In 1986. Ever since my doctor switched me from Prozac to Zoloft, I feel compelled to write poems attacking the linguistic hegemony of the bourgeois ruling class, sometimes using Google searches to generate strings of jargon and nonsense. Help! What should I do?—A Student
DEAR POETESS—I graduated from [Name of Famous Writing School deleted] in 1999. Ever since my doctor switched me from Zoloft to Prozac, I feel tempted to write first-person poems about my first-person memories of my grandmother, a marvelous woman of ropey hands and gnarled wisdom. Help! What should I do?—A STUDENT.
DEAR STUDENTS, CLASSES 1986 AND 1999—Aren’t you missing hyphens from your signatures? Shouldn’t that be A-Student? Did the Poetess Ezra Pound say, “Make it new enough so your teacher will give you an A?”....I advise you to go back to school, and, this time around, flunk a couple of classes. If you can—it won’t be easy—flunk out. It may change your life.—LOVE THE POETESS.
If Fried is pitch perfect as a parodist, her snappy, racy, energized style has tender uses as well. Throughout Women’s Poetry she looks with a journalist’s and a mother’s eye at the world, from Paris (where Henry Kissinger is being helped into a limo) to Rome (where neo-Fascists demonstrate and gypsies are removed from public squares), to the turnpike, to marriage and talkative baby, to dead friends, to mother and sister, to a walk in the forest at Fontainebleau. Her thumbnail portraits of individuals consistently make you feel you know and care about them:
2004, Blanca the Gypsy
rubbing against men, rubbing against women
at the no-name Caffé with red plastic chairs.
Her name can’t be Blanca, everybody calls her Blanca.
She cadges money and cigarettes, kisses my hair,
steals my colored pencils. Litle bird nose,
pretty smile, pain in the ass.
When Rome’s gypsies are loaded onto vans to be shipped back to Romania and their camps are bulldozed, Fried remarks “We’ll never see Blanca again,” and “A stench of casual outdoor shitting remains.” No stench, here, of sentimentality or political correctness, but we know where the poet’s affections lie.
Some of these poems are several pages long and worth every sharp word, some are tiny, and you wish they were longer. Several take place in cars, with the poet mumbling to herself, “Brushing away the poison pill” of guilt for making a student almost cry, or seeing a tire torn from an eighteen-wheeler “clinging to the back wheel rim/ coming loose, whapping, slapping,/ whacking the ground, like a wife/ pounding her pillow, alone all night.” Or in a public space,
On a Metro platform, a crazy woman banging her head against a pillar—
what do you do, just look away?
Bad things happening make you feel alive.
I hail anyone who tells that truth. Fried can nail whatever she bumps into with nonstop precision, force, and humanity, in the indecorous American language that is one of our culture’s great gifts to literature. Women’s Poetry is her third book, and she is at the top of her form.
“Prairie Dogs,” the short opening poem in Robin Becker’s Tiger Heron, took my breath away. Not at first, where it describes how prairie dogs occupied a dog run and a high school field of the poet’s youth, and were vaguely threatening in their almost-humanness. But then the poet and her cousin come across one of them caught and wounded in barbed wire, and when the cousin fails to free the creature using a stick,
he knelt in the trashy
run, his face close to the scrabbler, fingers
plying the greasy, furred gash, the entrails
glazed with flies which might have deterred
someone else, but he sat, now cross-legged,
unwinding the wrecked limb the way the hands
that lifted the boy in Wyoming must have worked.
Reaching that final line, I look back at the poem’s dedication, “in memory of Matthew Shepard (1976-1998),” and it’s an “oh” moment as I remember that Matthew was the Wyoming boy beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die, because he was gay.
Animals and family are important in Becker’s world. In fact, animals are family. Besides the prairie dogs, I noticed the northern flying squirrel, owls, salamanders, a dog and cat pair (the cat grooming the dog), carpenter bees hollowing out a house in a biting little poem called “Her Lies,” goats, a mare on a lead so slack she thinks she is free, a set of tropical creatures encountered on a vacation in which “the forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,” and numerous dogs, including one who “[l]avishes attention on beloveds/ upon whom she sits and boldly kisses,” and including the melancholy “dog I didn’t want” and, of course, got.
The endearing company of our fellow creatures is part of what makes me feel at home in Becker’s poetry. Her acceptance of natural cycles enriches the intimacy she builds. Many of the poems in Tiger Heron deal with age, aging, dying, the deaths of parents and friends, the ongoing presence of the dead. Yet this is by no means a gloomy book, as the motif of loss is continually leavened by Becker’s exuberant homage to appetite. In a poem called “A Last Go,” the poet’s aging mother, who has spent her life “tuning deprivation/ like a violin,” now “takes the world into her mouth,”
she takes the sour-cream coffee cake and
the rugelach with walnuts and currants.
She wants a pecan raisin loaf, two loaves,
See’s suckers, and mandelbrodt,
And I’ll take her hunger any way I can.
The poet watching her mother eat can see her as a dashing young woman again, and urges,
Go ahead, Ma, try the ginger scones,
The lemon poppy seed cake.
Love and food also go together in an elegy for a hospitable friend, as the poet remembers
beet soup, corn, and nine
of us round the table
pouring and laughing,
as the stories told around the table take on “color and flavor/ before we cook them/ in summer’s brine.” Language again becomes edible in a tenderly humorous poem in which the speaker remembers how her father used to end every sentence with the phrase and so forth, like a “three-syllable glaze” with “the aftertaste of icing.” When he’d say “I had lunch with the boys and so forth,” never supplying details, the “blabbermouth daughter” feels free to add “a buoyancy of pastrami and cole slaw.”
Becker doesn’t, in this book, do much explicit exploring of her Jewishness. But “The Sounds of Yiddish” is a quintessentially shameless and tasty exploration of the word-food connection, as title glides into opening line “splat like matzoh broken and dropped/in the egg-milk mix for matzobrei,” and later lines smack their sibilants:
Yiddish hisses with chicken schmaltz
Sizzling for knishes. Not invited to the luncheon?
Don’t worry; her k’naidelech don’t float.
Just as I find myself remembering the old joke that all Jewish holidays have the same message—“They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat”—Becker rounds off her poem with a light touch for a collective memory of pogroms that weighs many tons:
Yiddish ran from a posse of hazards when
My Bubbe left her shtetl, Russians at her back
And a mongrel, Middle-High German in her mouth.
In a poem addressed to Maxine Kumin, the trailblazing woman poet who has been a mentor and friend to many of us and who still leads us in dedication to things of this earth and to fearless truth-telling, Becker writes, “You never found comfort in doctrine.”
The same may be said of herself. One of my favorite poems here personifies the word “dyke” and offers a mini-autobiography:
I had to hate her;
then I had to hurt her;
the rest of my life,
I ate from her hand.
The poet Stephen Dunn praises Becker for “what may be one of the early twenty-first century’s most difficult accomplishments—to write a credible poetry of affirmation.” Tiger Heron is her seventh book—and yes, it is proudly credible.
Alicia Ostriker's most recent book of poems is The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014). Her most recent set of essays on American poetry is Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (2000).