Romaine Brooks: A Life
By Cassandra Langer
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015, 288 pp., $26.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Abe Louise Young
Romaine Brooks’s most famous paintings depict solitary female figures in masculine clothes. Their subjects are serious and unsmiling, brimming with sexual power and emotional untouchability. The color palette is strict: tonal black, white, and gray, with occasional shocking touches of red. More often than not, the figures focus on something in the distance, outside of the frame. Born in 1874, Brooks inserted a lesbian gaze and radical new examples of gendered self-invention into portraiture.
Romaine Brooks, by Cassandra Langer, is a book with a dual mission. The first is to forge a positive narrative about an artist described by her previous biographer, Meryle Secrest, as a product of “lesbian personality disorder.” The second is to stake a claim for Brooks as a major modernist painter whose genius has been overlooked due to sexism, miscategorization as a symbolist, and exaggeration of her fascist sympathies.
Using new research, Langer makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Brooks’s character and concerns. She describes Brooks’s life as one enacted almost entirely outside of traditional romantic structures and with zero concern for feminine ideals. Langer uncovered a French biography of Elizabeth (Lily) de Gramont—known previously as the lover of the lesbian writer Natalie Barney, a wealthy American who lived most of her life in Paris—that radically expands what we know about Brooks’s sexual and love relationships. Langer reveals for the first time the details of the extraordinary open marriage shared by Brooks, Barney, and de Gramont—some forty years of polyamorous intimacy in a form they invented privately and let evolve organically.
Langer also draws upon previous biographies, archival material, letters, journals, memoirs, and a stunning 44 years of her own research to present Brooks anew. According to Brooks’s memoirs and letters, she survived a loveless childhood with a detached, mentally ill mother and brother, and without secure attachments. She was married briefly and had a child whom she gave up to a convent. After her short marriage, Brooks, who inherited an enormous fortune, kept company with many different women, including Winnaretta Singer, the Singer Sewing Machine heiress, and later, Barney. Together, she and Barney, with a combined fortune of about $300 million in today’s dollars, owned multiple properties and lived lives of luxury. Brooks insisted that they maintain separate residences, which she believed kept their passion alive—although they rode out World War II together in their villa in the Italian countryside. Barney helped Brooks in innumerable ways, including (unsuccesfully) working to get Brook’s memoir, No Pleasant Memories, published and ensuring that her major works were secured in the Smithsonian collection.
Both the admirable and challenging aspects of Romaine Brooks’s personality are rendered clearly: she was a highly sensitive, elitist, contrarian individualist. She held anti-Semitic views despite the fact that her lifelong partner had Jewish roots. She lived for high art and style, forging a distinctive look in both her paintings and home environments. She never compromised. Her love affair with Barney flourished intensely for four decades until Brooks, at age 96, abruptly ended all contact. Barney was heartbroken and distraught until her death.
The strength of this biography is its deep examination of Brooks’s intimate relationships. However, it is on less steady ground in handling motivation and intention. For example, Langer attributes Brooks’s choice to end her relationship with Barney to her desire to remain forever loved:
She decided to cut off relations with Natalie so that she would never lose the love of a lifetime … By breaking off all communication at the age of ninety-six, Brooks reasoned that she could now let go of all that still tied her to life and prepare herself to die assured of Natalie’s eternal desire, devotion and love.
Without original source material suggesting this interpretation, it’s hard to accept; it would have been more satisfying if Langer had admitted, We don’t exactly know why. As a reader, I became restless with the way Langer tries to dissolve questions about Brooks’s motives and beliefs before they arise. She is invested in defending Brooks against potential negative judgments. This presents a formidable challenge, since biography may serve best when it allows contradictions to exist without trying to solve them.
Much has been written about the American expatriate Parisian writers and artists of the 1920s and ̓30s, whose anti-Semitism and loathing of the underclasses must be digested alongside their bodies of work. Langer argues that although Brooks identified with the right wing and admired Mussolini, she was less of a fascist than Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, or the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio—a close friend—and that we should see Brooks’s bigoted beliefs as predictable products of her upbringing. She calls Brooks “politically immature.” This may be the case, but not acknowledging Brooks’s responsibility for her negative views of poor people and Jews risks giving them the shine of validity.
Langer writes, “[Brooks] misread Fascism as a nationalistic movement in support of social elites, not military dictators, whose aim was to restore peace through imperialism through prioritizing culture.” She insists that Brooks’s views should not influence her reputation or significance as an artist. In the current American climate of rising hate crime and debate over nationalism and oligarchy, however, such rationalization feels dangerous. Langer argues,
The United States … is perhaps unique in insisting that the personal is political. Romaine Brooks and the European society she lived in would not agree that being tolerant and politically correct, both in private and in public, define civilized people.
If I were to read this biography again, I would read it backward. A rush of new ideas about camp and dandyism is compressed into Langer’s conclusion, which also includes information that it would have been helpful to hold in mind while reading, such as this:
For a lesbian to portray a criminalized subculture and make it fashionable and desirable was no mean feat, and Romaine Brooks was kind of a rock star of her era, accomplishing this feat with a flare that remains unparalleled. How did she manage it? The answer may simply be fashion.
I hope that at some point a queer theorist will take up Brooks’s life, using this text as a stepping stone toward analyzing the transgressive gender codes that are at the core of Brooks’s aesthetic, with its focus on androgynous, even masculine female figures. Langer points to the exciting investigative work that remains to be accomplished, since at least eight of the paintings described in Brooks’s letters and notebooks, as well as her many journals and sketchbooks, have not yet been found.
Langer explores Brooks’s emotional attachments and the cultural landscape she both contributed to and sought refuge from. She describes both Brooks’s unwavering monochromatic style and her creative process, which flourished best within a small, protective circle of relationships. She expands our knowledge of the Parisian salon scene with a portrait of a significant personality who hovered uneasily at its edges. The swirling lesbian expat culture in France and Italy is endlessly fascinating, as are the many ways community connections were both forged and broken. In the end, Romaine Brooks redeems its weaknesses by making a major contribution toward correcting the graver view of Brooks insisted upon in previous biographies.
Langer writes, “Brooks deliberately created the role she intended to play in the narrative of her own life: the role of female hero.” Langer analyzes that role and ultimately inscribes Romaine Brooks more solidly in both U.S. art history and lesbian/queer history.
Abe Louise Young is an author and educator whose work focuses on creativity, social change, and the lives of women and girls. Her recent chapbook is Heaven to Me (2016).
From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines
Edited by Joyce Dyer, Jennifer Cognard-Black, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016, 317 pp. $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Christine Byl
Franz Kafka famously called books “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” while William Carlos Williams called the poem a “machine made out of words.” By metaphoric extension, it’s no stretch to consider the essays in this anthology tools as well. In 23 pieces on “women and their machines,” the authors wield prose in pursuit of a specific task: to think carefully and deliberately…in order to understand what our machines mean—why we need them, or if we do; where they came from, or what they might signify; and what the future holds for further integration of body and contraption.
Organized in five thematic sections—Hearth and Home; Bedroom and Birthing Room; Farm, Lawn, Hill and Wood; Stage and World; and The Writer’s Studio—the entries showcase a broad swath of female lives..
Essays throughout describe familiar experiences, the details tweaked just enough to counter stereotype. In her beloved Dodge Dart, the young Karen Salyer McElmurray teaches her mother how to drive and discovers, “She dreamed of one long highway, the way out she never took.” Emily Rapp’s typical teenage questions—“What was my body? What was its purpose?”—are complicated by her relationship with her prosthetic leg. The collection deftly expands both the terrain of women’s experience and the concept of a machine in interesting ways.
If the essays are devices for thinking, the collection itself is a tool shed, each piece hung on its hook, taken down to perform a specific duty. To plumb race and gender as they entwine in the kitchen, reach for “If You Can’t Stand the Heat,” Psyche Williams-Forson’s homage to the gas cook stove. For pushing back against the masculinization of power equipment and power itself, select Mary Quade’s standout about tractors, “Old Iron: A Restoration.” Perhaps it’s the construct of a modern self that interests you: see essays on the iPhone, the camera, the microphone. As with any collection of tools, some essays are sharper than others. But universally, they are crafted with intent.
Befitting a collection that encompasses gender and mechanization, power is a recurring theme, which makes sense to anyone who has felt confounded by an unfamiliar machine—or emancipated by learning to use one well. The book opens with a section on familiar domestic contraptions—sewing machine, washer, iron, cook stove—and rightly reclaims the status of machine for objects that have been historically “feminized” out of that category. “Maytag Washer, 1939” is a well-placed opener, and Norma Tilden’s observation refracts over the rest of the book: “we would learn what it meant to be born a woman: the intricate mechanics of beauty and use.” Joyce Dyer’s wide-ranging essay “My Mother’s Singer” beautifully explores the braided history of feminism as it is expressed in the push-pull of home-making, balancing the political (the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire) with the personal (“for [my mother], domesticity was a ruse”). My fondness for this essay is high praise, in light of how much more times I have run a chainsaw than a sewing machine. My own seamstress-mother shakes her head that at 43, I still ask her to patch my Carhartts.
In their introduction, the editors nod to the genre-as-tool conceit when they state, to write—to be a woman writer—is, in one way, to be both mechanical and a mechanic. We still call punctuation and grammar the “mechanics” of writing, and even language itself is a technology.
When I read this, my mind lit straight to the word’s origin, which is from the Greek techne—meaning “art,” “craft,” or “skill” (related to tekton, meaning “carpenter”)—and logos—“word.” Thus, “technology” can be roughly translated as “words about craft.” It’s fascinating to track a word’s path and find at the end a revelatory surprise: writer unionized with carpenter. Each uses craft in pursuit of an end, and the differences in their products only underscore the point that technology is various. Machines—abacus, vibrator, laptop—enhance human effort, whether physical (build house), philosophical (deconstruct race), personal (give orgasm), or artistic (write book).
Tools require specialized language that arises from their use. “The part of a hit-and-miss engine that regulates speed is called the governor,” explains Mary Quade. My own childhood vocabulary was textured by my parents’ machines—my mother’s Singer, thimble, and treadle; my surveyor-father’s theodolite and plumb-bob. In my early twenties, when I started as a rookie on a trail crew, I cradled my sore muscles in bed and fell asleep to the cadence of the new words running through my mind—mattock, Swede hook, Dolmar, pulaski. My lifelong career in labor has in part been fueled by a love for the lexicon of labor, and a highlight of this anthology was the technical diction enfolded in its pages.
Its sentences show women in motion—mowing, sewing, driving, sawing, eating, typing, birthing, writing, shooting—and many pieces carve out their own linguistic territories. In Rebecca McClanahan’s “Sad Iron, Glad Iron,” the act of pressing shirts becomes incantatory: “Iron and sing, iron and sing, the world falls away, placket and pleat, collar and yoke, ruffle and pocket, bodice and sleeve. Steam, release.” Maureen Stanton, in a riff on the scythe, the ancestor of her beloved lawnmower, lists its “poetically named parts: snath, toe, tang, ring, beard, heel, grips and chine.” The essay’s immediate concern is the history of a gas engine, but underneath lies a shadow story of losing a beloved to cancer. Like the best essays in the collection, Stanton’s weaves two narratives, examining impotence from opposite angles: how tools grant manual power, and how unexpected loss reinforces our powerlessness.
Learning how machines work is captivating stuff, and I admire the essays that pull back the narrative curtain and stride into the repair shop. In “Swingline Nine,” Jen Hirt illuminates the physics behind a desk-based contraption whose mechanics usually get little notice: “The stapler is a simple machine, in the same category as pulleys and axles ... Even when staplers went electric or morphed into heavy-duty staple guns, it was always just fulcrum, load, effort.” Essays in every section delve into nuts-and-bolts terrain, and I littered the margins of my book with stars and exclamation points next to mechanical and historical insights: who knew that World War I-era Lansing, Michigan, was the birthplace of the lawnmower and home to a minor-league baseball team called the Lugnuts?
Williams followed his line about the poem as machine with these words: “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” From Curlers to Chainsaws isn’t academic per se, but many essays carry a load of scholarship, often with agility, sometimes more woodenly. I was grateful for the lyric pieces in the collection, their “perfect economy” balancing the academic default. I get it—many of the authors here are professors, whose most familiar tool is argument—but the more sinuous essays provide a welcome stylistic variety and tonal counterpoint. Notable is Joy Castro’s taut and haunting lyric essay, “Grip,” about a Ruger GP .357 handgun. She places a bullet-riddled paper target above her infant son’s crib, a bulwark against the domestic abuse of her childhood—“the violence of our years with [our father], knifed into us like scrimshaw cut in living bone.” To her the target represents a hope for safety, “a sort of oath I swore over your quiet sleep.” The poet Nikky Finney’s essay on the pencil closes the book, with an intellectual coming-of-age narrative that stays light on its feet:
A pencil could be said to have a mind of its own. The dark, sweet mind of a pencil had to be nurtured and lured out into sunshine ... You could sign your life away with a pen and never know what happened to your life.
Every tool can fail, of course. Pencil tips break. Engines bog down. Vibrators run out of batteries. The breadth of machines covered here is wide, but the collection would have benefitted from even more angles, whether indigenous, international, or otherly gendered. Perhaps because of the demographic uniformity, the emotional range of the essays in aggregate was a bit uniform—part nostalgic, part activist, mostly redemptive. Though individual pieces skirted rough edges, I craved more consistent complication. Don’t useful tools sometimes cause harm? What about the costs of mechanization? What of apprenticeship that ends in disempowerment?
The inconsistency shared by most edited volumes also occurs here. Some essays feel too thematically determined—the word “plodding” arose often in my reading notes—and others that succeed in content don’t vault the high bar of the stand-alone essay, lacking a through-line or a subsurface story to anchor the obvious one. Despite these flaws, the majority of essays use specific machines to build scaffolding from which to interrogate larger ideas. The very best ones do so with aplomb, moving from musical lines to nuanced thoughts that double back on themselves in fruitful ways.
Perhaps the volume’s greatest accomplishment is how effortlessly it puts to rest the notion that a woman who loves a machine is an anomaly, or worse, something to be fetishized. Any woman who expresses an iota of mechanical aptitude has heard patronizing comments: Wow, you change your own oil? This book doesn’t bother to defend its premise: of course women use machines, and of course we love them. While these essays include men—fathers, lovers, neighbors—and allude to the male gaze, here the most prominent watchers are women, seeing themselves. Karen Outen puts it well in her engrossing essay on typing: “In the end, our lives, our work, are all about sight—foresight, hindsight, insight, salvaged sight.”
The next book I yearn for is an anthology about tools where women appear equally alongside men—where we shed our identity marker and join the ranks of all those humans whose lives are made better, worse, complex, or interesting by the tools to which we apply our hands and minds. As Ana Maria Spagna writes in “More Than Noise,” about her years on a trail crew: “A woman running a chainsaw might surprise hikers or strangers at picnic-table dinner parties ... But after fifteen years, my gender made little difference.”
Intention well applied becomes effort, and any task bears its evidence: a dug hole is surrounded by heaps of dirt. Sawdust covers the floor after boards are cut. A haircut leaves an itchy film on apron and neck. By this book’s close, there is also residue. A litany of machines, scenes, and terms circled my mind, prodding further questions, notes jotted in margins. If the writer’s task is completed, the larger job is still unfinished. I’d guess that this anthology will prompt readers to write, think, and tell machine stories of their own.
Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and designer, and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods (2013). She lives in Interior Alaska.
Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
By April R. Haynes
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $27.50, paperback
Reviewed by Rachel Hope Cleves
Between 1835 and 1840, more than 50,000 women gathered in small rooms across New England and upstate New York to confess their past histories of masturbation, or “the solitary vice,” as it had recently been dubbed by Sylvester Graham. According to the tenets of “reform physiology,” a nineteenth-century sexual-health movement, admitting to masturbation was a critical first step on the path to self-discipline. Through such testimonials, the women sought absolution and refashioned themselves as virtuous citizens, capable of restraining their erotic appetites. The experience of shared confessions also bound the women together as a community, laying the foundation for future advocacy around women’s issues.
This unlikely scenario of Victorian women holding consciousness-raising sessions, where they sought power in public discussion of masturbation, uncannily foreshadows the 1970s encounter groups, where newly awakened feminists masturbated together. April Haynes draws this analogy in the opening pages of her history, Riotous Flesh. The two groups, separated by nearly a century and a half, took oppositional approaches to masturbation itself. Antebellum women resisted masturbation as a path to empowerment, while counterculture women embraced masturbation as source of personal autonomy. However, both groups saw developing a correct approach to masturbation as critical to women’s assertions of ownership over their sexualities and their common interests as women. At this pro-sex moment in the long history of the feminist sex wars, the notion that women might gain power through limiting their sexual expression seems illogical. But Haynes expresses equal skepticism about the present notion that the vibrator can be an effective tool for dismantling patriarchy. From her critical perspective, there are limitations to using sexual reform of any variety as a main avenue toward feminist advancement.
Riotous Flesh overturns the conventional historiography of masturbation, which has focused almost exclusively on men. Canonical works by Thomas Laqueur (Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation ) and G. J. Barker-Benfield (The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America ) focus on male medical practitioners who, they argue, made masturbation into a health crisis during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as on young men, whom they depict as the primary targets of medical concern. However, Haynes argues that it was evangelical women, not male doctors, who made masturbation a prominent social issue in the United States, and that these women initially saw the female sex as being as susceptible to self-abuse as the male sex. Rediscovering evangelical women’s contributions to the antimasturbation movement leads Haynes to challenge the conventional historical explanations of the reasons behind their alarm. Their concerns about masturbation cannot be attributed to “political democratization and the secularization of morality,” as Laqueur claims. “It is simply not the case,” Haynes asserts strenuously, that early texts like Onania (1716) “inaugurated a democratic pattern of thinking about sex.” Americans cared little about masturbation during the initial spread of democracy in the age of Revolution. “All that changed in 1833,” Haynes argues, “when women became central subjects rather than marginal characters” in reform physiology. It was debates over women’s rights, not democracy, that made masturbation an issue of national significance.
Despite Haynes’s focus on women actors, her choice of 1833 as a turning point hinges on the actions of a man whom many readers will be familiar with, the dyspeptic minister Sylvester Graham. Graham is a historic character so peculiar that he has made the leap from specialist volumes to popular consciousness, owing in large part to the crackers named after him. An all-around reformer who preached the doctrines of vegetarianism, temperance, and clothing reform to New England audiences, Graham turned to the problem of masturbation in 1833. Although his message was not original, his method was—in particular his choice to preach to audiences of women as well as to men. The innovation enraged local men in Providence, Portland, and Boston, where they mobbed him.
Masculine opposition to Graham’s talks to women ultimately drove the reformer from the public stage. He abandoned the project of addressing women on the subject of masturbation and later retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he devoted himself to perfecting a recipe for whole grain bread. Reformist women, however, did not give up on the subject of masturbation. They took over where Graham left off, organizing meetings to address each other on the subject of reformist physiology. They promoted the antimasturbation addresses of women reformers such as Mary Gove. Soon, they gathered together in small groups to speak to the subject themselves. Why did reformist women embrace antimasturbation so eagerly? Haynes argues that they saw value in a discourse that addressed women as “rational beings capable of mastering their own passions.” By admitting to their susceptibility to masturbation, reformist women highlighted their rational capacity to resist temptation. They exchanged an older model of purity, which viewed good women as passive and passionless, for a new model of virtue, in which good women’s sexual self-restraint proved their capacity for citizenship.
Reformist women had many reasons to want to move away from the fiction of passionlessness. In popular culture the ideology served as a license for male sexual violence. The image of the passionless lady produced a dark counterpart in the fallen whore; any woman who did not rise to the standard of passionlessness became a fit subject for exploitation. And placing the onus on “pure” women to place the brakes on sexual expression in turn naturalized male sexual aggression. The erotic “flash” newspapers that exploded onto the American scene during the 1830s cultivated the fantasy that male libertines possessed the power to awaken women’s passions, turning them from virgins into whores, where upon they became dispensable. “In the shadow of passionlessness,” Haynes argues, reformers saw “a bleak world filled with fallen, ruined, murdered prostitutes.” Breaking away from passionlessness, and laying claim to a sexuality independent of men, gave women a position from which to criticize the sexual double standard.
Abolitionist women, in particular, African American abolitionist women, saw an opportunity in antimasturbation discourse to protest against the racialized dimensions of the double standard. Women of color were frequent targets of sexualized violence in a culture that viewed them not as passionless but as hypersexual. By hitching their wagon to physiological reform, African American women cultivated a new antislavery argument. If reformers truly wished to restrain licentious male behavior, they needed to oppose slavery, which rewarded slaveholding men’s sexual assaults on enslaved women. To achieve the new standard of virtue, rather than purity, white women had to cease being passive observers and become active opponents of slavery’s licentiousness. White antislavery women responded positively to this argument. At least at first.
The window of cooperation between women of color and white women reformers proved remarkably short lived. As soon as antimasturbation discourse picked up popularity among New England women, that very popularity transformed the movement. As the movement spread from the cities to the rural hinterlands of New England and New York, the cause of reform physiology moved further and further away from the center of antislavery activism. White rural women reformers soon shifted back to emphasizing female purity—for example, petitioning state legislatures to pass criminal seduction laws that resurrected ideas about feminine passionlessness. Abolitionist reform discourse also proved to have a double edge, as rhetoric focusing on black women’s sexual exploitation at times reinforced characterizations of black women as “jezebels.” As early as 1840, interracial cooperation began to fracture. And by 1845, white women’s-rights advocates split sharply from women abolitionists.
One of the great strengths of Riotous Flesh is Haynes’s intersectional analysis. The book draws on critical race theory and African American history to explore the complex interweaving of sex, race, and power in the antebellum era. A less attentive scholar could have written a much whiter book.
But Riotous Fleshem> is less successful at explaining the rapidity of the shift in women’s antimasturbation discourse away from interracial cooperation and the critique of passionlessness, and toward a more restrictive vision of gender and race that re-embraced the doctrine of women’s purity and abandoned the abolitionist cause. The whole arc of the book’s narrative takes place over no more than twelve years, from 1833 to 1845. The window of progressive antimasturbation reform that Haynes anatomizes is so brief, one almost wonders whether it happened at all. Is it possible that the sources would make more sense arranged synchronically than diachronically? Could progressive and regressive antimasturbation discourses have coincided and competed during the first half of the nineteenth century, rather than succeeding each other in such short order? Haynes also leaves questions about the erotics of the women’s antimasturbation movement less well explored than I would have liked. When antebellum women gathered together in small parlors to share their stories of past sexual self-enjoyment free from the aid or hindrance of men, did no one’s heart rate speed or pupils dilate? Haynes emphasizes how testimonial-meeting culture politicized women. One would imagine that it sexualized women as well—by which I mean that the antimasturbation movement’s incitement to discourse helped create sexuality as a thing that women, in the movement and out, shared. Antimasturbation gatherings produced female sexuality in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings would. It seems likely that antimasturbation gatherings also produced arousal in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings did.
Haynes does argue that the recognition of female sexual pleasure within antimasturbation discourse was ultimately channeled into the foundation of heteronormativity. Author Frederick Hollick, a British immigrant to the United States, fused physiological reform discourse and male sexual privilege into a “philosophy of amative indulgence” that promised mutually orgasmic heterosexual intercourse as the best remedy for masturbation. Again, I wonder whether the diachronic organization of the evidence forecloses the possibility of synchronic counterdiscourses. Was antimasturbation discourse, which acknowledged the possibility of a female sexuality independent of men, also channeled into a foundation for same-sex sexual culture? The linkage between masturbation and lesbianism—in texts from Onania, through Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers” (1833), to postbellum sexological texts like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)—suggests that possibility. Haynes discusses one female couple, Mary Grew and Margaret Jones Burleigh, who attended Hollick’s talks together and may have drawn a lesbian lesson from his heterosexual instructions. Surely they were not alone. Readers who are curious to learn more won’t find the answers in Riotous Flesh, but they will find a great jumping off point for further inquiry.
Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is the author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014).
The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency
By Ellen Fitzpatrick
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, 318 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Context can be everything. Had Hillary Clinton beaten Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, The Highest Glass Ceiling would read as a delightful primer on the long road to electing a woman president. But that didn’t happen. If “In 2008, Hillary Clinton mounted the most successful campaign of any woman presidential candidate in American history,” yet “still lost a very close race for the Democratic nomination,” in 2016, she mounted an even more successful campaign, won the nomination, won the popular vote—and still lost the election. As I write these words, just over a month later, pundits and politicians are still arguing about why, as they likely will for years, if not decades, to come. Alas, in this context, The Highest Glass Ceiling, while still delightful in many ways, is not the book we want. Though it offers a good story well told, its hopeful narrative of incremental progress now seems inadequate to our circumstances.
The Highest Glass Ceiling is an old-fashioned kind of book, a collection of mini-biographies like the anthologies of great Jewish women and famous explorers I used to read as a child. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tracks the progress of women toward the presidency through three main figures: the nineteenth-century spiritualist, stockbroker, and free love advocate Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to be nominated at a major party’s convention; Democratic Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be so nominated—and, in a briefer Epilogue, Clinton. Clinton’s story is a by-now-familiar rehash of Wellesley, lawyering in Arkansas, tea and cookies, standing by her man, and diligent accomplishment in the Senate and as secretary of state. But even those readers who have heard of Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm are unlikely to know the details of their careers, which Fitzpatrick synthesizes in engaging, readable accounts.
These biographies are contextualized in a five-page Prologue that begins with Clinton laughing off sexist hecklers in New Hampshire in 2008, and climaxes with an unassailable yet nonetheless anodyne thesis:
As citizens who defied constraints on their political participation, rights, and liberties, [Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm] seized historical moments they believed were rife with possibility. In defeat, each imagined a successor who would eventually reach the presidency. Each was supported and challenged by political forces, historical conditions, particular constituencies, and, of course, character traits that remain visible elements in the landscape of presidential politics today.
The individual biographies play out these statements, albeit with little in the way of analysis. Woodhull announced her candidacy in 1870, midway through the brief progressive interlude of Reconstruction, in the wake of abolitionism, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Smith ran in 1964, four years after the election of the first Catholic president, just as the twentieth-century women’s movement started to emerge. Chisholm’s candidacy took place in 1972, as the civil rights, women’s, welfare rights, and antiwar movements were in full flower. And yet, none of these historical openings were large enough to admit a woman.
In each case, sexism was clearly at issue, but as Fitzpatrick notes, so were the candidates’ individual characters and political circumstances. Woodhull is one of the more flamboyant characters in nineteenth-century US history. The daughter of an abusive grifter and a mentally ill spiritualist, she worked as a seamstress, actress, and medium, eventually making it to New York, where she hooked up with Cornelius Vanderbilt, became the nation’s first female stockbroker, joined the women’s movement, and decided to run for president, though she was not yet 35, the minimum age for the presidency, and women did not yet have the vote.
Woodhull’s “symbolic” candidacy, as Fitzpatrick terms it, never had a chance, yet she approached it at full bore. Indeed, she sometimes resembled no one less than Donald Trump. “Her riches opened the door to even larger ambitions,” and “She made the candidate—in this case herself—the central offering,” writes Fitzpatrick. Woodhull bombastically announced herself as the exemplar of her political vision in the 1870 letter to the New York Herald in which she declared her candidacy: “I happen to be the most prominent representative of the only unrepresented class [women] in the republic, and perhaps the most practical exponent of the principles of equality.” Unlike Trump, however, Woodhull was progressive to the extreme, advocating not just for women’s rights and suffrage, the primary goal of her campaign, but for labor, the poor, prison reform, and free love—the cause that ultimately brought her down.
Woodhull’s rise was as fast as her fall. Operating outside of the political apparatus, she received copious press, much of it positive; lectured to significant crowds; started her own newspaper; and was the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee. But in May 1871, a criminal complaint filed by her mother against Woodhull’s second husband revealed, among other “salacious details,” that Woodhull’s first husband lived with the couple. Scandal ensued, and Woodhull ended up in jail on obscenity charges, rather than in the White House. The double standard for women’s moral conduct was clearly at play, as her feminist contemporaries angrily acknowledged. Yet gender was not her only impediment, for a man of her politics running outside of the party machines would certainly have failed as well. Still, Woodhull kicked open the door for women presidential candidates.
It’s tempting to focus on the similarities between Woodhull and Smith: as well as being women, both sought the support of women, supported labor, garnered significant press coverage, and were the subject of wild rumors: Smith was accused of being a Communist, a French Canadian, and a “woman of loose morals.” But if Woodhull stood for vice, Smith was all virtue. She entered politics by the conventional route for women of her day: running for the House seat of her deceased husband. Active in women’s clubs and the Republican party in her home state of Maine, she ran shoestring, shoe-leather campaigns that accepted no contributions and built on her close relationships with constituents. A moderate Northeastern Republican known for her “independence” and “political…principles,” she was promilitary but progressive on social issues, supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s war bills, and spoke out against McCarthyism.
Sticking to her practices and principles, Smith was the first woman elected on her own to the Senate, the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate, and the longest-serving woman senator of the twentieth century. Still, her goal was not that women—or any voters—should “support some candidates just because they are women,” as she put it in a speech, but “that no one should be barred from public office just because she is a woman.” She claimed that “ability and proved performance, rather than sex, are the best standards for political selection…[and] I like to think that I am a symbol of this.”
Smith’s decision to campaign for president in 1964 would have been the obvious next move if she were a man, and she approached it as if she were a male politician, though the press, albeit largely supportive of her politics, was mainly interested in her appearance, age, and gender. Again, it would be easy to say that she lost because of gender, as “the prospect of a woman president produced a chaotic mix of excitement and bafflement,” writes Fitzpatrick. But, as Fitzpatrick makes clear, Smith also lost because she stuck to her campaign principles. She refused to raise money or miss a vote in the Senate, she had no support from the Republican party, and she campaigned only in New Hampshire and Illinois. One might argue that those principles were rooted in gendered norms, but they were nonetheless untenable in the mid-twentieth-century electoral arena.
Like Smith, Chisholm rose through party ranks (although in her case the ranks were of Brooklyn Democrats); operated on her own principles rather than party pieties (one of her campaign slogans was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed”); and had nowhere near enough money to run a competitive campaign. Like Woodhull, she was a full-on progressive, opposing the Vietnam War and military spending, and cosponsoring House bills for “an expanded jobs program, increased affordable housing, protection for the rights of organized labor, health insurance coverage for household workers, expanded day-care centers, welfare reform, and a rise in the minimum wage” (I’d vote for her!). But as a black woman, the determinedly intersectional Chisholm, who helped found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, faced two additional obstacles to her political climb: racism and black men, who worried that she would support women over the black community. They consistently proffered black male candidates in her place.
Chisholm started volunteering for Brooklyn’s 17th Assembly District Democratic Club in the 1940s, when she was an undergraduate and the club was still run by Irish-American men. Frustrated by the secondary role of women in the club and allied with the black men who eventually took it over, she gained increasing prominence in the club and in Brooklyn politics. However, her candidacies were resisted on the grounds of gender in both 1964, when she ran for the New York Assembly, and 1968, when she ran for the House. She nevertheless persisted, winning the votes of the women and Puerto Ricans in her district, and becoming the first black woman in Congress.
In 1972, when Chisholm decided to run for president, she had to deal with those who thought a black man’s candidacy should have precedence over a black woman’s; white woman who professed support for her but chose to endorse George McGovern; and the perpetual lack of funds—not to mention the chaos of her own campaign. But the New York Times directly named the insurmountable “two strikes against her—her sex and her race.” Running a symbolic campaign that she knew she would not win, she nevertheless received more delegates than any woman candidate until Hillary Clinton.
If Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm were women who couldn’t have won, Clinton appeared, in her second presidential campaign, to have overcome the obstacles they faced. Several consistent themes emerge over the course of the book—though Fitzpatrick offers little analysis of their persistence—including: the novelty of women candidates and politicians; political competition between black men and white women; lack of party support; and, as Elizabeth Dole put it after her brief 2000 presidential run, “the bottom line, money.” But by 2016, women were ensconced throughout the American political system, albeit in numbers still unequal to men’s, and more than 200 had run for president. Meanwhile, Clinton had the full support of the first black president and the Democratic National Committee, not to mention plenty of money. And yet she still lost.
It would be easy to conclude that America will simply never accept a woman president, though that raises the question of why we are so different from Israel, India, the Philippines, England, Germany, South Korea, and other countries that have voted in women leaders. And yet that conclusion leaves out the mayhem that was the 2016 campaign. The Highest Glass Ceiling ends with Clinton’s email server and the Benghazi hearings, foreshadowing some of her campaign’s subsequent difficulties. It appeared in February 2016, which means it was sent to press months earlier, when Trump was little more than a joke (his name does not appear in the book). Gender and sexism were key to Trump’s win, along with FBI and Russian interference; class, racial, and regional antagonisms; and more. Still, Clinton won the popular vote, which suggests that the majority of Americans who vote were ready for a woman president.
I hate to criticize a book for not being a different book, yet Fitzpatrick, an esteemed historian and television commentator, has done herself a disservice by stopping on the cusp of the next stage of her narrative. Had Clinton won, she could have written the definitive account of why. Now that Clinton has lost, one misses her analysis of why, along with her predictions of what will happen next for women presidential candidates. Will gender be the eternal thumb on their scales? Or will gender become just one among many fraught factors, and eventually not the one that matters? Given the presence of so many women politicians in the generation below Clinton, I’m putting my money on Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Nikki Haley, or Susana Martinez to finally blast through that glass ceiling. But I wish I knew what Fitzpatrick thinks now.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. She is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (2011), a relic of her previous life as an English professor.