WOMEN=BOOKS, the blog of Women's Review of Books, features our reviewers and book authors discussing issues raised in WRB articles, and women's writing and publishing. We hope you'll follow us, join in the discussion, and subscribe to WRB.
Amy Hoffman, longtime editor in chief of Women's Review of Books, pens a note of thanks and farewell as she moves on to a new chapter in her life.
By Jan Clausen
I’m discovering that the reissue of an out-of-print book generates even more fodder for self-doubt than the initial publication—especially when your own life is the topic.
“It’s written as though there are only two genders!”
A trailblazing transgender rights advocate wasn’t thrilled with Apples and Oranges: My Journey through Sexual Identity, a memoir I initially published in 1999. Seven Stories Press, my publisher for the reissue, had forwarded the advocate a copy for comment, incurring this scathing verdict. “It might have been cutting edge back in the 90s, but in 2017, it comes off as reactionary!”
The activist was right about my binary blinders. Apples and Oranges, at its core a memoir of lesbian feminism in the 1970s and 80s, evokes the experience of “falling in love with a gender” and looks at what happens when lived experience—in my case, becoming romantically involved with a man—scrambles not only self-definition but also community connections. Because this is a political memoir as well as a personal one, I reflect on the folly of trying to shoehorn everyone into a binary definition of sexual selfhood (the gay/straight divide) as a frame for the remembered moments of my lesbian feminist life and my eventual “breakup” with my beloved women’s community.
By Rickie Solinger
>The Trump administration is creating an epic reproductive-health emergency. Playing to his base, ignoring public attitudes and people’s lived experience, the president promotes policies and political appointments favoring reduced access to contraceptives, recriminalized abortion, and the crippling of Planned Parenthood, the provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare—including hundreds of thousands of breast exams and Pap smears, education, information, and outreach—to nearly 2.5 million largely low-income women, men, and adolescents in the US every year.
By Heather Hewett
Writer, scholar, and professor Alison Piepmeier died on August 12, 2016. She was 43 years old. The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) recently announced the Alison Piepmeier Book Prize for a “groundbreaking monograph in women, gender, and sexuality studies that makes significant contributions to feminist disability studies scholarship.” The deadline is April 12, 2017. In addition, The Alison Piepmeier Scholarship is awarded annually to a full-time Women’s and Gender Studies major or minor at the College of Charleston.
By Bettina Aptheker
A man who lost the popular vote for the presidency by 3 million votes now sits in the White House. It is shocking and instructive to think about the fact that so many mostly white men (and women) were willing to vote for a man who is clearly so emotionally unstable and volatile, rather than for a competent woman. Some on the white left, especially some white men, relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton even after she won the nomination, and even after Trump’s character and platform were perfectly clear. This was unfortunate. In the end it discouraged some people from voting at all. We all need to learn from this. A united coalition of everyone based on progressive, antiracist, and democratic principles is imperative. There is no room for ego, and no room for misogyny.
Each year, the writer and poet Margaret Randall writes a commentary on International Women’s Day, March 8. This year, her words seem more relevant than ever.
By Kyle Lynes and Beth Richards
On the evening of February 4, 2017, we, like many in the University of Hartford community, received an email that began, “We are the American Vanguard, White America is under attack.” Choosing to ignore the comma splice, we read on. The email continued with talk about “ethnic replacement” and its role in the supposed decline of the white race. It included sweeping terms such as “the enemy,” “the corrupt System,” and “true revolutionaries.” The writer warned (in boldface) that “The White race will be a minority in this country by 2044”—and blamed that event on too few “traditional values” and too many influences from “the forces of Marxism.” The writer also referred to the “white race” as “the ones who built this country in the first place” and ended with a quotation from the book of Psalms. It would be easy to shrug this off as a poorly written (not to mention historically bizarre) rant. But let’s be real. This is white supremacy hate speech. The writer told readers to “expect our posters on campus SOON,” although we have yet to see any.
By E.J. Graff
It seems so long ago now, that innocent time when the nation’s pundits were agitated about oversensitive college students who wanted “safe space” and freedom from “microaggressions”—which to the uninitiated sounds like being stabbed with a toothpick. Could it have only been a year ago that commentators were wringing their hands about attacks on freedom of speech by overprivileged kids who had tantrums when mean professors disagreed with them?
By Ellen Feldman
“Dare to struggle, dare to win!” The rallying cry from the sixties has become my personal refrain. So naturally I went to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, with my college roommate and her grown daughter. We got nowhere near the mall, but we were still jammed in crowds—with occasional bursts of open space.
By Joycelyn Moody and Tisha Brooks
Crystal J. Lucky joins the numerous scholars investigating nineteenth-century black women’s writings with her reprint edition of A Mysterious Life and Calling: From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina, by Charlotte S. Riley—and as scholars ourselves, we were pleased to have the opportunity to talk with each other about Lucky’s discoveries. Lucky restores what Riley produced: a published account of Riley’s life as a worker, wife, and minister, which resonates across black archives and both amplifies and enriches diverse literary traditions. Our conversation centered on the ways Riley’s and Lucky’s projects represent mindful critical determination to rewrite the national narrative by including black women.
By Lila Abu-Lughod
Fida Adely, Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith, and Progress
A friend of mine met the love of her life in a public library.
“His daughter’s arms were full of books,” she says. “The girl was tiny, and he was helping her. When I saw no wedding ring, I introduced myself, right there at the checkout counter.”
“A library meeting is straight-up nerdery,” I say.
“I know,” she agrees.
“But it’s even better than meeting a man in church,” I say. “In a library, there are no hypocrites. No one goes to a library to score Heaven points or look good for the neighbors.”
“Exactly,” she agrees.
My friend and I have met bad men in bars, through friends, at parties. Our romantic histories are knitting wounds; our trust is tender to the touch. But a relationship that begins at a library? That’s nearly guaranteed to thrive. A public library confers its own credential of goodness and sincerity.
Fifty years ago, my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, died in a fire that consumed much of the apartment over a garage in which she lived. She was 43 years old. I was nine.
Throughout my life, I’ve been frustrated by how little I knew about my namesake. I knew she was unmarried. My father told me that she’d wanted to go to law school, and when my grandfather forbid this because of her gender, she studied for and passed the bar exam anyway, without the benefit of law school. My mother told me that even in the 1950s and 1960s, Lucybelle wouldn’t let men hold doors open for her.
When I came out, almost exactly ten years after her death, I began to wonder if Lucybelle, too, had been gay. But I felt a bit sheepish about my wondering. Does being unmarried equal being gay? How about being smart? Passing the bar exam without attending law school? Not letting men hold doors for her? Are these evidence of gayness? Surely not.
The following is an excerpt from Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right: A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide, the new book by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, in which Hochschild explains why she began to have conversations with people whose values and politics differed radically from hers. It seems particularly applicable to this election season.
By Arlie Russell Hochschild
I have lived most of my life in the progressive camp, but in recent years I began to want to better understand those on the Right. How did they come to hold their views? Could we make common cause on some issues? These questions led me to drive, one day, from plant to plant in the bleak industrial outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with Sharon Galicia, a warm, petite, white single mother, a blond beauty, on her rounds selling medical insurance.
Unfazed by a deafening buzzsaw cutting vast sheets of steel, she bantered with workmen, their protective gear lifted to their brows, their arms folded. She was an appealing and persuasive fast-talker. (“What if you have an accident, can’t pay bills or can’t wait a month for your insurance to kick in? We insure you within twenty-four hours.”) As they reached for a pen to sign up, Sharon talked to them about deer hunting, about the amount of alligator meat in boudin—a beloved spicy Louisiana sausage—and about the latest LSU Tigers game.
By Susan Ware
The idea for the web exhibit Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution originated in a moment of generational angst. The creative team, all women’s historians whose lives had been enriched by participation in second-wave feminism, feared that the history of this life-changing social movement was being lost to younger generations and forgotten by the culture at large. So we decided to use our historical training to answer the challenge. Five years later we proudly launched our creation, named, in the spirit of 1970s consciousness-raising, Click!—for the moment when women discovered the powerful ideas of modern feminism as well as the computer keystroke that connects us all to the powerful tools of the Internet.
By Sandra Adell
Great White Way, as Broadway is popularly called, glittered bright with color when some of the country’s most talented black actors, singers, and dancers took over the stage of the Sixty-Third Street Theatre in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s all-black musical Shuffle Along. The show made history, not only because it was the first musical with an all-black cast to be produced and directed by African Americans on Broadway, but also because it was the longest running black musical up to that time: 504 performances. The show produced numerous stars, some of whose names now are all but forgotten, others who are still well known, including Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, Adelaide Hall, and Paul Robeson. In May 1921, New York City’s
By Rebecca Steinitz
When I discovered feminist theory in college in the 1980s, I fell madly in love with the idea of women’s difference in all its iterations, from the deconstructive French feminisms of Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One to the American empiricism of Women’s Ways of Knowing. I was passionately convinced that we women were different, that we were finally articulating our difference, that we would soon use that difference to transform the world. Never mind that Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher were at that very moment proving that women could be just as bad if not worse than men. Never mind, too, that I was simultaneously enamored of This Bridge Called My Back, which indisputably punctured the bubble of essentialist femininity on which difference feminism based itself. I was in love, and women’s difference was my unshakeable object. I was sure we could work out our issues along the way to happily ever after.
By Lesley Hazleton
“You’re an agnostic?” said the head of the theology school when I told him about my new book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto. “Ah, so you’re a nun.” I’d been called many things over the years, including all manner of salacious takes on my sexuality, but a nun? That’s one thing I’d never been taken for. So whatever showed on my face, it was enough to prompt him to explanation. “You’re the fastest growing category in religion,” he said. “All the polls are showing a sharp rise in the population of nuns.” Then he spelled it out for me—“N-O-N-E-S”—people who answer “none” when asked about their religion.
By Robin Becker
Almost four decades of sending poems to editors has yielded me my share of acceptances and rejections. As a beginning poet, I studied literary journals to see which published a significant number of women, and I sent poems to them. I sought journals that published work I admired, and I sent poems to them. Over the years, I sent poems to journals large and small: those housed in universities (such as Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska); those stapled on kitchen tables (such as Aspect Magazine ). Early on, I included the New Yorker, a general-interest, culturally iconic, and mostly unattainable magazine on my list. Somewhat more realistically, I set my sights on American Poetry Review. I eventually had a poem accepted there, as well as in Poetry Magazine.
A somewhat arbitrary listing of books we've received lately in the Women's Review of Books office:
In The Ruins: The 1909 Massacres of Armenians in Adana, Turkey
by Zabel Yessayan, translated byG. M. Goshgarian
edited by Judith Saryan, Danila Jebejian Terpanjian, and Joy Renjilian-Burgy
A somewhat arbitrary list of books we've received lately in the Women's Review of Books office:
by Merce Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennent
By Diane Reynolds
Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited his twin sister Sabine in London, taking with him his best friend Eberhard Bethge. World War II loomed, and during idle moments in Sabine’s garden, amid the forsythia and dark mauve lilacs, during what Sabine called “a magical spring,” Bonhoeffer wondered if he should allow himself to be caught in England when the war started. He was, after all, in the company of the two people in the world with whom he felt, as he put it, “in contrast to … other people … a remarkable sense of closeness.”In the spring of 1939, the German theologian
Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in the last days of the war, catapulted to fame after his death, when his prison writings were published as Letters and Papers from Prison. His personal writings and poems interspersed with theological musings exerted a pull on the popular imagination, as did his resistance to the Nazis.
A somewhat arbitrary list of books we've received recently in the Women's Review of Books office:
The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines
By Leslie Lawrence
By Barbara Sjoholm
She always planned to write a book.
Like many grassroots activists, Barbara Brenner never had time. As the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, she was too busy fundraising, attending conferences, expanding membership, reading up on the latest cancer research, and devising campaigns like “Think Before You Pink” to expose the multimillion-dollar breast cancer industry.
Yet she also wrote constantly. Every issue of the BCAction newsletter had a column by Barbara, and these added up over the fifteen years she was the organization’s public face. Her columns were flavorful and sharp, as she dissected research claims and pointed a finger at corporate sponsorship, at Avon walks and Revlon ads, as she asked where the money went and where in hell were the results?
By Natania Rosenfeld
Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
Elena Ferrante has written the great novel—the great four-volume novel—of female friendship that Virginia Woolf dreamed of in A Room of One’s Own. But it’s more complicated than that, for Ferrante’s Naples Quartet is also a post-Freudian allegory of the female soul and of the profound ambivalence a woman experiences in a society that quashes her ambition and dictates the contours of her desire. It is about being both sexually desirous and intellectually trenchant, and about the need for recognition of both aspects of the self. It posits that perhaps only another woman can provide this recognition, but also that any friendship between two women with both of these traits is inevitably riddled with competition and envy. Ultimately, the only sure love is self-love, an absolute necessity for survival; but sadly, more dependable than self-love is the self-hate a rigidly patriarchal society ingrains in women. Ferrante leads the reader to the “new expectations” she insists on nurturing, while also fully satisfying the old ones: suspense, drama, secrets gradually or suddenly revealed, violence, sex, and fully fleshed sociological delineation of a particular place at a particular time.
By Miroslava Chávez-García
At the bottom of my closet sits a neatly organized treasure trove of more than 300 personal letters written in the 1960s and exchanged among family members across the US-Mexico border. Written in Spanish with sprinklings of English by my mother and father, their brothers and sisters, parents, and friends living in Mexico and the United States, they contain a wealth of insight about the personal, emotional, and intimate relations cultivated across the vast divide.
By Elly Bulkin
“Jews, Blacks, and Lesbian Teens in the 1940s: Jo Sinclair’s The Changelings and ‘The Long Moment,’” I knew a lot less than I know now, three decades later, about the life and work of Jo Sinclair, the pen name of the working-class, Jewish, lesbian writer Ruth Seid (1913 – 1995). I knew that she’d written Wasteland, which won the $10,000 Harper Prize for Fiction, and The Changelings, because I’d learned about them from black lesbian-feminist Barbara Smith at a 1979 National Women's Studies Association panel. In 1985, when I began work on the article that became
But in the 1980s, I didn’t know that Sinclair identified as a lesbian. I did know that the Wasteland dust-jacket photo of the author, with her short, light hair and tailored jacket, looked just like Debbie, a minor but pivotal Jewish lesbian character. In the first draft of Wasteland, Debbie was named Ruthie, and both Sinclair and her character worked in the WPA and published fiction with black characters in New Masses, a radical left magazine. With Debbie, Sinclair created what the gay historian Jonathan Katz has called “probably the most complex, human, and affirmative portrait of a homosexual (female or male) to appear in American fiction” before 1964.
By Louise Knight
Though I love history now, consider myself an historian, and have published two biographies set in the nineteenth century, I first discovered my love of history by reading historical fiction. I read Gone with the Wind in eighth grade, but even before that, in fourth grade, I read Julia Ward Howe: Girl of Old New York, by Jean Brown Wagoner (it was one of those orange biographies of famous Americans, which you may remember if you grew up in the 1940s through the 1960s). Though the book’s inspiring feminist message must have been a good part of its appeal (I only understood that message when I reread the book a few years ago), what I most enjoyed was the way this talented author transported me into the historical past. Too young to wonder if the book was accurate or not, I loved the idea that I was taking a trip back in time.
Even for adults, this remains the great appeal of historical fiction. In a 2013 survey, 75 percent of 2,400 devotees of historical fiction from around the English-reading world gave as their top reason for reading books in that genre, “To bring the past to life.”
Of course there is another genre that, like historical fiction, is set in the past and typically has a main protagonist: biography. Can biography make the same claim? Sometimes. A lyrically written biography about a life for which the historical record supplies the right kind of material can provide that elusive, transportative experience. Richard Holmes’s prize-winning Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 did that for me.
By Jayne Benjulian
In my twenties, I wrote poems and published them under another name. To dredge up those poems, you’d have to know the name I was born with—my father’s name and the married name of my mother, who died when I was a child. That was before I quit a PhD program and fled a brutal marriage, and before my former college roommate told me if I wrote commercials, I could earn ten times the money I was earning writing freelance articles.My first assignment in advertising was to compose 100 rhyming mailgrams for Western Union. I had never made so much money and had so much fun. I was no longer living hand-to-mouth.
By Erin Aubry Kaplan
He broke a major color barrier, fielded intense opposition from day one, and lived his time in office under the unrelenting gaze of the Internet and social media—and for these and other reasons, Barack Obama has probably been the most scrutinized president in American history. Most of the scrutiny has been critical: everybody from conservative tea party zealots on down to disillusioned progressives have complained about his policies, his lack of this and overreach of that. But what about Obama the man, or more accurately, the symbol? Where will he finally lodge in our national consciousness? And what did he mean to women, especially black women?
Polls reported that Obama consistently resonated among women of all colors, most obviously because of his broad sympathy for their issues. The first bill he signed into law when he got into office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He’s prochoice and has talked a lot about single working moms, something that speaks to his own family experience growing up. He pushed through healthcare reform.
by Ruthann Robson
With the unanticipated death of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, the United States Supreme Court has become a more hospitable forum for feminist causes. While Justice Scalia was not alone in his hostility to feminism—remaining Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas are equally unsympathetic—Scalia proved himself particularly rancorous during his three decades on the high court bench. In opinion after opinion, Scalia expressed views inconsistent with women’s equality: he believed that an historically all-male military academy should be able to continue to exclude women; that the constitution did not protect a woman’s right to abortion or her right to be free from domestic violence; and that the constitution should not prohibit attorneys from excusing potential jurors based on their gender. He was an ardent foe of sexual minority rights, contending that the constitution did not protect against the criminalization of same-sex intimacies or the prohibition of same-sex marriages. He believed a state should be able to prevent local laws that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. He did credit theconstitution as having rights for some: if you claimed to be “disadvantaged” by an affirmative action program; or if you wanted to purchase, own, or use firearms; or if you challenged environmental regulations on your beach front property, then Scalia’s constitution proved most accommodating.
"The day after the filet, she had been unable to eat a pork chop, and since then, for several weeks, she had been making experiments. She had discovered that not only were things too obviously cut from the Planned Cow [the diagram in her cookbook identifying cuts of beef] inedible for her, but that the Planned Pig and the Planned Sheep were similarly forbidden. Whatever it was that had been making these decisions, not her mind certainly, rejected anything that had an indication of bone or tendon or fibre."
By Jewelle Gomez
In the mid-1990s I was at a signing event at the Miami International Book Fair as the queue of readers assembled to get autographs from a dozen writers. I watched as many fans discreetly peeled off to approach authors much more famous than I and tried not to feel like a poor relation. My usually sunny smile carefully masked my humiliated feeling, familiar from dreams in which I’d been dropped into some ultraformal public event where everyone laughed because I was wearing my pajamas.
By Linda Gordon
Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, who died on October 13, 2015, at age 76, was my co-author and close friend. Even more importantly, she was one of the founders of the women’s liberation movement, an activist for a range of social justice issues, and a historian of gender and women.
Ros’s death leaves feminists of my generation bereft, not least because she was so youthful. She embodied the spirit of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a historical moment both painful and blissful. With one friend from my small part of that movement, Boston’s Bread and Roses, we joked about wanting a “consciousness lowering” group, because our raised awareness of the injuries of gender was so frustrating and angering. Yet it was the best of times, for the movement brought us the exhilaration of solidarity, the deepest of friendships, and an unmatched hopefulness.
By Mandira Sen
The recent avalanche of protests in India against intolerance and attacks on free speech was triggered by the late-September lynching of Muhammad Ahklaq, a Muslim, in the village of Dardri, because his Hindu neighbors had heard a rumor that he had eaten beef. The murder followed years of right-wing attacks on writers and intellectuals, including Narendra Dhobalkar, an antisuperstition activist, assassinated in February 2013; Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician and writer, killed in February 2015; and most recently, M. K. Kalburgi, a former university vice chancellor, murdered in September 2015.
By Beth Holmgren
I’ve long been addicted to Svetlana Alexievich’s writing, books that I cannot help but reread and re-experience. Alexievich’s winning of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is far more thrilling to me than the same honor bestowed on Aleksander Solzhenitsyn—the Russian-language writer whose work hers somewhat parallels—in 1970. Solzhenitsyn’s fictional and nonfictional reconstructions of the Soviet Gulag conveyed urgent information; they inspired awe. Yet Alexievich is an original. In contrast to Solzhenitsyn, the first-person testifier and judge, or Boris Pasternak,
By Sue Y. Wang
I had a terrible outcome giving birth the first time, and five years after, I got mysteriously, chronically ill. I healed and wrote a memoir, Messages from the Black Recliner: A Memoir of Healing Body and Spirit about it.
I was raised in Taiwan and came to the US at age thirteen. I have plenty of cultural and familial baggage to stop me from sharing my tale. I knew the rules. Do not broadcast family ugliness (a Chinese proverb). Do not bring shame to the family. Be quiet, conform, suck it up and endure—that’s the righteous, humble way.
My given name is Sue-Yi, “ladylike-propriety” in Mandarin. My family and loved ones still call me that. A name in the Taiwanese/Chinese culture represents the parents’ hopes and intentions for their child. As an extroverted, bright-eyed girl, I was not at first the demure being I was supposed to be. But I was scared into obedience and silence, as I witnessed and experienced domestic violence. My father, a product of a patriarchal society, took out his frustration from a traumatic World War II childhood on his family. There was no jail time for hurting a spouse, and my relatives chalked it up to a woman’s bad luck if her husband hit and scolded her. In both of my parents’ families, girls had been given away due to poverty and superstition. The birth of a girl was often a disappointment. When I came, my father lost a bet that his firstborn would be a boy.
By Robin Becker
Four new poetry books make good fall and winter reading. I recommend them for the insights they offer into women’s lives, and their rich imagery and wisdom. While very different from one another in style and tone, each book includes poems that I found musical and memorable. See what you think.
Many of the poems in Andrea Cohen’s Furs Not Mine take as their subject the loss of a beloved parent. In stark, short lines, Cohen sculpts away the inessential, leaving a spare commemoration of the intimacy mother and daughter shared. “The Committee Weighs In” works its magic in 42 syllables:
The game Cohen imagines between mother and daughter betrays deep sorrow behind rueful wit. She incorporates contrasting tones with the light touch of colloquial diction; the brevity of the poem sharpens both tragic and comic elements. Cohen’s acerbic wit leavens her poems and refreshes a subject with which every poet grapples—loss. Some of these short meditations read like Buddhist koans and may remind readers of the poems of Jane Hirshfield.
By Ruth Needleman
Sexual assaults on university campuses are yet again making the headlines, with the publication of a study from the Association of American Universities estimating that twenty percent of female students have been victimized. But is this really news? Violence against women is and has been epidemic, global, and devastating for years. Many have written about why this is the case, but most steps implemented to stop it have not worked. Underneath the finger-pointing and blame-assigning, universities as well as other institutions practice self-defense: universities protect guilty professors and students, quarreling relentlessly about what “really” constitutes rape.
By Erin Trahan
Trying to guess if a movie is feminist or not by its title alone is an interesting experiment. That’s how I scanned the daunting roster of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the most influential in North America. There was too much to see in too little time, and I had brought my infant daughter, husband, and in-laws along for the ride (another interesting experiment!).
from Looking for Grace
By Juhu Thukral
The issue of sex workers’ rights is a fraught one among human rights and social change activists, at some times resulting in vitriolic debate and at others, when we are lucky, leading to a shared understanding of what respect for human dignity means. The most recent example of this heated history is the August 2015 International Council Meeting of Amnesty International, the human rights nongovernmental organization, as it prepared to vote on a proposed policy that would advocate decriminalizing sex work.
By Norma Elia Cantú
Books have lives. From idea to publication and beyond, as a book makes its way in the world, it travels a trajectory not unlike a life—full of twists and turns, high and low points, and moments of significant change. For example, my creative autobioethnography Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera has had a fruitful and long life—and when it turned fifteen, I even threw it an elaborate quinceañera (a coming-of-age party, like the celebrations for fifteen-year-old Latinas) with all the trimmings, including madrin@s (sponsors, who provide the cake) and music.
By Audrey Elisa Kerr
Midway through To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s first published novel, a lynch mob arrives at the local jailhouse in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, to lynch Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. It is the 1930s, and both Robinson and his lawyer, Atticus Finch, are aware that there is no greater crime against the American South than imagining the rape of white women, and there is no greater assault to the southern preoccupation with white women’s gentility than the figure of the black male body. Nine-year-old Scout Finch, the daughter of Atticus and the protagonist of the novel, stands in the midst of the mob, which is made up of God-fearing neighbors, fellow church congregants, and townspeople. Politely addressing one mob leader, Mr. Cunningham (but in earshot of the larger crowd), Scout notes that the Cunningham’s son—who is her classmate—can be a good kid, but he also has significant weaknesses: she even had to beat him up once, a choice she regrets. She then turns the conversation to the fact that Cunningham is in debt to Atticus (currently, he is paying him in hickory nuts), but she has learned from her father that there is no shame in this. When Cunningham can no longer ignore Scout’s moral battery, he kneels, addresses her kindly, and instructs the crowd to disband: “[T]he men shuffled back to their ramshackled cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed and they were gone.”
By Laura Pappano
We are in a fresh feminist moment, highlighted thanks to FIFA. Hang with me while I explain.
It is obviously ridiculous that the payout to the US Women’s Soccer team for the World Cup victory is $2 million: the German men got $35 million last year. The $2 million is almost cute, considering it’s the same amount as the alleged bribe paid FIFA exec Jack Warner for his vote to make Qatar the 2022 World Cup site.
By Ellen Feldman
Recently we lost one of the most eloquent voices in documentary photography: Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015). Perhaps her most celebrated project was one of her earliest, in which she documented the life of a group of homeless street kids in Seattle, Washington. (At the same time, her husband, Martin Bell, made a documentary film of the kids called Streetwise (1984), that has become a classic of the genre.)
Mary Ellen Mark
By Kate Rushin
When I walked into Bluestockings Bookstore, on New York’s Lower East Side, this past spring, I found the atmosphere familiar—progressive, multicultural, left and feminist books on plain, wooden shelves; a few small cafe tables for coffee and laptops—yet oddly unsettling. The twenty-something volunteers behind the ubiquitous jumble at the front desk counter did not seem especially interested in the fact that I was there to read for the launch of the fourth edition of This Bridge Called My Back. (The next shift would be in charge.)
I thought back to the excitement that surrounded the original publication from Persephone Press. There’d been a prepublication reading and many others once the book was published, including a huge gathering at the Arlington Street Church in Boston.
Some of the original contributors to This Bridge Called My Back at the Arlington Street Church, June 5, 1981. Top row, left to right: Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Barbara Cameron, Rosario Morales. Bottom row, left to right: Aurora Levins Morales, Barbara Smith, Kate Rushin, Beverly Smith, Nellie Wong, Hattie Gossett. Photo by Susan Fleischmann.
By Elizabeth Beier
This May, the first Queers & Comics Conference was held in New York City, and it featured LGBTQ cartoonists, scholars, publishers, and editors. It was an international and intergenerational affair, with artists flying in from Europe, Canada and Australia. Two of the panels focused on women: one about the pioneers of women's queer comics, including Lee Marrs, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory, and Mary Wings. Another focused on female sexuality in comics, and featured Erica Friedan, Jennifer Crute, Ellen Forney, Women's Review of Books Comics Editor Jennifer Camper, and Texta Queen.
By Martha Ertman
One prominent theme of the oral arguments on April 28 in the Supreme Court marriage equality cases (Obgerfell v. Hodges) was the justices’ fear that recognizing same-sex marriage would lead to child marriage, incest, and polygamy. “Slippery slope” is the phrase we use in law-school classrooms to describe a trajectory, or “parade of horribles.”
By Amy Kesselman and Virginia Blaisdell
Naomi Weisstein was a multitalented, passionate, visionary feminist whose contributions to women’s liberation encompassed an insightful critique of psychology, creation of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, and articles about science, music, comedy, and feminism. Naomi was a pivotal figure in the development of women’s liberation, both nationally and in Chicago. As an experimental psychologist, she exposed the misogynist assumptions of psychologists in her path-breaking 1968 article “Kinder, Küche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” which made a powerful argument for the effect of social expectations on women’s experience.
By AnaLouise Keating
How is it that we humans can have wisdom traditions stretching back thousands upon thousands of years, and yet still be so limited in our thinking and so violent in our treatment of each other? Why have we not learned that violence is not an effective solution, that anger—while often momentarily satisfying—can be incredibly destructive and rarely solves the situations against which we rage? Questions such as these led me, a few years ago, to write Transformation Now!
I was impatient with the slow pace of change and concerned by the ways feminist and other social justice work often remains locked in oppositionality—us-against-them. All too often, oppositionality creates either/or systems of thinking that limit our options to two extremes: Either I’m right and I win; or you’re right and you win. This binary structure flattens out commonalities, reducing them to sameness: our views are either entirely the same or they’re entirely different. And, if our views are not the same (even if they’re only slightly different), then one of us must be Right and the other Wrong. There’s no room for contradiction, for overlapping perspectives and friendly disagreements, for building new truths, or for whatever other complex approaches we might invent. Instead, we remain locked into our existing opinions, to which we cling with fierce determination. In so doing, we generally reinforce the status quo.
By Laura Pappano
After years of fraught silence, there is now much talk about sexual assault on campuses. Americans are teeming with concern, outrage, and ideas for stopping it. The president of Dartmouth has banned hard liquor. Some suggest sororities be permitted to serve alcohol to “control the space” at parties. There are calls to end Greek life altogether. There are bystander training programs, a new consent law in California (get a “yes” before sexual intimacy), campus sexual assault committees, and amped up discussions of sex at campus orientations.
Society itself can be considered a product of imagination…[Its] structures are symbolic as well as functional, affecting individual as well as collective consciousness.
—From Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness and Justice in American Culture and Politics, by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski
In the American imagination, personal and public safety is often defined fearfully, in terms of what threatens it.
To contain and prevent threats to safety, society predominantly relies on two structures, as symbolic as they are material, for protection: the police and prisons. And for decades, many women’s, LGBT, and transgender antiviolence organizations have supported myriad laws and policy tools that emphasize intensified policing and harsher punishments to address domestic and interpersonal violence, rape and other forms of sexual assault, and violence directed against lesbians as well as transgender and gender nonconforming people.
By Anita Diamant
Reviewers tend to describe my novels as “character driven.” I not entirely sure what that means but I’ve been repeating it for years.
It suggests, I suppose, that my fiction is longer on dialogue than plot or physical description. Given the title, cover image and first-person narrator of my new novel, it would be fair to assume that I started by creating the character of Addie Baum, The Boston Girl herself.
By Janet Golden
As a subject, abortion evokes both passion and tired sighs. The US conversation—more like two monologues running at once—has been going on for a long time. Partisans on both sides recite arguments using language meant to incite their followers to action—legislative, legal, and political. So many years of debate and so many data points make for a lot of literature, a lot of films, and a lot of lecturers traveling on a circuit.
[photograph of Florence Rice is by Tara Todras-Whitehill from her series the "I Had An Abortion Project" Reprinted by permission.]
By Danielle Legros Georges
[Remarks made on Monday, January 19, 2015, at Faneuil Hall in Boston for A Day of Service and Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., presented by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Intensive Community Program, and the Museum of African American History]
Good afternoon. I am very happy to be here with you as part of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Celebration. I am also pleased to be the second poet laureate of the city of Boston. My role as the PL (if you will) is to the raise the status of poetry in the consciousness of Bostonians. I plan to do so today with the sharing of remarks and a few poems in this great space.
I want to begin, however, with a story. It’s a story about my mother, whose name I call now, Edmonde Legros Georges Martineau, so she can be with us. She died last year.
By Marilyn Richardson
Reflections on a Talk and Visual Presentation Given by the artist Kara Walker at the Radcliffe Institute For Advanced Study at Harvard University, in December 2014.
Kara Walker’s explanation is straightforward and unexpected. She began creating her famous, indeed infamous, cut paper silhouettes as a way of putting aside the easel and oil paints so central to her training as an artist. A gifted graduate of elite schools, the Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she is a second-generation heir to the grand traditions of western artists, painters in particular. Walker’s father, Larry Walker, is a studio artist and arts administrator. She says that she knew from an early age that she would follow a similarly creative path. By the time she reached her early twenties, her decisions were not about what she would do in life, they were about how she would express herself through the visual arts.
By Irene Mata
I still remember the first time I picked up José Antonio Villarreal’s novel Pocho (1959). The story is a traditional immigrant narrative that follows the lives of Raul Rubio and his son, Richard, as they work hard to achieve the American Dream. Like most immigrant narratives, the novel traces the linear story of the Rubios as they face and overcome multiple challenges in order to prove their worth as Americans. As an English major, I was used to reading texts by male authors who focus their writing on the lives of men, but something about Pocho really stuck with me: the dismissal of Consuelo Rubio, Raul’s wife and Richard’s mother. Here is a character who crosses the border by herself with her young children in order to find Raul; who labors in migrant agricultural camps to support her family; who gives birth upon a hill by herself; and who eventually stands up to her abusive husband. The novel, however, represents her as a secondary character in the lives of the Rubio men. In fact, Richard comes to see his mother as a burden and a symbol of old-world traditions that must be rejected in order to become a modern subject of the nation.
By Eileen Boris
Nearly 25 years after the Montreal massacre, when a lone gunman slaughtered fourteen students at the École Polytechnique, the hashtag #YesAllWomen hit the Twitterverse as a collective protest against another misogynistic rampage at a college campus. Tweeters expressed solidarity with those killed on May 23, 2014, in the student enclave of Isla Vista, near the University of California, Santa Barbara. They suggested that all women, as women, face potential violence and danger from men schooled in a culture in which their masculine identity depends on scoring, in which they feel entitled to sex and act out when refused. But what happened toward the end of spring quarter seven months ago was more complicated than that hashtag suggests. Not only women were murdered. The lives of men of color also did not matter when hegemonic masculinity became deadly, thanks to the availability of guns and the limits of law enforcement—in contrast to the police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, and elsewhere against black and brown men.
By Martha Nichols
Before I read Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus”, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, I read several opinion pieces about it. “The Missing Men,” by Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, certainly hooked me with its blurb of “Why didn’t a Rolling Stone writer talk to the alleged perpetrators of a gang rape at the University of Virginia?” From the tone and content of such articles, I assumed the whole piece was a narrative from the point of view of Jackie, the victim (or alleged victim).
By Marilyn R. Schuster
The pleasures of Sarah Waters’s texts are as varied as the genres she adapts to tell her stories: historical novel, police procedural, bodice-ripper, domestic drama. The Paying Guests has it all and then some.
Waters said in an interview with Tim Teeman in The Daily Beast that she wanted to learn more about the “nitty-gritty of domestic lives” in 1920s London: “what was going on in ordinary people’s lives.” Literary scholar that she is, Waters did her research. She read newspapers, diaries, letters, court records, and novels. Like other Waters admirers, my attention was drawn to the rich historical detail (from the meat-safe to the cosh used to bludgeon rats and other vermin) and absorbed by the pacing, from the excruciatingly slow development of the romance to the page-turning police procedural and trial. In the first part of the novel, dutiful daughter Frances Wray’s numbingly repetitive daily chores, her loneliness and longing born of sacrifice, along with reminders of the Bloomsbury life she could have had with Christina, her ex-lover, build slowly to the explosion of desire for “paying guest” Lilian. In the last part, the fast paced plot-turns (all, in retrospect, painstakingly prepared in advance) engage our full attention even as we witness the slow erosion of trust between the erstwhile lovers.
By Robin Becker
PO-BIZ is an irregular, occasional blog post on new books of poetry I’ve read and found noteworthy. Given the number of poetry collections published each year and the diminishing number of review outlets, I’d like to make WOMEN=BOOKS a place for short, pithy commentary. A second blog post focusing on another five books will appear early in 2015.
The suicide of college student Tyler Clementi (1991-2010) occasioned this collection of poems, and Parker’s decision to write from a range of perspectives (Clementi’s, his parents’, his tormentors’) deepens our understanding of the effects of cyberbullying. The unrepentant speaker of “Because” offers thirteen couplets to explain his actions. In one, he claims, “Because the eye exists to watch and I/ owned the rights to the technology.” Whose rights does our society protect and at what cost? Anyone interested in the intersection of poetry and social justice should read this book. The following poem assumes the voice of one of Clementi’s parents.
It Is Hard to Hate the World
but possible. When sleep first recedes
and you have not yet remembered God
opened his hands and let a boy
drop—despite the Sunday donations,
the commandments kept, prayers tattooed
against the teeth—when it is still
that half-death that is half-sleep
and he is crying for Lucky Charms
and your feet are already in slippers,
body rising to answer, then,
it is possible. Then, you are awake.
By Anne Farrow
The following is an excerpt from The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory published this month by Wesleyan University Press.
“Why are you doing this research?” my friend asked.
I looked at her lean brown face, lit by the glass lamps suspended over our restaurant table, and made what I did not recognize, then, as an excuse.
“New England’s relationship with slavery is a great story,” I said. “We’re journalists, we’re supposed to uncover stories of wrong and injustice.” I made my argument, or, as we called it in the newsroom, my pitch.
Liz looked at me for a long moment with the level, answering gaze I knew from having had her edit my stories at the newspaper.
“That’s not it,” she said. “When white people take up black stuff there’s always a reason. There’s always something there.”
I told her that I needed engaging work, having recently broken up with my long-time boyfriend. Studying my country’s tortured relationship with slavery and race prejudice made my own life, with its varied griefs and money worries, seem small.
She smiled at me as if to say, that’s not it, and picked up her menu.
By Joycelyn K. Moody
This year, my edited edition of Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, by Frances Harriet Whipple, with Elleanor Eldridge, was published. Memoirs had long been out of print, and the journey to republication of this significant work about a free black woman entrepreneur, which first appeared in 1838, was a long one.
I first encountered the Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge when I was given a copy by a special collections librarian at Penn State, where I’d gone for a job interview. It was January 18, 1991, the first day of the US invasion of the Persian Gulf, and the librarian was probably one of the few people on campus not distracted by the war that was playing and replaying on televisions everywhere. The librarian likely knew my areas of concentration were slavery, autobiography, and nineteenth-century African American women, and gave me the book as a lure.
By Corinne T. Field
The gender wage gap remains a stubborn fact of life for working Americans. In 2013, median weekly earnings for women working full time were 82 percent of men’s, with Hispanic women earning only 62 percent and black women 69 percent of white men’s pay. Progress in closing this gap has stalled. One reason may be that we too-often overlook the particular needs of middle-aged and older women. The gender wage gap is to a large extent an age gap—a difference in how men and women are rewarded for experience accrued over time. To create more equitable workplaces, we are must focus future research squarely on the question of why women’s wages drop off relative to men’s after age 35.
By Ellen Feldman
I was heading down 53rd Street from the Museum of Modern Art and turned left on Sixth Avenue toward the International Center of Photography—but since the street was closed to cars, and cops were everywhere, I turned around. The Sebastiao Salgado exhibit could wait for another day. The People’s Climate March was coming right at me, and I jumped in.
By Kate Price
Slavery, Inc.: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking , by the investigative journalist Lydia Cacho, stands out among a recent flurry of human trafficking books (including Human Trafficking, by Abraham Falls; Sex Trafficking: Reclaiming My Stolen Life, by Jenna Stanton; and Up for Sale: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, by Alison Marie). Chaco explores all aspects of this $32 billion industry with a depth few other authors have accomplished. She explores how the values of male dominance and control, on which our society’s institutions and business enterprises are based, manifest themselves in human trafficking, which is now the fastest growing crime in the world today.
By Rachel Edidin
Every woman I know who regularly attends comics conventions—cons—has a story. We compare them like trading cards while we talk about which parties to avoid, which editors have a reputation for getting handsy after a few drinks. These are the things we tell each other, take new kids aside and whisper in their ears: which cons will have your back if you report a harasser, which colleagues you can trust to walk you back to your hotel. We make plans, check in, watch each other’s drinks at professional events, watch each other’s backs on the con floor.
By Rebecca Steinitz
Reviewing Roz Chast’s graphic (in both senses of the word) memoir of her parents’ decline, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, I was struck repeatedly by the uncanny impression that she was writing about my family. Not my parents, who are blessedly healthy (thank goodness, knock wood), but my grandparents, one set a Jewish couple in Brooklyn; and the other that odd couple in Washington Heights, my grandmother and my legally blind uncle, fifteen years older than my father, who lived with my grandparents his whole life and played the role of third parent to my father and extra grandparent to me and my sister.
By Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
A long line wended its way into the JFK Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, past a lone demonstrator holding a sign on which pictures of Stalin and Putin surrounded the slogan, “Restore the Soviet Union.” Entry was by lottery; the place was packed with lucky winners and a few who managed to sneak in. When the two Pussy Riot women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina appeared, flanked by Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov, and the moderator Jill Dougherty, they seemed dwarfed by the space.
By E.J. Graff
Susan Faludi does not like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, not one little bit, no sir. And until I heard Faludi’s keynote speech at the Baffler’s conference Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace After Lean In, held September 13, 2014, at John Jay College in New York City, I didn’t understand why there was so much rage against the Facebook CEO’s blockbuster business advice book for women.
By Leslie Lawrence
A fascinating aspect of The Widow’s Handbook is that it has spawned a community. The printed book is enhanced by a website that includes discussions, videos, and listings of readings and events. Will this community grow into a movement that will raise consciousness about the stigma, social isolation, and financial hardships that plague widows (far more than widowers)? That remains to be seen.
By Trish Crapo
Ah, summer! Seems like the weather was only just warming a little at the end of May and here we are waist-deep in July. Fast-forward from the June bugs banging against the screens to clouds of lightning bugs sifting through the tall grass.
My husband is a farmer. Summer to him means growing and selling vegetables. It’s his busiest time of year. To me, summer means slowing down on my writing commitments if I can, finding a shady spot and a glass of iced coffee, and settling down to read.
By Patricia Kullberg
She rose up out of the Australian outback before women got the vote and overturned the entire system of understanding and treating polio. Her innovations spared untold thousands the worst crippling effects of the disease. She was brilliant and brash, though her credentials were sketchy. She was physically imposing, favored strings of pearls and huge, outlandish hats. She moved in a man’s world that deeply disappointed her and she made as many enemies as friends. In a 1952 Gallup Poll she was named America’s most admired woman. But, in accounts of history’s most famous nurses? You’ll never find her.
By Maria Mutch
I want to testify on behalf of night, to say something about our neglect of the dark hours, how we fill them with artificial light as though the illumination were not, in the end, a kind of veil. We eradicate with light pollution the sprawl of stars and galaxies, treating our fear of the dark as something to be ameliorated. The images created by Canadian scientist Felix Pharand-Dêschenes, based on satellite data and showing Earth at night, are unsettling in part because they’re beautiful: it’s easy to see how, and where, we’ve become addicted to light.
By Cynthia Enloe
“Swedish militarism.” It sounds like an oxymoron. So do “shredding the Scandinavian social safety net” and “right-wing Nordic voters.” But Nordic feminists were quick to disabuse me of my out-of-touch assumptions. They had come together acutely aware of the threats posed by their current conservative governments and by far-right nationalist parties, which did surprisingly well in May’s elections for members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It was alarm that stoked the energy of this June’s Nordic Women’s Forum.
By Heather Hewett
In April 2014, the poet-journalist Eliza Griswold and the photographer Seamus Murphy released a collection of poems by Afghan women interspersed with photographs of Afghanistan called I Am the Beggar of the World. Griswold spent several years collecting landays, an oral form of poetry popular among Pashtun women, which she then translated. The translated couplets were first published last year in Poetry magazine. As I wrote in a review for the feminist group blog Girl w/ Pen,
By A. J. Verdelle
Maya Angelou, who passed from among us this month, led a life of stunning accomplishment, and of opposites. She was both a name-changer and a game-changer. Young Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, spent a large part of her childhood in the rural and segregated South. She went mute at age seven, entering a trauma-induced silence after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. For five years, Marguerite spoke not one word. Living in the rural and separated South at that tender and tragic time quite possibly saved Maya Angelou’s life; in crowded and anonymous cities, children who do not speak and are black are often shunted into contexts in which learning is unlikely and escape is improbable. But mute Marguerite was sheltered and encouraged by her loving grandmother, and was nurtured intellectually by a beloved teacher, Mrs. Flowers.
By Jean Trounstine
I met Zoe Giannousis on a wintry evening at the community college in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I facilitate my Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program. Along with Zoe, there were eight women, all struggling with court issues, family conflicts, and the dark well of abuse, addiction, and crime. In CLTL they gather with a judge, two probation officers, and me for a reading group—an alternative sentencing collaboration between academia and the courts that began almost 25 years ago, and that has now spread across the state and the country, and across the Atlantic to England. For the next fourteen weeks, as a condition of probation, they dive into animated discussions of books including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Ann Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
By Gwendolyn Beetham
Distrustful of powerful white men who suddenly take up the “women’s rights’ torch,” I began Jimmy Carter’s recent book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, with no small amount of skepticism. When I was informed of his 1977 remarks following the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Hyde Amendment that “life isn’t fair,” my skepticism turned to outright doubt. Several times while reading the book it was easy for me, as a feminist and long-time women’s rights advocate, to get lost in what Carter doesn’t do. But the truth is: this book wasn’t written for us. A Call to Action is just that: a call to those not currently versed in, or even aware of, the myriad, egregious violations of the rights of women all around the world, every minute of every day. In tone and content, the book is aimed primarily at men, including religious leaders and those in other positions of power. And when it comes to reaching that particular audience, the former president makes an excellent interlocutor.
By Marilyn Richardson
Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), a daughter of the most prominent African American family in Salem, Massachusetts, sailed for Liverpool, England, in the fall of 1858, a period when the outlines of an all but inevitable war between the states were growing clearer. Remond had agreed to undertake a speaking tour, describing the horrors of American chattel slavery as part of the campaign to consolidate British antislavery sentiment by arguing the ethical and economic case for British support of the Union.
Between 1859 and 1861 Remond delivered 45 lectures in seventeen cities and towns in England, three in Scotland, and four in Ireland, all to considerable acclaim and extensive press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. When visa problems threatened her ability to travel to the continent, the dispute was played out in the press. A southern bureaucrat at the American legation refused her the document on the grounds that she was not a United States citizen. Following considerable publicity, Secretary of State Lewis Cass intervened and granted her the visa and “in case of need… all lawful aid and protection.”
By Debra Cash
She described herself as an outsider and “a pessimist, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Octavia Butler’s distinctive blend of science fiction, Africanist imagination, and gender-fluid storytelling, sometimes classified under the genre of Afrofuturism, may have kept her outside the literary mainstream. Nonetheless before her unexpected death after a fall in 2006, when she was just 58, Butler had received the Hugo and Nebula awards for her achievements, and had been recognized with both a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship.
Merrilee Heifetz, Octavia Butler’s longtime agent, has uncovered two unpublished Butler stories among the manuscripts, correspondence, school papers, notebooks, photographs, and other materials held by the Huntington Library in California. In June, Open Road Publishing will be releasing these tales as an ebook titled Unexpected Stories.
By Clarissa Atkinson
I cast my first vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and worked in his campaign, knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and typing names on index cards—the 1950s version of Big Data. You have to be old to have voted for Stevenson or even to remember him, but you might recall what your parents or grandparents had to say. They probably had strong opinions. Stevenson was a hero to a certain cohort, perhaps because he differed so dramatically in outlook and style from most politicians of that era—Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy. To another cohort, though, he was a pinko liberal or even a Communist, as well as an egghead (I think the term was coined for him, a balding intellectual).
By Mary S. Hartman
In her recent book Joining the Resistance, Carol Gilligan offers a blunt take on our current political paralysis. The core problem, she says, is an ongoing twenty-first-century commitment to patriarchy in a country that calls itself a democracy. “In a patriarchal family or religion or culture,” Gilligan writes, “power and authority descend from a father or fathers, and human qualities designated masculine are privileged over those gendered feminine.”
Gilligan argues, however, that we now have a unique opportunity to act, since men as well as women are finally recognizing that our country’s future as a democracy depends upon undoing the ways we persist in patriarchal behavior, parceling out by gender what are in fact shared human qualities, such as assigning the attribute of care to women and that of justice to men. She writes,
By Lori Noack
There is an Afghan poet, a woman, whose face I do not know. She sends drafts of poems and essays to her online writing workshop, and in a matter of days, readers like me—more than 7,000 miles away—peek into her home and her heart. We do not know her face but we know her sorrow, translated by these words into a visceral expression of lament:
I am knitting blue wings into my dress,
sewing sparrows in its sleeves.
I draw a sky of smoke on my scarf.
The evening news reports that Anisa,
who escaped from her house,
was stoned. She loved Hakim,
wished to marry him.
He was stoned with her.
My little boy cries. I am hungry,
run to the kitchen,
cook my heart...
(from Honeymoon in the Graveyard by N.)
By Ellen Leopold
It’s easy to forget that women’s writing about breast cancer is of relatively recent vintage. But until the 1970s, the disease was the exclusive province of medical men—and their textbooks. The first women to portray the patient’s perspective, to write about their own experience, were established writers and public figures before they took up the disease, with credentials persuasive enough to overcome their publishers’ reluctance. Rose Kushner (Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report) was a Washington Post science writer; Betty Rollin (First, You Cry) an NBC correspondent; and Audre Lorde (The Cancer Journals, 1980) a well-known poet. These writers transformed their personal stories into public platforms. Brandishing their own case histories as cautionary tales, they helped to introduce radical changes in both the perception and management of the disease. Today’s widespread use of breast-conserving surgery, for example, is at least partially attributable to the refusal by some of them—and, in increasing numbers, their readers—to undergo radical mastectomies.
By Julene Bair
In my dream, a little girl stands in a dim room beside a row of women. The women, dressed demurely in cardigans over dark shifts, sit erect in straight-backed chairs, their hands folded in their laps. The girl moves from woman to woman, asking, “Do you have any magic?” Each in turn smiles indulgently at the girl. “Oh my! Why no, dear.”
By Sarah W. Bartlett
Those of us who survive here
by reading scars,
before they open up and swallow us
talk gingerly. We learned early
to whisper, tiptoe, skirt
our way around.
Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility
South Burlington, Vermont
(artwork by Norajean)
Co-founded by Sarah W. Bartlett and Marybeth Redmond in January 2010, writinginsideVT uses writing as a tool for personal reflection and growth among women prisoners while creating a community of trust through weekly groups. Four years later it remains a staple at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, Vermont, the state’s sole prison for women.
By Bettina Aptheker
Reviewing the recent book, Passionate Commitments, by Julia Allen, which provides critical biographies of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, was a great pleasure. Having grown up in a Communist family in New York in the 1950s, I knew Hutchins—a founder of the Labor Research Association and an economist who particularly focused on women worker—when I was a child; and Rochester’s many books and pamphlets, including Rulers of America, Why Farmers Are Poor, and The Populist Movement in the United States, were prominent on my father’s bookshelves.
By Robin Becker
I began attending the Associated Writing Programs annual conference for creative writers, teachers, and publishers about thirty years ago. In 1984, I was teaching at MIT, and the annual trip to AWP meant a chance to glimpse my writing heroes and hear them read their work. That year, the conference was held in Tempe, Arizona, where I was thrilled to see the poets Adrienne Rich and June Jordan danced together at one evening party.
By Meryl Altman
Women’s Review of Books readers who follow Sappho will want to know that Oxford’s Dirk Obbink is publishing two newly discovered fragments from her poems, which have surfaced from a privately owned papyrus, previously unknown to researchers. If your Greek is good, or if like me you’re fascinated by the artisanal scholarship that deciphers, authenticates, and dates such things, you’ll want to read the draft version of Obbink’s article for the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE); for a more accessible account, see his article in the Times Literary Supplement (February 15, 2014).
Women’s Review of Books Poetry and Contributing Editor Robin Becker will be considering poetry submissions in May and June, 2014. WRB generally publishes a pair of poems by a single poet in each issue. Please mail up to three pairs of poems (six poems) to:
Women’s Review of Books
Wellesley Centers for Women CHE
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481
Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope of appropriate size
and postage. Do not send email submissions.
By Margaret Randall
International Women’s Day, March 8, is my favorite holiday. Every year I write a brief tribute—to remind my friends and also myself how much women everywhere give to resist oppression and sustain life. Usually I focus on a group of women whose ordinary heroism was particularly noteworthy since the previous March: South African or Palestinian women. The desperate women of Syria and Sudan. Women in prison. Women right here in the United States, who face every sort of degradation. This year I want to honor our scribes, the women in so many different parts of the world and throughout history who, often against incredible odds, have told our stories and kept history alive. Not just women’s history—everyone’s. I want to narrow my focus to women who tell our stories—in dozens of different ways. If our stories are not preserved and told, we cannot know who we are. And if we do not know who we are, we will never become who we want to be: healthy, creative, brilliant and compassionate peace-making contributors to society.
By Carrie Dearborn
If you are twenty-something in the US, chances are good that you know more about disabilities than your elders did at the same age. You’ve been around people with disabilities, (PWD) and manners toward us have changed. For instance, you ask a PWD if she or he needs help before pushing right in and doing whatever you assume the person needs.
By Susanna J. Sturgis
I began my Women’s Review of Books review of Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code with a question: “How can something once so well-known become so lost?” Riddle tells the story of the decipherment of Linear B, an ancient script lost to history until Sir Arthur Evans excavated the palace at Knossos, Crete, in the earliest years of the twentieth century. It focuses on the crucial contribution of Alice E. Kober, a professor of classics at Brooklyn College. Within a few years of her untimely death at age 43, in 1950, Kober’s name and work had virtually disappeared from the record.
By Janet Poppendieck
The Agricultural Act of 2014—or the Farm Bill—signed by President Obama on February 7 cuts $8.6 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) over the next ten years. Like almost anything that harms poor Americans, the cuts to SNAP will hurt women and children most. Among adult SNAP recipients, more than three-fifths are women, and among older adult participants, almost two thirds are women. Taken together, women and children are nearly four-fifths of all participants. Thus the cuts disproportionately affect women, both as recipients and as parents.
By Rosario Rodríguez de Hall
In November 2013, Mexican author Elena Poniatowska was informed that she had been awarded the Cervantes Prize, said to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the Spanish language. She will officially receive it on April 23, 2014, during a ceremony at the Universidad de Alcala de Henares.
Having written my doctoral dissertation on Poniatowska’s 1988 fictionalized autobiography, La ‘Flor de Lis’ (which is not yet translated into English), I am often asked why Poniatowska is not well known by American readers. In response, I retell an anecdote that the author herself shared with the public at a literature conference in Puerto Rico in 2010, where Poniatowska was receiving an honorary doctorate. She had been fired by her agent in the States because, according to the agent, she did not answer emails promptly. Poniatowska tried to explain to the agent that, in her neighborhood, there are frequent outages in Internet service, so sometimes it was impossible to read or respond to email. In fact, Poniatowska and her former agent inhabited two different worlds, of infrastructure and of culture: while the agent had urgent marketing issues, Poniatowska was contending with more immediate problems, as do other Mexicans.
By Elizabeth Wood
Homophobia in Russia today brings together so many issues and trends in Russian history and society that in Russian it would be called “a tangled ball,” sputannyi klubok. First, there’s the problem of sex and ambivalence about sex. Then there’s the problem of difference of any kind. Then there’s the problem of visibility and public display, especially visibility and public display of sex and difference. Then there’s the problem of sexuality as a field of state regulation—which is related to the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Finally, there’s the general problem of “archaization”: the retreat, by an otherwise modern society, to a premodern or neotraditional mindset.
By Valerie Sperling
In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Russia’s federal law banning homosexual “propaganda” drew considerable international attention. In June 2013, the now-infamous law passed Russia’s lower house of parliament by a vote of 436 to zero, with one abstention, before being signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. It outlawed the distribution or expression of information that portrayed homosexuality and same-sex relationships in a positive light, or that equated them in value with heterosexual relationships, and that did so in such a way that minors could be exposed to this information. Curiously, the law did not refer to “homosexual” propaganda, but to that for “nontraditional” sexual orientation. According to one of the sponsors of the law, Elena Mizulina, the reason that Russia’s lawmakers didn’t use the term “homosexual,” was that even uttering it somehow “involuntarily propagandizes” homosexuality.
By Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Homophobia makes strange bedfellows. Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and hypermale Russian President Vladimir Putin share a gay-panicked commitment to so-called traditional values. Robertson spouts his neo-Confederate beliefs—which also include racism—basing them on Biblical discussions of slavery and “traditional values.” I won’t go here into the neo-Confederate nostalgia for the happy slave days, completely belied most recently by the film Twelve Years a Slave. But what about those “traditional marriage values”?
By Carole DeSanti
Here we are at the beginning of 2014, having just experienced a tumultuous year in traditional book publishing. The old reliable ways are besieged by unremitting surges of change, amid a whirl of arguments about copyright; the dollar value of the written word; and in what form, under what terms, books should be created, curated, read, shared, rewarded. Some ask whether the book itself is on its way out.
By Martha Saxton
The most engaged and curious students that I teach gather in the visiting room of the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections. We meet there because half of the students are incarcerated men. They, along with an equal number of male and female “outside students” from Amherst College are registered for one of several semester-long courses for credit from the college. Together, we have studied the history of our criminal justice system, an introduction to human rights, and last spring, American wars since 1945. With the help of some ice-breaking exercises, rules of respect that the class creates, and small group work organized so that everyone gets to know and learn from one another, the class quickly coheres. The outside students stop imagining danger, and inside students stop worrying about intimidating college students.
By Stacey Patton
As higher education continues its march into a corporatized future, with 76 percent of its workforce now composed of low-paid adjuncts who often call themselves “slaves,” there is little discussion about the connection between the history of actual slavery in the US and the growth and wealth of some of the nation’s best colleges and universities. That connection might seem strange, since institutions of higher education tend to be viewed as bastions of liberal and progressive thought, and humanitarian ideals. But the archives of history reveal a different truth: slavery and the slave trade provided the foundations for the rise of higher education in North America.
By Roberta Rubenstein
When Doris Lessing died on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94, she was justifiably celebrated as the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Golden Notebook (1962). A ground-breaking work of fiction in both form and content, the novel anatomizes the complex life of Anna Wulf, a writer, single mother, and political leftist living in London during the 1950s. A decade before the women’s liberation movement that would soon gather force, Anna aspires to live her life both emotionally and intellectually as a liberated, “free woman.”
By Martha Nichols
Let’s talk about anger—belly-down, no-holds-barred rage—the kind of anger expressed by seventies feminists once dubbed “bra-burning kooks” and “women’s libbers.” Lynn Povich’s 2012 The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (now in paperback) has all the hallmarks of an epic battle of the sexes.
Unfortunately, her book is oddly muted, told from the perspective of a “pre-feminist” who seems caught between the thrill of working for a big magazine and the evidence piling up before her. It’s framed as a history of the first gender-discrimination suit filed against a major media company, complete with helpful explanations for those who’ve never encountered the phrase “male chauvinist pig.”
By E.J. Graff
There’s feminism, the movement—and then there’s “feminism,” the imaginary version. The first, as Women’s Review of Books readers know, is a broad and contentious political movement. Based on ongoing and constantly debated analyses of how women have been structurally disadvantaged in a host of ways, feminism aims to remove or ameliorate those disadvantages through various kinds of political action—pressuring colleges to respond differently to campus rapes, say, or helping women close the wage gap both by changing the workplace and changing our attitudes, to name two of my faves. “Feminism” is a media creation based on half-truths and misunderstandings, made up partly of caricatures invented by people hostile to the real thing, ad campaigns trying to sell something under the gauzy rubric of liberation, and lazy media commentary that assumes “feminism” is just the girls’ version of the American ideology of individual fulfillment and “having it all.” Maybe I shouldn’t call it “feminism,” even in quotes; we could call it “feminine-ism,” since it’s a ramped-up vision of femininity with a dollop of “career” on top, the idea that women merely need to add more public achievements and voila, we’ll be equal. Yeah, right.
by Ruthann Robson
The legal policing women’s headscarves is rooted in a mélange of sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, and racism. Unlike the niqab (veil), hijab as sartorially expressed by the headscarf does not obscure the face. While the niqab can raise concerns about identification and anonymity, which may be rational in some situations, such as a trial in which the identity of a person is a central issue, the headscarf evokes anxieties of a less logical sort.
By Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
UPDATE: December 23, 2013
Throughout the world, pardons are a way for those in power to emphasize their control and show their magnanimity. Just over 100 years ago, in 1913, celebrating the Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty, Tsar Nicholas II freed selected political prisoners. In Russia’s current back-to-the-future moment, Vladimir Putin, his power apparently consolidated, has decreed the release of the most high-profile political prisoners of his reign, Mikhail Khodorkovskii; the Pussy Riot protestors Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; and the Greenpeace activists. His motives could be connected to the upcoming Winter Olympics; his recent foreign policy successes with Edward Snowden, Syria, and Ukraine; his vanquishing of internal opponents—or all of the above. But the reasons he gave for the freeing of Khodorkovskii and the Pussy Riot protestors, at least, were noticeably gender inflected. In both the Pussy Riot and Khodorkovskii cases, Putin, the hypermale, claimed he acted as the protector of mothers and motherhood. In the case of Khodorkovskii, the Russian president claimed to be responding to appeals from the imprisoned oligarch’s mother, who is ill and being treated in Germany. Condemning their “disgraceful acts,” Putin released Pussy Riot members Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova because they are the mothers of small children. What awaits the Pussy Riot women and other Putin opponents after the Olympics, as well as gays and lesbians affected by the current antigay campaign, remains to be seen.
By Ana Isabel Keilson
One of the advantages of being a graduate student at an “evil empire” university—one of those increasingly corporate institutions with a big endowment, lots of real estate, anti-union policies, a big business school—is that I can travel often to Europe on the company dime. Last March I found myself in Paris as I sat down to write a review of Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writing of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. A fitting place, I thought, to consider her life and work. Paris: the cradle of the avant garde, of Dada, of poetry, performance, and modernism in the twentieth century. Digging back deeper into time, Paris as the symbol of revolutionary efflorescence in the face of dusty and impotent monarchy. Paris as moveable feast. Paris as canvas for the painter of modern life.
When we heard the sad news of the death of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing, we were motivated to look back on articles on her work in Women's Review of Books. Ann Snitow reviewed The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot, and the Snowdog in the November/December 2006 issue of Women's Review of Books; and more recently, Roberta Rubenstein reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Notebook in September 2012.
By Martha Nichols
If it seems to you that every other book released these days involves a Facebook executive, you’re not nuts. Picking up on the current publishing trend and our cultural fascination with online living, the New York Times Book Review’s “#tech@life” issue (November 3, 2013) explores the impact of social media on literature.
By Jan Heller Levi
In 1990, Poets House in New York sponsored a panel discussion on Muriel Rukeyser , with Jane Cooper, Galway Kinnell, and Sharon Olds. There were questions from the audience afterward. We all were, in different ways, baffled about why she wasn’t more recognized, why all but one of her books was out of print. At some point, someone from the audience piped up, “I think it’s because she wrote too much.” Some assessment, I thought. Who says that about Walt Whitman? Thomas Hardy? Allen Ginsburg? John Updike? Stephen King? (They do say it about Joyce Carol Oates.)
By Audrey Kerr
In her autobiography Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown Up Black Woman (1997), the journalist Jill Nelson asks a question that crosses my mind whenever I read black male-authored autobiographies: what makes it possible for “black men [to] think they can be born and raised in a culture that has profound contempt for all women, and places black women at the bottom, and escape unaffected?” as Nelson puts it.
By Glenna Matthews
An article in the New York Times of October 15, 2013, in the midst of the government shutdown, caught my eye: "Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord" its headline announced. Over the next few days there was more reporting about the role played by women senators in ending the crisis over the debt limit and the government shutdown, including a major article in Time magazine, "Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington."
"Wow!" I thought.
By J. Goodrich
If we believe the popular US media, the feminist movement is a zombie. We have been invited to several of its funerals during the last decades, even earlier, but not to baby showers to celebrate its happy rebirth. It must be the case, then, that the feminist movement is barely buried before it claws itself out of the grave, moving dirt aside and grasping air with its skeletal hands, only to die yet another zombie death.
by Felicia Kornbluh
I cried all through the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibit, AIDS: The First Five Years-but not for the reasons you might think. Walking through the museum gallery lined with photos and documents, and viewing the accompanying exhibit of photographs of infants with HIV/AIDS, I cried because both exhibits omitted the sexually revolutionary feminist and gay politics that preceded the epidemic: it was as though those politics had been exterminated. I cried because it occurred to me that our recent victories-the increased recognition of same-sex marriages, the trouncing of many invidious incursions into women’s reproductive autonomy-are only tinny echoes of the big brassy demands of our predecessors.
Photographer Zanele Muholi, whose photographs of LGBTI South Africans were featured in the September/October issue of Women's Review of Books, has won the prestitious Carnegie Fine Prize for emerging photographers.
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By Janet Golden
In June I submitted my review of three books about abortion and reproductive politics—Crow After Roe: How “Separate But Equal” Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That, by Robin Marty and Jessica Mason Pieklo; Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, by Sarah Erdreich; and Reproductive Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Rickie Solinger—to Women’s Review of Books. In the weeks that followed, many states began to enact new laws restricting abortion, and the House of Representatives passed a ban on abortions after twenty weeks. There has been broad press coverage of these laws. Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster of the Texas antiabortion legislation got worldwide coverage—and now she is thinking of running for governor. The media give us interviews and editorials from reproductive rights supporters and opponents, along with footage of protests and counterprotests. They portray abortion legislation as a form of political jousting—but it is much much more than that.
by Anne Gray Fischer
Raids to shut down sex-trafficking operations often result in the arrest or deportation of the “rescued” victims, and this past July’s installment of Operation Cross Country, the FBI’s series of nationwide stings, was reportedly no exception. Due to a lack of adequate housing and social supports—which weren’t secured in advance and apparently weren’t a priority in this massive sting—the trafficked youth will likely end up detained, charged with prostitution, and incarcerated. The adult sex workers who were rounded up in these sweeps, ineligible for the FBI’s faint gestures toward rescue, were sent directly to prison. Operation Cross Country 2013 proved to be one more example of the triumph of state surveillance and incarceration over social welfare structures.
By Ruth Rosen
Justice Sotomayor Votes Her Conscience
By Ruth Rosen
In Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World (2013) which I reviewed for Women’s Review of Books (September/October 2013), the Supreme Court justice reveals many of her most deeplyheld values, including her embrace of affirmative action and racial and sexual diversity, and her unwavering commitment to a society governed by equality under the law. So how has she voted in that hotbed of the Supreme Court, which includes such conservatives as Anthony Scalia and his allies?
By Amy Hoffman, Editor in chief, Women's Review of Books for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 25, 2013
We are very proud to note that the photographer Carrie Mae Weems, whose work was featured in the September/October 2007 issue of Women's Review of Books, has won one of this year's MacArthur Foundation genius grants, which gives recipients $625,000 over five years, no strings attached.
Here's the link to our article, from the Women's Review of Books website.
By Amy Hoffman
Editor in Chief
Women's Review of Books
You may not know that for the past several years, an archive of Women's Review of Books, going all the way back to our first issue in 1983 (but excluding the past three years), is available through the nonprofit web database, JSTOR. The only problem has been that the JSTOR database has been available only to people who have access to an academic library. Now things have changed! Through its Register and Read and JPASS programs, individuals can gain access to JSTOR articles. Looking for an old review? Check it out!
By Layli Maparyan for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 23, 2013
As the new executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, the parent organization of Women’s Review of Books (WRB) I am proud to congratulate WRB on the reintroduction of its blog, WOMEN=BOOKS. WRB is a strong historical pillar of WCW’s identity and social mission, and as WCW thinks ahead to its half-century mark, now a decade away, I imagine with great excitement how WRB will travel that journey as part of this collective movement.
By Amy Hoffman, Editor in chief, Women's Review of Books for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 23, 2013
Back in 2010, Women’s Review of Books (WRB) Contributing Editor Martha Nichols took me out to lunch to share with me a great idea that she had: what WRB needed, she said to me over our salads, was a blog. Martha is an early adopter; I, to put it mildly, am not. The word itself sounded ugly to me: blog, bleh. Blogs were less prevalent than they are now; I didn’t see why we needed one, and it seemed like a lot of work, especially since I felt that I was already running as fast as I could to stay in the same place (as the Red Queen tells Alice).