Dear friends and readers,
I’ve not written about Women’s Review of Books on the listservs I’m on of late, mostly I’ve been too busy, or they have not as a whole struck me. This fall issue seemed to me of such high caliber I wanted to call attention to it here too.
So much outstanding. Where to begin. Perhaps with four review-articles defeating the continual assertion made in so many places that women are naturally conservative. Recently I’ve come to realize that Alison Light’s Forever England where she argues that women of the 30s were unfairly ignored because they were popular and conservative is wrong: Light writes about a few conservative ones, but, as Jane Dowson in her Anthology of women poets of the 1930s shows, women were as frequently of the left as men.
Mary Ellen Washington’s Feminist Roots, a review of Dayo Gore’s Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War and Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of the Black Left Feminism tells of dozens of women who led and supported organizations working for black women’s civil rights, economic opportunities, self-defense. I did not know that the 1950s when the US gov’t deported leaders of Labor groups, black women filled leadership gaps. The books are about alliances between black women, especially the work of black domestics, which work black women were often forced into where they were harassed sexually, literally treated like slaves — forced to stand on spots so white women could come and decide whether to hire them.
The heroine of Sopranos, Carmela Soprano, is a hollow caricature: Italian women too forged alliances with working women and men, preferring local community and specific labor unions (textiles): Karen Pastorello reviews Jennifer Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. Chicanos, Mexican American Women in the Southwest, Miroslav Chavez-Garcia’s Retrofitted Memory . on Maylei Blackwell’s Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement shows how negative stereotypes have kept many women away from this field of study. I’ve written a separate blog on Grace Chang’s important revealing review, Weapons of the Weak of Sealing Cheng’s On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the US Military in South Korea: that the behavior of agents who profess to be helping prostitutes are making life worse for them and is much more aimed at getting and keeping their own jobs, supporting their institutions.
This might be a good place to insert a relevant poem from the issue, one exposing the neurotic hypocrises of medical procedures foisted on women:
Okay, got it that sometimes you have to break
a thing to heal it, but this, this
is raw beef beaten with a flat wooden mallet,
fibers tenderized into separation and shred,
a snowball mashed by a booted foot, an egg
broken between books, a kitten’s head
crushed in a vise. No one who’s night-nursed
a baby, or seen her own white miracle
expressed-no creature with breasts or woman’s
heart, no mother or sister
or daughter-could have come up with this. No,
it took someone with a thirst
for machinery and metal, with a plate of bone
for a chest. It took someone with fists.
— Rebecca Foust
Many of the articles are on individual women. Most notable: Priscilla Murolo’s review of three books on Eleanor Roosevelt, one by Hazel Rowley whose excellent biography of Christina Stead I’ve read and of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre I recently bought in a library book sale. Excellent and it sounds like Rowley’s book on ER is useful and full. Bridget O’Farrell’s She was One of Us is on ER as herself and as identifying and working for working class women (and lower middle that would be). We see the limits of ER there: not simply some conformist reactions to anti-communist campaigns, but she did not realize the opposition to ERA based on the loss of sex-specific laws protecting women is a leftist-socialist view. Neither does the reviewer, Priscilla Murolo. The third book by Maurine Beasley is about transforming the first lady role: ER: Transformative First Lady.
Cathy A. Frierson on Tamara Petkevich’s Memoir of a Gulag Actress: in her 20s she was a prisoner in a gulag doing hideous work in sandals in freezing cold; in her 40s sharing a flat 14 square meters with many others; she did become a gulag actress and is still with us today, 91 in her own apartment at last. The reviewer tries hard to be upbeat — how she’s not all alone, tons of phone calls. Like a woman, and there are many fewer by woman, she focuses on her experiences, relationships, and she was befriended by men and also raped along the way — she let it happen to get a protector or helper now and again.
Which leads to
Rochelle Ruthchild’s review, “The Gender of Survival,” on Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust edited by Sonja Hedgpeth and Rochelle G.Saidet. Talk about taboo subject; sometimes one gets a line indicating some building was the camp brothel or reference to the reality the standard epithet by jailers of women was “whore.” The horrors include Jewish men raping their women, forced killing of children, a need of a protector once you escaped some horror of a place. What happens when civilization breaks down altogether. An important book — also deals with abortions.
Not least at all, Susanna Sturgis on the very-long titled, Alix Dobki’s My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, about growing up in what must be so rare nowadays a leftist-communist family who were part of groups of such people. Dobkin is known as a lesbian activist too, a singer. Together with Suzanne Kelley McCormack’s fine review of Jerry Lembroke’s Hanoi Jane. McCormack rehearses Lembroke’s findings that Jane Fonda did no more than many other moderate democrats during the Vietnam war. Many went to Vietnam far more than she; were more involved in political maneuvering – and that Fonda was active in other leftist groups, her marriage to Tom Haydn coming out of that.
I found very moving Jane Hirshfield’s poetry discussed in the centerfold:
It is the work of feeling
to undo expectation.
A black-faced sheep
looks back at you as you pass
and your heart is startled
as if by the shadow
of someone once loved.
Neither comforted by this
nor made lonely.
that a self in exile is still a self,
as a bell unstruck for years
is still a bell.
I thought of the daughter who has estranged herself from me, Izzy, Jim.
One Loss Folds Itself Inside Another
folds itself inside another.
It is like the origami
held inside a plain sheet of paper.
Not creased yet.
Not yet more heavy.
The hand stays steady.
Again these images of bells ringing real emotions
The Tongue Says Loneliness
The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.
As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.
As if this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it
Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron
Reviewed fiction include Eileen Myles’s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), a three part or stage memoir of a woman writers; Angela Barry’s Goree: Point of Departure (takes place in the portal of the West African trade), and I noticed titles of books I dream of having the time to read.
This issue’s art work was photographs by Laura Heyman; I noticed untitled was a detail from an 1890s American women illustrator: the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting drawings from such artists on my three lists: Charlotte Harding (1873-1951), Elizabeth Shippen Green (1861-1954), Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), added to Violet Oakley (1874-1961), whose work I saw in a Woman’s Art Journal. All were friends and the friendships meant a lot for them as people and for their careers. Their great problem was isolation individually and no larger support.
In Book Illustrated, ed. Catherine Gorden, Ruth Copans’s “Dream Blocks: American Women Illustrators of the Golden Age, 1890-1920,” which shows that the book marketplace of the 1890s to 1920s was available for talented lucky women to be able to support themselves by their art if their outlook was sufficiently acceptable to the mass of readers and could be used to illustrate popular book. Most of the pictures were of women with children or cosy-like (capable of being seen that way) illustrations of establishment children’s books. But not the gothic tree chosen by the WRofB, and I can’t resist the luxurious lady in “The Library” for the sake of her indwelling among books: