Women Writers Reading: Angélique Jamail reads Erika Johansen

I often tell my students, especially my seniors, that they need to make the world a better place. They smile, they nod, they agree. They contemplate ways in which they might do that.

I’m not being flippant when I charge them with this important task. The conversation usually begins with a student’s own exploration of a social issue, a question about justice in an unjust world. A conversation follows in which we look at as many sides as we can, and I let them do most of the work. My older students, cognizant of the world they inhabit, draw some impressive conclusions pretty quickly in a classroom I’ve tried to make as safe a space as possible.

“Go out and fix the world,” I say with a smile, veering them back toward the surface lesson, something rooted in whatever text we’re studying. “Please.” I can only hope they make the genuine attempt to do so, utilizing the vast resources available to them through their education and status in the world, the myriad opportunities unfolding before them like flowers in the springtime sun.

Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy addresses the idea of how one fixes a broken world in a setting which appears in the first book, The Queen of the Tearling, to be undeniable fantasy. One might be forgiven for the assumption, early on, that the Tearling is in some version of medieval Europe. Armor-clad and sword-wielding knights on horseback escorting a young heir-apparent to her castle could hardly suggest otherwise. But as the book goes on, it teaches us to expand our assumptions. There is magic in this world. There is an enigmatic history involving a mass migration of people to a foreign land. There might be a chronology we weren’t expecting. Eventual allusions help us to see that the Tearling is a realm set far behind us, the readers, in technology but far ahead of us in time.

The writing is unapologetic, efficient, fearless, instructive. The protagonist, Kelsea, is a young woman whose situation offers no leeway for her impulsive—though noble-hearted—choices. The primary villain, an evil queen worthy of the darkest fairy tales, slices through our expectations the way her ruthless army cuts a swath of destruction across Kelsea’s land. If an aspiring writer wants to know how to create strong female characters who are both equal to their male counterparts and still realistic women, then Johansen’s books should be at the top of the TBR list. Beyond that, the Tearling is just a good story, engaging and gripping in the fiercest ways, filled with political machinations and peril and characters the reader can love.

The second book, The Invasion of the Tearling, drops us right into the action where the first book left off, and as we move through the story, we come to understand that the Tearling is not so much alt-history as it is a cautionary tale. Soon we meet new characters in a completely new setting, starting with Lily Mayhew, an American living in the late 21st century. And now the trilogy, as it alternates mysteriously between Kelsea’s and Lily’s disparate settings, embraces its dystopian nature full-force.

Lily’s social circle reflects the deepest emptiness of socialite life, the predecessor of which can easily be discovered in any elite community today, against the backdrop of an ominously imminent “smart” world. Here, women have again become property and technology imprisons us all. The world of Lily Mayhew is a grim combination of technological superiority and Big Brother, a fantasy world which is bleak because we must know it to be our own world, that we ourselves are just a few unfortunate choices away from bringing this near-future dystopia down on our own heads.

And Lily, along with visionary William Tear and the new community he has amassed, sail through a rift in time and place to what will eventually become the Tearling, a realm that Queen Kelsea, three hundred years later, must manage. The escape from our world to a different one is a powerful fantasy, especially now when society appears, on some days, to be devolving around us amidst the crumbles of social discourse and anesthetizing entertainment options.

Tear takes with him all of the things he imagines his utopia will need, which does not include guns or other modern weapons. They are not going with an intention to replicate their modern society with all its flaws. They know they will be starting over in so many ways, and their new society’s population has been cultivated to include the people who can best give it a chance at thriving. They carry with them medicines and doctors, artisans and utopian-minded people, textiles and books.

Books play an important role in the Tearling, and no wonder. It’s no secret that reading fiction from an early age cultivates empathy and emotional intelligence. When Tear’s utopian society experiences divisions, some of those fractures split along the same tribal lines that divide us in our real world. The characters who value books in the Tearling are not the people who, in real life, make an embittered bonfire of their school work every summer and later, as adults, refuse to believe scientific and statistical data on issues such as climate change, gun control, and whether federal money funds abortions.

Johansen’s trilogy is social critique writ large. It cautions readers to examine their own culture, their own religious institutions, their own choices, and to ask whether the concept of utopia truly can transcend human nature. The third book, The Fate of the Tearling, glaringly demonstrates the way a society begins to break down, sliding into catastrophic failure, using as its fissures the seemingly benevolent blessings of faith and devotion. As one character notes, “Few things are more dangerous to an egalitarian ideal than the concept of a chosen people… Our species is capable of altruism, certainly, but it is not a game we play willingly, let alone well.”

The character Row Finn, who inhabits all three books in varying aspects of what a person can be, is a prescient choice for a messiah: someone whose intentions may encompass a greater good, but whose methods and scruples belie a worse sort of humanity, a lack of belief in the viability of equality, a perilous arrogance about the righteousness of his own perfect vision.

Johansen also examines the question of liberty versus security: how much influence the state should have over a free society, and what its role is in protecting a community. It’s not an easy question in real life, and the Tearling story honors its complications in earnest and heartfelt ways.


When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush made a case for war which neglected one crucial component: the budget to pay for it.

As the conflict dragged on, seemingly without end, the federal budget every year failed to make appropriate provisions for the war. Perhaps in an effort to make our involvement in Iraq more palatable to the American people, Bush never came out and asked the country to make sacrifices.

The nation made sacrifices, yes, tremendous ones, especially in people and cultural values, but at no point were we asked to cut back on anything. Not on spending, not on the near-pathological celebration of ideology, not on the consumption of our resources. In fact, just the opposite: the American public was urged to spend, spend, spend to help bolster the economy. There were no victory gardens for the Iraq War, only a steadfast belief in the dark Dickensian aphorism that whatever is, is right.

The idea of sacrifice has become taboo in our culture. The idea that a family might want to tighten its metaphorical belt during stressful financial times has become shameful, even though in reality, there is greater dishonor in irresponsibility. The idea that one might have to give something up has grown so unpleasant that we as a culture, obsessed with instant gratification, can barely stomach it. We don’t, as a society, even acknowledge something as basic and undeniable as the physical sacrifices a woman makes to carry and birth a child; every tabloid and magazine cover in the checkout line at the grocery store will assure you these circumstances are a disgrace.

The final book of the Tearling trilogy unflinchingly explores the idea of sacrifice, forcing the characters and the reader to confront the question of what types of sacrifice are meaningful and appropriate, and when they can be righteously made. What, for example, must a queen sacrifice for her realm? What must a citizenry sacrifice for a functioning, civil society? What if that sacrifice includes one’s own assumptions? As one character insists, “These people are so damned proud of their hatred! Hatred is easy, and lazy to boot. It’s love that demands effort, love that exacts a price from us. Love costs; this is its value.”

Johansen offers confident and intense answers to these questions, and while I won’t tell you how the story ends, I will tell you that the conclusion of the Tearling trilogy is—like all the best endings—at once satisfying and shocking, unpredictable and yet inevitable.


In the author’s note at the end of the third book, Johansen charges us all with going out to make a better world, which is the central theme of Queen Kelsea’s life’s work. It is the task given to her by her guardian, whose memory haunts Kelsea throughout her reign. It is the underlying quest of all the characters Kelsea meets or becomes in her fugue states, those original settlers of the world which became the Tearling.

And the ways in which they fail or succeed are meant to challenge us, the readers, to make us question our own complicity in creating the world we have perhaps tried to escape through reading.

  About the Author

Angélique Jamail’s poetry and essays have appeared in over two dozen anthologies and journals, including Time-Slice (2005), Improbable Worlds (2011), Pluck Magazine (2011), The Milk of Female Kindness—An Anthology of Honest Motherhood (2013), and Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston (2015). Her work was selected as a Finalist for the New Letters Prize in Poetry in 2011. Her magic realism novelette Finis. (2014) has been praised by fiction writer Ari Marmell as having “some of the most real people I’ve encountered via text in a long time,” and by poet Marie Marshall as “a witty tale of conformity, prejudice, and transformation, in a world that is disturbing as much for its familiarity as for its strangeness.” An illustrated edition of Finis., with drawings by Houston-based artist Lauren Taylor, was released in 2015. She teaches Creative Writing and English in Houston. Find her online at her blog Sappho’s Torque.

Posted in book reviews, feminist reads, pop culture, Women Writers Reading | 6 Comments

America made this supermodel a feminist

Too good not to share: Paulina Porizkova’s op-ed in the New York Times about how America made her a feminist. Nearly as interesting as Porizkova’s sharp assessments of how women and sex are viewed in the different countries in which she’s lived and worked are the commenters who firmly believe that having been a model and thus having at times been photographed in little clothing automatically bars her from being able to sincerely believe in political, social, and legal equality for women/all genders.

We had this discussion in class last semester over the controversy about whether anyone can take Emma Watson seriously as a feminist because Vanity Fair printed some alluring photographs of her. There were some in my class who agreed that because we had seen skin, Watson was colluding in the relentless media objectification/sexualization of women and therefore could not be truthfully considered someone who disapproves of discrimination, violence against women, sexualization, i.e., a feminist.

My question was and is: who owns the woman’s body? The woman, or the people looking at her? Perhaps it’s a simplistic take on the situation, but that answer, to me, decides who can carry their feminist card, and who has to turn theirs in.

Meanwhile, here’s a book to put on pre-order: A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp, coming soon from MIT Press. If you read it, consider writing a review!


Posted in feminist rants, general cattiness | 1 Comment

Summer Reading Roundup: Writing Women’s Lives

Summer is just the time for lovely, doorstop-sized biographies of wonderful women writers. Some of these aren’t that recent, but still good reads nonetheless. For your long sunny hours at the pool or beach, femmeliterate recommends:

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty

As the LA Times review concedes, the best biographer of Joan Didion is Joan Didion. But for those who want an overview and some connective tissue between her nonfiction and fiction, a behind-the-scenes look at the writing of A Star is Born, and funny stories about those times that Harrison Ford came to work on the house, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song is a worthwhile read.






Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin makes a page-turning narrative out of the life of Shirley Jackson, who, when she wasn’t writing spine-tingling horror stories, was tossing off excellent and hilarious observations on motherhood and parenting for Good Housekeeping and places like it. Franklin is perceptive, generous, and a wonderful reader of Jackson’s early novels and stories, going beyond biographical parallels between the life and the work to explore Jackson’s favorite themes, obsessions, interests, and fears. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is entirely engrossing.




Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Therese Svodoba

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Therese Svodoba

In addition to a history lesson and an insight into a now-overlooked force on the literary scene, Therese Svodoba gives wonderful force and insight into her reading of the poetry of Lola Ridge in Anything That Burns You. Given the many recognizable names and memorable events—both literary and historical—that pepper every page, it’s remarkable that Lola Ridge isn’t more well know. It will take a dedicated fan or a very determined curious person to make it through the whole book, but reading is an education in itself, and Ridge’s poetry is powerful and haunting.





Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, by Deborah Beatriz Blum

Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, by Deborah Beatriz Blum

This biography of Mead’s early life is an account, more than anything, of how she got to Samoa; the process of writing of the work that made this early anthropologist famous is unfortunately sketched over in this book, and replaced with accounts of logistical difficulty and the weather. However, it’s made beautiful by the time and care given to Mead’s dearest friends and lovers, who are written as point-of-view characters, and gives wonderful glimpses into their lives and motivations as they are interwoven with (and left behind by) Mead’s restless spirit and relentless ambition. Coming of Age explores a new dimension of this American icon and adventurer.




Never enough Charlotte Brontë

The Secret History of Jane Eyre, by John Pfordfresher

Here’s a two-fer: The Secret History of Jane Eyre offers a thoughtful exploration of the events of Charlotte Brontë’s life that infused her famous novel with such power and depth. Hardcore fans will enjoy seeing the book brought to life by the Charlotte seen through her letters and other writings, from the devotion to her family, the love of the wild place where she lived, and her painfully doomed love for Constantin Heger.

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman

For true biography, however, turn to Claire Harman’s A Fiery Heart for a narrative of Charlotte’s life written in prose almost as luminous and beautiful as her own.






Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt

And if you’re looking for a slimmer read that offers a slighter but no less lovely insight into the mind of a beloved author, take a peek at Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs. His correspondence with Harper Lee, though it finds her late in life and much concerned with things like illness and where they shall go to lunch, is a wonderful reflection on Lee’s relationship with her fame and the remarkable legacy of her very remarkable book.

Posted in book reviews | Comments Off on Summer Reading Roundup: Writing Women’s Lives

The Bitch is Back (and hooray for that!)

A few years ago, when in the span of about four years I got a Ph.D., got a real job as an assistant professor, moved across the country to a part of the world I’d never inhabited with a man I’d known and loved for about a year, then married that man and shortly after that had a tiny perfect daughter who was more beautiful than anything I could ever have imagined, and then left my wonderful and fulfilling job to move our young family closer to our other family and subsequently add to that family by the addition of a perfect young son (WHEW!), I was as a stay-at-home/work-from-home mother more lost, lonely, unmoored, and unmentored than I ever had been in my life. My inner circle was seven hours away by car; my social life consisted of my MOPS group, which met once a month. I had no one to talk to, complain to, or just sigh with exasperation and weariness and outrage to, and when I did try to edge toward Real Feelings with my inner circle, I just upset them, resulting in the insistence that I had to put the kids in the car and drive straight north that minute so they could rescue me.

So one of those lost summers, when I picked up The Bitch in the House from the public library, and read it as swiftly and greedily as I could, I laughed and cried and shouted with tears of joy, “YES! FINALLY someone has said what I have been thinking! I’m not so terribly, awfully, desperately alone!” Well, physically I was, but I wasn’t alone, or awful, and no longer quite so desperate in what I was feeling. Every thread of that book—all the rage, hope, humor, love, effort, passion, and bewilderment—hit me right where I felt it. (And also made me think, what can’t I/didn’t I write something like that? I started to fall in love with the personal essay.)

When I saw The Bitch is Back at my new public library, I fell upon it with the delight of welcoming a wise old friend and mentor to my coffee table. And was not disappointed. The critics are right: there’s not quite so much rage in this one. Have we all mellowed because we’re older and wiser and have more coping skills? I don’t think that’s the case. Some of the contributors are from the original volume, but some are new, and add to the varied perspectives. Very few (in fact, I can think of only one) verge on the self-congratulatory look-at-me-and-my-great-life sweep aside of the curtain; most of them are frank, honest, funny, poignant verging on heart-breaking, and just simply, beautifully, wise.

Because anger and helplessness and aloneness and abandonment are not the focus anymore; the focus of these women is by and large on themselves, what they’ve learned about themselves in and out of relationship, and how they’ve come to their own philosophies about feminism, love, sex, art, work, life, and domesticity. They are the voices of women who have looked at themselves and examined their choices, learned to laugh at themselves and remedy their mistakes. They are the voices of women who have struggled through difficult times and learned to find balance. They are the voices (again, I can think of only that one exception) who are reaching out a hand across the coffee table to say, sister, I’ve been there, I feel you; here’s my take on that.

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, the first book to identify me to myself as a bitch, and inform me that it was okay to be one.

I want to sit down in this room full of women and listen to them talk for hours. But more than that, their honesty and clarity and forthrightness and sheer grit has encouraged me to look at myself a little more sternly and figure out where my pressure points are. And rather than falling into the rage/bewilderment/hopeless loneliness/self-pity cycle, I ask myself: what can I do?

Besides which, it’s summer, and therefore my writing time. Yes, I am sending my kids to daycare in the summer (summer!) so that I have a few hours a day to write. As my supervisor at the Writing Center said (she’s a published author, too), writing is your job. You need to set aside time to do it. And I am, with full friendly-bitch-face, protecting that time to the utmost. Yes, I still struggle to find the balance—to give my spiritual growth, paying work, fulfilling relationships, community service, children and husband and housework and family all the proper time and attention those segments of my life need to thrive. But I learned a valuable lesson from those days of blasted loneliness: if I let the creative part of me wither, every single other slice of the pie gets poisoned by the blight. So, in this house also, the bitch is back, and doggone am I happy to see her.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia captures all her best provocations, smoke bombs, and sturdy anti-establishmentarianism in this collection of essays, opening with excerpts from her hefty and admittedly groundbreaking Sexual Personae (1990) and ending with recent publications on Salon.com affirming her stance on abortion and the sadomasochism of high heels.

As usual, Paglia prides herself on being strident, combative, and anti-mainstream, advocating her personal brand of “dissident,” “Amazonian feminism” and promising she is the “60s come back to haunt the present.” At some points it begins to feel like Paglia’s counter-culturalism has become a sheer reflex. If it’s a majority opinion, she’s going to refute it, and pride herself that her combative instincts (gifted her, she suggests, by her Italian-American descent) have guided her to a truth that the myopic, misguided, spineless crowd is too duped to see or too dim to understand.

Book cover sexual personaeThe relentless self-satisfaction and feelings of superiority aside, Paglia’s intellectual endeavors of the past 27 years are full of striking common sense. Abortion, she declares, should be legal on the sheer fact of constitutional rights. She’ll concede pro-lifers the moral high ground, given their feelings about the sanctity of life, but she comes down staunchly libertarian on this political spectrum. Madonna, she noticed early on, is a “real” feminist: “She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive, and funny—all at the same time” (50).

Paglia is a big fan of “independence, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and not blaming other people for your problems” (67).  She is an unabashed follower of Dionysus and the ideals of beauty and pleasure, preferring de Sade to Rousseau, Freud to Lacan, Wilde to Wollstonecraft. She likes the aggression and athleticism of American football, admires the aesthetic of gay men, and appreciates pornography for its celebration of sexual impulse and its melding of danger and eroticism. Sex is dangerous, Paglia asserts, and danger is sexy. That she pointed out this self-evident truth is why, she seems to think, everybody got on her case over S.P.

book cover vamps and trampsPaglia gets less pleasure out of celebrating the things she does like, however, than she does out of bashing the things she hates. Paglia’s praise is warm but mild, but her glee when she holds the sledgehammer is glorious to behold. Most of the book is a strident and, by the end, well-rehearsed tirade against the same set of targets: mainstream Western feminism (“Infirmary Feminism”) and feminists, with their “moldy neuroses,” women’s studies centers, poststructuralist theory (oh, how Paglia loathes poststructuralism! she trots out her best insults on this rampage), and the Victorian coddling of college students over date rape.

book cover break blow burnLibertarian as she is, as noted, Paglia fails to see how a good dose of bucking up, showing some backbone, slinging insults, and—in the case of real women leaders, like female presidential candidates—maybe have a little military training can not immediately solve the problems women have created for themselves by being born into a world where men have invented technology, culture, government, sports, and fashion. Paglia might be more persuasive if she were more inclined to negotiate, consider all sides, explore, rethink, and potentially compromise—best seen in her lecture at MIT, when she howls with outrage over a presentation she had to sit through with a feminist scholar critiquing fashion photography. Beauty is all! Paglia says, not ever considering how a young and impressionable girl might be led to decades of hating and disfiguring her own body because she doesn’t live up to these highly managed and curated images. But Paglia is having too much fun to put down the sledgehammer, and besides, she hates sissies.

Though her running patter on the history of second wave feminism, her antipathy for Gloria Steinem, her admiration for women like Amelia Earhart and Katherine Hepburn and Germaine Greer, and her John-the-Baptist sense of being the prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness start to feel worn and well-used by their last iterations (though one has to admire Paglia for her consistency), this book is still a must-read for anyone who calls themselves a feminist. For one thing, her history of feminism, though highly condensed, is highly useful, especially where she finds it infused with nineteenth century utilitarianism and eighteenth century Romanticism.

book cover sex art and american cultureFor another, Paglia’s critique of women’s studies programs and the way academic feminists train other academic feminists deserves some serious consideration. Her plea to inject some self-possession and some real common sense—and some basic knowledge of science, including biology—into mainstream feminism should be taken seriously, too. Last but not least, her prose, even when she’s at her most insulting, has a spare, lithe, powerful beauty. The book is simply fun to read, occasional howlers aside.

And her ultimate call—that feminism create a path for real, tangible equality for all genders, no matter what they are—is, after all, femmeliterate’s goal, too. So on that—even though I suspect Paglia would consign me and this site as party to the sniveling, vegetable-crisper School of Feminism—I’m on her side. I wish I were teaching a gender studies class next semester so that I could assign this book.

Posted in feminist rants, feminist reads, general cattiness, The Feminists are Teaching, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia

Divided We Stand, by Marjorie J. Spruill

Divided We Stand by Marjorie SpruillDepending on how you look at it, feminism has either become more acceptable and mainstream, or it continues to be perceived by most young women as a radical dogma that requires one to forego personal grooming and to revile men. Feminism is either strong, better, more pervasive than ever before, or it’s been hijacked into a marketing ploy that “liberates” young women by insisting they express themselves by the clothes, make-up, and accessories they buy and wear. Second-wave feminism is dead but third- and fourth-wave feminism are thriving. Wave feminism is archaic and waveless feminism is the thing. Feminism is a global cause or Western feminists have to be very careful about how they try to foist their imperialistic views on others. Feminists are still mainly white and ignorant of the battles of their less privileged sisters. Intersectionality is where it’s at. The future face of feminism is young, multi-colored, and somewhere outside the restrictive gender binary. Feminism is everywhere. Feminism is you.

I think all these discussions are delightful. I love reading about them and participating in them. But sometimes, one feels like the ground is ever-shifting. What does feminism even mean these days? What does it signal if I identify as a feminist? What does it require of me? Can I march for my sisters, or do I need to let my sisters speak for themselves? Do I need to feel ashamed of my white, upper-middle-class, highly-educated privilege? Do I need to rebuke the women standing in the same echelon who say they don’t need to march because they don’t see inequality? That if women are being held back, it’s their own choice?

Okay, that last one is easy. I think a rebuke is definitely called for in the last instance. Better yet, I will direct the privileged sister to read Dina Leygerman’s great blog post, “You Are Not Equal, I’m Sorry,” captured on Medium. You don’t have to march, she’s saying, but a polite “thank you” to the women who suffered and fought so you could be ignorant of your own privilege and the forces still holding back other women is not out of line.

And for those who are wondering how, if the fight has been going on for over 40 years, we’re not further along in the spectrum toward equality for all genders, there is an excellent explanation offered in historian Marjorie J. Spruill’s new book, Divided We Stand.

This is a dense book aimed at fellow feminist historians, but it’s a huge contribution to the history of second-wave feminism in the United States, and an absolute must-read for anyone interested in how the wave got halted and the different camps, feminist vs. anti-feminist, so divisively bitter. Spruill begins with the dramatic assessment that the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, in 1977 was a dramatic watershed moment in the advance of women’s rights in the United States, and she spends the bulk of the book in a detailed inquiry of what led up to the conference, and what happened there, with the last segments devoted to a summation of what has happened for women’s rights in this country between then and now.

It takes some persuading to the see the NWC as a fundamental accomplishment, especially since Spruill, both times she talks about it–in the introductory chapter, and then in the middle chapters exploring the Houston event–spends at least as much time discussing the anti-feminist, anti-ERA rally taking place alongside, an event that seems to have been louder, better-attended, and even more self-congratulatory. For those curious about what the recent Women’s Marches following Trump’s inauguration have accomplished, this book is a good reminder that protests galvanize, provide solidarity, and develop loyalty among a group. It is also testament to the fact that, when you have two equally heated opinions that are dead-set against one another, nothing gets done beyond a lot of screaming, insult-launching, and exaggerated hyperbole.

This is best seen in the chapters devoted to the state conferences preceding the NWC, whose job it was to elect delegates to the national convention and determine a platform to submit. Here there is a tragic arc to the narrative as well. While legislative and popular support for the ERA in particular and the idea of women’s rights in particular was high in the initial stages, the conventions did what they were supposed to do: elect a diverse set of delegates and develop a platform that reflected a progressive agenda of full civil rights, including reproductive rights and non-discrimination, for the national platform that would eventually be submitted to the president. Once the anti-ERA forces got into action—the forces who passionately believed that the traditional family structure, with the woman at home dependent on the husband, were the only right model for everyone—the book becomes a wearying account of how, state by state, busloads of smug white evangelical women and their husbands descended on conventions, disrupted any fruitful discussion, congratulated themselves for being family champions, and then went back home to their safe, white houses.

Spruill doesn’t shy away from how the anti-forces deployed all sorts of others groups, including the KKK, to bulk out their protest numbers (an association Schafly always denied). In short, these chapters pound home the point learned from watching the U.S. Congress in action for the last six years: those who can make every effort available to obstruct an agenda that might mean more social justice for the broader population can usually manage to succeed. But the book also doesn’t shy away from showing the divisions within the feminist ranks—the arguments over how far to embrace LGBT rights, for example, and how to handle the abortion question—that led to factions and fissures there that generally left the middle-of-the-road feminists and the pro-life feminists with no place to go. As the more progressive voices won out, some of the middle who weren’t prepared to go that far get left behind—which is why the popular opinion still prevails among my students that feminists are strident, bra-burning, man-hating radicals, which means productive conversations about how to promote equal rights and just treatment for all genders get derailed quickly.

Spruill’s research is excellent and her prose, for the most part, is up to the task of handling the many threads of her narrative. There are some places where her overviews descend into roll calls of who was at a certain meeting or who supported a certain piece of legislation; there are other places where the narrative seems to switch back and forth in time, and one goes over ground that already felt covered. These are small drawbacks to what otherwise is a sharp, smart, very well-organized assessment of just what the feminist were fighting for, and what their opponents were fighting against. She is fair to both sides, quotes scrupulously and at length from her primary research, and also managed to interview many of the major figures on their involvement.

The major women on the scene emerge as courageous, charismatic, dedicated, impressive people, among them Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan (all pro-ERA), and Phyllis Schafly (anti). The story of how Schafly nearly single-handedly organized the resistance and halted such an enormously important piece of legislation as equal rights for all genders is awesome and—if you happen to be on the side of equal rights for women—a completely demoralizing example of how the shrill misuse of information and incitement of fear can stop any real dialogue and any positive change from happening (something we continue to see happening in the discussion on women’s rights up to this day). In this way, Spruill’s history is a revealing and explanatory account of just how the divisions between the progressives and the conservatives got so deep and the rhetoric got so heated to the point that there seems no middle ground remaining.

After the last chapters, which are a fast summary of how rights for women have swung back and forth depending on whether the administration was led by a Republican or a Democrat, it’s hard to see a way forward, and Spruill doesn’t really devote herself to solutions. However, she’s laid a careful, solid, even foundation for future investigations of feminist history and women’s rights in the US. Let’s hope she’s also laid the ground for an intelligent discussion of solutions and, perhaps, even without an ERA, a national acceptance of the belief that women are in fact equal to full human, constitutional, civil rights and equal treatment under the law. I hope I live to see that day.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: Protesters walk during the Women’s March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Large crowds are attending the anti-Trump rally a day after U.S. President Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)


Posted in book reviews, feminist rants, feminist reads | Comments Off on Divided We Stand, by Marjorie J. Spruill