There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us. When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul. Read more
Today is the 104th birthday of Martha Griffiths, a ten-term congresswoman sometimes dubbed the “mother of the ERA.” Her most significant contribution, however, came as a key figure in the inclusion of women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a hugely important and fascinating story that understandably isn’t much known – understandably because it was purposefully done behind the scenes, so as not to induce the ridicule of an establishment who by and large still saw women’s rights as a joke at best.
I’m interested in people like Griffiths right now for a lot of reasons, partly because of the way “liberal feminism” or “bourgeois feminism” are sometimes used to describe people who really really really want to see a woman President or Sheryl Sandburg pontificating at Davos.
Having been immersed in the feminist archive from the 1960s and 1970s for a better part of the last year, I think this is unfair: not to HRC of Sandburg but to liberal feminism. In the activist history of the period, there were, by and large, clear divisions between the liberal and radical wings of the movement. Liberals wanted to integrate the public sphere, the professions, and end not just job and pay discrimination but the complete job segregation that existed at the time. It’s found in figures like Griffiths, journalists like, Marlene Sanders and Judy Klemersrud, who snuck sympathetic coverage into the mainstream, and organizations like the National Organization for Women and many local and national organizations that fought for the ERA. And they fought for the reform of abortion laws – an issue on which liberals and radicals were united.
This wing was criticized by radicals who thought not only the public sphere but the family, sexuality and all human relations needed to be reconsidered. They rightly targeted figures like NOW founder Betty Friedan for their homophobia. Many saw the ERA as a distraction and the demobilization that followed its defeat suggested there was much to this. Certainly, the remarkable cultural, social and political changes could not have occurred without the radicals pushing at the wing of the possible.
At the same time, the liberals achieved a lot, starting with NOW’s huge win right at its founding when the Times desegregated its job ads. And it was a real movement – Griffith’s work was supported by a real grassroots network. Given how many forests have died over whether it matters to call oneself a feminist, I don’t have too much invested in these terms either, but if you’re interested in the real “inside/outside” dynamics of change, disingenuous claims about “making change from the inside” shouldn’t take away from the legacies of those who actually did it.
Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.
Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.” Read more
I watched Selma last night and really enjoyed it. As usual, I agree with what Eileen Jones says: it’s a great and rare-for-movies portrayal of political strategy and tactics. I was especially impressed by how many different activists were given important and distinct parts: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: we get a sense of their particular work without any cheap backstories.
But there was one, very small touch that really struck me: the way the family treated the story of Viola Liuzzo. I knew just a little about her story, mostly the outlines of her story Corey mentions in his wonderful post: that of a white mother of 5 and local activist from Detroit who heeded King’s call to come lend aid to the march, only to be murdered right after the third and triumphant march by KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma. When I saw her introduced in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would handle this: portraying this senseless loss just after the moment of great triumph. That’s not the way the scripts go, and who would have blamed Ava Duvernay or the film for leaving it out? But they don’t. It’s right there in those usually triumphant final titles: we read: Viola Liuzzo was murdered 5 hours after this speech just as the music swells. It’s not a story of sacrifice and then triumph: the sacrifices just keep coming.
Most days I take my son to school on the bus and there are a couple of high schoolers who ride it regularly. Recently I heard them complain about their English teacher and why she kept talking about racism and King: “We get it. He made a good speech. Get over it.” I understand the resistance of many to using a Hollywood film, even a very good one, as the basis for education, but there’s no doubt Selma offers lots of people a lot more than what they’ve been getting.
Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.
- “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review. A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.
Nearly four years into this whole parenting thing, I have no great unified theory of parenting. I do have a theory about kids books, though. To me, there is no failed literary experiment or abstruse academic text so baffling as the children’s book written by someone who has apparently never read a book to a child. What’s interesting about these books is that if you describe them they often don’t sound so terrible, but trying to read them you have no choice but to change the words. The words don’t track, don’t fit the story, don’t fit the pictures. They’re invariably overwritten. I’ve never gone along with the whole kill-all-the-adjectives and adverbs thing, but it’s really true for picture books.
With this lovely Ben Lerner LRB piece in mind, about (among other things) how the existence of Really Bad Poetry can help us think about what good poetry is, I’ve been thinking about what these baffling books can tell us about what makes a great book for little kids. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a good picture book aspires to the condition of poetry. That is, it has to use some combination of the things that make poetry poetry: condensed and/or heightened language, attention to rhythm, rhyme or sound, repetition and variation, attention to how words are presented on the page. With picture books of course that means not only arrangement and typeface but how the pictures interact with the words. A bad or mediocre picture book often reads like the author had an idea, often seemingly based on something they liked as a kid, wrote it up in excruciating detail, then had someone draw some related pictures.
So here are ten picture books that have given me a lot of pleasure, and that my son also loves. (There are lots of so-so books that kids love that can drive parents crazy with enough repetition; there are lots of crappy ones that can’t hold a kid’s attention; the really good ones appeal to both.)
Some of these are pretty well known but I tried to included some less known ones, or somewhat lesser known ones by well known authors.
In no particular order:
1) Harold’s Fairy Tale, by Crockett Johnson (1956).
One of many follow-ups to the also wonderful Harold and the Purple Crayon. An epitome of words and pictures synthesis, as Harold draws the world as the words create it. Lore Segal, best writing teacher I ever had once told a story about sharing a hallway with Malamud who told her he was writing a story about a runner, which was very hard, because he had to make the world he ran through. That’s what these books are about. For me, Fairy Tale is even better than the original because its story, about how creating an imaginary king and imaginary gardens, is so wittingly subversive. So imagine my delight to find out Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk) was a big old commie who wrote cartoons for the New Masses. The books are funny too. (An interesting thing I’ve learned is that a lot of children’s book authors and illustrators had really fascinating lives.)
Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of 69. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news, the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of poor women, a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms. which I was reading religiously.* Tilmmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children: Read more
On November 15, 1917, Alice Paul, the thirty-two year old founder of the National Woman’s Party, had begun serving a seven month prison sentence, purportedly for blocking traffic but in reality because of the series of provocative protests targeting President Wilson. NWP called Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” targeted a meeting between Wilson and the new Russian government, and staged the first ongoing picket of the White House and burned copies of his speeches, a particularly bold action during a time of war and repression of dissent.
Word came this week that Kate Winslet will star in a movie about Lee Miller. It’s certainly a life that begs for cinematic treatment: Miller was a young model, a muse and collaborator to Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau who became one of the most important photographers and war photographers of the century. Her work ranged from abstract treatments of the Egyptian landscape to the war photographs she is most known for. A while ago, I published a poem inspired by a photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub at his house in Munich, where Miller and collaborator David Scherman arrived a few days ahead of the American troops. She and Sherman came to the home from Dachau, where they were among the first photographers to arrive. There’s so much about that picture I love: the boots and dirty bathmat seem more beautifully irreverent and darkly hopeful than Mel Brooks’ dancing Nazis could ever hope to be. Given Winslet’s somewhat well-known penchant for movies that ask for tasteful or meaningful artistic dis-robing, I can’t help but wonder if this photograph will play a role in the movie.
I got interested in Miller after reading a chapter about her in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. It’s a collection of short biographical essays, probably my favorite genre, and not only because I usually get overwhelmed by shopping-list level of detail in full-length biographies. It’s also the perfect genre for the women Prose writes about, all of whom struggled in one way or another with their own creative ambitions, the politics of the artistic circles in which they travelled, and the not insignificant calculations behind whether, how, and for how long, to sleep with the artist in question. (Prose goes on a bit defensively in her introduction about defending her subject from the charge that the muse is anti- or at least non-feminist, but the stories themselves are universally fascinating looks at sexual politics, although I did wish she’d mixed it up a bit with chapters on Neal Cassidy, Alice Toklas or Natalie Barney, to name a few.)
In the bathtub picture, Miller plays both roles: she didn’t take the picture, obviously, but she had the idea for it, and you don’t have to have read Laura Mulvey to realize there are worlds going on in her look.
The war divided Miller’s life. Her life after the war was marked by heavy drinking and depression, likely related to her war experiences. She was also a legendary hostess whose farm was a legendary salon for artists and others. Her only child was born in 1947, when she was 40. Throughout the 40s and 50s, MI-5 spied on her for communist tendencies. There being no evidence of espinoge, her communism is described as “more of a mental outlook.” Her boss at Vogue told the spooks: “She is eccentric and indulges in queer food and queer clothes.”
The film is based on a book by Miller’s son, who was born after her artistic working life had ended and knew little of it until after she passed away. Given the well-known dangers of the bio-pic, I dread watching Winslet play drunk in bad aging makeup, or some movie of the week tripe about the conflict between work and family. If I were making it, (call me!) I would be tempted to have two unconnected scenes: one around the making of the one film she was in: Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood of Poet,” in which she played a statue, and one on the day in that apartment: show them coming to the idea, show her and Sherman talking: what more “tensions” do we need than that distance?
So Playboy is apparently bowing to the reality of the internet age and giving up on naked pictures. In elegizing the magazine’s relevance, the Times makes an interesting aside about its relationship to the feminist movement, stating “Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention — Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist, went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Mr. Hefner’s spinoff clubs to write an exposé for Show Magazine in 1963.” This isn’t quite wrong but it’s a little misleading: in 1963 Steinem wasn’t a well-known feminist but a young freelance writer just starting to find serious work; the Playboy piece ending up standing in the way of that.
As the Times points out, the original Playboy’s version of the good life – (“cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, . . a little mood music . . .a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”) now feels if anything a bit quaint. What’s interesting is how, in its early decades, it cast itself as rebelling against two cultural forces that were themselves deeply opposed: first, the traditional domesticity of the fifties, and second, the feminist movement.
As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her great and under-read The Hearts of Men, the first feature article in the 1953 first issue of Playboy was an attack on alimony. The enemy in the early years were gold-diggers, wives, and all varieties of domesticity. Remarkably, some of the “personal” descriptions of miserable marriages actually sound a bit like what would be published in the radical feminist journals I’m studying 20 years later – except of course that it’s only the men who are miserable, and the wives are laughing at their good fortune to be kept in a life of card-playing and TV-watching.
Not that Hefner and feminists saw any common ground. In 1970, a secretary at Playboy discovered and leaked to women’s lib. groups a memo Hefner had written about an upcoming story on the movement. As Bonnie Dow outlines in Watching Women’s Liberation, some female editors thought the story lacked balance. Hef doubled down: “‘these chicks are our natural enemy'” and it is time to do battle with them . . .What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart.”
Many, many trees have died in all that has been written about how much the anti-porn turn of the feminist movement hurt and divided the movement. But if you look at what Miss America was in 1968, when it was the target of a famous protest, or what Playboy was, you understand why they thought they were on to something, and it’s difficult to imagine the Hef of 1970 would have been any more positively disposed towards a movement with a more nuanced reading of what constituted sexual expression or exploitation. But now Playboy is trying to make itself relevant with a female, sex-positive advice columnist. More has changed than the technology by which 12 year olds get their fix.