Even with a strong female candidate vying for one party’s nomination and another on the opposing party’s ticket for vice president, the 2008 presidential campaigns made many ask whether sexism is really dead. Was the flurry of criticism aimed at the qualifications of the candidates or more about their gender? In any case, Women’s History Month is always a good time to reflect on women’s progress. These five books do just that.
Frances Perkins was the first female member of a presidential Cabinet, and as such she made many contributions to American labor policy, including Social Security and unemployment benefits. As author Kirstin Downey points out, “Factory and office occupancy codes, fire escapes, and other fire-prevention mechanisms are her legacy. About 44 million people collect Social Security checks each month; millions receive unemployment and worker’s compensation or the minimum wage; others get to go home after an eight-hour day because of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Very few know the name of the woman responsible for their benefits.” Downey brings some much-deserved attention to this political pioneer in The Woman Behind the New Deal: Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.
Perkins was a mixture of idealist and agile politician. She might have disagreed with Tammany Hall tactics, but when she needed their support for legislation, she had no hesitation about courting them. She was also aware of how most men viewed women in politics and modified her behavior accordingly, allowing them to view her as a mother figure instead of a career woman. But she was a politician on a mission: she cared about the poor and made it clear to Roosevelt that he would have to agree to her agenda before she would sign on as secretary of labor. â€©Downey presents a balanced picture of the woman who changed the conditions for working America. The average working person today owes a debt to Frances Perkins, and she certainly deserves to be better known than she is.
Women in the arts
Wilhelmina Cole Holladay’s memoir of founding the National Museum of Women in the Arts, A Museum of Their Own, is both entertaining and enlightening. On one hand, the book makes it clear that it takes money and contacts to start a museum. Holladay mentions how things came to her by chance, but it is chance undergirded by means. Still, behind Holladay’s breezy tone is a woman with focus, passion and the willingness to put in a great deal of hard work. When she began working on the museum in the 1970s, she had many detractors who felt that creating a museum for women artists would only have a ghetto effect. Holladay proved that the majority of these artists had in fact been forgotten: they were not exhibited in museums nor even mentioned in art history books. The museum, opened in 1987 in Washington, D.C., has rectified that omission. One of its most important exhibits, “An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum,” not only displayed those paintings, but also probably saved them. The NMWA raised the funds for the conservation of the paintings, many of which were languishing in storage bins, and restoration of the frames. They are now on permanent display at the Hermitage. A Museum of Their Own includes some gorgeous works from the museum’s collection, art by women you may have never heard of, but now have an opportunity to appreciate.
One of the most exciting new books this year for literature lovers is Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. With this book, Showalter adds much-needed perspective to women’s literature, putting works rediscovered by feminist literary scholars into historical context. She looks at the authors’ lives, their works and the way they fit into each phase of American history. Many of the included writers were popular during their own period but written out of the literary history books in the male-dominated academy. Showalter shows respect for these “lost women,” but she also evaluates these works with rigor. A Jury of Her Peers is a critical piece in the study of American literature—it’s also just fun to read.
Regal lives and royal pain
Royal women played an integral role in women’s history. After all, queens were some of the few women with access to power during most of recorded history. Despite the palaces and jewels, however, many royal lives reflected the darker side of women’s lives. Kris Waldherr takes a tongue-in-cheek approach in Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends from Cleopatra to Princess Di. She tells the women’s stories in short vignettes with witty summations at the end of each: the lesson from Princess Diana’s life, for example, is “Avoid men with cameras and Camillas.” To Waldherr, Rasputin, who led to the downfall of Alexandra Romanov, is an “Elmer Gantry on steroids.” Humor aside, Waldherr brings to the forefront the main causes of women’s doom over the years: childbirth, illness, murder and divorce. Doomed Queens’ light touch may just stir enough interest in these royal lives to encourage further reading about them.
Julia P. Gelardi is more serious in her book, In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters, and the Price They Paid for Glory. Gelardi profiles three pairs of royal mothers and daughters: Queen Isabella of Castile and her daughter Catherine of Aragon; Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Queen Marie Antoinette; and Queen Victoria and the Empress Frederick (Princess Vicky). Despite the centuries separating these pairs, they had two key things in common. The mothers ruled in their own right with husbands who supported them in their rule. The daughters, on the other hand, were all groomed to be consorts, married off to establish or solidify relationships with another country. Each of the daughters suffered.
Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII. She was loyal to her new country and beloved by her subjects, but couldn’t fulfill the first responsibility of a royal wife: having a son to inherit the throne (or in this case, one who lived long enough to inherit the throne). Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine hated by the French people. Princess Vicky was thwarted in any attempt to bring reforms to Prussia. She persevered through the hatred of her subjects for decades only to have her husband die a mere 99 days after becoming king. Despite their tragic ends, Gelardi shows there is much to admire in the lives of these women, whether in their battles to hold on to a kingdom or in learning to be patient in the face of hatred and lies.
â€©Faye Jones is dean of learning resources at Nashville State Technical College.