Closing the gaps in women's history Talk to young women about the women's movement, and their eyes glaze over. That's ancient history. Women's equality is a given, taken for granted by today's college-aged women, who were born in the 1980s.
Historian Ruth Rosen discovered how little the younger generation knew about the topic when she stood before a classroom of college students and asked how the women's movement had affected their lives. They couldn't answer. The students stared in amazement as Rosen listed on the blackboard the myriad of indignities and roadblocks women had encountered before women's liberation swept the nation in the 1960s and '70s.
After her epiphany in the classroom, Rosen, professor of history at the University of California-Davis, decided to write a book that would document the origins and impact of the contemporary women's movement.
The result is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, a comprehensive account of the personalities and issues that dominated the drive for women's equality. This modern movement marks the third major era of women's rights the first two being the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention of 1848 and the women's suffrage movement of the early 1900s and the one having the most profound impact on the lives of women. Rosen dates the beginning of the movement from the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan was among the first to notice that the Donna Reed persona of the 1950s housewife had left many women with deep feelings of frustration and boredom. Rosen shows how the frustrations of these women led to an eventual revolt by their daughters, the young women of the 1960s who were determined not to live under the same constraints. As an activist herself, Rosen is particularly adept at capturing the passion that motivated many participants in the movement. From consciousness-raising sessions to protest marches, the new feminist culture served to energize converts and shake the establishment to its core.
Although Rosen is a noted feminist academic, with two of her previous books on the standard Women's Studies reading list, in The World Split Open, she creates an accessible narrative account that should appeal to non-academic readers as well.
One battle cry of the feminist movement was, The personal is political. By this, women meant that politics and power structures affected the everyday occurrences of private life, from the home to the workplace. A first-rate description of how the women's movement affected the personal lives of women can be found in Elizabeth Fishel's Reunion: The Girls We Used to Be, the Women We Became (Random House, $23.95, 0679449833). Spurred by her 25th high school reunion, Fishel decided to trace the paths of ten classmates after their graduation in 1968 from the Brearley School, a girls' school favored by New York City's wealthiest families.
Fishel gives a fascinating account of how these young women were caught in the crossfire between the old world of wealth and privilege and the new world of social upheaval and changing roles for women. Women just a half generation older were secure in their lives as housewives and mothers, while women a few years younger aimed for careers as doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. The girls of the class of '68 were left floundering, unsure which direction to take, as a social revolt erupted around them. Fishel follows them through suicide, divorce, drugs, alcohol, career changes, and spiritual seeking. Along the way, she points out broader generational patterns and statistical tidbits, such as this one: Women born in the 1950s have had fewer children than any other generation in U.S. history. The women of the Brearley class conformed to this trend, with many remaining childless or choosing motherhood later in life.
Fishel's book ends on an upbeat note when the class gathers in 1998 for its 30th reunion. Despite the anguish and confusion they have endured, many of these women reach a more peaceful plane as they approach their 50th birthdays. Although few have the lived the lives they dreamed of, most have come to terms with the choices they made.
Another good reading selection for Women's History Month is Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 0679431063) which gives detailed and incisive portraits of 12 women writers who lived and wrote in the transitional era before the women's movement leveled the playing field. Pierpont could have titled her book Hard-Headed Women, for if there is one quality these fiesty women writers have in common, it's stubbornness. From Gertrude Stein to Eudora Welty, each woman stuck to the course she set, which was often outside the norm established for women of the day.
The 12 women profiled here are all what Pierpont considers literary women of influence (very different from women of literary influence). In other words, their writing changed the way people thought about race, about politics, and about sex.
Pierpont's subjects include both the lesser known (19th century South African novelist Olive Schriner) and the wildly popular (Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell). One surprising inclusion is Mae West, who made her name as the Madonna of her era, more than willing to deny conventions of appropriate sexual behavior. It's not nearly as well known that West was also a writer. As Pierpont notes, Mae West had to become a writer before she could be a movie star. In 1926, West wrote a three-act play titled simply, Sex, which delighted its sold-out audiences, but appalled the critics. West went on to the movies, where she often punched up her own part in the script to add sizzle.
Pierpont gives sympathetic portrayals of these often outlandish and avant-garde women, with the curious exception of Eudora Welty. This Mississippi writer earns Pierpont's criticism for failing to condemn the racial bigotry that existed in her home state. Only once, in a short story about the assassination of Medgar Evers, did Welty express anguish over racial discrimination. For Pierpont, this studied avoidance of social reality casts a pall over Welty's work.
And finally, for the younger woman in your life, Penny Colman has written an excellent overview of a neglected topic, Girls: A History of Growing up Female in America (Scholastic, $18.95, 0590371290). Working from letters, diaries and other original sources, Colman pieces together a culturally diverse account of girls' experiences throughout U.S. history. Girls coming of age in the new millennium will find role models, encouragement, humor, and despair in the life stories presented here. From pioneer girls to future astronauts, each has a unique story to tell.