Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker

This guest review by Jo Freeman originally appeared at:

"Princess Alice"

a review of
Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker
by Stacy A. Cordery
Viking - Penguin Group (USA)
October 2007
xiv, 590 pp.

The United States doesn’t have a royal family, but sometimes it has royalty. Dubbed Princess Alice by the press, the eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt acted the part and kept the nickname – not always happily – for the rest of her 96 years.

Moving into the White House at age 17 when her father succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, she was an instant hit with the press. Smoking, gambling and driving automobiles at a time when proper young ladies just did not do those things, her actions and words sold papers. Indeed, the widely read stories about her shenanigans encouraged other young women to emulate her long before the flappers of the 1920s.

TR took advantage of people’s fascination with his teen-age daughter to send her on political and diplomatic missions where she was treated like royalty. She loved the attention, and politely stood in endless reception lines as a representative of her father.

Born on February 12, 1884 to TR’s first wife Alice Lee, who died two days later, she was raised by her aunt for her first three years, joining her father only after he married again. Step-mother Edith added four boys and another girl to Teddy’s brood, but none would ever be as demanding, or as well known, as Alice.

Although the star at the first debutante ball ever held at the White House, she was jealous of the "better" one given her sister six years later. President Roosevelt once commented to a friend that "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

Typical of a daughter of the privileged class, she lacked formal education but not money. A trust fund from her mother’s family gave her an annual income but she always felt like she couldn’t keep up with her very wealthy friends. During the social season she looked for a rich husband and settled on Nicholas Longworth, a Member of Congress from Ohio, 15 years her senior with family wealth of his own. With him she lived in comfort until his death in 1931.

Nick was a rising star in Congress when they married and a powerful one as Speaker from 1925 until the Democrats won the House in the election of 1930. They shared a passion for politics and an active social life, but not much else. Nick had several mistresses, dying in the home of one them. Alice had her own lover, Senator William Borah of Idaho, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the 1920s, with whom she had a daughter in 1925.

She forgave Nick his sexual disloyalty but not his political disloyalty. In the election of 1912 he supported the re-election of fellow Ohioan William Howard Taft (his mentor in politics) for President rather than her father. (TR beat Taft, but Wilson won the election). The Longworths stayed together as a Washington power couple (divorce was socially unacceptable) but otherwise went their own ways.

Alice did not like Nick’s family, or Ohio. While she rejected suggestions that she succeed Nick in Congress, she maintained a residence in Cincinnati so she could vote and be a delegate to Republican National Conventions. But she lived out her life in the District of Columbia, where she eventually became known as "the other Washington Monument."

With the access and status conferred by her father, her husband and her lover, Alice played the game of Washington insider for several decades. She educated herself on the issues of the day through prolific reading, conversations with some of the best minds in the country, and attendance at Congressional committee meetings and debates. Her political acumen was lauded by her contemporaries. Her house became a salon and her dinner parties the place to find out what was really going on.

Although petrified by public speaking, in an intimate atmosphere she was captivating. Senators John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon said that she was their favorite dinner partner and she never lacked for male companionship. After Borah’s death in 1940, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis became her "steady companion" for many years.

Alice acquired a reputation as a wit, noted for her barbs and repartee. She often said that she cared nothing for social convention or what other people thought of her. She liked being outrageous and spoke her mind with an attitude of "detached malevolence" (her words). One of her best friends gave her an embroidered pillow which Alice proudly showed off. It said: "If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone come and sit by me."

Her acid tongue became more vitriolic when her fifth cousin became President. She despised FDR and his programs, and never passed up an opportunity to say so -- even though cousin Eleanor still invited her to the White House. In 1935 she began a regular newspaper column with critiques of the New Deal that readers wouldn’t find in Eleanor’s "My Day" column.

Following her father, Alice began as a progressive Republican but over time became an isolationist and a conservative. She was a central figure (along with Borah) in the Irreconcilables who lobbied against the League of Nations; her home was their headquarters. Twenty years later she became a charter member of the America First Committee which demanded that "Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat."

She supported Taft over Eisenhower in 1952 – even though he was the son of her father’s 1912 opponent. In the 1960s she shifted direction, supporting Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights movement and eventually feminism and gay rights (though she stood by Nixon when few others did).

This book is full of fascinating stories about a fascinating woman. Like the British aristocracy, Alice was so secure in her position that she could do and say what was not proper without fear of social ostracism. The rules just didn’t apply to her.

While telling Alice’s story, the author also provides insight into this branch of the Roosevelt family. They and their marital partners had more than their share of alcoholism and suicides. Alice’s uncle (Eleanor’s father), at least one brother, husband, and son-in-law, all had their lives ruined or shortened by alcohol – even during Prohibition.

There are also glimpses into the social mores of the upper class. It appears that while divorce would have been scandalous, sleeping around and stealing each other’s mates was not – even for socially proper women. While Alice imbibed as a teenager, she became a Dry during Prohibition out of disgust at the way her social class misused alcohol (she did like to go against the grain).

This book is more than a biography. It’s a social history and a family history. As Alice did with many of her books, you will stay up late reading for the sheer pleasure of it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Cleft

by Doris Lessing (London: Fourth Estate [HarperCollins], 2007, 260 pp.)

The Cleft was published only a few months before Lessing was announced as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, for her prolific lifetime of writing. For those who maintain The Golden Notebook (1962) was the high point of Lessing's literary achievement, The Cleft will be another in a long series of further disappointments. The Golden Notebook remains far and away Lessing's most literarily controlled piece of writing. It uses a complex set of rubrics, but its content replays a great deal that appears in the five-volume semi-autobiographical Martha Quest series (The Children of Violence). Two of the books of that series appeared in print after The Golden Notebook, but judging by style I'd hypothesize that really only the last, The Four-Gated City (1969) represents the stylistic and content breakthrough Lessing learned and one might say earned from doing the restrictive exercise of putting together The Golden Notebook.

Somewhere in the middle of The Four-Gated City, Lessing abandons realism (albeit a realism with a bit of psychic phenomenon involved) and the present, and takes the world and her characters into a period of massive dislocation. As best I can tell from my own intense but not total reading of her works, this is her earliest foray into the "space fiction" genre that is much derided by many of her reviewers.

Personally, I'm very delighted with many of Lessing's works of space fiction. In The Golden Notebook, there are many different kinds of fragments agglomerated into a single structural concretion. In the later works, the pieces are given their own space and are more accessible to contemplation. Lessing's brilliantly thought-provoking Shikasta series makes me think of Anais Nin's conception of her own series of short novels, Cities of the Interior, which Nin describes as "a mobile in space." There's a lot of space, literally as well as figuratively, between the different novels in Lessing's Shikasta series. But my favourite Shikasta novels, especially The Marriage between Zones Three, Four and Five, and The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, contain strong insights and a lot of the very wicked Lessing sense of humour. They are not science fiction (a genre I actually loathe) at all, but closer to the satirical fantasy tradition of Gulliver's Travels.

The Cleft is not precisely "space fiction," but one might call it "time fiction." Its framework is very clever - an historian in the Roman Empire looks back at documents he says survive in his time from ancient transcriptions of an even more ancient oral tradition. The position of the historian is within the prototypical literate colonial society that still gives form to our own time. He is attempting to re-create the origins of gender relations, beginning with parthenogenetic females, who suddenly start giving birth to more and more deformed monsters, who eventually become understood as both human themselves and necessary for future human fertility.

Lessing often says that she is not a feminist. Recently she was quoted as saying that all the topics feminists thought they invented were being discussed long before that [her ism, which she describes herself as having exorcised with the writing of The Golden Notebook, was Communism]. She also, if you take the evidence of The Children of Violence series, had a somewhat sadistic mother, which would incline one not to put all hope for the world upon the mothering sex. So, it is not too surprising, although hard to approve, that she has the early females in her story rejecting and sometimes torturing and mutilating the deformed creatures that are the male babies. Tortured escapees from female society (helped by eagles) are the founders of the separate and different male society. Frankly, I don't feel the female ur-society she lays out depicts enough of the frustrations and thwarted ambitions that would ordinarily go into making sadists psychologically, and so the torture reports seem a bit gratuitious. But by having the historian who tells the stories be male, and much of the oral history he analyzes being from males, she builds in a rationale for this possible distortion. Clearly, Lessing is speculating from her own nearly 9 decades of human experience about how it came to be that men fear women and women disapprove of men and consider them careless of the essentials of human security and development.

I'll leave this review without a great deal more comment. The Cleft has something of the emotional feel (or lack of emotional feel) of the Canongate Myths series - in which well known and great writers were set the task of rewriting ancient canonical tales. In The Cleft, one is left to suspect that the tale that is being rewritten was perhaps expunged from the canon - perhaps indeed around the time of the Roman Empire. Stories of woman born from man cover over this old story of man born from woman, at first rejected, ultimately necessary, changing woman's life irrevocably, but still without her wellbeing and that of their children firmly at heart.

Postscript: CBC Radio's program Writers & Company just re-aired a 2004 interview with Doris Lessing, by Eleanor Wachtel. You can listen to this (it's 52 minutes long) in Real Audio at:

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Garden of Ruth

by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (New York: Plume Books [Penguin], 2007), 293 pp.

The author of this book promoted it avidly to me, which inclined me to dislike it, but I don't.

At first I thought it was going to be an historical excuse for a romance novel, but I changed my mind. What's best about the book is its meticulous but not overburdened description of a place and time familiar from the Hebrew bible. Actually, two places and times. The first heroine of the book, Osnath, is a literate young woman who arrives in Bethlehem as a visitor, just in time to meet the young shepherd David who is first showing the signs of talent and leadership that will make him a king. The two sides of that king's personality are also soon apparent - I'll say no more, in case you read the book.

Osnath, being literate, starts looking around her host's scroll room and finds some fragments of writing that intrigue her. The main plot of the book is her successful investigation of the story of David's grandmother, Ruth, the Moabite whom many remember as allying herself with her mother-in-law Naomi: "whither thou goest, I shall go..."

Halevy fills in the blanks of that rather sketchy story of Ruth in a plausible manner that includes facts of ancient family law - in this book, somewhat laxly enforced. Of considerable interest to me as a feminist were the parts dealing with polygamy and the areas of sexual liberty the heroines explore. It almost felt like watching a barrel race, seeing the author guide her story this way and that between the givens of the biblical story and related facts.

Something that is pleasing but also possibly dubious about The Garden of Ruth is the almost modern sensibility that the author creates for her protagonists, who lived approximately 3,000 years ago. Looking on the web, I found the author's website and her Study Guide for the book. Here's a sample question:

14. Although this story takes place in biblical times, some of the issues Ruth deals with--unwanted pregnancy, religious persecution versus tolerance, religious conversion--are still relevant today. Discuss these issues as they relate to the time of the novel and the modern day. Have people progressed since biblical times? Are we any more adept at dealing with these situations than Ruth was?

The idea that a woman or women may have written some biblical literature is not new. See, for example, The Book of J by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom (NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), a re-translation and analysis of writings from the time of David's son Solomon, opining that the anonymous author must have been a woman.

One of the things I wondered about in The Garden of Ruth was the fictional tale-writer's name, Osnath. The only traces I found of this word on the web related to Sarah (or Sara) Osnath-Halevy, a 1930s folk-singer from Yemen Perhaps a relative of the author? I asked Etzioni-Halevy - emailing her in Israel - and she'd never heard of the singer. She says that Osnath was the name of Joseph's wife, and that her heroine was from that same tribe, the tribe of Efraim.

Etzioni-Halevy's historical note at the back of the book explains that her novel is set in the time of transition between the rule of the judge/prophet/generals (Osnath's uncle is the judge/prophet Samuel, who anoints David) and the time of the kings. In a way, you could say that federalism was taking place among the tribes. These developments are mentioned in The Garden of Ruth, but as background.[NB: There are disputes among historians as to the times of Biblical events and indeed whether many of them happened at all as reported.]

Probably my biggest disappointment in this book was that Etzioni-Halevy chooses a thoroughly heterosexual reason for Ruth to follow Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem. Their relationship was nicely depicted as somewhat fond but largely practical. I'm waiting for someone else to write a version in which Ruth and Naomi are in love with each other, and having babies for Boaz is just a job.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Clayoquot: The Sound of My Heart

by Betty Shiver Krawczyk (Victoria, BC, Canada: Orca Books, 1996, 215 pp.)

Betty Krawczyk (locally pronounced KRAW-zik) is in jail right now. She got arrested for demonstrating on Eagle Ridge Bluffs against the tearing down those eponymous bluffs in order to widen the highway to the Whistler ski resort. Part of the issue is the coming Olympics. Part is the cheapness of the province and its PPP partners (Public-Private Partnerships, in which the public helps business turn our infrastructure into a profit centre) in not being willing to pay for a tunnel. Krawczyk was born in 1928, so she is no spring chicken, but as she says in this book,
...the closer one gets to the natural world, the less one fears death. ... However, if one loses one's fear of death one naturally becomes a rebel.

Clayoquot is the story of Krawczyk's radicalization. The book intercuts two different timelines: a "present" story about her life in a cabin at Clayoquot Sound and how that led to her becoming an activist for old-growth forests, and a biographical narrative. The latter starts with her Catholic Cajun girlhood in a close-knit Louisiana community; she got cold-shouldered out of there when she refused to oppose racial integration. After that she did things like get married a few times, have kids, work. She met feminists and other progressive people and thought about their ideas. You can see that she was not just a natural "aginner" but gradually found her way to a different way of thinking, relating, and acting on the basis of experience.

When I first started reading, I was a little put off by all the misspellings, but after a while I decided it wasn't the mark of a poor author, but a literally poor publisher who wouldn't spring for proofreading. The book is physically very nicely published, though; it's a trade paperback with good paper, decent-sized type, and an attractive stiff cover that has built-in flaps you can use to mark your place.

The shape of the book's writing is skillful: her characterizations are pithy and empathetic; dramatic events are recounted, but not milked for length; the intercutting of different time periods adds a lot of suspense, and simultaneously covers for the abandon with which she jumps from one pivotal event in her life to another. As we read, we find out that she taught herself to be a professional writer, and that her early work was for "true confessions" magazines (a genre I must confess I consumed avidly in my early teens).

I haven't finished the book yet, I'm reading it slowly and savouring it. One of the early scenes is of a mass campout against old-growth forest logging, and it reminds me of a similar scene in Jeannette Armstrong's Whispering in Shadows (see my review in the 2006 section of this blog). Armstrong is a First Nations woman, and Krawczyk writes about not talking with the indigenous people then, because she didn't know what to ask. Obviously, she recovered from this reticence later. At Eagle Ridge Bluffs, she was arrested along with respected Aboriginal Elder Harriet Nahanee. Harriet died February 24 2007 at age 71, of an illness that went untreated for the two weeks she was forced to serve in jail for blocking the road development. The picture to the right is from an article about the two of them and their cause that appeared in the online newspaper The Tyee in March of 2007.

(Right, Betty Krawczyk; centre, Harriet Nahanee. Photo by C. Grabowski)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Six Weeks to Toxic

by Louisa McCormack (Toronto: Key Porter Books, Ltd., 2006)

It alarms me that so many interesting novels by women can be picked up for a song at the Vancouver Public Library. It delights me, but it alarms me, because this means the books have been de-accessioned and are no longer circulating from the library shelves. However, I've checked the online catalogue, and this one, at least, can still be requested - there are three copies available.

I bought it mainly because the author has worked for CBC Radio One, and I love CBC Radio One, it's one of the best things about living in Canada. (Of course, if you don't live in Canada you can still listen online.) According to producers I've heard explaining this, each CBC program has a carefully outlined plot structure, with planned delights at fixed points on the show's clock. As a formula, it works. Their shows also tend to have mysterious titles (like DNTO, which was recently replaced by Q), and so Six Weeks to Toxic seemed promising.

Actually, when I started reading it I was a little shocked - there was a lot of language that even in Canada you might not want to be reading out on the radio. Canadians are more insulted by violence and intolerance in media than USAns and less by sex and excretion, but the CBC recently got reprimanded by the CRTC, for allowing the word fuck to air, in a violent if literary context, at a time when children were likely to be listening.

In Six Weeks to Toxic, two close female friends expose a lot about their bodily functions and sex experiences, and even write a faux magazine for each other's enjoyment only, with the telling title of Gash.

In my day, we did all that stuff, and sometimes wrote about it, but we were always conscious that we were being transgressive. In this writing, acts committed with food are more blatantly transgressive than those committed with sex.

Another thing that shocked me was thinking "oh, so this is chick lit and I'm reading it!" There were a lot of descriptions of clothes and men and envy of others' physical attributes. What kept me going through this part was that the heroine is a foley artist - a person who makes the sound effects that accompany movies, and one of the most interesting careers to read about. Did you know that you can make the clinking sound of a knight's chain mail clothing by manipulating the links of a key chain?

The other thing that kept me reading was the teaser description in teeny letters on the book's cover: "Women break up with men all the time. But there are no rules for breaking up with your best friend..." Anyone who has ever had a friendship that became oppressive can't help but be intrigued by that story line.

The book is short, and I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that my opinion of the heroine steadily improved throughout the book, and the boyfriend and his dog both grew endearing as well. Plus, everyone in this culture McCormack depicts has a tongue-in-cheek way with words that is so not baby-Boomer-earnestness that it's refreshing. So, if you're in Vancouver and you have a VPL card, you might want to check this out.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Loose Theatre: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Theatre Activist

by Margaretta D'Arcy (Trafford Publishing: Victoria BC, Canada; Crewe, Cheshire, London, 2005)

Margaretta D'Arcy is a well known Irish playwright, one of the few women ever to receive the Cnuas, a lifetime Arts Council income grant. She talks about her plays and about the award (and the politics of the award) in this book, but it is much more devoted to the theatre of activism in which she has long engaged. Causes to which she has lent this talent include, among others: labour rights, Irish nationalism, peace, ending the US Cruise Missile presence on Greenham Common in England, the Measuring and Counting of Women's Unwaged Work, international community radio, Wages for Housework, and the annual Women's Strike.

Having known and admired Margaretta for quite a few years, I was very interested in Part One of the book, which tells about her peculiar upbringing. She had an Irish Catholic former freedom-fighter for a father and a Russian Jewish doctor for a mother. As she was born in 1934, the social milieu of the time made emphasizing the Catholic angle less conspicuous, and she and her sisters were sent to Catholic boarding school. There, she discovered the impressive power of the church's theatricality, which created in her a fervent if temporary religiosity.

As a young woman, Margaretta became an actress and began to hang with theatrical types. She met and eventually married and had offspring with playwright John Arden, and has collaborated with him on many plays and radio dramas of a political nature. In this book, she writes of witnessing the emergence of a new, comparatively wild and flexible, sort of theatre, of which she and John were among the well known practitioners.

One of the largest sections of this book covers Margaretta's years of involvement with the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camps. These camps (which were named for the different-coloured gates of the base) had the aim of reclaiming commons land in England that had been confiscated for a US cruise missile base. While very committed and spending a lot of time there, Margaretta also retained her inbred outsider stance throughout, and this allows her to honestly portray the factionalism, moods, and snitty behaviours of Peace Camp participants and their allies, while at the same time crediting their courage, stubbornness in the face of intimidation (and even death), and their almost unbelievable final success. The book is composed partly of new writing but also greatly, especially in this section, of edited selections from diaries and letters and fliers, raw hunks of the mood from the actual days of D'Arcy's life.

Margaretta D'Arcy has written other books, including Tell Them Everything, Awkward Corners (with John Arden), and Galway's Pirate Women: a global trawl. You can find D'Arcy's books and videos as well as streaming audio from her station, Radio Pirate Woman, on her website http://www.margarettadarcy.com/.

-- Frieda Werden

Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President

by Jill Norgren
(New York: New York University Press, 2007)

(Guest review by Jo Freeman)

Belva Lockwood was an ambitious women, and Belva Lockwood is an ambitious book.

Famous in her day for many "firsts," the US Postal service put her face on a stamp in 1986. Because her papers were largely destroyed by her grandson after her death in 1917, to write this biography Norgren had to track Lockwood's "footprints" through newspapers, legal archives, and letters sent to others that found their way into family files. This took a prodigious amount of work over many years. The result is worth the wait.

Although best known for running for President in 1884 and 1888, Lockwood was one of the pioneers who broke the barriers to women practicing law. She was the second woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia and the first admitted to practice before the U. S. Supreme Court. Active for suffrage, peace, temperance and other causes, she was constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible.

Born on October 24, 1830, in upper New York state, Belva Ann Bennett had an early appetite for education. At the age of 14 she taught in a rural school, chafing that she was paid half the salary of her male counterpart. She would eventually get a degree from a Methodist seminary for women and a law degree from National University Law School but each of these required surmounting obstacles created by her sex and her need to support herself.

Her seminary education and early career as a teacher -- a common but poorly paid position for a woman -- might not have been possible had she not been widowed at age 22. Teaching sharpened her ambition. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Belva sent her 16-year-old daughter to be educated at her own alma mater and set off to Washington D.C. in search of opportunity. She found it as "Washington's Lady Lawyer" after a long and rocky trek to her law degree and admission to various bars. In the meantime she earned her living as a rental agent, newspaper correspondent and sales representative, and lecturer.

Drawn to politics, Belva traveled the South in 1872 as a paid campaigner for Horace Greeley. In May of that year the notorious Victoria Claflin Woodhull had herself nominated for President at a convention she called for that purpose, but did little more. How Lockwood came to run for President in 1884 on the same "Equal Rights Party" ticket are "colored by ego and memory." Suffice it to say that men ridiculed her and some prominent Suffrage leaders strongly disapproved. But Lockwood did what Woodhull did not do and ran a full campaign.

Lockwood was very pleased with her efforts. Her campaign generated enormous publicity, opportunities to travel, large audiences who paid to hear her speak, and almost five thousand votes. She even made a small profit. Success prompted her to try again in 1888 but this campaign produced more disapproval and less satisfaction.

Norgren repeatedly points out Lockwood's flair for self-promotion, of which her Presidential campaign was just one example. That talent not only made her a prominent figure in her lifetime but left the newspaper stories which made her biography possible. Lockwood's love of publicity was merged with genuine devotion to several causes, making it difficult to identify her motivations.

Despite her ardor for universal suffrage, she never found a niche for herself in the Suffrage Movement. Instead she became a fixture in the peace movement and a spokeswoman for the Universal Peace Union. She was a frequent delegate to conferences urging peace and arbitration as the solution to conflict. She spoke up for popular causes such as temperance and unpopular causes such as the Mormons.

Belva married twice, but spent most of her life as a widow – the best situation for an educated woman during an era when wives were subject to their husbands and spinsters seen as less than full women. Her first husband died four and a half years after their marriage, leaving behind the daughter who would remain Belva's companion until an early death at age 44. In 1868 she married Ezekiel Lockwood, an elderly dentist, becoming a widow for the second time nine years later. Their only child died at 18 months.

Family was very important to Belva. In 1877 she bought a large house on F St. where she housed her law practice, her daughter, and various members of her extended household. Spare rooms were rented out. The day-to-day law practice of mostly pension and land claims was handled by her daughter and other relatives. Belva was the "rainmaker" for the family firm, attracting clients through her travels and lectures. She wrote the briefs and conducted the trials for the occasional high profile case. After her daughter died, her law practice disintegrated.

By the time she died at age 86, Lockwood's star had long since faded. Her house was sold to pay her debts. Her only heir shipped her papers to a pulp mill. She had lived through a vast transformation of her society but her fondest goals were yet to be realized. She still could not vote. Her country had just voted to go to war and the prohibition amendment had not yet passed. Much more time would pass before her life and her dreams would be celebrated.

This book is a good read. It provides an enjoyable and enlightening narration of US history and women's history as well as the history of a life.

--Jo Freeman

Jo Freeman is a political scientist and the author of many books and articles about women. You can find out more about her on her website

Jo Freeman's guest review of Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President was originally posted to Senior Women Web

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ms. Magazine

If you haven't been reading or subscribing to Ms Magazine lately, you should give it another try. Since being taken under the Feminist Majority umbrella, it has developed into a women's news magazine with sharp reporting and layout. I actually read it now. For quite some time I subscribed or bought it on the newsstand out of loyalty to the movement, but then when I'd look at it my eyes would just glaze over. After the heady days of its debut years in the early 1970s, its editorial content was reportedly held in check by, at various times: the will of advertisers, being purchased by a male publisher, and being really short of dough. For years it also had a boring and hard-to-read layout. And also perhaps there was an editorial board somewhere that kept saying "let's not step on anybody's toes in the women's movement." Often there was a bit of a hagiographic feel.

The Feminist Majority < www.feminist.org >, a major US feminist group headed by former NOW President Ellie Smeal, has been a long time building a broad-based constituency with a lot of emphasis on enrolling youth, and has also worked very hard to raise money to support a substantial operation. Their foregrounded agenda has been a funny patchwork of issues, which I suppose were the ones they could best raise money around, including getting the US to legalize RU-486 (the French abortion pill), support for women in Afghanistan, analyzing the gender gap in US elections, feminist internships for college women, and, curiously, women and policing. They also have long had an online news section of their website. Smeal really throws herself and her organization wholeheartedly behind their major activities, and they have a good track record. They were the creators of the very successful Feminist Expo '96 for Women's Empowerment and the followup Feminist Expo 2000, events that showcased the variety and activity of the US women's movement.

Another thing about FemMaj is that they are based in the Washington DC area instead of New York where Ms was started, and because of that placement they are very active in the National Council of Women's Organizations. NCWO is a coalition of both membership organizations and research groups that specialize in women's issues. < www.womensorganizations.org >

FemMaj also has links to wealthy Hollywood feminists.

Apparently FemMaj can now afford to support this slick quarterly print publication whose only ads are for nonprofit organizations, and can pay reporters and editors for current analytical stuff. Adopting the well-known Ms. instead of starting a new publication was a stroke of genius, and after a hesitant beginning, they are really putting a new and I think more exciting spin on it. I'm sure they are counting on subscriptions to help pay for it of course, and I do plan to renew. They also now involve Ms. in political actions, like delivering a "We Had Abortions" petition to the US Congress.

For more on Ms try this link (which includes daily news updates):


Sunday, January 14, 2007


by Joy Kogawa (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1992)

This is one of the most exciting political novels I have read.

Joy Kogawa is beloved by Canadian readers for her first novel Obasan (1981), which tells the story of a young Japanese Canadian girl, Naomi, caught up in the dispossession, relocation and scattering of Canada's Japanese community during World War II. The titular Obasan is Naomi's eldest aunt, an issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) who cares for Naomi and her brother Stephen through the terrible time. Kogawa later wrote a children's book based on these experiences called Naomi's Road (1986), which was made into a short opera and toured to schools in British Columbia by the Vancouver Opera. Kogawa is also a poet - which shows in the vivid and accurate language of her fiction.

This second novel begins when a painfully introverted Naomi, now in her forties, finally leaves the prairie and her job teaching English in a rural Bible college, and arrives in Toronto, to live with a very different relative - Aunt Emily.

The title Itsuka is a Japanese word for someday. Most of the beginning of the novel is about what happened to Naomi and Stephen after the end of the previous book - the someday of a child's adulthood. Among Kogawa's insights there are very penetrating lines about rural Christian fundamentalism and naturally something about prejudice directed at children isolated from most of the members of their own race and culture.

The remainder of the novel is primarily about struggle within the Japanese community over whether to ask the Canadian government for reparations for what was taken from them, and then how to manage the process among themselves. The process Kogawa depicts must obviously have been built on close observation of her community; however, the nature of the struggle, is much like that in many emerging groups. Beginning with resistance to autocracy, democratic organization emerges within the community; and during the process of struggle, leaders emerge and pride and a sense of community identity come to be.

There is an article about Kogawa in the Wikipedia <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_Kogawa > that mentions that Itsuka has been re-written, and re-titled with the name of the fictional aunt, Emily Kato(2005). However, Itsuka is still in circulation at the Vancouver Public Library. There is also a biography page about Kogawa online: http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/kogawa_joy_nakayama.html . Here's a website with interesting study notes about the relationships of the people in her books: http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/canada/kogawa.html (it's also where I borrowed the photo, which has been de-linked from its original source). Finally, there's this page devoted to the campaign to buy and save the Kogawas' original house in Vancouver: http://www.kogawahouse.com/

--Frieda Werden