Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Blue Grit: Making Impossible, Improbable and Inspirational Political Change in America

by Laura Flanders

(NY?: Penguin, 2008)

I haven't yet read this book, but I received a self-promotional email from the author that I thought I'd post. I also found a customer review on Amazon that starts like this:

Blue Grit is what the Democratic Party needs. It's a little bit like soul it's a lot like grits. Whether they get it or whether they will ever get it is another story.

The story that Laura Flanders tells in her prescient book is one that the fourth estate--fawning over Barack Obama's rout in Iowa--would have been well advised to read. They might have learned a thing or two: That progressive movements are not built over night and that they are not built on the backs of candidates, no matter how inspiring they are. Flanders is not a conventional campaign correspondent...

I know Laura Flanders from her feminist radio days at New York's WBAI-FM, back in the 1980s. She went on to be a radio host in left-leaning commercial and internet radio, and the author of several books. You can find out more about here on her own website and in Wikipedia.Here's her note to the friends on her email list about the re-issue of this book:

Dear Friends,

Blue Grit is just out in paperback, from Penguin Books, updated and with a new intro by Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine.)

The extraordinary turn out in the Democratic primaries so far only confirms the hypothesis I laid out in Blue Grit that somethiing is shifting in this country -- from the bottom up.

The picture of our political process is changing (check out my story on Suites vs. Streets in the new "Reseeding the Grassroots" issue of the Nation magazine.) But the real work lies ahead.

For a glimpse of the grassroots upsurge that I believe is giving the status quo a push, check out the new, updated Blue Grit: Making Impossible, Improbable and Inspirational Political Change in America.

As Blanche Cook wrote in Ms, the Blue Grit folks I write about offer "a roadmap for our journey out of the darkness".

There are fascinating implications for the future of our country -- and our movement work.

Please read the book, review it at Amazon/Powells/Barnes and Noble and/or your favorite site.

And pass this message on. This is the moment to make sure that grassroots organizers get the credit they deserve. Is history made by a few great women or men? I don't think so. Right now it's being made by Americans with Grit. Find out who -- and how -- in Blue Grit: Making Impossible, Improbable and Inspirational Political Change in America.

Links to feminist reviews in Internet Review of Books

Ellen Bravo has an illustrious background with the US working women's organization 9 to 5. Her book is

Or why feminism is good for families, business and the nation
By Ellen Bravo
294 pp. The Feminist Press $15.95

Here's a salient quote from the review by Marilee Kenney Hunt

Bravo relies on her lifetime experience in 9to5 and as a speaker and activist for equity to provide real-life stories that illustrate her points. Using humor along with seriousness of cause, she dispels the myth that all feminists are sourpuss men-haters constantly grinding their axes on those around them. She certainly wields her weapons—mostly her tongue and pen—but in such a way as to help those with good intentions and a desire for change, and an understanding of what needs to be changed, find out how to embrace the cause and move it forward.

She notes that the big boys’ tactics are minimizing, trivializing, patronizing, catastrophizing and demonizing.

You can read the rest at:


Back before Hillary Clinton was in the Senate, it was Kay Bailey Hutchison, the first female US Senator from Texas, who received more corporate donations than any other Senator. Kay Bailey ran on a pro-choice ticket, but once she got elected she voted for all the anti-abortion bills in sight. It was once speculated that she would be a Republican candidate for US President, but it didn't come to pass, at least not yet. The reviewer gives Kay Bailey more or less a C grade on this book:

Talk to my Aunt Mabel
LEADING LADIES: American Trailblazers
By Kay Bailey Hutchison
416 pp. Harper $25.95

Reviewed by Ruth Douillette

Salient quote from review:

Hutchison writes, “Hillary Clinton, at this writing, is the most serious woman candidate for president in our nation’s history.” She says of Laura Bush, “Laura Bush has blossomed as First Lady and is universally respected for her beautiful manners. And she is likely the most well-read First Lady our country has ever had.”

Read the rest at:


Friday, January 11, 2008

Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and ...

[NB: To hear Bella Abzug, visit the WINGS archive and scroll down to #32-06 & #33-06 Women's Agenda to Save the Planet - a radio documentary in about the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet, convened by Bella Abzug in Miami in 1991, to hammer out women's demands for the UN environment summit in Rio. Women's Agenda 21 is still ahead of its time today. - FW]

Guest Review by Jo Freeman - original at seniorwomen.com

Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook up Politics Along the Way: An oral history

by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 320 pp

The subtitle tells it all. Love her or hate her, Bella Abzug never failed to make an impression. She pushed and shoved her way through life, pursuing good causes with single-minded determination and trampling over friends and foes alike.

This oral history is not a conventional one; most of the words are not Bella’s but those of over a hundred people, compiled, edited and shaped into a rough narrative by two former Ms. editors. The result is like an impressionist painting, using vivid flashes of memory to evoke a subjective understanding more than provide the actual facts of Bella’s life story.

Fortunately the "authors" provide a chronology at the beginning of each chapter from which one can glean the basic outline of her life and the crucial events of the times in which she lived. Between her birth as Bella Savitzky on July 24, 1920 and her death on March 31, 1998 Bella experienced the Depression, Zionism, World War II, left–wing causes, the Cold War, the civil rights, feminist and antiwar movements, the U.S. Congress, globalization, and the United Nations.

In many ways this unconventional woman led a very conventional life. One of two daughters in an extended family of Russian Jews, her father ran a butcher shop and her grandfather took her to synagogue, where she sat upstairs in the women’s section. Her sister reports that "we were good kids – nothing like the rebellious kids today."

Bella’s childhood cause was Zionism, though she later became disillusioned with the kind of state Israel turned into. While at Hunter College she joined the left-wing American Student Union, became student body president and made life-long friends.

Married at age 24 to Martin after a "stormy courtship," their mutual devotion transcended his death 42 years later. She had one miscarriage, two daughters, and a black housekeeper who raised them in Westchester County. Known for her hats, she took pride in being well dressed, from her carefully applied make-up to her girdle.

But in other ways she defied convention from an early age. An athletic tomboy, she wanted to be a lawyer at a time when very few women even thought of trying to enter that male domain. She graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1945 after making law review, joined the National Lawyers Guild and worked for a while for a left-wing law firm which represented unions.

Concluding that she couldn’t work for someone else, she opened her own law office in New York City, though from the brief descriptions of her cases it appears to have been mostly a pro bono practice. Fortunately her husband made good money as a stockbroker or Bella’s life might have had a different trajectory.

Free to devote her time to good causes, she represented a black man on death row in Mississippi and actors called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. She was very active in Women’s Strike for Peace, constantly prodding it to lobby Congress as well as demonstrate. These connections came in handy when she successfully ran for Congress in 1970. During her three terms she became such an expert on procedure that even those Members who hated her asked her advice. Bella was just beginning to make a place for herself in the House when she gave it up to run for the Senate in 1976.*

That was a fateful decision; in a four person race she lost the Democratic primary by one percent. She spent the next decade trying to get back into the House, or some other elected office, while also working to advance a women’s political action program.

Gradually she went global, eventually co-founding the Women’s Environment and Development Organization to put gender on the agenda of the United Nations. After a few international conferences, women around the world looked to her as a role model; after her death the UN General Assembly honored her with a special tribute.

Understanding Bella Abzug requires reconciling some serious contradictions. While this book provides some hints, it still leaves one wondering exactly how Bella succeeded as well as she did. Her performance as a politician gets such mixed reviews that it’s hard to believe everyone is speaking of the same person.

On the one hand, everyone agrees that she had an extremely abrasive personality. Most of the people in this book describe her yelling and screaming and making nasty comments to them. One the other hand, she had a band of devoted friends and followers and was never estranged from her family. Where outsiders saw anger, they saw affection and dedication. When she needed them, they rallied around her.

Bella’s public appeal made her an international celebrity who could excite a crowd even of those who didn’t like her politics. But New York voters, from 1976 onward, chose someone else to represent them.

This is a tantalizing book. It tells some good stories, but makes you want more. Consider it a tasty appetizer to the serious biography of Bella Abzug that awaits its author.

* I worked on that campaign, and later interviewed many of those involved as part of a project to study women’s campaigns by the Center for the American Women and Politics. Ruth Mandel, then director of CAWP, incorporated my research into her book, In the Running: The New Woman Candidate, but it was not separately published.

Like everyone who knew her, I have my own Bella stories. I wrote one of them as part of my report on the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. Go to http://www.jofreeman.com/womenyear/beijingreport.htm and "find" Bella.


Jo Freeman’s next book, We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in March.

Jo Freeman is a political scientist and attorney. Her most recent book is At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist (Indiana U. Press 2004). Her previous book, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) was reviewed by Emily Mitchell, a Senior Women Web Culture Watch critic.

Other books include The Politics of Women's Liberation, winner of the 1975 American Political Science Association's prize for the Best Scholarly Book on Women and Politics; five editions of Women: A Feminist Perspective (ed.). Jo edited Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies and (with Victoria Johnson) as well as Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from NYU's School of Law. Visit her website, www.jofreeman.com and email her at joreen@jofreeman.com

©2007 Jo Freeman for SeniorWomenWeb

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

by Amy Stewart (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004. 213 pp.)

You might ask what's feminist about earthworms. Well, for one thing they have no gender discrimination problems - they're all part male and part female, and as I would find out from reading this book they choose their mates partly by which other worm is the right length to match up the male and female holes of each to each.

Another thing they have in common with women is that working mostly completely beneath notice they can move mountains.

Not only can worms move mountains of earth - making it fertile as they go - they can move mountains of vegetable peelings and even mountains of shit. There's a lot in this book about the "domestication" of earthworms into waste recycling factories. I started googling for updates and found that pig-farm waste, a huge source of river pollution, is on some farms being turned into good fertilizer, thanks to masses of Eisenia fetida - the red wrigglers. As Stewart explains, there are engineering requirements to preserve the worms' health and get good product results, but these are pretty manageable.

Also, earthworm castings are much better for soil sustainability and productivity than chemical fertilizers. But, if this is to become a principal method of waste disposal, there has to be a market for the result. This and other tidbits in her book about nutritional values have convinced me that I ought to consistently choose organic produce when I shop, not just for my health, but to do my bit to drive up demand for better agricultural practices.

Of course, you can grow your own - including your own worms. Back in 1997, I interviewed the author of one of the early books on this subject: Worms Eat My Garbage, written by Mary Appelhof. I'm pleased to find that her recommendations are catching on quite widely. There are now several types of worm bins on the market for the small gardener, and Stewart cites ten different worm websites and web forums. Mary Appelhof's is www.wormwoman.com . Appelhof passed away in 2005, but her website, like the worms, is more or less immortal.

Worms are wonderful, but they are not good for everything, by the way. When the dominant wormstock (immigrants from Europe) are introduced into forests that didn't have them before (by for example careless fishing-bait disposal) - the worms can destroy the indigenous ecology by eating up all the leaf-mould ("duff") that local plants and creatures require.

There's quite a lot about Charles Darwin in the book. When he'd retired from world traveling, he wrote his last book based on research in his backyard and home laboratory: The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits (1897). The old boy was apparently looking forward to being eaten by worms after his death (yes, it seems he really was an atheist - a believer instead in the mysteries of co-creation of beings) - but he was too famous for the burial he'd planned, and his corpse was carted off to lie next to other scientists immured away from the soil, in Westminster Abbey.

I think I picked this book up on sale at the Simon Fraser University bookstore. It was originally going to be a present for my sister who teaches school science, but I'm glad I read it before sending it away. I strongly recommend it as a pleasant and enlightening read, and also as a gift for anyone who reads at middle school level or above. I guess that's one more thing I'd call feminist about this book - it's sensible and plain-spoken - and, dare I say it? down to earth.