Thursday, August 21, 2008

Elephant Rocks, by Kay Ryan

(NY: Grove Press, 1996)

A poetry publisher and vendor recommended this book to me during the end-of-conference bargain period at the US National Women's Studies Association conference, probably the year it was published.

I kept it on my headboard for a few years, and made some stabs at reading in it, but never got on the poet's wavelength. Then a month or so ago, a friend sent me a link to the New York Times story about Ryan being named the new Poet Laureate of the United States. This honour is granted by the Librarian of Congress and has nothing to do with Bush, as evidenced by the statement that Ryan lives with her partner, presumably lesbian.

Remembering that I had a book of hers tucked away, I plucked it from the shelf and put in a bit more effort on liking the poems, and the effort was rewarded.

Ryan teaches remedial English and no great reading skill is required for this book. She uses mostly short, plain words, mixed with words she has invented for the occasion, such as kinden (for becoming more kind), and goodiary (not be be confused with bestiary). Even though the words are simple, reading the work well takes good skill for paying close attention, visualization ability, and a readiness to find a joke.

All the poems are quite short. Ryan has been compared to Emily Dickinson, and I think justly so because of not only brevity but also terseness and the originality of modifiers and the way the poems give to inquiry when you start to poke them. It seems obvious she has learned something from Dickinson. However, Ryan seems more down to earth, concrete and practical.*

In fact, Ryan's work is so practical that since she became Poet Laureate, I have taken to typing out poems of hers to send to people for special occasions. On the engagement of one couple, I sent them "A Plain Ordinary Needle Can Float on Pure Water," because I knew that these folks had gone through a long period of learning to harmonize their relationship. And to a member of my high school class (Class of '64), who made a gallant public apology for the racism he had lashed out with in his youth, I sent "Age," the poem that starts "As some people age/ they kinden."

I think to Patricia Cohen, who wrote that New York Times article headed "Kay Ryan, Outsider With Sly Style, Named Poet Laureate," I might send a copy of Ryan's poem "Outsider Art." It ends with the phrase: "...We are not/pleased the way we thought/we would be pleased." But I would add that I don't mind being pleased in a way I hadn't thought I would be pleased when I first took a look at the work of Kay Ryan.
* You can see a photo of Ryan in the NYT article, and a photo of Emily Dickinson here . I confess that I had remembered Dickinson as more of a femme, but in this picture she, too, looks rather dyke-ish. I also thought of Dickinson as young, but she lived to 56. Ryan is now 62.

- Frieda Werden

Friday, August 15, 2008

Century of Struggle

The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States
By Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick
432 pages Enlarged edition, Belknap Press 1996

Reviewed by Jane Woodward Elioseff [original at The Internet Review of Books ]

In London in 1840, over strong American objections, the World Anti-Slavery Convention ruled that only male delegates would be seated. Women delegates were relegated to the balcony and asked to observe the proceedings in silence.

The gods must have been laughing. Among the banished women, Eleanor Flexner tells us, were Lucretia Coffin Mott, an ordained Quaker minister whose home in Philadelphia “was a busy station on the Underground Railroad,” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a young wife “destined to be the leading intellectual force in the emancipation of American women.” Mott became Stanton’s preceptor.

Flexner’s wonderful Century of Struggle, first published in 1959, is the foundational book in what was to become the field of women’s studies. A friend gave me a copy in 1973, just as the second wave of the women’s movement was cresting, and the book deeply affected my thinking. I had a history minor in college and absorbed a number of narratives, but history itself had reached me as if it were a form of literature. I could not have articulated this at age twenty, and am not now suggesting that as a student I had any historiographical insight. But I do mean to convey that reading Century of Struggle in my early thirties made the historical past gloriously three-dimensional and personally relevant for the first time.

Over the years, I’ve gratefully drawn on Century of Struggle to develop scripts for two anniversary celebrations of the Nineteenth Amendment (ratified August 26, 1920). I’ve reviewed this enlarged edition for, used it while team-teaching an adult learning class called “Leaning Left,” and last year co-authored a Wikipedia article about Flexner’s life and work. Rereading long sections of Century of Struggle for this review, I’m astonished how rich the book continues to be.

During the first half of the nineteenth century many of the great names in the abolitionist movement, and in the increasingly separate and distinct women’s rights movement, belonged to Quakers. Best known today are Lucretia Mott, the Grimk√© sisters, who won the right for women to speak in public, the indefatigable Susan B. Anthony, and astronomer Maria Mitchell, who so opposed slavery she gave up wearing cotton. Flexner writes, “Alone among the larger religious denominations, the Quakers permitted [women] a voice in church affairs, allowed them to speak in ’meeting,’ and ordained them as ministers.”

Until New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848, women had no political rights and few legal protections in those states whose civil laws were modeled on English common law (exceptions were the legal codes of Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, which derived from Roman law). In some circumstances, a woman might own property and sign contracts as a feme sole, but she lost her separate legal identity when she married. All of her possessions and any wages she might earn became the property of her husband. Even when inherited land or money had been placed in trust for her, she could still be impoverished by her husband. In divorce, she could lose her children.

There is no better account than Flexner’s of American women’s courage and political genius in a time when they had no right of assembly and no right to petition freely. In 1834, former president John Quincy Adams, then serving in the US House of Representatives, proved himself Abigail Adams’s true son by defending women’s right to collect signatures and present petitions, against the arguments of conservatives alarmed by the political progress of the abolitionists.

It was a crushing disappointment to abolitionists that the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) expanded the franchise to include any adult male inhabitant of the United States but not women, who had worked passionately to end slavery. It required another fifty years to secure the vote town by town, state by state, and to achieve ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In her preface to the 1975 expanded edition of Century of Struggle, Flexner quotes Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Schuler:

Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links in that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended . . . It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America.

In the preface, Flexner says that her goal in writing Century of Struggle was to trace the development of the women’s rights movement “from its scattered beginnings early in the nineteenth century on a number of different fronts—education, employment, trade union organization, the professions, the law, the franchise—down to the enactment of the suffrage amendment in 1920; to keep that struggle in perspective against the growth of this nation and of such related reform movements as the abolition of slavery, temperance, and the organization of trade unions—bearing in mind that never at any time were these women without the support of far-seeing and loyal men.”

Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s valuable foreword to the 1996 edition of Century of Struggle includes a political biography of Flexner, who was active in the Communist Party and various other causes in the 1930s and 1940s. Flexner dedicated the book to her mother, Anne Crawford Flexner (1874-1955), who marched in suffrage parades and whose success as a playwright and children’s author made it possible, after her death, for Eleanor to live and work as an independent scholar.

Jane Woodward Elioseff is a writer and editor living in Houston.