Monday, September 28, 2009

What do women want? Something else.

Kate Walbert's novel
A Short History of Women is a beautiful and unsettling illustration of the limits of feminism

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page at the History News Network.

The title of this novel is a series of interconnected jokes. Given the emphasis on the diversity of womens' experiences central to contemporary feminism, "a short history of women" is tantamount to a contradiction in terms, a self-evident admission of omission typical of the kind that even well-intentioned men, like the cluelessly condescending professor who in 1914 delivers a lecture with this title early in the novel, make all the time. Any attempt to tell the story of women would almost necessarily have to be long, and yet this book is a conspicuously svelte 237 pages. And given the sometimes fierce internecine battles that have raged in the last century, the women it portrays -- relatively wealthy, white, educated Anglo-Saxons -- verge on demographic parody. This sense of self-aware, compressed irony is the hallmark of the novel. And it is deadly serious.

A Short History of Women consists of a series of fifteen vignettes, rendered largely as interior monologues, centering on five generations of an Anglo-American family spanning from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries. The first of these figures, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, dies as a result of a hunger strike in 1918, as the First World War and the suffrage movement come to a climax in Britain. Townsend leaves behind two young children. Her daughter Evelyn (who, given the first-person narration of her segments, is apparently the locus of the story), becomes a successful scientist at Columbia University. Evelyn's brother, Thomas, is sent to San Francisco and ultimately has a daughter, who marries a World War II POW, divorces him after a half-century, and lives long enough to get herself arrested for protesting the Iraq War. The couple has three children, a son who dies in middle age and two daughters, both of whom we hear from. We get a glimpse of the fifth generation of these women in the Yale undergraduate who posts a cheeky Facebook profile that pays homage to her great-great grandmother.

It would be hard to overstate the artistry that goes into the elliptical, yet resonant, narration of these lives. Walbert demonstrates an exceptionally fluid sense of historical consciousness, moving across time with a grace and clarity reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Even as she does so, she's able to incorporate a variety of other figures, ranging from the husbands, lovers, and companions of these women, as well as a peripheral figure like an African American maid or working-class G.I., with insight and compassion.

And yet there's something dismaying, perhaps even upsetting, about the major characters and the author's ambiguous stance toward them. This is, by and large, a miserable family unable to find fulfillment. (We can have hope for the latest generation, but historical precedent is not promising.) Political emancipation, occupational and educational opportunity, sexual expression, successful child-rearing: if they aren't elusive they aren't satisfying. And the cost of these women's choices are stark and evident to character and reader alike. Is it really acceptable, for example, to kill yourself and leave two children behind in the name of suffrage, because you say you have no choice, as Evelyn does on the opening page of this book? The men in this story are hardly monsters; at least two are notably decent, if perhaps ineffectual (or prematurely dead). If these women can't be happy, who can?

Perhaps Walbert is saying that this really is the history of women: thwarted aspiration. As Evelyn says at one point late in the story, "I often wished for more, or rather, other things, and that was it, wasn't it? The wishing?" These are people haunted by the promise of modernity, the idea that life really can be different, be better, than it currently is. This is true for men, too, of course, but for women only more so. "A problem without a name," Evelyn's daughter Dorothy tells her husband, echoing Betty Friedan. "It's who we are by God, it's our type, our lot, our cross to --" But she never finishes her sentence because she senses he's not interested. He is, but he's simply not as dissatisfied his life generally (or his marriage specifically) to the extent his wife is. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud's famous question, "What do women want?" The answer is: something else.

For these women, it seems, feminism, like communism, seems to have become a secular god that failed, and a truly transcendent vision of life is impossibly remote, if not retrograde. They lack the gift of faith, and, at the same time, are unable to reliquish their commitment to a sense of choice that finally oppresses them. It's hard to fault them for that, and hard not lose patience with them.

This is especially true because there are plenty of women for whom feminism has been a genuinely liberating force, if not always an unalloyed blessing. It's been instructive in this regard to finish this book and begin reading Gail Collins's forthcoming
When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (which I will review as well). Here we encounter some people, at least, who find a measure of contentment with the pursuit of happiness, whether or not it is entirely attained.

I'm very aware in writing this review that I do so as a man who almost surely is demonstrating a kind of obtuseness that is at least lamentable and quite possibly infuriating to the target audience of this novel. In the end, I don't really know what Kate Walbert wants (or whether she knows what she wants, either). But I honor the intelligence and artistry that went into the provocative and troubling novel.