Category: Women’s Studies

Five Reasons Louisa Catherine Adams Should Make the Top First Ladies List

Louisa_catherine2Abigail Adams’ name often comes up on lists of the top ten First Ladies of all time. She achieved popularity thanks to her political influence, earning the nickname “Mrs. President”. Her success has relegated Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams to that of “The Other Adams” the subtitle of Margery Heffron‘s recently published biography of Louisa. Despite possessing many of the characteristics that brought her mother-in-law and other favorite First Ladies popularity, Louisa Catherine has been an under-appreciated First Lady. Heffron’s biography of Louisa finally does justice to this remarkable woman.

1. Style and Poise: A thus far unavoidable criteria for judging First Ladies, style and poise have earned several First Ladies like Jackie O and Michelle Obama the love of the American public. Raised in London and France, and long experienced in royal courts, Louisa was admired for her grace in political circles. Her success in this area was not merely due to wealth or privilege. On more than one occasion she constructed ball gowns from draperies, lacking the personal funds to purchase appropriate attire for European royal courts.

2. Statesmanship: Hillary Clinton’s political work gained her the respect of the American public; she is widely considered the First Lady they could most imagine serving as President. Louisa was similarly skilled in diplomacy. Though her husband was not as open to discussing politics with her, she played a significant role in his political fortunes. She used her diplomatic talents to help smooth over other’s perception of John Quincy Adams as cold and superior.

3. Feminism: First Ladies have had a unique influence over the history of women’s rights. Abigail Adams earned the esteem of historians for her powerful feminist writing and attempts to build women’s rights into the new government her husband was forming. Louisa continued in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, writing eloquently and assertively on the subject of women’s rights.

4. Human Rights: Eleanor Roosevelt, who regularly tops the lists of popular and influential First Ladies, shaped the role of the First Lady with her outspoken support of civil rights and other social issues. Her active work to further human rights gained her admiration both domestically and internationally. Louisa Catherine was similarly ahead of her time in her stance on social issues. In addition to her early feminist writing, Louisa was an active champion of Native American’s rights years before the issue was debated politically.

5. Personal Resilience: Louisa had perhaps the most personal tragedy of any First Lady to deal with. Her relationship with her husband and his family was extremely challenging. She handled nine miscarriages in addition to the early childhood death of a daughter and the suicide of a son. She escaped from Russia to France in the winter of 1815 following Napoleon’s disastrous retreat with only her son, maid and two servants. Though the challenges she faced lead her to occasional bouts of depression, frustration, and temper, she possessed a strength that enabled her to deal with the continuous struggle of American politics.

Louisa Catherine Adams had all of the qualities that make a great First Lady. Despite her talents, she was constantly self-deprecating. Her diary is full of vented frustrations and personal disappointment that have put off previous biographers. Heffron has drawn a more complete picture of the complex woman in Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, giving her the credit than she withheld from herself.


First Ladies of the United States, via

A Queer History of Fashion: What Does Gay Look Like?

Ariana Parenti—

9780300196702Though I never thought of myself as a follower of the fashion world, in picking up A Queer History of Fashion I was excited to discover the rich history of gay men and women throughout the fashion industry. That gay men are unusually prevalent is perhaps not so surprising. I was struck, however, by the way that LGBTQ designers and models carved out a home within the fashion community throughout history.

As a younger person, I thought that fashion was limited to the representations of femininity I saw in Seventeen and I deemed the whole thing silly. An asymmetrical short haircut later, I discovered just how much of my previous aversion to the fashion industry came from frustration at the types of femininity that I thought I was supposed to strive for. Becoming comfortable with a queer-presenting identity opened me to a new appreciation the art of fashion. I poured over queer media and found a representation of femininity that fit me better. I have begun to feel that I can actually achieve a stylish look and have a new interest in “fussing” with clothes as an artistic expression (with limited success I should say, before my friends and/or coworkers laugh too hard).

Watching queer icons like Shane of The L Word and more hidden ones like “Idgie” of Fried Green Tomatoes gave me the confidence to explore my own queer identity. In A Queer History of Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, chief curator of the exhibition at The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology that it accompanies, I found new queer icons and communities whose fashions shaped our ideas of what the LGBTQ community looks like.

The Power Dyke

The evolution of women’s fashion is tied to the evolution of the women’s liberation movement. The adoption of elements of men’s clothing in women’s fashion gave women more physical mobility, at the same time when women were fighting for more personal, political, and social mobility. Coco Chanel famously changed  “men’s clothing into women’s”; her designs made the tailored clothes of upper class men available to women. Chanel falls on the hidden side of queer icons. While she demonstrated some gender ambiguity saying she “always dressed like the strong independent male she dreamed of being” and was rumored to have had sexual relationships with female friends such as Misia Sert, only her affairs with men were ever confirmed.

 1966_lesmoking_400(Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, le smoking suit, c.1972. Press image for Black in Fashion, The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)  Jennifer Beals(Jennifer Beals,
The trend towards turning tailored menswear into womenswear that Chanel started continued its popularity with professional women, eventually giving us the “power suit”. Bette Porter of The L Word, played by Jennifer Beals, wore elegant suits that emphasized her authoritative leadership style to her high powered job as the Director of the California Arts Center.

The Androgyne

In the 1950s, androgyny was a more discreet option than butch-femme gendered role-play that defined many people’s image of lesbian relationships.  With the evolution of the feminist movement, however, androgyny became a rejection of the gender binary, and the more popular lesbian image. Androgynous dress became a feminist and queer signifier.

Shane(Katherine Moennig, Wikimedia Commons) jenny(Model Jenny Shimizu, Helmut Red campaign. Photograph by Mark Seliger.)
Shane McCutcheon of The L Word, played by Katherine Moennig, was masculine enough to pose in a men’s underwear ad, but also had a taste for heavy eyeliner and was uncomfortable with butch stereotypes. Her gender ambiguity was part of what made her such a sex icon on the show. Jenny Shimizu has modeled for Versace, Anna Sui, Prada among many other huge names in the fashion industry. She was chosen to represent CK One, the Calvin Klein fragrance marketed to men and women. Like Shane, her confidence in her androgynous presentation has made her an icon for many lesbians.

The Clone

Effeminate styling in men is the predominant mainstream image of gay men, but throughout history gay men have developed many other styles to assert their identities and to avoid social disapproval.  The “clone” style uses typically masculine clothes, fitted to emphasize the male form, to appeal to the male sexual appetite.

brian(Gale Harold, clone(Spread from a catalog for Vince Man’s Shop, 1960. Photo courtesy Rupert Smith. Vince Estate © Stephen Cartwright)
Brian Kinney of Queer as Folk, played by Gale Harold, portrays a quintessentially masculine style of dress, paired with a stereotypically masculine sexual negligence. Menswear emphasizes a typically masculine beauty. In gay club culture, many men dress in the style of the men they are most attracted to.
Ariana Parenti Ariana Parenti is Online Marketing Coordinator for Yale University Press. She has a penchant for stripes and run-on sentences.

The Voice in My Head: Steve Wasserman on Susan Sontag

By Steve Wasserman

SontagAmong the first books I’ve acquired for Yale University Press, just now being published, is a valentine to my late and beloved Susan Sontag.  For decades, she was something of an Auntie Mame figure for me.  We spent years haunting used bookstores in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York, talking for hours over ever-bizarre dishes of Chinese Hakka cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall eatery at Stockton and Broadway in San Francisco and other cities, watching Kenneth Anger flicks and the fevered stop-motion puppet masterpieces of Ladislas Starevich, which Tom Luddy would screen for us at the Pacific Film Archive, over and over again until our eyeballs nearly fell out.

We met in the spring of 1974 at a dinner in Berkeley given by Robert Scheer, author of one of the first pamphlets against the Vietnam War and former editor of Ramparts, the radical slick magazine for which Susan had written in the 1960s. I especially remember a 15,000-word “Letter from Sweden,” which opened with a sentence I never forgot: “The experience of any new country is always a battle of clichés.”  I was then a senior at UC Berkeley and was moonlighting as Scheer’s researcher on a book he was writing on multinational corporations and a growing phenomenon which years later would be called “globalism.”  I was to graduate in June and Scheer and I planned to go to New York to finish our work on the book.  His editor at McGraw-Hill was Joyce Johnson, a former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac’s.  Scheer was to bunk with his old pal, Jules Feiffer, the gifted cartoonist for The Village Voice, and I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.


Portrait of Steve Wasserman by Don Bachardy

I remember the apartment well.  Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe.  Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library which Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.”

I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning.  I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read.  For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the journals of Andre Gide.  These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her pencil underlinings and marginal notes.  One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”Wassman_Sontag

For my twenty-second birthday in early August, Susan took me to see Waylon Jennings at The Bottom Line, the new hot club which had opened to great success six months before.  (Five years later, I would return the favor by taking her to see Graham Parker and The Rumour at the Roxy in L.A.)  Her son, David Rieff, my age exactly, had long been besotted with country music and boasted a dazzling collection of bespoke cowboy boots, and we spent many humid evenings walking his dog, Nu-nu, an Alaskan husky with Paul Newman eyes, through the streets of the neighborhood, while talking politics and literature and the higher gossip over endless cups of espresso and smoking Picayunes, the strong unfiltered Kentucky cigarettes he then favored and would later give up.  Thus, was a lifelong friendship forged.

Six days later, President Nixon resigned in disgrace.  Scheer’s book had to be retitled: now it was to be called America after Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals.  Those were the days before computers, of course, and it fell to me to comb through the page proofs, meticulously changing all the present tenses to past, as in Nixon was.  Nothing so tedious was ever so pleasurable.

Susan and I kept up our friendship and during the near-decade I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, she was a cherished contributor.  When she fell sick in the spring of 2004, thirty years after we had first met, I feared it would prove to be her final illness.  I last saw her in April 2004.  She was in Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement award from the city’s Library Foundation.  We met at her hotel.  She looked, as ever, full of life, ardent as always.  She drew me aside and confided the grim diagnosis she’d just received from her doctors.  Referring to her previous cancers, she said: “Three strikes and you’re out.”

Months before she died on December 28, I began to draft what would, in the event, be front-page news.  Twenty-five years before, I had clipped from the pages of Rolling Stone what I thought was the best interview she’d ever given: a passionate and far-ranging conversation with Jonathan Cott, an original and longtime contributor to the magazine.  I quoted generously from it in my obituary. Here is Susan declaring what amounts to a credo, asserting that “thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking”:

Years went by and it came to pass that Jonathan discovered in his apparently bottomless closet the tapes he’d used to record his interview.  It turned out that Rolling Stone had only used a third of their twelve hours of talk.  And since Susan spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, we decided to publish the entire conversation as Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview.

Doing so has been, for me, a way of keeping alive a voice that continues to echo in my head.  I miss her like the amputee is said to feel the pain of the vanished limb.Wassman_Sontag2

# #  #

Steve Wasserman is Executive Editor-at-Large for Yale University Press. 

In Conversation with Susan Sontag: A Window to 1970s Gender Politics

A writer, novelist, filmmaker, and activist, Susan Sontag was an engaged intellectual for whom thinking was a form of feeling and feeling a form of thinking. One of the most influential critics of her generation, she was widely admired by many women and something of a contested figure within the LGBTQ communities, in addition to achieving international celebrity status. Unlike many writers, Sontag was not shy of interviews. She valued the opportunity for talk in any setting, as a way of collecting and focusing her thoughts. Her interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone, only one-third of which was published in 1979, showed Sontag’s intellectual clarity and conversational confidence at the height of her career. Their wide-ranging conversation covered sexuality, gender issues, illness, aging, and political theory, among other topics. Now, the full 12-hour interview is available to the public in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview.

Some aspects of Cott and Sontag’s discussion of feminism may be familiar to a modern audience. Sontag acknowledges the continued importance of the feminist movement, but expresses frustration with the way that it segregated women and their artistic and intellectual work.

(Sontag on de-segregationist feminism, original recording)

In this interview, Sontag dwells on the double standard in societal expectations of male and female sexuality. For Sontag, sexual attraction was ideally bound up with an intellectual affinity with one’s beloved.

(Sontag on the double standards for sexuality, original recording)

Here, Cott and Sontag address gender differences as they talk about the writing of Jan Morris, one of the first and most prominent writers to undergo a sex change. Sontag reveals a remarkably open attitude towards gender construction, one that many readers will find exemplary.

(Sontag on gender construction, original recording)

“Mannequin Parade”—The First Fashion Models

Today the idea of fashion modeling is a part the general cultural consciousness, with many famous icons and a reality television show. In the early 1900s, however, it was a new concept to preview clothing on a live model. Leading fashion historian, Caroline Evans, explores the development of fashion modeling using significant new archival evidence from the wider context of business, international trade, cinema, and art in her new book The Mechanical Smile. Evans tells the exhaustive story of the first fashion show, answering the question “who were the women who first stepped out onto the runway?”

They were called “mannequins” in the early 1900s and from this first naming, the objectification of the female form that continues to trouble feminists today is apparent. Taking the place of the dolls that once modeled dresses for customers, they were regarded as “living objects” by many, especially the customers they modeled for. Socioeconomic status certainly played a role in this perception. Mannequins were considered nearly prostitutes and had a reputation from promiscuous to sexually depraved. In contemporary fiction, mannequin characters had multiple illicit affairs, with the husbands of customers, and with fellow models. Despite the challenges of their marginalized societal status, these early fashion models made connections through their positions, finding secondary careers and wealthy husbands.

Mannequins, and the designs they modeled, influenced and were influenced by modern conceptions of the ideal female form. Today the fashion industry is criticized for distorting body image and creating unhealthy weight standards for women. In the early days of the fashion show, the body types of the mannequins were more diverse, but the clothing designs were often more restrictive. Sheath-style dresses clung tight to show off the mannequin’s legs, but also highly restricted movement. The mannequins perfected a “sliding, undulating walk” with tiny steps that the average woman was challenged to emulate if she wished to wear the current fashions. These clinging dresses reflect an increased interest in the legs of the female form, which developed in conjunction with a larger cultural fascination with movement. Parallels to the fashion world’s obsession with “new velocities” can be seen in early cubist art, and in the newly developed medium of the cinema.


The First Modern Woman Artist: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Woman ArtistCaroline Hayes—

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) was a groundbreaking painter whose often-overlooked place in modernism forces us to reconsider our understanding of art in the early twentieth century. Modersohn-Becker was the first artist to paint herself nude, as well as mothers and children nude, and in doing so, challenged traditional representations of the female body in art. Yet Modersohn-Becker was not widely recognized during her lifetime. Diane Radycki, author of Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Woman Artist, presents a biography of the artist as well as an extensive analysis of her work.

Radycki is particularly interested in Modersohn-Becker’s influence on the definition of modernism as we’ve come to define it today. In a recent conversation with the author, she explained one such definition: “Modernism is the entrance of women as serious professional participants in changing the landscape of subject matter in painting.” It is the era in which the woman artist asserted the validity and influence of her art practice. Modersohn-Becker was at the forefront of this transformation.

In 1927, the Paula Modersohn-Becker museum opened in Bremen, Germany. How does a woman die unknown and then twenty years later have the first museum dedicated to a female artist in all of Europe built for her? This central question led Radycki to discover just how ahead of the time she truly was. Modersohn-Becker was a decade ahead of her artistic contemporaries, and then the war intervened. Radycki explains, “War changes the audience. The audience for art and entertainment before the First World War is quite different than the cynicism and distrust time after the war. After the war they looked at her with different eyes.”

After the war ended in November 1918, Modersohn-Becker was exhibited in the summer of 1919 at Berlin’s most popular new galleries. She was finally recognized to have turned around a new artistic language and a new artistic subject. She was even included in the infamous Nazi degenerate art show, which we now understand as a roadmap to modernism in the early 20th century.  Modersohn-Becker was one of the few women to be exhibited.

In my conversation with Radycki, she proposed yet another aspect of Modersohn-Becker’s influence on modernism. In the beginning of Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Woman Artist, the epigraph presents a quote from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which was published in 1927, the very year that the Modersohn-Becker museum opened. Modersohn-Becker was a very close friend of Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet whose works, at the time of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, were being translated and published by Vita Sackville-West. At a high moment of West’s relationship with Woolf, West was translating Rilke’s poem, “Requiem For a Friend,” which serves as a tribute to Paula Modersohn-Becker. Radycki explains, “I discovered that there were biographical parts in that poem that show up in the Woolf piece, particularly in the painter-character, Lily Briscoe. There are lines, descriptions, metaphors in the Rilke that are in the Woolf, and when I did more research on To the Lighthouse, I was so startled when I read that Virginia Woolf said, ‘I am really not writing a novel, I am writing a requiem.’”

Radycki’s connection made between Woolf and Modersohn-Becker is a very important one because of the place that the book takes in the history of modernism. Woolf wrote this extraordinary novel in 1925, and by that time the Modersohn-Becker museum was beginning construction. It seems probable that Woolf, given her position in the intimate circles of art and literature in London, was aware of the new museum. This is only one mystery of Modersohn-Becker’s life, and it is this space of uncertainty that motivates Radycki’s research. She explains, “All the holes were there in her life, and that kept me so puzzled about the art.  That nice daughter, that nice wife. That was not what I was seeing in the painting. I jumped into the hole.”

Caroline Hayes  recently graduated from New York University with a degree in Comparative Literature and was a summer intern in Yale University Press’s Art Workshop.

Sister Citizen Now Out in Paperback!

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“Citizenship is more than an individual exchange of freedoms for rights,” writes Melissa V. Harris-Perry, professor, writer and television host, in Sister Citizen. “It is also membership in a body politic, a nation, and a community.”

In Sister Citizen, now available in paperback, Harris-Perry looks at what it means for black American women to be a citizen today. What are black women facing and how do they cope? In a recent segment on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, Harris-Perry explains: “Sisters are trying to do the work of being American citizens but must navigate the persistent negative race and gender stereotypes that create a crooked room filled with distorted images of ourselves,” creating a larger picture for the implications of race, gender, citizenship, and belonging in America as a whole.

This clear and engrossing volume draws from first-hand accounts, diverse research and analysis from the daily news to show how shame and stereotypes play themselves out in America.  With contemporary examples of this dynamic, from Michelle Obama and Shirley Sherrod to historical precedents and archetypes like “Jezebel” and “Sapphire,” Harris-Perry illuminates the struggles and strategies at work when black women face deeply held stereotypes that can distort their reality. As Harris-Perry says, “Our politics is an exercise of trying to stand straight in a crooked room.”

In this book the reader might find “how different the American story looks when it’s told through the lens black women’s complicated and sometimes painful experiences of this country.”

Check out a video of Melissa Harris-Perry talking about the book here, and keep your eyes on our blog for a Goodreads Graduation giveaway for all our sisters out there facing the challenges of the “real world.” Surely, this issue is real enough…

Leila Ahmed and Women’s Voices in Islam

What does it mean for a Muslim woman to wear a veil? What is the role of women in Islam? What is the relationship between culture and faith? Leila Ahmed, an author and professor at Harvard Divinity School, investigates these topics most recently in A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, for which she won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. In her 1992 book, Women and Gender in Islam, we find Ahmed’s foundational text, in which she combines history, cultural analysis, and religious insight into the under-studied and frequently misunderstood topic of the relationship between womanhood and Islam.

Women and Gender in IslamIn order to unpack this topic, Ahmed explores different strains of influence on the culture into which Islam was born. Deciphering women’s roles from a distant place in history is not a simple task, but Ahmed deftly handles legal and religious material in a nuanced way. She examines the varying legal and economic independence of women in the cultural groups that played a role in the religion’s early social formation, from property ownership to marriage practices. As Ahmed explains, “The type of marriage that Islam legitimized was, like its monotheism, deeply consonant with the sociocultural systems already in place throughout the Middle East.” In looking at this historically, Ahmed helps to tease out the complicated social and political aspects from the ethical and religious tenants of the faith.

What are the ethical and religious ideals of Islam when it comes to women? Ahmed explores how believers have found in Islam’s holy texts a deep egalitarianism that upholds the validity of women’s spirituality alongside that of men. She quotes from the Quran, noting especially that faithful women and men are addressed in the same breath:

“For Muslim men and women, –

For believing men and women,

For devout men and women …

Engage much in God’s praise, –

For them has God prepared

Forgiveness and a great reward.” (Sura 33:35)

As we see in the passage from the Quran, Islamic history hasn’t had one monolithic message to women. “There appear, therefore,” Ahmed explains on early Islamic history, “to be two distinct voices within Islam, and two competing understandings of gender, one expressed in pragmatic ulations for society, the other in the articulation of an ethical vision.”.

A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to AmericaBy untangling some of the political and spiritual elements of Islam, Ahmed sheds light on what female followers of Islam may actually experience versus what someone outside might assume. “The unmistakable presence of ethical egalitarianism,” she writes, “explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. They hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of orthodox, androcentric Islam.”

This fascinating issue is made even more complicated by the interaction between Islam and the Western world. Ahmed concludes her book by exploring how feminism and Islam can be caught up in the relationship between Western and Muslim cultures (and cultures within them). One danger, particularly in the scholarly and political sphere, is the temptation to broadly apply a strict Western notion of the role of women. As Ahmed explains, this is implicated in prejudice and misunderstanding, and it can be used to justify antipathy to Muslims or Arab people. Women and Gender in Islam illuminates how Muslim women can and have negotiated their own voice from their own context of faith.

To London, with Love: This is a Woman’s World

Ivan Lett—

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination - See more at: I reserve this space for books acquired through our London office, but my subject here is largely still about England, all the same. In fact, much of the literature discussed in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, focuses on English writers: Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot; and I’ll admit a certain bias for favorites like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Mrs. Gaskell. I first read the book as a junior in college, and it was one of those course-of-study- and perspective-changing texts. At a time when feminist, racial, queer, and a myriad of other multicultural studies and politics were rapidly populating scholarly discourse, this 1979 study combined several conversations into one, with a clarity that is continually referenced.

Gilbert and Gubar inspect literature and literary voice in a manner that ties together a long history of criticism and how women writers of the nineteenth century and afterwards have participated in the creation of an important and preceding feminist culture: “If a brief backward glance at the early stages of feminist criticism establishes its vital origins in the Victorian period…the nineteenth century continues to provide a lively field of activity for feminist thinking that has undergone a series of dramatic methodological transformations,” Gubar writes.In an age where “the humanities in general…have lately been increasingly feminized, both literally and figuratively” writes Gilbert in 2000:

Literally: the membership of the Modern Language Association is now about 50 percent women, and graudate students in many departments are overwhelmingly female. Figuratively: if the sciences are hard and we are soft, that’s at least in part because we do the genteel, wifely job of acculturation and socialization on campus, while the guys in astrophysics shoot for Mars. No wonder, then, that in a world where the richly rewarded scientists speak a host of hard-to-acquire, difficult, private language,s we humble, formerly plain-speaking humanists have yearned for sole access to a similarly difficult private discourse–a jargon, as it were, of our own, which would offer acolytes in our field the same kind of linguistic mastery that bespeaks professionalism in, say, microbiologists and geologists.

Previously I’ve admitted that I’m a lapsed geneticist, so I’d definitely recommend this book for anyone switching sides. And given the female dominance of nearly all levels of higher education today, please do give the idea some thought. You know a book is of the “groundbreaking” sort when another one with [Title] after __ Years (Gilbert and Gubar’s  ’The Madwoman in the Attic’ after Thirty Years, University of Missouri Press) comes out, and with the still-changing picture of women, literature, politics, and self-expression within patriarchal culture, it’s easily conceivable that another in the same vein would appear in the years ahead.

As one of those pristine book owners, I never write on the pages, always keeping my notes elsewhere; or, promising myself that I will remember, which inevitably leads to re-reading. I went to graduate school thinking that an e-reader would be an indispensable tool for keeping notes, passages of interest, not to mention clearing up the scores of printed articles and presentation handouts being carried from one place to the next. With the newly available eBook edition of The MadwomanI get to have my shelf copy and a new one to digitally dirty up with thoughts of books I’ve read since, all the new Austen film jokes to be made.

Tomorrow at the annual National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony, Gilbert and Gubar will be awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. As the publisher of not only The Madwomanbut Gilbert and Gubar‘s sequel volumes of No Man’s Land, Yale University Press admirably extends its congratulations to these two women who have contributed vastly to their field.

Ivan Lett is Online Marketing Manager for Yale University Press. 

The Great Agnostic and First American Male Feminist

Susan Jacoby, author of the new biography, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethoughthere reflects on the significance of Ingersoll as a religious and philosophical thinker, considering women’s and human rights in nineteenth-century America and arguing that he was a man well ahead his times—more like twentieth-century feminists than his own contemporaries on the issue of women’s rights.

The Great Agnostic and First American Male Feminist

Susan Jacoby—

Robert Green Ingersoll, known as “The Great Agnostic” when he was America’s most famous orator in the late nineteenth century, was also far ahead of his time in his attitude about equal rights for women. Although he was a prominent Republican during the Gilded Age, he would never have found a place in today’s Republican Party not only because of his advocacy of absolute separation of church and state but because of his insistence that women were entitled to all of the legal benefits and education granted men.

In “Eight Hours Must Come,” an essay published in 1890, Ingersoll not only broke with the robber barons by supporting an eight-hour work day but took the even more extraordinary—at the time, almost unthinkable—position of supporting equal pay for women.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American FreethoughtEconomic justice, he said, must apply to women as well as to men and working men should remember that “all who labor are their brothers, and that all women who labor are their sisters.” The worst-paid, worst-treated workers in America were women, Ingersoll noted more than two decades before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  “Think of the sewing women in this city,” he wrote, “and yet we call ourselves civilized!”

Ingersoll’s rejection of the idea that women were, by nature, intellectually inferior to men—an article of faith for most men and most women in his era—was another of his distinguishing characteristics as a humanistic freethinker. The dedications of many volumes in Ingersoll’s collected works emphasize his high opinion of the capabilities of women: Volume I, “To Eva A. Ingersoll, My Wife, A Woman without Superstition;” Volume II, “To Mrs. Sue M. Farrell, in law my sister, and in fact my friend;” Volume XII, “To My Daughters, Eva and Maud, whose hearts have never been hardened, whose imaginations have never been poisoned, and whose lives have never been cursed with the dogma of eternal fire.”

That Ingersoll was a family man who adored his wife and two daughters was well known, and his spotless domestic reputation—despite the best efforts of scandal-hungry reporters—frustrated those who wished to equate freethought with “free love.”  The Great Agnostic’s twentieth-century biographers failed to recognize, probably because most of them were writing before the emergence of the second wave of American feminism in the 1970s, that Ingersoll held a radical view of women’s rights and wrongs that went far beyond the suffragist movement of his time.

In the battle over the subjugation of women, he sided with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw religion and centuries of religion-based law as the main cause of women’s oppression, rather than with those who saw the vote itself as the ultimate remedy for all of women’s ills. Like Stanton, Ingersoll viewed the franchise as necessary but not sufficient for women who wished not only to be the helpmates of men but the masters of their own lives. In this he resembled feminists of the 1970s and 1980s rather than the suffragists of his own time.

Before there were any reliable means of contraception, Ingersoll spoke about birth control as the precondition for women’s liberation. He also understood—unlike the ultra-conservative Congressional candidates who went down to defeat in the 2012 election because of their contemptuous comments about rape, abortion, and contraception—that  compulsory childbearing was used by both the church and individual men to stymie any other aspirations that women might possess.

Ingersoll said emphatically, “Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself…must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.” Women could never be truly free as long as they were forced to rely on the self-control of men to avoid unwanted pregnancy. “This is the solution of the whole question,” Ingersoll emphasized. “This frees woman. The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts.  They will fill homes with light and joy.”

Those who considered the very mention of birth control obscene would be horrified by the possibility that women might choose whether or not to have children, because involuntary motherhood guaranteed patriarchal control over all female behavior. Ingersoll described the ethos of  both men and women “who believe that slaves are purer, truer than the free, who believe that fear is a safer guide than knowledge, that only those are really good who obey the commands of others, and that ignorance is the soil in which the perfect, perfumed flower of virtue grows.”

Ingersoll was well aware that women, as a group, were more religious than men, but, in sharp contrast to Victorian moralists who considered the female sex “purer” than the male, he attributed feminine religiosity not to woman’s higher nature but to her lack of education and utter economic dependency on her husband.

In his preface to the prominent freethinker and feminist Helen H. Gardener’s Men, Women and Gods (1885), Ingersoll said flatly, “Woman is not the intellectual inferior of man. She has lacked, not mind, but opportunity…There were universities for men before the alphabet had been taught to women. At the intellectual feast, there was no place for wives and mothers. Even now they sit at the second table and eat the crusts and crumbs.”  Even worse, in Ingersoll’s opinion, was the tendency of many husbands to regard religious superstition as the guardian of their wives’ fidelity and their daughters’ chastity. “These men think of priests as detectives in disguise,” Ingersoll said, “and regard God as a policeman who prevents elopements.”

The result, in nineteenth-century America, was a union of religion and law in which women were expected to stay in a marriage even if they were regularly beaten and maimed by their husbands. In 1888, the New York World published a remarkable interview with Ingersoll in which he linked the right of a woman to divorce, and to obtain support for her children, with a case of domestic violence considered shocking even in a society where marital violence against women was rarely considered worthy of a headline. It seems that a man in the New York City borough of Queens had torn one of his wife’s eyes out of its socket and then, a year later, returned home in a drunken rage and tore out the other eye.

The blind wife could leave her husband and live separately from him, Ingersoll noted, but she would still be forced to stay legally married to her assailant and would “remain, for the rest of her days…a wife, hiding, keeping out of the way, secreting herself from the hyena to whom she was married.” (From 1787 until 1967, adultery was the only ground for divorce In New York State—a policy upheld in the twentieth century largely as a result of strong lobbying by representatives of the powerful Catholic Archdiocese  of  New York).

In a forceful statement that sounds very much like the 1970s’ feminist critique of male domestic violence, Ingersoll asked, “Must a woman in order to retain her womanhood become a slave, a serf, with a wild beast for a master, or with society for a master, or with a phantom for a master? Has not the married woman the right of self-defence? Is it not the duty of society to protect her from her husband?…She may not remain in the same house with him, for fear that he may kill her. What, then, are their relations? Do they sustain any relation except that of hunter and hunted—that is, of tyrant and victim?”

Ingersoll did not hesitate to talk about other threats to women, such as rape, that were unmentionable in polite society. “It is hard to appreciate the dangers and difficulties that lie in wait for woman,” he said. “Even in this Christian country of ours, no girl is safe in the streets of the city after the sun has gone down. After all, the sun is the only god that has ever protected woman. In the darkness she has been the prey of the wild beast in man.”  (Italics mine)

In the late nineteenth century, there were few women who dared to say, even if they thought, that patriarchal religion was a major obstacle to the full development of their sex.  Stanton and Gardener were the exceptions, and Stanton herself was pushed aside by the suffragist movement in the early 1890s after publishing her Woman’s Bible, a strongly worded collection of essays by female scholars who criticized and reinterpreted the endless biblical passages claiming divine sanction for the inferiority of women. The suffragist movement began to make real headway in public opinion only when it discarded any broader critique of women’s position in society and merged with the devoutly religious, female-led temperance movement, embodied by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In the temperance movement, both women and men portrayed alcohol consumption as the only source of male violence against women and children.

Ingersoll, by contrast, viewed the connection between alcohol and violence within the home as only one more manifestation of the failure of both religion and government to uphold women’s rights. Ingersoll was unimpressed by the argument that Christianity had elevated the status of women. He noted that Jesus “said not one word about the sacredness of home, the duties of the husband to the wife—nothing calculated to lighten the hearts of those who bear the saddest burdens of this life.”

Ingersoll was unusual in that he combined a basic belief in the intellectual equality of women and men with a romantic chivalry that owed more to his love of Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, and Keats than it did to contemporary social attitudes that placed women on a pedestal and required them to stay there. He often said that his favorite line of English verse was Shakespeare’s “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

In his most popular and frequently delivered lecture, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child,” Ingersoll followed up an ardent defense of equal rights for women with a reflection on love that expressed his romantic side and his feelings about his wife. “And do you know,” he told his audiences, “it is a splendid thing to think that the woman you really love will never grow old to you. Through the wrinkles of time, through the mask of years, if you really love her, you will always see the face you loved and won. And a woman who really loves a man does not see that he grows old; he is not decrepit to her; she always sees the same gallant gentleman who won her hand and heart.”

That mutual, lifelong love was Ingersoll’s ideal did not prevent him from understanding that  for millions of women, real life bore no resemblance to the ideal and that women’s subsistence wages prevented most from exiting an intolerable marriage. “The question of wages for women is a thousand times more important than sending missionaries to China or to India,” he said. “There is plenty for missionaries to do here. And by missionaries I do not mean gentlemen and ladies who distribute tracts or quote Scripture to people out of work. If we are to better the condition of men and women we must change their surroundings.”

When Ingersoll died in 1899, The New York Times noted that he had not accumulated great wealth even though he commanded top fees as a lecturer. One of Ingersoll’s mistakes, according to the anonymous editorial writer, was that he left money in an unlocked drawer in his home, so that his wife and daughters could take what they needed without asking him. Yes, Ingersoll was a bad Victorian pater familias, but he was a great humanist and a passionate, premature defender of women’s rights and human rights. Why, he even gave the women in his family access to money!

Adapted from The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby (Yale University Press, 2013) Copyright © 2013 by Susan Jacoby. All rights reserved.