Skip to content

Who Owns American History? By Robert C. Post.

April 17, 2014

Who Owns American History? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History, by Robert C. Post.  Johns Hopkins University Press (2013), Hardcover, 400 pages

A history of the Smithsonian Institution and its ongoing debates about how to tell the story of our nation and who gets to control its exhibits.

Robert Post is a professional historian who worked at the Smithsonian from 1971 to 1996, years in which the institution underwent major changes and became the object of raucous criticism. In this book he traces its development and reveals the roots of the conflicts that occurred during his time there. He provides a detailed account of individuals who were there and how decisions were made. In doing so, he lays out some of the basic tensions which historical museums must resolve and which museum visitors should understand.

From its nineteenth-century beginning, there were debates about whether the Smithsonian should be primarily concerned with research and exploration or whether it should concentrate on exhibiting the objects that resulted. After the Civil War, attention focused on exhibits that would “educate and amuse.” Historical exhibits were created to show the evolution of technology from “primitive” to “modern.” Big corporate donors, emerging at the time, provided large sums of money to display the value and achievements of their industry or even their particular company. Arguments arose over conflicts between donor’s version of a story and that of scholars and other outsiders. Questions of who owned an exhibit were anything but theoretical.

The Smithsonian and its historical displays continued to grow and to laud the progress of the American nation through World War II. Then the Cold War provided new impetus for displaying American superiority especially in the technology it produced. Two new building were created; one later named the National Museum of American History, and another that became the National Air and Space Museum. The NMAH opened in 1964 with ambitious plans for meaningful exhibits, often related to technology or the relationship of technology and culture. Its ties with academic historians strengthened. The museum featured a “consensus” version of history which claimed that all Americans lived happily together without conflict or pain. Exhibits explicitly excluded African Americans and other non-whites. At times they clearly advocated private interests or boldly partisan political aims. For example, when Nixon was determined to raise US productivity, he asked the NMAH to create an exhibit to help. It featured “Mom” making an apple pie and asked questions about what items she needed and who deserved the biggest piece. Critics responded that productivity was not the universal good that the exhibit claimed. Another questionable exhibit featured one brand of safety razor and was changed at the last moment to include others. The result was an exhibit resembling a trade show—hardly appropriate for our national history museum. When the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, it had been created with the assistance of the Air Force and its veterans and was even more clearly intended to celebrate the greatness of America and its Air Force.

By the 1970s, academic historians and some NMAH curators were moving away from such a glib patriotic version of our history. They wanted to show “the dark side of progress” and to include the experiences of various ethnic groups. “From Field to Factory” broke new ground with its depiction of the African American migration to the northern cities and with design features that led visitors to experience what they saw. An exhibit about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was sharply criticized because it did not display a positive enough view of the United States, but it was allowed to continue.

Against this background, a major dispute arose around a proposed exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, as part of a celebration of the end of World War II. Retired Air Force generals were given unusual access to preliminary ideas, not yet internally approved, and they involved Congress and the press in a major attack on the Smithsonian. People were fired and the museum disgraced. Even more disturbing to me was the account of the appointment to head the institution of a man who enriched himself and private individuals at the expense of the Smithsonian. He was an example of what can happen when governmental institutions are turned over to individuals who put their own private profit first rather than prioritizing public service.

In describing the Smithsonian and its history museums, Post raises important questions that perennially arise for those who lead museums. Were collection and research the chief goal or were public exhibits? What was the museum’s relationship with the professional historians of academia? Should curators be historians? Should donors who wanted their own stories highlighted be allowed to restrict what was displayed and how? Should exhibits be planned around valuable historical objects or about historical stories? Should “stakeholders” be allowed to control what is told in the exhibits?

At times I wish that Post had stated the broader issues and questions more clearly and forcefully. Instead, he usually focuses on the personalities of the museum’s leaders and on the daily process of decision-making. He has his own version to tell of the Enola Gray controversy and how it brought to a head long-standing tension about museum practices and goals. His account of this dispute and others involving the museum are strenuously fair to all sides. His description of how exhibits were debated and created was insightful. At times, however, I think his attention to “office politics” limited the book’s appeal to general readers. The fact that the book is not strictly chronological makes the vast cast of characters confusing. A chart of the development of the different museums which he describes and of their name changes would have been helpful to an outsider like myself. So would a list of the names and dates of the directors and major curators, the dates, and what responsibilities each held.

Who Owns History is a well-researched book about an important and little understood issue of what goes into the making of historical understanding. Those in the field of museumology will find much to interest them, but for general readers the details get overwhelming. I recommend this book to museum professionals.

Thanks Edelweiss and Johns Hopkins University Press for sending me an ebook version of this book to review.

 

Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves.

April 15, 2014

Modern Motherhood: An American History, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves. Rutgers University Press, May 2014.

An impressive and strongly recommended history of how motherhood has changed in America, delving into shifting cultural ideals and expert opinions, into the economic factors and government policies that shaped the institution, and into the actual experiences of mothers from a variety of classes and races.

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves has given us a much-needed overview of how women have been defined by and have experienced motherhood—and how historically all women have been thought of as mothers. Drawing from Adrienne Rich’s influential book Of Mother Born, she narrates how motherhood has changed both as an institution and as an experience. For her, motherhood includes, but has never been limited to, the private interaction of a mother and her child.  That relationship is imbedded within ideological and economic factors that decisively affect it. Her book interweaves private and public factors making it a wide-spreading and complex narrative, yet one easily read by the general public.

Vandenberg-Daves begins her account by describing how moral authority in the home shifted from fathers to mothers in the early nineteenth century.  Women gained power within the family, at the cost of an increased financial dependency on men.  After discussing the contradictions of this idealized motherhood, she explains that it never fit the lives of women who were slaves or in poverty.  Even for financially secure white women it broke down as women sought to limit how often they gave birth and as they became employed outside their homes after the Civil War.

In the twentieth century, motherhood is part of a larger public story of industrialization, urbanization, and the rising prosperity of many, but not all, American families after World War II.  Such economic factors helped define the realities that mothers were forced to address. Increased involvement of doctors, government policies, and TV shows had their impacts on reproduction and child-rearing. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminism lead to an explosion of changes that affected the options for mothering. A few feminists put motherhood at the center of their thought, as Vadenberg-Daves shows, but sadly many of us were focused on fighting ourselves free of the restricted lives we had seen our mothers live. We were into mother-blaming and “giving birth to ourselves.” It was a confusing time, and this is the weakest of the book’s chapters.  None the less, major changes occurred.   Motherhood became less tied to marriage.  With the ability to control reproduction and earn a living, singleness and childlessness became accepted options. While controversial, single and lesbian motherhood became realities. For a time government assistance eased the strains of mothers in poverty.  And then opposition to the empowerment of women became strident and governmental assistance dried up.

Vandenberg-Daves does not limit herself to this somewhat familiar white middle-class story.  She devotes large portions to her book to the ways in which African American women developed styles of motherhood that were opposite the white ideal. African American slave mothers had virtually no control over their children who could always be sold away from them. Later, as sharecroppers and domestic servants, they developed ways of caring for their own children while working for the families of others. Often this involved sharing mothering tasks with “othermothers.” Immigrant mothers and all who were poor adapted in similar patterns. As more and more white middle-class women enter the workforce, our lives have come to resemble this combination of employment and motherhood.

When I wrote my dissertation in the 1980s on the history of motherhood, there were only a handful of scholars who had researched the topic. In the past thirty years, such research has mushroomed. Vandenberg-Davis has done a masterful job of weaving that research into a clear and assessable narrative for both academic and general readers.  She clearly follows the traditional scholarly requirements for accuracy and documentation.  She is at her best presenting opposing arguments fairly. Although her sympathy is obviously with the mothers whom she describes, she refuses to demonize those whose ideas and policies harmed them. Her book aims at providing a summary and structure for other people’s research rather introducing new data.  Its comparison of how motherhood varied by class and race, as well as over time, it is a major contribution to scholarship and public understanding.

One of the merits of this book is that it tells history from a perspective different than the traditional focus of nation states engaged in politics and war. While Vandenberg-Daves doesn’t ignore such topics, they are not front and center in this book. She proves that historical narratives need not be organized along traditional political patterns. Although she focuses on the particulars of American history, much she relates is relevant for readers in other nations where similar stories have evolved and in those regions where Americans and Europeans have sought to enforce their family ideals.

As I read, I envisioned using this book in a Women’s History class. While it would need to be supplemented with other materials, I would love to use it as a basic text. I could see students taking different sides on the debates among those who have advocated for mothers in the past.  I imagined how knowing the roots of some of decisions about motherhood and womanhood might help students negotiate the choices facing them personally and as a society.  They could see that they have options earlier women did not have around reproduction and motherhood. Yet some issues keep reappearing.  What has been gained with the increased availability of birth control, and more involvement outside the home, could be taken away.  As I read this book, ironically the US Supreme Court was debating birth control, something that changed women’s options dramatically 50 years ago which the radical right is trying to take away.

I consider this a “must read” book for everyone, female and male, everywhere. It provides a structure with which we can understand how we got to our current institutions and experiences around motherhood and thus the tools to work toward a world where mothers have a say in the forces which shape their options.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Rutgers University Press for sending me this book to review.

The Pink Sari Revolution, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.

April 13, 2014

The Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.   W. W. Norton & Company (2013),  Hardcover, 304 pages.

SOUTH ASIA WOMEN WRITERS

A lively journalistic account of Sampat Pal, a rural woman in north central India, and the women she organized to fight against injustice.

Sampat Pal is a woman living in southern Uttar Pradesh. She lives in the geographical region known as Bundelkhand, a region rife with extreme poverty and lawlessness. Although uneducated, she has proven herself to be an outstanding speaker and organizer. Starting with a small self-help group, she has drawn hundreds of women into a formal organization. Many are widows, left behind with no resources when their families moved away. Known as the “Pink Sari Gang,” they wear bright pink saris as badges of identification and carry sticks to use as aids in walking and as weapons to attack the police and other advisories. Sampat and the Pink Sari Gang have been surprisingly successful, freeing women and their family members from arrest and pursuing other actions to improve their lives. Central to the book is the story of their involvement in a recent struggle about a young woman raped by a corrupt local politician.

Amana Fontanella-Khan is a journalist who lived in India and conducted extensive research of Sampat Pal and the Pink Sari Gang. She has lived among the women and obviously admires them. She remains, however, aware that the account she gives of them is not the only story to be told. She does not claim to have the final word about the women and their actions and is careful to note when facts are “alleged”, not proven, or when an incident is told from the viewpoint of a particular individual. Rumors and claims about the politician and his accuser were particularly hard to authenticate. As she points out, dialogue in the text is simply how her informants remembered what was said. Her book includes notes documenting her sources of information, although there are no footnotes in the text. Having spent extensive time in the region, she is also able to give visual details that help readers from outside image what is happening.

Sampat is the main character in this book. In telling her story, Fontanella-Khan reveals the depth of poverty, lack of education and the isolation of her rural region. Although Sampat was desperately poor and married off as a child, she was able to browbeat her husband into allowing her to have a role in helping others with their problems. Eventually she left him to be cared for by their adult children and made her “office” the center of her life. She lived with a male friend who assisted her in her work in what seems to have been an asexual relationship. Sampat is clearly an unusual person, uniquely qualified, but not separated from others around her.

Although the members of the Pink Sari Gang are all women and chiefly concerned about the problems women face, I would not call them feminist, and neither does Fontanella-Khan. They are a practical group responding to spefic problems, with no theoretical claims of gender oppression. In addition to women-centered protests, they demonstrated and forced officials to build a much needed road and fought for the release of women’s male relatives. Men are supportive of the group, but remain in the background. With their sticks and willingness to attack authorities physically, the women are certain not practitioners of non-violence. Interestingly, Fontanella-Khan notes that India has a tradition of villagers protesting what they view as unfair treatment. Although most of these protests have been led by men in the past, some have been led by women.

I read this book because I knew almost nothing beyond generalities about rural India. I was curious, especially last year as protests against rape exploded. I know too little to critique The Pink Sari Revolution, but I learned much that seemed accurate about rural women and the circumstances of their lives. As well as bringing to life the women in her story, Fontanella-Kahn presents their region as among the poorest and most lawless in India. The corruption of political leaders was almost unimaginable. For me, it was a depressing place, but the story of Sampat and the other women was hopeful and inspiring.

This is a book that I gladly recommend to readers, especially those interested in India, in rural unrest, and in women organizing to improve their own lives.

Related books:

Beyond the Beautiful Forever, by Katherine Boo.  A particularly impressive book about urban poverty in India.

 

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.

April 11, 2014

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.  New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.

FAVORITE

AFRICA READING

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A gifted writer recreates the stories of four West African sisters whose lives span the twentieth century.

As the twentieth century begins, a West African man clears land and starts the coffee plantation that will make him wealthy. Four of his daughters, by four of his eleven wives, tell their own stories about their lives as children, coming of age, in maturity, and in old age. The stories are told to a niece who grew up among them and now lives aboard, a woman who could be Forna herself. When the niece returns to the plantation, the aunts are waiting to tell her their stories.

In one of the stories, a young girl watches her mother take up a cluster of stones that she obviously cherishes, and shake them out on the floor.

A dark rock the shape of a man’s cigar. A broken pebble, open like a split plum. A stone with a dimple that fitted my thumb. A pale three-cornered stone…. The Ancestors, she called them…. The names of my mother’s mother. Of my grandmother. Of my great-grandmother and her mother. The women who went before. The women who made me. Each stone chosen and given in memory of a woman to her daughter. So that their spirits would be recalled each time the stone was held, warmed by a human hand, and cast on the ground for help.

In Forna’s hands, stories are “ancestor stones,” each a jewel in its own right, but even more meaningful in the context of the others. They recount how lives were lived in the past, but not with the intention of preserving particular traditions.  Instead they are meant to deepen our understanding of the choices we all face as humans.  All of them affirm life in face of pain.

The first set of stories in Ancestor Stones tells of life in a large polygamous family. We see how it works and how it breaks down. Rivalry and support among the wives co-exist. Children find nurturing from various “mothers,” and wives are driven away. Traditional religions are being replaced by aggressive Islam. The man at the head of the family is a Muslim, and he expects all of his wives to share his faith, but they continue to worship in their own ways.

The second set of stories is about the women’s experience as they leave the compound to marry, to attend school or to work for the white men who are arriving. Seeking to live differently than their mothers, they find themselves unable to do so. They relate the pain of traditions, like female circumcision, but accept it as “the way things were.” Yet their worlds are changing. Europeans, who are appearing, seem to make tasks harder for themselves. For example they carry books in their hands instead on their heads. New houses are square, not round, and harder to keep clean and free of spirits.

Next are stories in which the women have matured and face new problems. One marries a man who becomes a leader in their newly independent country and becomes part of glittery society in the capital. She recognizes that something is wrong that no one wants to admit. Another goes to England to study where isolation almost destroys her.

Once I went to live among strangers and I learned what it was like to lose yourself. To feel fragments flying off of you. As if your soul had become unhitched from your body and is flying away on a piece of string like a balloon. Lost in the clouds. You think, I only have to catch the end of the string. But though it hovers within sight, you cannot grasp it. You try and try. And then comes a time when you are too tired. You no longer care. “Let me just fall down on the soft grass and go to sleep.”

In the concluding section, the women tell of their experiences in the terrible civil war that wrecked their unnamed country. One of the women hid within a wooden chest while rebels ransacked her home. She asks “What in the world have we done to deserve such a fate?”

Aminatta Forna is an exquisite writer; one of those whose words delight me. Her prose is full and rich, often sensual. Her descriptions sharp and sure. At times she leaves readers to figure out parts of the story, like the rebellion that destroys the plantation. Often she imparts an insight in a few words. I agree with the reviewer who says that her prose is like “bolts of brightly colored cloth.”

The daughter of a man from Sierra Leon and a Scottish woman, Forna lived in Sierra Leone as a child and left after her father’s death. Today she moves between there and London. For this book, she learned her people’s native language in order to collect family stories.
Her novel, Memory of Love, is explicitly about Sierra Leon and its attempts to recover after from civil war. The setting for Ancestor Stones is not explicitly stated.

I strongly recommend this book to all who are interested in women’s lives in West Africa throughout the twentieth century and all who find joy in well-crafted prose.

The Sacred River, by Wendy Wallace.

April 10, 2014

The Sacred River, by Wendy Wallace.  Scribner (2014), Hardcover, 304 pages.

An historical novel about three women from Victorian England who find new lives for themselves in Egypt.

Harriet is an invalid in her early twenties. Suffering from breathing problems most of her life, she has taken an interest in Ancient Egypt and its hieroglyphics. As pollution worsens in London, she convinces her doctor that going to Egypt would be good for her health. Her mother and her single aunt accompany her there. First the women settle in Alexandria where Harriet’s health improves. Then dust storms threaten a relapse. She and her mother go to Luxor and the artifacts of ancient Egypt.  Able to breathe freely, Harriet gets involved in archeological work and for the first time thinks of having a life of her own.  Shaken by an encounter from her past, her mother relives a traumatic that she has kept secret from everyone.  Back in Alexandria, Harriet’s aunt finds strength and resilience that she hadn’t realized she possessed.  But all is not well.  Egypt is full of unrest, and not everyone wishes Harriet and her family well.  The story of the three women is full of twists and turns, at times predictable and sometimes surprising.

Wendy Wallace is an accomplished writer. Her descriptions of the Egyptian landscape are moving. Her characters have depth. They  consider issues of rebirth and death, appropriate to the tombs that surround them. The relationship of the mother and daughter is treated with sensitivity and nuance.  The historical and geographical setting for the novel does little, however, to help us understand another time and place. The narrative of The Sacred River centers on its European characters.  Native Egyptians are generally treated respectfully, but they remain in the shadows. The sheer distance from London seems more important to the characters than the exotic nature of the setting. Harriet seems genuinely interested in the tombs and the hieroglyphics engage her intellectually.  The more likeable characters sympathize with the anger of the Egyptians over colonization, but this is a minor concern.   I could have done without the scene of the riot and its result.

I recommend The Sacred River for all who love historical novels, especially those involving Victorian characters.

I appreciate receiving an ebook edition of this novel to review.

Misogyny Re-loaded, by Abigail Bray.

April 8, 2014

Misogyny Re-loaded, by Abigail Bray.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2014.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

An angry manifesto about the increasing threats to women around the globe in the twenty-first century.

Feminism has always needed an angry edge, and Bray’s book is very much in this tradition. In the past, I have found such books clarifying. Even when I had disagreements with them, they pushed me to think in new directions. I came away from Misogyny Re-loaded, however, feeling depressed and ambivalent.

I share Abigail Bray’s horror and fear about the rising hatred and violence against women in many countries today. She vividly describes how the mutilation and rape of women is trivialized and enjoyed in today’s world. Her account of the “fascist patriarchy” of businesses and governments who are seeking a new world order is even more chilling. The “remasculization of the state” means that money that might be spent on women and children is going into dangerous militarization. Our time certainly is one in which misogyny has reloaded. Anyone who believes that we live in a post-feminist world needs to read this book.

While Bray’s book is accurate, I believe she draws her picture with too broad a brush, making those she considers enemies appear invincible. What can any of us do against such forces?  In reality, there are people out there fighting these forces.  Anger is important, socially as well as personally, but it needs to be balanced with hope and the empowerment to fight back. For me, it was from the second wave of feminists that I learned I was not powerless to affect social change for myself and for other women.  Other than her few vague statements about more resources for poor, single mothers, Bray’s book left me feeling powerless.

Additionally, several particular sections of Bray’s book bothered me. She has a long chapter on the ways in which psychology and psychiatry manipulate women by forcing them to be childlike and submissive to male power. I agree that those with such aims are dangerous, but this is hardly a new problem. Such manipulation began as doctors took over the medical profession, and it peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then feminists and others have had a major impact. Among mental health practitioners today are many who are willing and able to help women more toward more fulfilling lives. The bad guys are still there, but so are alternatives. Even pop culture includes a less monolithic image of what it means to be a woman. I consider that an achievement we should not forget.

Bray’s discussion of single mothers in poverty as the “canary in the coalmine” was one of her most provocative and, for me, one of her most troubling. Her depiction of the vulnerability of such women is all too accurate. I disagree with her, however, that second wave feminists are to blame for their plight because we focused on reproductive control and employment outside the home. Some of the women who fought hardest for birth control were poor mothers unwilling to have more children than they could afford. Dependence on a “family wage” for men was not some golden age for working-class women that feminists disrupted. Outside the middle-class, few men ever earned such a wage. Men have always died and deserted families, leaving women to raise children alone. While Bray says that she and those she quotes would not want to go back to universal dependence of women on the earning of individual men, any other alternatives are vague. Frankly, I fear attempts to “solve the problem” of single mothers by pressuring them to marry. Again the problem Bray presents is real, and ensuring that single mothers have adequate resources is an obvious need, but the question of how to achieve it remains. Dependence on the government can be as harmful to women as dependence on husbands.

In discussing the problems of single mothers, Bray explicitly blames feminists by stating that in pushing for birth control and public options for power outside the home they have been co-opted by the powerful male establishment. I make no apology for the fact that we failed to make everything right, and I am proud that many women, if not all, have better lives because of the work we did. Second wave feminists did not often make motherhood a priority, as they should have, but I will not engage in the “mother blaming” that Bray seems to promote. For me, feminism must include tolerance for the differences among women and the priorities they set for themselves, a tolerance that Bray seems to lack.

Yes, Misogyny Re-loaded made me defensive, but it has also forced me to rethink my own feminism. I consider motherhood as a critical issue for feminists, and one which we have not yet resolved. Mothering leaves women vulnerable. Not all mothers, married or single, can buy their way out of that vulnerability. Our dominant cultures have created a false dichotomy between public and private worlds, one that mothers are expected to be able to bridge effortlessly. Yet, mothers cannot be expected to resolve these problems merely by juggling employment and childcare. Perhaps we need to think about reshaping nuclear family structures so that women could share mothering responsibilities as they have often done in non-dominate cultures.

I recommend this book to those who believe that we live in a post-feminist world and need to see reality. And for those who can face the worst realities of our world without getting depressed.

I am grateful to Spinifex for sending me a review copy of this book.

Modern Motherhood, by Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, which I just read, influenced my thinking about Misogyny Re-loaded.  Others may want to check it out.  I will also be posting a review of it.

Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, edited by Laurel Ulrich.

April 6, 2014

Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, edited by Laurel Ulrich.  Palgrave Macmillan (2004), 352 pages.

 An anthology of articles and documents exploring the treatment of women and gender as these institutions have changed over time.

 In her introduction to this volume, Laurel Ulrich notes that women have always been at Harvard, often only as the servants, cooks, and significant donors.  But women have been excluded from Harvard’s history because they have been assumed to be too inconsequential to merit notice.  The book she has edited here is part of a larger attempt to correct this situation.  It contains such documents as formal historical research accounts, items found in archives, and memoirs written by women who attended these universities.  Some brief articles are by undergraduate students; others are by librarians, administrators, alums, and scholars.  They all add a new dimension to the complicated story of how women sought to become students at Harvard and how leaders at Harvard sought to exclude them.

 Articles in the anthology describe women’s peripheral connections to Harvard in the colonial and revolutionary periods.  By the early nineteenth century, wives of Harvard men were sometimes able to access the resources of the college, especially in the sciences.  A few were able to pursue research under specific professors.  As more women sought to study at Harvard and receive its degrees, debates over college education for women repeatedly took place.  Women’s organizations worked towards their admission and a series of compromises were tried.  Opposition to women studying at Harvard was strong, even as women’s colleges and coed universities flourished.  Charles Elliott, responsible for many reforms at Harvard, was particularly vocal in arguing for their exclusion.  Halfway measures, such as creation of the Harvard Annex and Radcliffe, were intended to placate women, not to be steps toward their inclusion.  Additionally, as the nineteenth century ended, educating men for the rugged style of manliness advocated by Teddy Roosevelt grew in importance.

 When Radcliffe was established as an administrative entity in 1894, it had no faculty of its own.   Initially, Harvard faculty delivered the same lectures to Radcliffe women that they gave to Harvard men, a compromise that left no one satisfied.   None-the-less, the young women at Radcliffe soon developed their own traditions separate from those of Harvard.   In the early twentieth century sports and theater give women the chance to act out roles usually held by men and fostered a culture of cross-dressing which the administration sought unsuccessfully to curb.    But women continued to push for more meaningful inclusion into Harvard well into the post-World-War-II era.  Articles by Radcliffe alums reveal how the inequality with Harvard men plagued them.  Even as other all-male institutions admitted women, Harvard administrators fought inclusion of women until 1979.

 The closing essay in the book is a speech that Drew Faust made in 2001, in which she pointed out how gender equality had still not been achieved at Harvard.  The university had traditionally operated with men as the norm, and continued to do so even when women were allowed to be participants.  Since the book was published, Faust has challenged that norm by becoming Harvard’s first woman president.

 I learned of this book when I read Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  Caleb, a Native American youth, actually went to Harvard, and Bethia, the book’s narrator, is a fictional example of the ways in which a woman could gain a little of what Harvard offered its male students.   It is a fine example of how a novelist can help us re-image our past by fictionalizing it.

Yards and Gates is an excellent book. I recommend it to readers interested in changes in our definitions of gender and in the resistance to those changes.  It is too easy to forget what work had to be done for women to be able to take part in first-class education. For us to forget is to endanger those changes.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 135 other followers