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Prostitution Narratives, Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist, eds.

August 31, 2016

Prostitution Narratives: Stories in Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 2016.  238 pages.

4 stars

A powerful collection of stories written by women from various countries who survived their time in prostitution and are willing to talk about its violence, drug usage, and overall dehumanizing impact.

Australians Caroline Norma and Melinda Reist, a scholar and an activist, both have expertise about sexual violence.  They know what prostitution looks like for those involved and have collected twenty stories and three articles to present their viewpoint and expose the seamy underside of the prostitution industry in developed nations.. Their purpose is to share stories that sharply contradict the rosy accounts of prostitution as ordinary work: stories spread by those who profit from it.   In deliberate imitation of the American slave narratives, Norma and Reist believe that if the public faces the reality of prostitution, the practice can be ended.   Reading their book, I see their point.  I gained a troubling new awareness of the damage it does not only to the women who rent the use of their bodies, but also to the larger society in which prostitution is allowed to be practiced.  I credit Prostitution Narratives for pushing me to think about prostitution differently.

Previously I had not realized the extent to which prostitution, like rape, is about violence.  Women are used as objects, not simply for sexuality, but to absorb the physical abuse that angry men think they are entitled to use against them.  Even if men do not hit or bite or choke, the female body is not meant to withstand penetration by a dozen or more men per night.  I also had not considered the psychological cost of repeated sex with men who do not value women.  As the stories repeatedly asserted, the way for woman to endure being a prostitute is to distance herself from what is happening to her body.  Legal or illegal drugs may help her, but they take a toll on her, compounding the damage from sex itself.  In addition, once caught up in prostitution it is very difficult to get out psychologically or practically.

Debates about prostitution and possible ways to end it allow all of us to distance ourselves into thinking about the practice as essentially harmless.  Reading the stories of women who have lived through it changes that immediately.  Even if we have no reliable statistics about the numbers of women who have been harmed, identifying with the victims gives us a seldom considered perspective and raises questions about why it is allowed even as an illegal, but tolerated practice.

After reading Prostitution Narratives, I began to consider the various ways in which prostitution is integral to how we as a society think.  Those of us in “free” societies can be attracted to the libertarian view that men are free and entitled to do what they have the money to do.  Men, perhaps, but not women.  Prostitution exhibits the problem with that view.  Nowhere else is entitlement of men over women taken to the extreme of his ability to buy time alone with a woman to abuse and harm her.  Even boxing, proposed as a parallel example, is regulated to establish some measure of equality between the combatants.

Prostitution has long existed, of course, as a means for powerful men to exercise their dominance over those most powerless.  Today the practice has been democratized, offering all men that privilege.  Some prostitutes, like those working for the “DC Madam”, have created individual solutions to lessen the abuse through the wealth and visibility of the men who come to them.  But as we know from other groups seeking paths out of oppression, success for a few does not guarantee survival of the whole group

Proponents of prostitution try to normalize its practices, emphasizing the happy prostitutes and describing it as “sex work.”  They claim that to attack it is to deny women their “autonomy.” But, like much else in our capitalist world, being a prostitute is hardly a free choice.  Proponents offer the hope that if prostitution were decriminalized the abuses, which they admit exist, could be regulated or negotiated away.  As the book points out, in parts of Australia which have experimented with decriminalization, brothels are still brothels.

In their book Norma and Reist support the Nordic Model for dealing with prostitution.  In it men who use prostitutes would be arrested and punished but the actual prostitutes would not.  At least this would represent a move away from the idea that the women are to blame for “offering” themselves, and that they deserve what they get.  But I am unsure that any legal measures would suffice, unless we as societies stop assuming that male domination is their birthright and women, some women at least, are disposable.

I didn’t mean to express the rage that Prostitution Narratives inspired in me rather than focusing on the book itself.  This rage and my new thought about prostitution are perhaps the best evidence of the power of this book.  I strong recommend it to all readers, whatever you think you understand about prostitution.


The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies.

August 28, 2016

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies.  Crown (2016), 432 pages.

3 stars

A novel about a young English woman who goes to Ceylon in the early twentieth century as the bride of the owner of a massive tea plantation and becomes overwhelmed by the country and her own sense of guilt.

Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia to British parents who returned to England with her when she was child and the country became independent.  She is now a novelist and short-story writer who lives in England and often writes about Southeast Asia.  This is her second novel.

At the center of The Tea Planter’s Wife is Gwen, a young English woman who meets and falls in love with the attractive owner of a tea plantation on his brief visit to England.  They marry, but when she arrives in Ceylon, Gwen finds much that is puzzling and even threatening.  At times her husband is as passionate and loving as ever, but at other times he retreats.  After their son is born, she lives in a haze of guilt while trying to keep a dangerous secret.

The book depicts a small group of the European plantation-owning class with natives of Ceylon pushed to the edges.  Race matters, but the viewpoint is that of the elite.  The plot is unique and interesting, but I found the characters to be somewhat shallow and hard to like, especially in the first half of the book.  The villains are all too obvious. While sexuality is not overly explicit, its descriptions get rather repetitive.  Yet as the novel progresses its main characters face their situation with grace.

Readers wanting an enjoyable, casual novel will probably like it better than I did.

Making Waves, by Elizabeth Barlett.

August 23, 2016

Making  Waves : Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior, by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett.   St. Paul, MN : Minnesota Historical Society Press, [2016]


An excellent history of long-term feminist organizations in a middle-sized, Midwestern city, reminding us of the real achievements of the movement.  This is an account of feminism at its best, not simply an account of local organizing.   It is a fine historical analysis, significant for those who study movement history and women’s history, and an inspiring narrative for all.

Beth Bartlett has been part of the Women’s Studies, now the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Minnesota in Duluth since her arrival there in 1980.   Her academic background is in political science, and she has published books on feminist theory, ethics and spirituality.  She brings academic rigor and documentation to her analysis while writing for a broad range of readers.  Although her own work has been in the academic arena, she has lived in Duluth and belonged to the larger circle of feminist activists whom she describes in her book.  Bartlett views her new book as part of a cooperative effort, bringing together the ideas of many.  Other members of that community also conducted some of the interviews on which the book is based.  Bartlett carefully recounts her subjects’ problems and failures as well as their victories, yet she shares the pride of her subjects.

Over the years, feminism has been often been belittled and its achievements ignored and denigrated.  If anything is remembered, it is flamboyant actions on one coast or the other.  Even those of us who were involved in the 1970s and 1980s forget the problems women faced before feminists brought issues to the surface and forced society to change.  Reading Bartlett’s account of the development of feminist organizations in Duluth, Minnesota, and its surrounding region reminds us of the suffering of women and how they have been addressed in one city, a place small enough and progressive enough for people to know each other and work in supportive, overlapping projects.

Focusing on organizations that were active in Duluth for at least ten years, Bartlett considers a range of feminist causes.  Several of the groups on which she focuses organized around issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  Such organizations began as tiny groups of women concerned with the immediate issue of the establishment of shelters to provide safety and welfare for women needing a safe place to stay.  But the work did not stop there, however.  Seeing the context of violence and abuse and the callous ways in which women were treated by police and institutions, the feminists set out to address larger issues.  At one level, they continued to explore and provide practical solutions, providing education in the skills necessary for women living on their own.  Always prioritizing what women who been harmed said they needed, they established shelters and two-year transitional living arrangements for women  to create alternatives to abusive marriages for themselves and their children.  Some of the abused women became involved in the actual work of building and renovating much needed affordable permanent housing.  Women were trained in construction skills to do the actual work and thus become self-sufficient.  In all these projects they offered a variety of classes and a general atmosphere to help the women learn the basics of taking care of themselves rather them remaining dependent victims.

In addition, the feminists worked to change the institutions and society.  They worked extensively with police and social service workers, training them to treat the women in need with respect and kindness.  They helped pass local and state laws that established the women’s right to fair and humane living.  Sometimes with male allies, they worked with the men who had been batterers to change their behavior.  Certainly these women were angry, but changing society meant working with men, not simply dismissing them.  Also, women and men joined forces to raise money, especially when money for social service projects for women was dramatically cut by the federal government.

As I write, I find it difficult to distinguish between those women needing help and those who were helped.  In fact, blurring this line was an explicit goal of the feminists.  Women who had lived in abusive situations needed to learn how to develop and sustain relationships based on equality and respect. Consensual decision making was valued for this reason, although it was later pushed aside as organizations grew and specialized. Often women who had been helped were eager to help other women and became leaders themselves.  Projects were not top-down, but also grew out of what women said they needed.  Duluth was among the first to develop effective methods of dealing with these problems.  Their programs became models for others all over the country, and the women of Duluth became active as trainers and supervisors.

Duluth is an active port city on Lake Superior and several Native American Reservations are nearby.  As the feminists in Duluth sought to address the problems of urban and rural Indian women, they realized that these women could best be helped when attention was paid to their own particular experiences and traditions.  “Mending the Scared Circle” was created to do just that.  In addition to engaging Native Americans to work with the group, efforts were made to practice traditional rituals.  Before Indians had been taken from families and put in reservation schools, they had had a history of particular respect for women which both genders were encouraged to remember.

Access to health care including abortions was another concern.  Duluth was one of the cities where opponents of abortion became violent, but several women’s groups were supportive of each other, willing to share the risk of working in the same building as abortion providers.

While individuals working to help each other were always important, the Duluth women also put their energy into building communities of women and their allies.  A women’s coffeehouse provided space for women, lesbian and straight, to come together for events or just good company and conversation.  In addition a center for lesbians was created as a place where they could meet and get help from each other.

Bartlett praises the way the women worked together and notes that part of their success was their willingness to put time and energy into talking and getting to know each other.  They focused on each other rather than sheer efficiency.  In addition, they camped and kayaked together, refreshing themselves on the islands and shores of Lake Superior.  In this way they shared the advantages of Duluth’s location to strengthen their personal bonds.  Bartlett suggests that women working together in other places find ways to relax together and nurture themselves like the Duluth women did.

I really appreciated this book for the way in which it captured how feminists came together for the good of themselves and other women, for their accomplishments, and for the spirit which pervaded that work.  I strongly recommend it to many readers, for those of us remembering and for those who never knew nor understood the second wave of feminism.






Pierced by the Sun, by Laura Esquivel.

August 20, 2016

Pierced by the Sun, by Laura Esquivel.  Translated by Jordi Castells.  AmazonCrossing (2016), 216 pages

4 stars

A strange but engaging novel about a policewoman in Mexico who is plunged into her own and the world’s destructive behavior after witnessing a murder.

Laura Esquivel is a Mexican writer who has published several novels, the best known of them Water Like Chocolate.  I remember vividly how much I enjoyed it when it was published in the 1990 and how generally popular it was, but I sadly don’t remember enough to compare it with her new novel.

The central character of Pierced by the Sun is Lupita, a deeply troubled woman caught up in deeply troubling situations.   Hardly an appealing person, she is trying to get her life turned around by using ironing rather than booze to distance herself from pains of life.   In danger after observing the mysterious murder of an elected official, she uses her intelligence and fine powers of observation to solve the crime, but gets tripped up by her own flaws.  After being rescued, she discovers a new alternative.

In Esquivel’s skillful hands, Lupita’s story moves in a quick, disjointed fashion through her traumatic past and present.  Its rhythm feels like that of a mariachi band.  Esquivel inserts caustic criticism of the Mexican political and economic corruption and the ways in which the land itself is under attack.  In addition, she includes the gods of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico and the rituals with which they maintained the balance of existence.

This is not a book for those who seek simple chronological narratives, but I enjoyed it immensely and am glad to recommend it to readers who share my tastes.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly.

August 14, 2016

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly.  William Morrow (2016), 368 pages.

4 stars

The history of the African American women who did crucial mathematical calculations for airplane and space research at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, during World War II and the Cold War.

When World War II broke out, America’s air force was inferior to that of other major nations.  Catching up was necessary.  A major research center for aerodynamics was established alongside an air force base at Langley, on the Virginia peninsula.  With so many men already in the armed forces, women were hired to conduct the mathematical calculations necessary for the research in the days before electronic computers.  At Langley this included African Americans with degrees from nearby black colleges. Some of them were teaching math and science in Virginia’s segregated schools. The number of black women at Langley varied but remained significant.

Virginia was still firmly segregated in 1943, when the women were first hired.  Black and white women worked in separated facilities on the east and west side of Langley.  Restrooms were labeled for white and “colored.”  One table in the cafeteria was identified as for “colored women,” although one of the women regularly removed the sign in protest.  Generally, however, the women accepted their separation as normal for the time and place.

Many women who had worked at “men’s jobs” during the war were sent home when it ended.  Langley, however, was able to shift its focus from airplanes to spacecraft and keep its women computers busy.  When Russia launched its “sputnik” in 1957, the space race with Russia accelerated; Langley shifted its focus to space.  At the same time, the civil rights movement was demanding better treatment for African Americans.  While much of the focus was local, Cold War tensions were demanding that Americans stop some their blatant discrimination.  At Langley, research became more specialized and black women left the math lab to integrate the various divisions.   As electronic computers replaced human ones, the women’s responsibility often shifted to converting researchers’ request for data into machine-readable forms.

Margot Shetterly has brought a significant untold narrative into public view and deserves praise for having done so.  At times she tells the story of the black women as a group and at times she focuses on the individuals who had particularly successful careers at Langley. For example we learn about Dorothy Vaughan, black women who became an early supervisor of the human computers, and Katherine Johnson, who was recently awarded the President’s Metal of Freedom for her calculations that were essential for John Glen’s space flight.  In these individual stories, Shetterly show readers how the women handled their private lives in still segregated Virginia.   Importantly, Shetterly also provides the seldom-noted context of the foreign affairs driving both the contest to dominate space and the race relations which were shifting at the same time.   She gives us a clear picture of what was happening in Hampton as segregation was slowly challenged and some black individuals were able to achieve the “American Dream.”

As the daughter of a scientific researcher at Langley and an English professor at Hampton University, Shetterly grew up in solidly middle-class black community which had housed the families of the African American women mathematicians she describes in her book.  Her close connections with both the women and the place they lived contribute to her ability to do extensive research and interviews.  In addition, she has the experience to understand the contradictions of African-American professionals in the mid-twentieth-century south.  Her approach combines careful research with justified admiration for those who went before her.  A chatty writing style with lots of footnotes characterizes her prose.

I gladly recommend Hidden Figures to other readers.  In addition to being well researched and written, the stories are significant for the ways we think about race and segregation and how rights for some blacks expanded.   The book is also an important contribution to the history of space technology and the history of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Devil Sent the Rain, by Lisa Turner.

August 10, 2016

The Devil Sent the Rain, by Lisa Turner.

4 stars

A mystery steeped in the Southern mystique of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

Billy Able and his sidekick Frankie Malone make a good investigative police team.  He is strong on playing his hunches, and she is logical and precise.  Billy was raised by his uncle who ran a diner in the Mississippi Delta.  He is shaken when a woman he had once loved, a woman who was the daughter of a plantation family, is found dead in her wedding gown.  Family, moneyed power, and revenge all come into play in solving the mystery of who was her killer.

This is the third book in Lisa Turner’s series of southern mysteries featuring Billy Able. The previous novels have been well received, as this one is sure to be.  Turner creates exciting situations and a complex group of potential killers.  She has a clear sense of the ways in which class, as well as race, divides the south and of how revenge from the past hovers over the present.

I glad recommend this book to those readers who are mystery lovers.

The Daughters of the Samurai, by Janice Nimera.

August 4, 2016

The Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura.  W. W. Norton & Company (2016),  352 pages.

by Janice Nimera.

4 stars

A fascinating account of the young Japanese girls who were sent to the United States to study for ten years in 1871 as part of their government’s attempt to modernize their nation.

Janice Nimera was born and raised in Manhattan and graduated from Yale.  After marrying a man from Japan, she spent three years living with him and his family in Japan.  When they returned to America, she earned a master’s degree at Columbia in East Asian Studies focusing on the nineteenth-century history of Japan.  She also acted as an editor and wrote articles and book reviews for major U.S. newspapers.   Browsing in the stacks of the New York Society Library, she came across a book by Alice Bacon, a friend of the Japanese women who came to study in the United States.  Bacon had been close to them in America and later joined them in Japan, helping them educate other women in Western culture and language.   The story of these women became the core of Daughter of the Samurai.

 Knowledgeable in Japanese history, Nimera is able to provide readers with a clear picture of what was happening in Japan and why the girls were sent to the United States.  In the 1600s, Japanese rulers were upset by the first wave of Europeans to touch their shores.  They decreed that their land would not allow the entrance of  foreigners, and until the 1850s they were able to enforce their isolation.  Then American Matthew Perry sailed into their ports, and sailors from other countries soon followed.  The Japanese emperor was deposed as factions fought for power.  The Meiji won and began massive reforms in Japan.  The new elite believed that their nation needed to study abroad to gain knowledge of the rest of the world.  Almost as an afterthought, five young girls were sent along with several men to stay in America for ten years at government expense .  The girls chosen all belonged to families sympathetic to Western culture and needing a way to reestablish their power in the world of Meiji reforms.

When the girls arrived in to the United States none of them knew any English, had never worn Western clothes, and were not even accustomed to sitting in chairs.  The two older girls, Ryo and Tei, were both age 14.  They returned to Japan after only one year and lost contact with the other girls.  The younger girls were Sudematsu, age 11, Shige, age 10, and Ume, age 7.  Sutmatsu and Shige lived with the family of leading ministers in New England, and Ume stayed in Georgetown with an ambassador and his wife.  The three younger girls bounded strongly with the families who fostered them. For a decade they lived and were generally treated as daughters of upper-class American family. Sutmatsu and Shige attended Vassar and were among the first generation of women to attend college. All three moved among the growing number of women who were choosing professions and singleness as adults.

Shige returned to Japan after nine years in New England to marry a Japanese man she met when he was studying at the U.S. Naval Academy and to teach in a Japanese Music School.  Sutmatsu, who had graduated from Vassar, and Ume, who had graduated from an American high school, had a harder time readjusting to Japanese life.  Although they had fantasized about teaching Japanese women, there were no jobs open for them.  Eventually Sutmatsu married an older, military leader because she came to believe that she could best help in the education of Japanese women by doing so.  Ume was able to teach in the Peeress School, for the daughters of the court.  Conservative ideas reigned in the school, however, and Ume was restless there.  She returned to Bryn Mawr, newly opened by M. Carey Thomas, for more education.  She became friends with American women willing and able to raise funds for the more modern school for women that she had dreamed of opening in Japan.  With their help, and the help of Sutmatsu and Shige, she was able to create a school which focused on teaching the English language and Western culture to girls.  Eventually her school grew into a college, still highly regarded today.  Although Ume, and American friends who taught with her, remained single, the school was grounded in Japanese Confucian morality which stressed the importance of women’s education as future wives and mothers rather than as individuals.

Nimera has written a well-researched biography of a unique group of women.  Her own background enables her to provide the context for their lives in both Japan and America.  While there are no footnotes, abundant documentation is provided by page number in the back of the book.  The Japanese women she describes underwent transitions far larger than most of us today, but her carefully-told account reveals problems many of us still have around issues of marriage or singleness, family or profession.  It is pleasure to read.  I strongly recommend the book to other readers, especially for those curious about women’s history globally.


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