Stroller, by Amanda Parrish Morgan
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 20 October 2022.
Of the four Object Lessons books I’ve read so far, this is by far the most personal. It’s really quite remarkably personal, actually, and I admire Morgan for what she says about herself to illustrate the points she’s making more broadly about society.
While the focus of the book is the stroller (or pram), this is very much a book about motherhood, mothering, expectations on and of mothers, and how consumer goods like the stroller fit within that. I am not a mother, but even I know some of the pressures and expectations from society imposed on, and internalised by, mothers. Morgan describes herself as someone who didn’t expect to be a mother from early on; and as someone whose identity was strongly tied to being a runner. Both of these things influenced the way she perceived maternity, and the stroller. Her early recounting of telling a (not-mother) friend that she’s going to try and have a baby, and the quite awful reaction from that friend (“That’ll be the end of all your running”, p6), sets up a lot of what Morgan picks up through the book (and made me worriedly think back to how I’ve reacted to child-announcements from friends. I don’t think I’ve ever been that awful?). Morgan relates her experiences of juggling not wanting to fall into the ‘must have everything’ trap, to not be swayed by alarmist or aspirational advertising. She talks about juggling routines, two preschools, her own desire to run (between two preschools, with a double stroller); and she relays the commentary she received from onlookers, too, which honestly just made me mad.
Morgan mixes in academic discussion, too: of how American society emphasises the ‘production’ part of ‘reproduction’, with the mother as unskilled worker; the use of the word ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ and what they suggest about the relationship between mother and child and the whole process of the second leaving the first. And then how baby products get tied into identity, and parenting strategies, and what all of those things mean and say about you and your choices. It emphasised a lot of things for me: just how harshly mothers are treated sometimes, how many minefields need to be navigated, and how unapproachable so many of our cities and spaces are. Also, my goodness it’s harder in America than in Australia (paid maternity leave, etc).
It’s not quite the book I was expecting – there’s not a huge in-depth history of strollers and their alternatives, for instance, although there is some – but it was nonetheless engrossing and… well, I want to say enjoyable, but that’s not quite the right word. I read it quickly and with fascination.
The Future is Female! Volume 2: 1970s
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in October 2022.
Lisa Yaszek has put together another very fine set of stories that highlight the variety of science fiction that has been produced by women, this time in the 1970s. Arranged chronologically by publication date, this fiction has some stories that are angry, and some that are more on the whimsical side; some that (I think) could only have been written by a woman, and others that don’t particularly reflect a gendered authorship (and then there’s the James Tiptree, Jr). Some feel like classic SF, others are more experimental. I didn’t love them all. As a set, this is a really amazing way to showcase the variety of what women can write and have written.
Some I’ve read before: “When It Changed” (Joanna Russ) always gets me and I hope will always be discussed as part of science fiction in general, and not ever just relegated to ‘battle of the sexes’ conversations. I don’t understand why we don’t talk more about “The Girl who was Plugged In” (Tiptree) when we discuss cyberpunk; “The Screwfly Solution” (Raccoona Sheldon) is always completely horrific, and so is “Wives” (Lisa Tuttle), for very different reasons. I have always loved “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (Vonda N. McIntyre) for its exploration of love and compassion – and same, in some ways, with “The Day before the Revolution” (Ursula K. Le Guin), although the latter is even more poignant; I always need to just stop and stare into the distance for a moment when I read it.
Of the others, there were several that stood out. I’ve read very little by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; “Frog Pond” was very nicely paced, and the reveals built up beautifully. Kate Wilhelm’s “The Funeral” was quietly terrifying as the state of America was slowly revealed – and these two, next to each other, were particularly distressing to read in the current state of the world. “The Anthropologist” (Kathleen M Sidney) feels in some ways like it’s in conversation with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, with its exploration of living between two very different worlds. And as someone who occasionally feels sad for Curiosity and Voyager etc, never being able to come home, “View from a Height” (Joan D Vinge) was something of a gut-punch. Gorgeous, but a bit harrowing.
… clearly, I think this anthology works for both people with some knowledge of the state of the 1970s field, and I believe it would also work for those who want an introduction to 1970s SF in general. It’s nicely comprehensive.
Public Faces, Secret Lives
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in May 2022.
I have been known to joke that historical women were invented in the 1960s – before that, only Cleopatra, the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I existed (obviously none outside of the European context). More recently I have added that queer people were invented in the 21st century.
I was joking, but … only because there’s an element of truth. Straight white men rule history, amiright?
This book, then, is a massively important addition to the history of the fight for suffrage.
I should point out that although I have a fairly substantial library of suffrage books, they are all either Australian or British. My knowledge of the American experience is limited to the film Iron Angels, and the magnificent “Bad Romance” spoof video clip. I do not, therefore, know a lot about the private lives of the main characters like Susan B. Anthony, who aren’t covered here in any detail because it’s been done elsewhere. It’s interesting therefore to get the focus on women who were, apparently, lesser lights – or who have become such as the history of the period has been presented.
I’m also not an expert on queer history, so I don’t know whether Rouse’s particular definition is standard or expansive. Here, queer is outlined as “individuals who transgressed normative notions of gender and sexuality… suffragists who were not strictly heterosexual or cisgender” (p2). There’s a nice point about how language changes and that words we might use to describe relationships today, for instance, may not have been available to or appropriate for people in the past.
The chapters follow general themes, or categories, allowing Rouse to explore different ways in which queerness was expressed – and fought against, in some instances. For example, in the chapter “Mannish Women and Feminine Men”, she examines how some suffragists fought against the derisive stereotype of ‘mannish women’ by insisting that suffragists perform femininity to a signifiant degree – to the detriment of gender non-conforming individuals and those women who advocated less restrictive dress. Other chapters include “Queering Domesticity” and “Queering Family” – so many of these women ended up setting up house together, and whether they were in physically romantic relationships can often not be conclusively determined, but they still spent their lives together! There’s also “Queering Transatlantic Alliances”, “Queering Space” and “Queering Death”, so it covers the entire gamut of suffragist lives.
There’s a really nice intersectionalism at work here, too, with commentary on how “queer white suffragists… helped maintain a system of white supremacy by policing access to the vote” (p63), for example. There are definitely black and First Nations people mentioned in the book, but I suspect one problem of not being familiar with the American history here is that I didn’t automatically recognise the name of any of the suffragists – let alone recognise whether they were white or not. Still, Rouse did point it out, and made note of the times when white suffragists, for instance, either tried to block black women from marching in demonstrations or told them to go to the back of the line. There’s mention, too, of class – something that’s often lacking in standard stories of the British fight for suffrage, if it focuses on Emmeline and Charitable Pankhurst and forgets Sylvia.
I’m really glad this book exists. It’s a really great look at the American fight for women’s suffrage in general (as far as I can tell), as well as presenting a dimension that is much-needed across all history.
The Rebel Suffragette
I received this to review via NetGalley.
The good things:
- It’s always good to have another woman featured in a history book! And I mean that very seriously. Minor men have had tomes devoted to them. To have an individual suffragette whose name is not Pankhurst (not that I don’t love a Pankhurst) get a book is AWESOME.
- I love suffrage history in all its guises and having a book that’s about circumstances outside of London – or Manchester – is great.
These things are big and important. The negative things are generally smaller, so although there are more they are basically balanced in my mind. But these are important things to note, I think:
The negative things
- There are some really annoying editorial aspects. Partly this is about commas instead of semi colons, which I think must be from the editor becuase I’ve seen the same thing in other books from this publisher. It irks the editor in me.
- There’s a chapter about “Men and the Media”, which has basically nothing to do with the suffragette in question. If the author had placed her in a wider context more often, then this might almost have made sense a chapter – but even then I’d be dubious. This chapter had no place in this biography. And nor did the chapter about the relationship between the royal family and the suffrage question – it was completely out of place.
- The title. Almost by definition if you were a suffragette you were a rebel, and Edith did nothing that was rebelling against the WSPU general vibe. So the title is click bait at best.
- One of the historian’s problems with writing such a biography is the dearth of resources. There’s a fine line to be walked in between theorising from thorough research, and making vague suppositions about things like, in this case, the relationship between wife and husband.
- A couple of specific irritants: the idea that women went in hunger strike to be classed as political prisoners becuase then they’d get better perks, rather than becuase of a real political reason, is just insulting. Also, the author suggests that the whole WSPU and Pankhursts ditched campaigning in WW1, when actually Sylvia Pankhurst was disowned by her mother and sister for doing the opposite.
Finally, I found the discussion about whether 21st century can or should condone the militancy of the suffragettes quite lacking in depth. It was more a series of questions than a rigorous interrogation of the place of violence in political campaigning. And it didn’t really need to be included – there’s no need to pass judgement on the subject of your biography.
Overall I think this is a really worthwhile biography – Edith was clearly a fascinating woman and I greatly appreciated being able to learn about her place in the suffrage movement. I’ve seen the picture of her being removed from the gates of Parliament and had no idea who she was! It’s not perfect, but it’s a good addition to the suffrage library.
The Good Wife of Bath
I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.
I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).
I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.
Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.
What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).
The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.
Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.
I received this book via NetGalley.
Jean Rhys gave me the story of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, in Wide Sargasso Sea. Seanan McGuire made me consider what happens to children when they come home from their otherworld adventures. AC Wise gives me the story of Wendy, and what happens after Neverland, and the reality about Peter Pan.
Peter Pan is an awful person.
(I should note that it’s well more than 20 years since I read Peter Pan, so it’s possible that I’ve missed some of the more subtle and clever nuances that Wise brings to the story. (And to be honest when Hook was mentioned, my brain immediately went to Dustin Hoffman…). Clearly, though, this is not a problem for appreciating the novel, Whether it would be as thoroughly appreciated with zero knowledge of the original is unclear; I suspect it would be fine, given the depth of story about Wendy as a human, but some of the references might be a bit weird.)
Wendy, Darling presents its story over a few different timelines: Wendy in Neverland. Wendy after World War 1, when she is committed – by her brothers – to an asylum. Wendy married, and a mother. And the story of Jane, Wendy’s daughter… I think you can guess what happens to Jane.
This book is amazing. This book is compulsive reading (I read it in 24 hours, and it only took that long because ugh, life). This book is sharp and piercing and reflects on a whole lot of the issues that the (white, patriarchal) world has come aware of since Barrie wrote his original. (Uh, hi there Tiger Lily….) And this book balances being well-paced and driven by action in some parts, with being deeply reflective and thoughtful in other parts. You know how sometimes you get to a different timeline in a story and you’re all “get on with it! get back to the other bit!”? That never happened here.
It’s about memory, and family, and loss, and compromise, and fidelity. The pain and the joy of growing up, the complexity of relationships, how much we can hurt the ones we love and how we can make our own families. And the fierce, wonderful, difficulty of life.
I just love it. Everyone should read it. It should be nominated for all the awards.
Revelations: a novel about Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich
I received this as a review copy from NetGalley.
A fictionalised account of the life of Margery of Kempe, generally regarded as being the author of the first autobiography in English. Mystic, wife, mother, pilgrim, accused heretic, all-round confounder of stereotypes and expectations. Margery always comes across as something quite extraordinary, beginning with the fact that we know anything about her at all – so few medieval women are known to the historical record, let alone in her own words. (Well, probably; she’s recorded as having dictated her account to a scribe. But I don’t think anyone seriously doubts that her words are her own.)
What Sharratt chooses to do in order to really bring Christianity and mysticism to the forefront is highlight Margery’s friendship with Julian of Norwich. They definitely did know each other, so that bit isn’t a problem. Julian was an anchorite – she took vows and was sealed up in a room that she never left, the better to contemplate God. She was also an author – the first named English female author, in fact. Her book was about revelations from God, concerning grace and love and the overwhelming affection that God has for creation; and she goes so far as to refer to ‘Mother God’, and call God’s love maternal. Sharratt makes her quite accessible, here, and the fate of her book is a significant part of the story – written as it was when England was terrified (and intrigued) by “Lollardy” – the idea of having the Bible in English and challenging the supremacy of priests as interpreters of God’s word, and various other things imputed to them.
Julian and Margery together certainly challenge the structure of the medieval Catholic Church. Margery, too, claimed to have visions, and Sharratt includes them as genuine and deeply affective experiences. Through Julian and Margery, Sharratt touches on some of the issues facing the Catholic Church throughout the Middles Ages – the role of priests and of communion and the accessibility of God to laypeople. The book doesn’t get especially deep into these issues, though. There are some truly despicable friars and priests, but also some genuinely loving and holy ones. Margery and Julian are certainly shown to be faithful daughters of God.
The one thing that troubled me here was some of the historical licence taken. Various true events have been included out of time for emotional impact: Margery witnessing the burning of Jan Hus, for instance. I don’t really see that this was necessary to heighten the tension, and I don’t think Margery needed to see someone being executed in order to have the reality of the dangers she faced brought home.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s well written and a fast read (I read it in a single, admittedly uninterrupted, day). It’s useful for emphasising both the similarities of the Middle Ages to our own time, as well as the vast differences. I already knew a little about both Julian and Margery, so I don’t know what this would be like with no prior knowledge; I suspect it would be fine.
Forces of Nature
I received this book via NetGalley.
I’m a bit conflicted by this book.
On the one hand, it’s a pretty great introduction to women in science – and the fact that women have ALWAYS been “in science”, they’ve just been obscured (deliberately or not) on a personal level or an institutional one; by which I mean, “science” has been constructed as a discipline in order to leave the ladies out (eg midwifery isn’t really medicine). Recovering the presence of women is always good.
I LOVE that Marie Curie isn’t mentioned until the last chapter. Seriously: the authors make this choice an explicit one, explaining that she gets used as the exemplar and that’s not useful (and also people ignore a whole bunch of facts about her, too).
I liked that the authors aimed to go back to ancient women, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence (because patriarchy AND because time); they make a good case for ways in which ancient women would have been involved in scientific endeavour.
On the other hand…
I wasn’t always sure whether the authors were picking women as examples, or if they thought they were being exhaustive. If the latter, then they didn’t succeed – and surely they weren’t trying for that in a book intended for the general reading public – but I would have felt more comfortable if they had been clearer about their decision-making paradigms.
There were some sweeping statements about “women” and their access to education/lack thereof. Very occasionally there were comments about how class also interacted with gender – but I felt there was a serious lack of this latter point. Class had a HUGE impact on access to time, let alone equipment; this intersection should have been made much more obvious. As well, other discussions about women’s involvement in science has pointed out that gentlemen-scientists, for instance, often had female servants assisting; that’s not discussed here.
Occasionally, the authors do not walk the line I think they intend to. For instance, when Western Europe experiences a craze for natural history and botany, the latter in particular is seen as appropriate for women to be involved in, for various reasons. The authors point out that it was thought women were closer to nature, and therefore had an affinity for botany… and then seem to suggest that women really were better at botany? I was a bit confused about what the authors thought they were doing here.
This is, too, an overwhelmingly European (and eventually American, largely still of European descent) book. Not exclusively – there is mention of women in ancient Egypt (of course; that’s basically European in the way it’s often discussed!), and women medical practitioners in ancient China. There’s a Japanese scientist in the 20th century who did awesome things regarding ocean currents and nuclear fallout, a woman of mixed Irish/Mexican ancestry who was an archaeologist, and a few others. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement that evidence is overwhelming white, because colonialism (in Europe and America) and because… lack of access, or something? for Asia. Africa, South America, Australia…
I got whiplash when the discussion leapt from Algoanice, living in probably the first century BCE, to Hildegard, who was born in 1098 CE.
As a way of enlarging your understanding of women’s place in science over time, this is a fine place to start, as long as you remember the caveats about class and race.
Friends and Rivals
My mum picks such interesting books for me! I hadn’t heard of this before it arrived for my birthday; I had heard of Turner and Richardson but knew nothing about them – I’ve never read anything by any of these women.
Before talking about the great things, there were two things that disappointed me deeply about this book, and they’re both factual errors that really don’t have a connection to the histories themselves but are nonetheless troubling. I can only hope they’re both editorial mistakes. One: in speaking of the English suffragette movement, Niall mentions “Adela Pankhurst and her daughters”. This should be Emmeline – Adela is one of the daughters. Adela was the one who ended up in Australia, so I guess this is an understandable mistake. However, in speaking of Australian suffrage, Niall gives 1908 as the year in which (white, which is also not stressed) Australian women gained the right to vote; it was actually 1902. Like I said, superficially small errors, but pretty significant for the history suffrage.
The book is set up as biographies – primarily literary biographies – of the four women. As individuals their lives are all quite fascinating: Baynton is probably my favourite, although the one I would be least likely to befriend; for instance, she was annoyed at her third husband for refusing the crown of Albania (there’s a whole story about why taking it would have been a dreadful idea). All four of them dealt with a variety of hardships – some particular to their era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while others are all too familiar (family hardship, women ignored, the difficulty of being paid as a writer…). Niall writes engagingly and seems to have done spectacular archival research to dig up letters and diaries to get into the mindsets of these very different women.
Turner wanted to be taken seriously as a writer; Seven Little Australians was a money-making machine and she ended up being pigeonholed as a children’s writer (so familiar for too many women). I’d never realised that this book has an urban setting and just how remarkable this was for its time, when Australia was so much about the bush, thank you Banjo and Henry (whom Turner knew). Conversely, Baynton wrote about the bush – but in almost vicious terms; the one story I really want to read was throwing Henry Lawson’s story “The Drover’s Wife” under a bus. Henry Handel Richardson was considered for a Nobel Prize, and also wrote urban stories – and wasn’t especially interested in being considered a particularly “Australian” author, which was intriguing for the time. And Palmer was, for her time, a leading critic and champion of Australian authors – not a leading female critic, but leading critic, period.
My mum knows me well: this books fits within Joanna Russ’ campaign for women to know their literary ancestry – to remember that there have been women writing before them, that we do have a history to be proud of. Australian literature’s history isn’t all bush ballads, or the agony of Patrick White. It’s also the story of girls at private schools, kids in crappy inner-city suburbs, and epic ‘European’ novels. These writers need to be reclaimed as an important part of our heritage.
For All Mankind
I’ll be honest, it was an image like this that made me very keen to watch this Apple Original tv show. Women in space!
And then I discovered it was the creation of Ronald D Moore, aka the dude who brought back Battlestar Galactica.
And then I discovered that it was an alt-history version of the space race.
… and really that’s all I want to say about the show above the cut, because if you haven’t heard about what the opening thing that makes it alt-history, I really firmly believe it’s best to go in unspoiled. Just know that the show is in many ways deeply grounded in history – to my eye, the costuming and sets are wonderfully historical, and the background politics etc are largely on point. But there is one, and then a resultant cascade, of changes that make this show a magnificent what-if. I genuinely held my breath at key moments in the narrative, and I was horrified and delighted and shocked and joyful. It’s well worth watching.