Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Kate Walbert/A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN
In 1915, a young mother named Dorothy Trevor Townsend starves herself to death in the name of women's suffrage, leaving her two children orphaned in England. In an unchronological, scattered, but deeply probing narrative, this Dorothy's family is followed from 1898 to 2007, through her daughter, Evelyn, granddaughter Dorothy, great-granddaughters Carolyn and Liz, and even great-great-granddaughter, yet another Dorothy.
The title derives from a couple sources. First, it is the title of a lecture the first Dorothy listens to when she is at Cambridge, studying at Girton college despite the fact that women have been forbidden from receiving degrees. But also, the book is just that--a short (very short, at fewer than 250 spaciously typeset pages) history of the women of one family, boat rockers all. It is also in many ways a history of 20th century feminism, with a lot of reminders of things we've tried--suffrage, starvation (for petesake), refusing to marry, marrying, embracing science, disliking husbands on principal, rap groups, divorce as protest, protest as protest--and the many ways each generation does its best to overturn the advances of the previous. The family is very human, likable and unlikable in their various ways, their stories both extraordinary and relatable.
I liked the book for what it was, brief, glancing, poignant but unindulgent. I wonder if I would have liked more. Walbert left many--in fact, all--loose ends untied, but I can't protest too loudly, since I'm not sure any of the loose ends bothered me.
Most strangely, I found many personal resonances in this book, stories that recalled my impressions of the women of my own family, despite the fact that the historical, cultural, and socioeconomic details are hardly related. I think there is a lot to be derived and learned from what is a relatively quick read--well worth it.