Women Unbound: Chrysalis, Body Drama, Bachelor Girl, & The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a bit addicted to nonfiction centered around women’s issues. So it’s no great surprise that in my backlog I’ve got a few Women Unbound books to discuss!
I picked up Chrysalis after reading Lu’s post on it. It’s a marvelous piece of science history, chronicling the life of 18th century scientist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian. Merian had a really neat life: she didn’t stay within conventions, and she kept her passion for metamorphosis alive even while running a household. She was a scientist of the style more recognisible now than then: she learned about the world through close observation, studying thousands of insects and their life processes. And she did beautiful drawings of those insects, with the drawing skills she picked up as a child in an artistic house. The book includes many of her drawings and watercolours, and they’re all simply stunning. The thing about Merian is that there are definitely blanks in her life…the historical record tends to favour those with power, after all. This is a tricky area for a biographer, but I thought Todd handled it with great aplomb. When she has to ‘fill in the blanks,’ she brings to life the society that Merian lived in, and then explains what a woman of Merian’s class and background probably would have experienced. I quite enjoyed these peeks into the everyday life of artisans in Germany, and I especially loved how well Todd brought Suriname to life (later in life, Merian travels from Amsterdam to Suriname to continue her scientific studies). The book was the perfect length, and the writing was consistently interesting and engaging. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys ‘detail’ history (I’m not sure what the official name is for books that focus on the everyday life aspect of history), getting to know strong women, or learning about the history of science. I’d also say if you’re more of a fiction reader looking to read some nonfiction, Chrysalis will be the perfect choice!
Dewey talked about Body Drama forever ago now, but I’d never quite gotten around to reading it. But when my 13-year-old cousin came to visit, I thought it was the perfect time to get it from the library and leave it lying around so she could read it too! And I couldn’t resist flipping through it myself. ;) There are definitely aspects of the book that I think are awesome: lots of non-airbrushed pictures of the topics under discussion, including breasts and privates. As Redd says in the book, most girls don’t really have any idea what other girls look like, genitalia-speaking, so she wanted to include the photographs to de-mystify and de-shame vulvas. I’ve talked before about society’s message to women that we should be embarrassed about and never discuss our vaginae. So any book that works against that is important. But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Body Drama…there were a couple issues that, if I had read it when I was a teen, would have really upset me. First of all, in the breasts chapter, they only real message to girls with small boobs is ‘maybe they’ll grow when you get older.’ And there was this little tidbit included describing A cups as ‘almost boobs,’ B cups as ‘barely boobs,’ and I can’t remember the other ones. But that doesn’t really seem helpful for girls’ self-esteem, does it? I would have liked to see a list of reasons why women love having small breasts (and medium ones and large ones), because there are some definite advantages! Then, in the body image chapter, Redd doesn’t include the reason why I hated my body in high school: ‘I think I’m too skinny,’ This can be a real problem: I remember thinking that my body was so skinny it looked prepubescent and that the only guys who would ever be attracted to me would have to be perverts since I looked like a little kid (isn’t high school marvelous for one’s self-esteem?!). But Redd just talks about feeling fat, which would have made me feel like more than a freak than ever as a young teen. In that same chapter, I also found her overly dependent on the BMI index for my taste. There are some definitely flaws in the BMI approach (i.e.: muscle weighs more than fat, people have different bone structures, etc.), so telling girls that if the BMI says they’re overweight they should take ‘these healthy weight loss approaches’ made me cringe a bit. That being said, the book is full of useful information that teenage girls are unlikely to actually ask about on their own, so it’s still something I’d recommend. But I can’t help wishing it was perfect! ;)
I read about Bachelor Girl, a social history of the American single (white) girl, in Ana’s book coveting post. In the beginning, I enjoyed learning about the perceptions of single women starting in the mid-19th century and moving forward, and I got some great trivia like this:
In 1933 the condom industry, a $350 million enterprise, produced something like one million units a day. Wives could obtain an early form of diaphragm known as a pessary, and so could single women, as long as they posed as wives and appeared in doctors’ offices wearing wedding rings.
The history was definitely a bit fluffier and surface-oriented than I would have preferred (especially for a ‘secret’ history, most of what Israel talked about I already knew in at least a vague way_, but still worth reading. Then somewhere around the 1960s, Israel’s tone began to change a bit, and by the time she got to current times, she was consistently making me angry with the way she talked about single women. Israel herself is married, which struck me as a bit odd in the preface, but I was going to go with it. While she was able to ‘objectively’ evaluate the historical single women, when she got to present times she seemed to fall into the same trap that society tells us…there was no mention of women who *choose* to be single, and the implication was that any unmarried woman in the US today would really like to get a man. Don’t believe me? Read this passage:
I use the term “slacker spinsters” because these two, like so many women I know in their thirties, seem to be kind of hanging out in the lives that have evolved around them, making sporadic efforts to connect with men, then retreating back to the couch, the TC, or the phone or into an elaborate fantasy. They believe in the possibilities of love, though it’s not clear they fully believe in the beautiful possibilities of marriage. They’ve lived through the same kind of chaos that baby brides list on their resumes. But they’ve come to different conclusions. Primarily, getting married will never guarantee a feeling of safety.
Not that they won’t try. Try hard. …But chances are they’d just crack up and throw those books across the room. Where they would land either on the dry cleaning or on a pile of unsorted clothes.
There’s so much to make me rage in this passage. The idea that not wanting to be in a relationship in a man means you’re lazy and prefer ‘fantasy’ to real life. The way that closing image implies that single women apparently are domestic failures who either pay someone else to do their laundry or never quite finish it. That every single woman is ‘trying’ to find a husband, however halfheartedly. Oh, and did you catch the ‘baby brides’ phrase? This is how Israel refers to the women of my generation who get married in their early to mid twenties. She spends a couple pages on this phenomenon, and it’s obvious how she feels about these women, even without the completely dismissive ‘baby bride’ title which she uses constantly:
There is only one word that comes up again and again during conversations with baby brides, and it is not dishes or vacuuming; it is safe.
Now, I didn’t choose to get married straight out of college, but I have friends who did, and I was offended for them. So in the end, I think Israel should have stuck to history: when she gets to the present, she seems to just unleash herself on any of the women who didn’t follow her own marriage pattern (early 30s). I ended up offended, annoyed, and obviously not very likely to recommend this to my friends. I did hear about a much better sounding book, though: Liberty: a Better Husband by Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller that I’ll be following up with soon.
Let’s end this post on a high note, shall we? I loved The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh! ;) Colley sets out to re-imagine biography as a form of looking at the bigger forces of history instead of just one life, and she succeeds magnificently. Marsh lived in the 18th century and her extensive travelling and family connections make her a perfect focal point for Colley to also examine British imperial policies at the time. Marsh was born in Jamaica (and might have been of mixed race), and her life sounds like something out of fiction: she was kidnapped by Moroccan pirates at one point, travelled to Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa (if you count Morocco), spent time as a newly wed living the rich social life, and later dealt with her husband’s bankruptcy and pulled together to get a good marriage for her daughter anyway. It’s great raw material, and Colley shapes it into a compelling book that examines the larger social, political, and economic forces at work in Marsh’s life. We often like to think that globalisation is a new thing, but this book reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun. ;) I’d highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys thinking about global issues, past and present: as for me, I’ll be checking out Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, the earlier book Colley wrote, whose research led her to write this one.
Do you have any favourite women-centric historians to recommend? I’m always on the lookout for more!