Fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal Silent Spring, Pulitzer Prize nominee Souder (Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, 2004, etc.) examines the legacy and lasting impact of Carson's passionate environmental work.
“By 1959, some eighty million pounds of DDT were being used annually in the United States,” writes the author. Already a vocal conservationist, Carson had long suspected that pesticide use was accumulatively detrimental to animals and humans. This holistic view of the living world was startling and prescient, and it struck a chord with an American public that was already spooked by the similar dangers of fallout from nuclear testing. Carson grappled with the literary celebrity that accompanied Silent Spring, yearning to maintain a quiet, private life yet forced to answer the powerful opposition she faced from the chemical industry. Souder writes beautifully about this dichotomy, revealing intimate details about the writing process and her relationships with editors, fans, family and her beloved companion Dorothy Freeman, with whom she spent some of her happiest moments while on the Maine coastline. The author also conducted ample contextual research, providing readers with a clear sense of the political, economic and social ramifications of DDT use and the threat of atomic warfare and how Carson's writing played a vital role in progressive public policy for decades after her death. One wonders how the past 50 years might have been different were Carson alive to write about global warming, fossil fuels, the erosion of coral reefs and other similar matters. That her views on DDT were eventually proven correct is just a small part of her legacy as an environmental pioneer but also a defining instance of citizen activism.
A complex, rich biography of a groundbreaking geologist who discovered “a rift valley running down the center of the Atlantic,” essentially transforming 20th-century geophysics despite “mid-century American gender bias” and scientific rivalries.
In her debut, Felt (Writing/Pittsburgh Univ.) ably enriches each of the biographical, historical and scientific threads she pursues. From the 1950s through the ’70s, Marie Tharp (1920–2006) mapped the entire ocean floor, an accomplishment honored by the Library of Congress in 1997, when she was named “one of the four greatest cartographers” of the 20th century. Trained in geology and mathematics, Tharp joined a team headed by Dr. Maurice Ewing at Columbia's Lamont Geological Laboratory. They were searching for a relationship between the continental shelf and seismological events, and Tharp’s task was to collect data from ocean-bottom sounding and draft maps that they overlaid with data on earthquake activity. Tharp partnered with another member of the team, seismologist Bruce Heezen (who became her longtime lover), and they were able to correlate her maps with earthquake epicenters. This contributed to the discovery of the massive rift running through all the world's oceans and a revival of interest in continental-drift theory, which led to our modern understanding of plate tectonics. Although the duo’s work was originally dismissed by Ewing, who targeted Tharp in particular, critics were silenced by evidence revealed in a Jacques Cousteau film. The author presents Tharp's career through the prism of a woman's struggle for recognition in a traditionally male scientific field. After Heezen's tragic early death, Tharp collected and organized the record of their joint scientific accomplishments, from which Felt draws.
A well-researched, engaging account of an important scientific discovery that should also find a place on women’s-studies shelves.
Published to coincide with what would have been her 100th birthday, this biography of the iconic Julia Child (1912–2004) does full justice to its complex subject.
Spitz (The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe, 2008, etc.) describes the “irrepressible reality” of Child, who became a TV superstar, effectively launching “public television into the spotlight, big-time.” In his view, the 1961 publication of her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, came at just the right time. Americans were tired of the preceding “era of dreary button-down conformity,” and they were ready for a gastronomic revolution. Frustrated housewives reading Betty Friedan's groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique welcomed the larger-than-life personality and showmanship of this tall, outspoken woman as she demonstrated the intricacies of French recipes with what appeared to be blithe disregard when things went wrong. Child reveled in her celebrity status, but this was only one aspect of her complex personality. Like most women of her generation born in traditional upper-middle-class homes, she was not expected to have an independent career. A wartime stint in the OSS was liberating. Not only did she hold a highly responsible job, but she met and married career diplomat Paul Child, moving with him to France. Popular accounts of her life, including the book and film Julie and Julia, describe her enchantment with French haute cuisine and her determination to master the skills of a top chef. Spitz captures another side of her complex personality: her fierce diligence in mastering the science as well as the art of cooking through detailed experimentation and her concern to translate the preparation of complex French recipes for readers in America—an attention to detail that carried over to her TV programs.
An engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.
Fifty years after her death and hundreds of books later, are we any closer to understanding Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962)? Probably not, but this new biography brings the known facts up to date and offers a fresh, modern take on the tragic star’s life and choices.
For Banner (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Southern California; MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, 2011, etc.), the tangled roots of Monroe’s contradictions—shy but lurid, innocent and calculating, user and used—originated in her childhood. The product of a family with a history of mental illness, she was passed around between foster homes (both good and bad) as well as an orphanage. She experienced sexual abuse, absorbed a variety of religious influences, and discovered that her lost-lamb look attracted every man she met. Although Banner occasionally plays psychoanalyst, it's only in an effort to see her subject from every conceivable angle. The author’s film criticism is insightful, particularly in showing how Monroe helped build (and would deliberately mock) her own public image. She examines how Monroe’s unique allure drew on popular tradition and looked forward to the Pop Art future. As for the big question—did Monroe commit suicide or was she murdered by Bobby Kennedy, or her psychoanalyst, or mobster Sam Giancana, or the FBI?—Banner offers no smoking guns. Instead, she gives reasons why all the scenarios, both official and otherwise, are as problematic as they are plausible. Though the author sometimes over explains the obvious, this flaw does not detract from the book’s forward drive or Banner's sympathetic intelligence.
Surely not the last word, but a complete and honest effort and a good starting place.
Firsthand account of the female Newsweek employees who sued their employer in 1970 for sex discrimination.
Journalist Povich began her career in the mid-’60s at the magazine’s Paris bureauas a secretary, photo researcher, telex operator and occasional reporter. In 1975, she became the first female senior editor in the magazine’s history. Here, she chronicles the five-year legal battle that she and the women of Newsweek waged against the company, laying the groundwork for women’s advancement at the publication and in other careers in the areas of journalism, law and society. The Newsweek case was also the first female class-action suit filed in the United States. The women were a cohort of educated well-mannered “good girls” of the ’40s and ’50s, raised to be apolitical and accept the status quo in the workplace and society. But Povich and her co-workers found themselves stymied professionally and personally by the male-dominated work environment at Newsweek. Today it may be difficult to comprehend, but when the case was filed, there were few professional women in the United States. “Until around 1970,” writes Povich, “women comprised fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.” The author describes the women’s initial trepidation, followed by a feeling of empowerment. By standing up for what they believed they were entitled to, some flourished while others fell prey to a hostile work environment. As one of the plaintiffs said, “A lot of women were prepared socially and emotionally for it, but for those of us who were traditional women, you couldn’t switch off overnight just because we won a lawsuit.”
Povich’s in-depth research, narrative skills and eyewitness observations provide an entertaining and edifying look at a pivotal event in women’s history.
Not just a scandalous diary, but a portrait of the plight of women in the early Victorian era.
The excerpts from Isabella Robinson’s diary show a woman in a loveless, miserable marriage. Her desperate longings for love, or at least someone to talk to, fed her imagination and fired her writings with delusional tales of amour. Women living in the mid 19th century had no legal existence, so she couldn’t file a lawsuit, control her own money or even claim her own clothes and jewelry. Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, 2008, etc.) may have set out to write about one woman’s fall from grace, but she also exposes the horrendous misery of even gently born women during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was during that period that the government at last allowed both men and women to sue for divorce without parliamentary approval. A man seeking to put away his wife could do so by implication only, but women needed to prove at least two incidents of adultery. Apparently, in Mrs. Robinson’s case, the fact that her husband had a mistress who bore him two children was not sufficient. At this time the use of insanity as a plea came into more common use, and Mrs. Robinson’s friends strongly suggested that she claim she was insane at the time she wrote things like “the happiness of loving” and “long, passionate, clinging embrace.”
A revealing portrait of the straight-laced Victorians who produced innumerable sex scandals, delved into new and sometimes bizarre health fads and generally dismissed anyone considered beneath them, like colonials and women.