A group biography of women who created profound cultural changes.
Journalist Barnet (All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930, 2004) focuses on four women who became famous in the 1960s for iconoclastic work in different fields: Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring became a bible of the environmental movement; Jane Jacobs, critic and activist, who championed the cultural richness of city life; Jane Goodall, who shocked anthropologists by discovering chimps using tools; and Alice Waters, who inspired the sustainable food movement with her Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse. Drawing on the many “superb individual biographies” of these women, who did not know one another, Barnet offers an overview of their lives to point up the “striking overlaps and consonances” in their thinking and “the extent to which these four pioneers were channeling the anxieties of their particular moment.” The overlaps seem predictable: like many successful women, each was hardworking, determined, strong-willed, and intelligent. Encountering derision by powerful men, they “tenaciously stood their ground.” However, their personalities were vastly dissimilar, and Barnet strains to find convergences. They were all nurturers, she argues, but “instead of material expansion, each emphasized quality of life, the public good, what was sensible and ethical.” Moreover, Barnet insists that their perception of the interconnectedness of the living world is a distinctively female predilection for bonding and community; citing one study, she asserts that under stress, women “respond with a desire to connect with others.” Goodall “neither envisioned nor experienced the natural world as a hierarchy in which mankind stood at the top, separate and superior.” Similarly, Carson and Jacobs experienced their own environments as “an organism that pulsed with life.” Barnet deeply admires her subjects, which colors her portrait of the “elfin” Waters, “a remarkable character by any measure,” whom she interviewed for this book, and she fails to examine the self-absorption that seems to have fueled Waters’ personal and professional conflicts.
Informative biographical essays of influential women.