Sunday, October 31, 2010

Guest Review: Contemporary American Women: Our Defining Passages, Carol Smallwood and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, editors

All Things That Matter Press, 2009
Reviewed by Marian Matyn

This well-written, easily read, and interesting book is a compilation of articles by women, all well-educated.  The themes of the book cover passages of the average woman’s life.  This includes physical, emotional, family, career, empowerment changes and challenges, reconnecting, dealing with, and accepting parts of our lives and histories.  Importantly, it also covers the relationships women have with others, friends, family, and foes, that cause us to change, or evaluate our options.  Some of these topics, such as one’s aging body, or the stress of career choices, difficult relationships and positive, affirming relationships, are those to which all women can relate.  Other topics, such as surviving sexual abuse or the loss of a spouse, and the accompanying emotional traumas, are topics some of us have suffered, but all of us can feel empathy for those who endure. 

Why read this “women’s book” and not another?  Hope.  The hope that is so affirming and omnipresent in this book is an essential thread that runs through the entire work, binding the stories together.  Through all the changes and challenges of life, all the people who help and affirm, and those who seek to denigrate women, the authors not only endured their experiences, but moved forward into the future with hope.  

This is not a depressing victim story from the past, and while the stories are autobiographical in nature, it is more than that.  A strong sense of spirituality, and of empowerment, accompanies hope throughout the book, encouraging the reader. “That despite what weighs us down, even the tiniest movement or the smallest decision moves us closer to the light.” (p. 152, “Closer to the light,” Hope Payson) This is what the book is all about:  that each of us, with hope, can make a choice that empowers us to move towards a brighter, happier, more fulfilling future.

Two of the stories which I continue to ponder long afterwards are “I couldn’t walk, talk or read:  becoming a crow again” by Katie McKy, and “Returning to Russia: Returning home” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro.  Both of these stories illustrate a turning point in the life of a girl or young woman.  Katie McKy notes the moment she chose not to ridicule, but rather to befriend, a girl who fit in neither physically nor socially at school.  Previously ostracized because of speech and walking challenges into a lowly school reading and social group called the crows, McKy chose to befriend another crow.  As she notes “Suffering can bequeath us compassion. Of course, it can also curse us with bitterness.  We get to choose.  Of course, choosing well might mean becoming a crow once again, which I did. Rather, I just admitted to what I’d always been.” (p.7)  McKy became a teacher, helping damaged children who had themselves become crows, and their parents.

The second story, “Returning to Russia: Returning home” by Yelizaveta P. Renfro, is the story of a self-destructive fifteen-year-old girl who is drinking, using drugs, smoking, destroying her bedroom, and flunking school.  With her mother, Renfro traveled home to her ill Russian grandparents.  She lived with them for a summer in a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment, lacking air conditioning or privacy.  Here, she became aware of others and their dismal living conditions.  Renfro kept a detailed diary and, later, typed her observations.  She returned to California greatly affected, began writing, and left her old ways behind.  Later, with her own daughter, Renfro recalled returning to her destroyed teenage bedroom to find her mother had cleaned it and spread a bedspread on her bed to welcome her home. “Only now do I realize that through such small actions we impose order, which is a kind of love… [Of her daughter, Renfro notes] “She will run away from me, too, literally perhaps, but certainly figuratively, I can only hope that she will return home again.” (p. 95)  To me, this story demonstrates another individual making a choice, becoming aware of others around them, and choosing hope for the future, and hoping for the next generation.

Too often, the books I read in college women’s studies courses were about a woman’s endurance, and acceptance of an unhappy life with a father who did not appreciate or respect his daughter, a husband who did not understand her, or a dream abandoned.  Her life was misery.  It was all about negative relationships with men, no options for work or life, not having choices, working for less pay than a man, working in an unsatisfying job, and being discriminated against in many ways.  My male college housemates once commented on how all the books in women’s studies were sad and blamed men.  Well, it is a new century since I took women’s studies, and clearly the women in this book are more self-aware and have more options than the suffering women of the past.  Part of that difference is education, providing women a chance for a quality job with pay and benefits, and laws preventing gross discrimination and allowing a vote.  Like the book’s cover image of a woman looking towards the rising sun, the authors figuratively and collectively look towards the new day with hope, for an improved, empowered life, not just for them, but for all women.

Overall the writers tell us that highly educated, modern American women have options that allow us to determine our future and follow our dreams.  It would be interesting to read stories from the life of women who are not as well educated as these writers.  What do the women without a degree working at Wal-Mart, trying to pay their bills, think of their lives?  Or, what about the women who make negative choices?  Do they find their lives inspiring enough to write about for the benefit of other women?  Do they have hope?  Perhaps that is a topic for a future book.

Marian Matyn is the Archivist of the Clarke Historical Library and an Assistant Professor at Central Michigan University. The author of a number of archival and history articles, Marian is currently writing a book on Michigan circus history. 

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