Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika Janik

Review: Pistols and Petticoats by Erika JanikPistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: feminist history, historical fiction, historical mystery, history, mystery, women's history
Pages: 248
Published by Beacon Press on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A lively exploration of the struggles faced by women in law enforcement and mystery fiction for the past 175 years
In 1910, Alice Wells took the oath to join the all-male Los Angeles Police Department. She wore no uniform, carried no weapon, and kept her badge stuffed in her pocketbook. She wasn’t the first or only policewoman, but she became the movement’s most visible voice.
Police work from its very beginning was considered a male domain, far too dangerous and rough for a respectable woman to even contemplate doing, much less take on as a profession. A policewoman worked outside the home, walking dangerous city streets late at night to confront burglars, drunks, scam artists, and prostitutes. To solve crimes, she observed, collected evidence, and used reason and logic—traits typically associated with men. And most controversially of all, she had a purpose separate from her husband, children, and home. Women who donned the badge faced harassment and discrimination. It would take more than seventy years for women to enter the force as full-fledged officers.
Yet within the covers of popular fiction, women not only wrote mysteries but also created female characters that handily solved crimes. Smart, independent, and courageous, these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female sleuths (including a healthy number created by male writers) set the stage for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, as well as TV detectives such as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison and Law and Order’s Olivia Benson. The authors were not amateurs dabbling in detection but professional writers who helped define the genre and competed with men, often to greater success.
Pistols and Petticoats tells the story of women’s very early place in crime fiction and their public crusade to transform policing. Whether real or fictional, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. Most women refused to let that stop them, paving the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

My Review:

I want to make a joke about Pistols and Petticoats being “two, two, two books in one”, but the problem with the book is that it isn’t. Instead it is two books that attempt to be combined into one. Unfortunately the seam between the two books is rather visible, and leaves a nasty and distinguishing scar.

What we have feels like an attempt to yoke a scholarly study about the changing roles of women in detection and police work joined at the slightly non-working hip with a book about the changing roles of women in detective fiction and the lives and careers of women who have made successful and even groundbreaking forays into the mystery genre.

The desire, often stated in the book, is to show how the increased roles of women in novels and later other media often presaged the increasing roles for women in real-life police work. But the two parts don’t flow into one another, possibly because there isn’t much there, well, there.

Instead, in the historical narrative, police work for women was often proposed as, and in many cases restricted to, an extension of the reform zeal of the late 1800s and the belief that dealing with social problems and juvenile crime were a natural outgrowth of women’s roles in the home. Fictional female sleuths, on the other hand, were created first of all to entertain, but created in a way that was not supposed to upset the status quo. Which explains both Miss Marple and the reason that so many young female sleuths’ careers ended in marriage.

Women were supposed to remain in the domestic sphere, and that sphere was supposed to be the pinnacle of all their ambitions. Elderly spinsters like Miss Marple needed something to occupy their time, particularly in eras where so many women were left without spouses after a generation of young men died in warfare.

Pistols and Petticoats does not read like a successful amalgamation of the author’s two “plot” lines. The historical sections that detail women’s real and increasing contributions to police work and detection, read, unfortunately, like rather dry history. It’s interesting, but only becomes lively when the women themselves have interesting lives, like Alice Clement or Kate Warne.

The parts that thrill are where the author sinks her teeth into the history of female detectives and the history of the females who have written successful mysteries. The early years of female writers who made the genre what it is today, but whose works have not continued to find readers, was fascinating.

The information about where certain trends in mystery took their cues from contemporary life and women’s places in it also pulled me in. Not just the heroines of the Golden Age, like Christie and Marple, and Sayers with Harriet Vane, but also how those characters fit into their own society.

murderess ink by dilys winnEscape Rating C+: All in all, the parts of the book that dealt with mystery fiction made for more compelling reading. They also reminded me of a book that I have not thought of in years, Murderess Ink. Murderess Ink, the followup to Murder Ink, was a lighthearted study of the women who created and populated the mystery genre from the Golden Age until its late 1970s present. As much as I enjoyed the sections of Pistols and Petticoats that dealt with the genre, perhaps it is time for an update of Murder Ink and Murderess Ink.

Review: Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

Review: Terrible Virtue by Ellen FeldmanTerrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: feminist history, historical fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Harper on March 22nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the spirit of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, the provocative and compelling story of one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the twentieth century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today.
The daughter of a hard-drinking, smooth-tongued free thinker and a mother worn down by thirteen children, Margaret Sanger vowed her life would be different. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception. It was a battle that would pit her against puritanical, patriarchal lawmakers, send her to prison again and again, force her to flee to England, and ultimately change the lives of women across the country and around the world.
This complex enigmatic revolutionary was at once vain and charismatic, generous and ruthless, sexually impulsive and coolly calculating—a competitive, self-centered woman who championed all women, a conflicted mother who suffered the worst tragedy a parent can experience. From opening the first illegal birth control clinic in America in 1916 through the founding of Planned Parenthood to the arrival of the Pill in the 1960s, Margaret Sanger sacrificed two husbands, three children, and scores of lovers in her fight for sexual equality and freedom.
With cameos by such legendary figures as Emma Goldman, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, H. G. Wells, and the love of Margaret’s life, Havelock Ellis, this richly imagined portrait of a larger-than-life woman is at once sympathetic to her suffering and unsparing of her faults. Deeply insightful, Terrible Virtue is Margaret Sanger’s story as she herself might have told it.

My Review:

Margaret Sanger in 1922
Margaret Sanger in 1922

When the phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history” was first penned by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976, Margaret Sanger had been dead for ten years. But that short, pithy phrase still sums up her life.

On the one hand, all women, at least in Western countries, owe Sanger a debt. Whether one believes that birth control is a blessing, a right, or even a pernicious evil, Sanger made that choice possible. More importantly, she challenged and eventually forced the overthrow of laws that didn’t just make birth control illegal, but made it illegal for women to be educated about the “facts of life” about their own bodies.

And those of us who have chosen the spacing and number of our children, or not to have children at all, can trace that ability, that choice, back to her crusade.

But crusaders and saints are generally terrible people to live with. In Sanger’s case, it seems as if her husbands, her lovers, and especially her own children suffered a great deal from her obsessive devotion to her cause. That we are the better for it doesn’t change the damage to them. But if she had chosen to be a traditional wife and mother, where would we be now?

Terrible Virtue is a fictionalized version of Sanger’s life, told primarily through her own eyes. And we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, as Sanger is. Not that she deliberately lies, but certainly that she justifies her behavior in her own mind. As do we all.

The occasional insertions of brief comments from the point of view of those closest to her, those who most often found themselves sacrificed on the altar of her crusade, provide a much-needed leavening counterpoint. Sanger gave birth to a revolution, but everyone around her paid the price.

Sanger is charming, and vain, and frequently ruthless in the pursuit of her goals. She’s obsessed with her groundbreaking work, and neglectful of anyone and everyone in her life in pursuit of those goals. She’s a difficult person to sympathize with, and the reader frequently does not, but her life was endlessly fascinating. She pursued a revolution for all of her life, and did so with a keen intellect and an eye for who would best advance the cause that she strove for. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. And occasionally in the middle of her greatest nightmares.

And she built one of the cornerstones of women’s rights in the 20th and 21st centuries – not just the right but also the capability for women to decide when, if, or how many children they would have. She made it possible for middle-class and poor women to have the same choices that rich women have always had, to control the size of their families.

While she may have entered on this crusade to prevent women from suffering the fate of her own mother, 13 children and dead before her time, she gave the gift to us all.

Escape Rating B+: Sanger’s life is fascinating, but she is not a sympathetic narrator. She’s selfish, obsessed, and ignores anyone and anything that doesn’t further her cause. That neglect generally covered her children, her two husbands, and any and all of her lovers. But it is her own children that suffer most for her crusade to let every woman decide how many children to have.

She may have pretended to be a respectable middle-class woman, but she certainly used the privilege she created, and had affairs with many famous and influential men, including but certainly not limited to Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells. But her life wasn’t ruled by her love affairs – whatever else was going on in her life, she worked on the cause tirelessly and relentlessly.

At the end of the story, readers may respect Sanger, but not like her. She would have been hell to live with. But revolution is never easy. Or bloodless.

Because the story is from Sanger’s point of view, and because she is both self-serving and self-centered, she glosses over the accusations that were later leveled at her work. From her own point of view, she was not really a eugenicist. She did not advocate genocide of any populations. Instead, her goal was always to allow poor women of any race or ethnicity to be able to have the same choice that rich women have always had – the ability to limit the number of children they had to what they desired and would be economically feasible. She believed that the accusations of genocide that were leveled at her were the result of deliberate attempts to discredit her work.

We can’t know today. But we can see the way that governments and legislatures are still trying to denigrate any attempts for poor women to control their own biology in the continued witch hunt that hounds Planned Parenthood, and in the ever increasing number of laws that restrict women’s choices and inject medically incorrect dogma into women’s pursuit of those choices.

This book is an eye opener. A fascinating woman, an amazing life, and an influence that changed the world. And seems to have been the inspiration for Wonder Woman into the bargain!

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman

Review: Sisters in Law by Linda HirshmanSisters in Law: Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Friendship That Changed Everything by Linda Hirshman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, feminist history, history, legal history
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on September 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The author of the celebrated Victory tells the fascinating story of the intertwined lives of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first and second women to serve as Supreme Court justices.
The relationship between Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Republican and Democrat, Christian and Jew, western rancher’s daughter and Brooklyn girl—transcends party, religion, region, and culture. Strengthened by each other’s presence, these groundbreaking judges, the first and second to serve on the highest court in the land, have transformed the Constitution and America itself, making it a more equal place for all women.
Linda Hirshman’s dual biography includes revealing stories of how these trailblazers fought for their own recognition in a male-dominated profession—battles that would ultimately benefit every American woman. She also makes clear how these two justices have shaped the legal framework of modern feminism, including employment discrimination, abortion, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and many other issues crucial to women’s lives.
Sisters-in-Law combines legal detail with warm personal anecdotes that bring these very different women into focus as never before. Meticulously researched and compellingly told, it is an authoritative account of our changing law and culture, and a moving story of a remarkable friendship.

My Review:

After finishing Then Comes Marriage, I liked it so much that I decided I wanted more Supreme Court. So I picked up Sisters In Law, which is a kind of dual biography of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first and second women on the Supreme Court.

I think I was expecting there to be more about their actual relationship while they served on the court together, but that isn’t quite what I got.

Instead, this book flips from one woman’s history to the other, showing where their stories parallel, and where they differ. It also gives a strong sense of how much their shared experiences being among the first women to advance in the legal profession affected their perspectives. Because for two women who ended up being the first female members of a very exclusive and formerly all-male club, they also seem to have had some very different perspectives on the rights of women, and even whether they should be advocating for those rights from the bench.

What felt to this reader as a telling anecdote occurs at the beginning of each of their careers. Because they were both among the first women to succeed in the legal profession, they both faced a lot of discrimination early on, particularly when it came to getting their first jobs after passing the bar.

Ginsburg’s husband suffered from cancer while they were both in law school. He was not expected to survive, but he fortunately did. Still, the experience clearly left its mark. RBG faced very early on the possibility that her work and her career might have to sustain and support her and their children, emotionally and economically, if she were widowed. She seems to have been strongly affect by exactly what an uphill battle she faced as a woman, and how many roadblocks might be placed in her path.

She has continued throughout her career to champion women’s rights for equality, and in that championing has continued to recognize that not all women are fortunate enough to have the advantages that she had, not just economically, but also by having a husband who supported her career as equal to her own.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s story has a different ending. After being repeatedly turned down for a position as a lawyer, and being offered legal secretary positions instead, she took the step of working for free for a county attorney until he decided that she was, after all, worth her pay as a lawyer. Not many women, then or now, could afford to work for no wages until a man decided that she might be worth hiring.

She seems to have always seen herself as exceptional, and not necessarily been cognizant of the fact that many women are qualified and capable but just not lucky. And that the things that she, as an upper middle class white woman, did not find burdensome were issues that women without her advantages would find very burdensome indeed.

However, like the comment that “only Nixon could go to China”, only a woman who projected so much traditional femininity and rocked the boat so little could have been appointed as the First Woman on the Supreme Court by a Republican. It was only after O’Connor rocked the boat so little that someone like RBG could be appointed, even by a Democrat. Because Ginsburg’s entire career gave notice that she would be a member of the court’s liberal wing, as she has been.

There were lots of sayings in the midst of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s that went something like “In order for a woman to be thought as capable as a man, she has to be twice as good. Fortunately that’s not difficult.” Remember, that this is also the same era that birthed the marvelous phrase, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” In the heyday of the women’s civil rights movement, it seemed like anything was possible. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was often at the forefront of the fight to make that “anything” come to pass, and she often succeeded. Now that she is on the bench, and the times have shifted from change to backlash, she often seems to be fighting a rearguard action to protect as many gains as she can, hoping that the pendulum will swing back.

Reality Rating A-: As is probably clear from the comments above, I found Ginsburg to be more interesting and more sympathetic. The legal positions that she took and the cases that she won are the ones that made my life as a career woman in the 1980s onward much better. Not necessarily easier in a lot of ways, but certainly better. I remember being asked in the late 1970s what my childbearing plans were at more than one job interview, even though that practice had already been ruled illegal. I was able to get credit in my own name during college, where I remember being with my mother when she was asked for the first time if she wanted an account in her name sometime in the 1970s. My mother worked, but her only access to credit was through my father.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped the world to change, often by her own actions and the positions she took. It was a deliberate act. Sandra Day O’Connor also helped the world to change, but it seemed like it happened more because of who she became than what she did. It seemed as though she felt her presence was enough to change the paradigm, which it certainly did. But it didn’t feel like she did nearly as much to extend the ladder to those coming up behind her unless they were just like her.

O’Connor’s position was extremely important, but I found myself not liking many of the stands she took. At the same time, the book acknowledges that she was very pragmatic about what would and wouldn’t work. I like the stands that Ginsburg takes, even when, or especially if, they are taken in dissent.

As a history of women in the legal profession from the mid-20th century and onwards, their joint history is fascinating. Who the reader finds themselves ultimately sympathizing with will depend a lot of the views they come in with. I found the sections on Ruth Bader Ginsburg so interesting that I picked up a copy of Notorious R.B.G., the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I can’t wait to read more.