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
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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!

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Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

secret history of wonder woman by jill leporeFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, paperback, audiobook
Genre: nonfiction
Length: 432 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Date Released: October 28, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

My Review:

Wonder Woman has often been presented as an icon of feminism. Admittedly, she looks like feminism for the male gaze, with her abbreviated and skin-tight uniform of bustier and increasingly short shorts, but the principles that she espouses, at least when she is being drawn by someone who cares, are generally considered feminist.

If Wonder Woman’s history in the comic books is often convoluted, as DC Comics continually revises, retcons and retools the origin stories for their superheroes, the story of how she was created was possibly even stranger.

There’s also an amount of “small world” feeling that surrounds her creation. She was created by a man who believed that what he was propagating were first-wave feminist values, in spite of the life he lived being something rather different. At the same time, everyone seems to have known everyone. There’s a weird straight line between the creation of Wonder Woman and the invention of the birth control pill. In this history, that line has a couple of kinks in it.

Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston in 1942 during the Golden Age of comic books. Marston’s life was somewhat of a comic book all by itself, but no one seems to have been aware of it at the time, including his children. That’s part of what made this story so fascinating.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Marston lived at the head of an extremely unconventional household. His wife, Sadie Holloway, embodied the feminist principles that he inserted into Wonder Woman. She was the primary breadwinner, working at the executive level in various industries, including insurance, and was also an editor.

In addition to supporting Marston and their children, Sadie was also supporting the other woman in Marston’s life, Olive Byrne Richard, and the two children Marston had with her. In return for her involvement in this unusual arrangement, Olive Byrne became the caretaker for Holloway’s children with Marston in addition to her own.

Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the famous (sometimes infamous) birth control advocate, so Marston knew Sanger.

Marston was also the originator of the lie-detector test, even though his design was not the one that went into widespread use.

The story in The Secret History of Wonder Woman is not a publication history of the comic, although there is a bit of that. Instead, it is a biography of the eccentric group of people who made the original Wonder Woman, and a fascinating look at how their unconventional lives and Marston’s unusual psychological theories about love and dominance made their way into the iconic character of Wonder Woman.

Reality Rating B: This is one of those stories that can only be true, because an attempt to fictionalize it would run past anyone’s willing suspension of disbelief.

As narrative, it takes a while to get into, but the journey is definitely worth the ride. At least partially because it’s such a surprise.

Marston certainly believed that the ideas he was promoting in Wonder Woman were aligned with first-wave feminism. After reading this book, I can’t say that I believe it, but I can see that he did. He also had a lot of very strange theories about the power of love and submission both being ultimately stronger than violence and dominance and being what women really needed. Again, not saying I believe it, or that anyone outside his immediate household believed his theories very long, but he did embody those theories in Wonder Woman.

On that other hand, he used both his wife and his mistress as models for different aspects of Wonder Woman’s personality and some of her costume and gadgetry. It also seems like Wonder Woman is the only thing he managed to succeed at, and the rest of the time he was a supposedly enlightened despot overseeing the household that was maintained for his convenience by his two “wives”.

There was a certain amount of bravery on everyone’s part in living a very unconventional life-style, but it seems as if it mostly benefitted him, which doesn’t seem feminist at all. Marston also used the Wonder Woman narrative as a way of poking none too gentle fun at various academics and officials who had derided his theories in the early part of his career.

Whatever he may have voiced regarding the power of women, Marston described all the many and varied ways in which Wonder Woman gets chained and bound, over and over, with a little too much loving detail to sit comfortably with readers who equate Wonder Woman with feminism. It feels like a disconnect between what he said and what he did, and one wonders why no one pointed it out at the time.

All in all, the way that Marston’s real life and theories inserted themselves into Wonder Woman is strangely compelling. The way that first-wave feminism was both promulgated and ultimately rejected by Wonder Woman when it changed hands reflects the change in women’s status after World War II. The backdrop history of the fear of comic books’ influence on children and the rise of censorship is reminiscent of the trials of both television violence and video games that have occurred in more recent times. Some things that have happened before are happening over and over.

This book reads much more like a biography of Marston than a history of Wonder Woman. Still, where those two intersect, and how, is fascinating.

Reviewer’s note: This book is not as long as it initially appears. While reading on my Kindle app, I was 65% completed when the narrative ended and the extensive footnotes began. It’s great to see how well researched the book is, but I thought it had a lot longer to go.

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