Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Short History of Women: A Novel, by Kate Walbert

I am supposed to like this novel. I am a woman, for one thing. I am a woman living in modern times, for another. I am a reader that prefers harder-to-read historical fiction over the ever-so-popular vampire books. I should like this book. I didn't.

A Short History of Women: A Novel looks at several women as the feminist movement evolved over the last century. Dorothy Townsend starves herself to death (literally) for women's suffrage. The women in her family are then portrayed in separate chapters as the author shows how they cope with being a woman in their own era. She does not do this chronologically, but jumps from the early 1900's to 2004 and then to the 1950's and then back to the early 1900's. This jumping, combined with the fact that Walbert gives the women extremely similar names, makes it difficult to keep track of whose story she is telling. It is confusing.

I'm all about persevering through hard books. After all, I kept a running list of all of the names in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy captivated me from the first page. A Short History of Women starts out with Dorothy Townsend (the suffragist) starving herself on purpose and leaving her children parent-less because "there was nothing else" she could do. This scene was strangely not captivating or motivating to me. I had to force myself to keep reading and I certainly felt no need to take notes.

I struggle with who I am supposed to be. Is it wife? Is it mother? Is it career woman? Is it housekeeper? Should I be outspoken? Should I be quiet? Should I like football? Should I stick to knitting? Am I a feminist? Am I not a feminist? Most days I think I am supposed to be all of the above, at the same time. Mentally, that's a rough place to be. I was hoping that this book would address the fact that our culture expects more from women while much of the culture still sees women as less. Ironic, isn't it? I'm on a quest to find a novel that addresses this irony well. If I don't find that novel, I'll just have a chat with my mother, who balanced all of these issues better than anyone else I know. And if remembering that fact was the only reason I read this book, the read was worth it.


  1. Staci
    I have not read the book and won't based on your review. The balancing of these many roles often feels like a tightrope walk but it is walk that I cherish. I love sharing this journey with you!Mom


  2. Staci, you are supposed to be YOU, with all your many facets and all these facets often don't have the light reflected in them all at the same time. Sometimes one facet is more glowing, at other times, another. I liken it to different phases (roles, if you will) that we go through in our lives as wife, mother, career woman, community activist...
    Sometimes these phases overlap, sometimes not. It is difficult at times to know when to juggle and when not to. Jedidiah used to have a disco ball Christmas ornament hung from the ceiling in his room. Sometimes the light would catch it just right and reflect a rainbow of colors. I'd shine a flashlight on it and make it spin to watch the hundreds of white splashes of light make their journey around the walls and ceiling of his room. Your rainbow flashes of light may not always shine at the same time, but they are there, emerging at surprising times, and then often only for moments. At other times, for longer periods. I know I'm not making sense, but trust yourself that you are a diamond reflecting your many gifts, not always at once, not always when you'd like, but they are there. G