Florence “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical, by Sherie M. Randolph***

Florynce Flo KennedyFlo Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with, dismissed by a portion of mainstream Caucasian America as a kook, yet far too clever, too cagey, and too damn smart to be wished away by those that wanted to defend the racist, sexist status quo. When I saw that a memoir of her life was up for grabs at Net Galley I requested a copy immediately, and then took a long time to finish reading it. Part of my tardiness is a stubborn dislike for the PDF format, and so I apologize to University of North Carolina Press and my readers for being so slow; yet a small part of it was the surprisingly dry quality of the memoir. Given the subject, I had expected this biography to set my hair on fire.

Though she was new to Randolph, according to the introduction, Kennedy was no stranger to those of us in the Boomer generation. Her audacity, her wit, and her raw courage that at times bordered on recklessness made for great theater and fascinating press coverage. Raised by parents that taught her not “to take any shit” long before the Black Power movement or even the end of Jim Crow, Kennedy pushed the margins. She studied, worked, and fought her way into Columbia Law; she defended famous individuals like Billie Holliday and Stokely Carmichael, and she did it with style.

By far the most significant part of her legacy was the leadership she demonstrated in bringing together the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with the Black Power movement. As a young woman sending out my own tendrils into the larger world apart from high school and my parents’ home, some of the most influential feminist speeches given were by Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, and sometimes they appeared together. I never got to see them in person, but it didn’t matter that much, because I knew what they had written and what they had said, and soon I was attending meetings of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which was the leading women’s rights organization in the US before their split over women in the military later in the 20th century. Because of women like Kennedy and Steinem, I fundraised my fare to national marches on the Capitol for women’s right to choose whether to reproduce, and to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.

So I owe Kennedy a great deal.

Kennedy’s confidence and controlled rage positively crackled; she made headlines and was often seen on the evening news. Once when I told a classmate that I wanted to support a female candidate for president of the US, he told me that if I was going to vote for a protest candidate, I should shoot for the moon and vote for Flo Kennedy.

He had a point.

I don’t agree with everything Kennedy said or did, particularly her suggestion that rather than expending great effort to end the US war against the Vietnamese people, Americans should focus their energy toward supporting Black owned businesses. Say what? But nearly everything else she did was so vastly ahead of her time that it made me gasp in awe.

I understand that a memoir produced by a university press is generally going to be scholarly in nature, and that’s one reason I request works like this that are associated with such reputable sources. But a scholarly treatment doesn’t have to drone. By arranging a few of Kennedy’s livelier quotes up front and at chapter beginnings and endings, she might receive the treatment she deserves, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history a mere decade, give or take a year, after she wore a tee shirt reading “I had an abortion” during her most senior years.

So although I know Randolph is new to Kennedy and probably also has some academic parameters within which she has to work, I still feel that Flo’s memoir should reflect her verve and character to a greater degree.

Nevertheless reader, if you care about women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans, if women’s history and African-American history hold meaning and importance for you, I think you should read this memoir anyway, because as of this writing, it’s really the only memoir of Kennedy that’s available. You can find some of her speeches in feminist collections, but no one else has tackled this woman’s life, and so until and unless something better comes along, you should get this and read it. Because a dry, somewhat conservative treatment of Kennedy is better than nothing.

Small Changes, by Marge Piercy*****

SmallChangesPiercyThis title was originally published in 1973 during the second wave of feminism that followed the US Civil Rights movement, and then the anti-war movement against the US invasion of Vietnam. Marge Piercy is a prominent veteran writer who spoke to women’s issues during that time and in years to follow. She doesn’t need my review, and neither does Open Road Integrated Media, I suspect, but my thanks go to them and Net Galley for letting me reread this wonderful novel digitally. I received this copy free in exchange for an honest review, but the reader should also know that I came to this galley with a strong, strong affinity for Piercy’s work already, and my bookshelves are lined with paperbacks and hard cover copies of her books. But they are thick and sometimes heavy to the arthritic hand, and it’s a joy to be able to read them on a slender electronic reader. It was released digitally April 12, 2016 and is available for purchase now.

In 1973, many young adults had cast off the fetters of the impossibly repressive social relations of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Their parents, on the other hand, were frequently entrenched in the mores that had been with them all of their lives, and felt threatened by the new ideas—some of which were actually pretty stupid—that many Boomer era teens and twenty-somethings embraced. Some notions that were new then are ones most of us now take for granted. Most of western civilization is no longer troubled, for example, by the idea that a woman may want to have a career, and that some women don’t want to have children. Most parents no longer speak of marrying a daughter as a way to transfer the expense of feeding and sustaining her from themselves to a man.

But in 1973, these social mores were still really prevalent. So to readers younger than fifty, or perhaps younger than forty, some of Piercy’s text is going to appear to be over-the-top, a vast exaggeration. It isn’t. And I have to thank Piercy for the gift of her insights, which came to me while I was a young woman still determining what was and was not acceptable in my own relationships.

The sly way Piercy makes her most prominent point is in following the lives of women, two in particular: Beth, who at the story’s outset, is indeed being “married off”, and Miriam, the least-favored child of the family who goes away to school and moves into a series of unconventional relationships. There’s a lot of the cultural flavor of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s here, and Piercy uses her narrative to describe ways in which even the most enlightened women, those seeking to build bonds with other women and support them as they set out to fulfill their dreams, nevertheless find themselves mired in unequal, sometimes physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Women that believe they have liberated themselves by refusing to marry, or by joining a commune and not being monogamous, nevertheless find themselves trapped in destructive situations. Piercy shows us how every woman in her story can see that a good friend is in a bad place; each woman doubts herself first when she starts to reconsider her own entanglements.

It is interesting in hindsight that communal and non-monogamous relationships could be discussed freely, but lesbianism was still so far out on the periphery that not even the most trusted of straight friends were necessarily going to be in on the nature of the coupling. And this is dead accurate given the time period; I was there. And gay sex among men was a mental cobweb to be brushed away. Tran sexuality was still considered a sign of mental illness by nearly everyone, and it isn’t in this book.

Because it deals with relationships and the internal narratives primarily of women, with occasional side-trips into the heads of the men both women encounter, and also of other women Beth and Miriam are close to, this novel is likely to be labeled “Chick Lit”, a genre title I have become increasingly reluctant to use. Think of it this way: how many women have read novels that are entirely about men or one man, and considered what they just read to be relevant and at times, superior literature? And now I have to wonder why, when a book is almost entirely about women or a woman, told from a feminine perspective, it is assumed by so many people that men should not be interested in that literature also?

Note that this tome exceeds 500 pages. The text itself should be accessible to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalency, but not everyone has sufficient stamina to make it through a book of this length. However, if one is on the borderline, and especially if one is a woman interested in evaluating the nature of our most important relationships, this would be a fine place to begin reading longer books.

For those that enjoy reading about this time period, and for those interested in modern feminism as well as the history of American feminist thought, Piercy’s body of work, including this title, should be unmissable.  Her towering feminist presence was a beacon to so many of us, and many of the issues that were so urgent then are still urgent now.

Blanche On the Lam, by Barbara Neely*****

BlancheontheLamI was already a Barbara Neely fan when I received this DRC, courtesy of the Brash Priority Reviewers Circle, in exchange for an honest review. I’ve been reviewing books for Brash Books and others for the past couple of years, and had read three other Blanche White mysteries out of order, so when I saw that the first in the series—which I think was the only one I hadn’t read yet—was up for grabs, I nailed it right away. It’s available for purchase now.

The amazing thing to me is that although these novels were originally published in the ‘90s, they are extremely relevant right now. For those new to this Anthony, Macavity, and Agatha Award winning book and series, Blanche White is author Barbara Neely’s foil for a number of social issues that are best approached with humor, yet also with absolute, stark clarity. Those that have supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement should order this fantastic book right away. It’s a double win, treating those of us that favor social justice and also enjoy strong fiction. On the other hand, those that don’t understand the current of Black anger that pumps through the small towns, fields and cities of the United States may want to read this book and catch a clue.

She makes everything crystal clear.

Here’s the premise: Blanche, who does domestic work and also has custody of her late sister’s children, is in trouble with the law. She has written some checks she can’t cover, and the fact that they’ve all been paid in full by the time she stands before the court doesn’t make much difference to the judge. She is given two months in the slammer, but a much greater disturbance distracts the officer who’s supposed to lock her up, and without a moment’s hesitation, Blanche slips out a side door to freedom. She knows she has to get gone and figures on leaving the state as soon as she has the money for travel, but in the meantime she escapes by using the greatest camouflage possible…because nobody looks a domestic worker in the face.

The family that has hired her has problems of its own, and Blanche can’t leave once the shit hits the fan, because if a domestic worker suddenly disappears when a crime has been committed, the thing will automatically be blamed on them. Instead, she is pinned like a butterfly, stuck in the kitchen of a horribly dysfunctional—and criminal—family. But Blanche is a born survivor, and the cynical things she does in order to keep herself from harm’s way, and ultimately to avenge the death of a nice man that didn’t deserve his fate are both amusing and riveting.

It is here that we meet Mumsfield, an engaging character who will turn up later in the series.

Blanche’s attitude toward the sheriff and the situations that feature him made me want to stand up and cheer!

I took the opportunity to read Blanche White mysteries as they became available, and I am glad I did. Reader, you have the chance, if you haven’t begun the series yet, to read them in order. Neely’s writing is both politically on-point and also seriously funny. What more could you ask for? Once you read this one, you’ll want to continue the series.

Highly recommended!

Saturday’s Child: A Memoir, by Robin Morgan *****

saturdayschildRobin Morgan is one of the mothers of contemporary feminism. She has charted history, together with other women and those who support them, in more ways than I can even keep track of. Although she was once famous for her performances as a child actor, it is for her feminism that I know her, and for that reason I was eager to read her memoir. Huge thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the ARC.

Now a social warrior of advanced age, she is still undoubtedly one of the most articulate individuals alive. However the heat that came from her discussion of her childhood all but singed my eyebrows. Some of us grow mellower with age and learn to let go of things that happened when we were small, but I suppose for some, outrage and sorrow compound faster than interest on a credit card.

You see, Morgan was raised as a child celebrity. From the age of two years her life was a constant swirl of organdy dresses, auditions, and performances. She rode in parades and promoted a doll that resembled her, though she was not permitted to play with one. She wasn’t allowed to nurture friendships, and would not have had time for them in any case. Work, education, and rehearsal took up all of her time, and special arrangements had to be made in order for her education to be completed because of her exhausting schedule. She was a highly capable student and is clearly extremely literate, but her formal education ended with high school; her mother, who lived off of Morgan’s pay from Morgan’s toddlerhood until her death (including investments that lived on after Morgan retired from show business), told her that college was out of the question. She deals articulately and extensively with issues surrounding the exploitation of child actors by adults during this period, as well as the surprise revelation that came about when she tracked down the father she had never known.

I found my long dead and slightly famous great-uncle buried in her text; Sherman Billingsley, owner of The Stork Club, named a drink for her, similar to a Shirley Temple, but with a chunk of pineapple. Funny stuff, though Morgan’s childhood experiences were mostly grim.

The rest of the book gave me what I came for. Morgan came of age during the antiwar era of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The era of protest surrounding the US war against the people of Vietnam radicalized the youth who participated in it; the women who had been side-lined during this time period by their male counterparts began to realize that they should be taking part in the decision-making process instead of rustling up sandwiches and coffee while the men talked politics.

“Free love” really meant group sex, and Morgan learned quickly that it was not liberating for her, but rather it was traumatic. From Eldridge Cleaver to Abbie Hoffman, one radical male after another showed himself to be a member of the old boys’ club where women were concerned. It gave her and several other women pause, and soon led to a number of publications, including Sisterhood is Powerful, an anthology I treasure to this day. Morgan’s energy and achievements appear to have been boundless.

The urban myth in which feminists all burn their bras appears to have originated with Morgan and other feminists’ boycott and picket of the Miss America Pageant in 1968. At this event a certain amount of street theater took place to draw attention to the objectification and trivialization of women in US society. One of these involved whirling bras, symbol of the restriction and shaming of women, in the air and then dramatically dropping them in trash cans. (No fire.)

Morgan’s achievements are too many to enumerate here, but her history, and that of other feminists, from Betty Friedan, bell hooks and Bella Abzug to Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, should be part of every general course in American history, and here the author weighs in once more. She is absolutely correct in reminding us all that the history of women does not belong isolated in a women’s studies department, but is a part of history in general. Pick up a textbook and list the names; how many are male, and how many are female, even for the relatively recent period since World War II? Nor is this problem limited to the USA; in fact, it appears to extend all over the world. There can be no post-feminist era until women enjoy social, political, and economic equality. It hasn’t happened yet.

In fact, Morgan’s internationalism, which has been a large part of her career since the first publication of Sisterhood is Global, is where she shines brightest.

After reading Saturday’s Child, I have found myself once more becoming conscious of the imbalance in the world around me. I have noted that if I mention in one instance or another that women are under-represented, even my own children give me a look that says I am bringing up trivial, petty matters that I should have let pass. And then I hear Morgan, reminding me that trivializing women is part of the problem.

If you are a woman, or if you love one, reading Saturday’s Child may leave you feeling dissatisfied and in need of social change. And until the world becomes equal for everyone, that is as it should be. If Morgan’s legacy is that more women raise hell for their reproductive freedom and economic equality until both are gained, then what better thing could she have done for the world?

What Women Want, by Deborah L. Rhode *****

What Women Want

Yes, thank you, I am a feminist. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision around the Hobby Lobby’s so-called “right” to deny its female employees the contraception of their choice via their health insurance, Rhode’s manifesto could not be more timely. The book is not only right on the money politically, but it is scholarly, accessible, and written by a woman whose credentials cannot be questioned. Rhode is a Stanford law professor who clerked for Thurgood Marshall. She founded the school’s course on gender, but still sees plenty of room for improvement…everywhere. She’s right. Thanks to Net Galley for promoting this important book.

Rhode points out that in spite of the all-too-common mistaken perception that gender bias is a thing of the past, women constitute less than one half percent of the content in the average history textbook. Furthermore:

In virtually every major dimension of social status, financial

well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than

men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive

rights are by no means secure.

Women are still primarily responsible for child care, and they are still penalized for this on the job. Abortion providers are rare due to local laws and increased insurance premiums, courtesy of virtually unfettered terrorism against women’s health clinics. Wealthy women will always be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy because they can travel, but the poor, who often have the most urgent need to exercise this choice, are stuck if they can’t get to a county or state where the service is available, and pay for attendant travel costs associated with other red-tape hurdles such as waiting periods.

The USA has the second-highest rate of reported rape in the world, and a quarter of all women experience violence from their intimate partner; a fifth are raped or experience attempted rape.

Are you listening?

Rhode carefully delineates every problem faced by women in the USA today, and she argues, blow by blow, citation by citation, what is needed. Women should be organizing. We aren’t, at least not in the numbers that we need to in order to bring about social change. In fact, this reviewer would suggest that we are losing ground, and it is because so many of us don’t show up to carry a sign, wear an armband, or carry a bullhorn.

The only weak place in Rhode’s release, if there is one, has to do with women of color. Her analysis there is shallow. However, the other sections apply to all women, regardless of color or ethnicity. We all need respect in the workplace and parity with our male coworkers or colleagues in pay and advancement. We all need affordable–if not free–childcare. We all need reproductive freedom that is between ourselves and our doctors. And we all need to be able to speak up and be perceived as “assertive” rather than “aggressive”. We are not there yet.

This reviewer has twice marched in Washington DC for women’s right to reproductive freedom, and cannot believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is dead. What’s that about?

If you are female or care about someone who is, you should get this book. Rhode is crystal clear and absolutely correct; if women cannot be equal now, then when?