This year’s theme, Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced, continues last year’s centennial observation of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Considering all of the in-person events that were cancelled because of Covid shutdowns, this seems appropriate. My book on Dr. Mary Walker–who dedicated her life to women’s rights issues, including suffrage–published three months into the 2020 quarantine. I have yet to talk to a live audience about her remarkable experiences.
Continuing the conversation about women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment into 2021 is also a reflection of the unfinished, ongoing struggle for voting rights. It’s much too sweeping of a statement to claim that women won the right to vote in 1920. Some, mostly white women, did. But women of color still had to fight.
So, on this first day of Women’s History Month, I recommend two books that expand our understanding of the meaning of women’s suffrage. Read, think, and enjoy!
This story of fashion and politics could start in at least two different places.
One is in southwestern Wisconsin, where my husband and I lived for a few years as we both transitioned from the final years of our careers into retirement. Not far from our house was one of my favorite places, The Shoe Box, which advertises itself as the “Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store.”
I tried not to spend all my free time there.
On one shopping excursion, I spotted a pair of Western boots by Dingo in a lovely shade of red. I already owned a pair in a more sedate brown color. I already owned a pair of cold weather boots in red. But I had nothing in this wonderful combination.
Still, I didn’t need them. I was teaching then and knew they didn’t fit with the rest of my work wardrobe. They were a luxury. But my husband saw me looking at them. On my next birthday, he handed me a big box. I pulled out the boots.
They became my special occasion boots. I also wore them whenever I needed a psychological boost, whether at work or elsewhere. For some people, it’s a suit or a certain shade of lipstick that makes a statement, that gives them the extra oomph. For me, it’s footwear.
The other place this story could start is in Japan in 2003, long before I owned the boots. I had the incredible good fortune of participating in the Japan Residencies Program, sponsored by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, the Organization of American Historians, and the Japanese Association for American Studies. I spent two weeks giving lectures on American women’s history at Chiba University and another week presenting public talks.
One of the questions that came up a lot concerned Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and, in 2003, senator from New York. Did I think she would run for president?
I said I believed she would. But she wouldn’t win. Not that I didn’t want to see Clinton in the White House, but because enough other American voters would cast their ballots against her. I said I didn’t think there would be a woman president of the United States in my lifetime. Misogyny runs too deep.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton made her first run for the presidency but ultimately failed to secure the nomination from the Democratic Party. It went to Barack Obama, who became the country’s first black president and served two terms. Clinton supported Obama during his campaign and his presidency. She served as his secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
Three years later, the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton as its candidate for president. She was eminently qualified, by virtue of her law degree and legal career and her long years of public service. On the campaign trail, she demonstrated a preference for slacks and matching blazers, a sartorial choice that launched a Pantsuit Nation of activist, liberal women.
The Republican Party selected a businessman and television reality program host who never held office. He claimed early in his campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
For me, the choice was clear from the beginning. As election day 2016 came closer, though, I grew uneasy. Misogyny has deep roots. It’s tenacious. I wasn’t sure Hillary Clinton could overcome that, despite her accomplishments. I tried to take comfort from the many pollsters who predicted a clear victory for her. I tried to hope just a little bit.
On election morning, I pulled on my red Western boots. I decided it was a day for hope and power. “I’m With Her” and “Stronger Together” were my slogans for the day. I started to imagine walking into my women’s history class the next morning, once again wearing the red boots, to talk with students about this history-making moment.
As more of the election results came in that night, I thought back to those discussions in Japan. I realized my initial beliefs had been correct. I took off my boots, tucked them in the back of the closet, and went to bed.
The next morning, I learned I’d been right–and wrong. Hillary Clinton won nearly 66 million votes, almost 3 million more than her opponent. So I’d been wrong about the popular vote, which clearly went to Clinton. But the electoral college swung the other way, and the election went to her Republican challenger.
Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech the day after the election. “Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted,” she said. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
The red Western boots were not exiled for the next four years. I took them out of the closet many time to wear on special occasions, including elections.
In 2020, because of the pandemic, I opted to vote by mail rather than in person. I wore my slippers instead of the red boots when I filled out the ballot. There was a bright spot. This time, finally, a woman’s name was on it once again: Kamala Harris, senator from California. It was groundbreaking not because the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, chose a woman as his vice presidential running mate, but because Harris is a woman of color.
Again, I allowed myself a bit of optimism but prepared for a difficult election season.
What followed was unprecedented. The Biden-Harris ticket won a clear victory, and the sitting president encouraged his supporters to contest the election results. A deadly, failed insurrection occurred at the Capitol. But today, two weeks later, the inauguration took place on schedule. Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to sit on the court, swore in Kamala Harris as vice president.
Harris’s stunning purple dress and coat ensemble came from black designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson. The color choice signals bipartisan support–a blending of Republican red and Democratic blue. It also has historical significance. It is a nod to women’s suffragists who adopted purple as one of their official colors more than a hundred years ago, and it’s an homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. The outfit looks like power.
It was a historic day. A great day for the red boots, even if I could only wear them around the house.
My nonfiction reading for 2020 was typical in terms of amount–too many to count. A lot of them were assigned for book reviews so I can’t include any of those in my best-of list. The other chunk was research reading for my (still) book-in-progress about Dale Evans.
The books for research reading usually don’t make it to my year-end list because I like to keep my work reading separate from my leisure reading. (The same goes for the book review books.) But I made an exception for a book I picked up because I thought it might provide some helpful background on women in 1940s-1950s Hollywood. It did, to a certain degree, but The Lady From the Black Lagoon turned out to be much more than that. Mallory O’Meara brilliantly writes about Milicent Patrick, an animator at Disney who went on to create one of the most iconic movie monsters. I kept thinking about the book, and about the many women ignored despite their achievements, long after I turned the final page.
O’Meara’s book did well, garnering reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a great example of how the life of an “unknown” woman can be made into a fascinating story.
I also loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir about growing up in New Orleans that’s infused with history and current events.
Broom’s debut was a New York Times bestseller, and it won the 2019 National Book Award. The writing is lovely, the story compelling.
My third favorite nonfiction book from 2020 was also a memoir, one first published in 1945 and quickly forgotten. Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jewish woman who opened a French bookstore in Berlin in the 1920s. Pushed out in the late 1930s, she spent years fleeing the Nazis.
Another “unknown” woman, another important story. There seems to be a theme here with books I like to read–and write.
Dale Evans is the most famous woman I’ve ever written about, though she’s much less well known today than she was in the mid-20th century. Many of my blog posts in 2021 will center on that writing and publication journey. Stay tuned.
2021 has finally arrived. When I woke up this morning, everything looked remarkably like it had the day before–the biggest clue that any changes that might happen won’t happen overnight. Still, fingers crossed for a really, really good new year.
My 2020 was unimpressive in terms of numbers of books read. Not counting the books I read for professional reviewing and the ones for research for my own current manuscript, the total was 46. That’s an all-time low for me. (Last year: 64) Of course, 2020 was a pretty strange year, and that strangeness had an impact on my reading, especially because I couldn’t access the library as much as usual. And moving (in-state, but still….) took up a big chunk of my spare time.
I reread several of my favorite books in 2020, mostly because I had them right in the house. I hadn’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a long time, and I was once again knocked sideways by its greatness. I revisited Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, still one of the best books I’ve ever encountered.
Of the new-to-me novels in 2020, here are the stand outs. I found the first four exceptional:
A week or so ago I scrolled through one of my streaming services, thinking I might get into the holiday spirit by watching a Hallmark-style movie. I read the descriptions of about a dozen and none really looked any better than the other. Then I saw this:
I remember watching this on television in the late 1970s. It’s kind of hard to believe now, but when it first aired in 1977, the movie on which it is based, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life, was nowhere near as well-known as it is today. In fact, Marlo Thomas’s remake probably played a big role in reviving interest in the original film, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore.
I’d been a big fan of Marlo Thomas’s sitcom, That Girl, which ran on ABC for five years, until 1971. The show had a feminist bent–her character, Ann Marie, was a single career woman with a boyfriend she ended up not marrying–that represented Thomas’s own interests in women’s issues. During the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s movement was active and vibrant. The Equal Rights Amendment was a real possibility.
When That Girl ended, Marlo Thomas continued honing her acting skills, appearing on stage and in Hollywood films. In 1972 she released the now-classic album and book, Free To Be…You and Me that addressed issues of individuality and identity for boys and girls. She worked with the Ms. Foundation for Women. By about 1976, she had created two prime time television specials for ABC in 1973 and 1975 and was looking for a new project.
Marlo Thomas thought the time was right for a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a gender-role reversal. She would play Mary Bailey, the daughter who gives up her dreams of international travel and writing to stay home and run the family’s building and loan. She cast the personable, charming Wayne Rogers as George Hatch, her builder husband. Thomas convinced Orson Wells to play the evil Mr. Potter, and Cloris Leachman came on board as the kooky angel Clara.
It should have worked. It could have become a modern Christmas classic. But it didn’t.
As I watched it again, I realized the problem was historical. Marlo Thomas kept the same time period, 1920s-1940s, for her remake, but failed to consider what it would mean for a middle-class, white, married woman to take a position as the head of a local financial institution. It also didn’t help that Mary Bailey Hatch talked and dressed like a woman straight out of the late 1970s. The lines that Jimmy Stewart delivered so well as George Bailey sounded artificial coming from Mary Hatch, like she was reciting them because she had to. And her fashions were just so distractedly wrong.
If Marlo Thomas had set the story in her current time–in 1977–she may have felt freer to explore the gender issues she was clearly so interested in, to invent better, sharper dialogue more in keeping with a liberated woman. And she would have created a more compelling, complex heroine.
Though ABC ran the Marlo Thomas remake at least two more times, it was quickly overshadowed by rebroadcasts of the original. Lots of viewers concluded that It’s A Wonderful Life was much better. Thomas had a great idea and the time was indeed right. Her inattention to history sunk It Happened One Christmas.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m looking forward to watching Elf and A Christmas Story, which have recently become my two favorite Christmas movies. I may dip into White Christmas again, too.