Books · Colonisation · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

100 Years of Women Like Us

Cupcakes And KalashnikovsCupcakes And Kalashnikovs by Eleanor Mills
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Most of the world’s great newspapers were established in the middle of the nineteenth century – or even before. In America the New York Times was established in 1861, in Britain The Times started to thunder in 1785 with the Observer and Sunday Times with even the tabloids such as the News of the World and the People coming on stream by 1881…”

Am I being really churlish in pointing out that ‘America’ (meaning the USA, clearly) and Britain are not the world? Surely a collection of journalism in English will be inevitably confined to the English speaking world? Well, yes, I grant that, but the English-speaking world also includes formerly colonised places such as India (where English is no-one’s mother-tongue, but it is the official language) parts of the Caribbean, Canada, some African countries where English is a lingua-franca, Australia, Ireland and more. The first sentence is mismatched with the second in my opinion.

This ethnocentric prelude rather sets the tone for a collection of articles mostly drawn from British and US-based newspapers and magazines, mostly by middle class heterosexual cis white women. Again, I ought not to blame the editors for this; middle class white women’s voices are the ones that have been (grudgingly and gradually) welcomed into the white man media of the US/UK. The fact that this book has not particularly set out to look outside the mainstream is probably an unfair criticism, I just wish there were a little more acknowledgement of the wider world.

Mills has made some effort to provide voices on both sides of some issues such as abortion (India Knight sort-of-vs Alice Walker, whose
Right to Life
is unanswerably powerful) and to include black women writing about race – Audre Lorde and June Jordan, as well as Walker, contribute outstanding pieces. I see an aim for political balance: two articles by anarchist Emma Goldman are featured, as is Susan Sontag’s superb essay on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib,
Regarding the Torture of Others
. In opposition to this, there are lots of unremarkable conservative little pieces on all sorts of topics.

On gender, we have Jilly Cooper and Zelda Fitzgerald being repellantly regressive, and Erica Jong ending an essay The Post-feminist Woman – is she Perhaps More Oppressed than Ever? on the burden of having it all (from a position of overwhelming privilege – the proportion of women in similar situations must be miniscule) that does make some good points and contains a statement of great truth: “the basic structures of our society are hostile to women and children”, talking about the threat to ‘our kids’ from not getting enough parental care in the ‘post-feminist’ situation of the two-working-parent family. The final sentence is “What is at stake is nothing more and nothing less than the future of our kids.” What? I thought this article was about the oppression of women? Are we less human than our children then? Elsewhere, Jong’s portrait of Hilary Clinton, held to impossible standards and scapegoated for her husband’s transgressions, is the best ‘celebrity’ piece in this collection. Perhaps most depressingly, there is not a single mention of LGBTQ issues.

Feminism makes rather a mild showing. Djuna Barnes’ description of being force-fed is excruciating and unassailable, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s piece on the need for suffragettes to call for universal suffrage, rather than parity for women with men, who had to meet property criteria to vote speaks, reveals some of the roots of the second wave. Other attacks on the patriarchy are pretty tame. Perhaps it’s instructive that the contribution from radical feminist Andrea Dworkin is uncontroversial: about the agony she suffered from arthritis. Rose George’s piece on gang rape is shocking and vital reading, and Judy Syfers satirical classic
Why I want a Wife
still strikes a chord. Crystal Eastman’s 1927 essay on her inspiring mother is very moving, and Jill Tweedie’s essay on the ‘right to be ugly’ seems progressive for 1970.

There are some excellent reports on war and justice issues. Martha Gellhorn’s report from Dachau is incredible, and her piece on witnessing a lynching Justice at Night, despite the ridiculous title, is equally affecting. Anne Tyler stands out stylistically with a really original piece on local government corruption. I’ll look out for her work in future.

Another person who redeems this book somewhat is Angela Carter, who is mercifully featured twice. The first piece of hers felt like reaching an island after a long swim through the exceptionally white, wealthy and western ‘Home and Family’ section. At last a woman conscious of her privilege, aware of her oppression, and fired with both righteous anger at injustice and passionate empathy for others! I vowed to read every word she ever wrote.

What with Carter, Lorde, Gellhorn, Walker and other greats, I might have given this book four stars, despite its failings, if it weren’t for the final section ‘Interviews and Icons’, which contains every bigoted ism I can think of, and ends with Julie Burchill confessing her secret admiration for Margaret Thatcher, which is every bit as vomit-inducing as it sounds.

I only hope that the next hundred years’ women writers are a little more diverse

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