Susan Ware. Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xxiv + 344 pp. $25.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-04652-6.
Reviewed by Jennifer D. McDaid (Library of Virginia)
Published on H-SAWH (April, 1999)
Twentieth-Century Women's Lives
"There will be narratives of female lives," Carolyn G. Heilbrun asserts in Writing a Woman's Life, "only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men" (p. 47). For too long, women have been confined to anonymity largely because they were storyless. In Letter to the World, Susan Ware adds to the growing body of literature that tells women's stories, presenting biographical essays on individuals who she believes helped shape the twentieth century: Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Thompson, Margaret Mead, Katharine Hepburn, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Martha Graham, and Marian Anderson.
Ware uses her biographies to explore the changing lives of women in the modern era. While her subjects are larger-than-life, they faced challenges like their less famous sisters. Determined to make their mark in the world, these seven women built careers for themselves in politics, journalism, anthropology, acting, sports, dance, and music. Perhaps more importantly, in Ware's opinion, they influenced the way that the world around them saw women, and the way that women saw themselves. In the early years of the twentieth century, the options and opportunities open to women were changing. Susan Ware tells the stories of seven strong women who chose to be different and who, in the words of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, made "of their lives a Great Adventure" (p. vii).
Ware explains her search for subjects in the book's Introduction, entitled "Casting Call for the American Century." She actively scouted for independent characters, women who were "instantly recognizable" (p. xiii) because of their long careers and distinctive personal styles. She settled on a handful of representative women, ambitiously planning to weave their collective biographies around the theme of female achievement. Ware sought to answer two questions: How did popular culture create and disperse images of celebrity? And, how did this message of the new woman affect women's experiences in the twentieth century?
Ware's selected subjects were all born within a twenty-seven-year period (1884-1911), and they all had their greatest influence beginning in the 1930s and ending in the 1960s. Unlike many women who were born earlier, they were not bound to domestic life, exploring instead opportunities in education and the professions. In the early years of the twentieth century, for the first time, women could begin to lead lives in the public sphere, winning attention and recognition for their accomplishments. Each of Ware's seven women consciously packaged herself to succeed, crafting a public persona that was at once attractive and marketable. (Their private lives, however, were often distinctly unconventional.) All had long and successful careers, leading Ware to argue that independent roles for women were widely accepted in popular culture during the mid-twentieth century.
Despite their fame, Ware maintains, these women faced familiar struggles. They shared common concerns with many of their peers: finding meaningful work, attaining financial independence, balancing (or more often choosing between) work and family, and facing the challenges of growing old. Most made their public lives their top priority, but all refused, at one time or another, to distance themselves from the expectations of domesticity. In private, their lives differed considerably, although all did marry (some more than once): four had loving relationships with other women, two as single women had long-term relationships with married men, and five never had children. Six out of the seven kept their names when they married. Despite this, as a group these women did not publicly align themselves with feminism (with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt). Instead, Ware argues, they led by example, vicariously encouraging women to change and take chances as the twentieth century progressed.
Ware devotes a chapter to each woman, writing thumbnail biographies peppered with quotes by and about her subjects. She also handily dismisses some widely-held misconceptions. Despite criticism of her personal style and looks, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was not camera-shy. At five feet eleven inches tall, she usually towered over other women (and some men) in photographs. "If you haven't any chin and your front teeth stick out," she explained to journalist Lorena Hickok, "it's going to show on a camera plate" (p. 5). Despite her self-deprecation, Roosevelt was one of the world's most photographed women. One eighteen-year-old factory worker from Tennessee summed up her enduring appeal: "Say, she's swell. Why, I'm not ashamed of being a girl any more (p. 5)." Roosevelt's contemporary, globe-trotting journalist Dorothy Thompson, covered revolutions and the rise of Hitler--although not (as she once claimed) in an evening gown and high heels.
The accomplishments of Ware's women were many and varied. In 1925, at age twenty-four, anthropologist Margaret Mead embarked on her fieldwork in American Samoa. Pants-wearing actress Katharine Hepburn survived in Hollywood despite her disdain for glamour and its trappings. "I have not lived as a woman," she wrote. "I have lived as a man. I've done what I damn well wanted to and I've made enough money to support myself and I ain't afraid of being alone" (p. 127). Olympic track-and-field medalist and golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias blazed the trail for women in athletics. She refused to name a favorite sport for reporters, who once asked her if there was anything she didn't play. She retorted, "Yeah, dolls (p. 169)." By showcasing the strength of the female body, as well as its beauty and grace, Martha Graham revolutionized the world of modern dance. Freed from toe shoes and tutus, Graham and her dancers took the stage in leotards designed to show the body and highlight, not hide, physical effort. Contralto Marian Anderson's stage presence and quiet dignity broke down barriers of a different kind. Ware's last subject is memorably linked to her first: in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall because of her skin color, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group and helped engineer an open-air recital at the Lincoln Memorial. Martha Graham tried to convince her mother to resign from the DAR at the time, but failed. "They give such nice parties," Jane Beers Graham explained (p. 267).
Ware writes with zest and style, but she is somewhat hampered by her premise. Each of her subjects has been written about before (often extensively), so chapter-length treatments reduce these monumentally important women's lives to snapshots rather than portraits. While Ware's seven women were national figures, most of them had distinctly northern origins--three were born in Pennsylvania, two in New York, one in Connecticut, and one (Babe Didrikson Zaharias) in Texas--leaving the reader to wonder about southern women and their accomplishments in the twentieth century. Ware's biographies are tantalizing, but not completely satisfying. With their appetites whetted by Letter to the World, readers may want to browse through Ware's notes and delve into Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 1,1884-1933 (1992), vol. 2, 1933-1938 (1999); Peter Kurth, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson (1990); Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (1972); Katharine Hepburn, Me: Stories of My Life (1991); Susan E. Cayleff, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1995); Martha Graham, Blood Memory (1991); and Marian Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning; An Autobiography (1956; reprint, 1992). Susan Ware reintroduces the reader to seven fascinating pioneers, but only begins to address the history of twentieth-century women and what we can learn from and about them.
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Jennifer D. McDaid. Review of Ware, Susan, Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century.
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