Avital Bloch, Lauri Umanski, eds. Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s. New York: New York University Press, 2005. viii + 342 pp. $66.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-9909-3; $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8147-9910-9.
Reviewed by Marian B. Mollin (Department of History, Virginia Tech)
Published on H-1960s (September, 2005)
Putting Women at the Center
Most histories of the 1960s have pushed women to the margins or rendered them visible only within the realm of female identity politics: as concerned mothers, for example, fighting to protect their children from the horrors of nuclear war or the specter of conscription, or as strident feminists working to advance women's rights and opportunities. With the exception of the growing body of literature chronicling women's experiences in the civil rights movement, studies about women who worked alongside men within the social, political, and cultural tumult of the time remain few and far between. As one of these rare examples of studies that emphasize women without focusing on maternalism or feminism, Avital Bloch's and Lauri Umansky's edited collection, Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, presents a welcome addition to the scholarship on this important decade.
Impossible to Hold highlights women's crucial contributions to the changing cultural norms and experiences of the 1960s through sixteen essays whose subjects include famous figures from mainstream popular culture, as well as equally powerful but less well-known women who stood at the cutting edge of countercultural experimentation. From Billy Jean King, Diana Ross, and Joan Baez to Anne Waldman, Pearl Primus, and Barbara Deming, the female producers of culture chronicled in this book embraced a range of social and political perspectives as well as cultural pursuits. Music, sports, poetry, and dance are all fair game in this collective effort to understand women's impact on the popular imagination and on women's roles in society at large. What emerges is a compelling portrait of women who used the mechanisms of culture to build community and influence politics, all the while operating within highly gendered frameworks of cultural expression.
Bloch and Umansky bring these essays into focus by organizing them according to four descriptive categories. The first group, "Break," highlights the experiences of women who worked to break into a series of male-dominated fields and disciplines. Here we learn about women such as Jerrie Cobb, who struggled to achieve a place for women within the highly masculinized professional culture of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although today female astronauts appear regularly on the roster of space shuttle and space station participants, as historian Margaret Weitekamp explains, in the early 1960s, a female "astronautrix" like Cobb was treated with derision, as an unwelcome threat to the masculinity of male astronauts and officers. In ways that strikingly paralleled the experiences of female flyer Amelia Earhart a generation before, Cobb watched with dismay as the aerospace field become institutionalized and masculinized, but continued to believe that individual female accomplishment could pave the way for women's advancement in outer space.
The difficulties that women faced overcoming sexual stereotypes and gendered constraints were formidable but not impossible to surmount. Essays by Susana Torre and Zina Peterson explain how architect Mary Otis Stevens and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin successfully pushed their way into male-dominated realms, although, like Cobb, they did so without the benefit of an organized feminist movement. James Pipkin's study of female athletes Lynda Huey and Billie Jean King similarly notes how they entered the male-dominated field of professional sports essentially on their own, only to find themselves fighting to undermine the tyranny of the "female-athlete dichotomy" (p. 48). Track sprinter Lynda Huey did this by acting almost like a man, exhibiting a degree of machismo and sexual assertiveness that allowed her to overcome traditional stereotypes. Tennis star Billie Jean King, on the other hand, battled against charges of "unladylike" behavior as she made a career for herself as an active and aggressive player. For all of these women, blatant sexism posed serious obstacles, but so did a more subtle but equally powerful masculinized cultural framework.
The second section of the book explores the experiences of women who acted as cultural "bridges" connecting the innovations of the 1960s with earlier eras of artistic exploration. In contrast to the women described in "Break," who emphasized individual accomplishment as the route to female influence, "Bridge" women leaned toward community in their cultural endeavors. Julie Foulkes' portrait of dancers Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham places women at the center of the history of the Black Arts movement, a cultural movement that shared the same masculinist thrust as its political sibling of the 1960s, the Black Power struggle. By focusing on Primus and Dunham and their pioneering efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to bring African dance performance to audiences in the United States and Europe, Foulkes highlights how female artists used cultural expression to build community and combat racial oppression. At the same time, Foulkes uses these women's stories and their commitment to a "universalist" cultural ethos to rethink the ideological trajectory of a movement long associated with racial exclusivity (p. 82).
In similar fashion, Roxanne Hamilton's fascinating study of Beat poet Anne Waldman chronicles one woman's impressive effort to build a highly inclusive and innovative cultural community within the avant-garde poetry scene centered in New York City's East Village and Lower East Side. Like those of Primus and Dunham, Waldman's story belies the stereotypical myth of a purely phallocentric Beat generation. The poetry parties that she and her husband hosted at their apartment and the successful Poetry Project she directed out of St. Mark's Church place her at the front and center of any discussion of New York City's vibrant Beat culture. Waldman's efforts to move poetry into a community-oriented art form, rather than an individualistic pursuit, likewise posits another framework for understanding the social potential of cultural experimentation.
As these essays suggest, despite making great headway in a cultural world generally considered closed to women, "Bridge" and "Break" women faced the difficult predicament of straddling two worlds, one pre-feminist and the other influenced by the nascent women's liberation struggle. Essays on Joan Baez and Diana Ross reinforce this point by emphasizing these two women's contradictory cultural contributions as celebrity music stars. Baez and Ross made it big by embracing aspects of womanhood that emphasized beauty, delicacy, and submission, even as they exhibited a degree of drive and ambition that was anything but stereotypically feminine. In the process, these women made names for themselves, but their appeal to a mass audience never challenged the highly masculinized framework that defined the workings of the music industry.
Not until the third and fourth sections of the book do we encounter women who openly confronted barriers to female advancement and made strong connections between women's liberationist thought and cultural expression. Here we get a sense of how a clearly articulated feminist political consciousness could challenge the characteristics of culture itself, as the vital link between creative expression and power politics becomes clear. Through the stories of performance-artist and musician Yoko Ono, poet Sonia Sanchez, movie star Jane Fonda, Black Arts dancer Dianne McIntyre, and visual artist Judy Chicago, we discover significant breakthroughs in the effort to create what writer Michelle Nzadi Keita calls "ideology grounded in expression" (p. 281).
For Sister Anita Caspary of the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious order, expressing her ideology meant opposing traditionalist Catholic leaders who fought against the innovations promoted by the religious reforms of the 1963 Second Vatican Council. Susan Maloney describes how, due to increasingly rigid demands from the church's male hierarchy, Caspary's order initiated a dramatic display of female self-determination by leaving the Catholic Church and forming a modern ecumenical religious community that embraced women and men as equals. While Caspary used new theological tenets, Yoko Ono used music in her quest to promote a culture of gender equality in the face of rampant male chauvinism. Ono found herself publicly attacked for not conforming to the subservient, blank, bland and blonde stereotype of a male rock-and-roller's female partner. Nevertheless, as scholar Tamara Levitz asserts, Ono used her romantic and artistic partnership with Beatles star John Lennon, and particularly their co-produced album, Two Virgins, "to challenge societal norms and aesthetic standards" (p. 218).
Visual artist Judy Chicago went beyond challenging cultural mores to fomenting an explicitly liberationist vision of womanhood through her shows and installations. In Gail Levin's account of Chicago's artistic trajectory, her work, in projects such as "Womanhouse" and "The Dinner Party," simultaneously called attention to the challenges that female artists faced within the male-dominated art world and presented images and pieces that celebrated the feminist struggle. Sonia Sanchez and Dianne McIntyre displayed a similar militancy in their respective contributions to poetry and dance, effectively merging their feminist visions with the black struggle for justice. The work of singer-songwriter Carole King, in contrast, was decidedly less militant in its tone and its aims. Nevertheless, as historian Judy Kutulas explains, hit albums such as Tapestry gave voice to a new paradigm of "ideal" womanhood, rooted in the same search for authenticity that motivated Chicago, Sanchez, McIntyre, and the many other women analyzed in this book.
This volume's title, Impossible to Hold, taken from a verse of the title song of King's Tapestry album, signifies the editors' emphasis on the diverse nature of women's contributions to American culture in the 1960s. Nevertheless, these essays suggest that the artists they describe fit within a cohesive analytical framework. By emphasizing community, inclusivity, and the political dimensions of cultural change, the women in this volume forged and fostered an important set of alternatives to the dominant culture, even as they worked within predominately male and masculinized social and cultural environments. As a result, these artists helped shift the mixed-gender "mainstream" by shaping countercultural trends and visions. They may have been "impossible" to restrain, but the contributions they made to American culture and life were lasting and concrete.
. On the almost total marginalization of women in histories of the 1960s, see, as examples, Van Gosse, Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (New York: Verso, 1993); James Tracy, Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); James Miller, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987); and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987). On women as activists for the cause of identity politics, see Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (New York: Viking, 2000). On women in the civil rights movement, see Belinda Robnett, How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, eds., Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publ., 1990); Constance Curry, Joan Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, and Casey Hayden, Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000); Cynthia Griggs Fleming, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998).
. Susan Ware, Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (New York: Norton, 1993).
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Marian B. Mollin. Review of Bloch, Avital; Umanski, Lauri, eds., Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s.
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