The American History of an Idea
By Lillian Faderman
Illustrated. 571 pages. Yale University Press. $32.50.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
This is the general sentiment evoked by Lillian Faderman’s “Woman: The American History of an Idea”, an ambitious attempt to describe nothing less than the evolution of the condition of women in this country over the past four centuries. “Woman” is an exhaustive and finely written research, with over 100 pages of endnotes. Her bold red-orange back would look lovely tucked next to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk-turned-bestseller “We Should All Be Feminists” and Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” or for that matter “Woman : An Intimate Geography”. by Natalie Angier.
This “woman” is dense with people and events, covering everything from Puritan poets to the pill to Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head; featuring reformers, revolutionaries and reactionaries both famous and obscure. But it doesn’t really sink into the psyche as one might expect, given that Faderman is one of the most prominent LGBTQ scholars of our time – acknowledging that few people were allowed to exist in the past. It’s a kind of Gyncyclopedia Britannica in a Wiki, a delicate world of identity politics: impressive but not essential.
Faderman’s most heralded works, “Surpassing the Love of Men” (1981) and (1999), are the foundations of lesbian history. A professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, she has written numerous other books, the most recent of which is a slender biography of gay rights leader Harvey Milk. Her memoir “Naked in the Promised Land” (2003), reissued two years ago with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado, is captivating. Faderman even wrote a memoir about his mother. Some of us need to be reminded call our mothers.
“Woman” starts out strong, with a tale of “pachucas,” the rebellious, boldly dressed Mexican American girls who were Faderman’s middle school classmates in the 1950s, often forced to go to charm school or ” juvi”, and with whom she sympathizes, aware that her own sexuality makes her outraged: “a fugitive from the ideal”. The pachucas return in a later chapter as one of many groups to flout the established norm, including roller derby skaters, flappers, riot grrrls, hatchet-wielding temperance activists, Chinese suffragettes -Americans in feathered tricorns and, to my surprise, hoboes, “mooching” in army breeches. “For thousands of women, the Depression was strangely liberating,” writes Faderman. “They were poor and footless, and they found a new way to snub the conventions of how a woman should live.” Given the scale of his project, however, we only visit each of these fascinating subcultures for a short time.