Book Club: Bad Girls Go Everywhere

jennifer-scanlon-bad-girls-go-everywhereThis feature has been missing from my blog lately because in March, I missed the meeting but read the book (The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel).  This was a great read for women’s history month.  Koppel found the said diary in a dumpster outside her apartment and has created a very engaging reconstruction of the life of a young Jewish teenage girl in Manhattan during the 1920s.  Florence Wolfson’s life was way more glamorous than the typical teenager, and one wonders whether she embellishes on some of her escapades.   I was especially intrigued by Florence’s discussion of intense female friendships and even sexual relationships at her all-female high school — this was a time when sexologists were starting to actively discourage these relationships but her school seemed to be tolerant (at least the girls weren’t getting pregnant).  Wolfson’s infatuation with Eva La Gallienne was fascinating too.  As a young woman, Wolfson wrote “feminist tinged” articles for various women’s magazines. She even wrote an unpublished book in the 1930s called, “Are Husbands Necessary?” which if printed would have been a nice forerunner to Sex and the Single Girl.

The next meeting, in May, I  made the meeting but didn’t finish the book (When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin).  So, since I didn’t finish it  I’ll skip a review.

The selection for June was Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon, which was a nice complement to the Red Leather Diary.  Even though I picked the book, I was somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy reading about Brown because I had grown up thinking of Cosmopolitan as very background when it came to women’s issues. I didn’t know anything about Brown’s hardscrabble childhood in Arkansas (Scanlon compares her to the main character in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) nor did I really appreciate the ways she broke ground for women in publishing during the early 1960s (basically the era covered by Mad Men).  Scanlon argues that Brown was a model of “pragmatic feminism” that was more appealing to working-class women than the elitist liberal feminism espoused by Betty Friedan.  I think Scanlon is a bit unfair to both Friedan and Gloria Steinem, though. I understand her need to defend her subject, and even Scanlon says Brown as a mass of contradictions (was pro choice but still focused on how women should use their sex appeal to get male economic support).  The book does get a bit repetitive towards the end. Still, I think Scanlon did a fine job of combining good scholarship and engaging writing — in other words, Cosmo girls who want to learn more about Brown won’t be bored with academic jargon.

My book club members’ reactions were even more fascinating. I’m the youngest in the group — most are in their 50s and 60s.  So, they have first hand knowledge of Friedan, Steinem, and Brown.  Two of the members were in the same consciousness-raising group in the 1970s and were strongly influenced by Friedan (these are women who were working in minimum wage jobs — so they were “working-class” by Scanlon’s definition). Another had been at Berkeley in the late 1960s, criticized feminism as too white and middle-class (although white herself), but eventually “got it.”

As the youngest member, my first memory of The Feminine Mystique comes from the “All in the Family” episode where Gloria discovers women’s lib and gives her mother, Edith a copy of the book (which Edith hides under the sofa when she hears Archie coming).   And then there’s Maude, the spin-off from that show.  I remember finding it funny but because I was in elementary school at the time, much of it went right over my head.

All these memories are well timed, since right now I’m working on my comments for the biennial conference for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth at UC Berkeley next week.  One of the papers is one “Little Women’s Libbers” — I wish I had known there were others like me in the 1970s.

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