The American Historian

Reviews

John C. Kennedy, Heather Munro Prescott, Sarah B. Rowley

A Late Encounter with the Civil War.

Michael Kreyling

University of Georgia Press, 2013.

Reviewed by John C. Kennedy

How Americans remember and have remembered the Civil War has dramatically changed over the last hundred years. In A Late Encounter with the Civil War, Michael Kreyling examines the ways in which Americans have given meaning to the bloodiest event in the nation’s history. Kreyling analyzes the nature of Civil War collective memory, ritual, and anniversaries in individual chapters on the semicentennial, centennial, and sesquicentennial. The author argues that the three commemorations should be viewed in particular ways that reflected the cultural context of the era.

Blood and race dominated how Americans recollected the war during the semicentennial of 1911–1915. Building on David W. Blight’s thesis in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), Kreyling notes that white Americans’ anxiety about racial purity and white supremacy spurred sectional reconciliation. As Kreyling explains, the reunion along white racial lines was exemplified in the popular novel, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (1905), and D. W. Griffith’s film adaptation, Birth of a Nation (1915). During the early twentieth century, , white Americans placed increasingly less significance on slavery and emancipation as the cause and one of the most consequential outcomes of the war. Fifty years later, the turmoil of the civil rights revolution and the Cold War dominated the centennial. Continuing to view the war through the prism of white martial bravery became untenable because the civil rights movement made collective amnesia about the contentious issues related to the war impossible. At the same time, Civil War scholars such as Robert Penn Warren lamented that the commercialization of the centennial and preoccupation with civil rights meant that Americans were failing to comprehend the tragic meaning of the war. The sesquicentennial, Kreyling asserts, is fundamentally different from its two predecessors because we are more concerned today with using the war’s meaning to justify contemporary ideological views and political policies. This point is illustrated in the counterfactual novel (co-written by Newt Gingrich) Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant: The Final Victory (2005). The authors rewrite the war’s ending, with Grant and Lee agreeing to a conditional peace that makes a Radical Republican–driven experiment in multiracial democracy unnecessary. The novel implies that Reconstruction was needless and truly tragic and spawned a powerful and activist Federal government that has only hampered the nation’s greatness.

What is absent in Kreyling’s examination of the three national commemorations is any discussion of how and why Civil War memory is and always has been contested. Competing interpretations of the Civil War by African Americans, white Union veterans, and other white Unionists challenged the Lost Cause and reconciliationist narratives that downplayed hot-bottom issues such as slavery and secession in order to promote intersectional harmony. Despite this omission, the book does have significant strengths, particularly the final chapter on the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War. Kreyling’s scrutiny of the counterfactual and historical fiction on the conflict contributes to the burgeoning scholarship on the sesquicentennial by revealing how our present society commemorates America’s bloodiest conflict. A Late Encounter with the Civil War will certainly appeal to scholars specializing in Civil War memory. It will also be of interest to those who research popular culture and how cultural artifacts such as novels or films add to understanding the Civil War and the significance given to it by succeeding generations.

John C. Kennedy is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Purdue University. His research interests include post–Civil War women’s organizational history, Civil War veterans, and Civil War memory.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

>Jonathan Eig, W. W. Norton, 2014

Reviewed by Heather Munro Prescott

Jonathan Eig’s lively new book is also timely. The Birth of the Pill appears in the wake of last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court held that closely held corporations—those with more than half of their stock owned by fewer than five people—may choose to exclude contraception coverage from employees’ health insurance plans created under the Affordable Care Act if contraception violates the corporation’s religious beliefs. The Court’s ruling is a sober reminder that birth control remains a politically contentious issue in twenty-first-century American society.

The Birth of the Pill shows that the “four crusaders” who developed the first contraceptive pill—Margaret Sanger, Katherine Dexter McCormick, Gregory Goodwin Pincus, and John Rock—faced formidable cultural and scientific barriers in the mid-twentieth century. Despite the tireless work of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, contraception remained illegal in many states well into the 1960s. When biologist Pincus and gynecologist Rock began to implement Sanger’s vision of a magic pill that would put birth control completely in the hands of women, basic research on contraception was “dirty, disreputable work” that no pharmaceutical company, government agency, or non-governmental organization was willing to back (p. 4). In fact, work on contraceptive research was so controversial that even Planned Parenthood refused to support it or Sanger’s version of radical feminism. Fortunately, wealthy socialite and ardent feminist McCormick provided the critical funding for Pincus’s work at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts.

Although other historians have covered the development of the pill in great detail, Eig is the first to profile the “four crusaders” together in one book. Eig’s nuanced portrait of Sanger is especially admirable. Rather than seeing her as abandoning her earlier commitment to radical politics, as some historians have done, Eig shows that Sanger “grew more sophisticated in her radicalism” as time went on (p. 50). She realized that “a movement centered on sexual pleasure would never get the support it needed, but a movement focused on health might have a chance,” Eig writes. “It was a strategic accommodation, and a shrewd one” (p. 51). Eig also places Sanger’s support of eugenics in historical context. He points out that during Sanger’s time, “eugenics was faddish” and Sanger’s views on race “were complicated” (p. 52). She made sure that black women had access to the same care as white women by opening a clinic in Harlem. The Harlem clinic was staffed by a black doctor and supported by community leaders such as W. E. B. Dubois, who would later serve on the board of her Negro Project to bring birth control and social services to African Americans in the rural south. Through it all, Sanger remained committed to her core beliefs that women had a right to self-determination, that every child should be loved and cared for, and that women were entitled to enjoy sex as much as men.

Eig skillfully illustrates the contradictory attitudes towards sexuality in post–World War II American society, a period that encompassed the sexual liberalism of Hugh Hefner and the sexual conservatism of Americans who reacted in horror to the findings of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Eig shows that behind the veneer of respectable domesticity, a quiet revolution was taking place in America’s bedrooms. The declining age of marriage and the postwar baby boom hid the fact that women desired the same sexual pleasures as men without the stigma of unwed pregnancy. He also reminds us that initially the pill was aimed at helping strengthen the marital bond by allowing women to enjoy sex within marriage without the fear of multiple pregnancies. It was these shifting attitudes towards birth control, combined with advances in biological research and drug innovation, which finally provided a favorable climate for the four crusaders’ work.

This book is both informative and accessible to non-specialists. I have some reservations about recommending The Birth of the Pill for teaching purposes, however. The book’s length—over three hundred pages of text plus endnotes and bibliography—makes it challenging for undergraduates. In addition, Eig continually cuts back and forth between each crusader’s story line, which may make the book difficult for students to follow. The book begins in suspenseful fashion but runs out of momentum during the last fifty pages, when the story shifts from the four crusaders to the rather boring account of the pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle’s development of the first contraceptive pill and its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nevertheless, Eig is an engaging writer who makes the characters come alive. I highly recommend the book for the general reader interested in this fascinating history.

Heather Munro Prescott is Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. She has written extensively on the history of birth control and reproductive health issues, and she is the author of Morning After: A History of Emergency Contraception in the United States (2011).

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

She’s Beautiful Film Project, dir. by Mary Dore

2014

Reviewed by Sarah B. Rowley

The women’s liberation movement that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s was, like the new documentary on the subject, long overdue. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry charts the rise of women’s lib through interviews with participants and a wealth of video footage. As both well-known and less-famous activists from the era tell us, young women today will find it hard to imagine what life was like for women in the 1960s because the movement has had such wide-ranging successes. Yet lest we think that we are in for a simple triumphalist narrative, director Mary Dore bookends the film with a glimpse of the current obstacles that women still face. Documentaries about social movements must walk a difficult line: how to champion the triumphs of activists who worked hard for important social change without venturing into hagiography. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry expertly walks that line.

From the beginning, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry focuses on the impact of individual, ordinary women who found power through sharing their experiences and organizing for social change. Early in the film we see Mary Jean Collins, a Chicago activist, rifling through a box of political buttons and stacks of mimeographed organizational records. She holds up a button that reads “Uppity women unite.” Turning to the camera with a mischievous grin, the veteran feminist remarks, “We certainly did, didn’t we?” That kind of energy carries the film from start to finish. The activists interviewed gleefully describe the serious and less-serious methods of demonstration they employed to fight oppression. We learn a little about the National Organization for Women (NOW), which did so much vital legislative and legal work for women’s rights. But the activists remind us that women’s lib was all about making the personal political, as the famous slogan went. They describe how earth shattering consciousness-raising groups could be, as women shared their experiences and recognized common oppression. Thus emboldened, small groups of young women—many of whom had experience in the student, civil rights, or antiwar movements—embarked on satirical protests. WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) protested the “white male canon” at the University of Chicago by donning black hats and robes and casting a hex over the campus. Other women crowned a sheep as Miss America 1968 to protest the sexist spectacle, catcalled men on Wall Street to highlight what we now call street harassment, or performed feminist anthems with the Women’s Liberation Rock Band. Stunts though they were, these media-attracting actions expressed the sense that nothing short of a social revolution was necessary to overturn the patriarchal oppression women faced. The more attention they could gain through public demonstrations and street performances, the more women they could attract to what felt like an ever-growing and increasingly powerful army of revolutionaries.

Of course, women’s liberation was not all about publicity and public performance. Activists in the film recount programs that reached tangibly into women’s lives, such as the wildly popular 1970 educational booklet Women and Their Bodies, which later became the bestseller Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971). In an era in which the medical profession was overwhelmingly male, women often struggled to obtain prescriptions for the birth control pill (it was still illegal for unmarried women to use contraceptives in some states), and pharmaceutical companies had no obligation to disclose potentially dangerous side effects of the pill, the program to teach women about their own bodies and sexuality was not only empowering but also vital for women’s health. Once feminists learned more about their own physiology, they implemented the knowledge to help others. The activist Heather Booth talks about how she founded the Jane Abortion Service in Chicago, staffed by a group of women that, using information initially provided by one friendly doctor, taught each other how to perform abortion procedures and then safely helped thousands of women terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Beginning and ending with footage of the 2013 demonstrations at the Texas State Capitol against a restrictive antiabortion law and in favor of state senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster to stop it, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry frames reproductive rights as a continuing battle for feminists. One of the first frames of the film shows a protester holding a poster depicting a pregnant Rick Perry with text that reads, “If men could get pregnant, birth control pills would be available in gumball machines.” Reminiscent of an older illustration featuring a pregnant Richard Nixon, this visual overtly connects past and present feminist struggles. As fun and educational as the film is, it’s also a call to arms meant to inspire young people to undertake their own activism. The closing shots are of contemporary multiethnic young people marching through the streets and chanting “this is what a feminist looks like.” From start to finish, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry captures the energy—sometimes angry, sometimes joyful—of young feminists then and now.

It is appropriate that this Kickstarter-funded documentary so explicitly focuses on the democratic, grassroots spirit of the women’s liberation movement. Importantly, the film does not shy away from the internecine conflict that arose out of the irrepressible exuberance of the activists. Ideology was sometimes wielded too broadly, as when the members of one lesbian group declared that men, even male infants, would not be allowed in its headquarters. The film acknowledges conflict, addresses it, and moves on to the important stuff: what women’s lib managed to achieve. As Jo Freeman put it, “The women’s movement brought about a social revolution in this country. And while it was painful to be a part of that social revolution, it had to be done.”

also does not back away from divisions based on race, class, and sexuality within the movement. Women of color and lesbian women are interwoven into the narrative from the beginning. Puerto Rican and black women describe how painful and infuriating it was to experience misogyny within radical movements for racial justice and to feel alienated in some white feminist environments. Activists admit the reluctance of some feminists to engage fully with issues of sexuality and lesbianism; the “lavender menace” fear is not laid solely at Betty Friedan’s feet, as often is the case in retellings of the movement. Instead, we get a very real sense that those feminists who opposed homosexuality were ordinary people with ordinary hang-ups. What women managed to achieve despite, or maybe because of, their differences is the real story that Dore wants to tell. The movement comprised spontaneous, diverse, and passionate groups of women working from their own life experiences. The film acknowledges but quickly moves past the traditional liberal vs. radical/older vs. younger narrative of the second-wave feminist movement so common in the historiography of the movement. With activists such as Collins we see that there was never such a distinct line between the NOW set and the women’s libbers. But more to the point, the film’s focus on ordinary women makes those organizational distinctions seem less important. The radical experiments and public actions were part of a multi-pronged battle strategy against the forces of male supremacy—no more or less important than the legislative efforts of NOW.

This is the best film yet about the women’s movement, and it will be invaluable as a teaching resource. Whether instructors will want to show the entire film or use clips in their classes will be partly determined by how willing they are to screen an overtly pro-choice film in their classes. For women’s and gender studies teachers, the film is going to be extremely useful without much introduction; for historians, the film may require a bit more framing for students. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry covers the high points and critical issues of the movement in a way that sketches out an energetic picture of the everyday activists and the issues that drove their passion and determination. But the film leaves plenty of room for deeper investigation via primary source analysis in the classroom. Paired with a collection such as Rosalyn Baxandall’s and Linda Gordon’s Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (2000), this documentary will provide multiple ways for students and instructors to have rich discussions about feminism, social movements, the politics of anger, and radicalism in the late 1960s.

Sarah B. Rowley is a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. history at Indiana University whose dissertation explores the rise of abortion politics in the 1970s.