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It was, of course, all about the money.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said “You can’t do that, honey, you’re a girl” to be paying enough attention to the women’s rights movement. So it’s lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she’s wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn’t wear pants.

The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.

writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.

After the war [WWII], the economy didn’t just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world’s goods in the mid-’50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world’s population…In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women…That year [1966] President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns…The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women’s liberation.

and

The nation’s ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.

I can say, wow, I didn’t know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls’ first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.

and

Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s–which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.

And still are. The ability to have children in one’s own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it’s never more clearly explained than in this book.

One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women’s rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly

readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women’s movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. “But she would never repeat that in public,” Morgan said.

Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy I’ve yet seen:

…the failure of her candidacy [Palin’s] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude…Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us,” a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.

A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins’ America’s Women. Both highly recommended.

Click here to read all my Goodreads reviews

Old Sam and Murray Morgan

This is one of those happy instances of the law of unintended writing consequences.

On page 271 of Though Not Dead, Old Sam tells Pappardelle, “I served in the Aleutians during the war. There wasn’t a lot to do, so every now and then to keep the enlisted out of trouble the brass would get the big idea to have educational talks by anyone they could sucker out of the ranks…One night this Signal Corps guy from Tacoma — what was his name? Morgan, that was it. Anyway, Morgan was some kind of writer or professor or something in real life and he gave us a talk about how the last shot fired in the American Civil War was fired in the Aleutians.

Murray Morgan was a real person, and lo and behold, I log on to my website one morning to find this message from Murray Morgan’s daughter, Lane:

A friend just told me that my dad, Murray Morgan, is a minor character (or a referenced person) person in Though Not Dead. Very cool. He was indeed in the ASC in the Aleutians at the same time as Dashiell Hammett. I look forward to reading the book and wish Murray were still around to see the reference.

It turns out Morgan wrote long letters home from the Aleutians and Lane has been posting them on line here.

This guy just lived and breathed good writing. I met him through his book, Confederate Raider in the North Pacific, which tells the story of the last shot fired in the Civil War, fired, yes, by Confederate Navy Captain James Waddell who was disrupting the enemy’s economy by sinking Yankee whaling ships in the North Pacific. It is full of delightful prose and terrific little word pictures of the characters involved. One example from page 14:

Richard Wright was not the type of man usually involved in conspiracy. A Liverpool merchant, prosperous and proud of his family, he had a burgher’s respect for safety and six per cent.

Another from page 26:

Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain, was more a precision instrument than a human being. A brilliant, polished New Englander, the son and grandson of presidents, compressed to the hardness of a diamond by the accumulated weight of family tradition, he served as the cutting edge of American diplomacy.

And this about Captain Waddell from page 38:

Waddell was startled by the dissension. A romantic, a believer in the glory of war, he could not understand men who were untempted by adventure.

There are many more similarly wonderful prose portraits, especially of Waddell and his crew, who are parfit, gentil knyghts without sacrificing any attention to their mission, which they fulfill to admiration while murdering no man nor outraging any woman. One of my favorite stories is the whaler which is under the command of the captain’s wife, the captain having died on the voyage. She has preserved his body in a barrel of whiskey so she can take him home and bury him in the family plot. Waddell sinks her ship, but he sees the lady and her pickled husband both landed safely on shore afterward. Marvelous stuff.

Due to what I’m beginning to believe is the almost suicidal shortsightedness of American publishing, Morgan’s book is no longer in print, but fear not because there are used copies galore available on Bookfinder.com. This is the best book written on this subject, and it is well worth the extra effort to acquire. Accept no substitute.

Book porn.

For me, anyway. You judge for yourself.

Head of Zeus (my British publisher) assistant editor Sophie writes

Attached is our final jacket for Silk and Song. The foil detail is going to look extraordinary!

 

HoZ Silk and Song cover-front

I’ll be signing it in person at the Poisoned Pen at 2pm on Saturday, December 2nd.

Click here to pre-order your copy now.

 

Lost City of the Monkey God out in pb tomorrow

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If you have not yet read this book, obviously I haven’t beaten you over the head with it hard enough. Author and journalist Douglas Preston talks his way into an expedition to Honduras to find a fabled lost city, and finds a lot more than he bargained for. Some excerpts from my LARB review:

Fifteen years after his first failed overland expedition to find the White City, Elkins read about the use of lidar by archaeologists, a new technology that uses lasers the way sonar uses sound waves. Elkins, with the help of documentary filmmaker Bill Benenson, arranges for an airborne lidar survey of the least-visited corner of the Mosquitia jungle. The instrument, stabilized by a kind of top secret electronic gyroscope borrowed from the US military, pings lasers at the spaces between leaves to reflect back the features of the ground beneath them. The rain forest has a lot of leaves, but the lidar confounds even that dense canopy and discovers the Lost City (and maybe two lost cities) just three days into the mapping process.

I could see Sartori’s spiral-bound notebook lying open next to the laptop. In keeping with the methodical scientist he was, he had been jotting daily notes on his work. But underneath the entry for May 5, he had written two words only:

HOLY SHIT!

T1 (the expedition’s name for the location of their discovery, still a closely held secret for fear of looting) hosts an ecosystem that will try its best to kill you six different ways in the first 60 seconds after you step down from the helo, but that first step is like taking a time machine back to the Cretaceous Period.

All of it is now under threat from Honduran ranchers clear-cutting the forest to create new grazing land for their livestock. From the air Preston sees:

vast areas of the mountainsides had been cleared, even on slopes of forty to fifty degrees […] I could see that the clearing was not for timbering; it appeared that few if any trees had been taken out, and were left lying on the ground to dry out and be burned, as evidenced by the plumes of smoke rising everywhere. The ultimate goal, I could see, was to turn the land into grazing for cattle — which dotted even the steepest hillsides.

What has priority here? The old-growth forest hosting a uniquely untouched ecosystem teeming with jaguars and spider monkeys? The livelihoods and futures of the people living in the area now? Or the excavation, exploration, and documentation of Honduran history and culture going back half a millennia? The fer-de-lance, the steer, or the historian?

Read my review in full here.

And do your reading self a favor and order the book here. It’s my favorite book this year so far. Come on. Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt?