- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006


Edited by Eleanor Mills and Kira Cochrane

Carroll & Graf, $14.95,

400 pages


This book traces how far women have come over the past century, both sociologically and psychologically, and should be required reading for female teenagers who take certain privileges for granted.

It is a remarkable collection of writing by women journalists, edited by Eleanor Mills (editor of the London Sunday Times’ News Review) and Kira Cochrane. It is journalism that reads like literature and takes the reader from the cold, searing prose of Martha Gellhorn on the horrors of the Dachau death camp of World War II, to how Christina Lamb covers the 21st-century world for the Sunday Times while struggling with the mother’s guilt that comes from being apart from her two-year-old son.

These writings roam the emotional as well as the demographic spectrum. A woman like Marie Colvig, an English reporter who lost an eye in her coverage of war, contributes a profile of Yasser Arafat — gripping because of its insight into the oddly touching banality of the man. Daphne DuMaurier, the bestselling author of “Rebecca,” writes a poignant little essay on the difficulty of writing letters from the home front to men in World War II who may not live to read such comforting vignettes of domestic life.

What matters about these articles is that they portray the slow development of an equality now assumed by most young women confidently stepping forth into the world. There is no suggestion that the barriers have all fallen or that the corporate glass ceiling has been shattered. But the discrimination and bigotry of the past have been replaced by the equally taxing problem of what women should do with it all when they have it all.

There emerges a vivid literary panorama that includes Marjorie Kinning Rawlings’ defense of killing blackbirds to make pie as part of the joy of cooking, Ruth Picardie’s grim account of coping with breast cancer and India Knight’s deeply rooted anger at abortion.

Many of the writers featured are European, and they display a capacity to write with an oddly effective and dispassionate pragmatism about death and cruelty. This pragmatism is perhaps best illustrated by Rebecca West’s magnificent account of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and it also emerges in Nicci Gerard’s bleakly moving portrayal of the murder of two little girls. “Forever ten,” is how she succinctly sums up their death at the hands of a sadistic killer.

The rueful humor of “Sex and the City” illuminates the excerpt from Helen Fielding’s “Diary of Bridget Jones,” which oddly echoes a lighthearted article from the 1960s in which Katharine Whitehorn wrote of the plight of women who constantly find themselves overwhelmed by the simple problems of everyday life.

Erica Jong worries about the troubles of the post-feminist generation, the “isolation in single parent households,” the price paid for the shrinking family unit, the loss of a more matriarchal society in which generations were inter-dependent, and the cost to children deprived of familial security.

One of the most moving pieces in the collection is Katherine Anne Porter’s profile of Jacqueline Kennedy, whom she admitted she had seen personally only twice, and then in her glittering days as the First Lady of the New Frontier. Unlike many who claimed an intimacy that allowed them to analyze the complicated woman who was Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Porter writes as a perceptive onlooker who watched the public progress of the Kennedeys as they moved toward the tragedy of November 1963 — what Porter calls “the fiercely shattering years when she and her husband raced like twin rockets toward their blinding personal disaster that involved the world.”

She pinpoints the change in the widowed First Lady as she stood at the funeral of her husband — “the look in her eyes of a full knowledge of evil … a dawning anger, a total anguish of desolation, yet proud, severe, implacable.”

Porter suggested that it was Jacqueline Kennedy’s lasting contribution to American history that no one who witnessed her husband’s dramatic yet dignified funeral would say that the United States could not fulfill the demands of the ceremonies of state.

“We have been well taught,” she asserted.

Appropriately enough, Joan Didion champions painter Georgia O’Keefe as an icon of feminist change. As she puts it, “Some women fight and others do not. She (O’Keefe) seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.”

Ms. Didion quotes O’Keefe’s unforgettable story of how the beginnings of her painting career came from walks she and her sister took to watch the evening star come out in Texas.

“I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten water colors were made from that star.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.



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