Thursday, February 6, 2014

The woman questions

This blog's theme is women. Who are they? What do they need? What happens when they have what they need? These are all very important topics that society at large brought up during the last century but failed to answer thoroughly. One of those most important people to bring up the woman question, with a small 'w,' as I don't remember what the Woman Question is, was Margaret Sanger, and her answer was: family limitation. Hell yeah, Margaret Sanger! We all know who she is, or if we don't, we should pretend we do and discreetly google her before continuing, but have we gone to the source? Margaret Sanger wrote several books, stacks of lectures, and reams of pamphlets over her lifetime. I started her autobiography last year and took a break, so that's on the back burner, but I read and finished Woman and the New Race, which is available on Librivox and not excruciatingly long. Woman and the New Race is a summation of Mrs. Sanger's arguments for the legality of birth control and birth control information, and can be read by the 1920's lay person and policymaker alike. There are only two flaws in this book: One is that Mrs. Sanger's ideas have succeeded so well that you already know the facts Woman and the New Race presents from popular medical texts, gynecological advisings, and high school sex ed courses. The other flaw is that Woman and the New Race is a little bit racist. Mrs. Sanger begins the book with a chronicle of societys' use of abortion and infantacide, beginning with the savage races, moving up to the barbarians (who are better than savages), then the historical Europeans, and ending with the estimated million abortions in America today (i.e. 1920). Mr. Sanger considers this a travesty, which brings us to an interesting historical tidbit: Margaret Sanger was, by our definition, pro-life. Margaret Sanger was opposed to abortion. Her reasons, motives, social context, medical-historical context were different than our own. One of her formative experiences was helping a desperately poor mother of three through a painful stillbirth. The woman begged Margaret to tell her how to stop having babies, but Margaret couldn't legally, not in front of the doctor, and the doctor said, "Tell your husband to sleep on the roof. Ha ha ha." Some months later, Mrs. Sanger was present when that woman died after trying to abort herself. The abortion-performing underworld in 1920 would have been people by disreputable doctors and nurses, homeopaths and quacks, uncredentialed abortionists, friends with knitting needles, and pregnant women themselves, and Mrs. Sanger, I'm sure, could have written a book of abortion horror stories. She wanted contraceptive advice available to prevent women from seeking abortions and she succeeded. Abortions grew in the US from one million in 1920, peaked between 1966 and 1978 and have been steadily declining since the 1970's to 1.1 million abortions in 2013, with triple the population in the United States.

Margaret Sanger advocated family planning information for married women. Pregnant single women were a whole different kettle of fish. In reading one and a half books by her, I have not come across one line advocating the distribution of birth control information to single women, and in Woman and the New Race she takes pains to point out that her first birth control clinic, in the weeks before the police shut it down, did not serve a single single woman. Mrs. Sanger built her life helping the desperately poor married. Woman and the New Race has a whole chapter of letters from women begging Mrs. Sanger for birth control advice, women who could have managed two or three children nicely but ended up with eight, or ten, or more, not all living. Ms. Sanger breaks it down: a first child has a 25% mortality rate, the second and third around 20%, then the rate grows until the tenth child has a 60% chance of dying in its first year, unless all that childbearing has killed the mother first. Remeber in Betsy, Tacy when Tacy's littlest sister dies? Yeah. With birth control (and without the Catholic Church), Mrs. Kelly could have been saved that anguish. Margaret Sanger was not for the free and easy sexual mores that her work snowballed into over the subsequent century; she was for limiting families to a manageable number of children, to build up the health of the mother and the wanted children, and keep down the number of surplus workers who, in times of population stress, become soldiers in pointless and bloody wars, like the one which had just been fought in Europe. Woman and the New Race also includes medical information surrounding the reproductive process, but does not include her two infallible methods of birth control (what were they?), because if she had printed that, her books would have been seized and destroyed under Comstock.

Then I read Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell who wrote Fangirl, which I read in December, but I had Eleanor and Park on audio and I didn't want to wait more time to read it even though I don't much like reading books by the same author too close together. Suffice to say, Eleanor and Park is amazing and deserves all the awards it keeps winning. Eleanor is a girl from a large family with a terrible stepdad and Park is a boy from the sweetest family ever (his mom is Korean) and they love each other in 1986. I thought Park was going to get shot. The terrible stepdad has a gun in one scene early on and if a writer shows a gun, she's going to use it later on. I had to check around with people who'd read the book to make sure Park didn't get shot. If he had been shot, I couldn't have borne it. Eleanor and Park's frank pathos reminded me of a young adult novel I had in junior high called Sex Education that probably would have blown the teen literature genre wide open twenty years earlier if it hadn't been called Sex Education. In that book, something bad does happen. Eleanor and Park survive changed. To summarize: Rainbow Rowell is amazing and all her books are good.

Hilary McKay's new Lulu book is out in America and it's at the library! Lulu and the Cat in the Bag answers the 'what do women want' question with: a good cat. Lulu's and her cousin Mellie's parents win a grown-up vacation, so Lulu's grandmother is staying with Lulu and Mellie and Lulu's menagerie at Lulu's house, when some cat-abandoning jerk leaves a bag with a cat in it on Lulu's doorstep. In Lulu and the Dog by the Sea her family acquired a second dog, and along with the parrot, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc., Lulu's house is full of animals, none of whom grandma appreciates. Grandma loves gardening, and dogs dig up gardens, rabbits eat plants, guinea pigs are useless, etc. The titular cat in the bag loves flowers, and it biffs the dogs on the nose when they try to roll around in grandma's newly planted petunias. It doesn't take grandma long to amend her dislike of cats to exclude this cat and the denouement is, again, obvious. There are a few implausible happenings that strained Lulu's credibility to this thirty-two-year-old, but which would pass right by the second graders for whom this book is intended.

Then I reread Incurable, which is the second book in The Ellie Chronicles, making it more or less the ninth book in John Marsden's Tomorrow series. These books are so fucking good. In a ten book series, it's hard to sort out what happened in which book and which books are better than which when they're consistently amazing. I reread the Tomorrow series up to eight last year and then got sidetracked, so it's nice to read back on such an important book that I may have only read twice now. In Incurable, the war is over and Ellie crushing on Jeremy Finley, managing the farm, looking after Gavin, trying not to be a guerrilla fighter, and going to school some days. There are at least four blood-curdling, heart-pumping action scenes in this business of post-war life: the cattle stampede, the raid, the cliff, and the city. If anything, Incurable could have been longer. There are some places where it looks like Marsden sacrificed expository dialogue and inner ramblings for purposes of plot and pace. (In all fairness, the series was meant to end at book three and then he wrote the other seven.) Read Tomorrow, When the War Began, if you haven't yet. Go from there.

I end my list of books with Hyperbole and a Half, the book of new and collected funny from Allie Brosh's blog, of which there is a link to here. For some reason, most of the chapters included in the book regard Allie's mental functioning and her dogs, so you'll have to go and read all the blog posts about spiders and the alot and the pain scale after you're done with the book, but read the book.

I said in the beginning that we were going to answer the woman question. Here are the answers:

  • Well-trained dogs (Lulu and the Cat in the Bag, Incurable, Hyperbole and a Half
  • Universal good manners (Eleanor and Park, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag, Woman and the New Race)
  • Birth control (Woman and the New Race, Eleanor and Park implied, Incurable implied)
  • Sexy Asian boyfriends (Incurable, Eleanor and Park)
  • An end to violence and/or war (Woman and the New Race, Eleanor and Park, Incurable, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag)
  • Racial equality or some sort of super-race, which one hopes are the same thing (Eleanor and Park, Woman and the New Race, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag implied, Incurable)
  • No more indoor rats and spiders (Hyperbole and a Half, Woman and the New Race, Incurable)

As you can see from my inferences based on a random sample of books, all women more or less want the same things. 

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