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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Who said politics and women don't mix? They do, and A Room at a Time  by Jo Freeman explores the entrance of women into Republican and Democratic party politics, and Amanda Foreman's best-selling biography Georgiana looks back 200 years to a dazzling Duchess and her social set. 

Before or after reading Georgiana, time-travel via video to the Duchess's day with The Madness of King George; Great Dames by Marie Brenner celebrates ten older women and the lessons to be learned from them. 

A House Was Not Always Home

A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics by Jo Freeman (Rowman & Littlefield; 353 pages; $35)

Think of American politics as a big and somewhat unruly household, much in need of women. Little by little, they politely knock at the door, finally allowed in to do a little servant work of tidying up after the boys and getting rid of all those liquor bottles and spittoons. Gradually they move in a few things of their own and start to re-decorate. That's a useful metaphor for the efforts by women over much of the 20th century to be equal partners in America's political house, and in her new book Jo Freeman, a veteran editor and writer on women and politics, uses it with intelligence and grace. 
       There could not be a better time than this presidential election year for Freeman's study on women's entrance into party politics.  During the quadrennial pursuit of the Oval Office, Democrats and Republicans play fix-it with their identities, making subtle changes in an odd kind of strategic and ideological mix-'n'-match. The media thrusts the two parties before its flawed lens, peering at the tiny surface fissures and ominous cracks that could be signs of future tectonic shifts. 
       Republicans and Democrats weren't always what they seem to be nowadays. John McCain doesn't seem like so much of a maverick when it is pointed out, as Freeman does, that the G.O.P. began as the party of reform and progress. As for the Democratic Party, she writes, it "was composed of marginal peoples striving to become part of American society, not to change it.'' Within the parties, Republican women were better organized, and it wasn't so much that more women tended to vote Republican but that more Republican women tended to vote. It is this party alignment, with women toiling in local and national politics, running for office and accepting appointments, that Freeman examines. She ends her book just before the Big Switcheroo began in the '60s, when the Democratic Party embraced feminist activists and the Republicans hugged the anti-fem brigade. 
     The party woman was a different breed from the suffragist. Her loyalty was not to a cause but to the organization. She was good for the party, domesticating it and bringing it out of the saloon and barber shop, but how good was the party for the woman? They volunteered during campaign time and were tireless in canvassing for votes, organizing rallies or passed out literature. Asked to help get men elected, they were then seldom rewarded for their efforts. As a Denver woman early in the century noted, "Women do the work and the men get the money and position nine times out of ten.'' But if the male candidate was preening in the spotlight, there was something else going on quietly behind the scenes in national committees in the women's divisions established by both parties. Whatever one may think of this gender separation, Freeman gives credit where it is due, stressing the divisions' effectiveness  in educating and training women to be successful in politics. 
  The book traces the rise of women's influence in the voting booth and on party platforms and also looks at how the female political role grew more and more narrow over time. The emphasis for women delegates to conventions throughout the '20s and '30s had been on issues involving children and welfare.  When the 1960s rolled around, women were more likely to be on show as Smiling Wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to consider herself part of a political team with her husband, and her successors, notably excluding Hillary Clinton, took on Mrs. R's outward role of political partner but with little or no real influence on policy. Freeman sums it up succinctly: "The message being conveyed to party women was that who you married was more important than what you did.'' 
     After all their loyalty, what share did women have in their government? Eleanor Roosevelt was forceful in getting appointments for women, as was Molly Dewson, the head of the Democratic National Committee's women's division. Even with backing from the inside, some barriers remained nearly insurmountable. Freeman recounts the difficulties faced time and again by accomplished and dedicated women. One example: Judge Florence Allen, a possible Supreme Court candidate during the Truman Administration, was vetoed by Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who seemed to feel the feminine presence might detract from the way the guys managed the judicial process. A woman, he maintained, might make it hard for the Justices to settle back, take off their robes and perhaps their shoes and with shirt collars unbuttoned, discuss their problems and come to decisions. Despite obstacles, female appointments steadily progressed. The only decline, Freeman notes, was, surprisingly, under John Kennedy, and so by the time women's rights was part of the national debate,  "government feminists came out of the woodwork and acted as social change agents from the inside.'' 
    In summing up women's gifts to party politics, Freeman gets it right. Their presence helped civilize what had been a fairly unseemly process. Their appearance as poll watchers, for example, dampened the roistering atmosphere of election day. With persistence, women entering party politics made sure to push more and more doors open for the women who would be following them. If what they did has largely been forgotten, it's because their historic deeds had not adequately been acknowledged. Now they have. 


Mirror of Her Time

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman 
(Random House; 464 pages: $29.95)

What a life she led! Born into one aristocratic family and married into another, admired for her arresting looks and lauded for her good mind and political acumen, she was the star of her social world and set the fashion of an era. She was smart and serious but gambled away a fortune and kept it secret from her husband. A loving mother, she was an adulterous wife.  In short, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, has all the qualities that usually make for a great best-selling biography. But she was a woman of the 18th century, an era that to some readers would seem as remote and interesting as the tundra. They wold be wrong. It was a juicy time, and lets us in on the fun and games with her compelling and sympathetic account of a fascinating woman. 
     Comparison between Georgiana and Princess Diana, her great-great-great-great niece, are irresistible. Some 200 years separate them, but the parallels astonish. They were both Spencers and lived as girls in the ancestral home of Althorp, where Diana is buried. They married young, not necessarily for love, and were expected to produce an heir. They did, though it took Georgiana a great deal longer. Tall and elegant beauties, each were arbiters of fashion and the focus of rapt attention by journalists and the public. They took lovers while married, and both were bulimic. After a crisis in their lives, they emerged from a dark night to become strong individuals with an abiding sense of social purpose. A letter Georgiana wrote her son in 1806 about her expectations for him could echo Diana's wishes for Prince William. "I hope to live to see you not only happy but the cause of happyness to others, expending your princely fortune in doing good and employing the talents and powers of pleasing, with which nature has gifted you.'' 
      Georgiana had considerable powers of pleasing and, like Diana was often lonely. She longed for attention, and received it all her life, from both men and women. Never vain, she was highly susceptible to manipulation. The most blatant conniver was Lady Elizabeth Foster, or Bess, as she was known. Georgiana took her up as a friend, and with the Duke, established a tight little company of three. Even though she was disliked by Georgiana's children and mother almost all the Spencers and had two illegitimate children by the Duke, the Duchess staunchly protected Bess, her closest companion and, it is hinted, her lover. Georgiana had a love-child of her own, fathered by the future Prime Minister, Charles Grey. After Georgiana died, the Duke married her gal pal Bess, who  survived him to live in Italy and become the last lover of a Roman Catholic Cardinal. 
       While relating the social intrigues and romantic liaisons of the Devonshires and their social set,  which was known as the ton, Foreman adroitly describes the complicated politics of Georgiana's day. George III was on the throne and not always in good health. He had just lost his colonies in the New World, his son the Prince of Wales was angling to become regent, and the relationship between Parliament and the monarchy was in flux. Across the Channel, there was revolution and regicide. 
       Georgiana was in the thick of it all. The 18th century woman of wealth in England had far more latitude in the political sphere than her descendants in Queen Victoria's day, or even in our own.  As an aristocrat with a great house in London, Georgiana opened her doors to her Whig friends, advising and plotting with them and emerging as a savvy hostess and persuasive campaigner who could out-rival anyone in modern-day Washington, D.C.   Asserts Foreman: "No other woman -- indeed, very few men -- achieved as much influence as Georgiana wielded during her lifetime.'' 
     Had the Duchess been a cold and shallow creature, a mean-spirited user, she would be of no more than passing historic interest.  Foreman combed through private collections of  letters, notes and diaries and period accounts to reveal a woman of warmth, fortitude and unusual self-reflection. Biographers often fall head over heels in love with their subject, and that seems the case here.  Foreman has been smitten by Georgiana, and her readers will happily be too.

And Consider This


The Madness of King George Directed by Nicholas Hytner

The 1995 film, with a brilliant and moving performance by British actor Nigel Hawthorne as the English king, illuminates the tangled intrigues and influences during the Duchess of Devonshire's time and makes a perfect companion piece to Georgiana. What with a plot to supplant the ruler with his foppish son and opposition schemes for parliamentary reform, the politics of Georgiana's time were as heated as anything during the un-impeachment of last year and just as cynical. 


Great Dames by Marie Brenner
(Crown; 242 pages; $22; )

A writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, Marie Brenner subtitles her book of essays What I Learned from Older Women, and these ten terrific dames certainly have a lot of lessons to teach us all. Some gained fame through intellectual, artistic, philanthropic or political means, or became an icon because of their sheer flamboyance or the mystery of personality. Several married well. In these short pieces about Constance Baker Motley, Luise Rainer, Jacqueline Onassis, et al., Brenner creates something akin to instant, colorful snapshots. The best in the album is the one on Thelma Brenner, the writer's mother, and the sometimes close, sometimes antagonistic relationship between the two. The connection runs deep and unending.  "I couldn't escape her if I wanted to,'' the daughter writes, years after her mother's death. "I carry her with me every day.''

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