How much can you really learn about a person from the books that they keep? It’s a question I’ve asked myself dozens of times — from the shelf-perusing of my first babysitting gigs and college house parties, to overnights at new boyfriends’ apartments and the decidedly more adult dinner parties of my current social life: What do your books say about who you are? Most recently, it’s a question I considered while going through my grandmother’s small, totally eccentric personal library.
I should probably start by explaining that my grandmother would never dream of calling herself a feminist. I’m fairly certain that if asked, good ol’ gran would say she considers feminism uniquely responsible for the decline of civil society — she’s not a woman you’d find marching on Washington alongside Gloria Steinem or Angela Davis. So when I found a worn, dog-eared copy of the essay collection Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, compiled by Sookie Stambler and published in 1970, in her personal library, I was immediately intrigued.
My grandmother was born in 1926, approximately 62 years before I made my own debut on this earth. We share an affinity for the written word, a love of journalism and the news media, various literary aspirations, and far more copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style than any two people could possibly need in a lifetime. We also share a number of character flaws I’d rather not get into here, but suffice it to say she has often functioned as a cautionary tale in my life: I see parts of myself in her and her in me, she is an example of who I try not to be, a woman I could become but shouldn’t — not always a well-liked figure in our family, as verbose, virulent, overly-emotive Italian matriarchs tend not to be.
So when I found a worn, dog-eared copy of the essay collection Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, compiled by Sookie Stambler and published in 1970, in her personal library, I was immediately intrigued.
But the fact is, I’ve always suspected she wanted something for her life other than what was available to her. Maybe it’s nothing more than the product of my reading a large volume of feminist literature myself, but I look at the facts of her life: her very early work at a small Midwestern newspaper, her marriage at 21-years-old, the five children she raised to adulthood, and I wonder what she’s spent the last 70-plus years wondering about herself. If I — an educated, well-traveled, employed, financially independent, white woman living in 2018 sometimes feel the constraints of my gender — sometimes feel stifled by the relationships and circumstances of my life, what must she have felt throughout hers? What questions did she turn to a book like Women’s Liberation for?
Women's Liberation Blueprint for the Future compiled by Sookie Stambler, $6.64, Amazon
I will, likely, never know for sure. At 92-years-old my grandmother suffers from severe dementia, taking the mysteries of her life with her. But what I do have, in lieu of the questions I will never ask, is my grandmother’s library — a catchall assortment of encyclopedias and reference books, cookbooks and military histories, bird watching guides and Farmers Almanacs, mysteries and travel guides, dozens of yellowing paperbacks with 65-cent price stickers still clinging to their corners. And a single copy of the essay collection Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future.
Book-loving busybody that I am, I’ve searched the collection thoroughly, hoping for hints into the mind of the woman who kept the book on her shelf for nearly 50 years. The spine of Women’s Liberation naturally falls open to the middle of an essay by Jennie Bull, first printed in The Village Voice and titled High School Women: Oppression and Liberation. Does this mean she returned to this particular essay over and over? In 1970 she would have had two daughters in high school and a third in junior high. “How can women find the strength to resist?” Bull asks, at the top of the page where the binding has been broken.
The spine of Women’s Liberation naturally falls open to the middle of an essay by Jennie Bull, first printed in The Village Voice and titled High School Women: Oppression and Liberation.
Bull’s essay goes on to critique the requisite home economics, typing, and shorthand courses young women were uniformly enrolled in at the time, while their male peers were expected to perform well in the maths, sciences, even woodworking. “Schools train people to fit into this society as it exists… Men are generally prepared for leadership, authority roles, and women are trained to be their assistants in preparation for a male dominated country and economy,” Bull writes.
When I was growing up, my grandmother was certainly interested in my abilities in this realm — sewing, in particular. One of the great preoccupations of her life was whether or not my sisters and I would grow up to marry what my grandmother referred to as “good men.” But at the same time, nothing I accomplished invoked as much pride and affirmation as my ability to construct a truly well-written sentence. “You can write, can’t you?” my grandmother would ask me, with a smirk on her face, a glint that I interpreted as conspiratorial in her eye, before confessing that she could write too and asking me (every single time) if I had a copy of Strunk & White. These are the only memories I have in which I’m truly relaxed around her, when I feel that she’s both accepting of and impressed by who I am. Perhaps she was a woman torn between her “train[ing] … to fit this society as it exists” and the writer she would have preferred to be.
“You can write, can’t you?” my grandmother would ask me, with a smirk on her face, a glint that I interpreted as conspiratorial in her eye, before confessing that she could write too...
But no other section of Women’s Liberation is as worn, dog-eared, and bookmarked as an essay by Alix Shulman titled A Marriage Agreement. The essay details — in the now-familiar listicle format — the ways Shulman’s once-egalitarian relationship with her husband transformed into a wholly sexist one upon the birth of their children, and relates her solutions for solving the problems she faced. "Once we had children, we totally accepted the sex-roles society assigns," wrote Shulman, who abandoned her career entirely upon having children. "Our domestic life, the only life I had any longer, became a tremendous burden… My husband, I felt, could always change his job if the pressure was too great, but I could never change mine." It’s something that I can wholly relate to — even as a new mother living 48 years after Shulman’s essay was published. I can only imagine how my grandmother, whose husband worked six days a week building skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, and who frequently reminded anyone who would listen that she’d spent the young years of her life employed for a wage, must have felt in her own day.
Shulman goes on to describe, in detail, the breakdown of financial, professional, and domestic tasks as equally divided between her and her husband. The list is exhaustive — and exhausting. Shulman’s arrangement is one that, I am certain, did not manifest itself in my grandmother’s own life. Even if my grandfather had responded favorably to such a suggestion — and I’m not certain that he wouldn’t have — they didn’t live in a moment when Shulman’s proposals were remotely feasible.
Still, I wonder about my grandmother’s yearnings and the reading that may have assuaged them — and if, though separated by decades, they resemble some of my own. Based on what she chose to bookmark in her copy of Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future, they do. And her library, whether she intended it to or not, offers me more clues about the woman she might have been than her words ever have.