Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Girl I Left Behind: A Narrative History of the 1960’s and How Women Transformed America by Judith Nies

I have been reading this on and off for the past few months and it is (also) overdue at the library so I'm trying to finish it up. While I enjoy the feminist memoir and 1960's cultural history, and am sort of obsessed with "second-wave" feminism, this is not a particularly thrilling or radical example of that kind of thing.
First off, who is Judith Nies and why do we care what she thinks?! I'm half way through the book and I'm still trying to figure it out. Her point of view and life experience is biased by her privilege, but she's smart enough to try and position herself accordingly. Unfortunately, there are still some things she seems to miss, but no one is perfect I guess, at least she is trying...and though it may be be my own position in the world (white, American, fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel outside the U.S. occasionally and to be in school, etc) that enables me to tolerate her limited perspective--I find her story compelling. Maybe it's because I don't actually know any women like this, despite knowing several her age.
She frames her memoir as a record of feminist transformation. She says she wants her daughter to understand how things changed for women in her lifetime, and how those changes were accomplished through feminist movement. She doesn't just focus on gender, but discusses imperialism, specifically the war in Vietnam, and world affairs generally. Her discussion of race and class is predictably less than complete, but it is in there, some, though it is also glaringly absent at times. Her class analysis tends to focus more on the difference between the upper middle-class (her circumstance) and the billionaires who run the world than on any kind of sustained critique of how economic stratification is maintained by global capitalism and what that means for the lives of ordinary working-class people; which is another severe limitation of her work. This informs her idea of what feminism is, so you have to be kind of critical when you are reading it if you don't want that to seep into your consciousness.
The book starts out with the discovery she has an F.B.I. file and then back tracks. She obtains a degree in International Affairs at a time when most educated women were placed in secretarial or teaching positions. Had she been better connected, she would have probably found work at the C.I.A. or perhaps the Pentagon--she studied with Condoleeza Rice--instead, circumstances lead her to study abroad, where she meets people who were critical of U.S. imperialism (see the history of U.S. and Iran, Guatemala and later, Vietnam) Shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passes, she goes back to the US to seek employment. She ends up working for an employment agency, probably because of the amount of time her and her friend spend trying to find meaningful work for women with master's degrees. It's 1966, she just had an illegal abortion in Italy and is reading Tom Wolfe at work. She promises herself she will quit her office job and move to Washington D.C. as soon as she finishes the last chapter. That's about how far I have gotten. As I understand it, she ends up working for the first Senator who opposed the Vietnam War, with all of the obligatory sexual harassment that kind of work entailed at the time (and probably still does). Not sure what happens next, but I imagine she becomes a mom, divorces her husband and becomes a feminist, faces challenges in a professional field dominated by men--not necessarily in that order.
While this book has its limitations--some may find her younger self's naivety about the world not as endearing or incredibly interesting as she seems to think it is--her attempt to locate her personal story in its social context is a worthwhile pursuit; as is her effort to document the social history of her generation. So, while it's not my favorite by any means, and I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, if you are interested in the experience/thoughts of someone like this as well as the subject matter, then it's worth your time. It actually reads pretty fast, it's just taking me too long to finish it because I am reading, like 20 other books, all the time. I'm sort of scatterbrained like that.

Here are a few other books that I think are better, if you are into memoirs by radical women of the 1960's

With the Weathermen: A Personal History of the Weather Underground by Susan Stern

and local favorite:

Outlaw Woman by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

p.s. I'm also reading Freewheelin' with Bob Dylan by Suze Rotolo, which I absolutely LOVE

--And here is the rest of it.


Tobi Vail said...

regarding the class background of ms. nies
her father was a foremen in a factory, she went to school on scholarship. still, the book mostly takes place after she left home and entered the realm of the rich. true, she was working as a student, but she married rich and that is also a part of the story.
so i don't mean to over-simplify in my analysis, just wanted to clear that up. her perspective as she is writing the book now relects the class bias/limited analysis i was trying to describe

decomposition said...

If you get a chance, can you post a review of the Bob Dylan book by Suze Rotolo?