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by Pramila Jayapal > Seal Press > $22.95

Pilgrimage chronicles the two tumultuous years, from 1995 to 1997, that author Pramila Jayapal spent traveling through India with the help of a grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs. Journeying through villages, meditation retreat centers, ashrams, cities, and a hospital (where she gives birth prematurely to her first child), Jayapal records the challenges of living in a society struggling to balance tradition and modernity.Jayapal, who was born in India and educated in the West, swings from romanticizing to criticizing the country as she encounters a wide range of Indians. These include exploited Adivasis (tribals), an award-winning poet and founder of a women's shelter, and corrupt priests in the temple city of Varanasi in northern India.

Through her conversations with people such as her landlord, an environmentalist friend, women college students, and the two children she employs as household help, Jayapal sheds some of her preconceived ideas about the country. In her meeting with the college students, for example, she discovers that despite their trendy Western-style jeans and platform shoes and their bright hopes of becoming lawyers and engineers, most young women are still trying to find a place within the framework of traditional Indian society.

Ultimately, Jayapal's observations and meditations transform her desire to "own" her Indian heritage. "In understanding India's influence on me, I no longer needed to try so hard to maintain it," she sums up. For the reader, however, the moving essays that helped bring Jayapal to that resolution paint a vivid picture of India today.

--Hema N. Nair


A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics
by Jo Freeman > Rowman & Littlefield > $35

Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women
by Harriett Woods > Westview Press > $25

While the stories of suffragists and reformers such as Jane Addams of Hull House are better known since the advent of women's studies, the history of party women has been neglected until now. In A Room at a Time, feminist Jo Freeman puts on her political-scientist/historian hat to tell us how women were active politicians in the United States long before they voted for the first time nationally in 1920.

Some nineteenth-century women, for example, were highly prized political orators. Republican Anna Dickinson, at age 22, was hailed as the American Joan of Arc in 1864; journalist Ida B. Wells went stumping for GOP candidates in the 1890s; and Jane Addams seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt at the Progressive Party convention in 1912. Ironically, after winning the vote, suffragists were first courted by the major parties and then, having achieved enough leverage to make demands, squeezed out.

Although valued for their organizing talents and for their votes, women were discouraged from even taking sides in a primary contest. Freeman concludes that women who remained party loyalists must have found the work its own reward, since male leaders held the reins of power so tightly. Eleanor Roosevelt said as much in 1928 when she publicly urged women to organize as women and choose their own bosses.

Freeman makes the case that through the first half of the twentieth century, women with political power usually either belonged to a powerful political family, like Eleanor Roosevelt, or proved themselves through loyalty to men. Things were changing by the 1960s, but not much. Freeman tells how Liz Carpenter, soon to be one of the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), helped get women jobs in Washington.

Lyndon Johnson, partly to bring in new appointees who would make the administration his own after John Kennedy was assassinated, vowed to end what he called "stag government." Carpenter, who as Lady Bird's press secretary hardly held a position of great power herself, was pulled into Johnson's office and told to identify suitable women candidates for administration posts. Because Johnson insisted that agency heads report directly to him, he achieved impressive results in his effort to increase the role of women in his administration: 150 new appointees and many more promotions.

Harriett Woods's political memoir takes up where Freeman's history leaves off. The opening scene of Stepping Up to Power depicts a radically changed atmosphere in Washington at the beginning of the Clinton Administration. The president had promised that his administration would "look like America," and an organized coalition of women's groups, chaired by Woods as NWPC president, came up with 700 high-powered resumZs. The group kept a careful, very public count of the percentage of women named to key posts. The new president branded the women "bean counters," but in the end, 40 percent of his appointments were women, including six at cabinet level.

Woods's first political action grew out of a domestic problem: a manhole cover in front of her suburban St. Louis home that rattled so noisily it woke her children from their afternoon nap. Stepping Up to Power describes the incident and her subsequent political career in the Missouri state legislature, which included a holding action Woods reluctantly managed when her state refused to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Her two campaigns for the U.S. Senate, though unsuccessful, changed the way women run for federal office--particularly the way they raise money nationally. Woods candidly admits her campaign mistakes, and with equal bluntness reports on what she sees as political blunders by National Organization for Women leaders. She also sharply criticizes the Beltway mentality that seemed to infect everyone she encountered in D.C. Woods fears that younger women are not entering the political pipeline in sufficient numbers. "The challenge is how to nurture a willingness to lead" in a complacent world, she writes. Her answer is a very practical guide to the kind of risk-taking demanded of women in the political arena.

--Mary Thom


Blue Angel
by Francine Proses >Harper Collins> $25

Francine Prose is a novelist of manners, a lampooner of lifestyles. As such, she targets not so much characters as contemporary mores and situations. In Blue Angel, the target would appear to be hard to miss: political correctness and sexual harassment on campus. A middle-aged male writing professor develops an infatuation for a punkish pupil whose own emerging manuscript, a brilliant coming-of-age story, has triggered both envy and desire. These lead where they always do, to sex and the undoing of a man.

Prose's depiction of human beings are broad to the point of caricature, but the real characters here are the fashions and fetishes of our time: the fennel gardens, Doc Martens, antidepressants, deconstructors, and ex-Weathermen bookstore-owners. We recognize them as mockable friends, bearers of our cultural IQ. Blue Angel is a comfort novel. Unfortunately, the comforts seem slightly stale and the barbs predictable--despite a witty remark about a parlor party in search of a manservant, an Austenesque encounter between a Rolex and a Casio, and a deeply satisfying pun involving a shell. Inklings of conspiracy reveal Prose's savvy as a plot constructor, but these stirrings remain unconsummated, as does the student's novel, giving this reader a small fit of liber interruptus. Perhaps that is Prose's intent, but a comedy of manners succeeds only by resolving that which is maddeningly, if hilariously, unresolvable in life. Yet Prose well understands how lust comes unbidden to a man who no longer knows what to do with it and thus does exactly the wrong, indeed the fateful, thing. Such a man deserves closure. Ditto the schemers who masquerade as damsels in distress. A real comfort novel would give them all their just desserts.

--Sara Miller


Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009