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BOOK REVIEWS | fall 2006


Reviewed in this issue:

Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy By Samantha King
Unbowed: A Memoir
By Wangari Maathai
Secondhand World
By Katherine Min
After This
By Alice McDermott
Black Feminist Voices in Politics
By Evelyn M. Simien


Consume for the Cure

Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy
By Samantha King
University of Minnesota Press

On a cold autumn morning in Boston, I join the throngs bedecked in pink walking along the Charles River. Beside me walks my friend Susan, whose aunt died of breast cancer five years ago. She buys a pink ribbon on which she scribbles her aunt’s name, affixing it to a wall of billowing bows tied by other walkers—thousands of ribbons representing lives lost, families grieving. As we turn from the memorial of ribbons, the mood changes. We see smiling clowns, pink balloons, vendors selling pink kitsch, booths where corporate sponsors hand out pink-sprinkled cupcakes. A man on stage announces that proceeds from this fundraising walk will surpass $3 million.

This walk is one of many such lucrative events happening year-round; $3 million is a drop in the breast cancer industry’s bucket, and the myriad objects sold here are but a smattering of the breast cancer-related products that proliferate on websites and crowd the shelves at Target. Pink and berib-boned yogurt, teddy bears, bracelets, tennis shoes, rain jackets, postage stamps—the enticements to spend on behalf of a cure for breast cancer seem endless.

As King explains in Pink Ribbons, Inc., corporations jump on the fundraising bandwagon not so much to stop breast cancer as to find new buyers, to stake their claim on a cause no one can argue with. We donate in the belief that our efforts help in some small way. But we have no say in how the funds are used and seldom know what percentage of our purchase is contributed to the cause.

King, an associate professor of women’s studies and physical and health education at Queens University in Canada, argues that marketing for breast cancer is just a way to individualize responsibility for the disease. Meanwhile, slick corporate promotions camouflage the fact that breast cancer rates continue to rise, and their rhetoric of hope, progress and sisterhood suppresses controversy surrounding the disease. We forget that some of these very corporate sponsors contribute to breast cancer by putting carcinogens into our makeup and personal-care products or emitting them into our food and water. We don’t notice that the marketing geniuses these businesses employ are keeping our attention off the real point: Women need publicly funded research into prevention, and investigation into environmental causes of breast cancer, a lot more than we need another pink ribbon to pin on our chests.

Sabrina B. McCormick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the sociology department and environmental science and policy program at Michigan State University.


Green Peace

Unbowed: A Memoir
By Wangari Maathai
Alfred A. Knopf

Wangari Maathai of Kenya has endured derision, death threats, imprisonment and beatings—not so unusual for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. What is most astonishing about Maathai, the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the prize, is her lifelong refusal to be defined by anyone or anything other than herself.

Maathai, 66, received the prize in 2004 for making a connection between environmental destruction, particularly deforestation, and human conflict. Known by many as the “Tree Lady” and usually called Professor Maathai, she has lobbied not only to reverse environmental degradation but to put her chronically underemployed countrywomen and countrymen to work planting trees—a project that evolved into the Green Belt Movement (GBM). The nonprofit’s goal is to plant greenbelts of trees across Kenya and, eventually, across several other African countries; so far, more than 30 million have taken root.

But the scope of Maathai’s activism has gone far beyond planting trees. As she writes in Unbowed, she and the GBM also began to plant ideas in Kenyans, particularly the poor rural women she first set out to help. Maathai, the first East and Central African woman to earn a doctorate, educated women both by example and by teaching about human—particularly women’s—rights, democratic space, and about how much could be achieved through grassroots efforts. In no small part due to her efforts, Kenya, for many years a one-party nation ruled by one man, has evolved into a multiparty democracy.

This clear-eyed memoir describes three acts in the ongoing drama of the great woman’s life: innocence and education, heartache and determination, and, ultimately, triumph—though, like most triumphs, hers is not free of personal, everyday sorrows. Maathai writes movingly of her Edenic childhood in rural Africa, the pleasure she took in education, particularly the sciences, and the lessons she gathered from her college sojourn in the United States during the civil and women’s rights movements. Maathai adored her mother, the second of her father’s four wives, who, though illiterate herself, supported the suggestion by Maathai’s older brother that Wangari attend school along with her brothers.

Her love of learning, her curiosity, her pragmatism and her natural leadership abilities have led her to look beyond Kenya’s—and the world’s—seemingly intractable problems. But Maathai’s success as an activist and university professor inspired fear and contempt in her nation’s deeply conservative, male-dominated culture—so much so that her husband, with whom she had three children, divorced her, saying, in a possibly apocryphal quote, that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” Maathai (who, in a gesture of defiance and self-definition, added another “a” to her married surname of Mathai after the divorce) doesn’t remember his saying that, writing that it was “the press’s expression of what they perceived his sentiments to be.”

Whatever he may have said, Maathai was, and blessedly remains, all those things. In her memoir, but more importantly in her life, she makes the case that persistence is courage. She renounces self-pity and embraces hope, and in the process has lifted many from despair to dignity.

Jan Cottingham is a freelance journalist living in Little Rock, Ark.


Wonder Years

Secondhand World
By Katherine Min
Alfred A. Knopf

If you could go back to that time in life when one becomes the center of a world that seems new and open with endless possibilities, would you dare? Secondhand World will transport you, not in a nostalgic haze, but with a clarity that exposes the nuances of reaching the precipice of womanhood.

With this absorbing tale, Min recreates the atonal and uncomfortably familiar rhythms of a postwar suburban American home, full of honest dysfunction, unspoken hurts, stifled feelings and other foibles of the nuclear family. Through the eyes of Isa, an upstate New York teenager racked by self-doubt, Min captures the adolescent’s sense of awe and idealism, uncertainty and excitement, as she teeters toward finding her own truth.

Yet here is no ordinary family. Isa must constantly translate the world around her, reconciling the distracting ways of her Korea-born parents with the disconcerting and sometimes racist encounters she has at school. Not that her parents aren’t devoted: Isa’s scientist father tries to teach her math, science and Korean. At bedtime, her mother serenades her with "Que Sera Sera”; when she arrives at the lyrics, “Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?” her mother whispers, “Both, Isa. You’ll be both.”

But her mother’s beauty only makes Isa feel ugly in a world where her Asian features don’t fit, and so, with her mother’s encouragement, Isa begins to save money for eyelid surgery that will someday give her “round” eyes. Then the accidental death of her younger brother fractures her world. As her parents shut down and the anguish of survivor’s guilt is piled onto her already confused sense of self, Isa is left to interpret life’s fault lines through her own clouded lens.

In the struggle for her own voice and sense of worth, Isa becomes a wild child in the sex/drugs/rock ’n’ roll of the times, while maintaining a good girl façade at home with her emotionally absent parents. She finds support among other smart, misfit kids who are all white, though some are whiter than others. Her first love is an albino boy named Hero, a match that Isa believes works because they’re both freaks and outcasts.

Being in love allows Isa to love herself and assert her individuality, but her growing assuredness comes with the absolute self-righteousness that also marked the generation that came of age in the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s. She attributes all that is wrong in her life to the lies, hypocrisies, secrets and silences of her parents, who try to love her in their way, even when she is finally caught at home in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend. But her parents carry their own conflicted emotions, complicated by the cultural alienation and displacement of immigrants from a war-torn and divided homeland.

Too young and too sure, Isa has not yet developed compassion or understanding for anyone, especially her mother. The gossamer threads that hold her wounded family together begin to disintegrate as the righteous Isa acts on her judgment of her mother’s failings. Min’s artful realism seamlessly conveys all the emotional twists of a girl’s coming of age and this family’s final downward spiral. Isa realizes that the sound and fury she imagined as new and fresh are hand-me-downs for her to relive. Min leaves the reader breathless with questions about one’s own capacity to forgive.

Helen Zia is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).


Scenes from a Marriage

After This
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

There are readers' writers and critics’ writers; bestseller and National Book Award-winner McDermott has proven herself both, and an English professor’s writer to boot. Her books are gorgeously observed, swimming with symbolism and intricately structured: Child of My Heart restricted to a single summer, Charming Billy told in flashbacks from a funeral party. After This, her sixth novel, is a departure for McDermott in that it proceeds unswervingly forward, from the meeting of Mary, a typist, and John, a WWII vet, through 20-odd years of marriage.

The model postwar American family represented by Mary and John—husband the breadwinner, wife the homemaker—has been much-vilified and much- idealized. McDermott, however, is far too subtle to use her characters as pawns in the culture wars. Mary and John may have an unhappy marriage, and the mores of the ’50s may be to blame, but the novel’s forward motion keeps the reader from employing the wisdom of hindsight. We are as myopic as Mary and John as they stumble through life choices, following the dictates of their era and their Roman Catholic faith, but influenced also by the whim of a moment: Mary sees a tall soldier in the back of a church and marries him, only to wonder years later whether she hung her whole life on the romantic pull of a war-wounded stranger.

Even as the future remains unknowable it is a palpable presence, dogging each chapter. Watching his young daughter play on the beach, John imagines himself dead by the time of her wedding, an uncle walking her down the aisle; in the kicking of a fetus, Mary feels her body inhabited by “the future itself, already formed, pressing an ear to the wall of her flesh.” The future haunts John, whom the war has left emotionally withdrawn and preoccupied with death. He cherishes his children but feels his love for them as the weight of heavy stones. Of the four offspring, two eventually grow up to realize their parents’ fears: Daughter Clare gets pregnant at 17; son Jacob is killed in the Vietnam War.

Ironically, Jacob and Clare are the “good” children, obedient and devout. The nuns at Clare’s school may blame “the music, the movies, the feminists, the hippies” for Clare’s pregnancy, but the reader can trace it to Clare’s astonishing innocence, born of her rigid upbringing and compounded by her shyness. Unlike her older sister Annie, she had no “bad girl” best friend who could tell her that to find an abortion doctor you look under “Women’s Health” in the phone book.

It is Annie who leaves home to join the social and sexual revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, and it is she who winds up happy. In Annie, and in her brother Michael, born late enough to escape Vietnam, McDermott leaves us with hope for the next generation. The next wave of boys may not be harvested by a pointless war. And with the availability of abortion, the next wave of girls may have more than the stark choice between a life of “brittle and bitter” virginity or a marriage that is an “awkward pact with a stranger, any stranger, John or George, Tom, Dick or Harry.”

Jessica Stites is an editorial assistant at Ms.


And Ain't I Black and a Woman?

Black Feminist Voices in Politics
By Evelyn M. Simien
SUNY Press

“Whose little nigger is this?”

Those words rang in Mary Church Terrell’s ears when she was but 5. Terrell had been born in late 19th-century America to former slaves who were by then wealthy, but their money and little Mary’s best traveling clothes meant nothing to the white conductor patrolling the segregated, first-class railroad car. Though she would go on to graduate from Oberlin College, enjoy a teaching career in top black institutions and travel extensively in Europe, Terrell never hid behind her privilege. She used her life experiences as a black woman to form the National Association of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to the racial uplift of black women and children. With its motto "Lifting as We Climb,” the NACW served as a model for generations of black women dedicated to ending racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Simien sketches stories of black women who, like Terrell, encountered a dilemma: to fight for women’s rights or for black liberation? Was anti-lynching crusader and journalist Ida Wells-Barnett driven only by racial concerns for the thousands of black men hanged as alleged rapists of white women? Or did she also offer a gender-conscious analysis, pointing out how white men who raped black women went unpunished? Did suffragists Sojourner Truth and Frances E.W. Harper, orator Maria Stewart and church activist Nannie Helen Burroughs decide whether to focus on race or gender issues in their activism? This was a false choice, to be sure, because black women are both blacks and women.

How they solved these issues is not the focus of this book, however. Simien, a political scientist, is concerned with whether today’s black women and men embrace black feminism and if black feminism has an impact on black participation in politics. Unfortunately, we cannot tell this from existing public-opinion surveys. Simien criticizes previous researchers for asking questions that, while gender-conscious, lacked any racial consciousness. For example, a black feminist asking about the racial implications of employment discrimination would not assume that gaining equality with men is a determining factor of feminist consciousness. After all, would black women want “equality” with black men, who are paid less than white men but more than black women in the labor market?

Simien’s data analysis might be of interest to other political scientists; for the lay reader the connection between the statistics and the preceding historical narratives is a weak one. But as Simien notes, there are wonderful histories still emerging about black women political leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. And black feminist theorists, such as Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins, continue to write about the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality.

For those who want a brief introduction to the various black women Simien profiles, or for those who need a jumping-off point for research on black feminism and black political participation, this is the book for you. In her epilogue, Simien hints at future work that promises to testify to black feminism’s statistical strength (or weakness) within black communities.

Kimberly Springer lectures in American Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980 (Duke University Press, 2005).