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A Short History of Women: A Novel

A Short History of Women: A Novel

3.0 18
by Kate Walbert

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A profoundly moving portrait of the complicated legacies of mothers and daughters, A Short History of Women chronicles five generations of women from the close of the nineteenth century through the early years of the twenty-first.

Beginning in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Trevor Townsend


A profoundly moving portrait of the complicated legacies of mothers and daughters, A Short History of Women chronicles five generations of women from the close of the nineteenth century through the early years of the twenty-first.

Beginning in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause, the novel traces the echoes of her choice in the stories of her descendants—a brilliant daughter who tries to escape the burden of her mother’s infamy; a granddaughter who chooses a conventional path, only to find herself disillusioned; a great-granddaughter who wryly articulates the free-floating anxiety of post-9/11 Manhattan. In a kaleidoscope of characters and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, A Short History of Women is a thought-provoking and vividly original narrative that crisscrosses a century—a book for "any woman who has ever struggled to find her own voice; to make sense of being a mother, wife, daughter, and lover" (Associated Press).

Editorial Reviews

The catalyst for Kate Walbert's novel A Short History of Women occurs surprisingly languidly as British suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend slowly wastes away in a hospital during the opening months of World War I. She's alone -- most of the doctors have gone to treat soldiers, and her children are prohibited from visiting. She leaves them as orphans -- her daughter Evie stays in England at a boarding school, while Evie's brother Thomas is shipped to San Francisco.

Dorothy has chosen to starve herself for the cause of women's rights, undertaking a hunger strike after a lecture for women (given by a man) attempts to answer the "woman question." (As in, what will we do with all of those women? They just keep wanting stuff.) In a mark of the fluid narrative style which Walbert employs throughout the novel, Dorothy's fatal decision to stop eating is never documented. Rather, Walbert uses her deft touch and impeccable prose to guide the reader to the quiet moments in Dorothy's hospital room, back into the memory of her childhood, and forward to her final day alive. But this is just the beginning of the author's graceful shuffling of times and perspectives, as the author follows five generations of women as their lives intersect with the evolving permutations of the "woman question."

Walbert's most emblematic and beautiful writing occurs in the sections devoted to Dorothy and her thoughts. As Dorothy starves to death, Walbert's prose is ethereal and focused on delicate, poetic images contrasted with small shots of angry humor.

Dorothy hallucinates her childhood friend, Hilde, visiting the hospital:

Once, even, she rose from the rain, drifting in with the breeze of it; someone had propped open the window with a stick.
"Yes, Mrs. Townsend?" The attendant shakes Dorothy's shoulder.
"The lilies," Dorothy says, blinking Hilde gone. "They reek."

The novel's points of view shift from Dorothy Trevor Townsend to her daughter, Evie; her son Thomas's daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett and Barrett's two daughters, Caroline and Liz.

Such undercut lyricism aside, it is Evie who emerges as the book's most interesting character. Disowning her mother after Dorothy's death, Evie is awarded a scholarship to Barnard and travels from London to New York by ship. In an echo of Dorothy's starvation, Evie is too poor to buy food en route and faints at the college's admissions window. A fellow passenger from the ship helps her, and she ends up moving into his house, forming a platonic, lifelong friendship. Evie has no children, no lovers. Her answer to the "woman question" is embodied in her pursuit of a degree in chemistry, following her childhood love of numbers at a time when women in science were better kept out of sight and out of mind. She conveys the experience of this separate existence richly:

We were in the 'science wing,' a series of bunkered rooms deep beneath campus constructed out of cement blocks and painted a putty yellow. (It is now our college bomb shelter fully stocked with cans of soup and dried noodles, I'm told.) No natural light could reach us, and little sound. Occasionally we smelled the smoked from the cigarettes in the girls' lounge just above us, but apart from that it was as if they had put the chemistry students in a separate galaxy, like electrons circling the nucleus of campus.

Thomas's daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett's, passages begin a section that originally appeared in a tale collected in The Best American Short Stories, 2007. Barrett protests the Iraq war by taking her camera to a military airfield and attempts to photograph the coffins emerging from the plane. She's arrested for every attempt, and her millionaire daughter, Caroline, retrieves her each time.

Walbert also writes of Dorothy Barrett's life as a young wife in the 1970s. This chapter is reminiscent of the author's collection of short stories, Our Kind, which were all told from the point of view of a group of aging neighborhood women. Permeated by a mesmerizing sense of anger, Our Kind uses its first-person-plural narration to embody a powerfully moblike sensibility. The women shift from flat-out rage at one another, their husbands, and children to a genuine confusion of how all of their days cumulated into nothing more than a lifetime of gossip and easily recalled slights.

Though Barrett's time as a wife is not quite as angry as the memories of the group in Our Kind, it is, nonetheless, filled with a confused ennui. She goes to a rap session -- the early-1970s answer to addressing the woman question -- organized by Mary "Chick" Chickarella, the female golf pro of their club. Though Barrett plays a small role in the session, her aimlessness is clear. Her contribution is "I am a hollow bone," remembered from a note written by her daughter, while the other women talk about abortions and birth experiences.

The small section about Dorothy Barrett's daughter, Liz, is the stuff of Mommy Lit -- that genre spawned by chick lit once babies became a celebrity fashion accessory. Liz is an affluent New York City mother, the kind who can employ a nanny for when she wants to pursue her ceramics. She goes to a playdate where she and another mommy outdo each other with tales of their upper-class parenting hardships. Little is gained from this addition to the narrative, but the novel is so wonderful leading up to this section, that little is lost.

What the contemporary section does make clear is that Walbert is as at home in 1914 England as she is in present-day New York. Her research never draws attention to itself but merely provides a backdrop to the characters' stories, though the reader is jarred awake in the contemporary narratives. Blogging enters the novel, and the bright white screen of a computer is a harsh entry into the present day after the past narratives had been muted, quiet, an escape from our daily lives, though Walbert does a good job of capturing the particular culture of blogs and comments from readers named "LuvMyKoffee" and "Robinsnest."

A Short History of Women could be explosive -- there are wars and dead children, dead mothers, the breakdown of a marriage -- but Walbert treats her characters with gentleness and wry curiosity. The novel's dreamlike tone is punctuated with precisely calculated moments of humor and rage, guiding the reader to the heart of each character's genuine, baffled wonder at the ultimately unanswerable woman question. --Melissa Lion

Melissa Lion is the author of two young adult novels novels, Swollen and Upstream. She is a professional writer and blogger living in Portland, Oregon.

Valerie Sayers
Walbert's books have all dealt…with the lives of women, but this one is her most ambitious and impressive. The novel shuffles geographies and eras…as if to reflect the non-linear progress of feminism. Walbert also utilizes compression and flashback to sweep through time, her style reminiscent of a host of innovative writers from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Pat Barker…A Short History deals with complicated women living in complicated times, and if it is empathetic, it is also disturbing, as all moral conundrums are. It is a witty and assured testament to the women's movement and women writers, obscure and renowned.
—The Washington Post
Leah Hager Cohen
Nearly everything about Kate Walbert's new novel is wickedly smart…Walbert's primary concerns—unlike those of some of her characters—aren't political. Her writing wears both its intelligence and its ideology lightly. No manifesto, this is a gorgeously wrought and ultimately wrenching work of art.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Walbert-2004 National Book Award nominee for Our Kind-offers a beautiful and kaleidoscopic view of the 20th century through the eyes of several generations of women in the Townsend family. The story begins with Dorothy Townsend, a turn-of-the-century British suffragist who dies in a hunger strike. From Dorothy's death, Walbert travels back and forth across time and continents to chronicle other acts of self-assertion by Dorothy's female descendants. Dorothy's daughter, Evelyn, travels to America after WWI to make her name in the world of science-and escape from her mother's infamy. Decades later, her niece, also named Dorothy, has a late-life crisis and gets arrested in 2003 for taking photos of an off-limits military base in Delaware. Dorothy's daughters, meanwhile, struggle to find meaning in their modern bourgeois urban existences. The novel takes in historical events from the social upheaval of pre-WWI Britain to VJ day in New York City, a feminist conscious-raising in the '70s and the Internet age. The lives of these women reveal that although oppression of women has grown more subtle, Dorothy's self-sacrifice reverberates through generations. Walbert's look at the 20th century and the Townsend family is perfectly calibrated, intricately structured and gripping from page one. (June)

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Library Journal

When 34-year-old British feminist Dorothy Townsend intentionally starves herself to death to win attention for women's suffrage, she leaves behind two children. It's 1914, and the pair is separated, never to reunite. Walbert's latest work-her previous novel, Our Kind, was a 2004 National Book Award finalist-imagines the impact of Townsend's suicide on four successive generations of Townsend women, all of them named Dorothy. Was the act a sign of desperation, a brilliant way to divert attention from an impending world war, or a selfish renunciation of maternal obligation? Walbert's intricately layered novel examines the past 100 years with subtlety and wit, simultaneously addressing the ways historical memory intrudes and recedes in individual lives. It's gripping, intense, and powerful. Walbert's language is elegant, her images resonant. Characters are recognizable but not clichéd and will stay with readers as wise, if also flawed and struggling, exemplars of political and intellectual engagement. Highly recommended for all contemporary fiction collections.
—Eleanor J. Bader

Kirkus Reviews
Five generations of willful, restless women struggle to find an identity beyond that of wife and mother. Dorothy Trevor Townsend bequeathes one heck of a legacy when she dies at age 34 in 1914. The British suffragette starves herself to death as an act of civil disobedience, leaving behind two fatherless children and a married lover. Her act is doubly shocking, occurring as it does during the carnage of World War I. Dorothy's son Thomas ends up with family friends in California, becomes a musician and dies young of alcoholism. Daughter Evelyn endures wartime deprivations at boarding school before finding her way to America as well. She becomes a well-known chemistry professor at Barnard, eschewing traditional attachments and family life. Thomas's daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett, takes a different route, marrying and producing three children, only to realize in her 70s that she has always been miserable. So she protests the Iraq war, divorces her devoted husband Charles and starts a blog, to the horror of her responsible eldest daughter Caroline. With an empty nest and a divorce of her own, Caroline is stunned to recognize the role that fear has played in her life. Caroline's sister Liz, like the others, has talent and brains, but late motherhood and a busy, privileged life in Manhattan have made her question what it all means. When Liz was a child, she slipped into her mother's purse a verse she'd written that contained the line "I am a hollow bone." It resonates throughout the lives of all these women: "It's as if I echo, or rather, feel in myself an absence," says Dorothy Barrett. "I feel as if I've forgotten something, as if there's a question I forgot to answer." Walbert (Our Kind,2004, etc.) is careful to give equal weight to their challenges through different eras. The male characters are not as fully fleshed out as they could be, but Charles' longing for the wife he never really had is quite moving. Daring and devastating: 20th-century history made personal.

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Dover, Delaware, 2003

The soldiers keep Dorothy in view. She carries the tripod, unsteadily, and an extra poncho for a bib. That they have let her come this far might be due to weather, or possibly the kinds of amusements of which she remains unaware. Still, she assumes that they watch, tracking her as she stomps along the fence and positions herself by the sign that clearly states: No Trespassing, Government Property, Photography Forbidden.

It has turned a wet September, everywhere raining so the leaves, black and slick, paste to the soles of her boots. Really, they are Caroline's, Wellingtons borrowed from the back of the hallway closet where earlier Dorothy rummaged as Charles watched, wondering where she could possibly be going in such weather.

She turned, boot in hand.

"It's raining," he repeated.

Deaf at most decibels, Charles refused to wear aids (vanity? fear?), preferring to cast his voice into silence, hoping for an echo or a nod.

"Nowhere," she had said, because this is nowhere, or anywhere, or somewhere not particularly known: an hour's drive north if you took the busy roads, and then country, mostly, the drizzle graying the already gray landscape. Ye olde etcetera -- cornfields, silos, a ravaged billboard for Daniel's peas, fresh from California, though this is technically Delaware and the land of soybeans. Ducks, too, the fall season in full swing; the drizzle split by the crack crack crack of the hunters' guns.

She parks near the drainage ditch that edges the fence, chain link, as if for dogs, though there are no dogs here, only a guard tower, a landing field, and the soldiers who wait for the planes. But that isn'tright, exactly. The place is vast, a city of a place, with barracks -- are those called barracks? -- and trucks and cul-de-sacs and no doubt children sleeping, army brats -- or is this marines? -- in the two-story housing labyrinth not so distant from where she gets out, near the drainage ditch, near the landing field, near the place where the plane will descend. This she knows. The rest -- the presence of children, the numbers involved, the ranking, the hierarchy -- she truthfully has no idea.

Dorothy skewers the tripod in the mud and adjusts the poncho to cover her. Today, she plans to fight back. She can almost taste it; see herself in her resistance: Dorothy Barrett, granddaughter to the suffragette, mother to three: Caroline, Liz, and the dead one, James; wife to Charles. She mounts the camera on the track and angles the lens toward where the plane will descend -- they come from the East, she has learned, out of Mecca, the bodies mostly coffined, then wrapped in flags, but sometimes carried in a tiny box.

"Christ, Mother," Caroline said after the first arrest, the fine. "Get a life."

"Your great-grandmother starved to death on principle; she literally ate nothing."

"I know, I know. I've seen the postage stamp," Caroline said.

"I think it changed things then," Dorothy said. "To do something. She made up her mind; she took a stand -- "

"And look what happened to your dad? Anyway, you said she might have been unbalanced. A bit insane, wasn't she? You've said that before. She might have been suffering from -- "

"Hysteria?" Dorothy said, hearing her own tone of voice -- hysterical. "The point is, she did something."

"It's illegal to take pictures there."

"This is a free country."

"Please," Caroline said.

The two sat at Caroline's kitchen table, Caroline in one of her suits meant for business, her cigarette burning in the ashtray a tenyear- old James had spun out of clay. Caroline's daughter, little Dorothy, is elsewhere, having reached the age of the disappeared -- her voice shouting orders from behind the locked door of her bedroom or even standing present, her body a studded cast of her former self; if she is somewhere within it she is very, very deep.

"I should never have told you I voted for him," Caroline said.

"I would have guessed."

"Consider my client base," Caroline said.

"Please," Dorothy said.

"Anyway, the law has to do with respect," Caroline said. "Or something. They make the rules for a reason, I'm sure. It's none of our business. None of your business."

"Says who?" Dorothy said, to which Caroline had some sort of reply.

Dorothy listened for a while, and then she did not; she thought of other things, how she would like to have believed that not so long ago Caroline would have stood beside her at the fence, that she, former president of the student council and Future Leaders for Justice, might have carried a sign or at least shouted an obscenity. But this was before Caroline divorced and took that new job in the Financial District. The Dead Zone, she called it, but the money's good, she said. It's serious money.


"I was listening," Dorothy said.

"Forget it," Caroline said. She tapped her nails, those nails, on the table, then the doorbell rang -- pizza delivery -- and the conversation ended.

"Dinnertime," she yelled in the direction of the door.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

The soldiers have had enough. They climb down from their tower to slog through duck country, technically Delaware, the first state, though most have trouble with the history; one can hear their boots, or is that frogs? The sucking. Soon enough they'll reach her. Dorothy records their magnified approach; records them unlocking the gate and stepping to the other side, records their blank expressions. The trouble is she can only pretend to hate them.

"Good morning, Mrs. Barrett." This from the one Dorothy calls Tweedledee.

She straightens up, adjusts the poncho.

"We'll remind you that you're trespassing. That taking photographs is forbidden."

"Today," she says, hand on tripod. "I plan to resist."

Their arms remain folded. Four pair, as usual; a pack; a team; a unit, perhaps, or would they be a regiment? No, a regiment is bigger, a regiment is many. She tries to remember from mornings James explained the exact order of things -- sergeant to lieutenant to captain to king -- his miniature warriors arranged throughout the house in oddly purposeful groupings. She would find them everywhere, assaulting a sock, scaling the Ping-Pong table, plastic, molded men with clearly defined weaponry and indistinct faces. When she banished them to his room, fearing someone would trip and break a bone, James had cried and cried.

"That would be more than your usual fine, Mrs. Barrett."

He is a horse's ass, but then again, a boy once James's age, who should be pitied.

"I plan to resist," she repeats. One of the Mute Ones has his and out as if to help her across the muddy plain. They are waiting, she knows, for Dorothy to do something. Collapse, she thinks, then does, more a buckle than a collapse, knowing full well the ridiculousness of it, how small she'll become. The big one bends down to help her. Now, she thinks, though it is not until it is done that she understands she has found the courage to do it, biting the soft part of that hand, the hammock of skin between thumb and forefinger.

Caroline sits next to Charles in the detention waiting room, no question who's the boss. That girl could split atoms, Charles had once said. We ought to lease her to GE.

Sorry, darling, Dorothy mouths to him. He looks at her with his doggy yellow eyes not hearing a thing; then Caroline leads them both out.

In the fresh sunshine they blink; "Look how the weather's changed!" Dorothy says, reflexively. "What a treat!"

Caroline has opened the car door.

"Get in," she says.

They sit in silence all the way home, the radio punched to static and static and static then punched off, again, then the familiar drive, the front door, the hallway, the kitchen. Caroline makes tea and calls a what-there-is-of-the-Family Meeting, Liz trapped in the city, attempting another pregnancy (busy, busy, busy!), and the hole in the place where James would have been. Dorothy steps into it and wanders around while Caroline speaks of Responsibility and Reputation and Appropriate Behavior, and yes, Patriotism, but mostly, mostly, mostly, Mother, Embarrassment.

"And what of history?" Dorothy says. "Lineage?"

"Mother," Caroline says. "I'm at wit's end."

Dorothy would like to cradle Caroline in her arms, Caroline sleepy and hatted and a bit jaundice yellow, but she cannot. Caroline has grown; she's taller than Dorothy and now divorced and a multimillionaire, she has confessed. Mill-ions, she said.

"Where are your friends, Mother?" Caroline asks.

Dorothy shrugs. She hasn't thought of friends recently, nor her standing Wednesday at Sheer Perfection; her hair's gone shaggy and her cuticles have grown over their moons.

"I'm sorry, darling," she says. "I'll stop."

Copyright © 2009 by Kate Walbert

Meet the Author

Kate Walbert is the author of the novels A Short History of Women, named a top ten best book by The New York Times Book Review and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Our Kind, nominated for the National Book Award; and The Gardens of Kyoto, winner of the Connecticut Book Award. Walbert’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and the O. Henry Awards, and have twice been included in The Best American Short Stories.

Brief Biography

New York, New York, and Stony Creek, Connecticut
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
M.A. in English, New York University

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A Short History of Women 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
justjb More than 1 year ago
A story of 4 generations of women in one family. Feels disjointed at times . Starvation of one character leads the story. The book lacks inspiration . I found it rambling at times and incomprehensible at other times just boring.
Art-historian More than 1 year ago
The title certainly sets up a major puzzle for the reader -- whose history of women is this history, how can the history of women be short, and is this really a novel. None of those questions are ultimately relevant as the reader is quickly drawn into the immediate, personal lives of the women. Although I'm generally not a fan of books in which each chapter is told from a different point of view, the voices of the women in this book are, in the end, the voices of one woman. I did find one character to be somewhat less convincing than the others but by the end of the book, I was completely absorbed in the sense of despair and perhaps failure of the act which generates the entire novel. I didn't really care about separating the characters -- I cared more about leaving with a sense that it was worth it for the women in the extended family of the book. Perhaps a more honest title would have been "a short history of the women in this family" -- but the title Walbert chose made me read the book and I didn't regret it.
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Nonna_at_Sharon More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book highly. A beautiful look at the complicated relationships of mothers and daughters as women have tried to ensure equality.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author portrays the lives of women during many time periods in history, depicting what problems and obstacles they faced in a culture that believes women are inferior to men. She does an admirable job in describing the lives of women in one family over a period of decades. Any female reader will find herself or another woman family member in this book. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bought it for the book club reading. I only made it to 90 page, could not continue any further. Such an boring story. Save your $ and buy something else.