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A Short History of Women

A Short History of Women

3.0 18
by Kate Walbert, Eliza Foss (Narrated by), Ruth Moore (Narrated by), Paula Parker (Narrated by), Nicola Barber (Read by)

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The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants. Among them are her daughter Evie, who becomes a professor of chemistry at Barnard College in the


The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants. Among them are her daughter Evie, who becomes a professor of chemistry at Barnard College in the middle of the century and never marries, and her granddaughter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, who focuses her grief over the loss of her son by repeatedly defying the ban on photographing the bodies of dead soldiers returned to Dover Air Force base from Iraq. The contemporary chapters chronicle Dorothy Barrett's girls, both young professionals embarrassed by their mother's activism and baffled when she leaves their father after fifty years of marriage. Walbert deftly explores the ways in which successive generations of women have attempted to articulate what the nineteenth century called the woman question. Her novel is a moving reflection on the tides of history, and how the lives of our great-grandmothers resonate in our own.

Editorial Reviews

“Ruth Moore gives the budding suffragist a suitably spirited voice, and Nicola Barber uses a meditative tone and precise delivery to portray the self-contained Evelyn, who becomes a scientist in the U.S. after WWI. Narrator Eliza Foss shines as she expresses the anger felt by Dorothy Barrett, a woman in late middle age.”

The New York Times Book Review
“Wickedly smart. . . . Wears both its intelligence and its ideology lightly. . . . A gorgeously wrought and ultimately wrenching work of art.”
The New York Times Book Review
The Seattle Times
“Perfectly calibrated, intricately structured, and gripping from page one.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Washington Post
“Ambitious . . . wickedly funny.”
The Seattle Times
The Plain Dealer
“Reminiscent of a host of innovative writers from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Pat Barker….A witty and assured testament to the women’s movement and women writers, obscure and renowned.”
The Washington Post
Library Journal
In her third novel, following the National Book Award nominee Our Kind (2004), Walbert (www.katewalbert.com) explores the long-range impact of the women's movement through five generations of the Townsend family. The story opens in 1915 as British suffragette Dorothy Townsend starves herself for the cause and continues into the 21st century as two sisters who have it all—career, education, and children—feel constantly that they are shortchanging at least one of those aspects of their lives. Though this audio lacks the helpful lineage the print edition provides, the multivoice narration more than compensates as Nicola Barber, Ruth Moore, Kathleen McInerney, Eliza Foss, and Paula Parker help listeners to distinguish among the many characters, through all their interwoven stories. An excellent choice for book discussion groups. [The Scribner hc, a New York Times Best Book of 2009, was described as being "gripping, intense, and powerful," LJ 1/09.—Ed.]—Nann Blaine Hilyard, Zion-Benton P.L., IL
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
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
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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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.
From the Publisher
"Wickedly smart . . . A gorgeously wrought and ultimately wrenching work of art."
—Leah Hager Cohen, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"Ambitious and impressive . . . Reminiscent of a host of innovative writers from Virginia Woolf to Muriel Spark to Pat Barker . . . A witty and assured testament to the women’s movement and women writers, obscure and renowned.”—Washington Post

"A subtle and profound book, as thought-provoking as it is moving."
—Ann Packer, author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier

"What a marvelous book: one part Transit of Venus, one part Stone Diaries, one part incomparable. Actually, that's not true: she write like a female Ian McEwan."—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

Product Details

HighBridge Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged 8 hours on 7 CDs
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 5.94(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

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't right, 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

What People are Saying About This

Ann Packer
“Luminous . . . A subtle and profound book, as thought provoking as it is moving.”
—Ann Packer

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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.
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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.