A Short History of Women

When my mother-in-law, Dorothy, met her three-month old granddaughter for the first time, she held her lovingly and commented, “I wonder what you will be when you grow up,” knowing she would not live long enough to know.

In A Short History of Women, Dorothy Trevor Townsend chooses to deny herself the knowledge of her own daughter’s future. Dorothy, the early 1900’s English suffragette, decides to go on a hunger strike and die for the cause, when her daughter, Evelyn, is thirteen.

Kate Walbert fills in the story of the feisty, intelligent Dorothy – looking for “something to do; something to live for…” – her life leading to her fatal decision and the effect on her children’s lives: Evelyn is sent to boarding school; Thomas, her younger brother and a music prodigy, is sent to California. Their once close relationship disintegrates; their lives, of course, are never the same.

Walbert continues the family legacy through several generations of women, and conveniently provides a family tree. It’s a handy reference, if only to be sure which Dorothy she is talking about, as she jumps back and forth through the generations.

A few men are sprinkled in the story – husbands, boyfriends, lovers – but Walbert keeps the story focused on women, making a case that the fire of advocacy lives on, however dormant, and sooner or later, sparks again.   She uses flashback to fill in the details of  the key characters’  lives – Dorothy, her daughter Evelyn, and her granddaughter Dorothy.  Discontent is the constant catalyst for action.

“I didn’t sign on for this…It’s all so bloody predictable…what…we women do…we play our roles, we speak our lines, we go along…

In A Short History of Women, Dorothy’s passion skips a generation; it’s her granddaughter, Dorothy, born in 1930 and in her seventies when introduced in the story, who takes a stand for a cause. To the chagrin of her conservative and careful daughter, Caroline, this Dorothy keeps getting arrested, after her son is killed.  She breaks into restricted government areas to photograph the bodies of dead soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Her profile resembles an older version of Cindy Sheehan, who also lost her son in the war.

Characters fall into predictable stereotypes: the married women’s discontent with either lack of time for a career, or career that took away time from children, depending on the generation.    At times, Walbert’s obvious penchant for promoting the independence of women, and bemoaning their constant struggle to be on par with men gets tedious.

“ You must be fast…You must do things that much quicker than the boys do. And you must understand that you will do them alone, that no one will pay attention. If they do, they will not be pleased…”

But, Walbert’s talent for description gets you into the heads of the characters.

“Around them the landscape had become dense, and wild, and the towering, thick-trunked walnut trees too costly to take down, though Dorothy daily complained they were a dirty nuisance, blocking the sun from her rhododendron and azaleas. Perhaps this was the first sign: her impatience for gardening, her fury… and that spring, Dorothy had taken her spade and unearthed the marred brown bulbs, tossing the lot into the trash.”

It’s unlikely that the ambitions of a great-great grandmother would influence her descendant’s decisions in the modern world. Yet, Walbert uses that premise as great-granddaughter Dorothy (who wants to be known as Dora), carries the torch to the present. If you haven’t figured it out by now, only those named Dorothy in the story seem to have inherited that revolutionary gene.

Although a little trite in its obvious emphasis on women’s frustrating struggle to achieve  and to be happy, A Short History of Women is a  satisfying read and a convincing and touching reflection on how the lives of women have changed over the years – or have they?