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Related Reading: A city of one’s own, The women who found themselves by moving to New York


July 31, 2022

Several years ago, my former Providence Journal colleague Carol McCabe mentioned that she had been one of the young women depicted in “The Bell Jar.” The one Sylvia Plath hadn’t liked.

Her tone was neutral. She might even have shrugged.

Though I meant to follow up immediately, I finally re-read “The Bell Jar” just last month, as the Supreme Court was erasing women’s reproductive rights. It was not a happy coincidence. Plath’s roman a clef plops you into the 1950s, when women’s aspirations were chillingly constrained, partly by the kill switch of their sexuality.

In 1953, Plath (like Carol) was chosen for a prestigious guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. “The Bell Jar” fictionalizes her experience that summer in New York. Despite her eventual suicide, Plath remains a stubborn symbol of young women who come to the city seeking transformation.

As noted by Paulina Bren in “The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free,” Plath would be followed two years later by Joan Didion. Like most in the years-long parade of guest editors, both stayed at the exclusive East Side residence.

Constructed in the 1920s, the Barbizon housed an evolving cast of driven women. Molly Brown (the unsinkable Titanic survivor) was one of the first. Grace Kelly was among dozens who would achieve fame as actors. In 1968, at 16, Phylicia Rashad checked in for a summer stint with a theater company.

To her credit, Bren moves beyond the Barbizon to tell a broader story of women tested and shaped by New York. Especially lively is her account of the speakeasies, many of them run by women, which proliferated during Prohibition.

In the years after World War I, New York offered the “New Woman” a chance to live independently, typically by taking an office job. The Barbizon embodied the idea that glamour and young female ambition could coexist.

Once the Depression hit, however, the country reverted to the idea that women belonged at home. They were often criticized for taking jobs away from men. Forgive them the need. By 1934, Bren reports, 75,000 homeless single women were living in New York.

Joanna Scutts, in “Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism,” reaches further back, to the early 20th century, when a group of influential women formed a club called Heterodoxy.

Its founder, Marie Jenney Howe, was a thwarted Unitarian minister who came to New York in 1910, by way of Syracuse, Des Moines, and Cleveland. (One of her eventual recruits, the novelist and dramatist Susan Glaspell, made her way to the city from Iowa.) Because the group kept no records, Scutts has traced its impact through the stories of individual members.

Most were well educated and, though little known today, prominent public figures. Their overlapping concerns included women’s rights, sexual autonomy, and labor conditions. Grace Nail Johnson, the only Black member, pushed to keep racial justice at the forefront.

If the climb facing denizens of the Barbizon looks formidable, it was inordinately steeper for the women of Heterodoxy. Though they experienced the years between 1912 and the end of World War I as a time of hope and freedom, their efforts to achieve change were often belittled. Only 23 women marched in the first suffrage parade; public speaking by women was considered repellent and unladylike.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, probably the most recognizable name on Heterodoxy’s roster, emphasized the importance for women of being self-supporting. Her book “Women and Economics” became a touchstone. Several members were drawn to trade unionism, involving themselves, for instance, in the garment workers strike of 1909.

Among several fascinating figures whom Scutts profiles is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Unlike most of Heterodoxy’s members, Flynn grew up poor, becoming a full-time organizer at 17 (and later a passionate Communist). In Lawrence, Mass., her fiery speeches helped goad textile workers into carrying out a successful strike.

Progress was slow. Power remained concentrated in capitalist hands; women faced tremendous obstacles in entering the professions and securing well-paid work. Despite great effort, they did not secure the vote until 1920.

In the light of where women now stand, looking back on it all can be dispiriting. The gains seem so modest, and, worse, impermanent.

And yet there’s my colleague Carol. From “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath,” Heather Clark’s fine new biography, I learned that she had sobbed on first reading and recognizing herself in “The Bell Jar.” Nevertheless, she had years of distinguished writing ahead of her (she died just last year), and raised two daughters by herself.

The detachment she arrived at was surely earned, but also, I suspect, shared. It might have been familiar to so many women who came to New York before her. There, they learned just how hard everything was going to be. To survive, they would have to give themselves room.

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