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We’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe?



FORMIDABLE: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020, by Elisabeth Griffith

On July 16, 1998, Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed an audience of 16,000 gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first women’s rights convention. “Imagine, if you will, that you are Charlotte Woodward,” Clinton preached, “a 19-year-old glove maker working and living in Waterloo. Every day you sit for hours sewing … working for small wages you cannot even keep … knowing that if you marry, your children and even the clothes on your body will belong to your husband.” During her speech, Clinton claimed to hear the echoes of her predecessors — Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass — as she gripped a podium not far from the Methodist Chapel where Elizabeth Cady Stanton first demanded voting rights for women to a crowd of 300. The church had since been converted into a laundromat and car dealership, and as Clinton spoke, her husband, then president of the United States, was having a sexual affair with a White House intern. Within months, he would be impeached. Within a decade and a half, Hillary herself would run for president of the most powerful country in the world.

This snapshot illustrates the merits of Elisabeth Griffith’s engaging, relevant and sweeping chronicle of women’s fight for equality in the United States — and by examining 100 years of history through a feminist lens, a pattern emerges: Each blow from the patriarchy is countered by a well-aimed and calculated retaliation from American women.

Books of true feminist history are rare. Rarer still are these histories intersectional; feminist history tends to be synonymous with white women’s history. Not this book. Griffith delivers a multiracial, inclusive timeline of the struggles and triumphs of both Black and white women in America. “Historically, the white press has not covered the activism of Black women,” she writes. (Her previous book centered on the life of Cady Stanton.) Despite difficult-to-find archival sources, Griffith says, “I’ve named as many women as possible.”

A profoundly illuminating tour de force, Griffith’s book begins with Susan B. Anthony and unfolds chronologically, sorted into chapters that track a “pink” timeline of history. “Fifty years ago, when women’s history was struggling for legitimacy in academia,” Griffith explains, “feminists divided American history into ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ timelines. Conference panels debated whether Zachary Taylor’s presidency was more relevant to women’s lives than the invention of the tin can, or whether Jacksonian democracy deserved a chapter when the suffrage campaign did not.”

“Formidable” is organized around major fights: voting rights, working conditions, education access, health care, racial violence, reproductive rights, race and gender discrimination, the wage gap, electoral office. In this immense survey, Griffith is inclined to examine every motivation of her subjects as she unearths long-buried intersectional archives. Most notable is her articulation of the malignant dysfunction as women struggle to find a unified, inclusive path to equality. She is not content to leave out the many moments of white women falling back to self-interested silos. “White women have always been complicit in slavery,” she says.

Griffith excels in examining each feminist cause and its accompanying downsides, starting with the first women’s rights convention, which also initiated the friction between the abolitionists and feminists. “Women are a complex cohort,” she writes. “The drive for women’s rights came from the abolition movement. Enslaved African Americans suffered, struggled and sabotaged the system. A few other Americans sympathized and strategized to abolish it. White women were not exposed to the physical and sexual terror suffered by enslaved women, but their own physical vulnerability and legal subordination prompted comparisons.”

Yes, the suffragists fought for equality, but allegiance with the abolitionists was elusive. “White women wanted the same rights as white men. Black women wanted the same rights as white citizens; theirs was never a women-only movement.” Griffith does not skim over the spots when the suffrage movement splintered. Rather, she understands the assignment: All are invited but no one is off the hook.

There is power in Griffith’s writing — not the style, which is factual and straightforward, but in the cumulative efforts of the hundreds, if not thousands, of characters that she acknowledges. At times, the book’s sheer scope is overwhelming, like listening to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — a fire hose of information, names and actions, protests and pantsuits. Ida B. Wells and Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosie the Riveter and Rosa Parks. Josephine Baker and Aretha Franklin. Ella Baker and Flo Kennedy. Miss America and the vexation of Phyllis Schlafly. Title VII. The 19th Amendment. Roe v. Wade. Anita Hill and Alix Kates Shulman and Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers Union. Fannie Lou Hamer. Angela Davis and Alicia Garcia. Women’s soccer and the black bra. Patrisse Cullors. Tamika Mallory. Carmen Perez. Linda Sarsour. Bob Bland. The result is a memorial of female freedom fighters, long overdue, and the emergence of a set of instructions for the next generation.

Thus, the reader is carried not by the storyteller but by the tale and takeaway: Success comes not from short manic bursts of effort, but from a constant carrying of the torch. As America descends deeper into paralysis and polarization, Griffith’s subtle and accessible examination shows that victories arise through the miracle of cooperation. Not by factional division but through unity and perseverance. Feminist history is written every day, and Griffith leaves us with the reminder that there is much work to do, as always. That the work for equal rights is more than just hitting “like” on a supportive post, a reactionary retweet, or donning a pink knit hat at the occasional protest. Feminist work must be ongoing and unified, a long and steady lifetime commitment that will continue to propel the movement.

“Formidable” is a shock and a lesson, a reminder that if we want to persevere we must be ready to begin again and again, again and again.

Mira Ptacin is the author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” as well as the feminist history “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna.” She teaches at Colby College and to incarcerated women at the Maine Correction Center.

FORMIDABLE: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020, by Elisabeth Griffith | Illustrated | 493 pp. | Pegasus | $35


An American Life in a Million Glances



In COMING AND GOING (Mack Books, paperback, $85), the Connecticut-born photographer Jim Goldberg pieces together the chapters of his life in a million glances. In 1985, Goldberg published “Rich and Poor,” capturing in words and images both sides of the economic divide in pre-internet San Francisco. A decade later he released “Raised by Wolves,” which documented runaway teenagers across California, again alongside their own handwritten commentary.

Here Goldberg turns the lens onto himself, showing us fragments of his own life from 1980 on in collages of photos overlaid with other ephemera: a typed letter he wrote to his dad, locks of hair, his daughter’s toothbrushes, unidentified photo cutouts and his own contact sheets.

Together these form a deeply personal visual memoir: the orange tree his dad planted in Florida in 1980; and that same tree years later, now just a broken stump standing behind his older parents in a photo framed by so many others of the couple throughout their life together. Goldberg shows us his own marriage too: a Polaroid of a young woman in a black bathing suit on which he’s written, “THIS IS THE MOMENT I FELL IN LOVE”; the birth of his daughter; her first days at school. We watch the generations age over the course of the book; we see the heartbreak of his divorce and the grief over his mother’s cancer diagnosis and death. In the images he’s amassed over a lifetime, Goldberg shows the beauty and sorrow of everyday existence.

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Whatever Happened to Local Comedy Scenes?



Paris in the 1920s. Hollywood in the ’70s. Chicago in the ’90s?

It’s long been my after-midnight-at-the-bar theory that when it comes to urban cultural vanguards, the Michael Jordan era belongs in the pantheon. Full disclosure: I was there and missed it all.

Despite living in Chicago when young improvisers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Adam McKay were killing in front of live crowds, I never saw any perform. I don’t have a story of bumping into the legendary comedy teacher Del Close or catching Kanye West’s original rap group. I missed Liz Phair as well as the indie-rock renaissance pushed by labels like Drag City and Touch and Go Records.

Just when I thought the cultural obliviousness of my college years couldn’t be greater, a new book, “The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side,” opens another avenue of regret. Its author, the comic Mike Bridenstine, makes a persuasive case that Chicago in the late ’90s and aughts was one of the great incubators of modern stand-up. Bridenstine was part of it, but his account, catnip for comedy nerds, benefits from detailed reporting, tracking the careers of, among others, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Beth Stelling and Cameron Esposito.

Packed with fabled stand-ups who never made it big and their intimate shows, his punchy chapters are perfect for those who argue about comedy the way Stephen A. Smith does about sports. Was the Lyon’s Den (where Holmes and Nanjiani started the same week) the greatest comedy open mic in history? Did T.J. Miller revolutionize crowd work? Does Matt Braunger deserve to be compared to Robin Williams and Will Ferrell? This book should start some fights.

But there’s also a challenging broader argument buried here, about the conditions that make for great art, one that hints at a pessimistic outlook about local scenes in the age of social media.

Chicago has long been known as a place for artists to get good, not famous. It’s far enough from the coasts to keep industry executives at bay. This has produced many eccentric artists and chips on shoulders. For stand-ups, the fact that it was renowned as an improv town was one chip; the second was that the only major club, Zanies, did not book many local acts.

“The best thing that ever happened to comedy in Chicago was Zanies saying you can’t perform here,” Bridenstine, 44, told me in a recent phone interview. Rejection fueled comics to start their own shows, presenting bills in restaurant back rooms, bars and scrappy festivals. The isolation of these shows, their lack of publicity, meant that crowds were locals not tourists, die-hards not casual fans. Originality mattered as much as killing. “There was pressure, in a really good way, to be different and weird,” the comic Brooke Van Poppelen says in the book.

This resulted in comics like the wry political observer Dwayne Kennedy, who inspired considerable awe and gushing among peers. “The fact Dwayne Kennedy is not a household name is insanity,” Sarah Silverman has said. One possible explanation might be found from a producer, who says that to book him, you needed to fax his dad.

An early provocateur, Bill O’Donnell was famous for incorporating vomiting into his act. There were guys with nicknames like Tommy Mayo, and others like Nick Vatterott, who refused to do the same joke twice in a week and performed a bit as a ventriloquist’s dummy that required him to sit inside a box for two hours. He delivered a hilarious set on “The Tonight Show” years ago that hinged on him pretending to forget a joke. “Nick Vatterott is my evidence that comedy is not a meritocracy,” Bridenstine said. “I don’t know anybody funnier than him. And I know a lot of people more famous and successful.”

Along with stories of the famous and forgotten, the book leans on the journalism of Allan Johnson, a critic for The Chicago Tribune who died at 46 in 2006. He was an early champion of Bernie Mac, probably the greatest comic to emerge from Chicago that decade and the book’s most glaring omission. (In the 1990s, comedy was more segregated than today, and there is scant coverage here of predominantly Black rooms.) The attention Johnson lavished on local shows, in praise and criticism, was an important spotlight, drawing audiences and creating conversation. His coverage is also an integral source for this book. Considering the depleted state of newspapers, in Chicago and elsewhere, one wonders about the local comedy coverage future authors will draw upon.

The more significant contrast with comedy today is the minor role of the internet. It’s not merely that there wasn’t the push to turn your jokes into videos. Comics were less aware of their peers in other cities in the 1990s, and thus there wasn’t the same anxiety of influence. One Chicago comic, John Roy, describes the sense of wanting to embrace alt comedy on the coasts, but only vaguely knowing about it from reading about Patton Oswalt or seeing Janeane Garofalo on HBO. “We’re trying to reverse engineer this idea of alternative comedy from a couple articles in Rolling Stone and a special,” Roy says in the book. “You don’t really know what it is. But you subsequently get a lot of creativity because people start going: ‘Well, I got to be weird.’”

The internet — with social media and sites like YouTube — diminished the distance between scenes and put all comics in the same digital room. This has advantages. Comedy is bigger than ever, and it’s easier to find quality jokes. Bridenstine argued that while there are more good stand-up shows in Chicago today, the scene isn’t producing “Kinanes, Kumails, Beths or Hannibals.”

Is this merely nostalgia? Perhaps a bit, but it’s fair to ask a troubling question: Is the internet killing off distinct local comedy scenes?

There is a long history of cities producing their own comedic aesthetics. Boston is blustery and blue collar (think Bill Burr), while San Francisco is wild and experimental (see Robin Williams). Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have their own styles, too. These are all simplifications, but they matter. When everyone can see everyone else online, parallel thinking in jokes increases, and comics move to New York and Los Angeles quickly after viral fame, making coherent local identities harder to maintain.

Who you are around as a young artist is tremendously important. Now we are all, to some degree, around the same people. To be sure, “you had to be there” is a real thing, especially with live comedy, and the internet is full of niches where subcultures can flourish, but whether they will be closely associated with cities is an open question.

Bridenstine sounded skeptical. “City scenes don’t exist in isolation like they used to,” he said, adding a note of optimism while tossing one more chip on his shoulder. “I think new styles will evolve and people will decide to be new and different whenever this current way of arena rock comedy gets old.”

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The Most Novelistic Part That Patrick Stewart Ever Played



“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

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