Category: Non-Fiction

She-Wolves

Cover image for She-Wolves by Helen Castorby Helen Castor

ISBN 9780571237050

“Amid the chaos and confusion, one thing alone was certain: for the first time, a woman would sit upon the throne of England.”

When King Edward VI died in July 1553, the Tudor line of succession was in a peculiar position. Henry VIII had left behind one son—now dead—and two supposedly illegitimate daughters from earlier marriages. Henry VIII also had two sisters, Mary and Margaret, whose living descendants were all daughters. Thus, all the potential claimants to the throne were women, and while the identity of the next occupant of the English throne was by no means certain, the fact that England would have its first reigning Queen seemed indisputable. In order to contextualize the succession crises that followed Edward VI’s death, historian Helen Castor examines four precedents for female power in England, from the Empress Matilda in the 12th century, to Margaret of Anjou in the 15th.

Of the four women Castor profiles in She-Wolves, only one was an English-born princess who aimed to rule the country in her own right. She was also the earliest. When her father Henry I died without any living legitimate sons in 1135, his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, was named as his heir and sought to claim his throne, but was usurped by her cousin, Stephen, who moved decisively to claim the crown. With her illegitimate half-brother at the head of her armies, Matilda fought for her rights, but the fact the she was unable to lead troops herself is one of the many factors Castor cites in her inability to gain a decisive advantage. The result was a civil war that tore the country apart for a generation, and ended only with a compromise; Matilda would never rule in her own right, but her son, Henry II would be Stephen’s heir. It would be another four hundred years before the country was faced with the prospect of being ruled by a woman outright.

The remaining three women were not English by birth, but French-born princesses and duchesses who married into the English royal family, the first being Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Here were three more typical examples of the means by which women could expect to wield power, in the names of their husbands and sons. From crusades to foreign wars to mental incapacity and long minorities, there were a variety of extenuating circumstances in which English Queens Consort or Queen Mothers might temporarily take hold of the reins of power. But as Castor’s account makes clear, the prospect of being reigned by a woman rarely sat easily, or lasted long, save in the hands of the cleverest politicians. Isabella of France would seize power from her inept husband, Edward II, in the name of their young son, only to succumb to the same excesses that had made her husband so deeply unpopular, and live to see that power seized back by the teenage son for whom she claimed to rule.

Castor acknowledges the difficulties inherent in writing about these four women particularly that, despite being Queens, the records of their lives are shockingly spotty. In many places, it is necessary to infer what their actions or motives might have been based on the surrounding context of documented English politics and history of the period. Castor relies on contemporary chroniclers, but duly notes their sympathies and prejudices, mindful of the fact that their accounts are often coloured by their own loyalties and preferences. In many places there are long gaps, such as the fifteen year period when Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept under house arrest after leading her sons into rebellion against their father. If it is not quite possible to know the personalities of these women, however, their strengths and weaknesses as politicians at least come into focus.

Overall, She-Wolves stands out due to the unique structure Castor employs, in which she opens with Edward VI’s death, turns back the clock to profile the four Queens, and then returns to the Tudor succession crisis to view it in light of what we have learned. The result is a unique take on a period of history that is already well-covered. Fans of the Tudors should note that while they frame this story, they are not the primary focus, and that the bulk of the text is dedicated to the women who preceded them.

You might also like:

How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser

Because Internet

Cover image for Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochby Gretchen McCulloch

ISBN 978-0-7352-1093-6

“Whatever else is changing for good or bad in the world, the continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems, nor the cause of them. It simply is. You never truly step in the same English twice.”

Canadian internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch studies the informal written English that has grown up around our use of the internet, as well as text messaging and chat services. Because Internet covers a lot of ground, from typographical methods of conveying tone of voice, to emoji as gesture, to the evolution of memes, and the centuries-long quest for sarcasm punctuation. Her study focuses predominantly on English, with occasional examples from other languages and cultures. Taking a broad view, McCulloch surveys the origins and precursors of how informal written language has evolved since took to the web, and will continue to develop as new generations make their own changes and additions to the lexicon.

Because Internet is a prescriptivist’s nightmare; McCulloch is less interested in how we should use language, than in describing how our use of the written word has evolved to help us communicate over the internet, and through other forms of technological mediation. As she points out, “standard language and correct spelling are collective agreements, not eternal truths.” She notes that the fact that young women lead linguistic change is so well established as to be an unremarkable state of affairs in linguistic circles. But it also likely helps explain why such changes are so heavily derided; young women are rarely taken seriously. However, McCulloch approaches her study with the same attention and rigour usually devoted to more formalized texts.

One of the most interesting sections of the book covers the evolution of emoticons and emoji to facilitate text-based communication. McCulloch contends that they serve the purpose of mitigating a feature that is both a strength and weakness of writing—it is disembodied. The disadvantage becomes evident “when it comes to representing emotions and other mental states.” What is stunning is that over time, “a couple billion internet users had subconsciously, collectively, and spontaneously” mapped the functions of embodied gestures and facial expressions on the capacity for text or image-based icons to convey those missing nuances.

McCulloch also maps some subtle changes in the way we use punctuation. In informal writing, terminal periods have begun to disappear, to the point that younger people will sometimes read a period as passive aggressive. Falling somewhere in between the two age groups, I looked at my own text messaging history and realized that, indeed, my terminal periods had largely disappeared. I would end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation point, but if the final punctuation mark would have been a period, I generally left it off and simply sent the message. Similarly, different generations use ellipses in different ways. While older people will use the … as a connector between thoughts, younger people will tend to read in hesitance, or omission, and wonder what isn’t being said.

In a guest post on Whatever, McCulloch explains that she decided to write to the reader of the future. So if you are what McCulloch calls a current “Full Internet Person,” certain explanations will probably feel unnecessary, but as time passes this context will become more important for everyone, just as it is currently useful for “Semi Internet People” who don’t live and breathe memes, and aren’t on the cutting edge of every social media trend. This approach does make for some sections that feel a bit overwritten for the current reader, but the current reader is only current for this fleeting moment in time. Because Internet captures the early linguistic evolution of informal writing on the internet.

You might also like Lost in Translation 

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji Yoshinoby Kenji Yoshino

ISBN 978-0-375-76021-1

 “In the new generation, discrimination directs itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms.”

Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on gay rights and marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Yoshino attributes the term “covering” to Erving Goffman’s 1963 book, Stigma, from which he quotes, “passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness.” Despite the significant progress made for civil rights in general, and gay rights in particular, Yoshino was left feeling that the transformation was incomplete, and that there were gaps yet to bridge to achieve true acceptance. American culture has largely moved past the demand that gay people convert to being straight (conversation therapy) and even somewhat past the demand that gay people pass for straight within society (don’t ask, don’t tell). Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs.

Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. He identifies four areas where covering takes place, including appearance, affiliation, activism, and association. He also delves deep into the possible problems and potential pitfalls of protecting behaviour as well as identity. First, he acknowledges the complexity of identifying what counts as covering. For example, for some members of the gay community, gay marriage might be considered a form of covering because it asks them to assimilate to straight cultural norms by adopting a straight cultural institution that is not compatible with their values or preferences. Yoshino also stresses that rejecting covering cannot come with an inverse demand that minorities act “gay enough” or “black enough,” thus inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. “My ultimate commitment is to autonomy as a means of achieving authenticity, rather than to a fixed conception of what authenticity must be,” he concludes.

As a gay Japanese American, Yoshino is able to personally touch on covering as it pertains to both race and sexual identity, and he weaves his personal experiences into these discussions, sharing how he continued to cover aspects of his identity long after he came out to his parents. However, he also addresses gender and disability, even though he does not personally experience these covering demands. He identifies a unique double-bind experienced by women in the workplace, where they are “pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but “feminine” enough to be respected as women.” Motherhood also offers a unique example of contextual covering. Outside of work, “mothers seems like paragons of normalcy,” but on the job they are “the queers of the workplace,” forced to downplay this aspect of their identity in order to avoid the mommy track.

Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. But he chose the law, because “a gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person. Law school promised to arm me with a new language, a language I did not expect to be elegant or moving, but I expected to be more potent, more able to protect me.” However, his command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

You might also like Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino

Range

Cover image for Range by David Epsteinby David Epstein

ISBN 978-0-7352-1448-4        

“Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

Most people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule, as studied by Anders Ericsson, and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength.

It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, he is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving. He specifically identifies “kind” domains in which the rules are relatively fixed, and feedback is immediate, and more “wicked” domains where results take longer to reveal themselves, and the rules are subject to change at any moment, if any patterns can be discerned at all.

Epstein has a great eye for stories, and a knack for telling them well. He opens each chapter with a case that illustrates the point, before he lays out the somewhat drier data that buttresses his argument. One of the most fascinating of these is the story of the figlie del coro, female orphans and foundlings from the Venetian ospedali. Given over to the orphanage by their mothers—who were probably sex workers—the girls were raised to music from an early age, taught to sing and play a variety of instruments. Although these women were hailed as among the best musicians of the period, and had the vaunted early start, they spent much less time per day practicing than today’s classically trained musicians, and they switched and sampled instruments often. In fact, they were known to switch places mid-performance. Their story illustrates that even in “kind” domains like classical music, there are paths to outrageous success that do not follow what we think of as the typical path. And the examples provided are not just historical; in the world of modern music, Yo-Yo Ma tried violin and piano before settling on the cello.

Yet another of Epstein’s gripping stories comes from endeavours like InnoCentive, a company founded to search for unusual solutions to sophisticated problems that have stumped experts in the fields from which the problems arose. Thus, a man with experience working with concrete solved the problem of how to remove congealed oil from an environmental recovery barge, and the dean of a library school who had no library science background discovered a potential link between migraines and magnesium deficiency, which was documented in the available literature, but which no researcher or neurologist had ever connected before. These cases make for a compelling argument not only for individual range, but for diversity within teams that are solving problems, so that not everyone is working out of the same toolbox.

Given the early pressure for students to specialize, and the popularity of books such as Grit, which valourize persistence to a fault, Range offers an interesting counterpoint to this tendency to try to get ahead. Yet Epstein points out that students who chose to specialize early were more likely to switch fields later. Education doesn’t just provide work skills, it also helps students identify the areas that are a good match for their strengths and preferences. Experience is never wasted, and exploration is part of the point of education. We cannot know in advance how seemingly unrelated skills may help us down the road.

You might also like Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Custodians of the Internet

Cover image for Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespieby Tarleton Gillespie

ISBN 978-0-300-17313-0

“The fantasy of a truly ‘open’ platform is powerful, resonating with deep, utopian notions of community and democracy—but it is just that, a fantasy. There is no platform that does not impose rules, to some degree. Not to do so would be simply untenable.”

No matter what web platforms you use, the contents presented to you inside that software shell are shaped by a series of policies and decisions which are probably largely invisible to you as the end user. Focusing on the major English language platforms, Custodians of the Internet analyzes the myth of the neutral platform, introduces the US regulatory scheme that gave rise to the current state of affairs, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the different moderation methods currently in use, as well as making some modest proposals for how adjust the situation going forward. Tarleton Gillespie is both an academic and a tech industry insider, employed by Microsoft Research New England, as well as Cornell University. The book is published by Yale University Press.

Custodians of the Internet aims to focus our attention on the hidden work that the social media platforms would rather have remain invisible. Content moderation functions silently behind the scenes, and the end user never knows what it is they do not see. Moreover, thanks to personalization algorithms, they do not know what they see that others do not, and vice-versa. The content is not only moderated, it is also curated, often to maximize engagement and time on screen. Platforms have worked very hard to preserve this illusion of smooth operation, requiring their third-party moderators to sign non-disclosure agreements, and remaining tight-lipped about how they decide what to allow on their sites, and how their algorithms function. Most people spend little or no time thinking about what isn’t on the platforms they use, or why they see what they do see, but these invisible boundaries are what shape and distinguish these spaces, and constitute them into usable, monetizable products.

Gillespie also attempts to encompass the inherent and irreconcilable complexity of the moderation endeavour, and the broad range of unseen work it entails, from policy teams, to crowd workers, to individual users who are deputized rate or report content. He includes analysis of three main moderation strategies, which are editorial review, user flagging, and automatic detection. Each strategy has constrains and weaknesses. For example, editorial review is hugely labour intensive, flagging mechanisms can be abused for social or political purposes, and even potential violations automatically detected by a computer often need to be verified by human eyes. While it is easy for users or the media to criticize a particular moderation decision or policy, Gillespie is determined to highlight the broader context and framework inside which each individual decision is ultimately made and disputed.

Gillespie identifies two categories that platforms tend to fall into when it comes to moderation; they position themselves either as “speech machines” or “community keepers,” and build their policies around those stances. However, he does not oversimplify, noting the tension and interplay between the two camps, and how platforms ricochet between these justifications when trying to position themselves in the best possible light, often after an individual decision comes under scrutiny. As Gillespie puts it, “If social media platforms were ever intended to embody the freedom of the web, then constraints of any kind run counter to these ideals, and moderation must be constantly disavowed. Yet if platforms are supposed to offer anything better than the chaos of the open web, then oversight is central to that offer—moderation is the key commodity, and must be advertised in the most appealing possible terms.” It is a contradiction that can never be fully reconciled, and one that is inevitably shaped by the economic imperatives of making a platform profitable as well as functional.

For those unfamiliar with American law, Gillespie includes an introduction to Section 230, the provision of telecommunications regulation better known as “safe harbor” that holds intermediaries or conduits innocent of any responsibility for the speech or content of their users. It further stipulates that moderation in good faith does not change this provision. This regime was designed for the telephone era, and Gillespie convincingly argues that social media platforms, which the law could not have foreseen, “violate the century-old distinction between deeply embedded in how we think about media and communication,” and further that they constitute “a hybrid that has not been anticipated by information law or public debate.” The book is not largely focused on solutions, but Gillespie does propose that safe harbour need not be unconditional. Rather, platforms could be asked to meet certain requirements in order to maintain that status, whether that means greater transparency or improved appeal structures. However it seems likely that the platforms would vociferously oppose any change to this generous provision, which grants them the best of both worlds—the right to remove any content they please, but responsibility for none of it.

Gillespie is largely interested in looking at the big picture, and at the breadth of content which platforms host and police. Policies must be designed to cover a wide range of content, and Gillespie seems less interested in specific case studies, except in so far as they show how a broad dictate such as “no nudity” can come into conflict with a more specific situation, such as breastfeeding, to which he dedicates a chapter. Gillespie is also interested in problems of scale, and the issues that arise when a platform is home to multiple communities of people with conflicting values, and differing ideas about where lines should be drawn. Small, homogeneous online communities that believe they do not require moderation often get a rude awakening when they receive a large influx of new users who do not share their presumed values.

In this broad discussion, Custodians of the Internet is laying the groundwork for our emerging conversation about the role the platforms have played during the growth of the web as our dominant form of media, and the role we want these platforms to play in public discourse going forward. This is part of a larger discussion about not only moderation, harassment and free speech, but also data privacy, the gig economy, microtargeting, algorithmic bias, and more. The distribution of power and responsibility will shape our future in ways we have only begun to comprehend.

Invisible Women

Cover image for Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezby Caroline Criado Perez

ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2

“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design—whether medical, technological, or architectural—has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”

In a data driven world, evidence is everything. But so much of our data is biased, or incomplete, often entirely failing to account for a full half of the population. Author Caroline Criado Perez—known for receiving death threats for advocating to have Jane Austen on the back of Britain’s £10 banknote—calls this the “gender data gap.” And while Criado Perez believes that this gap is, generally, neither deliberate nor malicious, it nevertheless has consequences, ranging from inconvenient to deadly. Poised on the edge of a future where proprietary black box algorithms will use this data to make decisions humans can barely understand, amplifying this invisible bias by orders of magnitude, Criado Perez argues that it is more important than ever that we collect this data, and separate it by sex in order to prevent women from falling through the cracks of a male default world.

Invisible Women reads as a veritable laundry list of gaps, omissions, and injustices that result from presuming a male default in everything from medicine to urban planning to product design. Testing treatments on young (mostly white) males, and then adjusting for women and children, presumes a level of understanding of human biology that we have yet to achieve, and probably never will if we continue to avoid studying large segments of the population. It can also lead to astonishing oversights, such as building houses without kitchens. This happened in the wake of not one, but several disasters in South East Asia, where only consulting with men about the process of rebuilding lead to the creation of houses that failed to include the facilities that were predominantly the domain of women. Some of the examples are glaringly obvious, while others are patched together through a variety of smaller or older studies that give us an impression of what we might be missing because we’ve failed to study “atypical” patterns or behaviours that are in fact only atypical for men.

Done well, science is a tool for discovering the truth about our world. Done poorly, it can enshrine falsehoods and half-truths as doctrine. And leaving women out of almost all medical research for the sake of simplicity and reducing variables is just one example of how research can arrive at such half-truths—truths that are valid for one half of the population, but do not necessarily hold for the other. After nausea, Criado Perez found that the most commonly cited adverse drug reaction among women was that the drug simply didn’t work. For the author, this also raises an equal but opposite question; how many drugs that would have worked for women, but not men, never made it past trials because they were not effective in the majority of the (male) study participants? It is this kind of default thinking that can lead a company to make bank on a drug that stimulates erections in men, while completing ignoring the fact that the same drug was reported in trials to complete eliminate menstrual cramps in women for up to four hours. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and ignoring half of it.

In a book about gaps and biases, I did notice one significant omission in the discussion. Not once does Criado Perez mention transgender women. Nor is the term cisgender ever used. This is in spite of the fact that the she acknowledges that “the female body is not the problem. The problem is the social meaning we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.” Criado Perez follows three themes through the book, which are the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. While transwomen’s medical realities are different than those of ciswomen (and probably in the middle of an even bigger data gap thanks to their small numbers) they are very much a part of the latter two, most especially male violence against women. Combined with neglecting to discuss the singular they pronoun in a discussion of gender inflection in languages, and a couple of comments that reduced gender to genitals, I was left wondering if Criado Perez was thinking intersectionally. This was a glaring omission in an otherwise very thorough book which included many examples specific to working class women, women of colour, and women in the developing world.

Becoming

Cover image for Becoming by Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

ISBN 978-1-5247-6313-8

I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Michelle Robinson Obama, a future Princeton graduate, lawyer, hospital administrator, mother, and First Lady of the United States, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked for the municipal utility company, and was slowly losing his health to multiple sclerosis. Her mother Marian stayed home with Michelle and her brother Craig while they were growing up, and then returned to work at a bank. Eventually, Marian would live quietly in the White House with her daughter and granddaughters. Michelle’s post-White House memoir, Becoming, chronicles her childhood, her education, her marriage, and their journey to America’s most famous address.

I was personally most interested in the section of Becoming that comes between Michelle going off to college and meeting her husband, and their arrival in the White House. I rarely enjoy reading about people’s childhoods, and the period of the election and her husband’s time as President were pretty well known to me already. The section in between, however, offered a vulnerable glimpse into the sacrifices involved in being married to a rising political star, and the difficulty of trying to find your passion when you go to sleep every night beside someone whose “forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” your own. Michelle Obama’s path to career and motherhood was a rocky one, but she breaks taboos by sharing her decision to quit practicing law despite an expensive Ivy League education, and also talks openly about her miscarriages and fertility treatments, sharing that “a miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Although this is Michelle’s memoir and story, Becoming also offers an intimate portrait of the former President from the person who sees his most human side, and is not a bit dazzled by him. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she writes of her husband. One clear illustration of his priorities comes from her recounting of how Barack blew his deadline for his first memoir because he kept putting it off in favour of his work as a political organizer. They had to repay the advance, and it would be several more years before Dreams from My Father was completed, and released by a different publisher. Overall she does a wonderful job of evoking what his intelligence and ambition have meant for their lives, particularly in passages where she writes about “sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it,” and later, “Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything.”

Many people have enthused about the idea of the former First Lady running for office herself, but Michelle seems thoroughly uninterested in starting a political dynasty. She is the more practical, if not the more cynical, answer to her husband’s hope and optimism, a man who “seemed at times beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life.” At the municipal level, she writes, “I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up on the South Side, I had little faith in politics.” Even of her husband, she believed he could have a more profound impact by continuing to work as an organizer, or for a non-profit, rather than running for office. While she gave her blessing for him to run for President, she did not in her heart believe that America would elect a black man. Trying to put rumours and speculation to rest, she closes baldly, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

You might also like The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates