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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Women's lives are expertly and revealingly chronicled in Rebels in White Gloves by journalist Miriam Horn. The fortunes and misfortunes of the 1969 graduating class of Wellesley College are set against the changing times, and though Hillary Rodham is the best-known of the group, she's not the focus. 

Germaine Greer won't go quietly, and why should she? Outrageous and outspoken, Greer has waited 30 years to come up with a sequel to The Female Eunuch, and it's The Whole Woman. Nothing has gotten better, she declares, only worse. Like her or not, agree with her or not, Greer is impossible to ignore.

Sentiment is laid on with a trowel, and the direction by Franco Zeffirelli, whose autobiography this is, abruptly fast-forwards in time. But there are performances to savor as three British actresses and Cher take the cake in Tea with Mussolini. 

Make no mistake, Chris Connor is one of the best jazz singers ever, and Warm Cool: The Atlantic Years has 20 numbers from 1956 to 1962 that prove it. Single No More by Ellen Kreidman is a road map for finding love and commitment. They aren't necessarily the same.


Senior Class Picture

Rebels in White Gloves  by Miriam Horn (Times Books; 328 pages; $24)

     While the young women of the 1969 senior class of Wellesley were taking final exams and getting ready to don their graduation caps and gowns,  the world they knew was turning upside down. The war in Vietnam was escalating, and  so were the protests. It was the year of Woodstock, man's first walk on the moon, and the Stonewall riots that triggered the gay rights movement. The first issue of Penthouse magazine hit newsstands in September, and that same month, a California supreme court would struck down the state's anti-abortion law. 
     After four years of an expensive education at an elite women's college, the 420 graduates with families and friends around them listened on a sunny June afternoon to their class speaker question "inauthentic reality." The earnest young woman announced a goal of her generation: "We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living." At the end of the ceremony, one classmate told her mother, "Take a good look at her.
She will probably be the President of the United States some day." The speaker was Hillary Rodham, and she hasn't become President--yet--though by marrying she's come as close to the office as a woman can.
     A senior writer for U.S. News and World Report, Horn traces the past and present of  Hillary's classmates and sets their stories against the changing currents of the times. The class of '69 exemplified many of the expectations of women of their generation. They were a gifted group, and, for the most part, were the most privileged of females: white, well-to-do and cushioned by money and family position. Many hoped for the 'ring before spring', and anticipated having a life not much different from that of their mothers.  They altered--and were altered by--shifting attitudes about sex and marriage, power and politics,  race and gender. The girls who wore demure white gloves at college, tore them off with a vengeance after graduation.
      Rebels in White Gloves is a revealing portrait of three decades in America, and rest assured, it is not another tiresome look at Hillary and her questionable journey to the White House via Arkansas. As author Miriam Horn notes, "She is, even by her classmates, pitied as much as admired. But what of the others? In breaching the domestic wall, have her closest
peers mostly enjoyed, or mostly suffered, the new possibilities their generation created for women?"  They have done both, and Horn has many inspiring and poignant examples. Janet McDonald Hill, one of the few African-Americans in the class, has shown that it is possible to balance family and career. Her husband Calvin was a professional football star and their son, Grant, is not only an esteemed former Olympian and pro basketball player, but is acknowledged as the sport's Mr. Nice Guy. Janet started working while he was young, and today is a successful businesswoman, heading her own consulting firm and sitting on many corporate boards. "I'm proud of Cal and Grant's careers," she says. "I'm also proud of my own."
     By contrast, Kathy Smith Ruckman elected to remain at home with her four children as a full-time mom, a choice made by fewer than 10% of her classmates. "Who knows what I could have done?" she told Horn. "I never experienced that other I've never really known what I missed." Her eldest son comments that his mother "made her decisions and stuck with them. Whether they've made her happy is another question."
     Thirty years on, the Class of '69 has its share of lawyers, teachers, mothers, doctors and teachers. Somewhere among the group can be found women who have made and lost fortunes, dropped acid, cheated on their husbands, found love as a lesbian, had an abortion, struggled to get pregnant, run away to be a Buddhist nun or become a Pentecostal Christian doctor, and one First Lady who has blurred the divisions between the political and the personal. Admirably, Horn proffers no judgments on any of them, but lets them emerge through life stories that reveal women's infinite possibilities.

Look Back in Anger

The Whole Woman By Germaine Greer (Knopf; 384 pages $25)

     If there were no Germaine Greer, we would have had to invent her. Annoying, irritating, sometimes murky in her reasoning, Greer is uncommon and absolutely necessary. At a time when Hillary Rodham and her Wellesley class were taking their first tentative steps outside the ivory tower and looking to see if there really was life after college, Greer was already swinging a bludgeon against the male-dominated world in The Female Eunuch. Though Greer vowed she would never write a sequel, she has broken that promise, and let's be thankful she has. Even the most ardent revolutionary mellows over the years, but Greer remains a flame-thrower. In The Whole Woman, she fires away at some familiar targets-- men, among them--and sets up some new ones including the callous merchandisers of bad-girl culture pandering to pre-teens and British magazines of a press that "trumpets the triumph of misogyny and the hopelessness of the cause of female pride."
     In the book's  introduction, Greer is at the barricades once more, declaring,  "It's time to get angry again." She directs some of her fury at the "lie of the sexual revolution, " arguing that the sexuality that has been freed is male, not female sexuality. More in rage than in sorrow, she finds that today's culture is even more masculine than it was in 1970, citing video games and women-hating rock music as well as the glut of movies that deal in gore and violence and men's obsessions. Those are men's realities. "The reality of women's lives," she writes, "is work, most of it unpaid and, what is worse, unappreciated.
     To the self-satisfied who say that feminism has accomplished its goals and that "you've come a long way, baby," Greer shouts, "No!"  Look at the world beyond your own, she insists, where women still bear the hardest burdens of labor in and out of the home, where they are abused and trapped in poverty and despair. Their plight "mocks the headlined success of the few." The life-style feminists who see the cause of liberation--if they see it at all--as personal and not political, are dismissed entirely by Greer. She deplores women who celebrate the right "to be pretty in an array of floaty dresses and little suits put together for starvation wages by adolescent girls in Asian sweat-shops."
     Ever plainspoken,  Greer gives blunt titles to her chapters: "Breasts," "Womb," "Sex," "Mutilation."  In the name of freedom for women, she takes an astonishing, contrarian view of female genital mutilation as it is practiced in Africa and condemned by international tribunals like the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Looked at in its full context, she declares, criminalizing female circumcision is "an attack on cultural identity" and likens it to the current craze for tattoos and piercings. This sort of stubborn stance makes people regard Greer as idiosyncratic or, worse, completely crazy. Her troubling stance on regular, instituted breast-cancer screening goes against the conventional medical thought, as she declares that "men have the right to take care of themselves, or not, as they see fit, but women are to be taken care of whether they like it or not. Screening is many more times more likely to destroy a woman's peace of mind than it is to save her life." Despite such questionable conclusions, Greer is too valuable a social critic to be ignored altogether and attention must be paid. 
     Her principal theme--work--threads throughout the book, and on that subject Greer is at her best. Noting that as soon as something is found to make work easier, men appropriate it, she writes that "when cultivation is done with mattocks" and hoes, women do it; when a tractor comes along men take it over." By some peculiar universal law, housework, as any woman who has ever done it knows, "expands to fill the time available." True liberation and female power, if it is to come, may one day emerge, she predicts, and it will come not from universities but from places like China, Iran, Thailand or any place where women have nothing to lose. "The women of the rich world had better hope that when female energy ignites they do not find themselves on the wrong side." It is a provocative statement that challenges and disturbs the reader. Like Greer herself.

Crumpets and Cream

Tea With Mussolini  Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

     Once an old-fashioned genre, movies about World War II are  fashionable all over again. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful vied for Oscars this year. Now Franco Zeffirelli takes a turn. Known for putting opera and Shakespeare on the screen, the Italian director fashions an autobiographical film about his earliest years. It's hardly the Bard, but the coming-of-age film does have elements of opera. Soap opera, that is.
      Rejected by his prosperous father as a bastard, the motherless boy Luca--Zeffirelli as a boy--is left to be educated by a band of elderly British expatriate women who have claimed Florence as their spiritual home. Called the 'Scorpioni', they live in Italy with all the airs and graces of home as if occupying an outpost of the Empire. They open Luca's eyes to the art around him while teaching him about civility and manners and other British virtues.
     When he grows to young manhood, he returns their kindness and learns new lessons about love, betrayal and courage. Under Zeffirelli's hand, a lot of years get covered, too many plot lines get braided together, and the brutality of Il Duce's fascism is submerged. Still, his beloved Florence is beautiful, and the performances by a trio of Britain's leading actresses are worth seeing. Joan Plowright is warmly wise and motherly as Luca's gentle guide, Maggie Smith brings her patented tight-lipped haughtiness to the role of an ambassador's widow, and Judi Dench is cheerfully batty and sentimental by turns.
     Zeffirelli has always admired the diva, and he puts Cher in the spotlight as  a wealthy Jewish art collector from America. Her long pale face is without line--or much mobility, it must be admitted--and she gleams with grand style. She's best in a scene when she's desperate about her life, and huddles forlornly in a lonely room. She's got the trimmest  figure and the snazziest costumes, but Plowright, Dench and Smith steal the show. The movie is their cup of tea.

And Consider This

Warm Cool: The Atlantic Years (32 Jazz Records; $25)

     Her voice could be both whisper soft and darkly seductive, and Chris Connor has a jazz singer's impeccable sense of that magical instant before the beat. This two-disc album is the first compilation ever made of numbers the jazz singer recorded with Atlantic between 1956 and 1962. Connor let her lyrics just float on the music, voicing the song line as though in a reverie and bringing the listener into her private world.

     Single No More by Ellen Kreidman (Renaissance Books; 296 pages; $22.95)

  • The California author believes loving is the whole reason for living, and has prepared a blueprint for traveling down that sometimes treacherous romantic road. If you're inclined to steer in that direction, Kreidman offers sound counsel and is eminently practical on everything from the first date to using electronic mail for affairs of the heart.


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