Thursday, January 30, 2020

Julie Des Jardins's "American Queenmaker"

Julie Des Jardins is a historian of American women and gender who has taught and written extensively in the field, particularly on the history of women in the professions. Along with pieces on gender and women’s history for blogs, journals, and Oxford’s History of History Writing, she has written several books, including Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory; The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science; Lillian Gilbreth: Redefining Domesticity; and the study of American masculinity, Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man.

Des Jardins applied the “Page 99 Test” to her newest book, American Queenmaker: How Missy Meloney Brought Women Into Politics, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test amplifies a challenge I have had throughout writing American Queenmaker: encapsulating all that is important about Missy Meloney in a narrative with focus.

The subtitle suggests that Missy made her mark in American politics. In actuality, she also made it in American journalism, art, science, literature, media, reform, and diplomacy--and internationally too. No page of any book could possibly convey the totality of Missy's force, though I was hoping 99 might do a better job than others.

Missy Meloney (1878-1943) was a pioneering journalist, editor, presidential advisor, PR maven, and overall social, cultural, and political rainmaker. And yet page 99 merely explores one small, albeit crucial, facet of Missy's power: Her ability to sense the next best thing (in this case literary) and to seize on it for the sake of women. Here she is helping to make women authors culturally relevant in the 1920s, amidst the "Lost Generation" of men generally credited with shaping the literary tastes of the decade. As editor of national magazines, Missy paid female serial writers what she paid prominent men, offering Kathleen Norris $50,000 for a serial in the early 1920s, for instance, the same amount Sinclair Lewis fetched for a work of similar length. If Missy liked an author's work but couldn't make space for it, she took the time to find reputable editors who could. In years when newspaper book-review sections, Great Books groups, and Book of the Month Clubs helped to create the wide-ranging readership Margaret Widdemer called "the Middlebrow," Missy afforded women unprecedented opportunities to shape middlebrow tastes, both as literary producers and consumers. I defer to Page 99 on "the middlebrow" and Missy's determination not to make it a derogatory label:
Though not erudite, this demographic was increasingly educated; Missy would know, since she was pretty sure that her readers made up a good bit of its bulk. It's also why she figured women writers would best appeal to it. She valued writers' ability to make meaning for the masses over their ability to achieve critical acclaim, and hence she never had to rid herself of the notion that supporting female writers was commending lesser literature. She saw herself as a facilitator, introducing female readers to a diversified range of writers and vice versa, broadening palates and best-seller lists ultimately for the advancement of women, but also for the social good.

So Missy gave women their breaks and paid them like men. It was not always enough to eradicate women's deeply rooted insecurities as artists, but it was a start. She understood that it would take time to make them believe in their own voices and in their transcendent powers as shapers, communicators, and interpreters of the modern sensibility...
Visit Julie Des Jardins's website.

The Page 99 Test: Walter Camp: Football and the Modern Man.

--Marshal Zeringue