I was sent a nice email by a publicist last week with a list of interesting looking independently published books. Normally I reply with a ‘thanks very much but I don’t really have time for reading review copies but I appreciate you asking’ sort of email, but this time, one title so caught my attention that I decided to adopt my new ‘New York’ philsophy of ‘why not?!’ and ask for it. This title was The Girls from Winnetka, and I am so glad I had the chance to read it, because it is a truly powerful book about five girls from suburban Chicago who went to High School in the 1950’s, and about their lives as women from those heady teenage days until the present. None have had extraordinary lives, but in their ordinariness, they encompass the changing times of the 20th and 21st centuries, the shift in women’s roles, and the challenges each of us face as we grow from childhood to adulthood, and work out what we want from our lives. I was enthralled and moved to tears in many places by these women’s stories, and left in awe of their strength, tenacity and courage.
The Girls grew up in an affluent suburb and went to New Trier High School, today one of the best in the US according to wikipedia, and alma mater of many a famous face. In the 1950’s, when the girls were in their late teens, life was not so very different as it is now for the average schoolgirl. Boy crazy, into the latest fashions, railing against the curfews and rules imposed by their strict parents, the girls spent their evenings with their hair in curlers to achieve the right ‘look’, and every Friday went on ‘date night’ with their clean cut boyfriends. Annie, Brooke, Barbie, Margo and Laura were all attractive, ambitious, and adventurous girls, but they could not escape the strict standards of the day. Despite their often very contemporary sounding school days, the standards and expectations imposed on them were very different from the ones I experienced at the same age. The girls were expected to study hard and go to college, but that college education was not supposed to get them into a good career. Instead, it was to fill time until they were ready to get married to their high school sweethearts, usually the June they finished college, and then they would retreat quietly into the home and become good wives and mothers, wanting nothing more than this.
Each of the girls resisted these expectations, but all ended up conforming to some extent to the standards imposed upon them. Annie tried to make it as a musical star, and had great success on Broadway, before giving it all up for a marriage that didn’t turn out to be the fairytale she had been taught to imagine. Margo wanted a career and an independent life, but she too had to give it all up when she fell in love and married, and had to surrender her dreams to those of her husband’s. Barbie, the pretty, innocent one, quickly married and became a mother, but life would change dramatically for her as the years went by, showing her that she had more strength and talent than she realised. Laura’s marriage turned out to be a disappointment, but her determination to live a fulfilling life led to her finding her true passion outside of the love she was always told would sustain her. Brooke’s life, a catalogue of attempts to find stability and happiness in marriages, became too painful for her to continue after 1980. All of the women found themselves living lives they had never imagined, using talents they never knew they had, hitting obstacles they never thought they would be able to climb over, and, without realising it, forged a path that was far from the uneventful course their parents had planned for them.
From a young age, the girls had been taught by their mothers that marriage and children were the ultimate prize and fulfilment for women, despite many of them having incredibly unhappy and stifling marriages themselves. This idealisation of romantic love and dependence on men led the girls to have unrealistic expectations of what marriage would bring them, and immense disappointment, confusion and pain when their marriages left many of them feeling lonely, unfulfilled, and wondering whether it had been worth giving up their youthful dreams for. This insistence that marriage would complete these women’s lives was proved very wrong as careers became an option for all of the girls in the latter half of the 20th century, and it was these careers, alongside their female friendships, and the raising of their children, that brought the girls the most happiness in their lives. Free to use their intelligence, to meet people outside of the narrow sphere of their hometowns and coffee morning friends, to spread their wings and express themselves as women rather than just wives and mothers, the feminist movement gave the girls the chance to shine on their own terms. In late middle age, reflecting on the lives they had lived, all of the girls were thankful that their generation had fought for the chance to give women greater control over their own destinies, and in awe at how they had blazed a trail that had taken them so much further than the narrow confines of the 1950’s feminine ideal.
I can’t tell you how much I loved reading this. It was like The Feminine Mystique told through real women’s lives, demonstrating just how right Betty Friedan was when she described the frustrations of women confined to the four walls of their home with only children for company all of their adult lives. All of the girls depict mothers who were unhappy in their lives, mere shadowy figures next to their husbands, whose lives were considered to be more important than their own. That they broke away from this fate, and found their own paths to fulfilment, despite the disappointments and painful experiences along the way, was incredibly moving, and very powerful. Their stories demonstrate just how important it is to not rely on others to define or complete us, as complete dependence on a romantic partner causes all of these women nothing but unhappiness. It is only when they learn to look to themselves rather than their husbands for the passion and excitement their lives lack that they become truly happy and able to appreciate the men they have married for who they are rather than who they are not.
Outside of the feminist angle, it is also very much a book about how we can choose to overcome the negative and destructive experiences that can so mar our lives, and forge meaningful and happy lives despite the pain we have been through. None of the girls has an easy ride, and all have their own private grief and suffering, but in sharing their stories, they express nothing but thanks for the lives they have been given, and hope and excitement for the future their children and grandchildren will enjoy. Love and friendship is what binds all of these women together, and that sense of love and companionship and a real zest for life, in all its ups and downs, is what shines through the pages. It was a wonderful, life affirming read, and just what I needed to remind me to savour every day, and have the courage to live the life I dream of.
The publisher actually sent me two copies of this book; one is already spoken for, but the other is itching to be sent to a reader of this blog…please do say in the comments if you’d like it and I’ll do a draw at some point next week. I am currently experiencing rather straitened financial circumstances so I’m afraid it will have to be US only this time, sorry to everyone else outside of the US!