Monday, April 23, 2012

Alma Mater (Review)

Title: Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s Author: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz Publication Information: University of Massachusetts Press, 2e (originally published in 1984) Genre: History/Women’s Studies Book/Event: I was pleased to see that Helen Horowitz, Emerita professor of history at Smith College, was going to be speaking at the Radcliffe Institute because I am an admirer of her work. The topic of the speech was:

It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard Historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz will explore Harvard University’s relationship with women, which she describes as complicated. Her review begins with the University’s founding 375 years ago, when Harvard excluded women as students and teachers. For 200 years, the University conveyed education and prestige to a ministry and a rising merchant class. Beginning in the 19th century, women found innovative ways to attain higher education, but the terms of access required accommodation—even invisibility. Horowitz contends that the fight for equity began more than a century ago and remains a work in progress today. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust will offer brief welcoming remarks. The book itself is fascinating. Fans of Carney’s House Party and Daddy Long Legs will, of course, love the sections on Vassar, but anyone interested in the college experience will enjoy the differing goals of the founders of these colleges and to what extent they were influenced by each other. The descriptions of the architecture are so intriguing they make me want to visit each campus with book in hand. I was delighted to meet Professor Horowitz after her speech and tell her my mother (who was with me) and I are part of a three generation Seven Sisters family. She autographed my book. What I liked: It was nice to see the Radcliffe Institute hosting an event that was standing room only. The speech was entertaining and the audience was extremely engaged, and Professor Horowitz was very interesting. I agreed with much of what she said. Coming from Harvard where we are programmed to believe in our own superiority, it was very interesting to hear her theory that Radcliffe having been created in the shadow of Harvard (because that was all that Harvard would tolerate - not news to me) never had a proper model for empowering women students (the implication was that Radcliffe College was doomed to fail). In contrast, she praised Barnard as having thrived due to strong leadership that came to advantageous agreements with Columbia. I think Barnard has issues of its own, ever since Columbia started admitting women but the alumnae I know seem pleased with their experience. Perhaps I should have asked the president of Barnard when I contacted her last week, requesting that she write to Granny for her 97th birthday next Monday… 

What I disliked: There were some interesting questions after Professor Horowitz’s speech (including one from Susan Faludi) and a few people wanted her to condemn the demise of Radcliffe College. She diplomatically said she would leave that topic to those most involved. My mother felt that the theme of the presentation ignored her belief that she had the best of both worlds – the academics of Harvard but the closeness of a women’s residential college. That was clearly true for her but several of her best friends resented the second-class citizenship and lack of mentoring. 

Source: I bought this book many years ago due to my interest in women’s education.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Caterpillar Hall (Book Review)

Title: Caterpillar Hall
Author: Anne Barrett with drawings by Catherine Cummins
Publication Information: Hardcover, Collins, 1950
Genre: Children’s Fantasy Plot: Penelope, a bright but lonely girl, has lived in London for two years with her kind but distant uncle and fussy governess, while her father works in Persia, trying to rebuild the family fortunes. When her father sends her five pounds to buy something special, she is drawn to a beautiful umbrella with shiny blue-green silk and a parrot’s head with gold beak. The umbrella leads Penelope in several directions: first, it blows out of her hands into the walled garden outside a quaint house that Penelope nicknames Caterpillar Hall, where she makes a friend, Miss Pellay. Next, Penelope learns the umbrella has a special magic that allows her to see the innermost secret yearnings of those around her, through flashbacks to their childhood. Once Penelope realizes the significance of what she has seen, she is determined to use the money left over from her father to buy gifts for her friends to fulfill their desires: a shiny copper kettle for Mrs. Prewett, her uncle’s housekeeper; a ship in a bottle for Mr. Prewett, who as a child longed to go to sea; a beautiful hat for her drab governess; and a picture reminiscent of Seventrees, the family estate, for her uncle. Like Penelope’s father, Uncle Everard is trying to earn money so the family can reclaim Seventrees, now leased to a stranger. Of course, the modern reader smiles a little at the concept of a family that is “hard up,” but can still afford two servants and a governess but that was the reality for certain English families, both in fact and fiction.

What I liked: The story is charmingly written and unusual. The magic provided by the parrot umbrella helps Penelope see past her own loneliness and frustrations to understand the adults around her. In turn, this improves her relationships with them and makes her happier. In Miss Pellay she finds a wonderful friend. Even a young reader would probably see the plot developments miles before they occur but that does not detract from the charm of the book.

What I disliked: The book was very likeable and sweet, but perhaps best read by an 8 year old. Fortunately, I still have two nieces young enough to reach that age in good time.

Source: I bought this book from a friend in Australia, Jennifer Genat, who is the proprietor of Buttercup Books and the author of The Old House at Mount Munecarthur. As you can see, it is a nice hardcover with a segment of the original dust jacket preserved.