Books: July-August 2005

August 1, 2005

 

  

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX
Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX
By Karen Blumenthal '81. Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2005. 160 pages. $17.95.

As one tiny piece of the sweeping Educational Amendments of 1972, Title IX was proposed by a determined group of women who thought it was wrong that schools could discriminate against girls and women just because they were female. If such a declaration seems tame today, at the time of its introduction it was anything but. As Wall Street Journal reporter Karen Blumenthal explains in her informative and inspiring new book, Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the authors and advocates of the law had to engage in prickly political battles, make strategic though unwanted concessions and, even, at one point, vote against a weakened version of their own law.

Yet for all the setbacks and redoubled efforts that Title IX's supporters endured, the sweet and unforeseen reward of their perseverance is a law that has had (and continues to have) profound implications for generations of women. While most often associated with girls' and women's equal access to athletic teams and sports opportunities--and indeed the law's impact on athletics is the central focus of Let Me Play--Blumenthal tracks the law's genesis from the early days of the women's suffragist movement through the civil-rights and women's movements of the Sixties. She also documents Title IX's ripple effect on the professions women pursue and the changing landscape of the work force. Between 1971-72 and 2001-02, for example, the number of women entering medical schools increased from 1,653 to 7,784, she notes. During that same period, the number of women entering law school increased from 8,914 to 65,701.

Although her target audience is young adult readers, Blumenthal's book transcends age-specific lessons by vividly illustrating the tenaciousness of the human spirit, the slipperiness of legal interpretation, and the importance of keeping the past clearly in focus. It may be hard for today's generation of female high-school and college athletes to imagine a time when women's teams got no funding, uniforms, or field time (or if they did, it was after the boys' teams had finished playing). But for activists such as Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green, who crafted and tirelessly lobbied for Title IX's passage, the chilly reception and paternalistic put-downs she and her colleagues received were standard for the day. One reporter called Green's tenacious political style "unladylike"; some of her male peers in Congress even called her "the wicked witch of the West."

As Title IX was implemented and interpreted, it was challenged at almost every turn. Arguably the strongest opposition came in response to the stipulation that males and females have an equal opportunity to compete in sports. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), at the time dedicated to the advancement of men's athletics only, heard about the implications of Title IX for women's sports and, by extension, men's sports. The argument was no longer a moral one, it was financial: Men's athletics was big business, and the NCAA and its constituents feared that providing women with similar resources would drain money from men's sports programs.

Blumenthal notes that the president of her own alma mater objected to the idea of funding men's and women's sports equally at the time. "About 300 colleges, led by Duke University President Terry Sanford, banded together to fight the proposal," she writes. "Margot Polivy [lawyer for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women] remembered Mr. Sanford outlining the group's position. He explained that 'he was all for equality.' But, Ms. Polivy said, Mr. Sanford added, 'we had to understand that there were three sexes in athletics: men, women, and football players.' "

Let Me Play combines political and social history with sidebars and profiles about the accomplishments and advances made under Title IX by such athletes as Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie. Blumenthal also credits a number of men for helping Title IX wend its way into our cultural and social fabric, including U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Caspar Weinberger, and "the secret weapon in the fight for fairness," dads. As Blumenthal notes, "The generation of girls born in the 1970s and beyond grew up with fathers who firmly believed their girls should have the same experiences as their boys. When teams were dropped, when fields were in disrepair, when the coaching wasn't very good, dads went to bat for their daughters."

But Blumenthal, who is an avid sports fan and the mother of two girls, also lends a cautionary note to the celebration. "Even today, Title IX remains one of the nation's most controversial--and important--civil-rights laws. And like any law, it can be abolished or changed. Just months before she died in 2002, longtime Title IX advocate Patsy Mink, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, urged Congress to diligently protect the law, warning that those opportunities could be taken away just as quickly as they were created."

Packed with pithy quotes, comparative statistics, photographs, cartoons, timelines, and a "then and now" set of quotes by people who supported and opposed Title IX, Let Me Play can be read chronologically or casually picked up and leafed through for nuggets of information. Whether you are the parent or friend of one of the nearly 3-million girls playing high-school sports today (up from 294,000 in 1971), Let Me Play offers a lively and well-researched glimpse into the evolution of a little law that became a sensation.

Buy it for a girl you admire.

The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser By Jerome LovingThe Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser
By Jerome Loving Ph.D. '73. University of California Press, 2005. 528 pages. $34.95.

Jerome Loving is a gifted biographer, as demonstrated in his previous books on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, among others. The Whitman biography stands out as probably the finest on this author. He has also written books about Emerson and other key figures in the American Renaissance, and that knowledge underlies The Last Titan: A Life of Theodore Dreiser. He sees Dreiser freshly, and sees him whole, not only as one of the great novelists in the tradition of naturalism, but as someone with a transcendentalist impulse, as well.

"Ultimately, Dreiser was of two minds when it came to naturalism and transcendentalism," he writes. "It is his naturalism that most readily meets the eye, but the other is always somewhere in the background." This is so not only in his relatively unknown poems, which Loving quotes here to good effect, but also in his major fiction, making him "so much more interesting than a pure naturalist like Norris or Zola." Loving agrees with H.L. Mencken that even as Dreiser describes reality with a methodical minuteness of detail, "he never forgets the dream that is behind it." The dream behind reality seems always to enchant Loving as he tracks the life of this "titan" of American fiction from his impoverished childhood in the Midwest to the heights of American literary celebrity.

Born in 1871 in Indiana, Dreiser was the twelfth of thirteen children, the son of a German-born immigrant father whose mill business went bad, leaving the family in disarray. Like so many writers of his day, Dreiser learned his craft as a journalist in gritty, mongrel cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York. He also began the slow, self-conscious work of educating himself, often in public libraries. In addition to Emerson, he read Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, and Balzac, whose systematic exploration of French culture in his time inspired Dreiser to exhaust, as he said, "every aspect of the human welter."

A good biography should evoke the times as well as the life of the writer, and Loving knows this. He understands nineteenth-century America, its ruthless dynamism and savage materialism so persistently at odds with the transcendental impulse. This was an era of massive immigration and poverty, racial turmoil, and violent upheavals on the labor scene. It was the era of the so-called New Woman as well. Dreiser confronted his age with a keen, sober eye, and he absorbed its details. Loving shows us exactly how, in book after book, Dreiser transmogrified these details, turning them into the stuff of major fiction.

The sad circumstances surrounding the publication of Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser's early masterpiece, are beautifully evinced here. That novel was loosely based on the life of his own troubled sister, Emma, who ran off to New York with a man who made his money by stealing from his employer. This situation is mirrored by Carrie and her lover, George Hurstwood, who steals from the owner of an upscale saloon where he works. The novel eventually became an American classic, although the first edition sold only five or six hundred copies. Its poor reception sent the fragile author into a tailspin that lasted for three years.

Loving creates a good deal of drama in this biography, which possesses the narrative compulsion of a good novel. It's a riveting story, with fateful turns, romances and infatuations, nervous breakdowns and recoveries, and financial dealings worthy of the best entrepreneurial sagas of the age. In the typical business novel of the 1880s, the hero was a well-intentioned businessman who resists temptation. Dreiser, however, would have none of this, and in a fascinating but ultimately unsatisfactory trilogy about a tycoon named Frank Cowperwood, he explored the underside of the capitalist system with a ruthless eye.

Dreiser was wildly prolific, and one's jaw drops as Loving describes the evolution and publication of book after book, some of them quite remarkable, such as Jennie Gerhardt and The "Genius", novels that today have only a small audience. The former is based on the life of his sister Mame and recounts the story of a likable chambermaid who is seduced by a U.S. senator many years her senior. The latter is an autobiographical tale that ensnared its author into a battle with the censors. It also drew attention to Dreiser's German heritage, which was not a good thing for him in the wake of World War I.

After The "Genius", Dreiser turned his attention to the stage, where his gifts were never obvious, although he produced a fairly large number of plays. He published his masterwork, An American Tragedy, in 1925. Based on a real murder--the Gillette-Brown case of 1906--Dreiser's absorbing tale is about Clyde Griffiths, an unlikable and self-absorbed man accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend, Roberta. The murder scene itself is brilliantly ambiguous, leaving the reader in doubt as to whether Griffiths actually means to drown the pregnant Roberta on Big Bittern Lake (he slips into a trance, and inadvertently flips her into the water). He refuses to rescue her, as he should have done, thus condemning himself to death by execution.

As Loving shows, Dreiser never summoned the will to write another great novel. Instead, he turned his energies to social causes during the Great Depression. He worked for a variety of high-profile causes and corresponded with leading figures of the day. Eventually Dreiser drifted to Hollywood and, in due course, became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party, having already attracted lots of attention from the FBI, which accumulated a massive file on him.

As Loving notes: "His political activities since the early 1930s had clearly been in concert with ostensible communist aims with regard to the working class. And not long before he took up formal membership, he had received a check from the Soviet Union for the equivalent of $34,600 in back royalties."

Dreiser's tumultuous life, his "conflicted philosophy," as Loving calls it, and his often remarkable achievement as a novelist are vividly summoned and shrewdly assessed in The Last Titan, which will for many years be regarded as the standard life of an important American writer.