Women’s History Month has ended, but the issues raised by it extend throughout the months, years, decades and centuries.
Ruth Rosen has written a lively and informative history of the modern American women’s movement, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, that is a helpful companion for those people looking to learn more about women’s past, current struggles and future.
An historian and journalist, Rosen brings both of her professional skill sets to bear on her topic. She includes a helpful timeline of major events in American history for women, with items that worked against women’s advancement typed in bold. The timeline is a useful framing device for the work.
Although she dips into nineteenth century women’s history, Rosen’s focus is on the latter half of the twentieth century in America and the beginning of this millennium. She covers a wide range of topics. starting with the post-World War II move of many families to the suburbs and housewives’ accompanying ennui that Betty Friedan depicted so vividly in The Feminine Mystique.
Drawing its title from a Muriel Rukeyser poem, Rosen’s work includes social, literary, cultural and political aspects. She traces the growth in women’s consciousness and increased political activism through the decades, and does not hesitate to tread on touchy topics within and without the movement. She writes about women who broke taboos about talking about incest and rape, on the one hand, while also tackling the issue of how some women undermined other women’s accomplishments, on the other.
The World Split Open is also noteworthy for the effective balance it strikes between talking about individual women who made significant contributions to American history and between women’s collective orientation and accomplishments. As a result, readers learn about movement stalwarts like Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Dolores Huerta in addition to the political movements that led to organizations like the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.
Modern American feminism at times has been taken to task for focusing too often on the concerns of white women, but the same cannot be said of Rosen’s book. She examines the experiences of women of color within their own communities as well as in occasionally contentious relationships with white women. Rosen explores the experience of lesbians, too.
The World Split Open is replete with excerpts from women’s authors. These include the words and thoughts of writers of landmark works like Friedan, Steinem and Kate Millett, literary giants like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Tillie Olsen and lesser-known but important women writers.
In short, Rosen’s book is an informative and engaging overview of the women’s movement. For those people looking to learn more about this ongoing struggle for equality, The World Split Open is a fine place to start.