The Odd Women

Weekly, the coffee shop near my house has what the owner calls “Trivia Tuesday”: anyone who can answer the trivia question posted on the cake case wins a free cup of coffee. One Tuesday not so long ago I ventured in at around four in the afternoon. The question, written in black marker on a white card, read “What American playwright/actress was arrested and jailed for her work?” No one that day had answered the question correctly. No one had not said “Lillian Hellman.” I summoned the cashier, pointed at the sign, and said, a little triumphantly, “Mae West.”

I knew the answer because I had recently read a piece about West written for The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont. I knew that West was arrested on charges of obscenity for her theatrical hit, Sex, which she had written under a pen name. She did a week in the lockup on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) and complained only about the underwear. As I drank my free coffee and privately toasted both West and Ms. Pierpont, whoever and wherever she was, I began to wonder why it is, in an age when readers know the hobbies of Vladimir Nabokov, the wives of John Updike, the girlfriends of Philip Roth—all fairly private men—we know so little about our women writers. Why did a hundred intelligent coffee drinkers imagine that Lillian Hellman had somehow done jail time, or that she was also an actress? Why do hardly any of us think of Mae West as a writer at all? And why was the question about Mae West’s jail time even considered “trivial”? It was not remotely on the same level as the queries regarding batting averages and running yardage that usually graced the cake case. Soon, my happy, free coffee had become a problem. It is sometimes, as a feminist in the world, difficult to stay pleased.

Somewhat to the rescue comes Claudia Roth Pierpont’s new collection, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, which despite its soporific title is one of the most ceaselessly interesting books I’ve read in some time. Within its pages one will find Ms. Pierpont’s Mae West piece (which inspired not just Trivia Tuesday but James Lapine’s current stage production, Dirty Blonde) as well as biographical essays on eleven other women writers: Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt, and Mary McCarthy. “There is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others,” Pierpont says in her introduction. But she chose these literary women for their “influence” (different from their “literary influence”) and for the unorthodox ways they “worked out their destinies in an age of momentous transition for their sex.” She has organized her book in three sections that deal “broadly speaking” (a pun that occurs several times in the book) with issues of …

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