This reading group guide for A Short History of Women includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kate Walbert. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women
chronicles the lives of five generations of women as they attempt to navigate turbulent times in the history of both Britain and the United States. From a European suffragist who starves herself for women’s rights in 1914 to her great-granddaughter in New York in 2007, Walbert’s work highlights the love, friendship, and regrets that each of these women experienced. Readers will be swept up in the tremulous times as these five women attempt to find their way in a society that needs an answer to “The Woman Question.” Questions for Discussion
Enhance Your Book Club
- Throughout the novel, Walbert consistently reveals future events before they occur – from Father Fairfield’s death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett’s) impending divorce. Why do you think she chooses to do this? How does this change the pacing of the story?
- How is Evelyn’s release of the canary symbolic of her own desires? (p.15) Why do you think she gets so angry when the bird refuses to leave on its own? How does she feel once it is gone? How does this parallel the actions that Evelyn eventually takes?
- The novel opens with Evelyn Charlotte Townsend’s mother starving herself for her cause, a death “brought on by modern ideas, pride, a certain vanity or rather, unreasonable expectations.” (p. 76) How does her death spur on the next generation of this family? How do you think things would have been different if she had not died? Would Evelyn and subsequent Townsend generations have been as bold as they were? Why or why not?
- Discuss how all the women in the novel struggle between their rebellious ideals and trying to lead a “normal” life. Do you believe Dorothy when she says that she “didn’t sign on for this?” (p. 74)
- How did you feel when Evelyn lied to Stephen Pope about her family? Why do you think she says “I’ll start from nothing…I am now no one’s daughter.” (p. 90) Does she really reject her past or is she more like her mother than she wants to admit?
- Each of the women in the novel at one point or another rejects the life they are leading. The most notable instance is Dorothy Townsend’s (Barrett) radical change following her son’s death. Discuss how each of the women, like Dorothy Townsend, “shed a skin.” (p. 104)
- Discuss the theme of loss in A Short History of Women. What are the major losses that each character experiences? How does this affect the women they are and the women they become?
- Evie has a long standing relationship with Stephen Pope and has a love for him that she claims is “not what a woman’s love should be or look like, absent, as it is, a family, a husband.” (p. 173) Yet, they have a very solid and caring relationship. How does this compare to someone like Dorothy Townsend (Barrett) who has a husband she no longer loves?
- How does Fran’s question of “Did you ever ruin your life for a feeling?” (p. 191) reflect the struggles that each woman has experienced? What is Elizabeth’s response to Fran’s question? Do you think she believes her response? What do you think her response would be if asked the same question about her mother?
- Which of Dorothy’s descendants do you think best embodies her strength and will for the cause? Which do you think embodies it the least? Why?
A Conversation with Kate Walbert
- Track your own ancestry – were there any rebellious relatives in your past? Find out and then share with your bookclub.
- Make your own “short history” – pick an important time period and then find a woman who played a pivotal role. See who you and the rest of your bookclub come up with.
- Women’s suffrage was a long time in the making. Research its history and then share an interesting fact you learned with your bookclub.
- What was your inspiration for writing A Short History of Women?
WALBERT: The novel began for me with the voice of Evelyn Charlotte Townsend. It is Evelyn’s mother, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a British suffragette, who has starved herself, and it is Evelyn who announces her mother’s death in the opening sentence with a kind of nonchalance that I found oddly cold and compelling. I’m always listening for the secret in a line, and it seemed Evelyn might have a few secrets. Still, I was in unfamiliar territory—England, the suffrage movement—and yet Evelyn’s voice persisted, and from it branched the other voices, the other characters of the novel, each speaking as a witness to her particular moment in history: the British suffrage movement and the eve of WWI; the start of the Iraq war; V-J Day; the Seventies consciousness-raising period, and post 9/11 Manhattan.
- Your book covers over 100 years of history; what were some of the challenges associated with writing a book that covered so much time? What research did you have to do to write A Short History of Women?
WALBERT: Well, I’m not a historian nor am I a particularly good researcher so the challenges in writing a book that takes place over an entire century were great. I tried not to be overwhelmed by them. My real interest was in imagining the specific lives of my characters and the details of their worlds—worlds inevitably defined by the times in which they lived, whether it was the dawn of the internet or the years of the world wars. What eventually became clear to me, especially after finishing the chapter that takes place in Manhattan, 2007, was that regardless of the era all the women shared a kind of collective yearning, a desire to start anew, to break for freedom, to ram their heads against whatever seemed to stand in the way of their emancipation: from the most obvious barrier of not having the vote to the more oblique and insidious barrier of motherhood in the age of anxiety—what the writer Judith Warner has called, “perfect madness.”
- You are an accomplished writer who has received several impressive accolades, including being a National Book Award finalist for Our Kind and the winner of the Connecticut Book Award for Fiction in 2002. Did you always want to be a writer? What advice do you have for budding writers?
WALBERT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a composer. I loved the piano and loved writing music. This evolved into composing stories early in high school, and I was lucky enough to have had one of those remarkable English teachers who encouraged me.
My advice to budding writers would be to do anything else if you’re good at anything else but if you want to write then persevere. There’s a lot of rejection and long terrible bouts of silence, but if you show up and do your work I believe that eventually your work will be rewarded by whatever the thing is that occasionally swoops down and makes writing feel easy—that alone is worth the years of effort.
- Who is your favorite character in the novel? Who was the most fun to write? Who was the hardest to write? Are any of the characters we encounter based on people you know?
WALBERT: Perhaps my favorite character—at this particular moment that I’m asked the question—is the one I call the original Dorothy, Dorothy Trevor Townsend. She remains an enigma to me because her decision to starve herself was one of both supreme selfishness and supreme selflessness and I’m intrigued by the impossibility of reconciling the two. In this way, she was the most difficult to write and the most fun, though fun in writing is definitely a relative term (see answer to question 3!). I also loved writing Richard Thorke, the lecturer who delivers the pompous talk to the gathering of women in the second chapter of the book, a lecture he entitles A Short History of Women: Some Comments on the Woman Question. I took much of the tone of his lecture from reading various scientists and historians from that era who were trying to puzzle out “the woman question,” namely, whether women should be emancipated and on what terms. There were numerous preposterous reasons, ardently defended, that women were inferior and must be judged as so, for instance this from The Popular Science Monthly, 1882: “the sum total of food converted into thought by women can never equal the sum total of food converted into thought by men. It follows, therefore, that men will always think more than women.”
Thorke’s lecture is a distillation of many of these theories delivered in a scatter shot, nonsensical address. I’ve no doubt that most of us have sat through lectures of this kind at some point in our lives, and it was interesting to me that while I was working on this chapter Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, delivered his now infamous comments at the meeting of the economic research bureau, speculating that innate differences in ability, or “differential ability of aptitude at the high end” might be the reason why so few women held leadership positions in the sciences and math. He reportedly used as anecdotal evidence the fact that his daughter, when given a toy truck, had turned it into a baby doll. When I read about the controversy it struck me anew that the progress of women’s history is not linear, and that with each successive generation we inevitably circle back to some variation of the “woman question.”
- You often reveal future events before they occur – from Father Fairfield’s death to Dorothy Townsend (Barrett’s) impending divorce. Why did you choose to do this?
WALBERT: This is not a conscious stylistic choice, nor any part of a grand plan on my part. In thinking about it, I remember something a playwriting teacher once told my class: a successful play is written in response to an action that has already occurred off-stage. It struck me at the time that this must be true, since, for better or worse, lives are often lived in response to what has happened before. So I guess I’m drawn to writing about the echoes and repercussions of the act rather than the act itself. For me the more interesting question to puzzle out is what’s left undone and unsaid given what has come before.
- What is the significance of the title A Short History of Women? Do you feel that these generations of women speak of the struggles that all women have encountered?
WALBERT: It was supposed to be ironic, since I thought this was going to be a really long book. I wrote pages and pages and pages, but I’m a glutton for revision and so I carved away more than half of what I wrote. I like to think of how painters often repeatedly cover a canvas, painting over one image with the next and the next. So maybe my big book is still there but in relief. I don’t presume that these women speak for all women—they only speak for themselves given the particular angle of my approach. My hope is that their stories resonate with the reader.
- You cover such a vast amount in history in this work. Which person from history do you most admire? Why?
WALBERT: I admire many persons from history—one of my favorites is Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in U.S. Congress who voted against both world wars and over the course of her work for various peace movements rode the banana boats to India in pursuit of meeting Gandhi. I also admire many members of my own family whom I never got the chance to meet. I’m thinking of my paternal grandmother, Ruby Pearl Jewel. She was a tenant farmer and a poet and one famous (at least in our household) story of Ruby is of the day that she purchased from an estate sale with money she didn’t have an intricately carved, silk-covered Victorian sofa, and how the sofa was hoisted onto the back of their pickup truck to be driven to the farm. My father, a young boy at the time, remembers his mother sitting on that sofa on the back of the pickup truck as it was driven down the long dusty driveway, and how he stood up from where he’d been working in the fields and watched her go by. I admire her tremendously for that, for riding on the sofa and buying it regardless. I often wonder about her life and the limits of her life. She died at a young age, a result of worrying about her two oldest sons fighting in the Second World War.
- What comment do you hear most often from your readers? How do you respond?
WALBERT: One of the comments I often hear from readers, given my last three books, is that they’re surprised that I’m not older. I often write of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s—my mother’s generation. Years ago, in graduate school, I had an index card taped over my desk that read, “What is imagined is real, and what is real is never strong.” I have no idea who said it; I think one of my teachers must have quoted it and I dutifully took it down without attributing it to anyone. But I will say that in my own experience of writing fiction I’ve found that the best has borne out just that way. I write to fill in the gaps of history that I could never fully know, to address the silences. And so because of this I tend to be drawn to times that I have not observed directly. I guess I need that distance, that forced imagining, to find my way to what feels true and vivid and, weirdly, real. If I’ve lived it myself then I’m too close, too pressed up against the glass to view anything from the proper perspective for fiction.
- What’s next? Are you currently working on any projects?
WALBERT: I’m working on a play and I have an image for another story or possibly novel and a few phrases I’d like to circle around. That’s about as good as it gets!