Kate Walbert on A Short History of Women

Kate Walbert looks at suffragists, activists and modern-day moms in her new multigenerational saga.

THE REST IS HERSTORY Novelist Walbert tackles the “woman question.”

THE REST IS HERSTORY Novelist Walbert tackles the “woman question.” Photograph: Gasper Tringale

About seven years ago, Kate Walbert was hard at work on a historical novel about two women: Dorothy Trevor Townsend, who starves herself to death for the suffragists’ cause in 1914, and her daughter Evelyn, whose life is invariably shaped by her mother’s radical act. But the author was getting stuck. “The subject,” she tells TONY, “forced me into a kind of Victorian straitjacket.” So she stepped away from that project to write something entirely different: a story about two contemporary Manhattan mothers who get hammered while their young daughters have a playdate.

Walbert meant for the short story to be just a temporary diversion, but it soon became part of the novel itself. “It blew the book open for me,” Walbert says. “I suddenly realized that it spoke to what I was setting in motion with the novel—the ways in which these women have inherited a world that’s not what they expected at all.” She decided that the characters in the story and the novel weren’t just thematically connected but related: One of those boozy moms turns out to be the martyred suffragette’s great-granddaughter. The book that binds them together, A Short History of Women, is an elegant, ambitious exploration of how the choices and circumstances of earlier generations resonate for their descendants, specifically for the women of one family over a period of 100 years.

“I’m interested in writing into the silences in women’s lives,” Walbert, 47, says, and the subjects of her earlier books bear this out: 2004’s Our Kind (a finalist for the National Book Award) told connected stories about a group of aging former housewives, while The Gardens of Kyoto (2001) was a young woman’s coming-of-age tale set in the years after World War II. The linked stories in Walbert’s first book, Where She Went (1998), revolve around a rootless mother and daughter.

Her new novel is perhaps her most explicit investigation of the unspoken forces that inform women’s lives. In chapters that jump from one era to another and studiously avoid chronology, the orphaned Evelyn matriculates at Barnard College and grows up to become a well-regarded chemistry professor. Her niece (named after the legendary Dorothy) attends a feminist consciousness-raising group in the ’70s, later protests the Iraq War, and stuns her family by divorcing her husband of 50 years. In turn, one of her daughters is the mother from the playdate story (reproduced here as its own chapter), the other a buttoned-up businesswoman. Meanwhile, another great-great-granddaughter offers a salute to her revolutionary foremother on Facebook.

Walbert connects each character back to “the original Dorothy,” the suffragette whose principled death resonates through the ages. The fractured order of story wasn’t something the author originally intended. “When I put it in chronological order, it felt like an old form,” she says. “It felt wrong, as if I was going back to a conventional plot. And I don’t know if that would accurately reflect the lives of the women in this family.” While the zigzagging timeline of the book can be complicated, the author grounds it with evocative characters and clear prose, expertly shifting in tone to suit different time periods.

Despite the book’s slightly tongue-in-cheek title and Walbert’s purposeful inclusion of feminist touchstones, this is decidedly a novel, not a Women’s Studies textbook. Following the efforts of feminists on and off the page, Walbert has crafted five generations of vivid characters, each of whom witnesses immense transformation and responds to it in her own way.

Of course, Walbert is deeply interested in how Dorothy and her descendants relate to the age-old “woman question,” an elusive topic that, she notes, “we circle back around to again and again.” Walbert herself has handled it with grace in more than one book, and now finds herself determined to pursue a different subject. “I have another idea for a book, which so far has nothing to do with women’s lives,” she says. Then she laughs. “We’ll see how long I can push it before it swerves back around.”

A Short History of Women (Scribner, $24) is out now. Walbert reads Wed 24.

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