Women In Search of a Voice: An Interview with Kate Walbert, Author of A Short History of Women

Bitch is proud to announce our new book lovin’ blog, Bibliobitch! To kick off our foray into the land of literature, here is an interview with author Kate Walbert by Bitch contributor Sarah Seltzer. Stay tuned for more, you bitchy bookworms, you.


Kate Walbert’s new novel “A Short History of Women” follows the women in a single family down through the generations. The official synopsis of the book is: “From a lecture delivered to suffragettes in Victorian England to a playdate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this provocative work chronicles four generations of women, their aspirations, the limits imposed on them, and the sometimes startling choices they make in the world.”

Walbert’s fictional family history begins with Dorothy Townsend, who starved herself for the British suffrage movement, and continues through to today. As Dorothy’s name reappears in different permutations among her children, nieces and grand-nieces, so does her struggle with “the problem that can’t be named,” or the problem of how women can find fulfillment in an obstacle-filled environment. Dorothy’s daughter devotes herself to science and shuns intimacy, even while serving as a role model for younger women. Her grand-nieces contend with an emptiness and lack of purpose and take that feeling out in myriad ways: trespassing on military property, blogging their feelings, drinking and moving through life as best they can. Walbert has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and the “playdate” chapter of this novel appeared in the New Yorker.

A few months back, Publishers Weekly published my interview with Walbert. However, I also asked her a few extra questions that were near and dear to my heart: namely, about the F-word. Here are her answers.

In an early scene, the turn-of-the-century suffragist, Dorothy Townsend, has to listen to an odd academic lecture at Cambridge on the “woman question” as delivered by a (Larry Summers-esque) boorish professor. In his case, the speech seems to try to juggle the new-fangled upsurge in women demanding rights with their assumed nature as “comforters.” But beyond that, what is “the women question” exactly?

[The speech] is an archaic, absurd explanation as to why women should not be emancipated. The “scientific” reasoning comes out of a couple of books that I found in the Strand [an NYC bookstore], one of which chronicles the principles of the dominant thinking in each decade through 20th century on “the woman question” a catch-all expression that could be applied to anything from the vote, to whether women should leave the kitchen, to “do women really have watery blood?”

Another memorable scene is the 70s consciousness-raising in American suburbia. Have you ever participated in one?

Oh my god, no. I have not. I’ve read about them, knew of their existence. That would have been more my mothers’ generation, though I don’t believe she ever attended one. But I’ve been to enough female group sessions for one reason or another. I remember one in college, although I can’t remember what group it was. We were all in a room and someone had a ball of yarn. You had to answer the question, toss it to the next girl, it was some great metaphor of connectedness and sisterly love. That’s where I got the idea of tossing tennis ball for that scene. I imagine we weren’t so different. Women find themselves in groups a lot, where talk and sharing feelings is paramount.

Did you feel that there was any difference between the British and American women’s issues?

I’m going to say that I think our struggles are fairly universal although of course there are particularities of culture, background, privilege, all the other subsets of universal gender questions.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, yes, yes. I will say “feminist.” I have never thought of myself as anything other than as a feminist. I don’t think of the word “feminist” as being anything but a positive way of defining oneself. It is how I view the world.

by Sarah Seltzer
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

i wish...

great stuff. I wish this part of your conversation was also included in the PW piece.

Keep the book stuff comin'!


As someone who has her nose in a book more often than not, and is now planning to spend portions of the summer re-reading older issues of <i>Bitch</i> because the next issue won't be out until Sept. 1, I welcome book recommendations here in the blog. Thanks and I look forward to some good summer reads!

Thanks a lot for discussing

Thanks a lot for discussing "A Short History of Women" and the great review on it. I was pleasantly surprised reading it, because this book deals with problematical women living in complicated times. I would say that it's a really witty ode to the women writers and women's movement in general, obscure and renowned.
This reading could be also a great birthday gift!

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