Woman Movement — that’s what the early feminist movement was called. In Europe, at least as I understand it, where it began, the cause focused on women’s freedom to have their own lives. Though met with considerable controversy and derision, eventually the movement helped banish the taboos of divorce and women living alone. In this country, it melded into women’s right to vote and to earn equal pay (some would argue we haven’t won the second battle — but that’s another topic and not one I care to argue at the moment).
I learned more about the fragile beginnings of the movement in the most unlikely of places, or at least it seemed that way at the start. A friend recommended the book Loving Frank, a fictionalized account of Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Borthwick in the 1920s. It is a powerful first novel by Nancy Horan.
As I read more about Ellen Key, founder of the movement, and contemporary women poets, writers, and philosophers, I realized how profoundly they influenced thinking in their time and of course women in the decades to come. Most, if not all were liberal thinkers, socialists, and likely more radical–who among the literati of the time wasn’t?
I see traces of Ellen Key’s thinking in one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood and how the envisioned freedoms may have morphed into the concept of “reproductive futurism” and the dystopia of Ms. Atwood’s popular Handmaid’s Tale (not my favorite Atwood, but interesting). Ms. Key covered the waterfront and was both a supporter of women and a proponent of motherhood. Per Wikipedia, yes, I plead guilty to not having firsthand knowledge , “Key maintained that motherhood is so crucial to society that the government, rather than their husbands, should support mothers and their children.” One of her more famous books was The Century of the Child published in 1909.
To reveal more about Loving Frank is to spoil the story for others. I can say, it has broadened my already long reading list to include Henrik Ibsen (The Doll’s House) of which the premise is now anchored in an understanding of the time and the poet Else Lasker-Schuler.
This post does a disservice to Nancy Horan, the author of Loving Frank, who has a new novel on a spirited woman and wife of another artist, Robert Louis Stevenson. I rarely violate my rule to read only one book by an author (after all there are only so many years ahead and so many many authors to read), but anticipating the new novel will be as grounded in history and full of insight as Loving Frank, I will make an exception.