Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto

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Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century, and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe, Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).

Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve, the poor, A Useful Woman, delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced.

Determined to find a place for herself in a world where women were very limited, Jane Addams became one of the pioneers in social work. In a time when women were supposed to be seen as angels of the home and couldn’t even vote, Addams founded Hull House in an attempt to make a difference in the lives of poor immigrants and also find a focus for her need to do something other than be the spinster aunt. A woman plagued with health issues and always rather distant, Addams found became an advocate for immigrant improvement and reform to social work. She used the stigma of women being more refined and virtuous at the time to her benefit and plunged into a staggering amount of work involving helping her neighborhood. Addams served as one of the few social workers who not only had money, but a desire to live among those she was helping. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when charity work was seen as not much more than giving out help from on high.

Jane’s plight wasn’t unusual at the time. Women were expected to get married and no thought was given to a woman ever having a career or different sexual orientation that may have made that less than desirable. Women at this time were starting to become more accepted into education but were often left at ends with what to do with it afterwards. The author delves into the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued some educated women that we would now contribute to severe mental and emotional distress or depression, but at the time were seen as proof of women being “weak” mentally. She also very openly and fairly addresses the fact that Addams may or may not have had romantic inclinations towards other women, a fact complicated by the flowery letter writing at the time and Jane’s own rather remote personality.

5 out of 5

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

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He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of The Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Quincy Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history, which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

Considered to be a failure as a president, John Quincy Adams is a figure who not only suffered multiple political failures (such as the presidency), but found a way to persevere in spite of them and ultimately become a truly monumental champion of free speech, abolition, and protecting the rights of citizens. Now more than ever Adams’ example should shine as a beacon of someone who first and foremost saw himself as a defender of the right to speak out against things seen as a wrong or unfair. Adams became a formidable orator and in spite of constant opposition in Congress demanded his voice be heard saying things those in power did not want to hear, but needed to.

Raised by his ambitious parents to be a politician who would be able to protect and defend the legal and political side of his newly founded country, Adams was able to smooth the way for the fledgling nation with his diplomatic skills. Finding himself out of touch with the common man after becoming president, he eventually became the most fierce fighter for every man’s right to free speech. Not without his flaws, Adams could also be harsh and was plagued with many personal tragedies revolving around his family, from the young death of beloved family members, including a daughter, to the disease of alcoholism that claimed his brothers and sons. Adams was a pioneer in pushing the young nation to establish better education and centers for learning. Mocked for his devotion to knowledge, the Smithsonian Institute was founded under his watch. Determined to speak for what he believed rather than party politics, Adams alienated people and made many enemies, but on his death was almost universally admired for his wisdom and virtue. Unger gives a highly readable glimpse of a man that many have forgotten to some degree.

5 out of 5

Review: Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra

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Clover Adams, a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the soon-to-be-eminent American historian Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate of power brokers in Gilded Age Washington, where she was admired for her wit and taste by such luminaries as Henry James, H. H. Richardson, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, “all she wanted, all this world could give.”

Yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having begun in the spring of 1883 to capture her world vividly through photography, end her life less than three years later by drinking a chemical developer she used in the darkroom? The key to the mystery lies, as Natalie Dykstra’s searching account makes clear, in Clover’s photographs themselves.

Clover Adams was for all intents and purposes a very intelligent and artistic person overshadowed by a brilliant husband and haunted by a family history of mental illness and depression. Perhaps the saddest part of her biography is the fact that her suicide might have been preventable today with the help of counseling or medicine, but at the turn of the century it was just not something really understood. Another area  of a time period that failed her is the view of women at this time. Clover had the makings of a great photographer, but bowing to the more conservative nature of the time and her husband’s dislike for attention directed toward his family (which a female photographer gaining any reputation other than as a “hobbyist” would have done) Clover made her passion a pass time. What remains is a woman who felt truly alone and becoming useless. Her husband was not a demonstrative man and had a very obvious fondness for another woman even though he truly did seem to love his wife. Clover’s documented insecurity with her looks and fear of abandonment could only have been aggravated by her inability to gauge her husband’s affections. The story is tragically of a woman plagued with a history of depression surrounded by people who could only hope she found a way out of her “black moods”. The most poignant thing is Clover’s photography sheds a light on the isolation and sadness she suffered from, giving a glimpse into a mind those closest too her struggled, but failed to understand.

5 out of 5