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The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
Elaine Showalter
Simon & Schuster, 2016
320 pp., $28.00

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Rachel Marie Stone


"Human, and American, and a Woman"

The modest but stifled ambitions of Julia Ward Howe.

When I was a relatively new wife and mother, I lived in a very remote town in the mountains of Northern California, populated mostly by retirees. I grew up in New York, and had developed the full range of allergies to pollen and mold common in that region. Even thinking too hard about the musty smell of dampness sets my sinuses to aching, so the aridity of my new home was a relief and a delight. I loved hanging wet clothing outside to dry, because it actually dried, and quickly, instead of moldering on the line as laundry in wetter climes has been known to do—and the smell of sunshine on sheets and towels and t-shirts was ample repayment for effort expended beyond tossing the wet mass into the dryer.

"What do you do with the unmentionables?" my father-in-law asked. "Hang them in the restroom?"

It hadn't occurred to me to hide our undergarments from public view, my assumption being that most people wear them and that there was nothing to be ashamed of in exposing our standard cotton, six-to-a-pack underclothes to the open air and the eyes of the half-dozen or so people who might pass our house on any given day. Even so, I knew that my father-in-law had grown up when women judged other women's housekeeping by the state of their laundry lines. Were their white things white or dingy gray? Did they snap the wrinkles out of the wet, clean clothing and hang it neatly, trousers with trousers and shirts with shirts, or was the line a jumble of clothes hastily tossed on the line without regard for order? These things mattered: more than the era of not airing dirty laundry, this was an era in which even clean laundry, in the event that it had literally to be aired, could be aired only selectively and with care, lest people talk.

Such fastidiousness now seems impossibly quaint and fussy. During his candidacy for the presidency, William Jefferson Clinton was asked whether he wore boxers or briefs, and he answered the question. My parents were aghast at the tastelessness of the ...

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