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 Réka M. Cristian

Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky, Editors

Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s


Book review

Réka M. Cristian is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged. E-mail:




Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky, Editors

Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s

New York and London, New York University Press, 2005 February,

326+22 pages with About the Contributors and Index

ISBN 0-8147-9909-4, 65 $ (hardcover)

ISBN 0-8147-9910-8, 22 $ (paperback)

Dimensions: 9.3×6.8×1.0 inches




Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s edited by Avital Bloch and Lauri Umansky (New York & London: New York University Press, 2005.) is the new Gutenbergian product of the NYU Press series in American History and Culture under the general editorship of Neil Foley, Kevin Gaines, Martha Hodes, and Scott Sandage.  Avital Bloch is Research Professor at the Center for Social Research University of Colima, Mexico, director of the U.S. Studies Program and coordinator of the M.A. in History. Lauri Umansky is Professor of History at Suffolk University and author of “Motherhood Reconceived: Feminism and the Legacies of the Sixties.” Impossible to Hold is a smart collection of essays written by academics of caliber on space exploration, sports, music, architecture, politics, religion, literature, and performing arts with special focus on more or less known women of the long decade known as “the sixties” in the United States. The overall aim of the book is to “trace the activities of women whose lives and work intersected with the culture of the decade in significant ways,” while keeping it separately from the political activism involved in the general “story of feminism’s roots and routes.” (2) This interdisciplinary collection of sixteen essays, mostly in underexplored topics, presents an array of illuminating answers to the emergence of the “gendered cultural revolution” that occurred in the cultural context of the period.


The book is divided into four organically bound parts. The first part of the book entitled “Break” encompasses the figures of women who broke into traditional ‘male’ fields. Margaret A. Weitekamp groundbreaking essay “ ‘The Astronautrix’ and the ‘Magnificent Male’: Jerrie Cobb’s Quest to Be the First Woman in America’s Manned Space Program” (9-28) brings into the limelight the unabridged story of Geraldine “Jerrie” Cobb, who was the first American woman astronaut, “the austronautrix” that passed the physical examination of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1961 but was not allowed to fly on suborbital space mission on veiled gender premises that deliberately constructed the “astronaut/jet test pilot as masculine” (18). In the icy atmosphere of the Cold War, and especially that of the 1959 “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, when the American ideology depicted Soviet women as de-feminized and masculine workers versus the image of the American woman as feminine, maternal and very much domestic, Jerrie Cobb as possible “astronautrix” “ran afoul of the gendered limits on Cold War patriotism” (16). In 1963 the Soviet Union sent in mission a woman, the cosmonaut Valentine Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space. This event placed the communist country at a genderly ideological advantage and highlighted the lacunas in the practices of equality of sexes in the U.S. during the beginning of the sixties. In “Building Utopia: Mary Otis Stevens and the Lincoln, Massachusetts, House,” Susana Tore (29-42) examines the life, career and some of the projects of Mary Otis Stevens, a maverick woman architect, who courageously challenged the dominant practices of post-Housing Act (1949) and post-Highway Trust Act (1959) of slum clearances and homogenous residential suburbs and subsequently questioned the discursive practices of architecture concerning “critical domesticity” (30) with their house of psychogeographical topography at Lincoln, Massachusetts (1962-65). “Life on the Cusp: Lynda Huey and Billie Jean King” by James Pipkin (43-64) focuses on the figures of the tennis star Billie Jean King and college sprinter Lynda Huey, in a period when “the American living room became the nation’s real sports arena” (43). These women had to fight their body battles under the scrutiny of the public eye and cultural expectations. The society of the 1950s and 1960s greatly misinterpreted their athletic bodies, the site of their cultural beliefs and values, and labeled them as “masculine.” The dominant cultural discourse of the period questioned their sexuality on the basis of their muscles; King and Huey rebelled against the ideology of the feminine mystique and managed to make compatible the image of the athlete and the woman into that of the “strong woman” (62). Zina Petersen in “Balancing Act: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin” (65-77) ventures into the life and literary work of Ursula Kroeber LeGuin. Le Guin was interested in bringing science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature from the marginal status of the “ghetto” genres (75) into the centre of attention and mainstream literature through multiple means of popular culture. Working in a genre area of male predominance she successfully fused futurism, and Tao philosophy with radical, cutting-edge issues of gender, race and class in the antiwar, ecofeminist climate of revolutionary ethos of the sixties’ America.


The second part of the collection, “Bridge,” reveals the women behind artistic and diplomatic actions, personalities that built special bridges between cultures. “Ambassadors with Hips: Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and the Allure of Africa in the Black Arts Movement” by Julia Foulkes (81-96) describe the less known diplomatic route of two African American dancer-anthropologists from the U.S. to Liberia and Senegal and back to the U.S. Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus were dance performers who used their art in education and community leadership; their activity−rooted in the cultural traditions of Africa and the Caribbean−became one of the ideological core sources of the Black Arts Movement in the U.S. By disseminating the art of dance through education and choreography these two African American women became involved in politics as “ambassadors with hips” (95) that helped building and maintaining cultural ties with African countries and the urban contexts of the sixties’ America. Roxanne Power Hamilton in “Take Everyone to Heaven with Us: Anna Waldman’s Poetry Cultures” (98-125) uncovers fascinating details about the background of Waldman’s networks in poetry cultures, especially the New York City context. Waldman was more than a performance poet involved in the act of “personal is political” (111); in the vortex of the Vietnam War and the overall turmoil of the sixties Anna Waldman co-founded with Allen Ginsberg (her roommate with whom she entered a “spiritual marriage”) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado and helped building St. Mark Poetry project in New York City, two progressive, counter-cultural poetry institutions. In a predominantly male world of alternative poets, she became a leader poetess who believed in the power of live speech and presence of the voice rooted in “sane poetry that broadens the practice beyond the careerist focus of most traditional M.F.A. programs” (120). The coeditor of the volume, Avital Bloch takes the reader into the colorful and less visible political world of the radical and pacifist singer Joan Baez in “Joan Baez: A Singer and Activist” (126-151). The essay deserves a rich epithet for the style appropriate to its theme; it highlights the moderating role of a cultural “icon of the era” (144) in bridging over to the post-sixties generation(s). Baez, as a racial and gendered “other” was able to appeal to the white, mainstream America by evoking through her traditionally flavored music and her rural simplicity a sense of national unity. She was behind the ascent of Bob Dylan’s career; she provoked the general public (and even the feminists) with her 1968 anti-draft involvement poster of “Girls say Yes to Boys who say No;” her commitment to nonviolence, her leftist inclinations and political maturity made Baez participant in several demonstrations, media boycotts, and risky acts of civil disobedience; she was a prominent anti-Vietnam War activist and played an important role in organizing Amnesty International in the U.S. Her songs were political protests on “personal themes written from a woman’s perspective” (137). Bloch’s elegant essay reveals Joan Baez’s charismatic character that epitomized the rare balance between radical transformation, revolution, and the essence of tradition and continuity. The “Bridge” part of the book concludes with “ ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough:’ Diana Ross as American Pop-Cultural Icon of the 1960s” by Jaap Kooijman (125-173). Diana Ross is seen by Kooijman as a glamorous and glittering pop-cultural phenomenon situated at the crossroads of the multifold currents of the sixties. The lady image of Ross and the Supremes pop group helped the transformation of some class-based racial stereotypes into gendered ones during the sixties. For African Americans of both genders, the essay pinpoints passim, Diana Ross functioned as a role model of racial empowerment. The image of Ross for white audiences appeared on a more complex level and this is the issue that Kooijman only tangentially treats here. The essay touches on the issue of the racial and gender crossover function of the singer that became an icon of the times as the result of a male-dominated production and gives only hints on why Diana Ross was for white female teenagers an attractive black image to follow in her posture of both “girl and woman, both sexy and respectable, both black and white” (161). The essay, however, is successful in presenting the complexity of Ross’s star image−who, as a career woman of color, was the impersonation of the racial integration and upward social mobility in the sixties−also implied the passive, assertive image of the black woman indirectly involved in politics.


“Confront” is the third part of the book focusing on women who openly fought against institutional power and achieved radical changes. “The Choices before Us: Anita M. Caspary and the Immaculate Heart Community” by Susan Marie Maloney (177-195) is the cultural portray of Anita M. Caspary, the Mother General of the Immaculate heart of Mary Sisters (IHMs) of California (“Hollywood” nuns) and the president of the Immaculate Heart Community. It was under her leadership−and by the winds of change initiated by the Second Vatican Council−that the IHM sisters took action; they opposed and rejected the interference of the Roman Catholic male hierarchy in their activity and life. They have created a new ecumenical community of women and men in the renewed vision of the modern world of the sixties based on “ideals of voluntary communal bonds, gender equality, female leadership, commitment to community work, and a faith-life based on individual preference and not institutional affiliation” (189). In “Shaping the Sixties: The Emergence of Barbara Deming” by Judith McDaniel (196-216) the reader gets acquainted with the lesbian poet, essayist and film critic Barbara Deming, who became widely known because of her open confrontation with Fidel Castro on the issue of human rights in 1960s Cuba. Deming was a revolutionary person that lived the fervor of the sixties’ revolution(s); she struggled to reconcile her sexuality with the social expectations of the times and culture she lived in. Born in a wealthy New York City family Deming became a civil rights activist that never accepted paternalistic authority and was committed, as many other women depicted in this collection of essays, to non-violence and political and social justice. Tamara Levitz offers a distinctive Yoko Ono perspective in “Yoko Ono and the Unfinished Music of ‘John & Yoko’: Imagining Gender and Racial Equality in the Later 1960s” (217-239). Levitz depicts the biographical and successful performative background of the Japanese-American Yoko Ono in her pre-John Lennon years in order to show the huge alternative artistic potentials of Yoko. The article then focuses on the Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins project (1968) of the two artists and goes beyond the media representations and the scandal of the album’s groundbreaking nude cover, as well as over the anti-Yoko Ono actions in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the sixties. Yoko Ono defended her heterosexual stance and proudly exhibited the plea for sexual liberation, together with John Lennon, through the image of the racially mixed couple. Throughout their common projects (Two Virgins, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Fly) and even after John’s death, Yoko never stopped to fight for her vision of gender and racial equality. In the thought-provoking “ ‘Hanoi Jane’ Lives: The 1960s Legacy of Jane Fonda” (241-258) Barbara L. Tischler reflects on the controversial images of Jane Fonda starting with that of the childhood “Lady Jane” to that of the 1968 Roger Vadim created intergalactic sex goddess Barbarella to that of the “Workout Queen” and culminating in the “Hanoi Jane” legacy of the actress that targeted her as a treacherous American. In the sixties (after her marriage with activist Tom Hayden) Fonda became a politically very active person who uncritically accepted the ideologies of the antiwar movements, American Indian Movements and the Black Panther Party. After Fonda’s visit in North Vietnam (1972), she was likened to the figure of the legendary Tokyo Rose because by again uncritically immersing herself in the “radical sixties Zeitgeist” she transformed herself into a “North Vietnamese peasant and soldier in the face of American military might and power in the world” (250). Later she reevaluated her ‘damaged’ image in the context of the Vietnam War when she played in the film Coming Home (1987) and further politicized her role in The China Syndrome (1979) and in Nine to Five (1980). However, as Tischler points out, the quantity of the anti-Jane material currently on the internet shows that Fonda’s legacy is still under dispute. In 2005−the year when the collection Impossible to Hold comes out−the controversial figure of the feminine Jane Fonda, the ex-wife of media mogul Ted Turner that features ‘GI Jane’ Barbarella on the cover encodes the political stance of the book as such in the context of the ongoing War on Terror. To the generation of the sixties used to reading political significance of covers this ‘front’ design is not by chance.


The final part of the volume, “Connect,” exposes the figures of Sonia Sanchez, Dianne McIntyre and Judy Chicago. In “ ‘I Feel the Earth Move’: Carole King, Tapestry, and the Liberated Woman” (261-278) Judy Kutulas opens up the musical world of Carole King, a Brooklyn-born Jewish singer who embodied a special kind of feminism best described by the term of “muted feminism” (269) and celebrated women’s difference from men in an apolitical way, through the tacit qualities of intimacy and earthiness. Her landmark album, Tapestry album with special regard the song “I Feel the Earth Move” were at the core of King’s sexual empowerment where sex was seen as “natural, normal” set of “desirable, exciting feelings and orgasmic sounds” (270). Taking seriously into consideration the female audience King voiced in her art the complex post-1960s image of the liberated woman: she was perceived as sexy and independent, while being at the same time womanly and domestic. Michelle Nzadi Keita’s short article celebrates the activist figure of the African American poet Sonia Sanchez in “Sonia Sanchez: ‘Fearless about the World’ ” (279-291). Keita focuses on the effects of Sanchez’s life and militant activism in her poetry and that have placed her among the poet-activists of the decade. “A Beacon for the People: The Sixties in Dianne McIntyre” by Veta Goler (292-304) and “Judy Chicago in the 1960s” by Gail Levin (305-326) are the last two articles of the book. Dianne McIntyre was one among the few prominent African American woman performance artists after Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Her modern dance choreographies shaped the artistic facet of the struggle for racial and gender equality on the part of women in the sixties that−as alluding to the cover and subtitle of the book− “weren’t held back anymore” (303). Judy Chicago was a painter and visual artist whose major political concern entailed the situation of women artists. While teaching at the Fresno State College she planned to set up an off campus class for women only in order to escape the presence and “expectations of men” (318). Afterwards, she and Miriam Schapiro and their women students established the pioneering “Womanhouse” in order to challenge gender stereotypes and raise women’s consciousness during best times for the emergence of feminism in the visual arts. The Dinner Party multimedia installation project on the history of women in Western civilization followed, which since has become canonized and is featured in “nearly every introductory art history textbook” (321).


Impossible to Hold is an intelligent journey in the American world of the sixties; it unravels a wide spectrum of women’s lives that succeeded to alter the grand narratives of the time; it seeks to take up the issues where the mainstream, dominant discourse left off. The world of the book maps−in Kathleen Stewart’s words−gender spaces “on the side of the [American] road” that one reads with the pleasure of discovering new terrains from old issues. Imposible to Hold weaves the reader into a palimpsest of stories that are read above academic compulsion. The book presents useful cultural vehicles for understanding the sixties in the shape of sixteen well-documented, intellectually challenging essays about women at economical, political, and ideological crossroads. This volume is a substantial contribution to the field of contemporary American Studies. What may count as weakness in another book is administered as strength here: the book’s fragmented structure and its form can be read as a tribute to the polyphonic culture of the sixties in America. In the context of polyphony and the current impetus for a more internationalized American Studies, the theme of the collection would have welcomed a more international perspective. With the exception of few articles written from non-US based scholars (Mexico, Holland, UK) the women of the sixties are analyzed from within the critical context of the U.S. academic scholarship. This may be a point to remember when further expanding the volume to the seventies, eighties, nineties women of America, a version many of us would welcome after reading Impossible to Hold. The book provides useful and simulating reading material for undergraduate, graduate and even post-graduate levels in American Studies, gender studies and cultural studies in general, and can seriously be considered as basic course-book in specific courses on women’s studies, civil rights movements and other courses pertaining to American Studies; it can also be built as basic and secondary reading in the curricular material on more general courses in the field of studies about the U.S.



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