It's time to consider what would really improve our unequal society.
Courtney Love's plea to fellow recording artists
to join her in the creation of a new musicians' guild, printed below,
is the latest blow to the beleaguered "Big Five
Should the question of personhood at the embryo stage really be decided by politicians?
The band's kaleidoscopic range helps account for the wealth of its artistry.
Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two
cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the
Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of
human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning
stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since
both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who
have done nothing for women's health or rights in their entire lives,
I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition
supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (the producers
of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara
Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at
www.ourbodiesourselves.org/clone3.htm). Are feminists so worried about "creating a
duplicate human" that they would ban potentially useful medical
research? Isn't that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block
research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro
My antennae go up when people start talking about
threats to "human individuality and dignity"--that's a harrumph, not
an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however,
that hasn't gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on
trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation--implanting
clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till
birth--would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of
severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the
outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards,
and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That's good
reason to go slow on human research--especially when you consider
that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the
UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of
Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described "cowboy" of assisted reproduction
who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other
Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard
time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone
else--the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a
break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress
against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in
which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another
adult--a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or
maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and
playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart's clone would
be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would
have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal
environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century
America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century
Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone
might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard,
but he couldn't compose Figaro. Someone already did
People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New
World dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces
inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the
trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America
right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good
luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they
are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and
slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit.
Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm
bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners' semen--a tiny fraction, I'll
bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance
from Dr. Jack Daniel's.
Similarly, cloning raises fears of
do-it-yourself eugenics--designer babies "enhanced" through gene
manipulation. It's hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all
pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning
for "perfect" babies today--preparing for conception by giving up
cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their
fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually
do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a
nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are
already the "genetic elite"--white, with lots of family money. What
do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they're perfect
Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions
that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence,
talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays,
for example, worry that discovery of a "gay gene" will permit
selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it's obvious that
same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of
Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn't
the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to
understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities
are--after all, women are always being told anatomy is their
There's a strain of feminism that comes out of the
women's health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of
reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro
fertilization and other innovations commodify women's bodies, are
subtly coercive and increase women's anxieties, while moving us
steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal,
natural processes. There's some truth to that, butwhat about the side
of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women?
Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy
children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite
disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did
in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first "test tube
baby." Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of
for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities,
given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions
worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that
the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be
better used on something else? But the same can be said of every
aspect of American life. The enemy isn't the research, it's
Most of the time I think of gay rights, women's emancipation and the decline of male dominance as irreversible historical processes, blah blah, driven as they are by powerful material, social and intellectual forces, blah blah blah. Then comes the Bush Administration and I find myself thinking: Yeah, right. Who would have imagined, for example, that the bright and shiny year 2001 would see the President moving to take away contraception coverage in insurance for federal workers? Is birth control "controversial" now? And what would Karl Marx say about abstinence education--slated for a huge increase in the budget, despite studies suggesting it is as worthless as the missile defense shield? Or about the angels-on-a-pinhead debate over stem cell research? I mean, why help actually existing people with painful fatal diseases when you can give an embryo a Christian burial?
According to the census, American families increasingly come in all shapes and sizes--single moms (7.2 percent), single dads (2.1 percent), live-togethers with kids (5.1 percent). "Nuclear households"--two married parents with children--are down to 23.5 percent of all households, the lowest ever. The census doesn't measure gay and lesbian parents, but their numbers are on the rise as well. So this is exactly the moment for Wade Horn, head of the Fatherhood Initiative and scourge of nontraditional families, to be nominated as assistant secretary for family support at HHS, where he'll be in charge of a vast array of programs serving poor children and families--from welfare and childcare to child support, adoption, foster care and domestic violence--and will have a great deal of influence over the reauthorization of welfare reform, coming up next year.
For Horn, "fatherlessness" causes every woe, from the Columbine massacre (hello?--both killers came from intact families) to "promiscuity" among teenage girls. "Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver," he told the Washington Post in 1997. In other words, a woman raising a child alone, like a drunk driver, is the chief and immediate source of danger to that child--maybe she should be in jail! The cure for single motherhood is marriage, to be imposed on an apparently less and less wedlock-minded population by public policy. In his weekly "Fatherly Advice" column in the far-right Moonie rag the Washington Times, Horn has advocated giving married couples priority in public housing, Head Start places and other benefits, although he now says he's abandoned that idea--maybe someone clued him in that such discrimination was unconstitutional (tough luck, Sally, no preschool for you--your parents are divorced!). Horn favors paying people on welfare to marry (ah, love!), opposes abortion ("states should operate under the principle that adoption is the first and best option for pregnant, single women"), thinks spanking is fine, blames contraception for unwed pregnancies and STDs, and has kind words for the Southern Baptist dictum that wives should "submit" to their husbands--who are, in his view, rightly the primary providers, disciplinarians and "foundations of the family structure." Anyone who thinks gender roles aren't set in concrete--like maybe in some families Mom is "results-oriented" and Dad's a softie--is a "radical feminist," like those man-hating harpies at the National Organization for Women.
A long list of gay, feminist, welfare-rights, community activist and reproductive rights organizations have signed on to a letter protesting Horn's nomination; the Senate Finance Committee begins confirmation hearings on June 21. Unfortunately for those who want to blame the Republicans for everything, many Democrats share Horn's belief in marriage as a panacea for social ills--this is a favorite communitarian theme, after all, and Clinton's welfare reform bill explicitly called for marriage as "the foundation of a successful society." Readers of this column will remember that no less a progressive icon than Cornel West signed the Institute for American Values' Call to Civil Society, endorsing "covenant marriage" and the privileging of married people for public housing and Head Start and so on. The Child Support Distribution Act passed the House last year by a 405-to-18 vote and was just reintroduced--this would divert more than $140 million of welfare funds from poor mothers and children to job training and counseling for poor noncustodial fathers in the hope that the dads will pass along some of their earnings to their children (in one 1998 pilot project reported in the New York Times, the dads squeezed out an extra $4.20 a month).
Horn's not the only Bush nominee trying to turn back the clock on modernity. Fervent Bush supporter Scott Evertz, the new head of the White House AIDS office, whose major experience in AIDS education has been working with Catholic groups, was a fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Life and fought to keep the antichoice plank in the state's Republican Party platform. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force praised the appointment--after all, Evertz is the first open homosexual to be appointed in a Republican administration! So much for those organizations' commitment to reproductive and "human" rights.
For the true flavor of the Middle Ages, though, consider John Klink, whose name has been floated for Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Klink is currently employed as a diplomat with the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations, in which capacity he has opposed any and all use of condoms and contraception, not to mention abortion. He was a major mover in the Vatican's defunding of UNICEF, on the grounds that it supported postcoital contraception on request for refugee women who had been raped, and he has led the Vatican's attempts to sabotage UN consensus documents on women's right to "methods of fertility regulation which are safe, efficacious, accessible and acceptable." Only "natural family planning" for the millions of women, very few of whom are Catholic, fleeing war, tyranny and famine around the globe!
Forward to the past, or a cynical bid for the Catholic vote? Stay tuned.
Memo to editors of campus papers: When the next right-wing ideologue shows up with an ad full of nonsense, just take the money and print it. That way, they will not be able to pose as the victim of "political correctness," they will not get millions of dollars' worth of free publicity and their ideas will not acquire the glamour of the forbidden. By the same token, you will not look afraid of debate and controversy, nor will you have to explain why you rejected their ad while printing something equally false, offensive or stupid on some previous occasion.
Never mind that the people accusing you of censorship practice it themselves: In an amusing riposte to David Horowitz's flamethrower ad opposing reparations for slavery, Salon's David Mazel proved unable to place an enthusiastically pro-abortion ad in papers on conservative campuses; and as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out, the Boston Globe, which editorialized against students who rejected the Horowitz ad, itself rejected an ad criticizing Staples, a major advertiser, for using old-growth forest pulp in its typing paper. So there, and so there! But you're in a better place to make such arguments stick if you can stand--however cynically and self-servingly--on the high ground of free speech yourself.
Just as Horowitz faded, having shot himself in the foot by refusing to pay the Daily Princetonian after it printed his ad but editorialized against it, up comes the soi-disant Independent Women's Forum--you know, that intrepid band of far-right free spirits funded by the ultraconservative Sarah Scaife Foundation--with an ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin and Yale Daily News urging students to "Take Back the Campus!" and "Combat the radical feminist assault on Truth." The IWF charges "campus feminism" with being "a kind of cult" in which "students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the 'capitalist patriarchal hegemony,'" a fount of "Ms./Information," "male-bashing and victimology." Brainwashing isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of the revolution in scholarship that has produced such celebrated historians as Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Joan Scott, Rickie Solinger, Leslie Reagan and Kathy Peiss. The sweeping, paranoiac language gives it away--this is IWF member Christina Hoff Sommers speaking from her perch at that noted institution of higher learning, the American Enterprise Institute.
The bulk of the ad consists of a list of "the ten most common feminist myths" and the "facts" that supposedly prove them false. Much of this is lifted from Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?, a book that attempted to deploy a few gotchas against hyperbolic statistics and questionable studies to deny the significance of violence, sexism and discrimination in women's lives. I mean, how important is it that "rule of thumb" may not derive, as some feminist activists believe and some newspapers have printed, from an old legal rule permitting husbands to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb (Myth #4)? Feminists did not make this folk etymology up out of nothing--actually, according to Sharon Fenick of the University of Chicago, writing on the Urban Legends website, it probably goes back to the eighteenth century, when the respected English judge, Francis Buller, earned the nickname "Judge Thumb," for declaring such "correction" permissible. That it was legal for premodern English husbands to beat their wives within limits is not in dispute (in her book, Sommers obscures this fact by omitting the Latin phrases from a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries); nor is the fact that wife-beating, regardless of the law, was, and sometimes still is, treated lightly by the legal system under the rubric of marital privacy. Thus, in 1910 the Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Thompson, barred wives from suing husbands for "injuries to person or property as though they were strangers." (I learned this, and much else relating to the history of American marriage, from Yale feminist historian Nancy Cott's fascinating Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.)
And what about Myth #2, "Women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns." That doesn't come from some man-bashing fabulator squirreled away in a women's studies department. It comes from the US government! The IWF argues that the disparity disappears when you take education, training, occupation, continuity of employment, motherhood and other factors into account--but even if that were true, which it isn't, to overlook all those things is itself advocacy, a politicized way of defining sex discrimination in order to minimize it.
And then there's #1, the mother of all myths: "One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." The IWF debunks this number, which comes from the research of Mary Koss, by citing the low numbers of reported rapes on college campuses, but the one-in-four figure includes off-campus and pre-college rapes and rape attempts. Are Koss's numbers the last word? Of course not. In 1998 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among all women, one in five had experienced a rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. In January the Justice Department released a report claiming that 3 percent of college women experience rape or attempted rape per school year, which does add up over four years.
Does irresponsible, lax or even slanted use of facts and figures exist in "campus feminism"? Sure--and out of it, too. (Try economics.) But what does that have to do with women's studies, a very large, very lively interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, in which many of the supposed verities of contemporary feminism are hotly contested? The real debate isn't over the merits of this study or that--in social science "results" are always provisional. Now that the IWF has thrown down the gauntlet, feminist scholars should call for that real debate--Resolved: Women's lives were more seriously studied and accurately understood when almost no tenured professors were female. Or, Resolved: Violence against women is not a major social problem. Or, Resolved: If women aren't equal, it's their own darn fault.
They were kidnapped on the street, or summoned to the village square, or lured from home with false promises of work, to be forced into the Japanese military's far-flung, highly organized system of sexual slavery throughout its occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. Of some 200,000 so-called comfort women only a quarter survived their ordeal; many of those died soon after of injuries, disease, madness, suicide. For years the ones who remained were silent, living marginal lives. But beginning in 1991, first one, then a trickle, then hundreds of middle-aged and elderly women from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and other former Japanese possessions came forward demanding that the Japanese government acknowledge its responsibility, apologize and make reparations. Despite a vigorous campaign of international protest, with mass demonstrations in Korea and Taiwan, Japan has hung tough: In 1995 Prime Minister Tomiichi Muayama offered "profound"--but unofficial--apologies and set up a small fund to help the women, to be financed on a voluntary basis by business; this past March, the Hiroshima high court overturned a modest award to three Korean women. As if official foot-dragging weren't demeaning enough, a popular comic-book history of Japan alleges that the comfort women were volunteers, and ultraright-wing nationalists have produced middle-school textbooks, approved for use in classrooms, that omit any mention of the government's role in the comfort-woman program.
Frustrated in Japan, the comfort women have now turned to the US Court of Appeals for the Washington, DC, Circuit. Under the 212-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners may sue one another in US courts for human rights violations; the women are also relying on a law against sexual trafficking passed last year by Congress. In mid-May, however, the State Department asked the Justice Department to file a brief expressing its sympathies with the women's sufferings but urging that the case be dismissed as lacking jurisdiction: Japan has sovereign immunity, under which nations agree to overlook each other's wrongdoings, and moreover, treaties between it and the United States put finis to claims arising from the war.
In other words, it's all right to seize girls and women and put them in rape camps--aka "comfort stations"--for the amusement of soldiers far from home, as long as it's part of official military policy. War is hell, as the trustees of the New School noted in their letter absolving their president, Bob Kerrey, of the killing of as many as twenty-one Vietnamese women and children. If it's OK to murder civilians, how wrong can it be to rape and enslave them?
"The Administration's position is particularly terrible and irresponsible when you consider the evolution of attitudes toward wartime rape over the last ten years," says Elizabeth Cronise, who with Michael Hausfeld is arguing the comfort women's case. Indeed, sexual violence in war has typically been regarded as the inevitable concomitant of battle, part of the spoils of war, maybe even, for the evolutionary-psychology minded, the point of it: Think of the rape of the Sabine women or the plot of the Iliad, which is precipitated by a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over possession of the captured Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis, although my wonderful old Greek professor Howard Porter didn't quite put it like that. It was only this past February that an international tribunal brought charges solely for war crimes of sexual violence, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted in The Hague of organizing and participating in the rape, torture and sexual enslavement of Muslim women.
But even by these ghastly standards, the case of the comfort women stands out for the degree of planning and organization the Japanese military employed. Noting, for example, that subject populations tended to resent the rape of local women, authorities typically shipped the women far from home; although the women saw little or no money, "comfort stations" were set up as brothels with ethnically graduated fees, from Japanese women at the top to Chinese women at the bottom. The system was not, strictly speaking, a wartime phenomenon: It began in 1932, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and continued after the war's end. In fact, according to Yoshimi Yoshiaki, whose Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (Columbia) is crucial reading, the Japanese military authorities set up comfort stations for the conquering American troops. As Cronise points out, even if the United States has closed the books on Japan's wartime atrocities, it could still side with the comfort women on the grounds that many of them were enslaved during peacetime.
"The government's position is technically defensible," says Widney Brown, advocacy director for women's rights at Human Rights Watch. "What's not defensible is the Department of Justice's giving as a reason that it doesn't want to jeopardize relations with Japan." Incredibly, the Justice Department is arguing just that, along with the further self-interested point that a ruling in favor of the comfort women would open the United States to human rights lawsuits in other countries. (Remember that the United States has sabotaged the International Criminal Court.) Says Brown, "It shows a failure to understand the significance of the comfort women case as a major step in the development of human rights for women. After all, their case could have been brought up in the Far East tribunal right after World War II, but it wasn't. This is a major chance to move beyond that. You could even argue that the view of women as property--if not of one man, then another--was what prevented sexual slavery from being seen as a war crime until now."
The US lawsuit may well be the comfort women's last chance. Now in their 70s and 80s, most will soon be dead, and since few married or had children, there won't be many descendants to continue the fight for reparations. By stonewalling, the Japanese government will have won. And the Bush Administration will have helped it. All that's missing is the call for healing and mutual forgiveness.
When we left that old journalistic evergreen, the evils of daycare, two weeks ago, the media hysteria over the NICHD study had just about peaked. The researchers had begun to turn on each other in public, never a good sign--Jay Belsky, a champion soundbiter who had seized the media initiative by strongly suggesting that the study showed that more than thirty hours a week with anyone but Mom would risk turning little Dick and Jane into obnoxious brats, was sharply challenged by numerous co-researchers, who claimed the study's results were tentative, ambiguous and negligible, hardly results at all, really. After a few rounds of this, the media suddenly remembered that no one had actually seen the study, which won't be published for another year and which does seem on the face of it rather counterintuitive: Daddy care is bad? Granny care is bad? Quality of care makes no difference? What really did the trick, though, I suspect, was that every fed-up woman journalist in America sat down and bashed out a piece telling the doomsayers to lay off, already. With 13 million kids in daycare, and two-thirds of women with children under 6 in the work force, working moms are a critical mass, and they are really, really tired of being made to feel guilty when they are, in fact, still the ones doing double duty at work and home.
Compare the kerfuffle over the quantity of hours spent in daycare with the ho-hum response to studies of its quality. On May 1, Worthy Wage Day for childcare workers, came a study from Berkeley and Washington, DC, that looked at staffing in seventy-five better-than-average California daycare centers serving kids aged 2 1/2 through 5. According to Then and Now: Changes in Child Care Staffing 1994-2000, staffers and directors are leaving the field in droves. At the centers in the study, 75 percent of teachers and 40 percent of directors on the job in 1996 had quit four years later. Some centers had turnover rates of 100 percent or more (!) from one year to the next. Half the leavers abandoned the field entirely--raising their incomes by a whopping $8,000 a year compared with the other half, who remained in childcare. Nor were those who left easily replaced: Most of the centers that lost staffers could not fill all their job slots by the next year.
The demoralization and turmoil caused by constant turnover stress both the workers who stay and the children. Making matters worse, the new workers are "significantly less well-educated" than those they replace--only a third have bachelor's degrees, as opposed to almost half of the leavers. Pay, say the researchers, is the main issue: Not only have salaries not risen with the rising tide supposedly lifting all boats; when adjusted for inflation, they have actually fallen. A daycare teacher works twelve months a year to earn $24,606--just over half the average salary of public-school teachers, who work for ten months (not that schoolteachers are well-paid, either). Center directors, at the top of the field, earn on average a mere $37,571; the recommended starting salary for elementary-school teachers in California is $38,000. (In France, which has a first-rate public daycare system, daycare teachers and elementary-school teachers are paid the same.) Daycare teachers love their work--two-thirds say they would recommend it as a career--but simply do not earn enough to make a life in the field.
It's a paradox: Even as more and more families, of every social class, rely on daycare, and even as we learn more and more about the importance of early childhood education for intellectual and social development, and even as we talk endlessly about the importance of "quality" and "stability" and "qualified" staff, the amount of money we are willing--or able--to pay the people we ask to do this demanding and important job goes down. Instead of addressing this reality, we endlessly distract ourselves with Mommy Wars. (You let your child have milk from the store? My child drinks nothing but organic goat milk from flocks tended by Apollo himself!) And because as Americans we don't really believe the rest of the world exists, when a study comes along suggesting that other-than-mother-care produces some nasty and difficult kids, we don't think to ask if this is a problem in Denmark or France, and if not, why not.
Two new books of great interest, Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood and Nancy Folbre's The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, point out that there is a crisis of care in America. Women are incredibly disadvantaged when they perform traditionally female work--childcare, housework, eldercare--unpaid within families. (According to Crittenden, motherhood is the single biggest cause of poverty for women.) The free market cannot replace this unpaid labor at decent rates, Folbre argues, because it would be too expensive: Even now, most families cannot afford tuition at a "quality" daycare center, any more than they can afford private school. And men are hardly falling over themselves to do their share--nobody's talking about the Daddy Track, you'll notice. Both writers call for recognizing the work of care as essential to the economy: Top-quality daycare should be funded by the government, like school, because it is a "public good."
Unfortunately, funding public goods is not exactly a high priority of government, which is busily cutting programs for children in favor of a huge tax cut for the rich. These days our main public goods seem to be prisons ($4.5 billion), the drug war ($19 billion, including $1 billion in military aid to Colombia), abstinence education ($250 million) and executing Timothy McVeigh ($50 million, not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal). You can always find money for the things you really want.
Once again the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights group, is asking Nation readers to help fund summer camp for Bosnian refugee children. Many readers have become an integral part of this wonderful effort, sometimes going beyond donations to correspond with particular children. $150 makes you a "godparent" and pays for two weeks of camp for a child, but gifts of any size are welcome. Send checks made out to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt to me at The Nation, and I will forward them.
One recent Tuesday, members of the literary old guard gathered at the Church of All Souls on Manhattan's Upper East Side to bid final farewell to one of their secret society and to be reminded that the literary agent Candida Donadio, who had died some weeks earlier, was always clear in her devotion to the
written word and the men and women who make it. So much so that she never allowed herself to be pulled off her course by issues of money or power, meanness or shortsightedness. She had represented, over the years, so many of our literature's mega-authors--Heller, Pynchon, Roth and so on. Everything was always personal with Candida. You sensed her Sicilian past the moment you met her, and with Candida business was always the handservant of literature, not the other way around.
I met Candida in 1984. At the time, all of Nelson Algren's novels were out of print, and Algren himself had died just three years earlier. A short story of his that I'd read in a battered anthology compiled by Robert Penn Warren, "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," had knocked me off my feet. A young editor at Norton then, I blazed through the Algren canon. Although the books were out of print, people everywhere seemed to love to say they had known Algren, and two separate short-fiction prizes had been named after him. He was being silenced and cited simultaneously, and to me that seemed like a kind of posthumous torture. So I called Candida, who had represented him, and said I would like to start reissuing his books, which I could arrange through a company called Writers and Readers, where I moonlighted. Candida dutifully called each of Algren's previous publishers--Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Doubleday, Putnam. None were interested in putting him back into print, so after about six months of demurring she told me yes, and from then on she never ever said no to me. Once she accepted me as a fellow keeper of the flame, I could have proposed running the texts backward and I think she would have given serious consideration to the proposal.
Candida's connection to her authors, and particularly Algren, was devotional both in the sense of requiring an absolute loyalty and in that there was an incense of faith and ritual that surrounded her--and you also, if you were fortunate enough to be on the inside with her. Her youthful partner Neil Olson said that Candida never thought of herself as a literary agent at all, but rather, she said, as a person polishing silver. You could picture her as a goddess disguised as a servant, in order to make sure that the silver--those words written by her clients--not be denied its brightness. For its sense of egolessness in the extreme, and its implied narrative of enhancing the beauty of what is precious, the image is brilliant and pure Candida.
The anecdotes at All Souls were revelatory of how her values increasingly stood out in a changing landscape. Knopf associate publisher Vicky Wilson recalled that Candida used to say sometimes that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun--not a big change, I can't help thinking--and how, at one of their regular lunches, Candida had fixed her large eyes on Wilson and said of a contract, "Can't you do better on the dough?" The interesting thing is that the anecdote suggests mostly they were talking about things other than money.
Robert Stone regaled the crowd with his favorite Candidaism: "She loved to say, 'Trust is good, not to trust is better.'" And then added, "Not that she believed that not to trust is better. Just that she loved to say it." Leaving us in the audience who knew her to be infused one last time with her complexity: Not that she didn't believe that not to trust wasn't better. She knew when to do both. And loved to say it.
Peter Matthiessen added some color along those lines: During a lunch at which Candida had been drinking heavily, she was sitting next to Matthiessen and hardly responded to an attorney's harsh demands during a negotiation over one of Matthiessen's books. At the very end she turned to the attorney and thanked him politely for the pleasure of lunching together, and then raised her voice to say: "We like you but we don't love you. You are not our brother!" And then she countered each of the attorney's points. "She hadn't missed a single thing," Matthiessen recalled, still marveling.
Frank Conroy recalled when Candida and he were both just starting out, he a pimply-faced, 24-year-old unknown, she the receptionist and assistant at a literary agency. At the end of their first meeting, he described how he called up his courage and reminded her that she was never going to make any money off him, then asked, "So why do you want to represent me?" And how she had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "The prestige!" The complete implausibility of her response had stayed with him all these years. And perhaps too that in the end she had been proved right.
Eden Collinsworth, a young, willowy Hearst executive who had grown close to Candida in the past decade, told a story that was not related to publishing and yet expressed her magic nonetheless. On the evening Collinsworth introduced her to her fiancé, Candida pulled her aside to say, "He has a very interesting mind, but have you looked at his shoes?" Collinsworth had to confess she had not. "Have you looked at his shoes," Candida repeated, "and considered their implication? They're handmade shoes; it's not going to be easy for you."
We miss her. We need more like her.