Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Four Ms. Bradwells by Meg Waite Clayton

I'll admit it: I'm a Ms. Bradwell wannabe.

But first, a little background from Meg Waite Clayton's new book, The Four Ms. Bradwells. In 1869, Myra Bradwell was denied admission to the Illinois Bar because she was a woman. She appealed her case all the way up to the nine white males on the United States Supreme Court - and lost by a vote of 8-1. The Supreme Court said, as quoted in the book's epigraph:

"The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. … The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

Yes, they really did say that.

Fast forward 110 years to a scene in the novel - a lecture hall at the University of Michigan Law School. It's 1979 and the student body is nearly half women. When a feisty female law student insists on being called "Ms." during a classroom discussion of Bradwell v. Illinois, several other female law students rise up in her defense, and a professor kiddingly names them the "Four Ms. Bradwells."

It's a name and a friendship to which the four young women become deeply devoted. They bond over casebooks, hot tubs and spring break road trips to a beautiful family compound on Chesapeake Bay. They remain friends for nearly 30 years, and are reunited when one of the Ms. Bradwells is nominated to the Supreme Court.

Yes, I'm jealous. I also went to law school during the Ms. Bradwells era, but unfortunately, I didn't know anybody with a hot tub, a fireplace in their dorm room or a "family compound." I spent most of my time in the law library drinking bad instant coffee, playing Pac-Man in the student lounge, and hanging out in dive bars with the Thursday Night Study Club. Makes me really wish I'd gotten into Michigan Law. But it's more than that. It's the four Ms. Bradwells. How many women truly have four lifelong friends who have been with them through nearly everything?

But enough about me and my Ms. Bradwell envy.

The Four Ms. Bradwells is a great read for any woman, no matter what your age or alma mater. There are three generations of women: mothers, daughters, mentors, friends. First, there is a first-wave trailblazing feminist lawyer with a boat named Row v. Wade. Then there are the four Ms. Bradwells, second-wave feminists who graduated from law school in the early 80's, when women first entered the legal profession in sizable numbers (with our floppy silk ties, male lawyer wannabes). Then there are their daughters, young women in college and law school, looking for their own path after so many decades of the women's movement.

There are meaty issues in this book that will keep your book club up late, like sexual harassment, fellow woman-envy, gay ex-husbands, Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas, women's sexuality, and mothering daughters in the post-feminist era. You'll want to discuss whether you would encourage your own daughter to follow in your footsteps - and why or why not. You could discuss the mixed feelings we have when we abandon a successful career for motherhood or an alternative vocation (writing poetry for instance, like one of the Ms. Bradwells did -- writing novels, like Meg Waite Clayton did -- or bookselling, like I did).

See what I mean? This book is really discussable.

But don't be overwhelmed - this is no dark and depressing book. There's plenty of fun and frivolity too, the kind of skinny-dipping silliness us gals can have on a memorable girls' weekend. There's a mysterious death from the long-ago spring break on Chesapeake Bay that threatens to derail the Supreme Court nomination. There are secrets and suspicions and a surprise letter from the grave. There's a ridiculously nutty scene at the end of the book that might make you spit out your coffee. The Four Ms. Bradwells has got it all.

That's why I am so very pleased to announce that Glen Ellyn area readers will have the chance to meet Meg Waite Clayton at a reception and book signing at The Bookstore on Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 7:00 pm. In the meantime, you can find The Four Ms. Bradwells on our staff pick shelf. If you would like to place it on hold until the next time you pop in, just click here.

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