The recent deaths of writer and urban planning iconoclast-turned-icon Jane Jacobs and feminist godmother Betty Friedan has me pondering how four women altered the contours of American life. I realize that the conversations I have had about these four women and this post are not particularly original thought, but bear repeating anyway. For one other discussion of the topic (minus Julia Child) see this article in the The Nation.
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
When journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 she helped pull the urban planning profession from its darkest days of “slum” clearance and the worst excesses of 1950s urban renewal. Originally decried by planners of the day, Jacobs’ view of what constituted the components of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city is the standard by which they are still judged today. Jacobs’ description of her Greenwich Village neighborhood and the ways in which it nurtured its residents provided a powerful example in favor of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods that are the mantra of virtually every municipal planning department today. Like the other three women discussed here her work is not without its flaws. But, like the others, her clarion call woke up a sleeping nation and defined the terms of discussion for going on fifty years now.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The marine biologist/zoologist, professor, and author’s 1962 book Silent Spring stood the US and the world on its ear about the connection between chemical pesticides and the degradation of the environment. Her book woke up America and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Of course she has her detractors even today (not being a scientist I am not going to try and wade through the arguments), but the fundamental truth is her work put environmental issues firmly on the policy table and in the minds of the American public.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern feminist movement. Despite the book’s somewhat limited prospective of the white, college-educated, middle class woman (i.e., the typical Smith graduate), the notion that the sexist, conformist expectations of the times had trapped most women into a life of unfulfilled potential had near virtual universal application. (One could also argue that suburban sprawl contributed greatly to the imprisonment of women in the 1950s, but that is the topic for another post.) Friedan’s writing and her co-founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) set the U.S. on an unstoppable path toward the as yet unfulfilled equality of women in America.
Julia Child (1912-2004)
When I was a child in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS. We never made any of her recipes but we sure liked watching. Her show, which began in 1963, and her contribution to the popularization of TV cooking shows is not the most impressive change she brought to American life. Julia introduced Americans to recipes and ingredients that were anathema to the post-World War II salt, pepper, and paprika school of American cooking. When her show began Americans were gorging on TV dinners and canned vegetables. Thanks to Julia and others in her circle or under her influence, we have so much to choose from today when we head to the grocery store. Not all of the “food” created by scientists but those fabulous ingredients that no one had heard of thirty years ago.
For you big fans out there, you must check out her kitchen which on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I’ve been there five times myself.