Joy Ding’s review of Lynn Gilbert’s oral history profiles, Particular Passions

 

Posted early in honor of March as National Women’s History Month

Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times is a treat and an essential read for any woman out to make history. Written by Lynn Gilbert with the help of Gaylen Moore, Particular Passions brings together forty-six profiles of accomplished women such as Betty Friedan, Julia Child, and Gloria Steinem. With every chapter, the reader gets the opportunity to meet and become intimately acquainted with the life, decisions, and experiences of a woman accomplished in her own right, in fields as disparate as science and dance. Gilbert’s black and white photographs show each woman with dignity and honesty, and her decision to use the oral history format is a stroke of genius, allowing each woman to speak for herself in first-person.

Gilbert’s chapter on Agnes de Mille is no exception. Rather than merely covering de Mille’s background—an American choreographer and dancer whose work elevated dance in musical theater from mere accessory between acts, to the story-telling function it serves today – Gilbert’s oral history brings out de Mille’s self-effacing humor, stubborn perseverance, and drive to make things better for artists.

 

Selected excerpts from the Agnes de Mille chapter:

 

“I think it is a miracle that I turned into anything of worth…I was the petted daughter in a fairly wealthy household, in which being a lady was the thing.”

 

“It was very rough going out into the world…my work wasn’t good enough, my technique wasn’t sound enough, my hair would fall down, my stockings were wrinkled. It just wasn’t professional…I didn’t have a classic body. I had a long torso and shortish legs. They are pretty legs, but very short. What I did have was a real acting ability and inventive, creative thought. I couldn’t fit into the mold so I made my own, that’s all.”

 

“I didn’t set out to change the world of dance. I had to do it because nobody cared a damn about dancing and I got fed up with people’s ignorance and indifference; particularly the American men scorned it. “

 

Even though the oral history format effectively removes Gilbert from the transcript, the expansiveness and gleam of each profile testifies to her ability to ask questions and to draw meaningful stories out of her subjects. Particular Passions is a rare gift to the women’s movement, providing forty-six unique role models to inspire the next generation of leaders.

 

 

Joy Ding is a writer living in San Francisco. You can reach her at joy.j.ding@gmail.com.

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