Ralph Gardner Jr: Visionary Women

May 12, 2018

There were a couple of obvious questions to ask Andrea Barnet about her book “Visionary Women” when we got together at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village a few weeks ago.

The first was to wonder whether Barnet was a glutton for punishment. She wrote, in a single book, what amounts to separate biographies of four remarkable women – Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall and Alice Waters.

The second question, obviously, was what they had in common? They weren’t just of different generations. They also made their contributions in utterly different fields and never even met each other.

Carson was the conservationist who, in books such as “Silent Spring” exposed the underlying fabric of nature and the damage pesticides were causing up and down the food chain.

Jane Jacobs was the activist and street-scale sociologist whose book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” exposed the destructive foolishness of so-called “urban renewal.”

(By the way, the White Horse was one of her hangouts. Visionary Women includes a section of photographs, one of them of Jacobs enjoying a beer at the bar in 1960. It was mere blocks from where public official and so called “master builder” Robert Moses planned to run an expressway -- turning lower Manhattan and neighborhoods such as Soho and Little Italy into an underpass -- until Jacobs rallied grassroots support against his folly.)

Then there’s Jane Goodall, the British primatologist who, without a college degree, became the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees.

And Alice Waters, the chef and owner of Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant that helped spark the sustainable food movement and taught the world that locally grown, organic foods can be just as tasty as a burger and fries and a lot better for you.

And since we’re on food let me state for the record that while my fear was that Visionary Women would be the literary equivalent of eating your peas – or in my case lima beans having come of age before Waters’ enlightened influence could be found around the average American dinner table – it’s probably more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Whether it’s Carson wading through the tidal pools of her beloved Maine; Jacobs leading demonstrations against the Lower Manhattan Expressway; the novice Goodall tromping alone through the lush vegetation at Gombe, the remote game preserve on the shores of Lake Tanganyika; or Waters enjoying the epiphany of her first simple but unsurpassable soupe de legumes during a college semester in Paris, Barnet gracefully pulls off the not inconsequential task of making you feel at the next table, or jungle clearing, as these women pursue their passion about the world; out of which will come epiphanies to transform our own understanding.

I suppose all of this is a long-winded way of saying this work is laced with an easy-going reverence and even spirituality that manifests itself through inspired discovery and creative action – discovery and action that came about because, Barnet argues, each of these women was an outsider unencumbered by conventional wisdom.

They thought outside the box – not only because of their remarkable spirits and intellect – but because the inside of the box was already crammed with men reluctant to make room. Don’t forget this was an era when society considered a woman’s highest calling to be a homemaker.

They were also pushing back against the technocratic direction society was taking after World War II, that prioritized charts and data over individual lived experience.

They were also abetted by the opening presented by the 1960’s when the strictures of the past were being smashed, when the “Mad Men” ethos of women as either secretaries, wives or arm candy was coming to an end.

“Visionary Women” arrives at another such moment when many women are rising against a system that prizes power, fame and bluster over connection and nurturing.

“Wary of the institutional face of power,” Barnet writes, “deeply alarmed by the culture’s reckless war on nature, each of these women warned against the regimented, the standardized, the faceless and centrally controlled, seeing in these elements the authoritarian impulse.”

Visionary Women attacks the delicate subject of how men and women differ and what role those differences played in sparking the book’s subjects contributions.

“Men were superimposing theories and gathering data to support their theories,” Barnet told me. “These women had no theories. They went into the field. They started looking for patterns.”

There are multiple examples.

Jane Goodall, Barnet said, realized you can’t understand chimpanzees without understanding their rich social lives.

While the urban planners and powerbrokers of the era were gazing through telescopes fixated on the skyline Jane Jacobs turned her microscope to street life in Harlem. Destined for the wreckers’ ball in the name of slum clearance and urban renewal she realized that that’s where the soul of New York City, or any city worth its salt, lurked.

Jane Jacobs said, “I don’t make up my mind about things and then look for examples. I look for examples of behavior first and then when I begin to see patterns in them I begin to generalize.”

For those of us who are slow readers or who can’t get through more than a few pages of a book in bed without succumbing to the narcotic imperatives of sleep it’s nice to get a concise yet in-depth look at the lives of remarkable women whose names and reputations are famous but the details of whose lives may remain vague to the average reader.

But perhaps more than anything else the book comes at a timely moment, as a challenge to those who may think the individual can’t make a difference, that the deck is stacked against all but those with the most money and best lobbyists.

These visionary women had greater forces allied against them than most of us will ever face.

So how did they surmount them?

They were driven by ambition but in one of its purer forms. It was an ambition to understand the world around them, sparked by delight, following their senses and intuition eventually supported by rigorous research, and then sending their knowledge and enthusiasm outward into the world.

“They were following their curiosity,” Barnet said. She added, “It’s so easy to feel politically impotent. But one person armed with powerful truths can change the world.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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