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. ~U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, from his 1873 opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois, denying Myra Bradwell the right to practice law.
These are fighting words to American women of my generation, those of us who came of age in the early to mid 1970’s when bras were being burnt and women were starting to storm the barricades erected around traditional male institutions. Meg Waite Clayton takes on Justice Bradley’s opinion in her new novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, about four women who became friends in the early 1970’s during their years in law school at The University of Michigan (Go Blue!) It’s a story of friendship, of courage, of breaking down barriers in society, in our families, and in our own hearts.
But it’s also a story that’s a bit about one of those “benign offices” which Justice Bradley deemed the “destiny and mission of women” – being a mother. The women in the book have been profoundly affected by their relationships with their own mothers, and are deeply aware of their responsibilities to instill courage and leadership in their own teenage daughters.
The novel opens in the present day with Professor Elsbieta (“Betts”) Zhukovski undergoing Senate confirmation hearings for her nomination to become a Justice of the Supreme Court. Growing up the daughter of a Polish immigrant in Hamtramack, Michigan (a blue collar suburb of Detroit), Betts has surpassed all the odds and landed in the catbird seat for one of the highest offices in the land. Her four bosom buddies from college are there to support her: Mia, who traded her law practice for the lens of a camera, working all over the world as a photojournalist; Ginger, who gave up law to stay home and write poetry while raising her children; and Laney, who has has stepped out from years of working behind the scenes in politics and thrown her hat in the ring for a place in the Georgia state legislature.
Initially, Betts’ confirmation seems like a sure thing – until information surfaces about a mysterious death which occurred during the women’s college years, a death that casts a long shadow upon all the “Ms. Bradwells” (a nickname bestowed upon the quartet by one of their UM law professors).
Very quickly, the novel becomes a mystery story, as well as a lovingly written ensemble piece about what it was like to be a young woman in the 1970’s. Women were only just beginning to crack the major barriers into a very male dominated society. And while we had indeed “come a long way, baby,” there was still much work to be done. As women forayed into positions of increasing power and men looked for ways to hang on to their own authority, sexual harrassment infiltrated the work place, and sexual injustice and discrimination was a major battleground. While none of these battles have been completely won, great strides have been made in that direction.
Clayton freely admits that the relationship among the Ms. Bradwells is rooted in the strong friendships she herself forged during her years in law school at Michigan. The book is dedicated in part to “the Women of Division Street,” Clayton’s housemates in Ann Arbor, women whom she continues to count as her closest friends. At its heart, The Four Ms. Bradwells (like Clayton’s novel The Wednesday Sisters) is about friendship, and about women supporting each other during times of struggle as well as times of triumph.
THE FOUR MS. BRADWELLS
Thanks to TLC Book Tours, I have a new copy of the book to giveaway to one lucky Bookstack reader! Leave a comment below about the way a friendship has supported you at some point in your life. Winner will be chosen at random on April 7, 2011
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