‘I Thought You Said She Worked Full Time’

‘I Thought You Said She Worked Full Time’

Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope
by Peter Edelman
Houghton Mifflin, 2001, 262 pp., $26

 

The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State
by Michael B. Katz
Metropolitan, 2001, 469 pp., $35

 

The London feminists at the center of George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women have a vision: They will train unmarried women to perform clerical work. A strong foothold in a (relatively) dignified occupation should give their students freedom and independence. Wage labor will be their ticket away from the sexism and superstition that drained the souls of middle-class Victorian women.

It’s an attractive vision, and a prophetic one. In the last century, the labor market, for all its injustice, has allowed millions of women to fight their way partly free from the cult of domesticity. But there’s a wrinkle: Gissing’s characters (like the author himself) have an impatience—sliding into contempt—for women who are not already, by their lights, free and independent citizens. “The vast majority of girl...