Meg Waite Clayton's 'The Four Ms. Bradwells' make a tour stop at their alma mater
“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 Mrs. Myra Bradwell the right to practice law.
This, the opening epigraph to Meg Waite Clayton's “The Four Ms. Bradwells” (Ballantine), ought to be just a cheap shudder. 'Ugh,' we should think, especially if we happen to belong to the female sex, 'thank goodness that's over.'
Except that Clayton spends the next 300 pages wrapping a thriller of a whodunit, a tender lovestory among friends, and the exquisite rockiness of the mother-daughter bond around it, so that when the story ends at a not-too-distant point in the future, there is a clear line of sight between the Court of Bradwell and Bradley and that of Ledbetter and Sotomayor.
Don't let that scare you, though. Did I mention the mystery and tenderness? They are tremendous. And the brains — oh, the brains!
The Four Ms. Bradwells got their nicknames during the first hour of their University of Michigan Law School education, and they didn't get there because of their timidity or delicacy.
By the time this book commences some thirtyish years later, one is a globetrotting journalist, another has traded her firm for poetry, the third is running for political office and the last is, yes, nominated to the Supreme Court.
A senate confirmation bombshell derails their plans for a celebratory night on the town and sends them scurrying instead to the poet's mother's estate, a Chesapeake Bay island accessible only by the late feminist legal warrior's boat — which has the best name in the history of names: the Row v. Wade — to hide from the press until they figure out both what the heck actually happened and what to say about it.
You may well have guessed one of the crimes by now — perhaps the only one that requires an accounting from the victim as well as the perpetrator. But Clayton positions it securely in a cascade of them, inseparable from each other and also from the muddy mess of entitlement, loyalty, risk assessment and occasional outright delusion that guides a lot of human decision-making. Neither plot- nor character-driven, the story feels as though we bump along a carefully-crafted path that's reachable exclusively by the turning of the Ms. Bradwell's wheels.
It's fair to say that if you liked Clayton's last novel, “The Wednesday Sisters,” you'll probably like this one too. That book, she says, was “about friendship, and about a generation of women before me, my mother's generation. And it was very much an homage to my friends, but it was really very tied to my mother's friends as well. And I had so much fun writing that book and wrapping myself up in those friends that I thought, 'What if I do it again, but this time write about my generation of women?'”
A U-M law alum herself who, like the Ms. Bradwells, graduated about the time the first pair of X chromosomes arrived at the highest court in the land, Clayton thought there was plenty to say about the epoch right after the second wave of feminism crested, when women had entered universities, professions and the workforce in droves but hadn't quite been accommodated yet.
“There was this moment in time, when...we all thought, 'Now everything's changed.' But as we've seen, it changed, but then it didn't in some ways — or at least it's been very slow. We had Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981, but then it was another dozen years before we had a second female Supreme Court justice, and 15 years before a second second, after Sandra Day O'Connor retired. Same thing with women in politics — we are at a paltry level of representation in politics. Women have been half of law school classes since the mid-1980s, yet you don't see women represented even in law firms in those numbers, much less as partners. And that is something that is just starting to get a little focused and deserves more attention.”
Still, Clayton hesitates ever so slightly when I call the book a “feminist novel,” the small waver that comes to all of us who want to still be liked even after it comes out that we stand under the banner of that F word.
“My husband called 'The Wednesday Sisters' my stealth feminist novel, because it's really a book about friends that any woman could enjoy, that any woman could see herself in.”
The contrast of phrase strikes me — isn't being paid the same as the guy next to you, or freedom from the eternal fear of rape, something any woman could enjoy? Clayton laughs.
“When people her the term 'feminism,' that's what they ought to be focused on. I don't know of a woman in the world that doesn't think that the Lily Ledbetter decision wasn't appalling, that the Supreme Court would say that even though she's been discriminated against for 30 years, she gets six months of back pay because that's the way the statute appears to be written. But words have these associations, and when you say the word feminism, even though that might mean raising children in a gender neutral world and making sure we all have all of the options, that's not what comes to mind. And it should be.”
Having read this book and J. Courtney Sullivan's “Commencement” (Knopf, 2009), another novel in which a collegiate friendship between four friends forms the protagonist in a tale that can only be described as feminism-based action-adventure, a thought bubbles up: Are we watching the birth of a new genre here?
“I personally would love to see that genre being born,” says Clayton matter-of-factly.
“It's interesting because (Sullivan) is a little younger than I am, and those characters are almost in the next generation after mine. And I do remember thinking in sort of an 'oh dear' sort of way that her characters are still facing some of the same issues. But I do hope that in a new era being born, that — not that women don't care about Jimmy Choo shoes, but surely there are more important things in life. And I think both (books) stand for the proposition that there are both more important things in life.”
Delightfully, when I ask her if there is a new era of literature for men dawning too, she points out an immediately handy example: her lawyer-turned-investor-turned-writer husband's blog, The Dad App.
Having enjoyed a thorough dose of conversation around the more important things in life, I can't let this U-M alum who loved our town so much she even wrote about it from sunny California go without asking: any favorite local memories you'd like to share?
“The thing that I loved about Michigan, and I think that most people do, is the people there. It's a very, very special place,” Clayton says, noting that a warm reception helped persuade her son to start at the college of engineering last fall and that every law school alum she knows still loves it — “a rare thing in law schools.” She mentions the glorious hush of standing in the middle of the law quad after a fresh snow, and then wonders aloud if that image answers my question.
“My favorite memory — well, the book is dedicated to the hot tub gang, and that is one of the dearest memories. But I won't say more in fear of incriminating my friends. It's a great group of women, and none of us are talking. I hope it doesn't come up if any of us get nominated to the Supreme Court.”
Meg Waite Clayton reads from "The Four Ms. Bradwells" at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 24 at Hatcher Graduate Library.
Leah DuMouchel is a freelance writer who covers books for AnnArbor.com.