Visionary Women

VISIONARY WOMEN. By Andrea Barnet. Ecco. 528 pages. $28.99.

I was intrigued when first opening Andrea Barnet’s hefty four-part biography, “Visionary Women,” yet equally skeptical. I can think of 40 lady luminaries who deserve the type of in-depth, thoughtful treatment that Barnet offers here — an engaging narrative of the lives and accomplishments of Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall and Alice Waters. Undeniably, each of these women are worthy subjects in their own right, but what about the dynamo dames who were also certainly visionary in other realms: women’s movement (Steinem, Friedan); social justice (Dorothy Day); arts and civil rights (Mavis Staples, Nina Simone). Why this particular quartet, and why lumped in one 500-pager?

With a deft touch in presenting a fairly objective, un-haloed story of these women’s coming-of-age in generally the same era (each reaching their career pinnacles in the 1960s, except for Waters, who was a bit later), Barnet, a former contributor to the New York Review of Books and author of “All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930,” succeeds in giving her subjects their individual due, and in making a case that, as a group, they represent a shift in consciousness — one that understands the world (ocean/environment, cities, nature/wildlife, food systems) as inherently interconnected — and a shift that was not only visionary but radical.

The book is a buy-one-get-four deal. Each subject gets a full 100-or-so pages. Barnet borrows from existing biographies as well as original interviews (where possible) to create a rich portrait of these strong personalities and the circumstances that shaped them. I particularly loved the Jacobs chapter, as her story of becoming a “new urbanist” was, to me at least, not as well known as that of Goodall, Carson and Waters, but certainly apropos to ongoing conversations and current issues in greater Charleston.

Likewise, though Chez Panisse and Alice Waters now blend into the current thrall of the celebrity chef, and the “eat local” organic food movement seems second nature (no pun intended), Barnet’s juicy account of how, through the drug- and sex-fueled frenzy of the ’60s, Waters caused a culinary plate tectonic shift by sheer force of unrelenting ideals, is entertaining and enlightening and makes you want a glass of fine wine accompanied by some tangy Marin County goat cheese — especially after all those pages of intrepid slim Jane trekking through African jungles, subsisting on insects.

By presenting these stories side-by-side, Barnet illuminates patterns and common threads of four women who were largely self-taught (at least initially), who trusted and followed their instincts, and who thereby found themselves in a certain place and time responding according to their passions and principles.

They did not know each other. And none were out to shatter glass ceilings or chase career objectives. They didn’t so much break the rules as create and follow their own, and Barnet seems to be doing the same in her deft, quilted treatment of these pivotal women in a pivotal time.

The reader begins to understand how Goodall approached the chimpanzees of Gombe in much the way that Waters approached organic beets in California or Jacobs the grungy streets of Greenwich Village — with respect for their role and interplay within a dynamic system. Each bucked up against the patriarchal paradigms of the post-war corporate culture of the 1950s and early ’60s, when specialization rather than interconnection and “blind obeisance to technology” prevailed. These women understood sustainability long before it was a buzzword. For them, it was merely women’s intuition.

“Like Carson and Jacobs, Jane (Goodall) began her work here: with her senses, the lived and felt and observed, unbound by ideology or preconceptions. She not only ‘saw things differently, she saw different things,’ to paraphrase Sally Helgesen, who has written at length about the distinction between men and women’s style of seeing,” writes Barnet.

There’s plenty to digest in “Visionary Women,” and plenty of gritty inspiration to fuel those who continue to work in the realms of environmental activism, city planning and urban design, food sustainability and wildlife conservation.

“Each of these women was acutely observant, each in her own right attuned to networks and systems, to how things work and how they work together, whether it was the dynamics of an urban community, an ocean ecosystem, or a group of chimpanzees, or microbes in the soil,” explains Barnet. Kudos to her for showing how their (and our) individual stories are interconnected as well.

Reviewer Stephanie Hunt is a writer in Charleston.