This was a fun, light read that brought to life a bit of history I was unfamiliar with–the Miss Subway promotional beauty contests that ran from 1941 to 1976. It will probably not go down as the best of our books for New York, but it got us off to a good start.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. This is our first book for New York.
Schnall did an outstanding job of connecting the women of her 1949 setting and those of her 2018 setting–and in emphasizing that while we tend to think of those as “simpler” times, the issues women faced were essentially the same. “You look at these older women and you just assume it’s all sweetness and wisdom, but, man, these ladies have secrets. Deep, dark secrets,” says one character. And the quote below, which is part of an advertising pitch idea:
Perhaps some sort of juxtaposition with how women’s aspirations in the past weren’t so different from how today’s women approach their careers and their lives. They may be framed differently, and they may appear more quaint in the Miss Subways posters, but women have always dealt with the same struggles in establishing an identity.
My grandmother worked in a secretarial position for IBM, but when she became engaged to my grandfather she was told that “a woman’s place is in the home,” and that she was expected to resign or they would fire her. My husband’s grandmother earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and she always said that she had to do twice as well as the male students to earn the same grade. She went on to work with some of the early punchcard computers.
“Did you encounter a lot of sexism?” Olivia asked, turning to Mrs. Glasser. “Oh, sure. And it didn’t get better over the years, even as times changed. It may have changed superficially, but there was always an undercurrent. In many ways, I just worked around it. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to single-handedly abolish it—it was too ingrained—so I just made tactical decisions at different occasions: sometimes I ignored it and sometimes I addressed it head-on. Essentially, I picked my battles.”
We’re also reminded that even Charlotte’s generation wasn’t the first experiencing sexism, as when her mother reveals that her husband not only made her give up her aspirations as a professional opera singer, but even rebuked her for singing at home for pleasure.
“Why have you never sung out loud?” “I did. You don’t remember, but I would sing to Harry and you all the time when you were little.” Charlotte felt a pang and a sharp memory of hearing her mother sing. “Your father heard me one day and told me he never wanted to hear me sing again. He said it was a silly dream of mine and the sooner I gave it up, the sooner I would realize my place was in the home with the children.”
My mother graduated from nursing school in 1959, and was married shortly after. She worked for a short time but apparently my father never really wanted her to work. However, he was very proud of the fact that she continued to maintain her nursing license and used her training to give back to the community through many volunteer activities for 40-50 years before her health interfered.
Another area where Schnall shines is playing coy with the reader. She toys with us for most of the book, doling out tidbits of information and background to try to keep us guessing about how the historic part of the story turned out. Is “Mrs. Glasser” Charlotte or Rose? Which young woman won the contest? Who married whom? Who was Mrs. Glasser’s child? Most of plot twists weren’t really very surprising but Schnall’s handling was quite adept. And perhaps it’s her background as a writer, but the advertising campaigns the modern team comes up with for the NY Subway seemed quite good to me.
I was somewhat less impressed with the overall setting. Schnall name-drops some streets, and the book takes place in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. As an “outsider” not familiar with New York City geography, I didn’t come away with much of a feel for the areas the book covers. But more importantly–for a book about Miss Subways, there was very little subway ambiance–no gritty descriptions of the movement of the cars or the crowds or the stations or the dark tunnels. No use of the senses–no distinctive smells or sounds. Once or twice, one of the characters mentions observing the faces of the other riders and wondering about their stories, but the most compelling descriptions Schnall gives are actually those that are part of the pitch, not those experienced by the characters in the book.
As for Schnall’s characters, I didn’t get the feeling that they were “New Yorkers”–whatever that means. And I honestly didn’t like Sam, Charlotte’s beau, even before his fall from grace. Of all the characters, I would have liked more about JoJo’s story, and about some of the other Miss Subways or the other contestants and the struggles they faced. There were a few tidbits about their overall views on the contest, but I wished we’d gotten to know even one or two of them a bit better. (A good place to start for this would probably be Fiona Gardner and Amy Zimmer’s book, Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941–1976 which Schnall references.)
What the women all agreed on, looking back on it now, was how sexist the whole thing was. It was a beauty contest dreamed up by and executed by men, with men writing what they thought other men wanted to read on a poster with a photo of a pretty woman. Many resented the fact that of the two or three sentences of their description, one sentence was devoted entirely to whether or not they had a man in their life. But it seemed normal to them then, they explained. It was just the way of the times (emphasis mine).
Except that, as Schnall herself points out, that doesn’t mean they didn’t get angry about it or try to fight it.
“But we’re also looking at it from the lens of today. At the time, the sexism wasn’t interpreted that way.” “But it was. You watched Mad Men.” “I did. And I still do, over and over and over again.” Olivia laughed. “Don’t tell me that Peggy and Joan and Betty and even poor Trudy didn’t realize that the boorish behavior of those men was keeping them in gender roles that they had to fight tooth and nail to escape from.”
Actually, Schnall’s message might have benefited from a few more Mad Men references, but I’m assuming she was trying not to limit the novel by making references that might not be understood in a few years’ time. Even now there are probably readers who’ve never seen Mad Men, possibly some who’ve never heard of it.
Overall, The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall was a quick, light read that did meet at least one of our goals by teaching us about an unfamiliar chapter in New York City history. It was a good start to New York, but I didn’t come away with a better feel for the City.