“Listen World: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman” recounts the largely untold biography of one of our countries most widely read columnists. Not until the conclusion, do the authors, Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert, ask the question, “Why has she been forgotten?” The usual suspects — sexism, lack of historical rigor and lack of foresight can only be remedied by rediscovering women’s history and to ensure these stories are told.
At the height of her career, working for the Hearst newspapers as both a columnist and feature reporter, Elsie reached 20 million subscribers a day and millions more through syndication. Her career spanned more than 40 years, during which she wrote nearly 9,000 columns and stories, many on assignment from Hearst himself. She also wrote short fiction for magazines including Cosmopolitan.
What came as a delightful surprise was the recounting of the dozen or so years spent in Brattleboro, a difficult time for her personally, but arguably the most formative years of her evolution as both an assertive self-advocate and writer of compelling opinion. Her political cartoons are as relevant today as they were in her time.
Those of us who live in the region know Brattleboro as a town with a passion for documenting its literary history. From the nationally recognized Brattleboro Literary Festival to such citizen-inspired projects as the People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro (Brattleboro Words Project), Brattleboro is the locus of much innovation in printing, publishing, writing and storytelling.
Having grown up in Benicia Calif., Elsie arrived in Brattleboro in 1900 as the new wife to be of Christie Crowell, the recently widowed heir to the Crowell fortune. The marriage of their son Christie to a common woman from the American west brought much consternation to the Crowells, so much so that they required Elsie to spend a year at the Northfield Seminary for Girls in nearby Northfield, Mass. At Northfield, she would receive a proper introduction to the role of wife and mother that was expected in polite and aristocratic New England society. The marriage proved loveless and was not destined to last, despite the birth of their son George in 1903. By 1912, she found a fitting reason to return to California with George, ostensibly over George’s troubles with asthma. With Christie’s blessing, she left and never returned, ultimately facing divorce and a custody battle.
Elsie’s biography provides a context for describing the general conditions of life in rural and urban America from the 1890s to the 1940s. It describes well the unique expectations — and limitations — imposed on women of that period. Throughout the book, the authors include excerpts from Elsie’s memoir, offering in Elsie’s own words the impacts of social class and gender on a woman’s access to opportunity. Social mobility was not a universal democratic ideal and there was little room for the advancement of women. Elsie was steadfast in overcoming societal limitations — she was a woman of grit and determination with a motivation to succeed that was driven by her need for independence and self-expression. She was also devoted to the care of her son.
In her descriptions of the struggle for credibility, Elsie laments the status of women, yet the author’s quotations from her memoir make no reference to a call for women’s suffrage. Like other professional woman that came before her, (the physician Elizabeth Blackwell comes to mind) she did not appear to embrace feminism or advocate women’s issues in a political context. Nevertheless, she did much to advance the status of women as having a voice that must be heard. Her entire life dispels the myth of female fragility.
While comprising a mere 12-year span, her time in Brattleboro represented her first foray into publication since a short story published in her Northfield graduation yearbook. A most pleasant interlude in her otherwise stilted life, was her introduction to Robert Wallace, a patient residing at the Brattleboro Retreat. Robert had befriended Christie Crowell and both were members of the Brattleboro Masons. While at the Retreat, Robert had made a business of writing self-published children’s stories, all written in longhand and delivered through the mail via subscription. With Christie’s blessing, Robert and Elsie would meet at the Crowells’ house on Myrtle Street, where Elsie would supply illustrations for Robert’s stories. Elsie also wrote and illustrated one story for Robert’s subscribers.
By 1912, her son George’s worsening asthma provided an excuse to return with him to California. Apparently, the air in Brattleboro was not conducive to George’s comfort and recovery. In an odd turn of events, Robert Wallace was permitted to travel with them and Elsie was appointed his guardian. While his doctors at the Retreat resisted the idea, the arrangement was blessed by her husband Christie and Robert joined Elsie and George on what was to become a years-long adventure as a threesome.
As George grew to adolescence, it became clear that there would not be a return to Brattleboro. Divorce proceedings followed by a custody hearing were held in the Brattleboro courts. Doubting that she would prevail against the Crowells, Elsie decided to take her case to the people of the town. On Monday, Nov. 19, 1917, the Reformer published her statement “To The People of Brattleboro” in its entirety. She would ultimately gain custody.
Upon finishing the book, I firmly agree with the author’s premise about the importance of personal stories to the history of social justice and the enfranchisement of women. This sentiment also goes for indigenous people, and people of color. However, I think the reticence of so many female protagonists to identify with feminist history needs to be further explored. I know many like-minded people who support feminist principles but who personally shy away from the label.
If you would like to hear Allison Gilbert talk about the biography, she will be presenting at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. Please check the festival website for details: brattleborolitfest.org