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Shulman, Alix Kates

SHULMAN, Alix Kates

Born 17 August 1932, Cleveland, Ohio

Daughter of Samuel S. and Dorothy Davis Kates; married Marcus Klein, 1953 (dissolved); Martin Shulman, 1959 (divorced); children: Teddy, Polly.

Praised by the New York Times as "the voice that for three decades provided a lyrical narrative of the changing position of women in American society," Alix Kates Shulman is a writer, feminist, and political activist. Through her numerous essays, short stories, novels, and children's books, she has used the landscape of her own life as a white, middle-class Jewish woman to explore the social and political issues shaping many women's lives in late 20th-century American culture.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932, Shulman graduated from Bradford Junior College in 1951 and received a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1953. She then moved to New York City, where she briefly studied philosophy at Columbia University (1953-54) and math at New York University (1960-61). She earned her living working as an encyclopedia editor until the late 1960s, when she attended her first meeting of the then burgeoning Women's Liberation Movement, became a member of the radical feminist group Redstockings, and by her own accounts was forever changed.

The publication of Shulman's first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972) created a media sensation for its frank depiction of a young Midwestern girl's sexual coming of age. The story recounts the life of a white, middle class girl, Sasha, and the humiliations and degradations that passed as "normal" for girls like her growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Suffering from unwanted groping by neighborhood boys and valued more for her beauty than her intelligence, by the time she is in her 20s, Sasha ends up married with children and no hope for a life of her own. Critic Lucy Rosenthal called Memoirs a "breakthrough book incorporat[ing] all the points of the Women's Liberation Movement and giv[ing] them rare fictional life." The novel sold over a million copies. Memoirs was re-released in a special 25th anniversary issue in 1997, when it was widely, and sadly, reviewed as "still relevant."

In both her fiction and nonfiction writing, Shulman often addresses the conflicts inherent in marriage, mothering, and having a creative life. Her first marriage was short lived; her second marriage to Martin Shulman, with whom she had two children, became the basis for one of her most famous essays, "A Marriage Contract." First written in 1969 and subsequently published in such mainstream magazines as Redbook and Life in 1971 and 1972, this was a contract intended to equally divide housework and childcare duties between spouses. Inspired by the women's movement analysis of the inequities in traditional marriage arrangements, the first principle was the most radical: woman's work is just as valuable as man's work, regardless of pay. Criticized in the popular press at the time, most memorably by Norman Mailer, who said he'd rather have a roommate than be married to her, "A Marriage Contract" has been anthologized in feminist, sociological, and even legal anthologies and textbooks, including one by Harvard Law School Professor Lon Fuller, in Basic Contract Law.

Shulman is also the biographer of the feminist anarchist Emma Goldman in The Anarchist Life of Emma Goldman (1971). She cites Goldman's work and life as one of her greatest political and literary inspirations. Researching and writing about Goldman's life helped Shulman gain the confidence and personal authority to write from her own life. Shulman also edited Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches by Emma Goldman (1972) and most recently, Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader (1996).

Other novels by Shulman include Burning Questions (1978), about the emergence and ascendance of the women's movement, On the Stroll (1981), about a bag lady and a young runaway, and In Every Woman's Life… (1987), which Shulman describes as a "feminist comedy of ideas."

In recent years Shulman has written two books of her own memoirs. In the first, Drinking the Rain (1995), which won the Body Mind Spirit Award of Excellence, Shulman narrates her own continuing journey of personal and spiritual discovery, living alone in a primitive cabin on an island off the coast of Maine. By now a mature woman, divorced, and with grown children, she describes foraging for wild food and relishing her solitude. Shulman's second memoir is a family memoir, A Good Enough Daughter (1999).

Shulman has taught literature and writing at New York University, Yale University, and the Universities of Colorado, Arizona, and Hawaii, where she held the Citizen's Chair from 1991-92. She has also been a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome and the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagios, Italy. She has been the recipient of awards from DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to these literary accomplishments, Shulman's most recent feminist activism has included the founding of a Pacific chapter of the pro-choice group No More Nice Girls and work with the Women's Action Coalition (WAC). Today she lives half the year in New York City and the other half in her cabin in coastal Maine.

Other Works:

Bosley on the Number Line (1970). The Traffic in Women and Other Essays (editor, 1970). Women's Liberation: A Blueprint for the Future (contributor, 1970). Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (contributor, V. Gornick and B. K. Moran, eds., 1971). Awake or Asleep (1971). To the Barricades: The Anarchist Life of Emma Goldman (1971). Finders Keepers (1972).

Bibliography:

Ascher, C. et al, eds., Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers, and Artists Write about Their Work on Women (1984). DuPlessis, R. B., and A. Snitow, eds., The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (1998).

Reference works:

CA 29-32 (1978). CLC 2 (1974), 10 (1979). SATA 7 (1975).

Other references:

Booklist (15 June 1971, 15 June 1987). Children's Literature in Education 17 (1986). Commonweal 94 (21 May 1971). LJ (15 June 1971, Aug. 1981). News & Observer (12 Sept. 1997). Newsweek (1 May 1972). NYT (25 April 1972). NYTBR (23 Apr. 1972, 26 Mar. 1978, 31 May 1987). Saturday Review (20 May 1972).

—DENISE BAUER

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