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The Washington Post's Sexist Review of a Historian Missed the Point, But So Did Her Defenders

Courtesy of Karen Abbott

Last month, with the nonchalant flick of a Looney Tunes character tossing a match toward a pile of dynamite, Jonathan Yardley said that the writing in Karen Abbott’s new book on the Civil War, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, could “have been borrowed from the pages of a women’s magazine.” This was not meant as a compliment.

Abbott responded to the review with a scorching letter to the editor. Then yesterday, Jezebel claimed that Yardley and the Post called Liar, Temptress … “girly” because the book is about women, the author is a woman, and obviously a 600-page Civil War book inherently must be very serious.

The term “women’s magazine” was a dismissively sexist choice by Yardley. (Not to mention over-general; there's an enormous range of writing in women's magazines today.) That the Post editors didn’t flag or cut the term is far more disheartening. But it doesn’t appear Abbott’s many new supporters have read the book.

Like a Vanity Fair article on a rich-people crime saga or its monthly Kennedy installment, Abbott illuminates the juicy and the dirty: Who’s sleeping with whom. How so-and-so really got their money, and how much they really have left. The takedown that socialite A issued about socialite B’s figure. The writing is fast-paced, makes heavy use of foreshadowing and interior monologues, and ends chapters with cliffhangers.

Do these utterly genderless narrative techniques make her book less “serious” or “important”? For goodness sake, who cares? Abbott’s smart enough to know that in a 544-page book on any subject, especially one with a known conclusion (spoiler alert: the North wins), readers want—need—a reason to keep reading.

This is not a Civil War book that devotes three straight chapters to advances in rifle design in 1861; perhaps the title of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy could have been a clue. And of course it didn’t need to be one, either. The problem with reviews like Yardley’s is the presumption that there is a correct way to write a non-fiction historical account, and either writers follow that equation or fail.

Much of the richness of the book comes from accounts of the women’s ways of turning domestic life into spy sneakiness: There are unattended sabers, pistols, calvary boots, and cans of preserved meats stolen from enemies and hidden under hoopskirts. Messages are written with pinpricks in paper, ciphers, and invisible ink; they’re hidden inside elaborate hairdos and corset laces. Maps pointing the way to fortifications are sewn into cuffs and linings. An urgent message is signaled by hanging red laundry on the line. The location of troops and supplies is woven in a tapestry with Morse Code needlework. One woman, going undercover as man in order to be a solider, plots how to pass off her bloodied menstrual rags as used wound dressings. And, yes, there is calculated seduction. A steady series of lonesome political leaders unwittingly give up war secrets to a ruthless widow in exchange for a good bang.

Even more curious about Yardley’s criticism is that the “man” parts of the book—you know, where guys plot where troops go—do not have the glossy sheen of lady magazines at all. There are unnerving descriptions of fields of blood, maggots in wounds, bloated corpses exploding, bodies in swampy marshes left to be eaten by wild pigs. In Richmond, barrels of tar burn to fumigate the reek of decaying human flesh; medical care includes enemas of turpentine oil and egg yolks; infection rates and child deaths are so rampant they serve as an unspoken reminder that antibiotics and vaccinations can prevent mass tragedies.

The author of two New York Times bestsellers American Rose, about Gypsy Rose Lee, and Sin in the Second City, about the Everleigh brothel in turn-of-the-century Chicago, Abbott knows her niche and she knows her style. To suggest her work needs to fit a certain mold is to miss, among other things, why she studies the lives of unusual women in the first place.