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Reviewed by:
  • Selling the City: Gender, Class, and the California Growth Machine, 1880–1940
  • Jacqueline R. Braitman
Selling the City: Gender, Class, and the California Growth Machine, 1880–1940. By Lee M.A. Simpson ( Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. ix plus 209 pp. $49.50).

Had it been filed in the mid-to-late 1980's, this work would have been an excellent dissertation. Even so, before and since its completion in 1996, more sophisticated analyses refracted women's experience with any number of complex variables which expanded our worldviews of the past and present. Unfortunately, there is not much of that here.

I'm not really sure why this book was published in 2004, and why by a press that seems to avoid this genre of scholarship anyway. Directing my comments more to the editors of Stanford University Press, perhaps it survived their critique because they had no clue how to assess this manuscript or how to advise its transformation into the significant work it might have been. As is, it won't take us far into the 21st Century.

Here it is in a nutshell. Simpson's general intention to support her thesis is a good one, however sophomoric its conceptualization so unexpected by the packaging it comes in. According to Simpson, white, property owning women who engaged in local community building had diverse motives and not those steeped in gender-specific, Victorian motherhood and morality-laden projections on to public policy. Instead, these women sported an identity of self-interested, pro- perty-value seeking boosters. Their legacies remain in their work for local Chambers of Commerce or planning commissions. Although there exists little that actually profiles such a demographic group, Simpson argues that these women underwent an "apprenticeship" (a word used ad nauseam in some passages). Upon graduation, they became full-fledged "capitalist" enterprisers, and self-interested but not necessarily morally bankrupt activist citizens. Fine. I applaud all demonstrations of California women exercising influence and/or power to direct the course of their communities.

The problem is that Simpson fails to subtly craft her argument in light of more recent critiques of progressive era boosters, or the newest generation of urban theorists, or the overall historiography of women, and/or the West. Instead, she sets up an interdisciplinary straw man from sociologist Harvey Molotch's 1979 assertion that because "city government exists to serve property interests in a perpetual struggle to grow," only a small proportion of a city's population benefits. To Molotch, most citizens felt the negative impact of higher taxes. Simpson qualifies this a bit and then offers what seems a gratuitous discussion of city bond-indebtedness which, once the principles were understood by these women, became the hallmark of when a female capitalist had arrived. More broadly, Simpson seems to feel the need to prove that when "aggressive growth policies" spurred the "tremendous rate" of growth of western cities which did in fact benefit property owners she contends, "instead of harming the majority of the population... a wide range of economic policies (were) designed to enhance the quality of life as well as overall wealth." Is this still up for debate, whether women were involved or not?

The incorporation of subsequent scholarship might have helped to counter her reliance on incredibly poor secondary sources. For instance, the San Francisco [End Page 502] annexation of Oakland provided no mention of Anastasia Christman's Spring 2001 California History article could have enhanced Simpson's context and likely her analysis. Christman's disenfranchised San Pedro clubwomen were well aware of the community's business interests and who "engaged in the (Los Angeles) annexation controversy." To build Simpson's overall weakly supported inductive argument, she sometimes relied instead upon trivial and inconclusive diary entries, with or without tiresome nonsequitors stuck in the middle or at the end of paragraphs.

The bloated title might attract a broad audience, but the actual narrower snippets about a few interesting women in the state's "second tier" towns who left accessible records forms the basis of her research. Ironically, one subject Simpson offers is the president of Mills College who did not herself even own property. Her mother did seem to...


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