Why Women’s History Is Important
What draws you to read a book? It’s rarely the long title, but for me that’s what did it in this case: The Rose of Washington Square: A Novel of Rose O’Neill, Creator of the Kewpie Doll by Pat Wahler. I had never heard of Rose but I did know the Kewpie Dolls. The brief synopsis sealed the choice—it is historical fiction with a strong female protagonist, a self-taught artist, who set out to make her way in a man’s world at the turn of the last century. She was a devoted daughter determined to provide financially for her parents and her siblings while she pursued her dream to become an illustrator in New York City. She became the first published female cartoonist in the US.
A dogtrot house tucked into rolling hills and towering trees, the streets of New York City with streetcars and store window displays of Kewpie dolls of all sizes and shapes, and an exhibition for her real art in Paris are a sampling of the varied settings for Rose’s story. The Rose of Washington Square is a story enriched with unique characters like Papa, who preferred roaring favorite lines from Hamlet over earning income as a bookseller. Her devoted siblings, Trista and Clink, add lively family interactions to the historical references including suffragist sisters marching for the right to vote, the Spanish flu, the new law to criminalize the use of alcohol, and the Great Depression. Rose’s independence included liaisons with lovers—two of whom she married—that were risqué for her time and for her upbringing. The author created a narrative that wove a believable story about an underappreciated woman now mainly remembered for her iconic Kewpies. That is what drew me to read the story, but I discovered her incredible generosity, her love of travel, and her early feminist leanings conflicting against the norms of the day when husbands could legally collect their wife’s paychecks.
An inspiring personality, Rose intrigued me, and Wahler’s writing was so engaging that I wanted to follow Rose’s journey and found time I didn’t have to read chapter after chapter. I encourage you to read this now.