Four interlinked biographical essays offer a window into the life of each woman while considering how their seemingly disparate concerns - pesticides, urban renewal, chimpanzee behavior, and farm-to-table dining - spurred Americans in the 1960s to consider their connection to the world around them, a psychological shift that continues to influence society.
The biographical information Barnet presents isn't necessarily new; several biographies have been written about each of these women. Instead she offers a fresh analysis of why they came to prominence at the time they did, and how their habits of mind matched up in startling ways despite their having never met ... Food chains, neighborhoods, chimpanzee communities, even gardens operate as webs of communication and relationships that humans in the 1950s and early '60s had yet to sufficiently understand. By making those links visible, Barnet argues, these women brought about shifts in awareness that indeed changed the world.
Visionary Women is a fine book, a thorough examination of the life and work of four fascinating women. At times, it overstates the case that the women were the prime movers behind movements ... The book contains four thorough biographies, each of which could stand alone and be judged superb. But there is added power in the fact that each of the subjects worked generally on ideas that stressed a return to a more natural and humane way of life, a way of life that is threatened by the frightening march of technology ... Barnet has added greatly to our understanding of the way human beings with a vision can change society for the better by pursuing their dreams.
Beyond their iconoclasm and remarkably supportive families — and of course, their gender — the main biographical trait these women share is that they all are white ... Barnet, whose previous book was about the women of Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 1910s and ’20s, acknowledges that the cliche of the suburban American Dream was based on segregation and exclusion ... yet we don’t hear voices from communities of color — the main targets of urban-renewal policies. Barnet might have noted, in her discussion of the rise of agribusiness, that the patterns of racial exclusion that created the suburbs also affected rural areas, with black farmers routinely denied federal assistance to save their businesses ... Still, Barnet makes a powerful case for a shared perspective among her subjects ... All four women learned by immersing themselves in their environment and letting their eyes lead the way.