chapter 1 summary

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last updated november 3, 2023.

at the southwest community infirmary, a health center in claybourne, georgia, two women sit facing each other. on one stool is minnie ransom, the town’s famed spiritual healer. her patient, velma henry, sits opposite awaiting a healing. the two are ringed by onlookers—many community members pray, while visiting doctors observe the proceedings. it’s soon revealed that the impetus for velma’s visit is a recent attempt to take her own life.

velma is a resistant and skeptical patient, responding to minnie’s continuing prompts with introspection rather than participation and remaining apprehensive and withdrawn. as the two progress further into the treatment, velma soon retreats into her own subconscious. eventually, the line between tangible reality and her imaginative mind begins to blur. she begins to fixate on her kitchen, the setting of her suicide attempt.

sophie heywood, velma’s godmother, unexpectedly leaves the prayer circle without explanation. as she exits, she experiences flashbacks of the violence and trauma experienced during an arrest while participating in direct action.

the narrative shifts to an earlier timeline in velma’s life. she is at a diner with james lee henry, known as “obie,” her husband and a fellow member of the activist community. over a meal, the two discuss their relationship in a way that suggests the continuation of an ongoing argument between them: obie would like them to stay together, while velma is certain they would be better off apart. velma insists that obie, when slighted, is too quick to forgive and forget. obie, conversely, insists that velma holds onto anger for far longer than is healthy. her lasting resentments, he tells her, have become corrosive.

velma’s thoughts dwell on the many fractures in their relationship, eventually settling on one vignette in particular: a recent meeting with other activists at which she felt mounting frustration and marginalization. as she recalls the event, she notes that obie had only reluctantly driven her to it—one of many signs that suggest his participation in activist circles is considered more “valuable” than hers on the basis of his gender.

the narrative shifts back in time again as velma recounts the meeting. from the beginning, the women in the room are treated as a less relevant niche group, and certain issues are relegated to “women’s things.” velma is very uncomfortable emotionally but also physically: despite the presence of menstrual product vending machines in the building, none have been stocked, and she has had to improvise her own pad. she sits with her sister palma and several other women, including their friends jan and ruby, awaiting a chance to speak.

jay patterson, the political hopeful at the lectern, finishes his prospective speech and asks the women for feedback. when they’re finally acknowledged, the women push back against this, demanding instead that the group move forward with long-overdue organizational matters. the men in the room agree, suggesting that the women should handle it. the women, led by velma and ruby, object to this, pointing out that it represents a long-standing pattern of inequity: the men in the group daydream in the abstract, championing big ideas and rhetoric with no concern for how the work gets done and by whom. they “work,” the women insist, by going out for drinks together and bloviating about big-picture ideals while leaving the details for the women to deal with. the women, they remind the men, put together all the campaigns, organize all the conferences, rally all the participants, and make all the phone calls, yet the men consider this work adjunct to the “real work” of having their conversations.

as the women push for a more equitable...

(this entire section contains 700 words.)

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division of labor and the codification of organizational processes, velma recalls a recent march. she had walked so long that her feet swelled and she had to take her shoes off, dangling them around her neck by the laces. she had stopped at a hotel, hoping to make a phone call and connect with the men, who—while the women marched, organized, and fundraised—had gone to meet with dr. martin luther king jr. directly. exhausted and overheated, she had fainted and had been carried out of the lobby.

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chapter 2 summary