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Gabrielle Burton Examines the Struggles of Women Like Herself

In the 1970s, when her own brood of five girls was growing up, author Gabrielle Burton became fascinated with Tamsen Donner, the matriarch of one of the families of the Donner Party, the doomed group of pioneers that in 1846 joined a wagon train heading to California and got lost in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where they were forced to spend several months enduring starvation, exposure and disease.

Gabrielle Burton, author of “In Search of Tamsen Donner” (Photo courtesy PEN USA)

Burton felt a kind of kinship with this woman, also a mother of five, trying to keep her family alive and be a partner to her dying husband. Not that Burton was driven to such limits of physical endurance.

But she was in a struggle of her own, the struggle of her generation, trying to balance raising a family and pursuing vocational fulfillment, in her case developing her writer’s voice. Out of that, after extensive research and many years of soul-​searching, came Searching for Tamsen Donner, which Burton will discuss this Sunday, April 29, during the Autry’s Go West Book Fest.

“I was drawn to her for a lot of reasons, but I think what I admired most was her endurance,” Burton said. “She became a very important part of our family.”

Burton’s was a more internal struggle.

“The reason Tamsen Donner was a heroine was that she stayed with her husband till death do them part,” she said. “She sent her five daughters out and they survived, but they were orphans. For myself, I was on some level concerned that some part of me, my writing, which I was struggling to develop, might be sacrificed to marriage and motherhood.”

“In Search of Tamsen Donner,” by Gabrielle Burton (Courtesy PEN USA)

During that time, Burton also was watching and experiencing the epic choices women faced as they left the confines of home and hearth and joined the workforce in large numbers, in the process transforming American society and politics under the banner of the Feminist movement. In fact, her non-​fiction work, I’m Running Away From Home but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street, is billed as a tragicomic primer on that women’s movement.

Burton said she’s been somewhat surprised to see that the culture wars women fought then are still with us today.

“My heart sinks,” she said, referring to recent news surrounding initiatives in several states to put new limits on women’s access to health services, including birth control, and the dust-​up in Congress over a health care rule requiring church-​affiliated universities to pay for birth control prescriptions for their employees. “You do think those things are settled, but I know from my daughters that they still fight many battles that I thought were long over. Of course, people have a language for it now. We didn’t even know the questions! When I started, there was no such thing as sexism. We really thought we were pioneers. In that sense I also felt that in common with Tamsen Donner.”

Burton says that, at the time she was dealing with the tradeoffs and negotiations resulting from her professional choices, there was, curiously, a sense of camaraderie among women. She doesn’t see it so much today.

“There’s a huge difference now in that there really isn’t a women’s movement the way there was then,” she said. “There’s certainly lots of little movements out there. But a lot of times women are just out there on the barricades by themselves. We had each other. When you have people you are empowered.”

Burton says the recent move to limit women, including the rejection of equal-​pay measures and even the fight around reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, feel to many of her colleagues and their daughters as if they came out of nowhere.

“I think people relaxed and thought everything was over, and while we were relaxing this stuff all started again,” she said. “But I think you don’t relax on this. You don’t say it’s all over because it isn’t all over. You keep fighting on.”

Burton said there are some advantages that young women — or anyone wanting to effect political change — enjoy today that did not exist in her youth. She says the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter make it possible for people to know very quickly what is happening in the halls of power, and to mobilize public opinion in one direction or another.

“Look in Arizona what’s happening,” she said, referring to a measure forcing women to give employers personal medical information before their insurance claims can be processed. “Women learn about these things quickly. That gives people a lot of strength. Suddenly, ten thousand people are signing a petition. In that sense it’s probably a little easier.”

Burton expressed deep respect for Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who tried to testify before a congressional committee on the birth control mandate and was later attacked by commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“She’s so strong,” Burton said. “I just admire the way she stands in that tremendous light and speaks her mind. She never backs down.”