It was the photographs that compelled me to review Phyllis Birnbaum's book Modern Girls, Shining Stars, The Skies of Tokyo (Columbia University Press). The Japanese women living in the first half of the century look just as they should—their kimonos are perfectly turned out and their faces are demure to the point of being withdrawn. I think: "It's not possible these women can be what Birnbaum labels them—feminists." When someone says feminism, I see bra burning. I see tribes of women singing and struggling in a Dionysian frenzy of empowerment. That image is bolstered whenever I attend a modern-day rally such as Take Back the Night, when once a year I march and holler in a fever of estrogen and outrage. But while these gatherings are an excellent outlet for frustration, they provide little connection to what it means to be a feminist. The irony doesn't escape me. As the daughter of a single working mother, I was raised with feminism a la Mary Tyler Moore: a survival tactic rather than a crusade. For my mom the threat of empty cupboards paved the way to education, ingenuity and persistence. To perceive my mother as a feminist seems absurd to me; she simply played the cards she was dealt. It was a fact of life so much a part of my upbringing that I've largely ignored it. I was also taught three feminist rules that still govern my approach to sexual relationships: always have a back door, never be financially dependent, and ditch the losers. Most of the women in Birnbaum's book broke those rules. It's a mistake that would be unforgivable in the subjects of many a feminist biography. Yet I forgive these women because they existed, like my mother, as feminists who had few of the life choices we have today. Educated and moneyed, they were left to fend for themselves at a time when there was little hint of women's liberation in the popular imagination. I found the stories of their battles utterly fascinating, especially since their instincts and actions diverged from any feminism I imagine. It is so easy for women in my generation to be feminists. It's kind of fun in a way, like proclaiming yourself agnostic. Modern Girls offered me a new frame of reference, expressing a new, or rather a very old, kind of feminism—not mythic crusade but grace under fire.