REVIEW: The Way to Be by Barbara T. Smith

Reviewed by Maxamina Muro

The Way to Be, Barbara T. Smith’s memoir, is a ride through the life of a woman born in the 1930s, married in the 1950s, who then emerges as a performance artist in the 1960s, when feminism and equal rights for women became more prominent political and legal movements. While these causes were rooted in practical matters like pay equity, parental rights, and career and academic agency, Smith’s work explored the areas of a woman’s life not covered by laws before, during, and after this time of monumental change.

Though Smith doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that her parents funded her education so she could attain an “MRS” degree, as was common then. Indeed, she got married while in college and had her first child just after graduation. During her marriage, she created a family and carried on her household and child-rearing tasks. She then realized she was trapped in the societal and cultural norms of that era: playing the part of housewife.

Smith writes of seeking therapy, “Though we had a wonderful and secure home, why did I find my life so shallow, out of touch, and meaningless, like living in someone else’s dream? Why was my sex life so frustrating? I went to therapy once a week and was blown away by what I learned. My life fit the classic oedipal/patriarchal pattern.”

Her words form a portrait of a woman embarking on a profound journey of self-discovery. Though The Way to Be’s release coincides with a retrospective of Smith’s work at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, on display from February to July 2023, she began writing the book in the 1970s; not as a memoir, but to accompany her pieces. This lends the book a diary-like quality, documenting the real-time experience of a woman exploring the quickly changing cultural landscape. Her performance pieces reflect her life. They are meant to question, confront, and examine the journey of an artist and a woman through the eye of the storms of feminism, of changing times, of personal revelation.

Smith is open about her explorations of sexuality, male/female relationships, motherhood, drug use, female passivity and aggression. She relates her life in a way that feels intimate, much like a woman having conversations with her female friends, asking questions like, After a one-night hookup, how should I feel? Her desire to break free of gender constraints in society is urgent and meaningful—even as she relates a frustration that none of her flirtations or sexual trysts turn into stable and meaningful relationships.

Personal events from Smith’s life illuminate the seeds of concepts for her performance pieces. She includes details about the failing custody battle with her ex-husband and the sense that she was surrendering her children, especially her daughters. Her life trajectory poses the question of how much we have to give up to follow our own path. Smith gave up the stability of a marriage and home, and she gave up her children, though not voluntarily. It seems clear that losing these aspects of her former life wasn’t her intent, so much as finding what else was out there—today, a constant theme in women’s stories. The myth of “having it all” is rooted in the idea that women are the main homemakers and child caretakers, and this aspect of the memoir reveals the place where it started.

Even as Smith suffered personal setbacks, she began to make a name for herself in the art world, though she faced obstacles that remain in place today. With no sense that society would allow women equal rights, Smith and women like her had to push through barriers, knock down gatekeepers’ doors, show up unannounced, and in general wage an all-out war just to incrementally shift the professional landscape. In a male-dominated art world, she and the other feminist artists, as they were collectively known, had to find their own spaces to hold exhibits. She expressed frustration about the need to find a separate, less established space in order to pursue her career. If this sounds familiar, consider the continued necessity for women’s organizations in the arts, entertainment, STEM, tech starts ups and nearly every field not traditionally considered a “woman’s” field. Women still have to find their own spaces.

Even in spaces shared with other female artists, female colleagues would sometimes critique Smith’s pieces as antifeminist because many of them had sexual elements. Smith held the belief that sexuality was as much the purview of female artists as male ones. This idea is far more accepted now, but then she was trying to conquer the land of Puritans. Smith believed that feminism should be whatever each woman thought it should be, and that women should dictate their own ideas and morals. Smith evinced an ever-present resistance to being made to conform to societal standards, though she rarely says it directly; it is revealed in the way she has lived her life and the art she created.

Like most artists, Smith fought to make a name for herself. It is comforting that she’s forthright about the fear and self-doubt along the way in practical and emotional terms, making The Way to Be as open as her performance art. Even for those not familiar with performance art or Smith, this documentation of her journey through the rise of feminism is worthy of notice.

Maxamina Muro is an emerging fiction writer who recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from UC Riverside, where she served as fiction editor of The Coachella Review. Her short story “The ACB Agency” is in the November issue of Voices de la Luna. She has worked as a writer in children’s TV and has published nonfiction in LA WeeklyValley SceneLA Parent, and Orange County Parent.