In the southeastern corner of Missouri is a tiny town that was named by a man, local lore has it, in honor of his girlfriend. She was Shawnee; when it was time to make his tribute to her official, the man, Samuel Green, came to the realization that he was unable to fully pronounce—or accurately spell—his beloved’s name. So he paid her what he determined to be the next-best form of appreciation: He named the town after the only Native American woman whose name he was able to spell. Pocahontas, Missouri, was born.
The writer E. Jean Carroll hears this bit of myth while visiting Pocahontas over the course of the extended road trip she takes for her new book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal. At a local pie shop, she asks the owners about the provenance of their town’s name. Getting her answer, Carroll finds herself considering the fate of the woman: “I like to imagine the Shawnee girlfriend,” she writes, “mounting her stallion, galloping out of Missouri, riding across America, founding her own town, and, because she can’t keep white guys straight, calling it DermotMulroneyDylanMcDermottDeanMcDermott.”
What Do We Need Men For?, which publishes this week, began as a conceit in search of an insight. Carroll, the initial plan went, would travel to American towns named after women—places such as Charlotte, Vermont; Tallulah, Louisiana; Marianna, Arkansas; Angelica, New York; and Pocahontas, Missouri. She would visit more than two dozen locations that celebrate, at least as far as the map goes, the lives of women—and then ask those towns’ residents a central, Jonathan Swift–ian, satirical-serious question: What do we need men for? It was a hero’s-journey setup, promising the kind of extended jape Carroll has specialized in, as a journalist and as a gimlet-eyed advice columnist for Elle magazine: roving, curious, compassionate, whimsical. Its emphasis on geography would add a cheeky new dimension to that foundationally feminist argument: that women navigate a world designed by, and for, men. “The whole female sex,” Carroll writes at the beginning of the book that resulted, “seems to agree that men are becoming a nuisance with their lying, cheating, robbing, perjuring, assaulting, murdering, voting debauchers onto the Supreme Court, threatening one another with intercontinental ballistic nuclear warheads, and so on.”