News & Politics

Virgin Territory: Stories From the Road to Womanhood

“Candid, funny, and real” memories of firsts in women’s lives.

 I liked Virgin Territory so much that after I’d read—and in some cases, reread—all of the stories, I went back and read the acknowledgements page just so I wouldn’t have to put the book down.

 DC writer Cathy Alter is candid, funny, and real. But she isn’t the only one with this voice: Virgin Territory is a collection of women’s firsts, broken into categories including “First Flowering: Blood, Breasts, and (Pap) Smears,” “First Frill: Bras, Designer Jeans, and Stilettos—The Glitter Badges of Womanhood,” “First Fiddle: Fooling Around and Going All the Way,” and “First Field: From Wage Slave to Career Woman.”

 The stories are told by women at various stages in their lives, and yet, as Alter says, “Listening to their stories, I would unfailingly feel a me-too-ness with the storyteller. The more intimate the admission, the more resonant my reaction.”

 I’d never have thought I’d so fiercely identify with a woman undergoing chemotherapy, another experimenting with lesbianism, or someone who had her period before tampons were invented. But Alter put her finger on the collective pulse of women and made it possible.

 There were other stories that I might have mistaken for my own, such as “Seeing the Shrink,” the tale of recently washed, and shrunken, jeans in which the storyteller asks, “You know that feeling when you start to pull them up and they won’t come over your hips or butt? You kind of shimmy them up, but you can’t get them zipped.” I dread washing my jeans because of that feeling.

 “Sloppy Seconds,” about a first kiss, didn’t exactly mirror my debut smooch, but it made me recall the experience as clearly as if I were back in middle school. Perhaps that’s the best part of Virgin Territory: It unlocks your own coming-of-age diary—and lets you find laughs you didn’t even know were there.

Cathy Alter