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Elizabeth Janeway, at 91, historian, feminist

WASHINGTON -- Elizabeth Janeway was a bright literary figure of the 1940s who later acquired a critical voice as a social historian and feminist with such books as "Man's World, Woman's Place." She died last Saturday in Rye, N.Y., after suffering strokes.

Mrs. Janeway, 91, was the widow of Eliot Janeway, a writer and presidential economic adviser. Their intimates included labor leaders, Cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices.

Focusing initially on achieving literary renown, Mrs. Janeway early on engaged in political activism that was minimal but memorable. When the Depression caused a surge of interest in the Communist Party, she and a friend conceived a tap-dance version of "The Internationale." Another friend, much later, described her as "frighteningly smart" and often quite shy but eloquent and a precocious writer.

Beginning with "The Walsh Girls" (1943) and "Daisy Kenyon" (1945), which was made into a film starring Joan Crawford, Mrs. Janeway earned praise for her psychological insight. She was called a modern Jane Austen.

She later wrote prolifically as a book reviewer, notably championing Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and other thematically controversial works in The New York Times. She told her friend William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, that he might enjoy reading Erica Jong's sexually explicit novel "Fear of Flying," "though it might shake up [Justice] Potter Stewart a bit."

Gradually, Mrs. Janeway turned from fiction to pursue themes of gender, myth, and power and how they played out in modern relationships. After the publication of "Man's World, Woman's Place" in 1971, she became a voice for women stifled at home or at the office.

As women found they moved into positions of dominance, she said, the reaction of men would be "the increase of the dominance they wield already until their power grows so great they are answerable to no one. The shadow role of the dominant male is ogre."

She often drew on the political figures she had known, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, as examples in her critiques.

In her New York Times book review, Margaret Mead wrote that Mrs. Janeway "draws so skillfully on the best of our fragmented social science, that, as a social scientist, it gives me renewed faith that we may in time produce an integrated understanding of the world. . . . Without partisanship, without jargon, in a pleasant, slightly ironic, lively way, she has woven [the] theories together, stopping now and then to find the myth of inalienable female difference surfacing at the very heart of social science itself."

As president of the Authors Guild from 1965 to 1969, Mrs. Janeway often addressed lawmakers about copyright protection and other literary concerns. She was not easily impressed with Washington's displays of pomp and splendor, professing that a dinner at the White House was "very lovely to go to . . . but as a practical matter, our older writers would rather know that they could continue to receive royalties from early works that are still selling."

Mrs. Janeway was born Elizabeth Ames Hall on Oct. 7, 1913, in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was the daughter of a naval architect and a homemaker. She enrolled at Barnard College in New York and helped support the family by writing advertising copy for a department store's bargain basement sales. One of her gems: "Get these divine $3.98 dresses with a touch of Paris about them."

Her ambition was more literary. She took the same creative writing class repeatedly to force herself to write apace. Winning a competition sponsored by Story magazine encouraged her, and she started on "The Walsh Girls" (1943), about two New England sisters.

She graduated from Barnard and in 1938 married Eliot Janeway, whom she had met at a party. She described him as "the most intelligent man I had ever met."

While raising one child and pregnant with her second, she finished "The Walsh Girls."

"Fact is, if the second baby hadn't been several days late in arriving, I might not have finished the book in time," she said. "I signed the contract with the publishers on the way to the hospital."

Another of her novels, "The Question of Gregory" (1949), attracted attention in Washington because the plot seemed eerily to mirror the troubled emotional life of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, an acquaintance of the Janeways who committed suicide.

Mrs. Janeway said she finished the book before Forrestal had a mental collapse and said the larger theme was "liberals in trouble." So many of them, she told a reporter in 1949, "are so darned immature. Too many of them have been convinced that power corrupts always. They are well-meaning people afraid to take action."

Her husband had worked with the leading liberal political figures of the day, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. She often retold the story of the time she visited the Roosevelt redoubt at Hyde Park, N.Y., and wound up tripping over the president's leg braces.

"Mrs. Roosevelt wanted to greet us, and she turned and said, 'Do come down.' And so I started down to shake her hand, and I fell over FDR's feet, flat on my face. And he leaned down, and he just picked me up like that, you know, very powerful arms, because he had to use the crutches. And he sort of [set] me on my feet."

Mrs. Janeway continued to write novels and became engrossed in the burgeoning women's movement. She befriended Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Kate Millett.

After "Man's World, Woman's Place" (1971), her other books in the field included "Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening" (1974), "Powers of the Weak" (1980), and "Improper Behavior" (1987).

She could be quite personal in her writing, drawing on a lifetime as a wife and mother. She also was strikingly bold about her support for abortion rights. She once signed her name to a full-page newspaper advertisement listing women who acknowledged having had abortions. It was a statement of solidarity among those, like herself, considered more in the establishment than the radical wing of the movement.

A judge for the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, she became a board member of the Federation of State Humanities Councils and a director of the National Organization for Women's legal and education fund.

Eliot Janeway died in 1993.

Mrs. Janeway leaves two sons, Michael of New York and Lakeville, Conn., a former executive editor of Atlantic Monthly and editor of The Boston Globe who is a professor at Columbia University's journalism school, and William of New York, a vice president of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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