Faye Jones

Women’s History Month gives us the opportunity to re-examine what we thought we knew about women’s participation in historical events. What is apparent in these selections is the constant battle for women to make meaningful, acknowledged contributions in the face of hostility, ridicule and neglect. What is also sadly obvious is that women’s accomplishments have often been minimized or hidden from the pages of the “official” historical accounts. But the books here show us that there is much to learn about the contributions of women throughout history—and much to be thankful for, too.

In the line of fire
Women have served in the military in a myriad of roles—from the factory and office workers who freed men to fight in WWI to pilots in WWII to active combat soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. They faced dangers as they nursed soldiers near the front lines in all wars. Yet often their worst enemy was not the official one, but their own country, hesitating to grant them the status and benefits they deserved.

Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee provide a number of examples of this discrimination in A Few Good Women. In 1942, three members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps survived the sinking of their ship by a German torpedo. Having lost all their belongings, they suffered a further blow when they were told that since the WAAC had no official standing, the U.S. government would not pay for their losses. Women were “with the military but not in it.” They received none of the benefits that men received, such as insurance or even protection under the Geneva Convention if they were captured. Some barriers just seem strange now: Female ferry pilots could not fly past the age of 35 “to avoid the irrationality of women when they enter and go through the menopause.” Other issues, such as sexual harassment and rape, still haunt our military today.

It is clear that women were willing to endure their lack of status and societal distrust to join the military. But why? For many, it was both basic patriotism and the hope for excitement and adventure. As one WWII pilot said: “[I learned I] could fly with the men and still remain a lady. I gained much confidence in myself that has served me well all this time.” These stories can serve as inspiration for young women today, and Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee deserve credit for telling them.

Lab partners
Like military women, female scientists are often missing in the pages of the history books. They are so absent, in fact, that one might be forgiven for thinking that until recent times, there simply weren’t women scientists—Madame Curie being the singular exception. In The Madame Curie Complex, Julie Des Jardins examines the careers of women scientists from Curie to Jane Goodall. Most of them probably won’t be familiar to readers, but they should be, not only for their scientific contributions, but for the ways in which their work was marginalized and made more difficult than it had to be.

Female scientists faced innumerable institutional and societal barriers. For women in the early 20th century, even finding a college that would allow them to study at an advanced level was not an easy option. Nepotistic rules at many universities meant that, for scientific couples, the husband received the tenured position while the wife toiled as a lab assistant or an untenured, temporary instructor. Married women scientists were also expected to keep house and raise children. These barriers put them behind on the career path when compared to many male scientists. For example, “Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Gerty Cori was fifty-one when she was finally promoted to full professor; physics laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer wasn’t hired with pay and tenure until she was fifty-three.” Despite these obstacles, some women persevered and succeeded. But as Des Jardins makes clear, this is only a partial victory, for there are many lost and forgotten women whose contributions to science will never be known.

Warrior queens
Talk about being written out of history: According to Jack Weatherford and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, in the 13th century, an unknown person cut out a section of The Secret History of the Mongols, the record of Genghis Khan, leaving only a hint of what had been there regarding the contributions of women: “Let us reward our female offspring.” However, if a censor chose to omit the deeds of these women, Weatherford, through careful scholarship and lively narrative, has filled in many of the details.

One such descendant, Queen Manduhai, refused all her suitors. Instead, she rescued the male child with the best link to Genghis Khan and raised him to be a ruler. She led battles, but she also learned from the mistakes of her predecessors, realizing how difficult it was to conquer a wide territory. Instead, she sought to trade with China when she could, but raid the country when she couldn’t. The Great Wall is a testament to how much the Chinese both respected and feared her.

A lady traveler
Louisa Catherine Adams moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, John Quincy Adams, when he received a diplomatic appointment to the royal court and managed her household alone for more than a year when he was called away to Paris to help negotiate the end of the War of 1812. Then in 1815, she received a letter instructing her to meet him in Paris. She and her young son undertook the 2,000-mile journey through a Europe that had been devastated by war and the reappearance of Napoleon.

In Mrs. Adams in Winter, Michael O’Brien uses this journey to present a biography of a woman who was always in the process of crossing borders. Born an American in London and raised for a time in Paris, she would never quite fit in with her home country, where she was accused of not being American enough to be First Lady and was never quite understood by her husband and her in-laws, the famous John and Abigail Adams. O’Brien also tells a fascinating tale of what it was like to travel in that time period, an account that will lead readers to admire Adams’ determination and strength.

Faye Jones is dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College.

Women’s History Month gives us the opportunity to re-examine what we thought we knew about women’s participation in historical events. What is apparent in these selections is the constant battle for women to make meaningful, acknowledged contributions in the face of hostility, ridicule and neglect. What is also sadly obvious is that women’s accomplishments have […]

In the summer of 1957, 14-year-old Carlotta Walls, like any teenager preparing to attend a new school, was excited and anxious. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was an excellent school that would open up many doors for her future. But Carlotta was concerned about whether she could keep up academically. In many ways, she was a typical teenager. But her high school experience was anything but typical; in fact, it was historic. She was one of the Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated the Little Rock school system.

For those who lived through those days, the events will never be forgotten: a white mob surrounded the school and troops escorted the students to class. For the young, Carlotta Walls LaNier’s memoir is a timely reminder of where we came from, how much we’ve accomplished and the progress we still need to make.

The first African-American students at Central High School suffered constant harassment. Some white students and teachers were openly hostile. Classmates tripped them in the hall, knocked their books out of their arms and spat at them. The African-American students were told they could not retaliate. The suffering went beyond the classroom. Suddenly, Walls LaNier’s father had a hard time finding work. Their home was bombed.

Walls LaNier’s memoir emphasizes that she and her fellow students were not civil rights professionals, but children. She was a young girl who had little interest in being on the front lines. She chose Central because she was a good student and thought she would get the best education there. When legal wrangling closed the school, her main concern was how far behind she would be in her classes. Her response to the daily racism was to keep her head down and find ways to disappear. She felt guilty at the worry and financial burden her choice placed on her parents.

Yet her story is a positive one as she recounts her own successful life and her pride in watching Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008: “We were indeed a country ready to move beyond its racial scars and wounds into a more hopeful future.”

Faye Jones is dean of learning resources at Nashville State Technical College.

In the summer of 1957, 14-year-old Carlotta Walls, like any teenager preparing to attend a new school, was excited and anxious. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was an excellent school that would open up many doors for her future. But Carlotta was concerned about whether she could keep up academically. In many ways, […]

Barbie, the stylish playmate for generations of little girls, turns 50 this month. In Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her  Robin Gerber showcases Ruth Handler’s brilliance in all aspects of business and details how she not only identified the market for the doll, but also successfully sold the idea to skeptics. When Handler noticed her daughter, Barbara (the doll’s namesake), playing with paper dolls—changing their clothes and pretending to be them—she realized that “little girls just want to be bigger girls” and began searching for the perfect doll for them. She met resistance along the way, namely from people who said mothers would not buy their daughters dolls with breasts; Handler proved them wrong.

Still, Gerber doesn’t gloss over the bad times. In the 1970s, Handler and her husband were forced out of Mattel, the company they’d founded, and charged with falsifying the books. While Handler always denied doing anything illegal, Gerber argues that someone as interested in the smallest details of the company as Handler simply could not have been unaware of the fraud. Handler managed to avoid jail time, but had to pay the largest fine and serve the longest community service punishment allowable by law. Nevertheless, Barbie has proved to be her greatest legacy.

Barbie, the stylish playmate for generations of little girls, turns 50 this month. In Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her  Robin Gerber showcases Ruth Handler’s brilliance in all aspects of business and details how she not only identified the market for the doll, but […]

On Good Friday, 1865, during a carriage ride, Abraham Lincoln told his wife Mary, “We must both be more cheerful in the future; between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have been very miserable.” Perhaps Mary Lincoln did hope the end of the Civil War pointed to a happier time. If so, her optimism was short-lived. That night, she witnessed her husband’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Even this horror was not her last: her youngest son Tad died in 1871 and a few years later, her only surviving child, Robert, had her committed to an insane asylum.

Yet Mary Lincoln did not garner sympathy from journalists of her own time or from later historians. Instead she has been vilified as a spendthrift, Southern sympathizer, even a syphilitic. In Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Catherine Clinton provides a more balanced picture of this controversial first lady. While admitting Mary Lincoln’s faults, Clinton places her life in the context of 19th-century American womanhood.

Mary Todd came from a wealthy Kentucky family. Well-educated and vivacious, she was expected to focus her energies on being a wife and mother, roles she enthusiastically accepted. Some considered Abraham Lincoln a poor prospect for a Todd, but Mary believed in and fully supported his political ambitions. As first lady, she expected to continue her active partnership with Lincoln, something his advisers resented. Yet, even when Mary Lincoln did something “ladylike,” redecorating the White House, the press accused her of overspending. She wasn’t the only Civil War widow to have financial struggles or dabble in spiritualism, but she was forced to play out her grief and troubles on a national stage.

Clinton’s biography presents a complicated woman who endured unimaginable difficulties. She was far from perfect; still as Clinton notes, “she provided Abraham Lincoln with the space and support he required to achieve his goals, and with the emotional yeast he needed to become the wartime president he became.”

Faye Jones is Dean of Learning Resources at Nashville State Technical Community College.

On Good Friday, 1865, during a carriage ride, Abraham Lincoln told his wife Mary, “We must both be more cheerful in the future; between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have been very miserable.” Perhaps Mary Lincoln did hope the end of the Civil War pointed to a happier time. If so, […]

Very few people know the name Mary Surratt today, but in 1865, she was one of the most hated women in the United States—unless you were a staunch Confederate. Surratt ran the boarding house where the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth and her own son, met to plan the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

In The Assassin's Accomplice, historian Kate Clifford Larson paints a vivid picture of Civil War Washington, D.C., and Maryland with its Confederate spies and sympathizers. Through an extensive search of records, court transcripts and memoirs, she also shows conclusively that Mary Surratt was indeed one of the conspirators, not simply the mother of one of them. Still, it is hard to read the accounts of the trial without having sympathy for Surratt. Had her son, John, returned to the States from a Confederate spying mission in Canada to testify on her behalf, it is likely she would have been found innocent or pardoned. Her lawyer disappeared following his opening remarks, leaving her in the hands of two much less experienced attorneys.

Then there were the newspapers. As Larson writes, "Vilified and caricatured in the mostly Northern newspapers that carried reports from the courtroom, Mary endured almost continual aspersions against her femininity, religion, age, physical appearance, and demeanor." Ironically, popular opinion moved in Surratt's favor after her execution and she became the poster child for the innocent Southern martyr at the hands of a "vengeful and vindictive Northern political machine." But for Larson, there is only one conclusion: Mary Surratt "decided to assist [Booth] in whatever way she could. In providing a warm home, private encouragement, and material support to Abraham Lincoln's murderer, she offered more than most of Booth's other supporters. For that, Mary Surratt lost her life and must forever be remembered as the assassin's accomplice."

Very few people know the name Mary Surratt today, but in 1865, she was one of the most hated women in the United States—unless you were a staunch Confederate. Surratt ran the boarding house where the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth and her own son, met to plan the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In […]

Charlotte S. Waisman and Jill S. Tietjen's Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America is like a slideshow of American women's history. Pictures and photographs along with short captions document women who've excelled in areas of American culture, including science, politics, business, entertainment and sports. The ones we all know from history class (Pocahontas) and popular culture (Oprah Winfrey) are here. Many are lesser known but no less interesting; for example, Sister Rose Thering, who was instrumental in the Vatican's repeal of its policy of holding Jews responsible for the crucifixion. One fascinating set of photographs shows a Boston Marathon official trying to tear off K. Switzer's race number when he realizes the "K" stands for Kathrine (in 1967 Switzer became the first woman to officially enter and run in the event). With more than 900 women profiled, this book is a perfect addition to any library: public, school, college or personal.

Woman warriors

Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross quickly disabuse readers of the notion that women's participation in combat is a relatively new phenomenon in Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq. This encyclopedic collection of short, incisive essays is convincing in its portrayal of women as anything but "the gentle sex." Miles and Cross divide the book into sections, which show the various ways women have participated in war throughout the centuries. We have the rulers, such as Elizabeth I and Indira Gandhi. There are the women who have served as nurses and doctors, and there are the "recording angels," such as Christiane Amanpour and Tokyo Rose, the famous World War II-era propagandist for the Japanese. And there are those who fought in wars as men, only to be revealed as women after their deaths.

In fact, women have been as strategic, as wily and even as cruel as men when facing their opposition. One section deals with what Miles and Cross call the "ruthless opportunists, sadists, and psychopaths unleashed and empowered by war." One of the more horrible examples is Nazi concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner, aka the "Stamping Mare," who literally stomped elderly prisoners to death with her steel-toed boots.

Still, this collection about the noble, the fierce and the downright evil makes it clear that though there's little record of women's military feats, it's because they have been written out of history, not because they never happened.

The long struggle

At the 30th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton summarized the efforts of women's rights activists in the 19th century: "It taxes and wearies the memory to think of the conventions we have held . . . the Legislatures we have besieged, the petitions and tracts we have circulated, the speeches, the calls, the resolutions we have penned, the never ending debates we have kept up in public and private, and yet to each and all, our theme is as fresh and absorbing as it was the day we started." Using the convention as a starting point in Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement, Sally McMillen details the struggles of the women's rights movement in the 1800s, focusing on the lives of four of its leaders: Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony.

McMillen provides an in-depth picture of the movement and the remarkable dedication of these women who faced rejection after rejection in attempting to earn women the vote, basic rights to their own money and children, and higher education. This rejection came from many quarters, from male political and religious leaders as well as most women's indifference or hostility to their cause. McMillen does not shy away from the missteps women made during the struggle. Some activists, disappointed when former slaves gained the vote before them, resorted to racist tactics in their speeches and writings. At times, personal and professional jealousies hindered the cause.

Still, what comes across most clearly is their untiring commitment to women's rights. It is both an inspiring and sad story. Inspiring because these women set the nation upon a course that finally recognized women as equals. Sad when you think of the contributions that women could have made in other fields instead of working so hard to achieve rights that should have been theirs all along.

Charlotte S. Waisman and Jill S. Tietjen's Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America is like a slideshow of American women's history. Pictures and photographs along with short captions document women who've excelled in areas of American culture, including science, politics, business, entertainment and sports. The ones we all know from history […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!