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All Women's History Coverage

Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.

Murderabilia

Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.
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Mark Braude’s Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris takes an in-depth look at Kiki de Montparnasse, a painter and performer who served as a muse to a number of the era’s preeminent artists, including photographer Man Ray. Longtime lovers and creative collaborators, Kiki and Man Ray worked together to produce some of his most famous images. In this wonderfully detailed history, Braude spotlights Kiki’s background and unique genius, her turbulent relationship with Man Ray and lasting impact on popular culture. Readers who are fascinated with the Lost Generation will savor this atmospheric account of bohemian Paris. 

In her captivating historical novel Becoming Madame Mao, Anchee Min tells the coming-of-age story of Yunhe, who is born into poverty in rural China but defies expectations by becoming the wife of Mao Zedong. Yunhe leaves home with hopes of becoming an actress, changes her name, enlists in the Red Army and eventually marries Mao. Min mixes fact and fiction as she depicts their troubled relationship and Yunhe’s evolution into a woman of political influence. This beautifully executed novel offers rich discussion topics including Chinese history and politics, gender roles and female agency. 

With The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Jack Weatherford takes readers back in time to 13th-century Eurasia, when formidable women like Khutulun and Mandukhai the Wise helped to ensure the dominance of the Mongol Empire by developing commerce, supporting education and fighting in battle. Their stories appear to have been intentionally deleted from Secret History of the Mongols, an account of Genghis Khan’s reign that appeared in the 13th century. In this fascinating, well-researched narrative, Weatherford highlights their remarkable accomplishments while immersing readers in Mongol culture.  

Set in the 19th century and inspired by historical events, The Last Queen: A Novel of Courage and Resistance by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chronicles the life of Jindan, a lowborn Indian girl who married Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire. After the death of her husband, Jindan’s young son assumes the role of maharaja. Acting as regent, Jindan develops into a strong leader who is perceived as a threat by the British Empire. A bestseller in India, the book’s powerful themes of motherhood and female fulfillment provide great talking points for reading groups.

Behind every great man, there’s a woman—often with an excellent book about her.
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The written narratives of enslaved people offer a window into circumstances that are, to most of us, unimaginable. These vital documents immortalize the names of their authors: Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs, among them. But one woman wrote anonymously, perhaps trusting history to keep her secret until it was safe for her identity to be revealed. In The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Harvard University professor Gregg Hecimovich sets out to find the woman who wrote The Bondwoman’s Narrative, an unpublished manuscript bought at auction by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001. Hecimovich relies on the scholarship of Gates and others to celebrate the life and work of the first Black female novelist, Hannah Bond—more than a century after her death.

Scholars have suggested other candidates to fit the bondwoman’s identity—women who walked similar paths from slavery to freedom in the antebellum South of North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Yet Hecimovich successfully braids together the fictitious details of the novel’s protagonist with Bond’s autobiography, leaving little doubt about the truth. Thanks to his deep research—and despite remaining gaps in the historical record—the titular bondwoman comes vividly to life.

As a “domestic servant,” Bond was at the mercy of her enslavers, who sexually abused her and cruelly severed her family ties—a practice especially rampant after the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, when slave owners increasingly forced their captives to reproduce and then sold their children. Bond lost her mother and her child, but she held onto her hunger to learn and become literate. She especially leaned on Charles Dickens and Bleak House for help in creating her writing.

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts is a vivid introduction to America’s first Black female novelist.

In 1999, author Kate Zernike, then a reporter for The Boston Globe, broke an enormous story: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had admitted to a long-standing pattern of discrimination against women on its faculty. Zernike, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, tells the full inspiring story in The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.

Zernike begins by focusing on molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins’ life and career path. In the spring of 1963, Hopkins, a Radcliffe junior, became so enthralled by a Harvard lecture on DNA by Nobel Prize winner James Watson that she sought work in his molecular biology lab. But like other women then and now, Hopkins faced difficult choices as she weighed the demands of science against marriage and potential motherhood. Zernike situates the tensions that led to the end of Hopkins’ first marriage within the broader context of the women’s movement of the 1960s. Eventually Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971, and by 1973, she had accepted a position at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research.

While the biographical sections are intriguing, Zernike’s narrative picks up speed in the later portions of the book, which delve into the ways male colleagues appropriated Hopkins’ work and used it for financial gain. By the 1990s, Hopkins realized that “a woman’s work would never be valued as highly as a man’s. It had taken her twenty years to see it—she’d understood it about other women before she’d realized it was true for her, too.”

Hopkins’ revelation led her to reach out to female colleagues, resulting in a letter by 16 women at MIT compiling evidence of discrimination, including unequal access to research resources and pay. The women spent the next four years doing fact-finding as a committee, and by March of 1999, they had compiled a report. Although it was only scheduled to appear in a faculty newsletter, news of the report reached Zernike’s ears—and when Zernike’s article appeared on the front page of the Globe, the story took off. Hopkins arrived on campus the next day to camera crews, and she received emails from women across the world. Overnight, MIT became a “pacesetter for promoting gender equality,” and other universities soon undertook similar efforts to examine their biases.

Zernike closes her narrative with updates on Hopkins’ continued successful career, short bios of the 16 women who signed the original letter and an examination of the progress for women in academia—and the work still to be done. These women’s efforts—and the subsequent impact this revelation had for women across academia—make for a gripping, page-turning read.

Kate Zernike’s impeccably researched book about MIT’s discrimination against its female faculty members is both enlightening and inspiring.
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Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the controversial first lady of 28th president Woodrow Wilson, had some impressive predecessors. There was women’s rights advocate Abigail Adams, wife of second president John Adams and mother of sixth president John Quincy Adams. During the War of 1812, Dolley Madison, wife of fourth president James Madison, rescued the nation’s treasured artwork from a burning White House. Edith was also followed by trailblazers, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, whose looming legacies have sometimes left Edith in history’s shadow. With Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson, historian Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives Edith her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Edith has no match.

Like several other first ladies, Edith had little formal education. She came from a Virginia family who had been dispossessed after the Civil War and grew up in a crowded apartment above a general store, which she eventually left for Washington, D.C., where a tall, striking beauty like herself could better shine. When she married Norman Galt, a jewelry business owner, she became his helpmate; when he died, she became a working widow. 

Woodrow lost his first wife, Ellen, soon after taking office in 1913. When he was introduced to Edith, he promptly fell in love. He shared with her every aspect of his work, soon darkened by the looming threat of a world war that many Americans wanted no part of. During those early years of her marriage, Edith knew her place—and how to get around it. When women were not allowed at important White House meetings, she hid in drapes to watch. When a stroke left Woodrow incapacitated shortly into his second term, Edith quietly took over, deciding which pieces of news wouldn’t be too stressful for him, who could visit and how to keep everyone, especially his political enemies and the press, from seeing the truth of the president’s condition.

Untold Power brims with details, from the colors of the signature orchids Edith wore to the troubled corners of Woodrow’s mind after his stroke. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge is there, bent on destroying the president’s obsessive quest for a League of Nations, and sheep populate the White House lawn (one of Edith’s successful—and profitable—wartime ideas). This well-told history, based on sources that are often at odds with Edith’s own memoir, also begs the question: How could so much in the White House have gone unseen and unknown for so long? And, chillingly, could it happen again?

With Untold Power, Rebecca Boggs Roberts gives first lady Edith Wilson her due, demonstrating that, as the first unelected woman to govern the country, Wilson has no match.
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Tomiko Brown-Nagin pays tribute to a history maker in Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality. Born in Connecticut in 1921, Constance Baker Motley studied law at Columbia University and went on to serve as a federal judge, becoming the first Black woman to do so. She was instrumental in ending Jim Crow and in arguing Brown vs. Board of Education. Brown-Nagin’s richly detailed narrative chronicles Motley’s working-class background and her rise in law and politics. Book clubs will enjoy digging into complex topics such as gender, social justice and the nature of power.

The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back by Kate Moore is a fascinating look at the life of Elizabeth Packard, who was wrongfully sent to an Illinois insane asylum by her husband in 1860. During her confinement in the asylum, where living conditions were appalling, Packard found other women who had been unfairly institutionalized. Determined to stand up for herself and her sister inmates, Packard advocated for their rights against all odds. Packard is an extraordinary figure, and Moore brings her to vivid life in this haunting book.

Dorothy Wickenden’s The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights focuses on a trio of formidable women from the 19th century—Harriet Tubman, Frances A. Seward and Martha Coffin Wright—each of whom worked to further the causes of freedom and equality at a critical time in America. Wickenden documents the lives of these groundbreaking women, showing how their controversial work impacted their personal relationships and social standing. Themes of loyalty, family and feminism will inspire rewarding dialogue among readers.

In The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II, Judith Mackrell spotlights a roster of unforgettable journalists who forged their own paths as war reporters despite red tape, gender-based prejudice and the hardships of international conflict. Mackrell tells the personal stories of Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Lee Miller, Sigrid Schultz, Helen Kirkpatrick and Virginia Cowles while exploring their remarkable contributions to history. Thoroughly researched and briskly written, Mackrell’s salute to a group of intrepid writers captures the spirit of an era.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with your reading group by picking up a book that honors overlooked female trailblazers.
STARRED REVIEW

March 14, 2023

Meet America’s first female president—plus three other fascinating figures in new biographies perfect for Women’s History Month

Four nonfiction books about notable American women illuminate their groundbreaking influence on literature, science and politics.

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In 1767, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston via a slave ship at the age of 7. In the years leading up to the start of the American Revolution in 1775, she became famous across New England and in London for her poetry. For all her talent and influence on the issues of her day, such as abolition, emancipation and revolution, the details of Wheatley’s life are still unknown to many. Award-winning historian David Waldstreicher sets out to change that with his in-depth, engrossing biography, The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence.

At a time when enslaved—and free—Black people were regarded by many colonists as barely literate “barbarians” and possible threats to Massachusetts’ rebellion against England, Wheatley earned her fame with words. Recognizing her unique ability, Wheatley’s wealthy, white enslavers gave her the time and privacy to write. Her poems, such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” were metered, not free verse, and spoke to the intellectual and impassioned Christian beliefs of her times. Wheatley’s elegies for the dead were distributed as broadsides at funerals, and her poems—which managed to praise British soldiers as well as American patriots and abolitionists—were published in newspapers on both sides of the churning political divide. Waldstreicher includes the text of many of Wheatley’s poems, explaining them well for those less familiar with the classical forms she used.

When an enslaved man fled his captors while they were visiting England, the ensuing public and legal controversy revealed the hypocrisy of a group of colonies seeking freedom while allowing slavery to persist. Within this context, Wheatley’s own position was precarious. She often had to prove that a young enslaved Black girl could indeed be a brilliant poet. In 1773, she achieved her emancipation with the help of her many patrons in Boston and England after the publication of her first book—at a time when very few women could get published.

Waldstreicher documents the long, tortuous journeys toward independence for both the poet and the American colonies in The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley. Along the way, the likes of Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams cross Wheatley’s path, and events like the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre feature prominently. This account of Wheatley’s life adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.

David Waldstreicher’s engrossing biography of the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley adds much to the tumultuous Revolutionary chapter of America’s political and racial history.
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Everyone should know the story of Ellen and William Craft, the subjects of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, young white man in a wheelchair. William, her husband, accompanied Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. Together they traveled in disguise from the mansion in Georgia where they were enslaved to freedom in the North. Every step of their journey depended on them keeping their wits about them, especially for Ellen. Ship captains, train conductors and even a friend of her enslaver were fooled by Ellen’s ability to perform a role that transformed her demeanor in every conceivable way—from woman to man, Black to white, slave to master. Their self-emancipation was a triumph of courage, love and intelligence.

Yet the Crafts’ story is more than a romantic adventure, and Woo does an excellent job of providing historical context for the dangers they faced without losing the thread of a terrific story. The Crafts’ lives were not magically transformed merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Woo explains. The North, while free, was still hostile territory for self-emancipated Black people, with rampant bigotry and racism even among abolitionists. However, the greatest danger to Ellen and William was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required everyone to return formerly enslaved people to their enslavers and forced the Crafts into exile in England until after the Civil War.

The real strength of Master Slave Husband Wife comes from Woo’s exploration of how Ellen was perceived and treated after her spectacular escape catapulted her into celebrity. Woo, whose earlier book, The Great Divorce, explored another convention-defying 19th-century woman, makes the excellent point that Ellen’s method of escape was not only brilliant but transgressive, defying conventions of gender and race. Even the fair skin tone that allowed her to pass as white was the product of generations of rape, giving the lie to myths of the “happy slave.” With empathy and admiration, Woo details Ellen’s quiet refusal to conform to the racist, classist and sexist expectations of her enemies, benefactors, supporters and even her husband. Thanks to Woo, Ellen is finally at the center of her own story as someone who heroically challenged America’s myths of equality and freedom.

Ilyon Woo tells the remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who came up with an ingenious and daring plan to emancipate themselves from slavery.

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Four nonfiction books about notable American women illuminate their groundbreaking influence on literature, science and politics.
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“You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. In journalist Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing account, The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back, it is abundantly clear that the four-term first lady lived her words. Beginning as a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, and later as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife and widow, she was a powerful voice for pacifism and economic and racial equality. She was derided during her lifetime for her forays into men’s worlds of work and war, but that didn’t stop her from embarking on a perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific during World War II.

The first lady’s 1943 tour started in secret, as an attempt to evade misogynistic criticisms from press and politicians. When the news broke that she was amid the fierce, ongoing war with Japan, she was pilloried. Disdain and skepticism awaited her when she met the military men in command. Admiral “Bull” Halsey said he didn’t have time to entertain a “do-gooder.” General Douglas MacArthur refused to allow her to visit his post in Papua New Guinea. Yet, flying in freezing military planes, often under cover of darkness to avoid detection, Roosevelt visited Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and 17 islands, including Bora Bora, Christmas Island and Guadalcanal, over the course of five weeks. She went from bed to bed in hospitals, offering to bring messages home to the families of wounded soldiers and letting the troops know she was there because their president wanted to know how they were doing.

What was first viewed as a political stunt soon earned Roosevelt the admiration of Halsey and others, many of whom couldn’t keep up with her. She ate with the enlisted men, slept in huts, took cold showers and wrote it all down in her syndicated news column, “My Day.” In New Zealand and Australia, she visited factories and farms where women did the work that men were no longer available for. She wore a Red Cross uniform she paid for herself, just as she funded her entire trip. While some people back in America groused that Roosevelt should “stay at home, where a wife belongs,” the troops she met with gushed, “She’s just like your mother, isn’t she?”

After witnessing firsthand the horrific combat conditions for servicemen in the South Pacific theater, Roosevelt became a force for improving their lives as veterans. The GI Bill of Rights would help prevent the shameful treatment and broken promises that World War I veterans had endured. Roosevelt’s role as a delegate in the nascent United Nations also had its roots in this journey, which continued to haunt her throughout her life. As Schmidt powerfully conveys, it was a trip that changed many lives, especially Roosevelt’s.

Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing The First Lady of World War II follows Eleanor Roosevelt on her perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific.
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In 2018, a group of protestors demanded the removal of a statue in New York City of J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology.” Sims was given this title for inventing a surgery in the mid-1800s to treat vesico-vaginal fistulas, holes between someone’s vagina and bladder or intestines (or both) that are usually caused by difficult childbirth. He developed his technique through horrific experiments performed on three enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, without either anesthesia or meaningful consent. Anarcha endured at least 30 experiments, but her condition never improved, mainly because Sims’ approach was ineffective—and frequently fatal. Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health is Guggenheim fellow J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of Sims and Anarcha.

Sims, a shameless self-promoter, provided Hallman with an ample record to work with. His memoirs, articles and newspaper notices (written primarily by Sims himself) make it clear that he was dangerously, violently misogynist and racist. Cloaked by his medical degree and bolstered by a system that transformed human beings into disposable property, Sims was able to perform acts of brutality on Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha with impunity. And they were not his only victims: After perfecting his “cure,” Sims and his adherents maimed or killed women of all classes, from enslaved people to countesses.

Hallman’s greater challenge was reconstructing Anarcha’s life. The structure of chattel slavery ensured that the few references to Anarcha in the historical record merely reflected her status as property, leaving Hallman with the dilemma of how to tell the true story of a woman whom history had almost entirely erased. Historian Tiya Miles confronted a similar issue in All That She Carried, a brilliant reconstruction of the life of another enslaved woman and her descendants. Like Miles, Hallman uses the technique of “creative fabulation”—consulting various oral and written histories from Anarcha’s lifetime to creatively fill in the gaps within an archive distorted by racism and misogyny. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic speculative portrait of a woman who would otherwise remain anonymous.

Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.

Say Anarcha is J.C. Hallman’s dual biography of the so-called “father of gynecology” and the enslaved woman he experimented on without anesthesia or meaningful consent.

If you haven’t heard of Dickey Chapelle, you’re not alone. But Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography, First to the Front: The Untold Story of Dickey Chapelle, Trailblazing Female War Correspondent, makes it clear that this courageous photojournalist, who was the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition.

Born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chapelle had an early love of aviation and even studied for a time at MIT. After she flunked out of school, Chapelle’s parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida, where she got a job publicizing a Miami airshow. After being sent to Havana to cover another airshow, the ambitious Chapelle pitched a story to the New York Times. When the ace pilot crashed before her eyes, she raced to a phone booth to dictate the story. A chance encounter with a fellow journalist on the scene led to a job offer in New York City, where she took photography classes from an older photojournalist named Tony Chapelle. The two eventually married—and then divorced, after his violent behavior escalated in tandem with her growing success as a journalist.

Rinehart’s account follows Chapelle’s wide-ranging international career from Panama to the Pacific, to 1950s postwar Europe, to Laos, Vietnam and a host of other locations. Chapelle covered conflicts as well as humanitarian crises, and Rinehart details her exceptional courage, her understanding of Cold War politics and her unflinching commitment to telling the stories of people oppressed by harsh regimes or fighting for independence. 

Rinehart also explores the reasons why Chapelle is not well known despite her extraordinary career. Saying she was “ahead of her time” may sound like a platitude, but Rinehart demonstrates that Chapelle’s storytelling truly was different from many of her fellow journalists, who accused Chapelle of being obsessed with her career and not being objective. While some journalists relied heavily on government sources, Chapelle took an intense, immersive approach to stories, prioritizing “the voices, the lives, and the experiences of those she reported on,” Rinehart writes.

Chapelle died in 1965 while embedded with U.S. Marines in Vietnam. With her trademark black-rimmed glasses and pearl earrings, Chapelle was unforgettable, fearless and compassionate. At the time of her death at age 47, she had been reporting in conflict zones across the world for 25 years.

First to the Front is a valuable, long-overdue tribute to an American woman whose work and commitment to human rights is more relevant than ever.

Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography makes it clear why Dickey Chapelle, a courageous photojournalist and the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition.

Few of the myriad books about World War II have ever attempted to provide a comprehensive history of its 350,000 American servicewomen. Out of the dwindling female veterans alive today, many have never even been asked to provide their first-person accounts. While compiling Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II, Lena Andrews found that female veterans had often been led to feel their experiences were not worth preserving, as their service wasn’t “real war work.” After a vivid recounting of her work distributing supplies to men headed to the front, Merle Caples, 98, remarks, “Oh my god, there are people out there who still care about me?” In a vital and engrossing attempt to correct the record, Valiant Women convincingly demonstrates that “American women who donned military uniforms in World War II were . . . at the center of the Allied strategy for fighting and winning the war.”

Andrews, a CIA military analyst, searched for living veterans by perusing local newspapers for mentions of servicewomen honored at events such as centennial birthday celebrations. In addition to these moving interviews, she takes a thorough look at the history of and skepticism toward women’s service programs in the US military. After the Army and Navy established programs, the Coast Guard and Marine Corps followed, but the commander of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, was suspicious of the whole idea and “entirely lacked the foresight to recognize the value in expanding the Corps to include nonwhite men and women.” Andrews also details the struggle led by two rival pilots Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love to establish a women’s flying corps in the US Army Air Forces. 

Possessing a clear narrative style and subject mastery, Andrews gives valuable context and meaning to these profiles of remarkable women, including Charity Adams, commander of the first Black WAC unit to serve abroad, and Dorothy Still, a Navy nurse in the Philippines, who spent three years as a prisoner of war with over 60 other women after the Japanese defeated American and Filipino forces on Bataan. 

Valiant Women provides a vital, authoritative account of an almost-forgotten history, reminding us of all the stories it is past time to remember. 

Valiant Women is a vital and engrossing attempt to correct the record and rightfully celebrate the achievements of female veterans of World War II.
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I find it impossible not to feel a mite sad while scanning 50 Years of Ms., which comes along at a time when print magazines, and the newsstands that used to stock them like boxes of bonbons, are a vanishing breed. But really, this is no time for tears: Ms., which has advanced and amplified feminist perspectives on society from diverse angles like no other publication, thrives on in both print and digital form with the tagline, “More than a magazine, a movement.” And as founding editor Gloria Steinem writes in a foreword, “A movement is a contagion of truth telling: at last, we know we are not alone.” Back in 1972, the first issue sold out in eight days; in it, 53 prominent American women “shouted” their abortions. Clearly, we desperately need the work of this media group more than ever. The book, including pieces by Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and other heavyweights, provides an essential look back while making an impassioned case for the critical role of feminist writing going forward.

This collection from the iconic magazine provides a look back while making an impassioned case for the critical role of feminist writing going forward.
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Tiya Miles’ beautiful new book, Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation, opens with a provocative suggestion: Being outdoors—experiencing unfettered, wide, risky and exciting natural environs—can open one up in unique ways that defy gendered expectations.

A professor of history at Harvard whose previous award-winning work has explored interconnections between African American and Native American histories, Miles first became interested in the way the outdoors could propel women and girls toward freedom and a fuller expression of self upon considering that Minty Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, would have had “a pronounced ecological consciousness.” Her first chapter, “Star Gazers,” takes a close look at Tubman’s youth and the childhoods of two other slave girls, all of whom witnessed the same meteor shower. Miles considers the differing expectations for African American girls (strong field workers or docile house servants), Native American girls (“Indian princesses,” like Sakakawea, who were seen as mythically connected to idealized landscapes, or young adolescents sent to boarding schools for forced assimilation) and white girls, most notably Louisa May Alcott, whose wide-ranging outdoor experiences, Miles posits, made her able to create a gender-deviating character like Josephine March. Miles connects these historical women in what she calls “a newly conjoined cast of historical actors who navigated their social world differently because of their experiences in the outdoor world.”

Alongside miniature portraits of more well-known historical figures, Miles’ leaves space for lesser-known girls, such as the astonishingly accomplished Native girls’ basketball team at Fort Shaw. Through basketball, Miles argues, the girls may have been able to tap into cultural ways of knowing despite boarding-school spaces that were anything but welcoming. Miles also shares her own story of walking across the icy Ohio River and standing in a meadow when she was young, which felt “big, so big, all-encompassing, like my idea of an ocean.” If you, like Miles, were once a girl who found an expansive sense of wonder and possibility in wild spaces, this is a book to savor.

If you, like Tiya Miles, were once a girl who found an expansive sense of wonder in wild spaces, you will love her book about the history of women in the outdoors.

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