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All Women's History Coverage

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American Wildflowers

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide exists at the intersection of two important movements: the protection of native plant populations from climate change and shortsighted development, and the decolonization of literature. Editor Susan Barba has gathered a captivating bouquet of plant-inspired writings, with prose and poetry from contemporary greats like Jericho Brown, Lydia Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil alongside the words of perennial canon-dwellers like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “The best writers closely observe not only the plant but our words in relation to it, and in doing so they focus our attention and clarify our intentions,” writes Barba. What first drew me to this book were Leanne Shapton’s atmospheric watercolors of pressed flowers, which are as ephemeral as the specimens they interpret. A significant addition to the tradition of writing about plants, this anthology urges us to notice the lessons offered by the tiniest bluet.

The United States of Cryptids

Speaking of overlooked (possibly) living things, I can’t get enough of the names of creatures featured in The United States of Cryptids. Snarly Yow? Snallygaster? Woodbooger? Wait, back up. What, you ask, is a cryptid? It’s “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven,” and that right there is a freakishly wide net, folks. But author J.W. Ocker’s emphasis is on the lively lore surrounding Bigfoot creatures, et al., and how these tales both shape and are shaped by the animals’ supposed stomping grounds. “Wherever cryptids are celebrated, the story is so much more important than the science,” he writes, and boy does he have a lot of fun telling said stories. There’s even a “world’s largest chainsaw-carved bigfoot” in a state otherwise light on cryptids (looking at you, South Dakota), a wooden beast born of idle hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems about right for a contemporary cryptid.

Toil and Trouble

Toil and Trouble examines the ways in which women throughout history have found agency, self-expression, financial gain and political influence in witchcraft, tarot and other practices with a spiritual element. Remember Joan Quigley, astrologer to Nancy Reagan? She’s among the fabulous cast of characters included here, along with the witches who hexed Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, spiritualist Achsa Sprague, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and so many more. Ultimately, authors Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Monster, She Wrote) argue that the occult offers women a way to rebel against the patriarchal Christian constructs of womanhood. Anyone who has dabbled in the craft by way of #witchtok will deepen their knowledge immensely by reading this book, which is as historically thorough as it is fueled by the modern ascendance of the occult in popular culture. With a final chapter titled “100% That Witch,” you know you’re going to learn a lot and have some fun.

This month’s lifestyles column runs the gamut from nature-inspired beauty to straight-up monsters. Brush up on your preferred form of magic with the help of these three enchanting books.
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When rich women seeking a “migratory divorce” headed west by train to states with more lenient divorce laws in the 1890s—maids, lawyers and multiple wardrobe trunks in tow—they hardly looked like revolutionaries. Yet they started something. Historian April White’s exhaustive account, The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier, captures a game-changing cultural moment during the tumultuous years of the Gilded Age.

In the late 19th century, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, required only a 90-day residency before a woman could file for divorce, making it a magnet for those in more of a hurry to get divorced than other states would allow. In New York, only proof of adultery and (still true today) a year’s residency did the trick; South Carolina allowed nothing to break the sacred marital bond. White’s colorfully detailed work follows four women, their families and their paths out of unsatisfying marriages through the courts of law and public opinion to their fates as divorcées—or wives once more.

Baroness Maggie De Stuers traveled with her private secretary, soon to be her next spouse. Mary Nevins Blaine blamed her mother-in-law, not her inept husband, for her marital woes. Blanche Molineux never wanted to marry in the first place. Flora Bigelow Dodge “wanted something entirely without precedent: ‘a legal and dignified Dakota divorce.'” Reporters followed these women, spying on their luxurious suites in the city’s iconic Cataract House, seeking gossip and scandal. Businesses profited from their deep pockets. Clergy denounced them as threats to all that God had joined together. Judges became suspicious. Lawmakers, from local governments to the White House, wrestled with family values and federal oversight—a struggle that continues today, as different states still choose different rules for divorce and as the challenge of defining and upholding women’s rights goes on.

In White’s hands, this slice of history is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

In April White’s hands, this slice of Gilded Age history about women who headed west to states with more lenient divorce laws is entertaining and enlightening.

In the mid-20th century, air travel was considered glamorous, even romantic. Federal regulation kept fares high, and passengers were mostly businessmen en route to work destinations. And what did those men want to see at the end of a long work week? A blushing, girlish attendant who doted on them—or so the airlines assumed. A new pair of nonfiction books offer insight into the sexism women faced in the early decades of commercial flight, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.

Cover for The Great Stewardess Rebellion by Nell McShane Wulfhart

The Great Stewardess Rebellion recounts the midcentury fight to get airlines to overturn their sexist requirements for flight attendants. In the 1960s, stewardesses were often fired after their 32nd birthdays, or upon marriage, or upon becoming pregnant—whichever came first. Their continued employment was dependent on regular weigh-ins, and they were required to meet other physical expectations, too, such as cutting their hair to their employer’s standard or wearing gloves while in uniform.

Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart traces flight attendants’ union and legal battles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on two women whose experiences help make the political personal. Patt Gibbs was unconcerned with age limits when she applied to American Airlines at age 19, since 32 seemed impossibly distant, and she happily monitored her weight to better her chances of being accepted, dropping from 121 to 110 pounds before submitting her application. However, once Gibbs was hired and she saw how poorly she and her colleagues were treated, she became involved in union work—reluctantly at first, then as a passionate advocate for better pay and fewer discriminatory rules.

Like Gibbs, Tommie Hutto also became enraptured by air travel as a young woman. She became an American Airlines flight attendant after college graduation, as a way out of her conservative Texas surroundings. Hutto, too, became involved in the union, and as she and Gibbs sought better treatment for the women who staffed every flight, they transformed from adversaries to allies.

Wulfhart tells the story of airline unions through Gibbs’ and Hutto’s experiences while weaving in the tales of dozens of other bold women—such as Sonia Pressman, who fought for airline industry change as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Dusty Roads and Jean Montague, American Airlines flight attendants who brought the industry’s discrimination to the EEOC’s attention; and Cheryl Stewart and Sharon Dunn, Black flight attendants who challenged their colleagues’ racism. With stylish flair, The Great Stewardess Rebellion explores the nuances of these spirited women and the sexism they battled.

Cover of Fly Girl by Ann Hood

While Wulfhart reveals how women fought to change air travel, Ann Hood paints a portrait of how air travel shaped one woman’s life. Hood (The Book That Matters Most, The Red Thread) is now a bestselling novelist, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was a TWA flight attendant. She always wanted to write, but first she wanted to see the world beyond her Rhode Island home, especially after falling in love with air travel when she took her first flight to Bermuda as a teen. 

Hood’s memoir, Fly Girl, brims with details and personal anecdotes that air travel buffs will love. She recounts both the horrifying ways that misogyny affected her workplace, including unwanted advances from badly behaved passengers, and happier memories of the glamorous days of flying, when stewardesses could bring home sizable paychecks thanks to the work of the flight attendants’ unions. However, as the industry changed in the 1980s, Hood experienced furloughs and had to take jobs with less affluent airlines, bouncing from plane to plane. Through all the ups and downs, jet lag was her normal.

With time, Hood’s self-confidence grew, with regard to both her ability as a flight attendant and her understanding of people and cultures. She began to use time in the jump seat to write, and steadily she made her way toward the writer’s life she’d always dreamed of.

“Life unfolds on airplanes,” Hood writes. “People are flying to funerals and weddings, they are on their honeymoon or leaving a partner, they are carrying a newborn on their first flight to meet grandparents or taking a kid to college or on their way to adopt a baby. And they fall in love.” In Fly Girl, Hood paints a first-class portrait of chasing your dreams and coming of age in the sky.

Two nonfiction books render the complex lives of women during a bygone era of air travel.
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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 […]
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The theme of Women’s History Month 2011 is “Our History is Our Strength.” These new books present biographies full of intellect, tenacity, courage and creativity.

WOMEN BEHAVING BADLY
Actress and blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon puts readers smack in the middle of some incredible female lives with her blog, Scandalous Women. Her mini-biographies are now compiled in Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Mahon, a self-proclaimed “history geek,” reclaims history “one woman at a time” in short, lighthearted accounts of the lives of rich and famous—and ordinary—women who caused wars, created drama, “defied the rules and brought men to their knees.” Each chapter features five women who created whole genres of scandal, from Warrior Queens (Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine), Wayward Wives (Jane Digby, Zelda Fitzgerald), Scintillating Seductresses (Emma Hamilton, Mata Hari), Crusading Ladies (Ida B. Wells, Anne Hutchinson), Wild Women of the West (Calamity Jane, Unsinkable Molly Brown), Amorous Artists (Camille Claudel, Billie Holiday) and Amazing Adventuresses (Anna Leonowens, Amelia Earhart). While many of the facts surrounding these lives are familiar, Mahon weaves page-turner narratives from her passion and affection for these spectacular but often misrepresented women.

AN ENDURING LEGACY
The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, was a controversial and groundbreaking book that turned the myth of the “content and fulfilled” housewife and mother on its head. The best-selling and radical book by Betty Friedan—often read undercover—inspired a generation of women to buck societal pressures and the prevailing belief that “women’s independence was bad for husbands, children, and the community at large” and seek change in their lives. In A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, award-winning social historian Stephanie Coontz conducts interviews with nearly 200 women (and men) who were affected by Friedan’s book and traces its societal impact, including its influence on issues of gender equality today. Coontz examines the eras of relative freedom for women that predated the book, from getting the vote and the bobs and short dresses of the 1920s to hard-working Rosie the Riveters of the 1940s, and the erosion of those freedoms in postwar America. Friedan, “just another unhappy housewife” and writer for women’s magazines, conceived her book in the Mad Men era, when men had total legal control over the lives of their families and women couldn’t get credit in their own names. While other books of the time tackled similar problems, Friedan—a former activist—made readers feel passionate and validated in their frustration with their gilded cages. Packed with fascinating statistics and research on 20th-century American social history, including the effect of “liberation” on middle-class, working-class and African-American women, Coontz shines new light on a landmark work.


WOMEN WHO RULES BEFORE ELIZABETH
Elizabeth I ruled England with history-making style. But Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, were equally powerful, ambitious women who thrived in a cutthroat world well before her reign. Award-winning British historian Helen Castor (Blood and Roses) tells their extraordinary stories in She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. “Man was the head of woman, and the king was the head of all,” Castor writes. “How, then, could royal power lie in female hands?” Castor answers that suspenseful question in dense, historically rich accounts that set out every detail of the complex social mores, political machinations, familial manipulations and feuds that formed their paths to power and influence. Women who claimed their earned power—even their birthright—outright during the 12th-15th centuries were seen as fanged, bloodthirsty “she-wolves.” “Freedom to act,” Castor writes, “did not mean freedom from censure and condemnation.” Their stories—like young French bride Isabella’s fight for her royal rights in England at the age of 12—featured subtle negotiations, covert confrontations, manipulations and sharp analysis worthy of any male ruler during such tumultuous, war-ravaged times, and She-Wolves makes for exceptional, even inspirational reading.
 

The theme of Women’s History Month 2011 is “Our History is Our Strength.” These new books present biographies full of intellect, tenacity, courage and creativity. WOMEN BEHAVING BADLY Actress and blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon puts readers smack in the middle of some incredible female lives with her blog, Scandalous Women. Her mini-biographies are now compiled […]
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A popular bumper sticker theorizes that well-behaved women rarely make history. While it’s true that sometimes swimming against the current is the only way to get where you’re headed, three new books show women making history in a variety of ways, from globetrotting, to taking on mysterious jobs, to smashing through political barriers—even if their behavior was sometimes less than ladylike.

ALL ABOARD

In 1889, Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days was hot stuff. So hot, in fact, that two New York publications sent female reporters on trips around the world to try and beat fictional character Phileas Fogg’s time. Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World recreates the race and shows how it shaped the women’s lives afterward. It’s also a dazzling tour of the world at a time when travel routes were just opening up; a look at sensationalist journalism and pop culture in pre-Kardashian America; and a testimony to how hard women had to fight to get work and achieve respect as journalists.

Bly perfected the art of traveling light for the sake of convenience, then went on a shopping spree in Singapore, after which she was saddled with a cantankerous monkey she named McGinty. Bisland, who agreed to race against Bly with less than one day’s notice, didn’t like the publicity that came with the challenge and squirmed at being hauled in rickshaws and sedan chairs, but she was otherwise a fearless competitor who continued to travel for the rest of her life. Their stories should inspire both writers and travelers today: If you finish this without laying out your own version of Nellie Bly’s one-bag, no-hassles travel case, don’t complain the next time you’re dinged $25 for an extra suitcase. She was vastly ahead of her time.

WOMEN’S WORK

The Girls of Atomic City details a story that seems impossible yet was true. Author Denise Kiernan brings a novelist’s voice to her thoroughly researched look at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a small city that housed 75,000 people, used as much power as New York City, yet didn’t exist on any map. During World War II, numerous women were recruited to work in Oak Ridge but were never told what their jobs were; each job was isolated from the others so a complete picture couldn’t be formed. All they knew was that they were working to help bring a swift end to the war. By the time anyone had figured it out, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been decimated and the war was over.

The story of the town is impressive and occasionally funny: Women disembarking from cars for the first time sank to their knees in mud, since there were no sidewalks built, and one resident persuaded a worker to make her contraband biscuit tins from scrap metal so as to avoid the cafeteria’s sub-par chow. There was camaraderie among the workers, yet everyone felt ambivalent about what they created and how it was ultimately used. Kiernan gives no easy answers, but the stories of the women will resonate with readers. If someone offered you double what you’re making now, would you jump on a train with no further information? That took guts.

HIGHEST CALLING

It’s great to look back and find undiscovered stories in our past, but the experiences of those who are still with us have much to offer as we go forward. Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice is Mary Robinson’s memoir. The first female president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights traces her political roots back to an early and radical questioning of her Catholic upbringing. Continually working and fighting for full inclusion on behalf of the poor and marginalized, she became a vocal opponent of U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. When journalists questioned her outspoken stance and willingness to jeopardize her U.N. job, she writes, “I replied that this was the job; it was better to do the job than try to keep it.”

Robinson is unsparing about mistakes she’s made in her political career, and unfailingly gracious and grateful to her friends and family in these pages, which puts her tougher stances in perspective. A critical thinker and fine writer, her life story is a pleasure to read, and one that will certainly inspire generations of leaders to come.

A popular bumper sticker theorizes that well-behaved women rarely make history. While it’s true that sometimes swimming against the current is the only way to get where you’re headed, three new books show women making history in a variety of ways, from globetrotting, to taking on mysterious jobs, to smashing through political barriers—even if their […]
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Would Jane Austen be rolling over in her grave after reading the latest additions to the Austen-phile’s bookshelf? Au contraire: If Austen had an iPhone, she would likely be tweeting the praises of these three charming Austen pastiches and tributes—which may have readers reaching for the originals.

AN OVERLOOKED HEROINE
The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, former librarian Pamela Mingle’s first novel for adults, is as much a sequel to Pride and Prejudice as it is an homage. Mary Bennet has always been overshadowed by her four sisters. But now that they are all out of the house, Mary finds herself receiving the romantic overtures of Henry Walsh, a friend of her brother-in-law Charles Bingley. Inexperienced in romance, Mary worries that she is misreading Henry's intentions. Does she deserve love?

The more popular characters, like Elizabeth and Darcy, make appearances in the novel, but Mingle keeps her focus on Mary and her efforts to move past her childish—and, sometimes, obnoxious—ways. Writing in the first person, Mingle is able to explore Mary's inner life in a manner that Austen did not, giving her depth and helping the reader feel invested in her happiness. Mingle doesn’t try to imitate Austen or rewrite her classic novel. Instead, she gives contemporary readers a clever take on an overlooked character.

PUTTING A TWIST ON A CLASSIC
Countless romance novels and love stories have been born from Jane Austen novels. Add Katherine Reay's delightful debut, with intriguing characters and a well-developed plot, to that list. This is not a straight modernization, but rather a pastiche that stands as a tribute to the power of literature. An epistolary novel, Dear Mr. Knightley is made up of the letters and journals of Samantha "Sam" Moore, an orphan raised in the juvenile system in contemporary Chicago who writes letters to her mysterious benefactor. 

Sam is an introvert, hiding in books, shunning personal relationships and, in general, failing to connect with others. After losing her job, she finds that she is the recipient of a special grant: She will be able to attend Northwestern and pursue a masters in journalism, provided that she keep Mr. Knightley apprised of her career through old-fashioned letter writing. Sam uses the letters to open up about her past, an act that allos her to finally accept love and forge relationships with people.

Because Sam hides behinds her favorite novels as a defense, Reay is easily able to weave quotes and storylines from several classics into her tale. Dear Mr. Knightley is a welcome addition to contemporary romance, but what makes it great is Reay’s ability to make the reader feel truly connected to her characters. Readers will get lost in Sam’s story, forgetting about other responsibilities and to-do lists.

MODERNIZING MATTERS OF THE HEART
The Austen project, HarperCollins’ commission of six well-known contemporary authors to provide modern takes on Austen’s completed novels, commences with a bang with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. Trollope, the best-selling author of 18 novels, has taken on a heavy mantle here. Her story is the same as Austen’s, but set in modern times, complete with cell phones, iPods and Facebook references.

The modern-day Dashwood family must adapt to a new life after the untimely death of their father, who had never legally married their mother. Left with no money and no home to live in, the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, along with their mother, Fanny, must adapt to a life without the security of inheritance, family name and status.

Trollope does an exceptional job remaining true to the original characters. She accurately captures Austen's classic theme of "head versus heart," even as she updates the characters in believable ways (Elinor, for example, is studying architecture). Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility reminds the reader that the world may be changing too quickly around us, but matters of the heart remain constant.

Would Jane Austen be rolling over in her grave after reading the latest additions to the Austen-phile’s bookshelf? Au contraire: If Austen had an iPhone, she would likely be tweeting the praises of these three charming Austen pastiches and tributes—which may have readers reaching for the originals. AN OVERLOOKED HEROINEThe Pursuit of Mary Bennet, former […]
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The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

Sensational in every sense of the word, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson looks at the lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, free-thinking feminist sisters who took New York City by storm in the 1860s by fearlessly addressing the taboos of the time. They were proponents of free love, suffrage, sex education and labor reform, and they stumped for their causes bravely. Originally from rural Ohio, where their father, a snake-oil salesman, used them in his act, the sisters were a canny and intelligent pair, both strikingly handsome and unfazed by public scrutiny. They never shied from a scandal. Their accusations of infidelity against minister Henry Ward Beecher nearly trumped the Civil War for press coverage.

Victoria WoodhullTennessee Claflin

Mathew Brady portraits of free-thinking sisters Victoria Woodhull (left) and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, who never shied away from challenging the conventions of their era.

 

The duo’s accomplishments are astonishing: Victoria was the first woman to make a bid for the presidency (her running mate was Frederick Douglass). With the assistance of millionaire magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tennie’s reputed lover, the sisters launched the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their taste for controversy and ultra-progressive attitudes (tenacious Tennie proposed that women be trained for army combat) were frowned upon by more reserved feminists, but they remained steadfast in their desire for reform. MacPherson, an award-winning journalist, takes a theatrical approach to these radical proceedings. She provides a cast of characters and unfolds the sisters’ story over the course of five irresistible “acts.” This is a grand tale presented on a grand scale.

A SAVVY SISTER-IN-LAW

Carol Berkin’s Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte features a heroine whose fierce independence and indomitable will made her an early model of change for women.

Bright, well read and remarkably beautiful, Elizabeth Patterson—known as Betsy—came from a well-to-do Baltimore family. When the dashing Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s spoiled younger brother, arrived in Baltimore and made her acquaintance, he was smitten. The pair wed in 1803, and their union drew the attention of the American government while scandalizing Napoleon, who blocked Betsy’s entry at ports throughout Europe. To Jérôme, the French emperor issued an ultimatum: Give up Betsy or relinquish the Bonaparte fortune.

Jérôme, of course, caved. Betsy, who bore him a son, took a defiant stance in the wake of his betrayal, forging a life for herself that did not include the refuge of another marriage. Thanks to her beauty and intellect, she shone in European society and spent many years overseas. She also set herself up handsomely through investments and profits from Baltimore real estate. Through it all, she remained proud of the Bonaparte name.

Berkin, a historian and the acclaimed author of Revolutionary Mothers and Civil War Wives, brings a fascinating chapter of feminist history to life in a narrative that’s brisk and vivid.

FEMINIST FAMILY TIES

Diane Jacobs explores an intriguing facet of a famous family in Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters. In this artful biography, Jacobs spotlights the friendship that existed between Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, and her sisters, Mary Cranch and Elizabeth Shaw Peabody, with whom she shared progressive ideas regarding education and gender. The sisters came of age in the mid-1700s in Weymouth, Massachusetts, raised by a minister father and a book-loving mother. They were a tightly bound bunch until marriage parted them. Avid letter writers, over the years they produced a correspondence that was polished and insightful, filled with wit and commentary on current events.

Drawing on their letters and other archival materials, Jacobs has created a well-rounded, thoroughly readable biography of the threesome. Each sister shines in her own way: Mary, the eldest sibling, served as mayor of her small hamlet, while Elizabeth, the youngest and an ambitious writer, established the second coeducational school in America with the help of her husband. Middle sister Abigail took charge of the Adams farm while her husband forged a path to the presidency. The sisters’ independence, integrity and spunk shine through Jacobs’ expertly crafted narrative, which also provides a fresh look at life in colonial-era America.

The past is packed with remarkable women whose achievements deserve special recognition. Just in time for Women’s History Month, three new books provide in-depth looks at a few of the courageous, far-sighted women who served as early champions of change. Inspiring narratives about friendship, kinship and the quest for equality, these compelling books salute a group of winning women who were ahead of their time.

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As the holiday season approaches, we’re paying tribute to the visionaries of the past with a collection of books that honor the leading ladies who paved the way for generations to come. Whether you’re shopping for a girl with a change-the-world attitude or a woman in search of gifted role models, these books are sure to inspire.

BRAINS AND BRAWN
Mathematicians and physicists, smugglers and spies, suffragettes and explorers—you’ll find them all in Wonder Women, Sam Maggs’ spirited tribute to 25 pioneering females. Maggs, the bestselling author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, has put together an intriguing roundup of thinkers and doers who forged new paths in their chosen areas. Notables include algorithm whiz Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron and creator of code for an early computer, and inventor Margaret E. Knight (1838-1914), designer of—among other devices—a machine that mass-produced flat-bottomed paper sacks.

Maggs provides brief bios for each of her subjects, and her off-the-cuff prose style and winning sense of humor keep the proceedings lively. Maggs’ lineup of influential females is well curated and inclusive, while smart illustrations by Sophia Foster-Dimino bring the ladies to life. Wonder Women is a must-read for the girl who’s a bit of a geek.

WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS
Featuring an epic roster of female athletes, Molly Schiot’s Game Changers is a stirring tribute to the record setters, barrier breakers and milestone makers who opened the way for the women competitors of today. Inspired by Schiot’s popular Instagram account, @TheUnsungHeroines, this adrenaline-infused photography book focuses on overlooked but outstanding women athletes—20th-century sports greats who aren’t household names but should be. 

Schiot shares the stories of luminaries like mountain climber Annie Smith Peck, who caused a scandal in 1895 when she ascended the Matterhorn in pants instead of a skirt, and Bernice Gera, pro baseball’s first female umpire, who was harassed by the men in her class at the Florida Baseball School. From bullfighting to boxing, every corner of the sports world is represented. Discussions between legendary ladies like soccer player Abby Wambach and Title IX advocate Margaret Dunkle provide background on the place of women in a male-dominated industry. Packed with classic photographs, Schiot’s book is a gold-medal gift idea for the sports fan.

INK, TYPE AND INSPIRATION
Grassroots gals Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring create art with the power to incite—and unite—women of every age and stage. They’re the team behind Dead Feminists, the broadside series they crank out (literally) via printing press, using hand-drawn lettering and imagery to highlight quotes from famous feminists. A new book based on the series captures the duo’s crisp press work and knack for making bold statements through innovative design. 

In Dead Feminists, O’Leary and Spring honor 27 illustrious ladies—strong-willed leaders who changed the world through leadership, literature, art and education. Eleanor Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf, Shirley Chisholm, Emma Goldman and other eminent feminists are profiled in chapters filled with vintage photographs, ephemera and, of course, the team’s original broadsides, which are stop-the-presses sensational. Beautifully designed all the way down to endpapers showing a collage of nifty type blocks, this volume has a handcrafted quality. Insights into the printing process and a rousing foreword by Jill Lepore make this the ultimate gift for the gutsy girl.

SO BAD THEY'RE GOOD
One hundred remarkable women get the diva treatment in Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, a sparkling celebration of formidable females who lived their lives outside the constraints of convention. As Shen explains in the introduction, “To be a bad girl is to break any socially accepted rule.” These trailblazing ladies did just that and more, transcending the boundaries imposed by gender to leave a permanent imprint on popular culture.  

Shen includes innovators of every era, from Cleopatra, the original bad girl, to anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and feisty figures of the present day like Tina Fey. Brief biographical essays provide background on the lives and accomplishments of these iconic individualists, who, as Shen puts it, “knocked up against that glass ceiling and made a tiny fissure or full-on crack.” Activists and artists, musicians and politicians, cinema stars and scientists—these bad girls definitely made good. Shen’s elegant watercolor illustrations round out this salute to a group of distinguished grandes dames.

ESSAYS WITH ATTITUDE
Frank and fearless—there’s no better way to describe The Bitch Is Back, a collection of 25 essays contributed by some of today’s top female writers. Edited by Cathi Hanauer, it’s a companion to The Bitch in the House (2002), the bestselling anthology that took stock of the female experience at the start of the century.

Nine writers from the first volume return in this edgy collection, along with new contributors like Julianna Baggott and Sandra Tsing Loh. Ranging in age from 38 to 60-plus, they speak their minds on motherhood, monogamy and midlife. With barbed humor, Pam Houston ruminates on five realizations that have accompanied aging (#3: “I don’t care what men think of me anymore.”), while Jennifer Finney Boylan recalls “the strange blessings of turbulence” connected to coming out as transgender. Susanna Sonnenberg and Cynthia Kling both reflect on making major decisions at midlife. Filled with hard-won wisdom and more than a little good news (getting older is definitely liberating!), The Bitch Is Back will motivate gals to take a kick-butt attitude into 2017. 

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

As the holiday season approaches, we’re paying tribute to the visionairies of the past with a collection of books that honor the leading ladies who paved the way for generations to come. Whether you’re shopping for a girl with a change-the-world attitude or a woman in search of gifted role models, these books are sure to inspire.
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Women speak up louder and stronger with every passing day, even though it can be hard to make the world listen. Women’s History Month is a time for recognizing the milestones reached on the road to equality and the pioneering women who have made progress possible. Five outstanding new titles focus on the female experience from a variety of viewpoints.

An inspiring tribute to 100 sensational women, Julia Pierpont’s The Little Book of Feminist Saints celebrates trailblazing figures from the past and present. This who’s who of winning women spotlights educators and athletes, artists and activists. Luminaries include Maya Angelou, Frida Kahlo, Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, Billie Jean King and Oprah Winfrey. Small but jam-packed, the volume contains facts and anecdotes about each woman, along with memorable quotes and plenty of feminist trivia. Taking her cue from Catholic saint-of-the-day books, Pierpont gives each woman in her book “matron saint” status and a special feast day. (Nina Simone, for instance, is the “Matron Saint of Soul.”) In luminous, full-color portraits, artist Manjit Thapp captures the essence and individuality of her subjects. Small enough to tuck into a bag, this delightful book offers instant inspiration.

PROGRESS AT THE POLLS
On August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment—a history-making move by the state legislature that enabled women to vote in elections across the nation. In her absorbing new book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, bestselling author Elaine Weiss retraces the road to victory traveled by female reformers such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul. Weiss does a wonderful job of laying out the background of the American women’s suffrage movement, which began to take shape in the 1840s, providing a setup for the tension-filled debates and protests in Nashville that culminated in the August vote. Weiss brings the struggle for women’s suffrage to life through vivid portrayals of the suffragists and the “Antis” who challenged them, including Tennessee native Josephine Pearson. A lively slice of history filled with political drama, Weiss’ book captures a watershed moment for American women.

JOIN THE SISTERHOOD
The internet may make connecting with others easier than ever before, but there’s no substitute for old-fashioned, face-to-face friendship. In I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives, F. Diane Barth, a prominent psychotherapist, explores the particular challenges and rewards women face when forging friendships. Barth interviewed a wide range of women on the topic of friendship, and she includes their heartfelt testimonies in the book. She also provides advice on negotiating the thorny territory that often comes with connection, offering suggestions on what to do when a friend drops you, as well as guidance on relationships with women who are competitive or controlling. Each chapter concludes with a “What You Can Do” segment that has proactive steps on how to combat loneliness, reach out to others and find the unique fulfillment that comes with friendship. A compelling look at the ways in which women bond, Barth’s book is eye-opening and essential reading for anyone trying to build—or maintain—a strong social circle.

POWER TOGETHER
Beverly Bond established the organization BLACK GIRLS ROCK! in 2006 in order to support and promote the accomplishments of black women. Over the years, the organization has evolved into a movement, with an annual awards show, youth enrichment activities and now a book edited by Bond, Black Girls Rock!: Owning Our Magic. Rocking Our Truth., an inspiring salute to outstanding black women who are leading the way in politics, education and entertainment. This coffee table-worthy book spotlights fierce figures like Misty Copeland, Maxine Waters, Joy Reid, Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, Erykah Badu and Serena Williams, each of whom contribute thoughtful essays on their experiences as black women. Divided into nine sections that highlight a particular facet of “Black Girl Magic,” the volume is filled with gorgeous new and archival photographs. “The women in this book showcase the beautiful complexity, depth of diversity, rich cultural traditions, and bountiful contributions of Black women,” Bond writes. “They remind us of our collective magic.” Rock on!

EQUALITY IN THE WORKPLACE
Former USA Today editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman delivers a fascinating overview of today’s working environment in That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. In this important, accessible book, Lipman examines on-the-job dynamics between genders, addressing topics such as unconscious bias, communication and salary disparity. She also shares stories about her own professional evolution and investigates efforts by companies such as Google to create an equitable workplace. Women, Lipman says, “are attempting to fit into a professional world that was created in the image of men.” Drawing upon statistics from studies about women in the workplace, she explores the unique obstacles that female professionals face. (Case in point: According to one survey, women are 15 percent less likely to get promoted than men.) Perhaps most importantly, Lipman looks at the ways in which small businesses and large corporations alike can bridge the gender gap. Her book is a must-read for the career-minded reader—male or female.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Women speak up louder and stronger with every passing day, even though it can be hard to make the world listen. Women’s History Month is a time for recognizing the milestones reached on the road to equality and the pioneering women who have made progress possible. Five outstanding new titles focus on the female experience from a variety of viewpoints.

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We’re living in a time of transformation—an era defined in no small part by women who are acting collectively to create a more equal world. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve selected eight nonfiction books that are essential reading for today’s take-action women and their allies. By focusing on historic victories that led to the present day, these terrific titles provide direction for the future. 


The year 2020 will mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, which prohibits the U.S. government from denying citizens the right to vote based on sex—a major achievement in women’s fight for suffrage, albeit one that primarily benefited white women. In anticipation of that date, an important new anthology, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, brings together a wealth of writings related to the social crusade that changed the nation. Edited by renowned author and women’s history expert Sally Roesch Wagner, the collection features a diverse sampling of historical material dating back to the 1830s. The variety of perspectives and backgrounds represented in the volume is extraordinary. Letters, speeches and articles by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams and Victoria Woodhull give readers a sense of the visionary minds that shaped the movement, while pieces focusing on Native American and African-American women illuminate the experiences of minorities in light of the campaign. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem provides the foreword to the book. Capturing the spirit and purpose of a pivotal period in American history, this stirring collection honors the forward-thinking women who fought hard to win the vote.

That fighting spirit is alive and well today, as actor Amber Tamblyn makes clear in her book Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution. Tamblyn, whose show-business career began when she was 12, hit a wall as she approached the age of 30. An aspiring writer and director, she found few opportunities in the male-dominated entertainment industry and decided to take charge of her life. She worked hard to bring her own creative projects to fruition and became an outspoken champion of women’s rights, joining forces with like-minded activists to establish the Time’s Up movement. In this candid, unapologetic book, Tamblyn—now 35—reflects on her awakening as a feminist and discusses vital topics like workplace discrimination and sexual assault. Throughout, she weaves in anecdotes about marriage and the birth of her daughter, her participation in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the challenges of being a woman in Hollywood. An “era of ignition,” she explains, is a time “when dissatisfaction becomes protest, when accusations become accountability, and when revolts become revolutions.” Briskly written, earnest and honest, her book is sure to galvanize a new generation of women.

In She the People: A Graphic History of Uprisings, Breakdowns, Setbacks, Revolts, and Enduring Hope on the Unfinished Road to Women’s Equality, writer Jen Deaderick and artist Rita Sapunor paint a vividly compelling portrait of the women’s movement using rousing quotes and clever cartoons and illustrations. Throughout, they spotlight wonder women such as suffragists Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune and modern-day role models Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Organized into 12 sections, the book covers more than two centuries of history, and Sapunor’s dynamic, comics-inspired sketches help bring the past into focus. Rewinding to the American Revolution, when Abigail Adams famously counseled her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” at the Continental Congress, and progressing through the decades, Deaderick covers the ups and downs of the fight for equality in a style that’s lively and conversational. Her advice for women: “We shouldn’t look for leaders to save us. We make change together. We’re stronger together.”

Those are words to live by, and social-justice advocate Feminista Jones shows that women are doing just that in Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets. An update from the front lines of the fight for equality, Jones’ book explores how black women are coming together to make their voices heard. She explains that because the digital world has provided fresh, effective platforms for the expression of ideas, black women are now more visible and vocal than ever before. “Go to almost any social media platform today and you will see a gathering of some of the most important feminist thinkers of modern generations,” Jones writes. In this impassioned volume, she examines how black women are harnessing the power of the internet and using hashtags to bring awareness to issues such as self-worth, motherhood and sex. She also considers the roots of black feminism and takes a deep dive into the concept of black female identity. Featuring insights into her own story and conversations with other influencers, Jones’ book is a powerful call to action.

The ongoing need to move women out of the margins and into the mainstream lies at the heart of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. In tackling the topic of big data, Perez makes some startling discoveries. The numbers that impact everything from healthcare systems to workplace conditions and public transportation—figures that affect the day-to-day workings of society in countries around the world—are inherently biased, because they use men as a standard reference. Since women are left out of the equation, Perez says, data is discriminatory. “Most of recorded human history is one big data gap,” she writes, because “the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall.” An activist, feminist and academic, Perez conducted scores of studies in Europe and the United States and presents an engaging account of her findings. By looking at the way women live today—as breadwinners and consumers, wives and mothers—she brings immediacy to what could have been a dry collection of figures. An invaluable study of a critical subject, Invisible Women powerfully demonstrates the dangers of biased data.

Female visibility is also emphasized in Women: Our Story, a comprehensive, impressively organized survey of the triumphs, achievements and differing ways of life for women across the globe. Organized by era, the book opens in prehistoric times and moves forward through the centuries. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching volume that takes stock of how women have shaped every aspect of society, from politics and religion to education and the arts. Along with standout graphics, the book is packed with photos, illustrations, vintage ads and other historical memorabilia. Featuring text by scholarly experts, it tells an epic story through brief sidebars and timelines, as well as substantive sections on the rise of feminism, women in the workforce, the lives of notable figures (Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Simone de Beauvoir—the list goes on) and what the future may hold for tomorrow’s reformers. As journalist Rebecca Boggs Roberts writes in the book’s foreword, “When we neglect women’s stories, we aren’t only depriving women and girls (and boys) of role models and empowering lessons; we are getting history wrong.” This spectacular retrospective gets it right.

The importance of looking back in order to move forward is underscored in Pamela S. Nadell’s America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. Spanning more than three centuries, it’s a compelling and well-researched chronicle of the women who worked behind the scenes and in the public eye to establish a place for Jewish women in this country. Nadell—a noted women’s history scholar—is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, and she imbues the book with urgency and personal insight. From the nation’s earliest Jewish women, who set up homes in Philadelphia, Charleston and New York in the 1700s, to groundbreakers like Emma Lazarus and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nadell looks at the shifting roles of Jewish women and their influence on American culture. As her research reveals, the meaning and significance of being Jewish has differed among women over the years, as some set their religious practice aside to pursue careers, while others maintained strict, orthodox households. Differences abound, Nadell writes, yet “one thing binds America’s Jewish women together: all have a share in the history of their collective American Jewish female past.” The contributions of these remarkable women shine in Nadell’s impressive book. 

The centuries are rich with inspiring examples of female empowerment, including many a madam president. All Hail the Queen: Twenty Women Who Ruled showcases these lady leaders—notable stateswomen whose accomplishments were often eclipsed by those of men. Writer Shweta Jha contributed the text for this intriguing book, which tracks the careers of Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette, as well as those of less familiar figures, like Japanese ruler Himiko and Maya queen Lady Six Sky. Some were born monarchs; others achieved eminence through marriage. Nearly all of them—as is only fitting for a queen—led operatic existences filled with incident and spectacle. Jennifer Orkin Lewis’ lush, colorful artwork gives readers a sense of the time and place that produced each leader—and of what the lady herself might have looked like. “Had they followed the cultural norms of their times, they ought to have been quiet and unassertive,” Lewis writes of the female leaders. “Each and every one of them overcame those expectations and made her mark on the culture and people she ruled.” Perfectly suited to its subject matter, this regal volume has golden endpapers and a cover that sparkles. Here’s to the royal treatment—and here’s to women who make history.

Eight new books that celebrate female leaders and achievers.

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