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All Women's History Coverage

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

A first-rate collection of essays gathered from Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South by beloved memoirist Rick Bragg provides unique insights into the author’s corner of America. In these brief but powerful pieces, Bragg’s curiosity ranges far and wide as he reflects upon personal interests (pickup trucks, Southern cuisine, country music) and more universal matters (race and religion). Offering a kaleidoscopic look at the contemporary South, this colorful compilation is sure to inspire rousing discussions. 

David Gessner takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the nation’s monuments and parks in Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner gives an overview of the life and conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt and also shows how that work remains significant today as he visits Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and other sites. Subjects such as environmentalism and the future of public lands will get book clubs talking, and Gessner’s humor and incisive observations make him a wonderful traveling companion.

In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, Margot Mifflin delivers a fascinating historical survey of the Miss America pageant. Using the contest as a gauge of the advancement of women in America, Mifflin traces its evolution from a tourist attraction in Atlantic City in 1921 to a scholarship contest 100 years later. Her brisk, spirited narrative will entertain readers even as it presents fruitful material for discussion, with topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement and the role of pageants in society.

Ojibwe author David Treuer gives a fresh account of Native American history in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Blending history and reportage with personal narrative, Treuer sets out to show that, contrary to the story told in books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Indigenous culture was not destroyed in the late 19th century. Rather, it is still alive and vibrant today. Authoritative yet accessible, his book is rich in talking points, including contemporary depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and the impact of the American Indian Movement.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog over three generations, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Frustrating defeats were the rule—except in the West. By 1914, 11 Western states already allowed women to vote. In Wyoming, they'd been doing it since 1869, well before statehood.

Winifred Gallagher’s comprehensive New Women in the Old West: From Settlers to Suffragists, an Untold American Story unearths this story through the lives of dozens of forgotten trailblazers. Suffrage is only part of it; women settlers were integral to building communities and developing the economy as the United States expanded, and the Native and Mexican women already living in the West were critical in the fight against encroachment and discrimination.

Early pioneer women were crucial full-time partners to men who were farmers and miners. Many became “town mothers,” the forces behind the establishment of schools, churches and libraries. Countless women built businesses, including Luzena Stanley Wilson, who became a successful hotel entrepreneur during the 1848 gold rush. A surprising number of women, like Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway, became prosperous as milliners, a business friendly to women at a time when everyone wore hats.

Beginning in the 1860s, the federal Homestead Acts, which granted applicants ownership rights to public lands in the West, and the Morrill Acts, which created land-grant universities, opened other paths for women. Female homesteaders, many of whom were immigrants, were relatively few in number, but they proved their claims at a higher rate than men. Coed land-grant universities also grew the teaching profession, newly open to women. 

Gallagher is candid about the less appealing elements of this story as well. Initial suffrage measures passed in part because white men hoped the votes of white women would offset those of immigrant and Black men. Additionally, Gallagher documents the ways in which white women who were missionaries and teachers demeaned people of color and backed damaging assimilationist policies.

Overall, Gallagher’s rediscoveries are inspirational. Hard conditions and sparse populations created opportunities for women in the West unavailable to them elsewhere. They fought their way into business ownership, education, professional careers—and ultimately voting booths and elective office.

The campaign for women's suffrage in the United States was a tough slog—except in the West. New Women in the Old West unearths dozens of forgotten trailblazers.

We’re all familiar with the method of discrediting women by making allegations against their mental health whenever they dare to stand up to a man in power. As Radium Girls author Kate Moore ably demonstrates in her new book, The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, this particularly pernicious tool of the patriarchy has been in use for a very long time.

Elizabeth Packard was a housewife, mother and champion for the disadvantaged and underserved. In the middle of the 19th century, she was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband, a controlling, Confederate-sympathizing Presbyterian minister with whom she had begun publicly disagreeing. At that time, female madness was defined in part as any unladylike behavior, such as arguing one’s case or expressing unhappiness at one’s situation. Anyone who committed these transgressions could be “sent to the madhouse” on nothing more than her husband’s say-so. Packard discovered two terrible truths from her own experience of this tactic: Married women had no rights or legal recourse, and neither did the inmates of asylums.

Once within the walls of the asylum, women were subject to filthy conditions and horrifying physical abuse and torture. As Packard noted, it was as though these asylums were designed to encourage insanity, not heal it. Faced with this seemingly hopeless situation, Packard set out to prove her own sanity and liberate herself and her fellow sisters in a gripping and improbable battle against rich, powerful men.

Packard’s story is, incredibly, not simply one of a woman who survived three years of imprisonment in an asylum for disagreeing with her husband’s religious views. She didn’t throw her energy into merely freeing herself, clearing her name and being reunited with her beloved children. Instead, the brave, brilliant and unshakable Packard went on to pen multiple books on subjects such as emancipation, women’s rights and the rights of people who are mentally ill; to get bills passed asserting the basic human rights and liberties of married women and mentally ill people; and to gain notoriety for confronting injustice no matter the odds.

The Woman They Could Not Silence is compelling not only because of the way it creates an alliance between the reader and the courageous Packard, but also because of how it forces the reader to examine once more the language and attitudes around women’s mental health. In Packard we see a foremother of the female leaders of today: intelligent, tenacious and impossible to cow.

In the 19th century, a brave, brilliant and completely healthy woman named Elizabeth Packard was involuntarily committed to an Illinois asylum by her husband.

Whatever stereotypes we associate with the profession of home economics, Danielle Dreilinger is here to assure us that everything we think we know is wrong. As she explicates in her thoroughly entertaining book, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, home economics in the United States is much more complex than we might have imagined.

Since the time of Catharine Beecher, who published A Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841, home economists have not simply reacted to societal changes and trends but have helped shape them. For starters, we have home economists to thank for things like food groups, the designation of a federal poverty level and the consumer protection movement. Home economics also opened doors for some women, including women of color, to enter careers in science that may have otherwise been closed to them.

As a journalist, Dreilinger knows the power of storytelling and makes the women from this history come to life. For example, she mines oral histories to shed light on the challenges Dr. Flemmie Kittrell faced as an African American nutritionist visiting South Africa in 1967. Dreilinger also provides overall historical context, delineating the marginalization of Black women in the home economics field.

As for the role of home economics in the 21st century, Dreilinger says the most common response she received when telling others about writing this book was, “We should bring that back.” Dreilinger closes with several suggestions for doing just that, including diversifying the profession to include more people of color and teaching home economics as an interdisciplinary field that explores the connection between our homes and the world, “with an eye to addressing the root causes of problems such as hunger, homelessness, isolation, and environmental devastation.”

Dreilinger, who completed her book during the COVID-19 pandemic, correctly notes that people have been thinking about the meaning of home and how homes work more than ever before. As we look toward the future, it’s always good to consider where we’ve been, and The Secret History of Home Economics helps us do that.

Whatever stereotypes we associate with home economics, Danielle Dreilinger is here to assure us that everything we think we know is wrong.

Spirit mediums have been capturing imaginations since the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century. A veiled woman commanding the attention of a room, speaking in the voices of the beloved dead as tables tilt, loud mysterious knocks echo from the corners and unlikely objects materialize out of thin air—such a woman is either an ethereal figure from a ghost story, or she is a charlatan, a silky smooth con artist who exploits the grief of others.

But what if there were a third option, one of revolution and rebellion? In Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.

Midorikawa roots her story in both the history of spiritualism and the powerlessness of Victorian women like the Fox sisters—Leah, Maggie and Kate—who were left to grasp for influence in seemingly manipulative ways. As the book proceeds through the extraordinary lives of Emma Harding, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon, we witness women masterfully wielding the public’s fascination with the revelations of the dead. They capitalized on this fascination not only to improve their own lives but also to uplift other disenfranchised people across the United States and Great Britain. Strident orations on abolition, women’s rights within marriage and suffrage, which would have been ridiculous coming from a constricted and disregarded 19th-century woman, suddenly gained gravitas when spoken by the all-knowing dead.

Midorikawa breathes life into these long-ago women in ways that make them feel contemporary despite their extraordinary circumstances and distance in time. Her description of Harding enduring an incident of stalking resonates with chilling familiarity. You’ll feel these women’s frustration and conviction, and you’ll cheer at their progressive empowerment.

It’s remarkable that none of these women seems disingenuous. Throughout Out of the Shadows, they occupy a liminal space between genuine belief in supernatural forces and the ingenious ways they used those forces to their own ends. By the book’s end, it no longer matters whether you believe these six remarkable spirit mediums were hoaxes or not; you’ll certainly believe in them.

Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.

Former Secretary of State William Henry Seward’s name occupies a plaque outside the Cayuga County Courthouse in Auburn, New York, and the Seward family home is now a museum where visitors can learn about the statesman’s past. But it was another Seward who quietly pushed Henry toward signing the Emancipation Proclamation. His wife, Frances Seward, was the one who befriended, supported and learned from Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground Railroad conductor whose name is also mounted on that county courthouse.

Frances discouraged her husband from compromising on matters related to slavery. But as Henry ascended from the state Senate to the governorship of New York to the U.S. Senate with a position in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential Cabinet, his aspirations conflicted with his wife’s activism. Frances often felt she couldn’t be as vocal as Tubman or Martha C. Wright, who attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls and worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to seek women’s suffrage. But even when Frances limited her activism out of respect for Henry, she pushed him to value the greater good over his political aspirations.

In The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, Dorothy Wickenden recounts the friendship between Seward, Wright and Tubman and the ways their influence shaped American history. Wickenden is the executive editor of The New Yorker and the bestselling author of Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. She brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this complex history, which spans from 1821 to 1875 as Seward and Wright fight for abolition and Tubman serves on the front lines of both the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

Wickenden’s detailed account of these women and their friendship weaves together Tubman’s escape from enslavement, the complexities of Lincoln’s early slavery policy, the beginnings of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. and their imperfect intersections. Using primary sources such as the women’s own letters, Wickenden invites readers to take a closer look at the path of American progress and the women who guided it.

Dorothy Wickenden invites readers to take a closer look at the path of American progress and the women who guided it.

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