Forgotten Women: A Reading List
Over the last month or two* I’ve been thinking about how women vanish from history. How their contributions are often erased. Rachel Swaby, whose book about women scientists is listed below, describes writing about their lives as “revealing a hidden history of the world.”
Here are a few examples of books that bring otherwise forgotten women back into the story, with links to books that I’ve written about before:
Karen Abbot. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Harper Collins. 2014 An account of four women who played active roles in the American Civil War, including Emma Edmonds who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union Army
Margalit Fox. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. The forgotten role of classicist Alice Kober in the decipherment of Linear B, which is usually attributed solely to Michael Ventris.
Nathalia Holt. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. The overlooked story of the women who did the math that made space exploration possible. “One small step for man” depended on a lot of pencil pushing by women.
Denise Kiernan. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Touchstone. 2013. Kiernan tells the story of the young women who were recruited to work as secretaries, factory workers, mathematicians, and low level chemists at a secret installation at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they unknowingly helped develop the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge is familiar to anyone interested in the development of the atomic bomb, but its history has generally been told from the perspective of the men who led the project. Kiernan looks at the familiar story from the perspective of the women involved—women whom traditional histories of Oak Ridge have left out of the story entirely.
Adrienne Mayor. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. A sweeping and authoritative study of the realities behind the Greek myths about the Amazons. (If you want your Amazonian history and related popular history in bite-sized pieces, joint Mayor’s Facebook group, Amazons Ancient and Modern
Rachel Swaby. Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science–and the World. Broadway Books. 2015. Written in response to media accounts of brilliant women scientists that routinely note “domesticity before personal achievement”, Headstrong treats “women in science like scientists instead of anomalies or wives who moonlight in the lab.” Swaby makes the interesting choice not to include Marie Curie because Curie “is who we talk about when we talk about women in science…thee token woman in a deck of cards featuring famous scientists.” Instead she gives us fifty-two fascinating stories of women you’ve never heard about.
That should keep you going for awhile.
*Or the last thirty years, depending on how you count.
ADDENDUM: A regular blog reader reminded me of another book that should be on this list, and my personal TBR list: Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, by Cokie Roberts. thanks, Paul
I would say that Bonnie Anderson’s two volume “A History Of Their Own” is an invaluable introduction for youngsters. I would also add “The Birth of the Chess Queen” by Marion Yalom (a very accessible style), “Women Who Would Be Kings” by Lisa Hopkins, but above all the more scholarly “The Age of Conversation” by Benedetta Craveri. There are also a couple of nice little entertaining books, “She-Captains” by Joan Druett and “Women On High” (about mountaineers) by Rebecca Brown and “Amelia Earhart’s Daughters” by David Toomey and Leslie Haynsworth. There are several good books about forgotten women artists, so I would suggest searching online or going to the website of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. My personal favourite is Florine Stettheimer, and there are a couple of good bios of her. In terms of recent writers who have been demoted, derided or dumped down the memory hole, I’d really recommend “Women of the Left Bank” by Shari Benstock. And I’d urge anyone to investigate books on the Harlem Renaissance to find out more about the marvellous writing of women like Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen.
My personal bugbear is the way Isadora Duncan has been recast almost as some lascivious, cretinous egotist, almost a villain. The Ken Russell film is particularly loathsome. In fact, in her day she was as near to being a goddess as a mortal could get. The public literally rioted when her WWI Paris show sold out, and that was when she was well past her prime. Look up some of her old reviews from newspapers of the day, which thankfully the internet gives easy access to today. The bios are totally misleading and have mostly been written by men, some like Frederic Ashton, with an obvious ulterior motive. Along with her contemporary Houdini, Duncan was one of the first international superstars and living legends. Houdini has become an archetype, Duncan is all but forgotten. Stanislavsky himself cited her as his major influence, and when you realise what a profound influence he had on theatre himself the implications are obvious. You really need to read Schneider’s biography to get a sense of this. By the way, if I’m reading correctly, he kind of implies she was murdered by Mary Desti, who wrote the first hatchet-job posthumous biography of her, and was something of a “single white female” character from the sound of it. I really recommend the book, though it is out of print, it’s by no means hagiography, but it does balance out the extreme negativity of later biographers.
The extraordinary Helena Blavatsky has been similarly recast by historians. I would love to recommend books from my library on women in religious history (my main personal interest) but I would be here all day.
Best wishes to all. I love this blog.
Wonderful additions to the list! thank you for weighing in.