Reading Your Way Through Women’s History Month

We’re halfway through Women’s History Month, and I suspect that you’ve added a few books to your TBR list thanks to the mini-interviews I’ve posted so far. But in the excitement of learning about new (or lat least newish) books, it’s easy to forget excellent older books of women’s history. Here are links to ten previous reviews, just in case your list isn’t long enough already:

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

Warrior Queens

The Lost Art of Dress

Daughters of the Samurai

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

Joan of Arc

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

Isabella of Castile

That should keep you going for a while

Telling Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Scott Stern

When I asked the people at Beacon Press whether there were other Beacon authors who would be a good fit for this series, several people immediately answered Scott Stern, author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison ‘Promiscuous’ Women.

The book is the account of a little known program in which the United States government detained and quarantined thousands of American women, usually without due process, because they were suspected of being prostitutes, transmitting sexual diseases, or being “promiscuous”. He tells the story though the lens of a single woman, Nina McCall. McCall was eighteen when she was locked up for three-months in 1918 as a result of allegations that she had engaged in pre-marital sex. She unsuccessfully sued the government over her treatment.

Stern’s path to writing is basically the exact opposite of mine. The subject of his book caught his imagination seven years ago, when he was a college freshman. He worked on it as he completed his undergraduate degree and a masters in American studies for Yale, and then took two years to finish it.  He is now at Yale law school. The book has been optioned for a film.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like a slug by comparison.

Take it away, Scott:

Who are some of your favorite authors working today?

Oh wow, this is tough – there are so many amazing authors working today. I’m going to divide this list into three groups: (1) academic authors; (2) other nonfiction authors; and (3) fiction authors.

(1) Heather Ann Thompson is such an incredible historian, detective, and storyteller, and I’m dying to read her next book (on the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia). Kim Phillips-Fein and Edward Baptist are changing the way scholars understand capitalism, and Jeanne Theoharis and Danielle McGuire are changing the way we see the Civil Rights Movement. Other amazing academic writers are Kelly Lytle Hernández, Timothy Stewart-Winter, Eve L. Ewing, Lisa McGirr, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Barbara Ransby, and two former teachers of mine, John Demos and Glenda Gilmore. Richard A. McKay wrote one of the most exciting history books I’ve read in literally years, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’m positively dying to read Kevin Levin’s and Beverly Gage’s forthcoming books. I don’t know if he’s working on anything new right now, but Allan Brandt’s two books changed the way I see the world – twice. And finally Jill Lepore’s creativity (and productivity!) continue to inspire me.

(2) Well let’s start with Roxane Gay (of course she is also an academic, but I’ve only read her non-scholarly work). Kate Aronoff writes the absolute best stuff on climate change, though Ben Wallace-Wells comes in close second. No one writes about race like Ta-Nehisi Coates, except maybe Michelle Alexander. I love all the historical work Jamelle Bouie has done. There are some remarkable critics writing today, including Andrea Long Chu, Anne Helen Petersen, and Jia Tolentino. Emily Nussbaum and Aaron Bady write the absolute best television criticism, hands down. I would read Sam Quinones’s shopping list. Matt Taibbi has always been enraged and inspired me. Obviously Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer are changing the world. I really wish Isabel Wilkerson would write another book. Who else? Well, Osita Nwanevu is doing great work. Sam Lansky has a new book coming out, and I cannot wait. David Sedaris and Lindy West always makes me laugh, and sometimes gets me choked up a bit too. Nathan J. Robinson and Hamilton Nolan are each a joy to read, in large part because they inspire such righteous anger. And Elie Mystal for all things law-related.

(3) Ann Patchett always brings me joy. Rebecca Makkai probably moved me the most last year, and I hope she writes something new soon. Katherine Heiny is so wonderful, as is Susan Rieger. Richard Powers, Stephen Markley, and Nathan Hill all recently wrote these “epic” novels that totally blew me away, but the queen of epic novels is Donna Tartt – it’s a shame we’ll have to wait another decade or so for her next masterpiece. Elizabeth Strout never ceases to amaze, and neither does Colson Whitehead. Apparently Tea Obreht has something new coming out! Jordy Rosenberg is doing such exciting work. I hope Lev Grossman and Angie Thomas each come out with something new very soon. And, of course, I could never forget J.K. Rowling.

What was the most surprising thing you’ve found doing historical research for your work?

Over the last seven years, I spent a lot of time at the National Archives at College Park, MD, immersing myself in government documents. In the midst of that research, I kept coming across scattered references to something I’d never heard of before: apparently during World War I, the U.S. military banned white soldiers in many training camps from talking with, or even being physically near, black women. I came across several references to this, so I looked it up and couldn’t find anything in the existing literature. The existence of this disgustingly bigoted policy didn’t really surprise me – after all, I was researching other bigoted government policies from the same time period. But I was shocked I’d never heard of it, and even more shocked that I couldn’t find anything written about it. I ended up writing a short blog post about it, but someone more knowledgeable really needs to do more research on this!

Why do you think stories like that of Nina McCall disappear from mainstream history?

I think there are a variety of reasons why Nina was forgotten. First, and most obviously, there is very little documentation of nearly everyone who lived a hundred years ago; this makes it very hard for historians to track down people who weren’t famous or powerful. Second, Nina died relatively young, had no children who survived into adulthood, and – remarkably for someone of her generation – left behind no nieces, nephews, or cousins who were close enough to remember her and still be alive. Yet to me the third reason is the most important. Nina was not just forgotten; her presence and voice were deliberately erased. Government officials intentionally marginalized and silenced her. They abducted her and incarcerated her in an institution that strictly limited her freedom of speech. Later, they were complicit in the maintenance of a culture that so stigmatized her incarceration, and her sexuality in general, that she was ashamed to tell anyone where she had spent those months of humiliation and pain. This pattern of silence and marginalization is among the reasons Nina – and the broader American Plan – are not better known today.

Question for you: I was once in a seminar and another student said that for a book to be good, it must “disturb” you. That’s always stuck with me. Was she right?

Perhaps Christopher Morley says it best, in one of my favorite books, The Haunted Bookshop. The owner of the bookshop in the title tells a young advertising writer, “Between ourselves there is no such thing, abstractly, as a ‘good” book. A book is ‘good’ only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you.”

I agree a good book engages more than just your brain. But there are many more ways to engage the emotions than simply “disturbing” you. Just for a start, they can open doors, give you a safe place, let you know you aren’t alone, ease your sadness, or let you walk in someone else’s shoes for a brief time.

If you want to learn more about Scott Stern and The Trials of Nina McCall:
Follow him on Twitter: @ScottWStern
Read this thoughtful review:

(Drop in on Monday for another Telling Women’s History interview. I’ve got an entire month of some of my favorite history people talking about the work they do and how they do it. Next up: Nancy Marie Brown, author of several books in which Viking women play a major role.)

Telling Women’s History: Three Questions and An Answer with Theresa Kaminski

Theresa Kaminski and I are co-administrators (and occasionally, co-conspirators) for a Facebook reading called Non-Fiction Fans, where readers and writers of narrative nonfiction meet up to talk about great non-fiction and how it gets written. She is also a wonderful writer of women’s history and a generous member of the on-line literary and historical community.

Theresa describes herself as a recovering academic. She taught American history and American women’s history for over twenty years. She has written a trilogy of books about American women in the Philippine Islands during the 20th century, the most recent of which is Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. Theresa lives in southwestern Wisconsin, in a small town known as the troll capital of the world.

And now, let’s turn it over to Theresa:

How would you describe what you write?

I’m always aiming for narrative history. It sounds straightforward enough, but because of my academic background, I have a hard time separating story from information. I have to keep reminding myself I don’t have to include three examples for every point I’m trying to make. I’m a big admirer of Jill Lepore who always tells a terrific story that is well-grounded in historical facts.

What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Absences of source materials and/or silences within them. Because history has–well, historically focused on politics and war, documentation by and about women has been considered less important. Most of it wasn’t saved, at least not in official archives. When women’s experiences began to be restored to the historical record (the field of women’s history really began to take off in the 1970s), valuable sources were found in places like the attics and basements of private homes. That diary great-grandmother kept while she worked at a munitions factory during World War II, those letters great-great grandmother wrote home to her family after she moved to Greenwich Village to work for a socialist magazine–those kinds of things. It’s interesting to note the kinds of things that women left out of these documents, too, which typically involved matters of sexuality. So researching women is kind of like trying to put together a huge jigsaw puzzle.

You are currently writing biographies of two very different women in different historical periods.  Is it a challenge to keep their stories separate in your head?  And are you finding similarities between them?

The differences between Dr. Mary Walker and Dale Evans make it easy to keep them separate.

Walker was a woman of the 19th century. Everything about her life–every experience, every idea–was somehow tied to women’s rights. She became a medical doctor because that’s what she wanted to do with her life. She didn’t think that being a woman should restrict her from doing so. She wanted to treat wounded soldiers during the Civil War because she thought it was her duty as a doctor and a citizen. She didn’t think that being a woman should prevent her from doing so. She always wanted to be somebody. Walker’s relentlessness is simply fascinating–talk about a woman who persisted!

Evans was a woman of the 20th century. But one thing she had in common with Walker was the determination to be somebody. In Evans’s case, of course, that meant celebrity. Most people remember her as the smiling cowgirl wife of the singing cowboy Roy Rogers. Most people know little of how she got to that point in her life–that she started off as a popular radio singer with a dream of being a Broadway star. Instead, she became a B-movie actress before moving on to television. She had a pretty dramatic private life. And she had a very complex relationship with feminism and the second-wave women’s rights movement.

Question for Pamela: Was there a woman that it almost killed you to leave out of Women Warriors because she had a great story but didn’t quite fit the scope of the book?

There were several. Harriet Tubman, for instance. But the one that hurt the most was Queen Tamar (1156-1184), of Georgia, a trans-Caucasian kingdom on the eastern edge of the Medieval Christian world. Her father named her his co-ruler and heir apparent when she was only nineteen and required Georgia’s patriarchs, bishops, nobles, viziers and generals to swear allegiance to her. After his death, Tamar successfully defended her throne against an attempted power grab by her husband and a group of disaffected nobles and went on to lead her country in expansionist wars during a period that is considered the golden age of Georgian history.

I intended her to be in the book in tandem with the Empress Maud of England, whose father also named her his co-ruler and heir and who also had to defend her throne after her father’s death. I had to cut them both once I had a working definition of a military commander as someone who is near the front lines, plans operations, makes command decisions, and gives orders. The sources available to me made it clear that Tamar traveled with her troops and appeared on the battlefield, but were fuzzy on the other elements of command. I. Was. Not. Happy.

I’m still want to write about Maud and Tamar if I can figure out the right format.

Want to know more about Theresa Kaminski and her work?

She blogs about women’s history and the writing life at
Her Twitter handle is @KaminskiTheresa

(Drop in tomorrow for the next Telling Women’s History interview: I’ve got an entire month of some of my favorite history people talking about the work they do and how they do it. Next up: Scott Stern, author of The Trials of Nina McCall.)