Reading Your Way Through Women’s History Month, Part 2.


Two weeks ago I posted a list of reviews of books about women’s history for your amusement. Since then, the world’s gotten weird and scary. Most of us are carrying on as best we can. (If you want to know what life in the world of social distancing looks like here in the Margins, you can read my newsletter on the subject, which came out earlier today. Here’s the link: )

Personally, I have not yet experienced the great flood of free time that some of my friends are reporting. However, I am eye-ing my To-Be-Read stacks in anticipation.

Here are links to a dozen books about women’s history that I am eager to dive into: *

1. Hallie Rubenhold. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
2. Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico. Amazons, Abolitionists and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights
3. Nathalia Holt. The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History
4. Elizabeth Wein. A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II
5. Caroline Fraser. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.**
6. Caroline Moorhead. A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism
7. Janice Kaplan. The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World
8. Gemma Hollman. Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England.
9. Nicolla Tallis. Uncrowned Queen: the Life of Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudors
10. Jason Fagone. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.
11. Nancy Goldstone. Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots
12. Denise Kiernan. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.

The only question is, where to start?



* The links are to my local independent bookseller, rather than to Amazon. A writer would be a fool to bad-mouth the Big A because they sell lots and lots of books. (  At the same time, if readers don’t patronize independent bookstores, we won’t have independent bookstores. Now is a harder time than usual for small businesses of all kinds. If you want to order books, I urge you to order them from your independent bookstore.  If there isn't an independent bookstore in your town, adopt one.  (Mine is shipping for free through April 15.)

**I realize many of you have either already read this one, or have it sitting in your own TBR pile. But just in case.

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A Public Service Announcement

I’ve already said this in a couple of other places: One of the social side effects of the corona virus is that authors of new books have had to cancel book launch events, book signings, and talks. This doesn't cause chaos on the level of, say, closing schools. But for a writer who has spent years on a book it's pretty devastating, whether it's her first book or her fiftieth.

These are my people, so I’m doing my best to spread the word about new books, here on the Margins and in the other places where I hang out on line. One way you can find out about new books as they come out is to subscribe to Shelf Awareness for Readers: a free semi-weekly newsletter that reviews new books. (Total transparency here: I'm a regular Shelf reviewer.) Here’s the link:

Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Devoney Looser

Read the following bio carefully. (SPOILER ALERT: Devoney Looser has one biographical element that has never appeared on History in the Margins before and which I suspect will never appear again. )

Devoney Looser is Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University. She’s the author or editor of nine books, including The Making of Jane Austen and The Daily Jane Austen: A Year in Quotes. Devoney’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, The TLS, and Entertainment Weekly, and she’s had the pleasure of talking about Austen on CNN. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow and National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar in support of her next book, Sister Novelists, a biography of the pioneering historical novelists, Jane and Anna Maria Porter. It’s slated for publication by Bloomsbury in fall. Fun fact: Devoney has also played roller derby under the name “Stone Cold Jane Austen,” is faculty adviser to the ASU roller derby team, and is a fellow at ASU’s Global Sport Institute. You can follow Devoney’s latest on Austen, women’s history, and women in sport by signing up for her newsletter at

Take it away, Devoney!

Why Jane Austen?

As you might guess, I have lots of thoughts about that question. Most people would probably say I overthink it. Ha! But from my perspective, there really can’t be too much Austen in any given day. So that’s a major “why Austen” for me—because I haven’t yet gotten tired of reading her or studying her or her era. The reason Austen continues to resonate that way for me, and for so many of us, I think, is because her work is eminently re-readable on the level of the plot, the character, and the sentence. You could open any one of her novels almost anywhere, point to a sentence, and be pretty sure of being pleased. Chances are that whatever it is will be a terrific word morsel—or at least it will make you want to read another sentence. I teach literature for a living, and I love to read all kinds of things, but the impulse to reread certainly doesn’t happen to me with every author or book.

Last year, I had the chance to revisit all of Austen’s writings in one fell swoop. I went over them with a fine-tooth comb, because I’d been charged with selecting 378 quotes for the edited book that would become The Daily Jane Austen (University of Chicago Press, 2019). [] I knew I needed to choose one quote for every day of the year, plus leap year, plus a longer quote to begin each month. I found it difficult to narrow it down to just 378, believe it or not! I’ve been telling people that the book contains their recommended daily minimum dose of Austen. I’ll stand by that quip.

I realize that doesn’t get at the “why” of your question entirely, Pamela, so I’ll try to push further here. In The Making of Jane Austen [ ], I suggested that another way to consider the impact of her legacy would be to ask, “Whose Jane Austen?” The Jane Austen I admire has turned out to be not only a figure who created many pleasurable reading experiences but she’s also proven, for me, a way to affiliate with others who love strong women, snarky humor, sneaky irony, and trenchant social criticism. Readers obviously turn to her books for other reasons, and that’s fine. We don’t all have to love her (or hate her, or find ourselves indifferent to her) for the same reasons. But I continue to find Austen’s fiction an incredibly fertile place not only to start pleasant conversations but to provoke really interesting arguments about how to lead a meaningful life in a world that’s often deeply unfair.

What’s your next book about and when will we see it?

My next book is a biography of Jane Porter (1775-1850) and Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832), the most famous sister novelists active before the Brontës. I think the book is going to appeal to people who love gripping, true stories about strong women, especially those who lived simultaneously inspiring, troubling, and tumultuous lives. Sister Novelists is slated to come out with Bloomsbury in fall 2021 []. I’ve been working in the archives to piece together the untold story of the Porter sisters for almost fifteen years now. There isn’t yet a full-length biography of them. It’s been an amazing journey, completing this book, with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship [] and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award.

Sister Novelists also just feels like a natural next book for me to write, after The Making of Jane Austen [] and The Daily Jane Austen [] As much as I love Austen, I’m really taken with her contemporaries, too—the hundreds of late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century British women writers who were active at a time of profound literary growth and social change. The Porter sisters were once among the most celebrated of that group, but they gradually became among the most neglected and forgotten.

Jane and Maria lived in the era of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the early years of activism seeking the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, and the pivotal struggle for women’s rights, sometimes called “the longest revolution.” The sisters were thrust into the middle of it all. For a time, they ended up at the center of it. They’d struggled to gain fame and to make a living as writers without any of the usual advantages. They were largely self-educated. They weren’t born into wealth or with access to powerful connections. What they did have was talent, drive, and a sense of humor. The Misses Porter eventually became household names, only to discover that the men they loved didn’t want to risk marrying famous women without fortunes. Their lives alternated between triumph and heartbreak.

Several of their novels became bestsellers, including Jane’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810). Much of their fiction presents perfect, pious heroes and heroines, without fault or flaw. These too-good-to-be-true characters haven’t stood the test of time as Austen’s have. What ought to endure, however, are the Porters’ remarkable and never-before-published letters to each other. These moving letters document their private struggles. They talk about what it’s like to come into their own as powerful public women, and to set out to use their voices, at a time when most of the world wasn’t very willing to give intelligent, independent women their due. I can’t wait to share Jane and Anna Maria’s fascinating lives with readers.

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

I’ve found that researching historical women can be challenging whether you’ve got too little information or too much! For Austen, there’s relatively little. We’ve had to deal with the reality that just 161 of her letters that survive, out of the thousands that she must have written. When you find one small thing that’s new about Austen (as I did recently, with an unearthed piece of 1823 fan fiction, which I got to describe in the Times Literary Supplement []), you want to shout, “Eureka!” It’s like discovering the proverbial needle in a historical haystack.

With the Porter sisters, it’s exactly the opposite problem. Jane and Maria saved seemingly every scrap of their writing. There are around ten thousand unpublished manuscript items, many of them heart-rending private letters. The family’s papers were sold off at auction after Jane Porter’s death. These documents came to be spread out at libraries all over the world. Thousands of items made their way to the United States, so that’s been fortunate for me. I’ve had the benefit of closer proximity and the scholarly privilege of gaining access to them. But the Porter sisters’ haystack is enormous. I’ve tried to make my way through this mass of material for many years. It’s been like piecing together a puzzle of people, places, and events. I like to joke that I know more secrets about the Porter sisters than I do about many members of my own family! The first time I read their letters, I had literally no idea what was going on or who was who. It’s difficult to piece together one complicated life, much less two, but it feels like a great honor to me to try, as well as a feminist responsibility.

The most difficult part about researching Sister Novelists, then, has been the sheer mass of archival material. I’m trying to get a handle on the sweep of the sisters’ story, to do it justice, as well as to handle its brilliant minutiae. I hope readers will decide that all of the trouble I’m taking was worth it. I’m absolutely confident that this book is righting a historical wrong that’s been done to the Porters’ legacy—a wrong so many important women of past centuries continue to face. I’m proud to be among the non-fiction writers seeking to turn that trend around.

As a final aside, I’ve also really grown to love paleography—the study of old handwriting. For some of it, it’s addicting! Give it a try. []

Question for you: Who is your go-to author, or favorite re-readable book of the moment, and why?

I am a dedicated re-reader.  There are literally dozens of books that I return to again and again.  But there are a solid core of books that I return to at least annually , none of which are taught in English departments!

In the order in which I read them:

Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which I think is fundamentally about hope. I tend to re-read it at that bleak point in mid-February when it feels like spring will never come again.  It is such a comfort to watch the garden come alive alongside Mary and Colin. (I also love Hodgson's much maligned Little Lord Fauntleroy. )

Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom. I love Little Women, but Rose’s story is the one that draws me back year after year.

All of Dorothy Sayers mysteries (with the exception of The Nine Tailors. *yawn*) and Mary Stewart’s early romantic thrillers. Together they gave me a broader vision of what a woman’s life could look like.

Want to know more about Devoney Looser and her work?

Check out her website:

Follow her on Twitter: @devoneylooser

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Tomorrow it will be business as usual here on the Margins with a blog post from me. But we’ve still got more people talking about women’s history from a lot of different angles next week. Don’t touch that dial!

Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Etta Madden

Etta Madden and I hang out in a lot of the same places on-line. That’s true of many of the people I’ve interviewed here on the Margins this month, but in this case there’s a twist. In the course of hanging out on line, we discovered that we also hang out in some of the same places In Real Life, though not often at the same time. Etta teaches at Missouri State University, in my home town of Springfield, Missouri, and her Facebook and Instagram posts often make me homesick for my beloved Ozarks.

Here’s the formal bio: Etta Madden is the author and editor of Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias, Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, and An Eliza Leslie Reader, along with numerous articles on American women writers and religious and alternative communities. She has received fellowships from the New York Public Library and the Library Company of Philadelphia to support research for her writing. A teaching appointment from the Italian Fulbright Commission and an National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the American Academy in Rome have fostered her current book project on 19th-century American women in Italy. Since 1995, she has been a professor at Missouri State University.

Take it away, Etta:

You teach a variety of women's history courses.  What aspects of women's history surprise your students most?  What outrages them?

Pregnancy and birth control. Seriously, I know that seems elementary, but many students often don’t understand why heterosexual relations outside of marriage were so verboten for women in much of the texts we read from the past. (I teach literature, so teach history through texts such as novels and autobiographies). I ask them to go outside the box of thinking simplistically about parents and/or religious and government institutions limiting women’s freedom through mores and laws. Asking them to consider the very real ramifications of heterosexual relations apart from marriage in cultures without access to reliable birth control—the physical and financial responsibilities of childbearing and childrearing as a result—is eye opening for many of them. The outcomes of pregnancy in cultures where women had little access to economic freedom extend beyond the woman herself to those responsible for her and for any children she bore.

It doesn’t take long for this conversation to move into other issues of women’s societal positions in the past (and in the present, of course!). Most students are aware of other cultures with different marriage and family practices—whether matriarchal or polygamous cultures or ones with arranged marriages. These “other cultures” become more closely connected to western women’s history when we begin talking what it meant for women to risk pregnancy with heterosexual intercourse or, even worse, to have it forced upon them. The case of enslaved women—Harriet Jacobs, who had relations and children with a white man who was not her master, is a great example—add another interesting layer to the conversation of “choice.” Jacobs’s autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, is one of my favorite texts to teach to raise these discussions. Since her account was edited by a popular white woman writer, Lydia Maria Child, it also takes us into other conversations about women’s voices and stories. Whose stories get told, why and how? Until the last part of the 20th century, Jacobs story was considered just another one of Child’s many fictional works.

How do your personal interests and experiences drive your research and writing on gender, especially your work on food as a gender issue?

Personal connections motivate us in our research subjects, right? I have always loved to eat and to cook—my family spent a lot of time at the table and in the kitchen. That could be the starting point for my writing about food. But it’s not that simple! As one food scholar wrote years ago, (I’m paraphrasing), many people think sexual relations are the most pervasive element of human cultures, but really, food consumption is. Eating trumps sex. Just about anyone could move from their personal experiences with food to write about it. The reality for me is that my interest in religious communities (and women in them), both arising my family background, catapulted me into writing about religious rules about drinking and eating.

Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the religious community known as the Shakers, took me by surprise. I was beginning the project that became my first book, Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, which I dove into because of my interest in the relationship between literacy and religion. I hate to sound trite, but Mother Ann’s life story changed my life. She was the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith in Manchester, England, yet she preached from scriptures she had memorized and visions that inspired her. Mother Ann’s forceful rhetoric and charisma convinced people to follow her to America on the eve of the Revolutionary War and establish a spiritual community that continues today. The Shakers rocked the world of colonial New England and then the western states of Kentucky and Ohio in part because of their celibacy, communal property ownership, and female leadership—instigated by Lee’s teachings and example. Certainly, she wasn’t the first woman whose life story has found a place in women’s history—the medieval mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, the martyr Joan of Arc, and, more recently, Mother Teresa, all come to mind.

Among this circle of notable women, however, Ann Lee turned my world upside down because she was a smart leader yet deemed illiterate. And, sadly, she is now little known. As I began to study her, I learned of and wrote about numerous other women in colonial and nineteenth-century America who were similarly influential: Jemima Wilkinson (founder of the Society of the Universal Friend), Elizabeth Ashbridge (a Quaker itinerant), Rebecca Cox Jackson (an AME visionary in Philadelphia who became a Shaker), Julia A. J. Foote (an AME Elder and evangelist). Learning about how these women came from humble beginnings yet found their voices and made an impact on society—especially on other women—motivated me to write and to speak up and out.

Voice and vocation in these women’s lives (although they all followed spiritual callings) has driven me to explore women whose callings are more secular. American women following their vocations to travel to Italy in the 19th century are the focus of my current book project. News correspondent Anne Hampton Brewster, translator and poet Caroline Crane Marsh, and education activist Emily Bliss Gould all left extensive written records of feats they accomplished abroad that have fallen under the radar of women’s history. As writers, these women remind me of the importance of daily writing, both the behind-the-scenes private words we generate and the smaller versions that make it to the public. They all become part of the record of the social fabric that creates history.

My question for you: Since Women Warriors details the stories of figures across centuries and around the globe, and the Heroines of Mercy Street zooms in on a much narrower time and place, I am curious about how you go about determining a frame for your projects. What thoughts do you have about differences between framing a single-subject book and one that focuses on several women? How does the more wide-ranging breadth influence the research and how you tell the stories?

First, I think you may be giving me more credit for a conscious process than I deserve. At some level, I believe that stories choose us. And once a story has locked on to your imagination*, part of the work is finding the frame.

That said I would argue that Heroines of Mercy Street and Women Warriors are more alike than their scope would suggest. Both books talk about groups of women and both books are built around a structural spine so they are more than simply a series of mini-biographies all in a row. In the case of Heroines of Mercy Street, that spine is two memoirs written by women who nursed at Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, which was the setting for the PBS drama Mercy Street. Between them, those memoirs gave me a story to follow through the course of the war and touched on all the big issues I needed to discuss.** Women Warriors is organized around a series of themes dealing with the reasons women have historically gone to war, how those reasons relate to women's roles as daughters, wives, mothers and widows, peacemakers, prostitutes, poets and queens--and what happens when women step outside those roles to take other identities.

Which brings me to your question about the research. While some of the women I wrote about in Women Warriors also left memoirs about their experiences, most of them did not.*** In fact, the sources for many of the women I wrote about are limited in scope and of questionable accuracy. Which means I spent a lot of time talking about sources, and the problems with sources, and the patterns that appear in how the sources talk about women across time periods and geographical boundaries. And I occasionally got testy about it.


Want to know more about Etta Madden and her work?

Check out her website:
Check out her Goodreads page: Etta M Madden
Follow her on Facebook: Etta Madden Author
Follow her on Twitter: @ettamadden
Follow her on Instagram: @ettamadden

*And by your, I mean my, as I so often do.
**Obviously I was very lucky that those memoirs existed. But if they hadn’t existed, I’d have found a different way to write the book.
***And those that did were often unreliable narrators.

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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with Jane Austen scholar and roller-derby bad-ass Devooney Looser.