The Importance of Books About Women in History
by Maggie Lynch
March 24, 2022
I have never written a book about a historical person. Part of that is because I’m married to a historian who has written many books about history and edited others–ranging from ancient civilizations to the Vietnam war. The majority of his work has been about the military and various wars our country has fought. I admit, with all his knowledge, it is rather intimidating for me to consider writing a historical novel. Also I know the research would be daunting to get it right. I already do a lot of research for my contemporary novels, I suspect that if I were to write a historical novel it would never get done as I would be still following the research warrens of that time period.
However, I very much appreciate the importance of history and especially the role of women in history who’s lives were often not included in the books I read in high school and college. There is a saying that is often quoted: “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It is attributed to George Santayana, a writer, philosopher and one time Harvard professor who lived from 1863 to 1952. His philosophy was that history repeats because human nature is ugly. To my knowledge he never offered a reason to believe we could improve.
I would rewrite that aphorism to be not quite as short, but to provide a choice for agency and improvement. I would say those who learn history and fail to learn from the mistakes and strive for change are doomed to repeat it. Throughout history, it has been women who were the standard bearers for equality. Women who–because of their own lack of rights to vote, to education, to decision-making in their own lives–recognized that they would speak up not only for themselves but for many disenfranchised people in their community. Women have been the ones who organized, kept working, had a long-term goal for change that often continued the struggle for centuries before seeing justice.
Despite the historical beliefs that women were too fragile, too fearful, and needed to be protected, the women persevered and have had a great impact around the world. Women have not only learned from history and strove for change, but they continue to make sure that change is maintained for the good of all. As I’ve seen in my own life, just because rights are won doesn’t necessarily mean they will remain. We need to be vigilant to keep those hard earned rights and the freedom to continue to speak out for ourselves and others.
To that end, I offer several nonfiction, well-researched books for your consideration on the role women have played in war, in fighting for democracy, and in fighting for the rights of all people within not only our own country, but also coordinating with women around the world. Women have continuously proven they are as strong, smart, and determined as any man. Moreover, I believe that their persistence continues to make a huge difference in politics, in science, and particularly in regards to human rights.
Why They Marched by Susan Ware – Looking beyond the national leadership of the suffrage movement, an acclaimed historian gives voice to the thousands of women from different backgrounds, races, and religions whose local passion and protest resounded throughout the land. Ware tells her story through the lives of nineteen activists, most of whom have long been overlooked. We meet Mary Church Terrell, a multilingual African American woman; Rose Schneiderman, a labor activist building coalitions on New York’s Lower East Side; Claiborne Catlin, who toured the Massachusetts countryside on horseback to drum up support for the cause; Mary Johnston, an aristocratic novelist bucking the Southern ruling elite; Emmeline W. Wells, a Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage determined to make her voice heard; and others who helped harness a groundswell of popular support. We also see the many places where the suffrage movement unfolded―in church parlors, meeting rooms, and the halls of Congress, but also on college campuses and even at the top of Mount Rainier. Few corners of the United States were untouched by suffrage activism.
The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line by Major General Mari K. Eder – When Hitler’s Nazis threatened the world, every person was needed to help the war effort — and the women stepped up! In this fascinating book, U.S. Army Major General Mari K. Eder tells the story of fifteen little-known heroes of the Greatest Generation: resistance fighters, pioneering pilots, rescuers, and spies. Each of them defied expectation in service of their country and people in need, not because they would be acclaimed for it but because it was the right thing to do. From Ola Mildred Rexroat, the only Native American pilot in the WASP, to sisters Ida and Louise Cook who smuggled Jews out of Germany while wearing jewelry and furs, to Hilda Eisen who was captured by the Nazis and escaped — twice — these are stories to inspire future generations with the courage of women who step out of line. There is a great 7 minute video where Major General Eder talks about how/why she wrote this book.
The Nine: The true story of nine women who survived the worst of Nazi Germany by Gwen Strauss. Across World War II France, nine women — all under 30 — had joined the resistance against the Nazis. Each of them helped however they could, whether they were smuggling weapons, harboring spies and Jewish fugitives, or coordinating communication. And each of them was caught by French police and interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo before being deported to Germany for imprisonment. Along the way, these nine women met, becoming close friends, even as they faced the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp and forced labor. And when they were forced onto a death march in the final days of the war, one of the women, Hélène Podliasky, led the nine in a daring and heart-stopping escape. Told by Podliasky’s grandniece, author Gwen Strauss, this is a stunning story of resistance, friendship, and the will to survive.
A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross – This book reaches far beyond a single narrative to showcase Black women’s lives in all their fraught complexities. Berry and Gross span a history of over 400 years, prioritizing many voices: enslaved women, freedwomen, religious leaders, artists, queer women, activists, and women who lived outside the law. The result is a starting point for exploring Black women’s history and a testament to the beauty, richness, rhythm, tragedy, heartbreak, rage, and enduring love that abounds in the spirit of Black women in communities throughout the nation. Black women’s unique ability to make their own communities while combatting centuries of oppression is an essential component in the continued resistance to systemic racism and sexism.
For the Many by Dorothy Sue Cobble – For the Many presents an inspiring look at how US women and their global allies pushed the nation and the world toward justice and greater equality for all. Cobble brings to life the women who crossed borders of class, race, and nation to build grassroots campaigns, found international institutions, and enact policies dedicated to raising standards of life for everyone. Readers encounter famous figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, and Mary McLeod Bethune, together with less well-known leaders, such as Rose Schneiderman, Maida Springer Kemp, and Esther Peterson. Multiple generations partnered to expand social and economic rights, and despite setbacks, the fight for the many persists, as twenty-first-century activists urgently demand a more caring, inclusive world. She documents how forces, peoples, and ideas worldwide shaped American politics from movements before World War I to the establishment of the New Deal, through the upheavals in rights and social citizenship at midcentury, to the reassertion of conservatism and the revival of female-led movements today.
There are, of course, many thousands of books, both nonfiction and fiction, that cover the heroic work of women in history. I chose these because each one covers more than one person and often more than one decade. Women continue to make history every day. Lest you think that the past doesn’t matter (which I would strongly disagree with you), I would also offer women of today who stand up for justice around the world. Every year in December, the BBC chooses a theme for nominating the top 100 women from around the world for their inspiration, contribution, world-changing, country-changing, helping others–many at the risk of their lives. These are the history makers of the future. Here’s the list for 2021.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional package to getting books distributed around the world, and finally marketing options. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com