National Women's History Month
by Ida Fogle, Library Associate
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
Since 1987, March has been celebrated as National Women’s History Month. This is a good time to recognize the important roles women have played in our country and throughout the world.
“Betsy Ross and the Making of America” (Henry Holt, 2010) by Marla R. Miller tells the story of one of the first women to rise to prominence during the formation of the United States. Miller addresses whether Ross really made the first American flag while also presenting a deeper look at her life, times and the world of women’s work in the late 18th century.
In “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America” (Bloomsbury Press, 2009), Raymond Arsenault gives an account of one of the most dramatic concerts in American history. Denied the chance to perform in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race, the world-famous contralto organized a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial instead. On Easter Sunday 1939, an estimated 75,000 people came to hear her sing.
“The Spirit of Indian Women” (World Wisdom, 2005), edited by Judith Fitzgerald and Michael Oren Fitzgerald, contains a collection of remarkable photos of American Indian women, most of whom lived in the Plains in the 19th century. The photos are interspersed with descriptions from the time regarding the roles and lives of the women, as well as traditional stories and songs and words from some of the women themselves.
Nancy Clarke’s “My First Ladies” (Sellers, 2011) offers insight on the lives of America’s most recent first ladies. In her career as chief floral designer for the White House, Clarke worked closely with the presidents’ wives, from Rosalynn Carter to Michelle Obama.
“The Golden Lane” (History Press, 2011) by Margot Ford McMillen reports events that happened close to home. In June 1916, the Democratic National Convention met in St. Louis. In a stand for women’s suffrage, a group of Missouri women dressed in yellow lined the street outside the convention hotel, forming a “golden lane” that the delegates couldn’t ignore.
Moving farther away in time and distance, Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra” (Little, Brown and Co., 2010) is the biography of an Egyptian queen who helped to shape world history. As a member of the Ptolemy royal dynasty and one of the wealthiest people in history, Cleopatra seemed destined for greatness. Although this book does not paint her as somebody you would want your daughter to emulate—she came to the throne through the arranged deaths of her siblings—it does show a woman who wielded power, commanded armies and held her own amongst the male rulers of the same era.
Catherine the Great, subject of Robert K. Massie’s book “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” (Random House, 2011), took a different path to the top. Born in 1729 to some of the “poor relations” of German royalty, she didn’t begin her life as an obvious choice for eventual Empress of Russia. Still, during her 34 years as monarch, she worked to bring her country into the age of Enlightenment, promoting the arts and sciences. Massie draws from Catherine’s diaries, among other sources, to add layers of personal detail to the story of this influential woman.
“The Diary of a Young Girl” (Bantam Books, 1993) shows an existence in stark contrast to the lives of these royal figures. However, Anne Frank is perhaps as well-known today as any queen. Spending the days of her adolescence hidden in an attic before becoming one of the millions to die in a Nazi concentration camp, she could have been forgotten, except for the unconquerable spirit she showed in her diary, which was saved and published by her father.
The 2012 theme for Women’s History Month is “Women’s Education — Women’s Empowerment.” “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (Touchstone, 2011) falls under this heading. The first edition was published in the early 1970s as a stapled, newsprint booklet. The 40th anniversary edition is a 943-page one-stop shop for women’s health information. It covers adolescence, pregnancy, birth, menopause, cosmetic surgery, the HPV vaccine and more.
“Reading Lolita in Tehran” (Random House, 2003) is a tale of women’s empowerment through literary education. Azar Nafisi worked as a university professor in Tehran until the mid-1990s, when the ever more restrictive rules imposed on women forced her from the job. This memoir recounts her experiences with seven female students who continued to study with her in secret at her home, reading and discussing classic works of literature.
At first glance, Helen Keller would seem to have little in common with Nafisi’s students. But she, too, discovered the power of education in overcoming limitations. Born in 1880 in Alabama, she became deaf and blind as the result of an illness when she was a toddler. In “The Story of My Life” (Signet Classic, 2002), she relates how her teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped open the world for her. Keller learned her first word—“water”—at age 7 through finger spelling. She went on to graduate from Radcliffe College and, through her tireless work on behalf of those with differing abilities, became one of the most inspirational figures in American history.