National Women’s History Month
by Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
March has been celebrated as National Women’s History Month since 1987, and it has always been a time to recognize the important roles women have played in our country and throughout the world. This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and Shelley Emling’s book “Marie Curie and Her Daughters” (Palgrave, 2012) provides us with a perfect example of women who fit that description. Emling (author of “The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World,” Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) tells the story of Marie Sklodowska Curie, the only person to have received Nobel prizes in two different sciences. The book delves into Marie Curie’s struggle to continue her work after her husband and collaborator’s death, as well as to maintain a balance between work and her relationships with her two daughters: Irene, a Nobel-laureate chemist whose work led to the creation of the atom bomb, and Eve, a prominent humanitarian and journalist.
“I Died for Beauty” by Marjorie Senechal (Oxford University Press, 2013) brings to life Dorothy Wrinch (1894-1976), a trailblazer in mathematics and science during the early to mid-20th century. Born in Argentina in 1894 to English parents, Wrinch and her family returned to England, where Wrinch had to overcome numerous roadblocks faced by women in academia. Slightly technical at times, the book portrays a “scary smart” scientist, mother, teacher and feminist whose “life was her work” and “her work her life.”
Since the early 1990s, a number of books have been published about women scientists and the obstacles they faced in order to succeed. Few books, however, have focused on black women scientists who face the double barriers of race and gender. Diann Jordan’s “Sisters in Science: Conversations With Black Women Scientists About Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science” (Purdue University Press, 2006) presents a series of interviews with 17 black American women scientists. The book reveals the common problems these women face in their careers and the astonishing diversity of their backgrounds, education and role models.
Another minority woman success story is “My Beloved World” (Alfred A Knopf, 2013) by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a book about growing up with an alcoholic father (who died when she was nine), a devoted but overburdened mother, and the refuge she sought from the turmoil at home with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. With only television characters as her professional role models and little understanding of what was involved, young Sotomayor resolved to become a lawyer, a dream that would eventually lead her from a crime-infested neighborhood in the South Bronx to the nation's highest court.
Of course, the road to success for contemporary women was paved for them by women of the past. “Alice Paul: Equality for Women” by Christine Lunardini (Westview Press, 2013) presents a biography of one of the most significant feminist activists of the 20th century. Lunardini shows the role Paul played in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote to American women. The book presents dramatic details of Paul’s imprisonment and solitary confinement, her hunger strike and force-feeding, as well as other facts of her life—all illustrating Paul’s fierce devotion to her cause.
Women of today work in many fields that were not available to their mothers. One of them is the military, where despite all the progress women have made in other areas, female soldiers still have to deal with crucial issues. Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” (New Video Group, 2012), a deeply affecting Oscar-nominated documentary, focuses on the epidemic of sexual assault within the armed forces. Dick provides a glimpse into a problem that, despite being the subject of various scandals and discussions in the U.S. Congress, still affects lives of American servicewomen. Among other facts, the documentary shows how victims of assault were harassed when they reported the incident, while many of the male perpetrators received little or no punishment.
Despite the setbacks, women continue to persevere in their struggle for justice and equality, not just in America but all over the world. In “The Favored Daughter” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan’s first female parliament deputy speaker, tells her life story through a series of poignant letters she wrote to her daughters. Koofi, the nineteenth daughter of a local village leader in rural Afghanistan, was left to die in the sun just after birth. Yet she survived, and this perseverance in the face of extreme hardship has defined her life ever since. Despite the abuse of her family, the exploitative Russian and Taliban regimes, the murders of her father, brother, and husband, and numerous attempts on her life, Koofi rose above her fate as a living illustration of the resilience, values and culture of the Afghan people.
Another new book about a woman whose name we associate with courage is “The Maid and The Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc” by Nancy Goldstone (Viking, 2012). Joan, whose 600th birthday will be celebrated this year, is still an astonishing example of a woman changing the course of her country’s history, and although things have changed dramatically since her time, her image continues to be a powerful reminder of the fact that women can—and will—influence the future.
P.S. Showing of “The Invisible War” followed by a discussion (co-sponsored by the Association of American University Women) will take place in the library on Tuesday, March 12, 7 p.m.
Those interested in the life of folklorist Mary Alicia Owen are invited to Greg Olson’s presentation of his new book “Voodoo Priests, Noble Savages, and Ozark Gypsies” on Wednesday, March 13, 7 p.m.