Happy International Women’s Day! Seeing as the theme I’ve set myself this month is Reading Women, my post to celebrate today is my current reading wish list of books on women and women’s history. Tell me in the comments what you think I should add to it!
Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly
Shetterly’s book explores the story of black female mathematicians at NASA who were called into service during labour shortages of the Second World War to help keep the aeronautics industry going. These women were maths teachers in the segregated schools of the south, and were themselves segregated from their white co-workers when they moved to work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. Ever since I saw the trailer for the film, I have really wanted to read this book, which follows almost three decades of these extraordinary women’s lives and their exceptional minds, which played an integral part in the Space Race.
In Defence of the Princess, Jerramy Fine
The subtitle of this book is “How plastic tiaras and fairytale dreams can inspire strong, smart women” – a line which attracted me as a child who grew up wanting to be a princess but also a strong woman, and has frequently felt bad about how much I adore princess-y, sparkly things. Fine explores various princesses – from Wonder Woman to Princess Leia, Cinderella to Kate Middleton – and how they demonstrate power over passivity, as well as being strong role models for young women. I’m hoping this will rid me of my guilt in loving tiaras and happily ever afters as well as aspiring for personal and professional success!
How Was It For You? Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s, Virginia Nicholson
The 1960s is enshrined as the age of sexual revolution, particularly with the pill introduced on the NHS in 1961. Yet it was an age of liberation mainly for men: so Nicholson’s book looks beneath this to examine quality through the voices of several different women. Nicholson promises to shine a spotlight on the female experience of this transformative decade. I’m really excited to read this, I love focus on particular voices and following their stories.
The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, Anne de Courcy
This book is billed as the tale of the real women who inspired Downton Abbey – where Lady Grantham is an American heiress who marries into the British landed Crawley family. There were plenty of these real eligible American heiresses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when gilded age wealth met the titled, landed classes. And it wasn’t all plain-sailing: this is their story, based on diaries, memoirs and letters.
A History of Women in 100 Objects, Maggie Andrews & Janis Lomas
I love anything object and material culture based, and was particularly pleased to find this book after having seen books such as Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. Andrews and Lomas have split their chosen objects into eight categories that span from sexuality to wifedom, technology to travel, creativity to employment. They look across the world, and the objects also seriously vary in size: for instance, the Taj Mahal is included, alongside Joan of Arc’s ring. Andrews and Lomas declare from the outset that 100 objects is hard to cover all female experiences, but what they have chosen should be viewed as a jumping off point for further reading and exploration, writing at the beginning of their Introduction:
“They provide a sense of the rich heritage of women, stories of how women were encouraged to conform to ideas of femininity and how feminist forebears challenged any such pressures; the objects are indications of women’s oppression, women’s heroism, women’s ingenuity, and their skill and expertise.”
I can’t wait to read on.
A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf, Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney
I love anything about female friendships. Even better, this book is written through the collaboration of two female friends. It celebrates and explores the variety of female literary friendships, both supportive and volatile, of some of the best loved female authors. I am particularly looking forward to reading about Jane Austen’s friendship with family servant and playwright, Anne Sharp.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold
I am so excited to read this book. It’s a revolutionary history of Polly, Anne, Elisabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane, the five women killed by Jack the Ripper. Instead of the focus being on the Ripper himself and the five women dismissed, as they have been up to now, with only the description of being prostitutes, Rubenhold looks to the untold stories of their lives, lifting the focus off of their murderer for the first time.
Women and the Land 1500-1900, edited by Amanda L. Capern, Briony McDonagh & Jennifer Aston
I’m perhaps a little biased because I’m part of the research cluster which is linked to this book, but I’m really excited to read the various essays in this book which all approach how gender shaped opportunities for and experiences of owning property, for women in particular. I think there is still too much of an assumption that only men could own property, but through a variety of contributions, this book will demonstrate how significant numbers of women did actually own land, and more developed such attachments to their land that they fought tooth and nail to own them in the legal system.
Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall
This looks to be a really fascinating royal history that explores women who lived, worked and served across the world in the courts of royalty. It’s a window into power structures and the role of women across the globe – and I’m looking forward to reading it to learn about different types of monarchy and their histories.
Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant, Anne Gardiner Perkins
In November 1968, Yale finally declared it would accept women as undergraduates, and the first female students started there the following autumn. A landmark moment, but Gardiner Perkins’ book chronicles the true struggle for equality which began as soon as these female students arrived on campus. As a female postgraduate student (with one of my main research interests being female education), I am desperate to read this book and learn more about the experiences of the first women admitted to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and how they dealt with male collegiate culture and found their own space for success.
Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover
Tara Westover grew up in a family suspicious of government, mainstream education and healthcare, and the first time she entered a classroom, she was seventeen years old. Yet Westover was so passionate about gaining an education, she eventually completed a PhD in History in 2014 at the University of Cambridge. Both Barack Obama and Bill Gates have sung the praise of this memoir, which discusses Westover’s path to education and the effect it had on her relationship with her family.