Women’s History Month gives us the opportunity to re-examine what we thought we knew about women’s participation in historical events. What is apparent in these selections is the constant battle for women to make meaningful, acknowledged contributions in the face of hostility, ridicule and neglect. What is also sadly obvious is that women’s accomplishments have often been minimized or hidden from the pages of the “official” historical accounts. But the books here show us that there is much to learn about the contributions of women throughout history—and much to be thankful for, too.
In the line of fire
Women have served in the military in a myriad of roles—from the factory and office workers who freed men to fight in WWI to pilots in WWII to active combat soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. They faced dangers as they nursed soldiers near the front lines in all wars. Yet often their worst enemy was not the official one, but their own country, hesitating to grant them the status and benefits they deserved.
Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee provide a number of examples of this discrimination in A Few Good Women. In 1942, three members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps survived the sinking of their ship by a German torpedo. Having lost all their belongings, they suffered a further blow when they were told that since the WAAC had no official standing, the U.S. government would not pay for their losses. Women were “with the military but not in it.” They received none of the benefits that men received, such as insurance or even protection under the Geneva Convention if they were captured. Some barriers just seem strange now: Female ferry pilots could not fly past the age of 35 “to avoid the irrationality of women when they enter and go through the menopause.” Other issues, such as sexual harassment and rape, still haunt our military today.
It is clear that women were willing to endure their lack of status and societal distrust to join the military. But why? For many, it was both basic patriotism and the hope for excitement and adventure. As one WWII pilot said: “[I learned I] could fly with the men and still remain a lady. I gained much confidence in myself that has served me well all this time.” These stories can serve as inspiration for young women today, and Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee deserve credit for telling them.
Like military women, female scientists are often missing in the pages of the history books. They are so absent, in fact, that one might be forgiven for thinking that until recent times, there simply weren’t women scientists—Madame Curie being the singular exception. In The Madame Curie Complex, Julie Des Jardins examines the careers of women scientists from Curie to Jane Goodall. Most of them probably won’t be familiar to readers, but they should be, not only for their scientific contributions, but for the ways in which their work was marginalized and made more difficult than it had to be.
Female scientists faced innumerable institutional and societal barriers. For women in the early 20th century, even finding a college that would allow them to study at an advanced level was not an easy option. Nepotistic rules at many universities meant that, for scientific couples, the husband received the tenured position while the wife toiled as a lab assistant or an untenured, temporary instructor. Married women scientists were also expected to keep house and raise children. These barriers put them behind on the career path when compared to many male scientists. For example, “Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Gerty Cori was fifty-one when she was finally promoted to full professor; physics laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer wasn’t hired with pay and tenure until she was fifty-three.” Despite these obstacles, some women persevered and succeeded. But as Des Jardins makes clear, this is only a partial victory, for there are many lost and forgotten women whose contributions to science will never be known.
Talk about being written out of history: According to Jack Weatherford and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, in the 13th century, an unknown person cut out a section of The Secret History of the Mongols, the record of Genghis Khan, leaving only a hint of what had been there regarding the contributions of women: “Let us reward our female offspring.” However, if a censor chose to omit the deeds of these women, Weatherford, through careful scholarship and lively narrative, has filled in many of the details.
One such descendant, Queen Manduhai, refused all her suitors. Instead, she rescued the male child with the best link to Genghis Khan and raised him to be a ruler. She led battles, but she also learned from the mistakes of her predecessors, realizing how difficult it was to conquer a wide territory. Instead, she sought to trade with China when she could, but raid the country when she couldn’t. The Great Wall is a testament to how much the Chinese both respected and feared her.
A lady traveler
Louisa Catherine Adams moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, John Quincy Adams, when he received a diplomatic appointment to the royal court and managed her household alone for more than a year when he was called away to Paris to help negotiate the end of the War of 1812. Then in 1815, she received a letter instructing her to meet him in Paris. She and her young son undertook the 2,000-mile journey through a Europe that had been devastated by war and the reappearance of Napoleon.
In Mrs. Adams in Winter, Michael O’Brien uses this journey to present a biography of a woman who was always in the process of crossing borders. Born an American in London and raised for a time in Paris, she would never quite fit in with her home country, where she was accused of not being American enough to be First Lady and was never quite understood by her husband and her in-laws, the famous John and Abigail Adams. O’Brien also tells a fascinating tale of what it was like to travel in that time period, an account that will lead readers to admire Adams’ determination and strength.
Faye Jones is dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College.