A popular bumper sticker theorizes that well-behaved women rarely make history. While it’s true that sometimes swimming against the current is the only way to get where you’re headed, three new books show women making history in a variety of ways, from globetrotting, to taking on mysterious jobs, to smashing through political barriers—even if their behavior was sometimes less than ladylike.
In 1889, Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days was hot stuff. So hot, in fact, that two New York publications sent female reporters on trips around the world to try and beat fictional character Phileas Fogg’s time. Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World recreates the race and shows how it shaped the women’s lives afterward. It’s also a dazzling tour of the world at a time when travel routes were just opening up; a look at sensationalist journalism and pop culture in pre-Kardashian America; and a testimony to how hard women had to fight to get work and achieve respect as journalists.
Bly perfected the art of traveling light for the sake of convenience, then went on a shopping spree in Singapore, after which she was saddled with a cantankerous monkey she named McGinty. Bisland, who agreed to race against Bly with less than one day’s notice, didn’t like the publicity that came with the challenge and squirmed at being hauled in rickshaws and sedan chairs, but she was otherwise a fearless competitor who continued to travel for the rest of her life. Their stories should inspire both writers and travelers today: If you finish this without laying out your own version of Nellie Bly’s one-bag, no-hassles travel case, don’t complain the next time you’re dinged $25 for an extra suitcase. She was vastly ahead of her time.
The Girls of Atomic City details a story that seems impossible yet was true. Author Denise Kiernan brings a novelist’s voice to her thoroughly researched look at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a small city that housed 75,000 people, used as much power as New York City, yet didn’t exist on any map. During World War II, numerous women were recruited to work in Oak Ridge but were never told what their jobs were; each job was isolated from the others so a complete picture couldn’t be formed. All they knew was that they were working to help bring a swift end to the war. By the time anyone had figured it out, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been decimated and the war was over.
The story of the town is impressive and occasionally funny: Women disembarking from cars for the first time sank to their knees in mud, since there were no sidewalks built, and one resident persuaded a worker to make her contraband biscuit tins from scrap metal so as to avoid the cafeteria’s sub-par chow. There was camaraderie among the workers, yet everyone felt ambivalent about what they created and how it was ultimately used. Kiernan gives no easy answers, but the stories of the women will resonate with readers. If someone offered you double what you’re making now, would you jump on a train with no further information? That took guts.
It’s great to look back and find undiscovered stories in our past, but the experiences of those who are still with us have much to offer as we go forward. Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice is Mary Robinson’s memoir. The first female president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights traces her political roots back to an early and radical questioning of her Catholic upbringing. Continually working and fighting for full inclusion on behalf of the poor and marginalized, she became a vocal opponent of U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. When journalists questioned her outspoken stance and willingness to jeopardize her U.N. job, she writes, “I replied that this was the job; it was better to do the job than try to keep it.”
Robinson is unsparing about mistakes she’s made in her political career, and unfailingly gracious and grateful to her friends and family in these pages, which puts her tougher stances in perspective. A critical thinker and fine writer, her life story is a pleasure to read, and one that will certainly inspire generations of leaders to come.