We've come a long way, babyWomen's History Month is a good time to reflect on the journey, on the many and varied trips some wilder than others that women have taken to get us where we are today. Who were the female characters to pave the way? And what are the issues still before us? While there are as many journeys as there are individuals, there are roles that we share, roles that (like it or not) define us and connect us through history.
A month is hardly enough time to tell our tales, but at the very least, Women's History Month gives us reason to explore a few new and interesting books.
One of the most complicated roles women play is that of wife. Marilyn Yalom examines the Judeo-Christian tradition of marriage in A History of the Wife. To answer the question "what does it mean to be married at the turn of the century?" Yalom focuses on major changes in the marital status quo over time, ending with an intriguing analysis of a role that is still evolving. This book is made much more interesting by its focus on the wife, rather than the couple. What's more, it's an engaging, good read. Though clearly well researched, it is not filled with numbing statistics. The author spends ample time on that more contemporary aspect of marriage which can't be quantified: love. Love, after all, "has become synonymous with marriage in the Western World." But before we see too rosy a picture, Yalom reminds the reader that less palatable aspects of the married state still exist, even in our own society. Throughout, Yalom's savvy and lively narration keeps the reader entertained.
The author is a distinguished cultural historian who is, by the way, married. Valuing motherhoodIt is said that mothers do this planet's most critical work. If raising a child is America's most important job, how can it simultaneously be the most undervalued? Ann Crittenden tackles this complicated issue in The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. In the introduction, Crittenden explains why she had to write this book. She describes a personal moment of truth that came a few years after she resigned from The New York Times and a few months after the birth of her child, when someone asked her, "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?" Her description of suddenly "vanishing" upon becoming a mother probably hits home for many women, but there are many more reasons why we should all read The Price of Motherhood. I found myself alternately impassioned and discouraged by what I learned from Crittenden. She describes with passion and clarity how our society pays tribute to Mom in words while in reality systematically disadvantaging her (indeed, putting her at risk). Working women may have been liberated, she argues, but mothers were not. Perhaps most importantly, Crittenden challenges the argument that women's liberation is responsible for devaluing motherhood. And finally, she includes as her closing chapter important and reasonable means to bring about the change mothers deserve. Crittenden aims her recommendations specifically at employers, government and husbands, but this is truly recommended reading for us all.
Crittenden is an award-winning journalist and author (including a Pulitzer Prize nomination) but in my mind what really qualifies her for the accomplishment of this book is what compelled her to write it in the first place. Writing from her own experience as professional woman and mother, Crittenden's words are accurate, heartfelt and imminently readable.
Setting sailMany women will be wives and mothers. Far fewer will adventure in a pirate ship on the high seas, in solo flights across the Atlantic or on horseback in the Arabian desert. Author David Cordingly gives us a lesser known piece of women's history in Women Sailors ∧ Sailors' Women. Cordingly writes of women and the high seas in the 18th and 19th centuries, a subject about which there's a surprising amount to tell. It is generally acknowledged that when men went to sea in the Great Age of Sail, women were left behind. In reality, however, a fair number of the fairer sex were aboard. Some openly so: wives of navy officers who mothered warship crews or wives of merchant captains who sometimes took command. The presence of others was kept secret: women disguised as men to serve their ship or country.
Even women left ashore had prominent parts to play in our seafaring history lighthouse keepers, for example, and the wives and prostitutes whose real lives in the ports-of-call are surprising in their own right. Cordingly also examines the place of women in legends and lore of the seas (figureheads, sirens, mermaids). But I found the most fascinating tales to be those of the ruthless female pirates like Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot. Cordingly is also the author of an acclaimed history of piracy and for 12 years was on staff at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. He clearly knows something of the lives of sailors; his knowledge, interest and good research are evident. He includes first person accounts from ship records and journals which makes the stories of Women Sailors ∧ Sailors' Women vivid and fun.
Unconventional womenWomen's History Month wouldn't be complete without paying a visit to some of history's most memorable female characters. That's exactly what Barbara Holland does in They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades. In this celebration of unconventional and adventurous women, Holland tells the stories of rebels such as Joan of Arc, George Sand, Mata Hari, Queen Jinga and my personal favorite, Amelia Earhart. Though most of these women are familiar, Holland's portraits of them are carefully researched and categorized in interesting fashion. Chances are you'll discover something new about these outlaws, grandstanders, seekers and radicals. Holland doesn't hold out much hope that such figures will reappear anytime soon; she suggests that the 1960s saw the last of them, that "careers . . . keep women in line more effectively than policemen or repressive husbands." But as hard as it is to imagine a modern-day Belle Starr our obstacles and environment may not be as dramatic this doesn't have to make the Marion Joneses, the Madeleine Albrights and even the Madonnas any less inspiring. I'm willing to wager that in Women's History Months to come, the 21st century will have contributed tales of our own female pioneers. The adventures continue.
Danica M. Jefferson is a new mom living in Baltimore.