- Darcie Caswell
March is Women’s History Month, so I am highlighting books about women and their roles in history and the world today. Though I hope that young readers are exposed to books about a variety of people and places all year long, the focus of a history month provides an opportunity to pay closer attention to groups of people who have been underrepresented in literature and the study of history. As usual, I had a hard time choosing my favorite books for this theme, so instead I’ve selected titles that exemplify a few of the ways women’s stories can be presented.
Books that contain a collection of profiles or short biographies can be a great way to learn a little bit about several people in a short amount of time and are also helpful in gaining a big-picture view of what that group of people have in common. Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide, both by Kate Schatz, present short profiles of women from history and today who have made an impact in their professions, their countries, or the world. Some of the women, such as Sonia Sotomayor, Nellie Bly, and Malala Yousafzai, are fairly well-known, but many are not, a reminder to readers that women have often made significant contributions that have gone unrecognized.
In Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies, author Cokie Roberts explores the lives of women who were part of the founding of the United States. These women wrote poetry, songs, and plays to stir up the patriots and kept businesses running to allow their husbands, fathers, and brothers to serve in politics or as soldiers during the American Revolution. Though some of the featured women have well-known connections (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams), others are less well-known, such as Catharine Littlefield Greene, who housed and financed the laboratory in which Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.
If readers are looking for a more in-depth exploration of one individual’s life, well-researched and well-written biographies abound. Picture book biographies present information and ideas in an age-appropriate and engaging way, especially for younger children. Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel, tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a garment worker in the early 1900s, when thousands of young girls, who should have been in school, instead toiled in dangerous industrial working conditions for low wages. Seeing the clear injustice of this, Clara Lemlich urged her fellow workers to strike for better working conditions and higher wages. Even when she was beaten and arrested for picketing, Clara continued the fight. When the male leaders of the union movement refused to call for a general strike, Clara stepped up and led “the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.”
Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science, by Diane Stanley, is another example of a picture book biography that takes a complex story and presents it in a way young readers can understand and appreciate. With a boundless imagination and an education in math and science, young Ada is fascinated with the technology of the Industrial Revolution and the great minds of the time. As an adult, Ada worked with Charles Babbage, who was designing a machine called the Analytical Engine, the first programmable computer. Ada Lovelace wrote the instructions on how to code Babbage’s invention, making her the author of the first published computer program.
Some books take a broader approach, looking at women’s contributions to a particular field or period of history. In the 1960s, when America was heavily involved in the Space Race, and women officially weren’t allowed into the astronaut program, NASA began a test program to see if women were capable of being astronauts. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone, tells the story of the 13 female pilots selected by NASA to go through this test program. The group of women became known as the “Mercury 13,” and, though they excelled at every test (sometimes doing better than their male counterparts), they were never allowed to go into space. The Mercury 13 did, however, help pave the way for the women who followed them when the astronaut program was officially opened to women 20 years later.
Today, our girls couldn’t imagine being told they can’t take the same math classes as boys, that they aren’t allowed into law school or medical school, or that they can’t play soccer, softball, or any other school sports. But all these are relatively recent changes, brought about by the 1972 passage of the Education Amendments of 1972 and their Title IX. Let Me Play, by Karen Blumenthal, recalls the struggle to pass legislation that led to gender equality in education and opened the door for girls to participate in school athletics.
This column originally appeared in The Free Lance-Star newspaper.