Essential Reads: Books for Women’s History Month

In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. However, March 8this International Women’s Day. So, the entire planet acknowledges half of its population for one day. And, similar to Black History Month, we tend to recognize the same figures over and over. While this is not as problematic as with the figures from other demographics, it is easy to overlook women whose achievements get overshadowed by others.

            For this recommendation, I’m going to select a woman from each region throughout the world, and from ancient history to modern times. Some of these women are notable, some more obscure. In all, these women give insight to the challenges within the society and how they met them head on. You might not know all of their names, but you’ll know about their resilience against oppression. 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban(2012) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

            Everyone has heard of her, but do you know of the events that led to Malala Yousafzai’s shooting? Besides learning about the Yousafzai Family and their notion that everyone deserves to be educated, you’ll learn about the practices of Islam, the recent history of Pakistan, and the rise of the Taliban. This book is a real-life cautionary tale surrounding political interference, terrorist groups, and human rights. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and her story about her life, her country, and her culture should be read by anyone who is interested in human rights. 

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China(1991) by Jung Chang

            This family saga follows three generations of women who survived the social norms and the social changes within China during the 20thCentury. Jung Change uses her family history to tell China’s narrative and how it affected not just her family, but families throughout the world. Jung’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine during the ending of the practice of foot-binding. Her mother experienced the Cultural Revolution, which brought communism to China. And, Jung Chang is the daughter of members of the Communist Elite and was a Red Guard until she was old enough to declare the life, she wanted for herself. Each generation is thrust into a situation she must work through in order to escape that lifestyle. While Chang wasn’t the only one whose family had to survive these social norms and changes, she provides enough details for witnesses, readers, and historians to comprehend for both empathy and compassion. 

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt(2018) by Kara Cooney

            Everyone is familiar with some of the culture surrounding Ancient Egypt. Pyramids, mummies, pharaohs, papyrus, gods, and curses usually come to mind when thinking about the ancient civilization; and, names such as Rameses, Amenhotep, Tutankhamun, and Khufu come to mind. But, what about the female rulers? Everyone has heard of Nefertiti and Cleopatra, and less are familiar with Hatshepsut and Tawosret. How many people know who Merneith and Neferusobek were? I’ve never heard of the last two until I picked up this book.

            Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, delves into the lives and the reigns of these six remarkable queens who would eventually become pharaohs in their own right. And, how and why their government betrayed them and sought to remove them for posterity. However, history is not so easy to eclipse. While Egypt was very much ahead of its time, it still became victimized to the notions of female rulers as did the rest of the world.

            When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egyptprovides historical facts about each of the pharaohs mentioned within the text. Both the introduction and the epilogue provide answers to those common questions. These queens ruled centuries before the notable female rulers of the last thousand years. In addition, you will wonder whether or not Ancient Egypt was the progressive civilization. 

            The next recommendations are duos. This is because the fictionalized variants are more ubiquitous than the available biographies. Yet, the fiction is noteworthy because they introduce readers (and academics) to whom these people were and what was happening during that era in their country. So, both the fiction and the biographies of these women’s lives will be recommended. 

In the Time of the Butterflies(1994) by Julia Alvarez; followed by Vivas en su jardín (Live in Your Garden)(2009) by Dedé Mirabal

            The Mirabal Sisters were some of the many opponents of General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the 1950s. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters were killed on Trujillo’s orders. In the Time of the Butterfliesis the fictionalized narrative about this family’s courage and resistance against a brutal dictator. And, while Julia Alvarez included suggested reads to learn more about the Mirabal Family and the Dominican Republic, Vivas en su jardínis Dedé Mirabal’s autobiography in which, she mentions her sisters and their political resistance. It is in Spanish, but that shouldn’t prevent one from learning more about these amazing women.

Pope Joan: A Novel(1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross; followed by Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff(2017) by Charles River Editors

            For centuries, there have been rumors of the Catholic Church having a female pope. Of course, there is limited information to confirm this due to both the era—the Middle Ages—and efforts by the Vatican to limit any knowledge about this possibility. Pope Joan was believed to have serve as “The Pope” for about one year. A few reports claim that Joan might have disguised herself as a man; and, there are a few reports which claim that Joan was elected Pope as an interim by the Papacy. It is difficult to determine what had happened. Pope Joan: A Novelby Donna Woolfolk Cross is a historical fiction novel which narrates what could have happened to Pope Joan during her life. In terms of an actual biography, so far, Pope Joan: The Indestructible Legend of the Catholic Church’s First and Only Female Pontiff, is the only one I came across that has believable information about Pope Joan. If you know of any actual and reliable titles, then please mention it in the comments below. I would appreciate it greatly. 

            The books on this list are about women you have heard of, but forgotten about, or about women you’ve never heard of before. However, it’s the moments in human history that allowed these women to demonstrate that they were more than what society wanted them to be. Instead, these women presented themselves as equals to their male counterparts to the point where the men either attacked them, or (tried to) erased them. These women survived and prevailed, and we can admire their achievements and be content knowing that we won’t permit them to fall into obscurity for posterity. These women rock! 

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Why You Need to Read: These Essential Reads for Black History Month

Black History Month can be a repetitive; this is because we honor the accomplishments of black people in the United States, and the rest of the world. And yet, we tend to recognize the same people: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and we glance at Alex Haley, Madam CJ Walker, and Matthew Henson. I have nothing against honoring the same people every year, but we should honor the “hidden gems” as well. A few of those figures are still alive. 

            At most, schools assign students to read Frederick’s Douglass’ biography and Maya Angelou’s memoir, and memorize the speeches by both Sojourner Truth and Dr. King. The Civil Rights Movement is glanced over to the point where many people do not know what influenced Rosa Parks’ actions and why. Now, I’m not saying that U.S. Citizens should know every black person in history, but they should attempt to broaden their historical knowledge. Who else can we learn about? How can it be done?

            The books mentioned below are biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of a few obscure figures that influenced many lives in the United States and in the rest of the world. Some you may have heard of, some you have not, and one “controversial” selection (with good reason). These are recommendations, which I have read, or started reading. A few of these selections are denser than others, but that means that there is more to read and more to know.

Older Releases

            These selections include a couple of familiar names, a narrative from a runaway slave, a figure from the Reconstruction Era, and a white man in black face on a mission to expose the harsh reality of Black Americans right up to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will give you insight into how Black Americans were treated from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X(1965) as told to Alex Haley

            Everyone has heard of this book and its biopic adaptation by Spike Lee, but how many of you have taken the time to read it? Malcolm X’s autobiography not only looks into the treatment and the struggles of poor African-Americans—and he does a great job distinguishing the various ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses of African-Americans throughout the U.S.—but also, points out how easy it is to corrupt religion. Yes, Malcolm X became a Muslim, but his journey of knowledge through self-education is one that can inspire everyone who reads his life story.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(1986) by David J. Garrow

            This Pulitzer Prize winning biography is the most informative and in-depth look at Dr. King’s life and participation in the Civil Rights Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. This biography of Dr. King stands out because it includes Dr. King’s personal papers, FBI documents, and interviews with Dr. King’s (then) surviving associates giving readers one of the most comprehensive looks into Dr. King’s career as an activist. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs

            Many of us have heard of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. Harriet Jacobs’ memoir—which was published in serials—tells us what slavery is like for females. Her slave master not only sexually harass Harriet to the point where she had to go into hiding, but also those experiences left Harriet feeling paranoid and insecure even after she escaped to the Free States. 

From Superman to Man(1917) by J.A. Rogers

            Written and published over a hundred years ago by this Jamaican-American writer, Rogers’ method of discussing race relations, prejudice, and misconceptions of history in America versus the rest of the world will have readers recalling the essays written by James Baldwin. Only, Rogers’ books were published before Baldwin’s. This book is written as a conversation between an educated black man named Dixon, and a few white males he ends up traveling with. This book contains information on how all races and all ethnicities of all socioeconomic statues are victims of misconceptions and falsehoods spread by political leaders and propaganda in order to keep “everyone in their place” and to “justify their beliefs” on how they think the world should operate. The historical and the revelations will leave readers with knowledge of what is made ubiquitous and what is limited to everyone. 

Black Like Me(1960) by John Howard Griffin

            The first time I heard of this book was on an episode of Boy Meets World. A journalist decided he was going to go undercover and document what is was like to be an African-American male in the Southern United States during the 1950s. What this Caucasian male witnessed and experienced made him both a best-selling author, and a target to those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and integration. This book was a wakeup call into how segregationist and racists were able to get away with their violent actions for as long as they did. 

Recent Releases

            These selections were published in recent years—as early as 2008—and they’re all about the struggles of Blacks throughout the world and how, with all of the programs and the public awareness, the struggle remains. We are reminded by these authors that in this list that all is not well. 

March Trilogy(2013-6) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

            Congressman John Lewis has lived an interesting and inspirational life. Growing up in the Southern U.S. right before the Civil Rights Movement, readers learn what inspired John Lewis to participate in this movement. John Lewis was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, and he knew Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and other figures from that era. The graphic novel format allows for the appropriate depictions of pivotal events from this moment in U.S. history. 

Between the World and Me(2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

            The author wrote this book for his son in response to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial. The book echoes James Baldwin’s works in that it serves as an informative tale of what modern Black Americans—particularly males—need to be aware of in American society. While racism is acknowledged and visible due to modern technology and coverage, it remains a “blinded” issue because the book illustrates how the accusations and the deaths of many Black people continue to occur in America. 

Me We Reaped: A Memoir(2013) by Jesmyn Ward

            This memoir focuses on how the repetitive struggles of a group of people because of race and socioeconomic status continue to lead to despair within the “upcoming” generation. Jesmyn Ward—2-time winner of the National Book Award—recalls how the deaths of five young black men, including her brother and her cousin, in four years from various causes, which sprouted from limited opportunities and expectations. This book is a cautionary tale as to why believing that times have progressed can lead to crushed hopes for a “good” life due to a lack of education, government spending, history, family expectations, and health. The focus here is how such limitations can lead to an early death instead of incarceration, which is just as bad. This book is a wake-up call to the harsh reality of those who are left behind deliberately. 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo(2012) by Tom Reiss

            What inspired Alexandre Dumas to write The Three Musketeersand The Count of Monte Cristo? Well, if your father was a general in Napoleon’s army, who was later betrayed and murdered by him, then those stories and experiences would find their way into your stories. This Pulitzer winner looks at the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who went from a bastard growing up in (what is now known as) Haiti to his rise and eventual fall in the French army. 

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching(2008) by Paula Giddings

            Ida B. Wells-Garnett was a fierce woman who was ahead of her time. While she is remembered during Black History Month, her accomplishments have been forgotten. Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign after losing a friend to a lynch mob. In addition, she was one of the first to sue and to win a lawsuit after being thrown off a train for refusing to move her seat way before Rosa Parks did the same thing! And, she was a speaker of the Suffrage Movement in the U.S. and in Britain, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). Ida B. Wells remains one of the most infamous badasses in American history.

These books are recommendations for Black History Month in how the repetitive struggles of Black Americans continue to affect and to influence the growing demands for change in the United States. Even if the names of the authors are familiar to you, then you should still read the books due to the other names mentioned within these books. These are non-fiction reads, meaning that the people and the history are true whether or not you want to believe it. I believe reading these books will provide a better understanding of how and why people continue to mistreat each other. False knowledge and beliefs can often lead to denial once the truth and the facts are presented, but knowing that there is truth within history will allow the race of humanity to continue moving forward.