Aphra's Reading Room: Women's History Month Edition, Part I

(This is the first in a series of four posts recommending books and films on the history of women, gender, sexuality, feminism, and related topics.)

It's pretty astonishing to think that up until very recently, women were people without a history. As Joan Kelly pointed out in her influential 1977 essay,"Did Women Have a Renaissance?" even our historical frameworks are skewed towards the experiences of wealthy, white men.

Re-thinking history from the perspective of women, then, is a deeply feminist act, helping challenge cultural narratives that marginalize, dismiss, or essentialize women. Unfortunately, women's history is still poorly integrated into many history curricula, so it's possible to get through our educational years with very little interaction with women's history or its related histories of gender and sexuality.
So, in honor of Women's History Month in the United States, I'm offering a series of four posts in which I will make some recommendations for books and films on the history of women, and invite you to make your own recommendations or in comments. Some are academic works, others are works of popular history.

My lists are just beginning points, not comprehensive. They are necessarily skewed by my areas of research and teaching; they are intended to start conversations, so please, jump in with your suggestions! Some of these books are academic and peer-reviewed; some are popular. Some approaches are explicitly feminist, while others are definitely not.

If you have been doing some great reading (or viewing) in women's history, this is your chance to share! If you've been thinking you'd like to learn more about women's history, these posts should give you some ideas!

Part I: Ancient and Medieval (to c. 1500 CE).

Book: The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown. This book traces the travels of Gudrid, a medieval Scandinavian woman who sailed the Atlantic, leaving behind literary traces in the Viking sagas, and even archaeological traces. Only women performed certain work in Scandinavian culture; this book reminds us that they we re an essential part of the Viking travels.

Book: Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh by Joyce A. Tyldesley. Queen Hatshepsut, although apparently a ciswoman by birth, took on the beard and other traditionally masculine trappings of a Pharoah as she ruled over ancient Egypt. I wish this book had more consideration of her gender identity, but other than that it is a wonderfully thorough (and readable!) work full of background about her remarkable family, the Thutmosids, and their world. It has intrigue, danger, political maneuvering, and the backdrop of a society that recognized a remarkably wide range of women's freedoms.

DVD: Secrets of the Dead: "Amazon Warrior" Women. I am a junkie for the PBS series "Secrets of the Dead," and this episode is one of my favorites. Taking on the question of whether or not the "Amazons" of Greek mythology actually existed, the series uses a wide range of sources to explore their historicity, from an "Amazon" grave to modern DNA testing. I don't want to give away the ending, but the answer to the question can be summed up as: "Sort of."

Book: Dinah's Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to Late Antiquity by Helena Zlotnick. This is an academic study that thoroughly covers gender roles in ancient Judaism. While I found it a little depressing in parts--particularly as it examines the contrasts between "bad" gentile women and "good" Jewish women, it really enriched my understanding of gender and early Abrahamic religion. An academic work, but well worth the effort if that sort of thing interests you.

Book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford. This enjoyable little book tells the story of Genghis Khan's female heirs, his daughters and daughters-in-law, who took control of his kingdom after his death, sparking an era of epic struggle. I particularly enjoyed the unforgettable Queen Mandhuhai who bore eight children in the midst of a successful career on the battlefield (so much for Rick Santorum's theories about women in the military!)

Book: Letters of the Nun Eshinni: Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan by James C Dobbins. Eshinni was a 13th century nun and eyewitness to the founding of the Pure Land school of Buddhism. The author uses her letters to uncover the way she and other women used religion to carve out a positive female identity in a world full of overwhelmingly negative female imagery. I have very little background in the history of Buddhism or of women in Japan, yet I had no trouble following the book, and found it all-around informative.

Book: Women in Ancient America by Karen Olsen Bruhns and Karen E. Stothert . A thorough discussion on women in the pre-Columbian Americas, on every topic ranging from food production, warfare, households, and women's distinctive religious roles in early American societies. Very strong on Mesoamerican women in particular., It's thoroughly grounded in archaeology and the introduction even does a nice job of laying out exactly how archaeologists use gender as a category of analysis.

DVD: The Ancient World: Helen of Troy. Bettany Hughes is one of my favorite presenters, and this episode of her "Ancient World" series sees her exploring the world of Helen of Tory is a completely engaging way. She reminds us that Helen was originally from Sparta, and explored the powerful role that women played in Spartan religion. There's even a recreation of what Helen's makeup might have looked like. Although framed around Helen, this episode explores the role of royal women in ancient Greek society more generally.

Coming up: Part II: Early Modern (1500-1800 CE); Part III: Nineteenth Century CE; Part IV: 20th Century CE

[Commenting Note: In addition to our usual commenting standards, I ask that we be respectful of others' experiences in discovering women's history. A work that is helpful to one person may have its flaws, and it's fine to talk about that. If nothing else, research does get out dated. But please respect that this work was important to the commenter for a reason. Also please note that while not every recommendation must be flawless by social justice standards, works in which anti-trans*, heterocentrist, racist, and/or other marginalizing material are central are not welcome.]

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