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

(This is the second in a series of four posts recommending books and films on the history of women, gender, sexuality, feminism, and related topics. This series is in honor of the U.S. commemoration of Women's History Month. For background, you can read the first post here.)

Welcome to the second installment! You are hereby invited to commit the deeply feminist act of looking at history from women's points of view. These lists are necessarily limited by my own areas of teaching and research; they are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to help start some conversations about women's history. You're invited to share your own recommendations in comments.

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 II: Early Modern Era (c. 1450 - c.1800 CE)

Book: The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, by Afua Cooper. This is a wide-ranging book that re-traces the life of Angelique, an African woman trapped in the Atlantic slave system and who may or may not have been guilty of arson. The author uses legal records to reconstruct Angelique's voice, and situates her in the wider context of colonial Montreal and a slave system that shackled both African and Native persons. Although it's an academic work, it reads like popular history.

Book: Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, by Yossef Rapoport. I love this study, which challenges much of the historiography about divorce by rejecting Western frameworks that assume divorce has been rare until recently. Not only was divorce relatively accessible for 15th century Muslims, the author makes a compelling argument that Muslim women were far from powerless as they navigated the laws that governed divorce.

Book: Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall. This collection of essays ranges from Asia to the Americas to Europe, considering women's roles in royal politics. Essays cover courtesans, wives, mothers, and a very wide range of women. Rather than being a sign of corruption or a political aberration, this book paints' women's "intrigues" as a normal part of many different political systems.

DVD: American Experience - A Midwife's Tale. This installment of PBS' American Experience uncovers the story of Martha Ballard, a late 18th century midwife living in frontier Maine. Not only is Martha's story revealed, the program also follows historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who uncovered Martha via her diary. This, this is not only an interesting piece about 18th century daily life, it provides insight into how historians can piece together women's stories from the limited evidence they leave behind.

Book: Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, by Allan Greer. Partially blinded and scarred by smallpox at a young age, Kateri Tekakwitha might have died an unknown outcast. Yet her remarkable Christian piety, demonstrated through extreme acts of self-denial, won her admiration in the mixed-race Christian community of New France. By the time of her death at age 24, she had already convinced missionary Jesuits that she was destined for sainthood. A woman between two worlds, her story, and that of the Jesuits who burnished her saintly reputation, is a fascinating look at the blending of communities in colonial North America.

Book: Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman---and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America, by Alan Pell Crawford. This is a gripping work of popular history that is both easy and difficult to read. Easy, because the story is absorbing: 18 year old Nancy Randolph of Virgina is accused of committing adultery with her own brother-in-law, and of murdering their infant child. The resulting scandal provokes a trial involving such great legal minds as Patrick Henry and future justice John Marshall. Thomas Jefferson also plays a prominent role in Nancy's life. Yet this is simultaneously a difficult book, throwing a light onto the ways that even enormously privileged women were vulnerability in the U.S. Early National era.

Book: The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern, by Carla Hesse. There's a tendency among popular histories treatments of the Enlightenment to focus primarily on its effects upon men, with perhaps a mention of Mary Wollstonecraft for "balance." This book, on the other hand, takes a serious and sustained look at the way the French Revolution shaped women's writing and intellectual lives.

Book: Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, by Alfred F. Young. Disguised as "Robert Shurtleff," schoolteacher Deborah Sampson enlisted in George Washington's continental forces, living and fighting as a man; after the war, she married and, hard up for cash, took to the stage to perform military exercises as a woman. Although she left few records behind, Young teases out her story using family sources and other inaccessible records. This is as complete a biography of Sampson as we are likely to get, and it's a good one.

Book: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, by Carol Karlsen. I could do an entire reading list on witchcraft trials (perhaps for a future Reading Room!) but if you read only one book on the topic, this is a good one. Karlsen was the first scholar to extensively consider the role of gender in New England witchcraft trials, and she makes a compelling argument that concerns about gender and property played a very important role in the trials. She considers not only Salem, but a wide range of New England witchcraft trials and helpfully distinguishes between garden-variety accusations and outbreaks of panic.

Book: Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric, by Veronica Buckley. One of the most famous Catholic converts of her era, Christina gave up the throne of Sweden and lived a highly unusual life of adventure and pleasure. Hardly a feminist, Christina viewed women with disdain, and provides an excellent example of the Exceptional Woman. I wish the author had centered Christina's conflicted gender and sexuality a bit more; she frequently dressed in masculine clothing and took both male and female lovers. However, the book is overall a thoroughly intriguing portrait of a very interesting personality.

Book: The Secret Life of Aphra Behn, by Janet Todd. I couldn't resist! Todd painstakingly recreates the life of the 17th century propagandist, playwright, and spy in this biography, the most complete to date.

Coming up: 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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