Aphra's Reading Room: Women's History month Edition, Part III

(This is the third 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 and the second here.

Welcome to the third installment! You are hereby invited to commit the deeply feminist act of looking at 19th century 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 III: The Long 19th Century (1780-1920)

BOOK: The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in 19th Century New York by Amy Gilman Srebnick. Exploring one of 19th century America's most famous "unsolved mysteries, Srebnick places the discussion of her demise in the context of anxieties about sexuality and gender. If you only know Mary Rogers through Edgar Allen Poe's fictionalized version of her story (or even if you don't know her at all), you will probably enjoy this rich cultural history that brings to life the precarious existence a single young woman who lived as a "cigar girl" in the growing metropolis of New York, and whose death helped fuel a growing national debate about abortion.

BOOK: Princess Isabel of Brazil: Gender and Power in the Nineteenth Century by Roderick J. Barman. Much less well known in the English-speaking world than her contemporary Queen Victoria, Isabel of Brazil served as regent for her father during three separate occasions, most famously presiding over the politically contentious dismantling of slavery in Brazil. Barman re-evaluates her personal and political role in light of 19th century gender ideology.

BOOK: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (free online and downloadable version available here). One of the most arresting narratives ever written by an enslaved person, Harriet Jacobs laid bare her experiences as a survivor of never-ending sexual harassment and vulnerability in order to tell a truth about American slavery that few could face in the 19th century. Beginning with a girlhood in which she was unaware of slavery, Jacobs traces her life as a young woman believed firmly in female chastity, but was unable, thanks to slavery, to live out that role. Although couched in polite language, she spares the reader few agonies. Nor does she spare the North, where she finally escapes to freedom from slavery, but not from racism. Nonfiction, but it reads very much like a novel.

DVD: Canadian Experience: Sisters in the Wilderness, The lives of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail. The Strickland sisters were born to a middle class English family and grew up lovers of literature. So how did Susannah and Catherine end up living in the Canadian wilderness? This DVD, based on a book by the same name, explores the story of two literary women who responded to their time in "the bush" in very different ways.

BOOK: The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann. Covering the period from the late 18th through the 19th century, this multi-generation biography traces the lives of Tang Yaoqing, Zhang Qieying, and Wang Caipin, three very different women drawn together by familial ties. Drawing heavily on the women's own literary output, it's a social history that reads almost like a novel.

BOOK: The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelly Emling. Too often the story of paleontology is told as the tale of adventuring elite men. But the first known dinosaur fossil was actually discovered by a 12 year old girl, daughter of a Dissenting cabinetmaker. The book tells the engrossing story of a woman who went on to become one of the most fossil collectors of her day, but, because of her class and gender, was shut out of most formal scientific venues.

BOOK: Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailor's Wives by David Cordingly. Ranging over a span of centuries, this is a fun history that details the lives of many different kinds of sailing women: whaling wives (who occasionally might have to sail the ship themselves), to mythical mermaids, female lighthouse keepers, prostitutes, the women who made their lives as sailors, and more. I especially enjoyed learning more about the wives of naval officers who not only accompanied their husbands to sea, but even had a role to play in naval battles.

DVD: American Experience: One Woman, One Vote. Beginning with the Seneca Falls convention, this documentary goes beyond Susan B. Anthony to examine a movement fraught with internal divides and full of different visions. You'll meet Mary Church Terrell, Anna Howard Shaw, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, and many others. A nice introduction to the struggle, full of music, photographs, cartoons, and other sounds and images from the long debate over women's right to vote. Narrated by Susan Sarandon.

BOOK: May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt by Marilyn Booth. Exploring the art of biography, an important literary medium in the 19th century Arab world, Booth lays out the ways that women's biographies were constructed as exemplars of ideal femininity in late 19th and early 20th century Egypt. Booth uses over the biographies of over 500 famous women to trace the connections between femininity and Egyptian nationalism, exploring as well the role of women as writers and readers of these biographies. I found the chapter on Joan of Arc as nationalist exemplar especially interesting. While this is definitely an academic rather than a casual read, I found it an absorbing study.

BOOK: Abina and the Important Men By Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clark. This unique graphic "novel" is a work of non-fiction that explores the ecperiences of Abinah Mansah, a woman of the Gold Coast, who in 1876 went to court in order to challenge her enslavement. Based on court records, this very unique book (Oxford University press doesn't usually publish comic books!) includes not only Abinah's narrative, but a detailed text-only narrative contextualizing her world and the documents that preserve her story.

Coming up: 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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