African-American women contributed significantly to the campaign for racial justice.
An Emmy-winning TV and radio producer, social justice activist Bell makes her literary debut with a revealing collection of oral histories by nine African-American women prominent in the civil rights movement. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the book follows the careers of New Orleans chef and restaurant owner Leah Chase; psychiatrist June Jackson Christmas; Aileen Hernandez, the first African-American president of the National Organization of Women; Diane Nash, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Judy Richardson, co-founder of Drum and Spear bookstore and Drum and Spear Press, devoted to publishing and promoting African-American literature; Kathleen Cleaver, the first woman to serve on the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party; Gay McDougall, an international human rights activist who focused on ending apartheid in South Africa; Gloria Richardson, whom Ebony magazine called “the Lady General of Civil Rights”; and Myrlie Evers, widow of slain activist Medgar Evers, who later served as chair of the NAACP. Common to all were a spirit of determination and unflagging resilience as they struggled against racism and sexism. Christmas, for example, faced prejudice growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she discovered that a Girl Scout camp and the YWCA both had racial prohibitions. At Vassar, as one of two African-American girls, she was advised that it would “be best for you if you don’t have a roommate.” Later, she was one of seven women in her medical school class and, again, one of two African-Americans. She was denied a residency at New York Hospital, told that “men would be very disturbed by you and stimulated by you.” Most, like McDougall, were raised in a family “where caring and addressing a situation was important.” They were expected to pursue an education, and many ended up at prestigious schools—Swarthmore, Barnard, Yale, Bennington, Howard—where classes and extracurricular activities fueled their motivation.
Candid testimony from impressive and influential women.
A science writer’s account of her frustrating experiences with the medical establishment as she tried to understand an illness that defied easy explanation and diagnosis.
Futurism associate science editor Norman is nothing if not a survivor. She overcame dysfunctional family circumstances to become an emancipated minor at age 16 and attend Sarah Lawrence College on a prestigious scholarship two years later. However, one day during her freshman year, she was hit with pain so debilitating that she was forced to leave school permanently. The first (male) doctor she saw assumed she was just another “bright and wound tight” college girl whose problem “was of a sexual nature.” He dismissed her with prescriptions for antibiotics and advice to drink lots of cranberry juice. Soon after, Norman began in-depth research—which she presents throughout the book—on female health issues. She discovered that her struggles to be taken seriously for extreme pain were actually a legacy of “the medicalization of female internal sensations, which began as early as the 1800s.” Feeling powerless to question the all-male medical establishment, women “[began] to question their reality,” much as the author started to do in the face of doctors that implied her problems, which included heavy, fatiguing menstrual cycles and, later, painful sex, were imagined. Eventually—and thanks to Norman’s tireless self-advocacy—doctors correctly diagnosed her with endometriosis, a condition in which “displaced uterine tissue” caused painful lesions on other internal organs. Interviews with experts and continued self-education on the topic showed Norman that, contrary to popular conception, endometriosis was not just a “female disease” or a “period problem” and had also been found in men. Compelling and impressively researched, Norman’s narrative not only offers an unsparing look at the historically and culturally fraught relationship between women and their doctors. It also reveals how, in the quest for answers and good health, women must still fight a patriarchal medical establishment to be heard.
A group biography of women who created profound cultural changes.
Journalist Barnet (All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930, 2004) focuses on four women who became famous in the 1960s for iconoclastic work in different fields: Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring became a bible of the environmental movement; Jane Jacobs, critic and activist, who championed the cultural richness of city life; Jane Goodall, who shocked anthropologists by discovering chimps using tools; and Alice Waters, who inspired the sustainable food movement with her Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse. Drawing on the many “superb individual biographies” of these women, who did not know one another, Barnet offers an overview of their lives to point up the “striking overlaps and consonances” in their thinking and “the extent to which these four pioneers were channeling the anxieties of their particular moment.” The overlaps seem predictable: like many successful women, each was hardworking, determined, strong-willed, and intelligent. Encountering derision by powerful men, they “tenaciously stood their ground.” However, their personalities were vastly dissimilar, and Barnet strains to find convergences. They were all nurturers, she argues, but “instead of material expansion, each emphasized quality of life, the public good, what was sensible and ethical.” Moreover, Barnet insists that their perception of the interconnectedness of the living world is a distinctively female predilection for bonding and community; citing one study, she asserts that under stress, women “respond with a desire to connect with others.” Goodall “neither envisioned nor experienced the natural world as a hierarchy in which mankind stood at the top, separate and superior.” Similarly, Carson and Jacobs experienced their own environments as “an organism that pulsed with life.” Barnet deeply admires her subjects, which colors her portrait of the “elfin” Waters, “a remarkable character by any measure,” whom she interviewed for this book, and she fails to examine the self-absorption that seems to have fueled Waters’ personal and professional conflicts.
Informative biographical essays of influential women.
A veteran cultural critic examines the rise of female-centric TV and the pioneering women showrunners behind their successes.
Groundbreaking female characters and their stories have become fixtures in American TV in recent years, but their presence hasn’t always been welcome. Press (War of the Words: 20 Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature, 2001, etc.)—former TV critic at the Village Voice and entertainment editor at Salon and the Los Angeles Times—draws from decades of interviews, research, and reporting to create a vibrant behind-the-scenes look at some of the most prominent women creatives in the industry and the role they played in bringing women-focused narratives to the forefront of modern TV and culture. She devotes the first chapter to Murphy Brown and the revolutionary sitcom’s creator, Diane English, one of the first female showrunners to prove that a woman could lead a successful show. English set an important precedent for future women showrunners and their unapologetically brazen TV heroines—Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, an industry trailblazer whose portrayal of unabashedly ambitious, sexually formidable, “unlikable” women of all different races, ethnicities, sexualities, and abilities transformed the TV landscape. Rhimes’ “color blind” casting helped her build her Shondaland TV empire and effectively normalized the idea that nonwhite, nonmales can be successful on-screen, behind-the-scenes, and in real life. In the most intriguing and intimate chapter, Press examines Transparent creator Jill Soloway, whose real life served as inspiration for her award-winning show about a family who recently learned that their parent is transgender. With a keen eye and a sharp writing style, the author presents the argument that, despite the limited power of TV and the current political backlash facing women, increased representation on-screen has the potential to inspire a cultural revolution not unlike the current revival of the feminist movement. The author also profiles Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Jenji Kohan, among others.
An urgent and entertaining history of the transformative powers of women in TV.
In the provocative essays collected in her first book, Jerkins meditates on how it feels to be a black woman in the United States today.
Brought up in suburban New Jersey, educated at Princeton, and now living in Harlem and working in publishing, the author often feels like an outsider. Her essays, usually deeply personal and always political, examine that unease. In the first, she goes back to elementary school, when she realized that “the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader.” Other pieces consider the fraught issue of hair for black women, the self-repression imposed by the taboo against being thought a “fast-tailed girl,” the social pressure to identify as a “human” rather than as a “black woman,” and her ambivalence about the “black girl magic” movement. Some of her most effective essays take unusual shapes: one is an open letter to Michelle Obama, addressing her as “the beacon that reminds white people that 99 percent of them will never reach where you are,” and another is an ironic list of instructions on “How to Be Docile,” which provides the black female subject with everything she needs: “looks, deference to man, suppressed sexuality, silence.” At times, particularly in the final essay, which lists many of the black women the author believes could have helped her and didn't, Jerkins comes across as whiny. Sometimes, as in the piece about the many reasons she decided to have labiaplasty, she appears to be working hard to justify her actions. While she identifies herself as a feminist, the primary “other” against whom Jerkins sets herself is the automatically privileged white woman, “supported, cared for, and coddled.”
At its best, the book reveals complicated, messily human responses to knotty problems. Never intended as the final word on the black female experience in America today, it uncovers the effect of social forces on one perceptive young woman.
From novelist Pierpont (Among the Ten Thousand Things, 2015) and British illustrator Thapp, an enticing collection of biographical portraits of extraordinary women.
The author models her richly varied collection of 100 “feminist saints” on the “Catholic saint-of-the-day book,” offering one-page inspirational snapshots that aim to capture the spirit of her path-breaking subjects versus history’s fuller remembrance of them. Pierpont’s pithy write-ups are accompanied by Thapp’s funky, wonderfully expressive color illustrations, making for an engaging picture-book experience for adults. From Sappho to Malala to Pussy Riot, Pierpont tracks well over two millennia of women’s achievements ranging from the likes of artists, politicians, and scientists to athletes, screen stars, and comics. Though loosely organized around the calendar year, the portraits may be read consecutively or piecemeal; each offers a glimpse of one of Pierpont’s “matron saints” in her respective element. Thus, March 26 contains a spirited anecdote from Sandra Day O’Connor, “Matron Saint of Justice,” who, in October 1983, wrote to admonish the New York Times, noting that “for over two years now SCOTUS has not consisted of nine men. If you have any contradictory information, I would be grateful if you would forward it as I’m sure the POTUS, the SCOTUS and the undersigned (the FWOTSC) [first woman of the Supreme Court] would be most interested in seeing it.” April 1 is for Wangari Maathai, “Matron Saint of Sustainability,” who started the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya, planting 50 million trees and training “thirty thousand women in forestry and food processing, allowing them to make their own incomes.” Matthai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. July 15 features signature quips from powerhouse mother-and-daughter duo Ann and Cecile Richards; says Ann: “I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don’t have any.” Other trailblazers include Virginia Woolf, Billie Jean King, and Ada Lovelace.
Bold and sassy, Pierpont and Thapp’s “little” collection of secular “saints” stands tall: required reading for any seeking to broaden their historical knowledge.
In our current political and cultural landscape, truth and fact have become the ignored and unloved siblings of belief and bias.
Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Kakutani (The Poet at the Piano: Portraits of Writers, Filmmakers, Playwrights and Other Artists at Work, 1988), who until recently was the chief book reviewer for the New York Times—already two black marks against her in the populist playbook: She reads, and she worked for the Times—offers a dark analysis of the rise of Donald Trump and the fall of any concern for facts. Firmly assertive and seriously argued (there is little humor here, but given the subject, few will blame the author), her text is also full of allusions to and quotations from writers and others, including George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Richard Hofstadter, William Butler Yeats, David Foster Wallace, and Ayn Rand. One short paragraph includes references to The Great Gatsby, Fight Club, Michel Houellbecq’s “willfully repellent novels,” No Country for Old Men, and the HBO series True Detective. Through it all, Kakutani’s strong presence sometimes disappears in a tangled wood of allusion and quotation. Still, she sees—and ably describes—with a depressing clarity the dangers of our brave new world. The author charts the decline of reason, the culture wars, the appeals of Trump and his “dog-whistle racism” (she is relentless in her attacks on the president), the language of dictators, the skills of Russian internet trolls, the dangers of the digital age, the blather about “fake news,” and, ultimately, the dire threat all of this poses for the democracy we profess to cherish. Kakutani also reminds us—as if we need reminding—that the German Nazi and Soviet Communist governments were hideous. Her final note: “without truth, democracy is hobbled.”
A stark sermon to the choir that urges each member to sing—loudly and ceaselessly.
Harrowing travels through the land of the hypermedicated, courtesy of hopelessness, poverty, and large pharmaceutical companies.
A huge number of Americans, many of them poor rural whites, have died in the last couple of decades of what one Princeton researcher has called “diseases of despair,” including alcoholism, suicide, and drug overdoses caused by the hopeless sense that there’s a lack of anything better to do. Roanoke-based investigative journalist Macy (Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, 2016, etc.) locates one key killer—the opioid epidemic—in the heart of Appalachia and other out-of-the-way places dependent on outmoded industries, bypassed economically and culturally, and without any political power to speak of, “hollows and towns and fishing villages where the nearest rehab facility was likely to be hours from home.” Prisons are much closer. Macy’s purview centers on the I-81 corridor that runs along the Appalachians from eastern Tennessee north, where opioid abuse first rose to epidemic levels. She establishes a bleak pattern of high school football stars and good students who are caught in a spiral: They suffer some pain, receive prescriptions for powerful medications thanks to a pharmaceutical industry with powerful lobbying and sales arms (“If a doctor was already prescribing lots of Percocet and Vicodin, a rep was sent out to deliver a pitch about OxyContin’s potency and longer-lasting action”), and often wind up dead or in jail, broke and broken by a system that is easy to game. Interestingly, Macy adds, “almost to a person, the addicted twentysomethings I met had taken attention-deficit medication as children.” Following her survey of the devastation wrought in the coal and Rust belts, the author concludes with a call to arms for a “New Deal for the Drug Addicted,” a constituency that it’s all too easy to write off even as their number climbs.
An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.
This French graphic novel offers a satisfying collection of minibiographies about bold women—some contemporary, others from centuries ago—who overcame fearsome odds to achieve a variety of goals, becoming the first black woman in space, a rapper in Afghanistan, a pioneering volcanologist, and more.
The lives of 33 women of varying geographical, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds are highlighted in about 10 pages each of colorful, expressive, and often humorous cartoon panels—enough to serve as a catalyst for learning more. Some names are relatively recognizable, such as Temple Grandin and Nellie Bly, while others may be less so, such as Las Mariposas, Dominican sisters who became revolutionaries and human rights activists; Naziq al-Abid, a Syrian humanitarian and feminist; Agnodice, a fourth-century B.C.E. Athenian who disguised herself as a man in order to practice gynecology; and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian social worker who escaped an abusive marriage and assisted other female survivors of violence. Bagieu delivers a pièce de résistance that succinctly summarizes the obstacles and victories of these daring women.
Insightful and clever, at times infuriating and disheartening, this serves as a reminder that the hardships women face today have been shared—and overcome—by many others.
(Graphic collective biography. 14-18)