Lawyer and activist Schiff resurrects nine little-known heroines who played a crucial role in America’s humanitarian development.
The best antidote to current cynicism about politics, notes former vice president Al Gore’s eldest, is to offer “stories of those who fought against it by keeping politics grounded in public service.” Her narrative of grassroots activism begins with Ida B. Wells’s 1890s campaign to bring the lynching of blacks to greater public attention and closes with Gretchen Buchenholz’s dogged, ongoing crusade to promote the welfare of New York City’s homeless families through the Association to Benefit Children (where Schiff formerly served as director of community affairs). Many of the stories discern the connection between personal experience and the crusade for social justice: After losing her husband and four children during the 1867 yellow-fever epidemic, Mother Jones transformed her devastation into tireless work for miners and children forced into unspeakable labor. Among other women featured is public-health official Alice Hamilton, whose work identifying unsafe factory conditions gained her a grudging invitation to teach at Harvard in 1919, making her the first woman to be appointed to the faculty, and Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member, who paved an important direction in labor relations under FDR. Virginia Durr and Septima Poinsette Clark, as far apart in race, class and upbringing as two Southern women could be, helped turn back the pernicious tide of racism during the civil-rights era. Mexican-American Dolores Huerta collaborated with Cesar Chávez in establishing basic human rights for farm workers. Placed at the head of the beleaguered Lincoln Hospital’s Pediatrics Collective in the South Bronx in 1970, Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias grew over the years into a passionate critic of forced sterilization and inequities of healthcare. Schiff takes particular note of the fact that many of her subjects sacrificed a happy home life to pursue their missions, entangled in the age-old conflict between family and work.
Important reading for young and old alike.