History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know About
History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know About
We’re finding it quite tiring that rather than being celebrated as heroes, leaders, and innovators, women are often depicted – and treated – as secondary characters in history. They may be love interests, damsels in distress, sassy best friends, mothers, mistresses, or martyrs – but they rarely exist as anything except footnotes to the stories of the men who lives and achievements we’re told actually matter. . . .
History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know aims to explore the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women across the world who defied cultural expectations and social pressures that sought to limit their ambition and erase them from the history books. When they were told that women should aspire to be submissive and good they decided instead to be defiant and great. Their uncompromising lives and thrilling exploits are a reminder that the stories we tell about women – in TV shows, comic books, and video games, as well as in real life – often reflect the stereotypes and limitations that have been created for them, rather than the world-changing feats they have already achieved, often against incredible odds. (“Introduction”, Pp.1-2.)
Mai Bhago, Wang Zhenyi, Griselda Blanco, Lois Weber, Kati Sandwina – are any of those names familiar to you? They certainly were unknown to me, too. History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know presents stories of women from the past and present “whose stories were never told, whose songs were never sung, and whose works were never celebrated.” Needless to say, that’s a huge cohort, but authors Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams met the challenge of narrowing their selection to 25 mini-biographies, although they admit to having thoughts of compiling a second volume.
The book is divided into five sections - Reckless Rebels, Revelatory Scholars, Ruthless Villains, Restless Artists, and Relentless Amazons – with each section offering profiles of the lives and works of women epitomized by the section’s title. In these 25 biographies, we meet a truly diverse collection of females from different races, places, eras, who came from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and whose lives were notable for accomplishments atypical for women of their time and place. Prefacing each section is a short introduction to the women who are featured, as well as a discussion of the attribute which these women epitomize. For example, “Reckless Rebels” focuses on those who “refused to accept the status quo” (p. 5), who, in one way or another, worked for social justice, human rights, and social change, regardless of time or place. These “rebels” include a third century Vietnamese freedom fighter against Chinese imperialism (Trieu Thi Trinh), a Sikh warrior (Mai Bhago) who saved one of the leaders of Sikhism, and, in more recent times, an Egyptian feminist (Doria Shafik) who led the fight for female voting rights, a crusading black journalist of the late 19th century (Ida B. Wells), and a pioneer for transgender rights (Lucy Hicks Anderson, “a black woman born in a body that did not fit who she knew herself to be”). (p. 15)
For centuries, the opportunity to be educated and devote oneself to the pursuit of knowledge was open only to women of the socially privileged classes, and even then, higher education was not seen as necessary or even desirable for women. Even when women did succeed, against overwhelming social or cultural opposition, their achievements were often downplayed. The recent movie, Hidden Figures, has told the story of black women like Annie Easley, a mathematician working at NASA, a “computer” whose skill at performing complex calculations (either on paper or using very rudimentary calculating machines) helped to send men into space. Her story is related in the section entitled “Revelatory Scholars”, along with the legendary fourth century Egyptian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia; the legacies bestowed by a ninth century Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the mosque that would become the university in Fes, Morocco; the fragments known of the life of fourteenth century medieval scholar Novella d’Andrea; and the multi-talented Wang Zhenyi, a Chinese intellectual of the eighteenth century and astronomer, but who is known mainly for her poetry.
The women of “Ruthless Villains” are powerful and fearless. The authors noted that “all of the women here rose to the heights of power in traditionally male-dominated spheres, . . . [and] used intimidation, violence, or ruthless control to maintain that power”. (p. 53) Once they had power, these women were able to hold onto it, largely because “these women were fearless, . . . bold and unflinching in their pursuit of wealth, power, or greatness.” (p. 53) Isabella of Castile, in partnership with her husband, Fernando of Aragon, made Spain an imperial power, but she was also responsible for initiating the Spanish Inquisition, a monstrously brutal persecution of Jews and Muslims, as well as anyone else who failed to conform to church dogma and orthodoxy.
Some women positively thrived in the criminal element. Mary Frith (or Moll Cutpurse, as she was better known), a seventeenth century Irish criminal, resisted all attempts to reform her, and Ching Shih, a nineteenth century Cantonese woman, managed to build a career in successful piracy. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Griselda Blanco, known as La Madrina, reigned over a drug empire which trafficked cocaine to the United States for the Medellin drug cartel. She was ruthless and apparently pioneered murder by motorcycle drive-by shooting. Margaret Thatcher is the final entry in this section. Although she was Britain’s first female prime minister, she did not appear to be greatly interested in or concerned with women’s issues; the authors state that “it is imperative that we look past her groundbreaking ascension to power and remember that her conservative policies and disregard for civil and labor rights were not unique and very much in line with the actions of authoritarian, and male, world leaders.” (p. 77) Thatcher was tough and uncompromising, yes, but villainous? That seems a bit strong.
“Restless Artists” covers a millennium’s worth of female accomplishments in the visual, literary, and performing arts. An eleventh century Japanese aristocrat, Murasaki Shikibu, wrote The Tale of Genji, a literary masterpiece considered to be the first novel. Centuries later, in 1610, a 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi had just completed one of her best-known paintings and at the age of 23, she became the first woman ever admitted to membership in Florence’s Academy of Design. She made a living as an artist and trained one of her daughters in the art of painting. “She was celebrated in her own time, and then gradually, like a canvas hidden in the attic, she faded from our memory. . . . It is only in the last half century that her reputation, like her art, has been brought back into the light.” (p. 87)
The names of movie studio moguls who ran the Hollywood studios – all males – are well-known, but even in its earliest days, women played a significant role. “It’s estimated that between 1911 and 1925 half of all screenplays were written by women” (p. 89). One of them, Lois Weber, wrote, directed, and even acted in some of her films. For a time, she had a very successful career at Universal Studios, but, by the late 1920’s, her work failed to garner the attention it once did, and when she died in 1939, her passing was barely noted by the film press.
Ballet is a punishingly demanding performance art, but Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, a Native American born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, became the first American ballet dancer to achieve the title of “prima ballerina”. Endowed with both incredible drive and technical ability, she achieved artistic triumph, nationally and abroad. She had “a complicated public relationship with her native background” (p. 100), and, although Native American associations wanted her presence as a spokesperson and advocate, she resisted, whether through personal reluctance or past experience with prejudice. However, Elizabeth Catlett, a black American artist, born in 1915, openly embraced her heritage and explored it through her work in a variety of media: print-making, painting, and sculpture. “Her work focused primarily on the poor, or on black and brown people, [and] it was by no means universally accepted or understood.” (p. 104)
The final section of the book deals with “Relentless Amazons”, a group of women noted for endeavours which display their physical strength and power. The introduction to this section explores the issue of women and their bodies, the constraints faced by female athletes, societal expectations of femininity, and expectations about female body image, especially if they “are not packaged in ways meant to be desirable for male audiences.” (p. 109) The women featured in this last section of the book were all strong, independent, and self-sufficient. They range across the centuries, starting with a thirteenth-century Mongolian princess named Khutulun, an excellent rider and skilled warrior, and undefeated as a wrestler, besting all male contenders. Seventeenth century Peru celebrated the exploits of Ana de Urinza and Eustaquia de Sonza, two women of privileged backgrounds who became skilled swordswomen. Dressing up as men during the evening, they “became something akin to vigilantes . . . fighters in the service of the vulnerable.” (p. 118) Kati Sandwina, born in 1884 into a circus performing family, became a strongwoman, hoisting huge weights while working for Barnum & Bailey, and later, as the owner of a bar and restaurant, bending iron bars to entertain patrons. Although Jackie Robinson is famous for breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, not many people have heard of Jackie Mitchell. She threw a “drop ball” and, during an exhibition game in 1931, she apparently struck out two baseball greats: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The final entry in this section is Bessie Stringfield, who, at the age of 19, became the first black woman to take a cross-country motorcycle trip across America. She did this feat during the 1930’s, at the height of Jim Crow laws still being in effect in many of the 48 states through which she travelled.
Reading about these women, I wondered, “Just how did the authors come to know of these women, their stories, and their impact throughout the ages?” The book is a joint project of Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams, both of whom are actively engaged in writing, lecturing, and creative projects which explore the representation of women, especially in contemporary pop culture. Sarkeesian, a Canadian-American media critic, is the executive director of Feminist Frequency, an independent educational non-profit, and this book was born out of Feminist Frequency’s web series Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History. Not all of the profiles of the women are of equal length, and in the book’s “Afterword”, the authors are frank about the limitations of finding source materials, especially for those women for whom legend contends with historical fact. Nevertheless, the “Source Notes” and “Selected Bibliography” indicate that this book was seriously researched and together offer interested readers plenty of sources from which they could learn more about the women in these stories.
The physical format of the book is striking: the opening page of each biographical profile is presented in white ink on a darker background, with a black and white portrait either facing or following that opening page of that profile. Solid coloured graphic designs liven up the pages, as do pull-quotes printed in colour. The final pages of the book – the “Acknowledgements”, “Source Notes” and “Selected Bibliography” are all printed in white on black backgrounds, but the use of very small font made for difficult reading. Perhaps younger eyes won’t have that problem.
History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know is a work of feminist history, definitely aimed at a female audience. While the introductory essays for each section are thought-provoking and challenge typical perspectives, they aren’t “academic”, polemical, or inaccessible. The authors invite the reader to see the courage and strength that these women all demonstrated, to learn from their examples, and to inspire them to be defiant and become agents of change, just as were the 25 women profiled in History vs Women. This is a book for senior high school library collections, a book to be recommended to students who are interested in feminist history and culture.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Treaty 1 Territory).