What to Read this Month: March 2019

This month’s selections are books by and about some amazing women in honor of Women’s History Month. For more exciting reads, check out our Overdrive, New and Noteworthy, and Current Literature collections.

Bonus recommendation: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler, also available as an audiobook on Overdrive.


The Wind In My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad with Kambiz Foroohar.

An extraordinary memoir from an Iranian journalist in exile about leaving her country, challenging tradition, and sparking an online movement against compulsory hijab.

A photo on Masih’s Facebook page: a woman standing proudly, face bare, hair blowing in the wind. Her crime: removing her veil, or hijab, which is compulsory for women in Iran. This is the self-portrait that sparked ‘My Stealthy Freedom,’ a social media campaign that went viral.

But Masih is so much more than the arresting face that sparked a campaign inspiring women to find their voices. She’s also a world-class journalist whose personal story, told in her unforgettably bold and spirited voice, is emotional and inspiring. She grew up in a traditional village where her mother, a tailor and respected figure in the community, was the exception to the rule in a culture where women reside in their husbands’ shadows. As a teenager, Masih was arrested for political activism and was surprised to discover she was pregnant while in police custody. When she was released, she married quickly and followed her young husband to Tehran where she was later served divorce papers to the shame and embarrassment of her religiously conservative family. Masih spent nine years struggling to regain custody of her beloved only son and was forced into exile, leaving her homeland and her heritage. Following Donald Trump’s notorious immigration ban, Masih found herself separated from her child, who lives abroad, once again.

A testament to a spirit that remains unbroken, and an enlightening, intimate invitation into a world we don’t know nearly enough about, The Wind In My Hair is the extraordinary memoir of a woman who overcame enormous adversity to fight for what she believes in, and to encourage others to do the same.

You can watch Masih Alinejad explain My Stealthy Freedom at the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City. To follow My Stealthy Freedom in action, see their Facebook and Twitter.


Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison.

The remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters – two white and free, one black and enslaved – and the divergent paths they forged in a newly independent America.

Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings. In Jefferson’s Daughters, Catherine Kerrison, a scholar of early American and women’s history, recounts the remarkable journey of these three women – and how their struggle to define themselves reflects both the possibilities and the limitations that resulted from the American Revolution.

Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha and Maria received a fine convent school education while they lived with their father during his diplomatic posting in Paris – a hothouse of intellectual ferment whose celebrated salonnières are vividly brought to life in Kerrison’s narrative. Once they returned home, however, the sisters found their options limited by the laws and customs of early America.

Harriet Hemings followed a different path. She escaped slavery – apparently with the assistance of Jefferson himself. Leaving Monticello behind, she boarded a coach and set off for a decidedly uncertain future.

For this groundbreaking triple biography, Kerrison has uncovered never-before-published documents written by the Jefferson sisters when they were in their teens, as well as letters written by members of the Jefferson and Hemings families. She has interviewed Hemings family descendants (and, with their cooperation, initiated DNA testing) and searched for descendants of Harriet Hemings.

The eventful lives of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters provide a unique vantage point from which to examine the complicated patrimony of the American Revolution itself. The richly interwoven story of these three strong women and their fight to shape their own destinies sheds new light on the ongoing movement toward human rights in America – and on the personal and political legacy of one of our most controversial Founding Fathers.

Catherine Kerrison discussed Jefferson’s Daughters in a Conversations at the Washington Library podcast. also wrote Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South.


Song In a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage by Pauli Murray, with a new introduction by Patricia Bell-Scott.

First published posthumously in 1987, Pauli Murray’s Song in a Weary Throat was critically lauded, winning the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Lillian Smith Book Award among other distinctions. Yet Murray’s name and extraordinary influence receded from view in the intervening years; now they are once again entering the public discourse. At last, with the republication of this “beautifully crafted” memoir, Song in a Weary Throat takes its rightful place among the great civil rights autobiographies of the twentieth century.

In a voice that is energetic, wry, and direct, Murray tells of a childhood dramatically altered by the sudden loss of her spirited, hard-working parents. Orphaned at age four, she was sent from Baltimore to segregated Durham, North Carolina, to live with her unflappable Aunt Pauline, who, while strict, was liberal-minded in accepting the tomboy Pauli as “my little boy-girl.” In fact, throughout her life, Murray would struggle with feelings of sexual “in-betweenness” – she tried unsuccessfully to get her doctors to give her testosterone – that today we would recognize as a transgendered identity.

We then follow Murray north at the age of seventeen to New York City’s Hunter College, to her embrace of Gandhi’s Satyagraha – nonviolent resistance – and south again, where she experienced Jim Crow firsthand. An early Freedom Rider, she was arrested in 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks’ disobedience, for sitting in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus. Murray’s activism led to relationships with Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt – who respectfully referred to Murray as a “firebrand” – and propelled her to a Howard University law degree and a lifelong fight against “Jane Crow” sexism. We also read Betty Friedan’s enthusiastic response to Murray’s call for an NAACP for Women – the origins of NOW. Murray sets these thrilling high-water marks against the backdrop of uncertain finances, chronic fatigue, and tragic losses both private and public, as Patricia Bell-Scott’s engaging introduction brings to life.

Now, more than thirty years after her death in 1985, Murray – poet, memoirist, lawyer, activist, and Episcopal priest – gains long-deserved recognition through a rediscovered memoir that serves as a “powerful witness” (Brittney Cooper) to a pivotal era in the American twentieth century.

Pauli Murray is featured in multiple murals in Durham. To learn more about Pauli Murray and community projects commemorating her, check out the Pauli Murray Project.


Gertrude Weil: Jewish Progressive in the New South by Leonard Rogoff.

It is so obvious that to treat people equally is the right thing to do,” wrote Gertrude Weil (1879-1971). In the first-ever biography of Weil, Leonard Rogoff tells the story of a modest southern Jewish woman who, while famously private, fought publicly and passionately for the progressive causes of her age. Born to a prominent family in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Weil never married and there remained ensconced – in many ways a proper southern lady – for nearly a century. From her hometown, she fought for women’s suffrage, founded her state’s League of Women Voters, pushed for labor reform and social welfare, and advocated for world peace.

Weil made national headlines during an election in 1922 when, casting her vote, she spotted and ripped up a stack of illegally marked ballots. She campaigned against lynching, convened a biracial council in her home, and in her eighties desegregated a swimming pool by diving in headfirst. Rogoff also highlights Weil’s place in the broader Jewish American experience. Whether attempting to promote the causes of southern Jewry, save her European family members from the Holocaust, or support the creation of a Jewish state, Weil fought for systemic change, all the while insisting that she had not done much beyond the ordinary duty of any citizen.

A decade before Rogoff’s book, Anne Firor Scott wrote an article about Gertrude Weil. She relates a conversation about international problems where Gertrude exclaimed, “I grow more radical every year. Who knows? I may live long enough to become a communist!”

Gertrude Weil is featured in the Women of Valor exhibit in the Jewish Women’s Archive. She also has a highway marker in Goldsboro.


Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang.

Born in exile, in Zambia, to a guerrilla father and a working mother, Sisonke Msimang is constantly on the move. Her parents, talented and highly educated, travel from Zambia to Kenya and Canada and beyond with their young family. Always the outsider, and against a backdrop of racism and xenophobia, Sisonke develops her keenly perceptive view of the world. In this sparkling account of a young girl’s path to womanhood, Sisonke interweaves her personal story with her political awakening in America and Africa, her euphoria at returning to the new South Africa, and her disillusionment with the new elites. Confidential and reflective, Always Another Country is a search for belonging and identity: a warm and intimate story that will move many readers.

Sisonke Msimang gave a TEDTalk in 2017 titled If a Story Moves You, Act on It. She recently published The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela, which she discusses here.

 


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