the feminist librarian's bookshelf: five women's lives

cross-posted from the family scholars blog.

March was women's history month and this post was supposed to go up the week of March 25 ... but the last couple of weeks have gotten away from me. So here is the second installment of The Feminist Librarian's Bookshelf -- the March edition in April!

The theme this time is women's history and I chose to highlight five biographies or autobiographies by and about women whose lives and work have left an impression upon my own sense of "how to live?"

If I had to draw out some common themes from across these women's lives I would say that some of the characteristics that unite this women are: leftist-radical politics, a vision for more equality and well-being (of many kinds)  in the world, and unconventional personal and family relationships.

Sylvia Pankhurst, 1909
Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960). Sylvia Pankhurst: A Crusading Life by Shirley Harrison (Aurum Press, 2003). An often-overlooked member of the notorious Pankhurst family, Sylvia Pankhurst was the second daughter of women's rights activists Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst. Her elder sister Cristabel would become famous on both sides of the Atlantic for her political theater. Sylvia was deeply involved in her family's feminist activism, but eventually loosened her ties with them as Britain's entry into the First World War exacerbated their differences over tactics and priorities. Sylvia pursued her own work in London's impoverished East End, publishing a journal called the Women's Dreadnaught, providing affordable meals and health services as well as supporting efforts to organize labor unions. Further radicalized by the Great War, Sylvia became an increasingly outspoken peace activist and also a critic of British imperialism. In the 1930s she became involved in anti-colonization activism, principally in support of Ethiopian independence; she would eventually make her home in Ethiopia. 

Sylvia never married, though she sustained two long-term relationships: the first with Labour Party founder Keir Hardie (though there is no conclusive evidence the two had a physical relationship), and the second with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio. Sylvia and Silvio lived together for over thirty years (until his death) and Sylvia gave birth to their son, Richard, in 1927. Reportedly, it was Sylvia's refusal to marry Silvio which caused the final rupture with her parents and elder sister Cristabel. I am fascinated by the way the story of this particular radical Pankhurst daughter is so often eclipsed by the high-profile lives of her mother and sister who were radical on the subject of suffrage but reactionary and chauvinistic in many other ways.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The Long Loneliness (Harper and Row, 1952). Catholic activist Dorothy Day began her career in political struggle as a journalist  in the Lower East Side of New York City where she covered labor and feminist activism for such eminent socialist newspapers as The Liberator and The Masses. During this period Day was in a serious relationship with fellow leftist Forster Batterham, though her increasing interest in Catholicism put a strain on their relationship and by the time Day gave birth to their daughter, Tamar, she and Batterham were no longer a couple. Several years after Tamar's birth, in the depths of the Great Depression, Day met French emigre and eccentric intellectual Peter Maurin; the two formed a friendship which would become the foundation from which Dorothy Day pursued her social justice work. Together, they began publishing The Catholic Worker and eventually expanded their efforts to provide meals and shelter to the destitute in a communal setting.  The Catholic Worker Movement is still extant today, maintaining uneasy ties to the Catholic church.

Throughout the Second World War, Day and her fellow Workers maintained a commitment to pacifism, and following the war Day was arrested numerous times while on nonviolent protest against the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. They also became involved in the Civil Rights movement. There is a movement within the Catholic church to have Dorothy Day canonized as a saint, although throughout her life she resisted efforts to describe her work as somehow super-human, miraculous or otherwise noteworthy. I am a troubled admirer of Dorothy Day, whose complicated relationship with the feminist activism of her day makes her a difficult ally in many ways -- even as she dedicated her life to lessening human suffering of many kinds.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962 ). A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mary Ann Glendon (Random House, 2001). I have never been particularly interested in Eleanor Roosevelt as a public personage -- though the two-volume biography by Blanche Weisen Cook is a tour de force -- but a history professor at my undergraduate college once made me a gift of this slim historical study of Roosevelt's role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's not a biography per se, but I include it here because I think it captures a unique historical moment in the twentieth century through the lens of one woman's involvement. The UDHR was drafted by an international committee in the "pause" between World War Two and the height of the Cold War, and represents the hubris of the West (particularly the United States) in believing they could create a truly "new" internationalist, peaceful, humanitarian world -- as well as the pragmatic reality of international politics which demanded compromise of that vision in order to produce anything of use.

Even if you are a skeptic of the United Nations, of internationalism, and/or not a fan of Eleanor Roosevelt, I think there is much to learn from this particular chapter in our political past.

Margaret Mead (1901-1978). Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years  (William Morrow, 1972). I first encountered Mead's story in college while working on an independent study on the first generations of women college graduates. Mead was the daughter of two academics -- her father was a professor of economics and her mother a sociologist. Her childhood was spent in and out of formal schooling as her family moved around the country, and she spent a year at DePauw University in Indiana before transferring to Barnard College (then a young upstart of a women's college in cosmopolitan New York). She went on from Barnard to study under anthropologists Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict, earning her PhD from Columbia University in 1929. Mead is best known for her study of adolescent girls in Samoa, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), although her anthropological curiosity ranged far and wide. While some of her frameworks for understanding feel outmoded today, she was instrumental in making the lives of women and children a legitimate field of study.

In Blackberry Winter Mead suggests a connection between her wide-ranging study of human cultures and her own exploration of relationships and family life, which took a decidedly unconventional path. Married while in graduate school (she refers in Winter to her "student marriage"), she and her first husband parted apparently amicable ways before she left for her fieldwork in Samoa. Her second marriage was equally short-lived and rocky by all accounts, ending in 1935. British anthropologist Gregory Bateson was her third husband, and the only spouse with whom she had children -- a daughter, Mary, whom she gave birth to in 1939. Mead also had long-lasting, passionate relationships with Ruth Benedict and another anthropologist, Rhoda Metraux, although the extent to which either relationship was sexually intimate is up for debate.

Gerda Lerner and her husband Carl, 1966 (via)
Gerda Lerner (1920-2013). Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University, 2002). When historian Gerda Lerner passed away on January 2 of this year, her obituaries widely proclaimed her one of the founding mothers of the field of women's and gender history. Without question, it is thanks to Lerner and her pioneering cohort of historians who insisted on gender as a valid category of analysis that I am able to do what it is that I do and be taken seriously as a scholar. Yet what I think is even more intriguing is the political and social milieu that such a scholar came out of -- and it is this "pre-history," if you will, that Fireweed sets out to tell.

Gerda Lerner (nee Kronstein) was born in Austria on the eve of the Second World War, was a student activist against the Nazi party (a form of political participation that landed her in jail when she was seventeen), and escaped to the United States as a refugee in 1939. She married the boyfriend with whom she had fled to America, but the marriage did not last by the mid-1940s she was married to Carl Lerner, a director in theater and later film, and an active Communist. Husband and wife shared a common political cause and throughout the 40s and 50s they worked side by side (with their children in tow) on behalf of labor, civil rights, peace, and against McCarthyism. Lerner did not return to school until she was in her 40s, earning her PhD from Columbia University in 1966 with a dissertation examining the work of Sara and Angelina Grimke, two white Southern women who had found it in themselves to agitate against slavery. Lerner was 46 years old.

I think what I find most compelling about Lerner's biography is its testament to the human capacity for "second acts," if you will -- that a life so filled with political struggle and the daily grind of survival could change direction at the midpoint and channel that energy into scholarship that was, perhaps, quieter than high-stakes anti-Nazi activism or labor organizing (certainly involving less jail time!) but was just as revolutionary in its own way.

This list is obviously limited by my own inclinations and concerns. I am conscious that of these five women, all are white and middle class by upbringing and education if not by fiscal measures. Although only three of the five are American by birth, the other two are Western European. None lived the majority of their lives in a same-sex relationship, although at least two women (Mead and Roosevelt) appear to have "swung both ways," holding passionate attachments to both women and men during their lives.

What biographies and autobiographies of and by women have you found meaningful in your own life? What women in history speak to you?


  1. A minor correction: Dorothy Day and Forster Batterham remained together for about two years after the birth of their daughter in March 1926. She didn’t relinquish hope that he would agree to marry her until 1932, shortly before she met Peter Maurin.

    1. Thank you for the note, Phil. I haven't had a chance to go back and make the necessary alterations here or at Family Scholars, but your comment is appreciated.